It’s Down to Cellars

Elisa Jochum

History has celebrated buildings for their vast sizes and for reaching high into the sky. Yet humankind has also built downward. Basements have remained on the literal down low when it comes to public appraisal. Are they nothing more than poorly lit and neglected, crammed and inefficiently organized, rodent-infested and mould-covered spaces? The media tell us a different story about basements. The cinema, the press, and other forms of representation use cellars to spark audiences’ imagination in a range of ways from the shocking to the delightful. On this page, I present thoughts, historical accounts, quotes, links, and representations of basements. The form of this web page resembles the structure of many cellars. Similar things might be stacked in the same corner but there is no hierarchical order among the individual items or groups of them. Rather, the principle applies: first come, first stored. The contents are often raw materials. With time, more and more stuff accumulates.

“I was very impressed with your cellar. I have a wonderful cellar myself.”

Scoop (Woody Allen, USA, 2006)

Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) keeps his precious objects in a code-secured room in his basement. Sid Waterman (Woody Allen) tries to cover up that he searched the room by pretending to be a cellar aficionado. The excuse appears odd considering that generic basements are not commonly subjects of aesthetic appreciation. The film employs this random statement to comic effect.

Still Cellars

… is a brand name of a Colorado-based distillery. Rather than hiding its connection to cellars, it adorns itself with it. Alcohol production in underground conditions becomes a sign of quality.

Dirty Water and Matured Wine:

…the waste and treasures that cellars produce. But what if they’re mixed up? A Specsavers advert (“Boiler Advert,” UK, 2017) promotes eye tests by showing a plumber at work in a French cellar: he mistakes a wine barrel tap for that of the boiler. He drains and pours away the entire contents of a 1921 “Grand Vin” but leaves the boiler issue unchanged.

Former Wine Cellars under Brooklyn Bridge:

A recent Timeout article pays attention to basements “which sit under the 60,000-ton granite entrances to the bridge, one on the Brooklyn end, one at the Manhattan end” and that were used for wine storage until the 1940s.

Travis Vogan, “Football’s Wine Cellar: The NFL Films Archive”

Travis Vogan explores the archive of the NFL’s production company (NFL Films). The archive holds the globally largest collection of filmic sports footage in a protected, temperature-controlled vault in New Jersey. Company president Steve Sabol labels the archive “football’s wine cellar.” Vogan argues that this metaphor idealizes the archive but that it also emphasizes how the archive materials contribute to generating a romantic idea of NFL history in the films in which they are used (Travis Vogan, “Football’s Wine Cellar: The NFL Films Archive,” The Moving Image 10, no. 2 (Fall 2010), xii-29 (1-6, 23)). The implication is that a wine cellar is a precious place and the film archive’s alignment with the wine cellar stresses the archive’s own value.

“Hirst has got planning permission to create a huge basement under his gorgeous urban lair, in which to house his art collection.”

Guardian article on artist Damien Hirst’s idea of expanding his “lair,” his classical-style mansion in London, underground

“The books were in my basement. Do you really think I did not know of them?”

Germany 83, Season 1, Episode 8 (Germany, 2015), my translation

A GDR citizen keeps a library of forbidden Western books in a friend’s basement.

“Still hiding in basements?”

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, USA, 2011)

Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, and Madame Heron visit a French anarchist. They enter an urban restaurant on the ground floor and pass through the kitchen to climb down the stairs to the dimly lit cellar. Once down below, Heron greets the anarchist with the words: “Still hiding in basements?” He replies: “It is hard for me to get out these days.”

The Bates Cellar, or, the Horrors You Find Underground

Psycho (USA, 1960)

In its climax, the infamous Hitchcock thriller leads the heroine Lila into Norman Bates’s cellar where she has the shocking encounter of the corpse of Norman’s mother.

 There but not There: The Captive in the Cellar

Extant, Season 1, Episode 7 (USA, 2014)

While in his home basement, security specialist Gordon Kern tells his boss over the phone that he has eliminated former employee Harmon Kryger who sought to reveal their murderous actions. Yet, instead, Kern keeps Kryger alive in this very basement to conduct his own investigations. Kryger overhears the phone conversation through the thin walls. He also hears the conversation which Kern has with his mother, on the ground floor, about his inner struggles. Kryger deducts from all this that Kern, too, must secretly question the boss’s behaviour.

