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Interior Insomniac

American Motel by Eric Cousineau —

Sleepless Everywhere
“They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there–and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 3, Ch.

Our relationship with intermediary places of rest is ambiguous. The ubiquitous La Quintas, Motel 8s, Days Inns and Holiday Expresses that litter today’s highway exits are for quick over-night stays or cheap holiday stops near American tourist-industry pleasure parks such as 6-Flags or Disney World.  These motel chains, along with food and shopping-mall chains, have homogenized American architecture and have successfully erased all aspects of a regional flavor. A Ramada in Seattle looks exactly like a Ramada in Miami. To many, this homogenization is comforting. To others, the banality is oppressive.

Couch, Room 11, 2006

The hey-day of the Mo-tel –the linguistic combination of ‘motor’ and ‘hotel’, was from the late 1950s to the late 1960s when driving was the most common way for families to travel long distances. Motels were designed so that one could park their car directly outside their room. These privately owned ‘mom and pop’ operations proliferated alongside two lane highways such as Route 66 or Route 1 from Florida to Maine, and all the ancillary highways that connected the larger cites in each state to tourist attractions such as Niagara Falls, Yellowstone Park, Las Vegas, Disneyland.

As competition grew, motels developed strategies to attract clients. Catchy names like Dew Drop Inn, Nitey-Nite Motel, or Dreamaway Court, were mounted on flashing neon lights along the roadsides. Some offered amenities such as air conditioning and swimming pools; both luxuries in the 1960s. These early motels wanted to be destinations, not merely way stations. In the 1970s, when the US started to build Interstate superhighways, the state roads were bypassed, sacrificing the motels, and in some cases, the entire town which had been built around catering to the rest stop. Many of these declining motels have since been taken over by drug runners, used by prostitutes, rented by social services to house the homeless, or just abandoned.

TV, Room 14, 2009

The importance of the motel in the consciousness of American culture cannot be understated. The motel-room has played a major role in American film, theater and literature. The American motel is equivalent to Shakespeare’s Globe, from where the human condition is acted out. Motels set the stage upon which dramas of a generation unfolded: where Humpert Humpert bedded his nubile Dolores in Lolita during their year-long journey of desperate desire; that Hunter Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in; the stage where Janet Leigh was stabbed by Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s stunning masterpiece Psycho; that Lula and Sailor run into and away from in Wild at Heart; or that was immortalized in McCarthy’s, No Country for Old Men. The motel takes center stage in the film Memento, where the character Leonard recites to himself….

“So where are you? You’re in some motel room. You just – you just wake up and you’re in – in a motel room. There’s the key. It feels like maybe it’s just the first time you’ve been there, but perhaps you’ve been there for a week, three months. It’s – it’s kind of hard to say. I don’t – I don’t know. It’s just an anonymous room.”

There is no other architecture in the United States that defines the birth of modern American culture as the motel does. The mass-produced car, produced a mass of migration, and the motels were the single feature that connected all the dots of the American landscape from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico.  The remnants of these icons have slipped from the main-stream into the back-flow, but continue to provoke a uniquely American form of Plato’s cave.

Refrigerator, Room 21, 2009

American Motel, by Eric Cousineau is a pictorial ballad to this uniquely American phenomena that is fast disappearing. Cousineau’s images are lyrical documents of motel rooms that have seen the lives of thousands of guests.The patina of years lays thick upon their interiors and the rooms despair of ever recovering their youth. Like ancient relics of modern American civilization, they have been marginalized, despite all they have seen and experienced. Like our elders who sit in nursing homes waiting to die, these motel rooms have long survived their sell by date.

Open Office, Room 1, 2012

Only filmmakers, photographers and novelists seem to know how important these anonymous interiors are. They continue to give birth to countless plots and scenarios that reflect a truth, whether fictional or actual. Like ancient Greek tragedies, Germanic fairy tales, Jungian Mandalas, or Proverbs;  all reflect a riddle to solve, a sacrifice to make, a journey to undertake, which spawns a revelation that ultimately leads to enlightenment. Often it’s the old crone that holds the key that will free the princess from the dungeon; the frog becomes a prince and the ugly duckling grows into a swan; the castle is merely a place of transformation, not imprisonment. These motels are the castles of American myth.

As each story is created and each lesson unfolds, so each photograph is composed. Cousineau’s photographs allow us to ponder the solitude that is necessary for insight –an insight into a uniquely American way of life that has the power to transform the way we view our past and live our future. The images are unromantic and unflinching, yet quiet; taking nothing, leaving everything.

 “The room was very quiet. I walked over to the TV set and turned it on to a dead channel-white noise at maximum decibels, a fine sound for sleeping, a powerful continuous hiss to drown out everything strange.” —Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

Ironically, Cousineau’s  American Motel Series is presented in the form of a Gideon Bible. The bibles are placed in rooms by the evangelical organization of the same name, and are left to offer solace to travelers who may be troubled. The Gideons are hoping to save a lost soul, and Cousineau is illustrating a sense of sacredness, not hopelessness, to the space. Sandwiched between Genesis and  the Apocalypse, the photographs are allegories for the lives that have passed through them on their journeys, not only on the physical plane, but on the common mortal coil from birth to death.

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