Love as Generalized Competition in 28 Hotel Rooms

Curator's Note

Matt Ross’s debut feature, 28 Hotel Rooms (2012), takes love as a thematic starting point to question the nature of contemporary subjectivity defined by fluidity and competition. The film stages twenty-eight meetings between Marin Ireland’s and Chris Messina’s unnamed characters, each in a distinct hotel room. Each character is already romantically involved, married in fact, and these extramarital trysts are carefully staged under the aegis of business travel. This fact proposes a unique appraisal of love for contemporary times: love is no longer a sacred vow to one person, but instead a means of “working on one’s self,” a process of maximizing human capital in order to calculate interpersonal gains and losses. In short, a calculated metric for ascertaining personal "growth" and the accumulation of experience.

Like the business endeavors each navigates daily, love is an entity to be won and defended at every meeting. Love and business, thus, become entwined and transformed as pleasure and performance within the confines of the hotel room. And, disciplined by the fluid nature of their entrepreneurial lifestyle, this new subject of love is someone defined by competition where constant self-evaluation becomes an exercise of succeeding at all costs. Over the course of the film, the demands of work and family life, in addition to their lack of proximity, take their toll, expousing more than bruised egos and broken hearts. Under these constraints love and sex appear less as a reprieve from and more closely linked to their day-to-day working life, where each interaction becomes an exercise of evaluation too: number and duration of relationships, quality and intensity of orgasms, variety and attributes of partners, number and types of positions. Suggestive of this turn is how love has become a reductive obligation of performance, represented as an oscillation between depression and perversion, where subjects must live a double-life: on one hand, a master of execution to be admired and revered, on the other, an object of enjoyment to be used and discarded.

28 Hotel Rooms joins a growing number of films—along with Afternoon Delight (2013), Hello I Must Be Going (2012), and Take This Waltz (2011)—that explicitly take on love as a heuristic device concerning the changed nature of subjective relations. Unique to these films is a representational strategy that privileges intersubjectivity as a “transaction” as opposed to a "relation." The complexity of this dynamic, the above films seem to suggest, necessarily entails a profound fragility where love is not the private, intimate time of shared space or activity. Rather, it is the fluid nature of love that now defines the new norm of social relations: a transition from the pursuit of a “life partner” to the acquiesence of the revolving door “life period partner.”


Hi Adam, Thanks for the great post. I think, for me, what is most telling about the market oriented love that you outline is your description of it as arising in response to love’s “fluidity.” It seems that, given your reading, love’s lauded openness and indefinability (as proposed, perhaps, even by my post from earlier this week) are here exactly the characteristics that have been absorbed by contemporary capitalism and refigured as independence and self-worth. I wonder, though, if what you describe isn’t better encapsulated by the term “freedom”, rather than “love.” That is, do you feel that love has totally shirked its responsibility for respecting and in some capacity identifying with some other thing, and has been totally overtaken by self-management and individual success? The turn from “relation” to “transaction” is brutal (to say the least), but I wonder if love isn’t actually one of the last lines of defense—a position it finds itself in precisely because it can never quite correspond with freedom.

Kal, I think you rightly point to what I'm trying to get at here, but I would caution about too quickly turning my reading of this film into a more generalized take on love. While I do think the turn toward a "generalized competition" holds in general, and love as these films show is not immune, I wouldn't discount love as merely a series of interpersonal transactions. I do think love has potential as a defense, but not necessarily so. My overall concern relates to how people come to understand the notion of love within a set of social coordinates that increasingly privileges the individual at the expense of the couple, and even more generally, individualism at the expense of community. That said, I don't think it is all doom-and-gloom, just that this form of love is increasingly what the socio-economic order encourages. I'd have to hear more about what you mean by "freedom" before I could give a fuller response, but don't think love has shirked anything, so much as what we mean by love has undergone a shift because people are more and more prone to shirk responsibilities to others.

Adam: your provocative reading makes me think of two films: TAKE THIS WALTZ, which you mention, and LAST NIGHT (which is actually great). Both participate in the fluid, almost Eat, Pray, Love self-reevaluation through sexual/romantic dalliance I think you're describing here--and I use the reference consciously, because while LAST NIGHT and 28 HOTEL ROOMS focus on both "halves" of a hetero couple, TTW and EPL attempt to depict a specifically feminine ennui/quarter-life crisis (admittedly with different relations to work). So my question is, how, if at all, does gender figure here? Does gender complicate the double-life (master, object) you describe?

Veronica, it's a great question and one I don't have a fully realized response for, so I'll have to think more about it. I do think it is significant because in the other films I mentioned--AFTERNOON DELIGHT and HELLO I MUST BE GOING--the leads are both female and dealing with midlife crises. In each case there seems to be an interesting tension between freedom and terror. That is, the female protagonist realizes they have more power and agency in their life than they initially realized, and the way this is expressed is through behavior generally associated with men: dating a much younger man in the latter's case and experimenting with an open relationship (of sorts) in the former. Perhaps the best I can offer here is that the fluid/liquid nature of individual life is challenging what have generally been binding and immutable social relations between couples. What seems evident from these films is a tendency to experiment within the opaque nature of what a relationship is, or could be. Curiously though, the experimentation always leads to a sense of frustration, confusion, and regret, leading each back to the comforting stability of something much more traditional.

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