Welcome to day 24 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Who knew there was so much to know about motels?
Wikipedia’s motel article is pretty detailed, with sections on architecture and layout (“typically constructed in an ‘I’-, ‘L’-, or ‘U’-shaped layout that includes guest rooms; an attached manager’s office; a small reception; and in some cases, a small diner and a swimming pool”); room types (some with small kitchens, some connecting); a history from auto camps and courts to early motels (“a handful used novelty architecture such as wigwams or teepees or used decommissioned rail cars”) to chains, and from expansion (when motels added swimming pools, colour TV, Magic Fingers!, and beach-front motels were popular) to decline (here’s a handy list of defunct motel and hotel chains) and then revitalization; international variations (Canada, Europe, and South America); “crime and illicit activity” and “motels in popular culture.”
If you’re interested in staying at motel with character, check out Momondo’s June 2016 list of “Iconic American lodging: cool and offbeat motels in USA,” which includes The Madonna Inn (I knew someone who stayed there once) in San Luis Obispo, CA (“rural ranch meets pink fantasy palace”), the Red Caboose Motel in Philadelphia, the Thunderbird Marfa in Marfa, TX, Kate’s Lazy Meadow, a 1950s marvel near the Catskills in NY, and Dog Bark Park Inn, shaped like a beagle, in Cottonwood, ID.
The “motels in the popular culture” section mentions some movies known for a motel setting, notably the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. An “isolated motel being operated by a serial killer, whose guests subsequently become victims, has been exploited in a number of other horror films, notably Motel Hell (1980) and Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986).” Somehow, I missed those. The 2011 thriller The Innkeepers used actual rooms and hallways of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, in Torrington, CT, for interior shots.
Of course, the “long-established connotations of motels and illicit sexual activity” manifests in “Motel Confidential (1967) and the porn film Motel for Lovers (1970),” as well as “Paradise Motel (1985), Talking Walls (1987), Desire and Hell at Sunset Motel (1991), and the Korean films Motel Cactus (1997) and The Motel (2005).” Sordid events take place in Pink Motel (1982), Motel Blue 19 (1993), Backroad Motel (2001), Stateline Motel (2003), Niagara Motel (2006), and Motel 5150 (2008).
An article in the National Post (9 Oct. 2015) succinctly summarises in its subtitle (taken from comments by Dave Alexander, editor of Canadian horror magazine Rue Morgue) why sleaze, horror, vice, and violence are housed in hotels and motels: “Hotels are a pseudo home where people go to do bad stuff and a place where strangers intersect.”
From the same article, Canadian film director Brandon Cronenberg says that “‘a hotel room is both a foreign space and an intimate space. … We might sleep there, bathe there, have sex there, but it’s also somewhere unfamiliar and uncontrolled, and that creates a sense of vulnerability.'” Further, says Cronenberg — getting at the heterotopia as a place that both exists in time but also outside of time, as a discontinuity of time, an accumulation of time — “a ‘hotel is like a labyrinth of secret history.’ … There is something delicious about the idea that a sordid moment from that history might resurface in the present, perhaps literally in the case of a supernatural story.'”
“All good hotels tend to lead people to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do at home.” — Andre Balazs
When I think of motels, I think of My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci as Vinny, an inexperienced lawyer from New York trying to free his nephew and friend from a murder charge in Alabama, and his sharp-witted girlfriend Lisa, played by Marisa Tomei. Technically, Vinny and Lisa are staying in an H OTEL, but it’s basically a motel, one with a railroad track abutting it. If you haven’t seen it, watch this 2-min video to see what happens at 5 a.m. in the motel room.
Then there’s Fawtly Towers, the British comedy set in “a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay on the ‘English Riviera.'” John Cleese is the “tense, rude and put-upon” and socially conservative owner Basil Fawlty, with Prunella Scales as his bossy, acerbic wife Sybil, Connie Booth as the peacemaking chambermaid Polly, and Andrew Sachs as the “hapless and English-challenged Spanish waiter Manuel.” The quartet tries to run the hotel “amidst farcical situations and an array of demanding and eccentric guests and tradespeople.” It’s such an iconic show that hard to believe there are only 12 episodes! The whole series came about after Cleese, then with Monty Python, stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay while filming on location:
“Cleese was fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, later describing him as “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life.” This behaviour included Sinclair throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive; and placing Python member Eric Idle’s briefcase (put to one side by Idle while waiting for a car with Cleese) behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb. Sinclair justified his actions by claiming the hotel had “staff problems.” He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam’s table manners for not being “British” (that is, he switched hands with his fork whilst eating).”
“Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.” — Joan Didion
Philip French, in the Guardian’s 16 Dec. 2000 article, “This Looks A Nice Place To Stop,” gives a brief history of 75 years of motels in Hollywood, “a metaphor for angst and alienation.” He perhaps overstates the case for danger: “Motels are places for assignations and illicit sex, for planning crimes and dividing the spoils, for insecure people in transit or desperate people on the run. There’s always the chance that you’ll wake up alone, robbed after a night of passion, or that the place will be surrounded by cops (as in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or this year’s Way of the Gun) and you’ve the choice of shooting it out or getting handcuffed.”
French describes as motels as “located on the edge of cities, identifying their patrons as marginalised, or they are out in the wilds of the Midwest, dwarfed by the big sky and the majestic landscape. … They have a dispiriting anonymity,” either homogeneous chains that “protect us from local colour,” or “squalid, cigarette-scarred, kitsch-decorated, the thin-walled suites located behind flickering neon signs and fetid swimming pools. The upmarket places were acidly satirised in Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), where would-be adulterers George C. Scott and Julie Christie book into a San Francisco motel so impersonal that you never meet the staff or other guests. The experience of staying in downmarket versions is cleverly caught in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), whose protagonist suffers from short-term memory loss and has to take Polaroids so he can recognise the LA motel he’s living in.”
Not movie-related, but French tells us in this article that in 1934, “Frank Lloyd Wright incorporated a motel in his design for a utopian city called Broadacre. Lloyd Wright planned a ramp for visitors to drive their cars virtually into their motel rooms.”
Besides those named already, there are lots of other famous movies set partially or wholly in hotels and motels, among them Grand Hotel (1932) with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore (the Grand Hotel, where “nothing ever happens”); the Marx Brothers movie Room Service (1938); Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) with Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson; Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953); A Touch of Evil (1958) dir. by Orson Welles, with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh; The Bellboy (1960), with Jerry Lewis as a bumbling hotel bellhop; the Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal romantic comedy What’s Up, Doc? (1972); California Suite (1978) with Maggie Smith, Richard Pryor, Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Bill Cosby; The Shining (1980) with Jack Nicholson; the rom-com Pretty Woman (1990) with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere; Lost in Translation (2003) with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) with Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith; and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), with Ralph Fiennes and F. Murray Abraham.
I’d never heard of it before but The Florida Project (2017) — about young kids who live in “the Magic Castle, a purple-colored budget motel that’s near the Magic Kingdom and above which clouds resemble dollops of cotton candy” — sounds like something I’d want to see: The camera moves “in and out of [the motel’s] rooms, investing the minutia of the down-and-out lives within this little ecosystem with a bittersweet energy and significance.” From the same (linked) review, this is also intriguing:
“Some might argue that The Florida Project’s ending constitutes another such misstep, but that would be to misunderstand another of Baker’s fundamental projects. Joan Didion has written, and better than no one else, about Miami as a transient metropolis, one that’s been built in the image of so many Cuban cities, and one that seems like it will, if not exactly crumble, reveal its essential ephemerality when so many of its Cuban-born citizens feel like they finally have the license to return to their homeland. The same could be said of Orlando, a city which feels like it only exists in relationship to Disney World, a capitalist dependency that’s very much felt throughout this film. As lived-in and detail-rich as the lives in The Florida Project are, the environment where they’re rooted is fleeting, a place where one passes through but never stays.”
Coming of age at the Magic Castle motel abutting the Magic Kingdom: Heterotopian in multiple ways in its ephemerality, marginality, placelessness (a place that disappears or where we simply can’t stay for long): the motel, the resort “World” itself, and even perhaps in the fleeting nature of childhood. Foucault himself speaks of child’s play as heterotopian in a way: “In one example [of heterotopias, Foucault] refers to children’s play, when they invent games. They produce an imaginative space, but at the same time mirror the physical realities around them. A bed can become a boat or a sandbox a whole universe.”(from notes on Ylva Ogland’s 2014 art exhibition, “Diverse Variations of Other Spaces”)
Title quote spoken by Norman Bates to Marion Crane in Psycho.