Blog Hot Takes

Support Your Local Contrarians: A Manifesto for Local Filmmaking

This is a manifesto for local collective filmmaking. My experience is with Georgia and UGA but is not isolated to it. Student filmmaking has been a place where I’ve seen creative people ground down to shiny, marketable, employable good workers. I’m really tired of being a good worker. I care about film more than I care about any other medium; I find it uniquely communal in its production and exhibition, and I think that it’s a beautiful way to textually fix the energy of a collective of like-minded and self-motivated creative people. How does making a Hollywood-style short student film document the collective happiness of making a movie with your friends?

A still from my short documentary of the same name documenting Scrawls on Cinema in our first official production venture.

Have we lost that understanding of film as a communal endeavor? Streaming services and COVID have exacerbated the atomizing tendencies of the past 20 years, and with newfound vertical integration and monopolies forming in Hollywood, how is making films that play into that same mindset any form of resistance? I’m not naive enough to think that a few people banging out ratty student films on VHS and Super-8 is going to be a viable alternative to the pretty hand of Hollywood that’s so tightly gripping my peers’ necks, but at least it’s something local. Why does Georgia have such robust film production infrastructure but no indigenous film scene, no unique feel? Are we so comfortable with runaway production that we’ll aspire to be enveloped within it? I’m surrounded by bright people in my classes who don’t have the film culture necessary to cultivate these things. The piecemeal program at UGA as it is, a brief two years where you can essentially graduate without having ever watched a screening for class, is creating technically adept filmmakers but not nourishing ambitions toward art cinema. I don’t say that just to be a pretentious film snob; making anti-Hollywood films is a way in which one can resist the corporate hellscape to which we’re so bound.

It starts locally. Athens is a place that fostered a significant music scene years ago and its shadow still looms large over musicians here today. Why isn’t the same thing happening in film? We have Ciné, a place all of us should be attending regularly and in as large of groups as possible. We have caring and intelligent teachers in entertainment and media studies, film studies, and video art. We have ties to industrial figures in Atlanta for film production and post-production. We have a small (but committed) film club and production offshoots of that. The component parts are all here, but what’s missing is a dedicated fire under the ass and the potential to see student filmmaking as something more than résumé builders or portfolio padders for when we go into the “real” world. What’s so fake about right now? Student filmmaking is an independent venture that gives you leeway in being risky and shitty and creative and ambitious. It will always be seen as worse than large-scale industrial filmmaking, and that perception is only getting worse with the ballooning budgets of Hollywood pictures. If it’s doomed to be a failure from the start, why not fail boldly? 

Student filmmaking has the benefit of already being pejorative. You can’t get much worse than having you work called “amateurish” or having “film school” used as an adjective to describe it. Isn’t that freeing? Film began from individual hobbyists, bricoleurs who took component parts from different technology and used them in search of moving images. We owe Citizen Kane to the humble sewing machine. Have we lost that sense of experimentation? Of wonder at discovering a new language with no Rosetta Stone? Celluloid is old, but it’s not all we have to work with: VHS, shitty DV, webcams, your old DSi; the medium with which you work is unique and you are not required to have high end equipment to make something beautiful and, more importantly, authentic. You don’t need an Arri Alexa, you don’t need a DSLR, and you certainly don’t need permission to start expressing yourself with film and video. The only gatekeeping that matters is that of personal taste, and that’s something that you should constantly be working to define and refine. Having a good grasp on the films that came before you and align with your sensibility isn’t about having pretentious name-dropping bonafides, it’s about learning the vocabulary and grammar others have used to express the same feelings you have. You are learning how to read so that you can learn how to write.

Learning how to write is a lot of work and it’s certainly not the path of least resistance. It’s very easy to sit back and watch whatever series has just dropped on Netflix. It’s okay if you do this, but you have to understand that you are working with the ultimate goal of producing with everything you consume: everything that crosses your gaze must be turned into grist for the mill. Working toward this, again, is a lot of effort. Here are the ways in which I’ve learned to try and do this for myself. It should go without saying that this becomes exponentially easier when you’re doing it with a group of people as well. Watch at least one movie every day and do a small write-up about it. Letterboxd is ideal but a notebook for yourself will do just fine. It can be a short film for all I care, but say something fucking original about it. If you miss a day, watch two the next day to make up for it. Be cine-literate. Watch films you haven’t seen before. Watch boring films, foreign films, problematic films, perverse films. Watch things that challenge you. Watch your friends’ films. Contribute to their goals and ambitions. Have some damn ambitions of your own. Have a personal canon and a point of view and an ideological project that you are advancing with every work you make. Never put your name (above the line, at least) on anything that you don’t believe to be worth your time and a good representation of yourself. If it’s shit, make the next one better; it’s only an ass-whooping if you didn’t learn anything. Have some goddamn pride about yourself and make something that you think is important. Make sure your friends are doing it too. The people around you are making things that are more interesting than the antiseptic slop Netflix is feeding you every week and you are morally obligated to support your local contrarians and quit deferring to the faceless corporate monoliths that don’t really give a shit about you anyway. Local, coordinated, communal filmmaking is our best shot at telling our own stories.