Basements as Last Resort

In her book on post-war education in West Germany, social Scientist Michaela Kuhnhenne cites a 1945 newspaper article on the housing shortage: “Thousands of Bremen’s inhabitants are without winterproof housing, are still dwelling in bunkers, barracks, cellar holes, attics.” (“Zur Wohnungsfrage.” Aufbau, no. 7 (August 1945), 7, cited in Kuhnhenne, Frauenleitbilder und Bildung in der westdeutschen Nachkriegszeit: Analyse am Beispiel der Region Bremen (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2005), 49.)

Cellars and Poverty

The controversial term “Kellerkind” (basement child) describes in the German language a person with an underprivileged background.

Affordability of Basement Houses

The “History Colorado” website provides information for how so-called basement houses emerged in the early post-war era: “Basement houses are characterized by their raised basement configuration, rectangular plan, at-grade stairway entrance, and flat or gently pitched gable roof.” If you had enough money, you could add height, that is, floors.

The Underground Mix of Shabby and Hip

Parenthood, Season 5, Episode 12 (USA, 2014)

Sarah Braverman lives in the caretaker’s flat in the basement of a San Francisco building. The show uses the location to thematise her limited financial situation: the caretaker position lets her earn some extra money in support of her income as an early-career photographer. At the same time, the basement apartment imbues the character and the show with hipness (the exposed brick and the mix-and-match interior make shabby meet cool). Her neighbour tells her about a job opportunity to photograph for the brand Surf Sport. Sarah asserts: “Yes, I have heard of Surf Sport. I don’t live underground.” – “You sort of do.” Their conversation brings together the key topics: her living situation, her need for work, and her assertion to know what is trending.

Nothing Humorous about Cellars?

In their socio-psychological analysis, Julia Albrecht and Dieter Frey contend that German phrases relating to humour frequently have negative connotations. They advance the exemplary phrase “Zum Lachen in den Keller gehen” (When you want to laugh, you go to the basement). (Julia Albrecht and Dieter Frey, “Sprichwörter und Psychologie: Eine Annäherung,“ Psychologie der Sprichwörter: Weiß die Wissenschaft mehr als Oma? Edited by Dieter Frey (Berlin: Springer, 2017), 3-14 (7)).

The phrase implies that, if people laugh at all, they do not openly do so. They are not known to have a lot of humour. The analysis bespeaks that cellars themselves evoke negative associations. Nevertheless (or maybe this is exactly why), these unfavourable connotations have been appropriated for jokes, as I show below through the example of the late-night show Conan on TBS.

The Comedy Corner and the Basement Rhetoric, A

Conan on TBS (July 14, 2016)

Basements as the worst possible option: on late-night television, comedy actress Melissa McCarthy tells the vignette of how her father caught squirrels in his backyard only to drive them to a park where he released the animals again. Host Conan O’Brien expresses his relief, stating that “[w]hen I first heard it, I thought he was taking them to the basement and…” (He makes a gesture with his fists, suggesting a violent act).

The Comedy Corner and the Basement Rhetoric, B

Conan on TBS (December 6, 2012)

Comedian Conan O’Brien employs the reference to cellars to depreciate materials in an hyperbolical way: when O’Brien presents the “Audiencey [sic] Awards,” he holds a gold statuette that is redolent of the Academy Award. Yet Conan jokes about the low quality of the “Audiencey” statuette, ensuring that it is not confused with the prestigious Oscar: “[T]his took as much as eight minutes to carefully craft, out of materials you can find pretty much anywhere in your basement.”

The Art of Basements

Art initiatives thrive on creativity and innovation. Their artistic uniqueness notwithstanding, a series of art projects and studios conspicuously recur to the same theme in their titles and manifestos: that of basements. The list ranges from exhibition and event spaces to art classes to dance studios, and from The Basement Group (UK, until 1983) to the BasementArtsProject (UK) to The Basement community art studio (U.S.A.) to Basement Performing Arts (Germany).

