‘What Am I Going to Do with My Philodendron?’ Looking at a Plant in Desk Set

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jats:pDesk Set, a 1957 20th Century Fox studio comedy, made with the sponsorship of IBM, charts the relationship between a reference librarian, Bunny Watson, and Richard Sumner, the inventor of a computer which appears to threaten her job. The film displays a thriving philodendron within Bunny’s skyscraper office, illustrating her organic style of thinking, and implicitly inviting us to see the plant in opposition to the computer. The suggestion that the plant is in some sense excessive, claiming attention beyond the norms of the ornamental background houseplant, opens questions about how we look at plants on film. We find here a reframing of figure and ground, which relates the philodendron to moments where plants become conspicuous in early film and in horror. Desk Set reflects a vegetal landscape characterised by all the commonplace instrumentalising of plants in modernity, amongst which the philodendron emerges as an exception. The plant does not point outwards to a putative wilderness. Instead, our looking at it allows us to contemplate it as an individuated specimen, and to move from that act of looking to recognise its deep entanglement with the urban environment, and with human care.</jats:p>


Peer reviewed: True

plants in film, houseplants, romantic comedy, Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn
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