Runaway production is a big problem in Georgia, but these same problems aren’t just state-wide, they’re national, global even. I’m using Georgia as a case study because it’s my community and I care about it and if I don’t intervene, I don’t know who else will. You can make something special wherever you are. New York and L.A. weren’t picked for film production hubs because creative ley lines lead there; they were picked because of existing cultural production and close-knit communities in New York and predictable weather and atrocious labor laws in L.A. Georgia has one of L.A.’s qualities and the polar opposite of the other, so there’s that. Basically, if you’re a creative person, you can make things anywhere. Life doesn’t have to be one big crawl toward an urban center, one bum-rush to the top of the industry. You can be more fulfilled with the autonomy that small, amateurish, low-quality production provides. I can’t promise you that a local rhizome of little provincial indie scenes is a viable alternative to the arborescent production strategies that giants in Hollywood have very carefully refined over decades, but I can tell you it’s a lot more fun. Go make something you care about. Go on. This is me giving you permission.

Blog Hot Takes

Hot Take – Horror Cinema

I’m not very good at writing about things that are terrifying. My writing style and general outlook on life tend to naturally carry me away from that, into more flowery and romantic things. I only know that I’m bad at it because as I was beginning to write this piece, I tried to establish some bleak and dreary tone about the state of society as it relates to Halloween and Horror cinema, and I found myself just dumping vaguely creepy platitudes about the way people see the holiday, and it was all goofy and shitty and dumb.

I think this kinda happens to encapsulate the exact phenomenon I find so puzzling about the way Halloween works. I must disclaim that October is absolutely my favorite month of the year. It feels like life is happening, the weather is perfect, everybody is together celebrating the season. October in Athens is particularly special, although it’s pretty hard to pin down why. Everybody just kinda is in on whatever we all get to share this month, and it’s wonderful. That being said, every year without fail people hype October to oblivion. “Spooky season is coming! Spoopy!” Everybody chants this stuff almost ritualistically in September, posting that same gif of that person in those black tights dancing with that Jack O’ Lantern on their head. As the month continues, everyone does the costume parties, goes to the pumpkin patches, eats the pumpkin stuff, yada yada.

People watch the same horror movies, too. People watch the schlock, the classics, and the contemporary stuff. This is not a bad thing, and I’m not downplaying horror films in the slightest. There are lots of truly wonderful horror films, and some of them are quite scary, but nevertheless I have always found it a bit puzzling. You settle in, pop your popcorn, surround yourself with the people you care about (or at the very least the people that you’re interested in) and then you watch the scary stuff.

This glib approach to it all comes with several clarifications, naturally. I am not saying here that Halloween is stupid, and horror films are stupid, and it’s all dumb and not even real! And I’m better than you because I know that! I’m not saying that, although I kinda felt like I had to start off the essay by making it seem like I was saying that because it’s kinda fun to be inflammatory sometimes. However, I am by no means placing myself above the holiday celebrations that come with Halloween; that’s haughty and elitist. I love all the October stuff and Halloween stuff as much as the next person. The fact remains, though that when people enter the Halloween season, they do the same things. They perform the same rituals, revel in the same activities, watch the same films, and share the same togetherness. And they always will. This is a good thing, and a happy, wonderful thing. October is a lovely time of year, and it’s probably my favorite.

But, the fact of the matter is that all this, all these activities and especially all these films…it’s kinda all…..the same.

Horror film, and the spectatorship henceforth, exists with this same flavor of…sameness. Horror is arguably the foremost example of true genre, and thus it arguably is the foremost example of a cinema that just chugs through the same things. Any horrifying film, with variation, prances dramatically along the same formulaic illusion: that it’s all genuinely horrifying, and these real terrors should haunt us all the time forever. This guides me to the central question that I want to posit, all of these things being kept in mind:

How is all of this sameness considered scary at all?

When I think about things that are truly horrifying, shocking, and terrifying, I almost always find myself naturally tracking to the unknown. The fear of losing all this life, the fear of some safety or peace being corrupted by some human, specter or force that is far more formidable than anything I’ll ever have at my disposal….the terror of whatever that thing is that no human has ever or can ever understand…….THAT’S the truly horrifying stuff. Many horror films tap into this. General horror tropes give audiences glimpses and emulations. There’s the glance toward the shadowy black forest, a void expanse that seems to stretch into the furthest reaches of our subconscious while sitting directly in front of us, the ambient hum of a room or location that the audience clearly knows contains whatever darkest fears exist that we have yet to imagine. The genre tropes give us glimpses into that feeling. They provide insight. However (and this is the most crucial difference between what we as audience members have experienced as horror cinema and what actually constitutes a genuinely horrifying cinema) insight is only emulation when placed at the foot of genuine experience. Settling into a seat with popcorn and loved ones to watch a scary thing is not immersion into something fearful. It is immersion into one’s own safety. We watch horror films to recognize how safe we are. What about these sitting around and watching a movie that you know is going to end, that you know was filmed in a studio, is ever going to generate true terror? (Aside: Blair Witch is arguably the only mainstream exception that truly challenges this; a film that convinces millions of its authenticity succeeds in approaching true horror. The Exorcist gets kinda close, but that’s just because of all that Christian rabblerousing.)