The reference to basements does often not merely derive from the spaces where art initiatives are housed, or should we say “based.” The term also makes possible a set of cultural connotations that its adoptive art projects appropriate. The spatiality of basements has frequently not been subject to the same level of convention and (standardised) décor as other rooms in people’s houses such as sitting and dining rooms. Basements thus evoke notions of both spatial and cultural rawness, flexibility, and alternativeness. Respectively, in the concepts of basement art projects, we find terms such as “ideologically neutral space” and “opportunities” (BasementArtsProject), “flexibility and freedom” (Locus+, the successor of The Basement Group), as well as “unstructured ‘free time’ art” (The Basement community art studio).

Art initiatives also extend the meanings of basements that are often connected to the rest of the world above ground through nothing more than a single, narrow staircase: projects advocating unhampered opportunity for art creators and consumers alike imbue basements with the idea of accessibility. The resulting basement culture thus shares the openness of what is usually termed street art. Through artistic engagement, the spatial basement becomes a cultural extension of the street.

The Sexual and Gender Stereotypes in the TV Cellar

Der Kriminalist, Episode “Ums Leben betrogen” (The Criminologist, “Cheated Out of (a) Life,” Germany, 2014)

Schumann, the police investigator of the German crime series Der Kriminalist, visits the home of Irina, a woman found dead in the river. In the street, he asks a young boy where exactly Irina lives. “That’s my mum but she is not home.” – “Who is home?” – “My other mum.” Schumann’s surprise is visible. He hesitatingly continues: “Ok. And where is she now?” – “In the cellar.” Before visualising Irina’s wife Katja, the episode has already tied our knowledge of her existence, her gender, and her sexuality to the locus of the basement.

The viewers meet Katja in this domestic cellar where she is attempting to fix the water plumbing. Tools in hand, she appears as a woman who is skilled at a task stereotypically preconceived as a “man’s job.” This introduction thus invites the audience to imagine her as an independent woman. In its combination with homosexuality, Katja’s autonomy evokes a multi-layered crisis of conservative masculinity along the way: she does neither need a man in her bed nor in her cellar. Yet the show will quickly shatter this notion.

Katja gives up on the pipes even before investigator Schumann tells her the tragic news of her wife’s death. While Katja collects herself, Schumann effortlessly repairs the plumbing. The sequence blatantly suggests that Katja cannot do without a man after all. Katja then sinks on to a chair in the cellar, admitting to Schumann that her marriage was strained and that the spouses had been on a break. The audience will later learn that the women’s relationship suffered from diverging ideas about the extent to which their son’s biological father should be part of their lives and from Katja’s anxieties that Irina would leave her for this man. With the question of the man’s role, death enters Katja and Irina’s world, leading their marriage to a both metaphorical and literal dead end: the episode’s finale will reveal that an encounter between Irina and the biological father’s wife results in a tragic boat accident killing Irina.

According to the show’s logic, Katja is unsuccessful both when it comes to physically maintaining her household (the plumbing) and when it comes to maintaining its emotional stability (the marriage). In each instance, a male character elucidates this ostensible impotence, either by fixing the issue for Katja or by causing it to erupt. Even though Schumann stresses that the spouses were truly in love, the TV show uses the cellar to represent Katja’s domestic world as dysfunctional. In the basement, the problematic episode draws a picture in which women’s lives remain inseparable from men’s involvement – and this on the physical/manual, the sexual as well as the emotional level.

The Cold Case of Jordan Harris:

How Homeland’s CIA downgrades maverick staff to the basement

In the controversial TV series Homeland (2015, Season 4, Episode 2, “Trylon and Perisphere”), CIA agent Carrie Mathison seeks to find out what important information former case officer Jordan Harris holds on the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan. Harris used to work at this station but was suddenly demoted to filing records in a basement of the agency back in the U.S. Mathison finds him there to investigate what happened.

“So, what was going on? You were a case officer there.” – “Yeah, and now I fill freedom of information requests from conspiracy nuts in Ohio.” In a second encounter (outside the basement), Mathison elaborates: “I know your performance was exemplary before you were sidelined. […] I think what happened is that you were silenced; you were thrown in the basement. […] You tell me and I’ll do everything I can to get you back in the field.” Harris eventually reveals: “I flew all the way back here to report an intelligence leak. Next thing I know: I’m finished. Literally in the f***-ing basement.” These statements crystallise the discrepancy between the “basement” and the “field” as well as between Harris’s respectively different tasks, ranks in the CIA hierarchy, and impact of his work. The conversations also point to the abruptness with which these changes occurred, identifying the transferral as a calculated disciplinary act that combines a professional demotion with spatial downgrading. Harris flagged an internal issue to his superior who, seeking to cover up the scandal, lowered Harris’s literal position.

