Kitchen Chiller: Benny Safdie Imagines Robin Barnes's Demise
Inspired by Corinne May Botz's photographs of Frances Glessner Lee's crime-scene dioramas, filmmaker Benny Safdie imagines Robin Barnes's demise.
Photograph by Corinne May Botz
A version of this text appeared in GARAGE Magazine issue 13.
Eighteen perfect crime scenes, one remarkable woman obsessed with improving the detection of crime. Enter the world of prolific rule-breaker and forensic model-maker Frances Glessner Lee, whose dioramas suggest a host of cinematic and literary references. The idyllic front porch of Three-Room Dwelling recalls the opening scene of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Red Bedroom evokes the red chamber of Agent Cooper's twisted dreams in Twin Peaks and the crimson walls where Jane Eyre found herself captive—the interior decoration of terror, which H.G. Wells also made use of when he titled his gothic thriller The Red Room.
New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie are renowned for their own portrayals of a gritty underworld: among them, the feature films Daddy Longlegs (2010), Lenny Cooke (2013), and Heaven Knows What (2014). Their raw narratives, filmed in a naturalistic, handheld style, have landed them a string of accolades and awards. Like The Nutshell Studies, the Safdies' work takes liberties in documenting real-life trauma in order to reach beyond brute fact to a more complex emotional truth.
As the perfect match for Lee's cryptic, matchstick-sized murders, GARAGE invited Benny to play with the myriad narrative possibilities The Nutshell Studies present. Here, he imagines the final moments of Robin Barnes's life in Kitchen.
It is 4pm, and Robin Barnes is in the middle of preparing a spectacular dinner to celebrate her wedding anniversary. Her husband, Fred, sits at the kitchen table, reading the paper. Robin has already put a cake in the oven. Now she starts peeling potatoes. She gazes at Fred without saying a word. He is unaware of her watching him. Suddenly, mid-peel, she says, "Fred, I need you to run downtown. I ran out of butter." Without even looking up from the paper, Fred says, "Why? The cake's already in the oven… "
"It's for the potatoes," Robin says, quickly cutting him off. Fred playfully bonks himself on the head as he puts the paper down on the table. He gathers his things, getting ready to leave. Robin, still absorbed in the task of peeling potatoes, adds, "Go to the store downtown, they have the best kind." Fred puts on his coat and mumbles something to himself. Robin kisses him goodbye without skipping a peel. It's a relatively normal night in the Barnes house.
The baking timer rings loudly, snapping Robin out of her thoughts. She gulps the last bit of whiskey and opens the oven to check the cake. Carefully she pokes it with a knife to see if it is fully cooked. With each stab, the knife comes out clean, with no residue: the cake is done. Instead of taking it out and preparing the frosting, she pulls out the tray and blows out the oven flame and all the pilot lights. Then she turns all the burners on high and sits back at the table. How long is this going to take? Will it be fast? About five minutes go by and still nothing.
She gets up and locks both doors to the kitchen and closes the windows. She tears up the newspaper that Fred left on the table, rolls it into strips, and stuffs the wads around the doorframes and in between the sash windows. She is sealing up the room and locking it from the inside. She gets a butter knife and checks to make sure the door has a tight seal.
She grabs some ice cubes, pours herself another glass of whiskey, and sits at the table where Fred was sitting. She looks at the world around her: what is this place? This isn't the family she thought she'd have, it surely isn't a home. Fred is nice and all, but this just isn't what she thought her life would be. She's cooking the anniversary dinner! She's even baking the cake! But it isn't just today—it's a cumulative numbness.
She snaps out of her daze and looks around. Nothing is happening. Robin checks all the seals and sits back down. She is getting antsy. She polishes off her drink and goes back to work on the potatoes.
As the carbon monoxide infects her brain, she can't think straight. She gets frustrated with the potatoes (she leaves them by the sink again) and drinks some water to clear her mind. It's warm. As she opens the freezer to get some more ice, the room starts to spin. Losing her grip on the world around her, she grabs desperately at the table as she falls to the floor.
Robin Barnes lies motionless as the ice melts in its tray beside her. The kitchen continues to fill with gas and the skin on her cheeks turns a rosy red color. It will be another hour before Fred arrives.
Read Corrine May Botz on Frances Glessner Lee here.