If true horror only comes with being confronted by things that truly threaten our sense of safety, whether that be emotional or physical, than I will argue that the only truly horrifying cinema is cinema that is unconcerned with convincing the audience that they are scared. Cinema that transcends the necessity to provide the audience with the expected shocks and scares, opting instead to reach into abstraction to extract some deeply seeded and ravenous part of the unsettled soul….that is where only the most authentic horror lies.

Black Ice, one of the most popular films in Stan Brakhage’s 1990s silent series created entirely with paint on film stock, is inspired by a nasty fall on ice that Brakhage experienced in the late 80s. The fall resulted in injuries that required intensive eye surgery for the director, and he almost lost his vision as a result. The film is much like the rest of Brakhage’s films in this series: it consists of brief flickering images, all created by Brakhage’s brushstroke. The frames move so quickly that, in silence, the visual sensation of motion fades into one’s subconscious, and the flowing tones and shapes meld together and guide the viewer into a serene and subliminal state of dissociative reflection. Black Ice is different from the rest of his filmography however, because the image performs in a dynamic language that is not present in any of his other films. The blobs and hues seem to shove themselves toward the audience, and the motion begins to convince the viewer that the colors and images on the screen are seeking to reach out and suck you in, so that you can be trapped with them inside their refractory vortex of frozen shade. I don’t want to suggest that horror film must be directly related to some tangible, provable trauma in order to become convincing and/or authentic, but Black Ice’s elegant sense of unease communicates a lack of safety that is hard to find in any studio-made horror film. Gone is the sense of time or closure, gone are all concerns with character, resolution, outcome. There is only movement and darkness. Complete uncertainty, total alienation. Will I be trapped in this when it’s all over? THAT is a horror movie.

Toshio Matsumoto’s Atman functions within a similar structuralist belief system. A singular figure wearing a terrifying mask is positioned in the center of a field somewhere, and the camera appears to move in a circle around them. At the beginning of the film, the camera erupts into an overwhelming pattern, the camera rushing closer to the figure and backwards, around and around, flashing strobe patterns across the screen to the grating, disquieting sounds of shrill electronics. The motion is entirely unlike any that we find in our regular lives, and entirely unlike any that we find in horror cinema. It is aggressively uncomfortable, especially when the image in question is trained upon an imposing and terrifying figure. It confronts the audience with the most primal sense that an audience member can have: when will this be over? When will I finally get relief from this torment?

Halloween is all about the spooky things and the scary things, and everyone loves to watch a horror movie around this time of year. Halloween is about the togetherness that we share, and I would venture to say that most horror cinema, on social function alone, operates within this optimistic and unified framework. A horror film can hardly ever be horrifying, because inherent to the social framework of the genre is a sense of being with those that you love, in a time of year that you love. The only truly terrifying cinema is the cinema that forces us into things that we don’t understand, into an incongruent and incomprehensible place of association, uncertainty, and darkness. These movies are examples of that, and honestly, films like these are the only things that I personally think constitute genuinely horrifying cinema.

You can find these films on YouTube. Watch them with your friends and laugh and have a good time to completely prove me wrong and render this entire essay meaningless.

Blog Hot Takes

The Lighthouse – A Class Analysis

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is above all a sensuous experience. Musty, dusty, slimy, and grimy, containing within it two of the most depraved performances of recent film history. Although technically exceptional, it is not an easy task to commit the film’s core thesis down in a concrete fashion. Perhaps there’s too much going on, perhaps not enough. As the film’s own director puts it, “Okay, this is a movie about identity (writer’s note: aren’t they all?), and can devolve into some weird, obscure places.” Much has been said about the film’s literary allusions, hypnotic sequences, and mythic properties. However, there is equally as much to be said on what lurks beneath the illusory surface. Its depictions of power dynamics, as well as the alienation that comes with living in a society that depends on social stratification, garner as much (if not more) relevance in a thematic analysis than any of the films’ enchanting but bizarre excesses.

The film’s interest in class begins in the script. Shocking that a film’s themes would come about through writing, I know. However, I do not mean this to say that this fascination is revealed through dialogue. Rather, it is through an interesting choice on Eggers’ part in the way the screenplay itself is written; the characters of Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow (a.k.a Thomas Howard) are not called this at all in the script, as can be seen below.