The basement constitutes the bottom end of an architectural spectrum. At the top end, we find the offices on the upper floors of corporate buildings where the high-ranking employees of companies have traditionally worked.[1] In the case of CIA officer Harris, the downgrading is extreme because he was neither ordered to come merely back to the U.S. (and change the field) nor to take on a desk job high up in the CIA headquarters (and leave the field). Instead, he has been moved underground. Homeland suggests that working in the basement is a particular punishment for the CIA agent.[2] The previous episode was packed with life-threatening action and interaction in the streets of Islamabad and the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. The act of sidelining Harris to a basement has the effect that he is put out of reach of any critical action where he would be responsible for making crucial decisions on behalf of the agency and where he could continue to observe the integrity of other decision makers.[3] The cellar also separates him quite effectively from US-based agents with whom he might build a relationship and to whom he might confide his knowledge. The episode evokes this state visually by hiding any entries and exits to Harris’s subterranean workplace. There are no windows and we do not even see how Mathison enters this space. She seems to be a rare guest in a locus without foot traffic, that is, where other agents usually do not pass. In Harris’s eyes, his current task is frustrating and pointless. He is out of sight and out of influence.

The episode casts the basement as simultaneously vast and claustrophobic. Apart from Mathison’s exceptional presence, the immense cellar with its high ceilings is left to Harris, the sound of his steps, and his solitariness. At the same time, a seemingly endless number of high shelves partition the space of the basement and of the frame to evoke an acute sense of confinement. Like the masses of filed records the viewers see in the cellar, Harris is not likely to get out of this space and be of use elsewhere anymore. He has been rendered a cold case, filed away and (almost) forgotten. Harris has been exiled underground. Media scholar Jason Mittell analyses that another government officer on TV, The Shield’s (USA, 2002-2008) Vic, is “condemned to a bureaucratic desk job that feels like prison given his action-oriented personality.”[4] According to media scholar Greg Metcalf, this job, “for Vic, is nothing less than a fluorescently lit cubicle hell” and offers “no escape until retirement.”[5] Homeland presents Harris’s subterranean workplace not quite as hell but as merely one step removed from it. Harris seems to be aware that there is no way out (or up) for him but that his situation might become hell if he divulges what he knows. It is left unclear whether he fears unemployment or for his life. Only by forcing exactly the amount of interaction that the basement prevents, Mathison gets him to open up to her in a second encounter as she waits for him at his car. The show thus turns the cellar into a warped kind of CIA purgatory where Harris has to “atone” for discovering an internal scandal and speaking up to his superior, and this probably for the duration of his professional life. At the end of this period of expiation, the CIA will seemingly grant him a pension – although we do not learn how his communication with Mathison affects his situation.

Mathison will use the knowledge of the leak in Islamabad to her advantage – being herself a maverick who defies the CIA’s official and unofficial rules. Harris’s information lets Mathison blackmail her way to the top of the Islamabad station, the very place Harris had to exchange for a cellar. Yet he will neither reappear in the field nor in the show.

[1] See, e.g., Katherine Solomonson, The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition: Skyscraper Design and Cultural Change in he 1920s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 268.

[2] Other crime-fiction versions of the trope where a state or government officer is demoted from the field to an office, as an act of punishment, include: the TV series The Enigma Files (UK, 1980) “featur[ing] a detective who is ‘punished’ for some minor transgression by being relegated to a desk job in charge of prisoners’ property” (Sue Turnbull, TV Crime Drama [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014], 136); and the TV series The Shield (USA, 2002-2008) where a detective “suffers a greater punishment than he could have imagined, as the man of barely contained violence is condemned to a bureaucratic desk job.” […] “[T]he great man of action is condemned to be average” (Greg Metcalf, The DVD Novel: How the Way We Watch Television Changed the Television We Watch [Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012], 107, 109).

[3] For related interpretations of other TV shows, see notes 2 and 4.

[4] Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 148, my emphasis.

[5] Metcalf, DVD Novel,  107, 109, my emphasis.