As opposed to giving these characters their own self-prescribed names, Eggers decides instead to simply label them as Old and Young. Although this detail by its very nature would be largely unknown to the audience, it peaks a certain amount of interest. It seems to point to, in Eggers’ mind, that, while the film is “focused” on two specific individuals, it serves more broadly as a film about the relations between two groups: the rising class and the established (ruling) class. In practicality, both Howard and Wake are of the same social class as two proletarian lighthouse keepers. As mentioned, though, this film is more metaphorical than real, and such distinction does not negate the very explicit power dynamic between the two characters. Effectively, it makes no real difference in the larger picture whether these two mysterious men are peasants, proles, bourgeois, et cetera, in the “world” of the film because the way the nature of their relationship is that of rising versus established in practice.

The “All Golds Canyon” sequence of the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is quite interested in what constitutes as a “society” and what the necessary components of one are. Because this article is not about Buster Scruggs I won’t go into too much detail regarding this segment. As the segment depicts, nature without man is unspoiled, peaceful, and resting. With one man present, nature is disrupted by man’s own awareness of his needs, as well as his desire of things which are not necessarily vital. Add another man into the canyon and suddenly there is conflict and strife, nature disrupted and perverted, only to be restored at man’s departure. It is in this manner that The Lighthouse is equally interested in what constitutes a societal hierarchy.

Thomas Wake is, naturally, representative of the established class, as he has both seniority over Winslow as well as sole ownership of “The Light” within the lighthouse. Winslow, as a member of the “rising class” in this two-manned society, must attend to the repetition and mechanistic upkeep of the island, all the while being deprived of that Light which he so desperately wants. In order words, all spectacle removed, the basis of this class relation is who owns and has access to that which is necessary (the lighthouse being necessary as the only socially beneficial function of this island). Sound familiar?

The relationship between ownership or access to the “Light” is crucial to the film’s conflict and is arguably the only thing that develops the action. Winslow and Wake are both going crazy in isolation, sure. However, it is ultimately Winslow’s struggle to attain access to the Light that causes the verbal and physical confrontation. But on the subject of isolation, there is another important theory which relates both to this film’s thesis and the real-world class struggle. Without dropping the forbidden M word, the Theory of Alienation is a very real and observable phenomenon. In essence, in a society which prioritizes production, efficiency, and industrialization, the members of the working class invariably become alienated to said society.

It is through this mechanization, this transmutation of the worker into a mere cog, that causes detriment to the worker’s autonomy. The worker is not only alienated from their product and labor, their ability to self-actualize becomes increasingly weak. They assume their role as worker first and foremost (living to work as opposed to working to live, in essence). This can be directly contrasted with Winslow’s explicit, physical alienation as a result of his job as a wickie. His life becomes monotonous and estranged, either consumed by drink, sexual frustration, or inconsequential domestic maintenance. All the while, his fascination and curiosity regarding the Light (a symbol for many ideas: power, God, wealth, knowledge) grows and grows. And he is continually, purposefully, and intentionally denied again and again by Wake. “I’m the keeper of this station, lad. Some other station you can tend the light.” he says (the “just start your own business” of the Wickie world). It is precisely Winslow’s labor on the rock that permits Wake to indulge in the Light constantly. Winslow cleans, Winslow oils, Winslow sweeps, and Wake soaks up the Light. Not only does Wake deny Winslow of the Light, but he also uses his authority over it to coerce Winslow into doing anything he wants. Wake’s notebook, which he keeps to log the daily activities and monitor Winslow’s actions, is revealed to be full of lies. In it, he recommends that Winslow be terminated without pay upon leaving the island. It is this final revelation that causes Winslow to snap and end Wake for good. Further enforcing the notion of Wake’s status as authoritatively above Winslow’s is the brief shot in which he appears as Poseidon, “crowned in cockle shells”, the ultimate king of the sea. Inevitably, when Winslow takes the Light by force, he is supremely corrupted by its power. This sequence is often related to the story of Prometheus, who stole fire (and by extension the ability to create) from the gods and was thus punished. In addition to this, it could perhaps be taken a step further. Winslow’s rebellion against Wake fails in the end because of the very nature of the Light. It is at once healing and corrupting, the blood on Winslow’s face slowly disappearing as his mind becomes destroyed. In one of his hallucinations, Winslow appears to find the dead body of Wake, only to see his own face upon it instead. This premonition hints at the film’s climax in which Winslow assumes the role of everything which he has tried to dismantle. The supremacy and power of the Light are too great to be uncorrupting. And in his desperate quest to attain it, he invariably allows it to destroy him, too.

Blog Hot Takes

Kubrick’s Christmas Calamity- the confusing failure of Eyes Wide Shut

It’s easy to get bogged down when trying to form a genuine opinion on an old work from a revered master such as Stanley Kubrick. You are subject to so many different points of input- on the one hand, you see the OnePerfectShot contingency breaking everything down into knockoff Kogonada video essays about aesthetics; on the other you see memes about The Kubrick Stare, and you struggle to take it seriously. It gets even tougher when complex questions of abuse or troubling action from the director’s chair gets turned into “Um he’s actually kinda problematic :/” and dismissed as a binary moral judgement. Add in our current case of Epstein Brain affecting our ability to see this film without a conspiratorial element to it, and it’s easy to generalize or outright reject this film on extratextual grounds. Unfortunately, this both ignores an intriguing work of film and glosses over the real ways in which it fails.

Kubrick’s final film, completed days before his 1999 death (although the details of its completion remain disputed by some of his collaborators) is a loose epic that scrambles to tackle marital strife, sexual paranoia, the occult, and the overarching power of the wealthy and well-connected in less than three hours. He recreated blocks of Greenwich Village on a soundstage in London, did a million takes, and generally exercised his perfectionism to its logical conclusions; the shoot was, after all, the longest ever. Then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman portray a married couple on the verge of cracking; Cruise is brilliant as Dr. Bill, a slow talking schmoozer, and Kidman as Alice steals every moment of her unfortunately small screen time.

The portrayal of a frayed marriage is where the film excels, with the long and anguished bedroom scene the film’s high point. Their shared fantasies of infidelity and Bill’s unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of her desires is compelling; their performances as dramatic, stoned yuppies hit a great middle ground between genuine profundity and the unhelpful, overreaching divulgement that can accompany substance use.

From there, Bill’s descent into sexual frustration and occult intrigue takes both him and the viewer places occasionally intriguing and often frustrating. He is unwillingly kissed by a grieved acquaintance, offered a young prostitute by a seedy businessman, and most infamously, allowed into the lair of a masked sex cult in a pristine New York mansion. Through all of this, Bill is mostly a blank face, and so much of the film puts us in his position; we bear witness together, and none of us can do anything about it.

To Cruise’s credit, he’s the perfect vehicle for this impotent and powerless character. His constant subservience to the powerful people in his work life and the holders of sexual power in his attempted nightlife render him unable to exert much of his own will on anything; this powerlessness, and the ways in which he then repurposes it to trap his own wife in boredom and joblessness, is maybe the film’s most interesting idea.

Kubrick’s dive into darker, weirder waters is where the film falls flat. In the year 2020, it is impossible to watch this film without thinking of what society has come to understand about the world of sexual exploitation, the ultra-wealthy, and the presence of the occult. There are familiar notes being played- promises of society’s most prominent behind the masks, the wanton solicitation of minors, and the very real danger that comes from interrogating these systems.

Sadly, these horrors are misused and applied as window dressing for the real terror, which is simply being Dr. Bill. When he interacts with sex trafficking and ritualistic abuse, it terrifies and almost kills him, yet he does little about it. He runs away when he’s threatened, he’s terrified when he finds his mask in his bed, and he confesses his sins (or potential sins) through tears when he’s brought to the end of his rope. Bill and Alice’s marriage problems are brought to the surface and eventually resolved, and while there’s nothing wrong with using outlandish underworld escapades as a device to explore realistic marriage struggles, it rings hollow when Kubrick uses the grand conspiratorial horror he dabbles in.

This is, admittedly, a distinctly 2020 perspective. We live in a time where we’re more aware of sexual abuse by those in power than we ever have been, so what the film uses to scare us feels too familiar to be alien. Unfortunately, we also live in a time where QAnon has a TikTok presence, where smart people we know fall for the Wayfair conspiracy, and where things like the Out of Shadows documentary can amass millions of views online. We’ve seen the facts of large-scale scheduled human suffering, and we’ve also seen those facts be weaponized to fuel the dumbest ideologies of the dumbest people in our society. It’s easy to be jaded about Kubrick using these ideas as spooky costuming for a film about divorce when looking at it from our social vantage point.

However, I think it falters in the larger cinematic context as well. Kubrick was no stranger to deep wells of dread and true fears, and he was capable of both attacking them straight on and weaving them into a simpler story thread. Throughout his work, he was adept at taking society’s greatest fears and paranoias- atomic war, the dangerous inevitability of human progress, our individual propensities for violence- and folding them into stories that grappled with these ideas.

The largest misstep of Eyes Wide Shut is how little wrestling it does with this conspiracy. Bill sees a pit of gross decadence in the house of the powerful, he sees a woman killed for helping him, and when he’s told to leave it alone and act like it never happened, he does. Perhaps in some sense, this is Kubrick’s critique- that the life of the wealthy Manhattan doctor can emerge unscathed from exposure to such madness; that ease and comfort can be rediscovered if you just confess all, make up with your wife, get your daughter a nice Christmas present, wink at the screen, and move on. It’s possible to claim that Kubrick indicts this attitude simply by showing it, but I don’t buy it.

Acknowledgement without critique feels hollow, and hinging what is essentially a crisis-of-faith story (where the faith is in the marriage or in monogamy itself) around underworld trafficking and sexual conspiracy feels cheap. The movie dazzles with its pretty lights, the impressive pastiche set, and the filmstock’s manipulated deep colors, but often I was reminded of things I couldn’t place. Did the sexual paranoia and deep blues remind me of Blue Velvet? Did the one night of lurching bring to mind After Hours? Were the silent walking montages an ode to Jimmy Stewart’s wordless drives in Vertigo?

I was a little amused when I realized what was really on the tip of my tongue; in the end, I was left thinking mostly of Hallmark movies. It’s certainly an odd surface level connection, but the oft-recited meme of “Eyes Wide Shut is actually a Christmas movie” makes more sense as time goes on, and not for the right reasons. After all, Hallmark movies typically present simple love stories centered around a vague holiday season that can mean anything to anyone, but they tend to ignore the fighting, the angst, and the crass commercialism of selling good feelings. In that sense, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is the truest Christmas movie- a genuine facsimile, masking rote family drama inside of vague gestures towards something that it promises is transcendent.

Blog Hot Takes

On Midsommar – Ari Aster’s Antipathetic Abuse Apologia

CW // Sexual Assault

Spoilers for Midsommar below

Despite buying into the hype cycle fully, I had my quibbles with Aster’s second feature when it came out, finding it a bit bloated, redundant, and derivative much like Hereditary (although at least Midsommar steals from several films instead of wholesale ripping one iconic film as Aster’s debut did Rosemary’s Baby). It was the same schtick as before, a nebbish know-it-all repurposing films that fell out of fashion; selling schlock to zoomers unaware history began before the Clinton era. However, I left the theatre with a vague sense of disgust and discomfort. Something didn’t quite sit right with me as time passed on and the film settled in our cultural imagination, feeling as though the brainworm had eaten through the frontal lobe of the collective unconscious, sapping away any ability to think about the film’s moral outlook.

I heard the best minds of my generation destroyed, in real time on twitter; taking to the streets to scream “yasss queen!” and “leave him sis!”, heralding the film as the cosmos’s rebuke to the collective, oppressive monolith of the shitty ex-boyfriend. And as this chorus tormented my mind, I began to explain it away as a simple misinterpretation by the viewing public, the same tragedy that befell American Pyscho or Wall Street after falling into the sociopathic arms of finance bros; the same happening reskinned to the #girlboss crowd whom cling more fashionably to the era.

Sent by God to deny my cold comfort of such a rationalization, the precious director’s cut arrived. While I personally have an embargo on giving my time and money to work I find artistically amateurish and ideologically appalling, I did give it a cursory glance. But after doing due diligence and reading up on every addition, I can’t quite claim it as an exculpatory document. On the margin, each scene only exists to prime another conflict, framing Christian as an even more detestable character (more fraught disagreements, more grad school solipsism) and build the Harga lore, juxtaposing the family unit with the alienating shitty boyfriend to further bolster its revolting conclusion. Aster’s ideal version of the film is one that aligns with the popular intent, throwing the excuse of audience misinterpretation right out the window and into the realm of impossibility.

Although what comes before is no great work, with sluggish pacing and repetitive, leaden writing, the third act is where it goes off the rails. The cathartic finale, often touted as its key achievement, is where Midsommar falters. Dani’s arc throughout is searching for the comfort of a family unit, finding security to “make her feel held” spurred on by a realization she may be “leaning on” Christian too much as the relationship fails. By submitting herself to become part of the Harga, she does not find any sort of support or catharsis, just a motley crew to enable her BPD tendencies and keep it pushing in perpetuity. From here on, she’ll be forced to relive the death of her family, every single year watching another house burn, another family sacrifice, reliving her trauma until she is no longer considered viable, and murdered along the mores of her adoptive “family”, meeting the same fate of her parents. There is no resolution or growth here, with the most generous interpretation being a tragic embrace of another toxic dynamic to replace another.  This is an ending that says “go on, be spiteful, vindictive, petty, someone will eventually accept you as you are.” A despicable, narcissistic banner to rally behind, lending truth to the boomer perception of the youth as fragile and stunted, validating the worst impulses of c-suite despots and the unwashed zoomer masses alike.

While the implications of Dani’s fate are worrying to say the least, it is Christian’s undoing that disturbs me the most. The same as Dani, just the same as his friends, he was lured in by Pelle and groomed for his eventual martyrdom. He is put in social situations manufactured to put him in close contact with his soon-to-be rapist, and left in the dark the whole way through. The audience is forced to watch him sprint around the village, wide-eyed and nude, inches away from blaring yakety sax as the slapstick routine runs its course. When this great deliverance of his death arrives, so freeing cheers erupted in my own mannered suburban chain theatre, a young man has been duped into joining a cult, groomed, forced into the arms of his abuser, only to be ritually raped, drugged, and offered as a sacrificial lamb to superstition. And this is supposed to be some euphoric conclusion? A survivor being shouted down and suffering greatly because of purely personal grievance? In this cultural moment with an unspoken edict emphasizing allyship to survivors, that even those guilty of moral transgression should not be given summary execution by a state body, this elated response can be read as nothing but hypocrisy. It puts an asterisk next to a marginalizing experience, that you must be pure and loved to elicit any sort of empathy response. You matter, until you fall out of favor, then your trauma is someone else’s rightful recompense.

The unmasking of Midsommar as nothing more than empathy deficient detritus is Aster’s own inspiration. The director has said the film was inspired by a breakup of his own and going as to call it a “wish-fulfillment fantasy” in his view of the film. This reveals a disquieting revelation: Aster envisions himself as Dani, not Christian. As to indulge my own thought experiment, I ask you to imagine Midsommar had Aster not committed to this shrewd reskin. A film in which a man spends two hours showing you how shrill and unkind his girlfriend is, before crowning himself king of the enabler club and smiling as his partner who has just been drugged and raped burns to death, their own assault being probable cause for summary execution. Dismissing the film as transgressive but worthy becomes inexcusable once this premise is accepted, Aster is not some deranged bard conveying his genius through brutal imagery, but a message board incel hiding behind a shield of inoffensive center-left identitarianism. That in the modern age, where toxic masculinity is skewered on the hour every hour, something that trafficked in such thinly veiled misogyny as Midsommar being embraced as empowering will forever remain a divine mystery.

Midsommar may have some glimmers of merit. As a rare artifact of horror rendered in daylight, a performance showcase for Florence Pugh, and some moments of impressive direction, all worthy of note. But within those fleeting moments of aesthetic appeal, there lies something darker: a puerile retreat into toxic masculinity rebranded as “ladies rock”, abuse apologia that conditions an audience to excuse assault when they simply do not take a liking to a given survivor, and a proclamation that growth or forgiveness is dead, that instead codependency is über alles. Midsommar is the definitive statement of millennial narcissism and entitlement, a declaration that in our alienated destitution that empathy has fled for warmer climates, that someone’s trauma is your punchline, and as long as one can cry in the arms of another hivemind, no reflection is needed. Instead, burn your ex-girlfriend in effigy over 147 minutes and let $9 million go up in smoke along with them, because the blue checks will proclaim “gooble gobble one of us” and accept you all the same.

Blog Hot Takes

Twin Peaks – a failure of the Lynch idealogical project

I’ll admit it, I’ve been having great difficulty sleeping soundly. Some evenings, I toss and turn, my mind racing on some minutiae that has no right to live rent free in my subconscious. I can’t quite blame the turbulence of the times, no pandemic or systemic upheaval can irritate me quite the same as this atrocity — David Ehrlich’s (maybe the most insufferable living film critic, managing to have an even poorer success rate on takes than Ebert) absolutely dogshit take on David Lynch’s definitive work, Blue Velvet:

“so this probably won’t be my most popular opinion (my most popular opinion = spoons are good to use to eat pudding), but like… doesn’t TWIN PEAKS largely negate the need for this movie? aside from Dern, Hopper, Rossellini, and ‘Mysteries of Love?’”

However surprising, I agree with Ehrlich on the central premise. Twin Peaks does operate under the same general thesis as Blue Velvet — a Newtonian view of morality that underneath suburban charm, there is a lecherous underbelly equal and opposite in magnitude. Blue Velvet earns its title as one of the great American films by taking Hitchcockian conventions and filtering them through the unique grammar of hypnogogia, granting profundity to the mundane. Prom dances become religious awakenings, Roy Orbison’s lovelorn paeans become calls to violence. Through this inversion, Lynch articulates the flaws within the American experiment are indelibly  intwined with its successes. Twin Peaks, while coming from the same starting position, expresses this thesis in a less effective form, creating an inferior work as a result.

The Twin Peaks creation myth is  well-worn territory. A generational talent taking advantage of ABC’s deep pockets to smuggle in a subversive examination of America packed to the gills with arthouse flourishes, a hagiography applied to everything from New Hollywood to Eastwood apologia. In actuality, Twin Peaks is not some landmark achievement. In actuality, it is possibly the most accurate manifestation of the anti-Lynch strawman, the founding text being Ebert’s infamous pan of Blue Velvet (essential watching, one of the many times Ebert showed his ass on national television). Ebert’s indictment rests on the idea that the film blunts its own impact, “defus[ing] it by pretending it’s all part of a campy in-joke.” This sentiment is far more resonant with the Twin Peaks project in which one is forced to invest in the murder of Laura Palmer, but within the show, such brutality is almost on the back burner. Instead, the bulk of the content being a relatively toothless, smarmy satire of daytime soaps. Of course, one could easily dismiss such a critique as authorial intent, especially given Lynch’s own intent to never reveal Laura’s killer; the true focus being the eponymous town’s human drama all along. However, this line of thinking betrays an even more horrifying reality — Twin Peaks is not a noble misfire, but rather exploitative dreck. A show that uses violence against women as an aesthetic crutch (a claim that could be leveled against Lynch regularly, particularly the puerile Wild At Heart), creating lazy intrigue for audience buy-in for the comparatively mundane corporate skullduggery and secondary school social politics that occupy its universe. This line of thinking cannot even be excused as a failure of imagination — Lynch’s charming but forgotten (and arguably superior) TV follow-up On the Air as well as The Straight Story are examples in which the director’s humanist tendencies are able to conjure great drama from the everyday, making Laura’s murder a needless catalyst for the resulting daytime TV drama. 

While most of this can be attributed to network censors blocking the depiction of more libidinal concerns, most of the weak spots of Peaks tend to be attributed to a period of Lynch’s absence, absolving him of the narrative nadir in absentia. Lynch himself has gone a long way to embrace this apologia, saying “the second season sucked” outright. However, I would contend the abject failures of the show come not from an absence of his influence, but rather an unchecked embrace of Lynchian whimsy. The oft-maligned second season with its ridiculous b-plots, languid pacing, and shaky writing after Lynch left the series to focus on Wild At Heart (somehow an even poorer decision) builds off the same substance-free absurdity of the first season, but the lack of aesthetic panache reveals the weaknesses the series had all along. Ben Horne’s confederate delusions, Nadine’s super strength, this absurdity was an extension of the previous material. A collage of pure Americana made perverse, set against a tranquil, bucolic town, all straight out of the Lynch playbook.

Beyond the structural issues stemming from the mores of network television programming, the efficacy of Lynch’s style in a primetime medium is another rub. In broad strokes, the method of his best works (Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, Eraserhead, and to an extent Lost Highway) is using the language of dreams to communicate primal fears, communicating through a dialect only spoken within the subconscious. For all its detachment from reality, the opening of Eraserhead accomplishes this exercise perfectly; the diseased Man In the Planet tugging on a phallic rod to control bizarre sperm creatures, communicating the negative valence of sexual impropriety, an anxiety within the viewer from moment one. Lost Highway takes it a step further, taking the outside context of Robert Blake’s uxoricide and the omniscience of video cameras to transmit the idea that a guilt of that magnitude cannot be escaped through adapting the artifice of a new identity, telegraphing the climax from moment one. In Peaks, even its most famous moments of Lynchian indulgence are masturbatory exercises in abstraction. The oft-cited Red Room/Black Lodge iconography has no real metaphorical depth, instead hoping the viewer finds a leisure suit-clad little person kooky and unsettling, exploiting ableism to get a cheap squirm from mom-and-pop pairings across the country. This focus on shock value is at the core of Ebert’s critique, allowing transgression to masquerade as insight. When the imagery isn’t focused on abstraction barren of substance, its use of dreams is completely literal. The most effective case, Cooper’s encounter with Laura Palmer in the Red Room, materially amounts to no more than thinly veiled allusions to the gory details of her death. There is no artistic merit there, it is simply using an insufferable Freudian literalism to avoid the wrath of the FCC, that in order to exist in the medium the integrity of the art must be compromised. 

Now there is still an elephant in the room: the presence of Mark Frost, regularly the scapegoat for many failures throughout the Twin Peaks project. Often credited for being behind the greater lore of the series, as well as the dominant narrative scribe, it becomes quite easy to pin the lack of focus, the jumping of the shark, and the lack of constructive transgression on Frost’s architectural role. However, one key document illustrates that much of the complaints previously raised have little to do with Frost — “The Last Evening” (S01E07). Quite frankly, “The Last Evening” (one of the rare episodes solely written and directed by Frost) is the best episode of the series, treating the subject matter with rare respect and emotional subtlety. From the opening sequence with Dr. Jacoby and Maddy brings about true anguish, reckoning with her absence as tragic instead of fodder for absurd nervous breakdowns or teenage horniness. Leland’s visit to the hospital is a resonant statement on the greater thematic argument up to this point, positing the darkness once unleashed can consume what little grace and purity remains. Even the more meat and potatoes elements concerning Cooper’s investigation are taut and suspenseful, with Frost’s Hill Street Blues chops making themselves very apparent. Frost’s vision of Peaks is much closer to a successful rendering, treating its content with a tenderness often missing, refusing to indulge in the dismissive irony utilized elsewhere in the series. 

Rendering the shortcomings of its televised counterpart even more frustrating is the unqualified triumph of its cinematic companion piece, Fire Walk With Me. Dispensing with the slapstick and snark, Lynch crafts something closer to Passion of Joan of Arc or Vincent Gallo’s opus The Brown Bunny than the original series, spinning a complicated yarn of survivorship. Laura Palmer is given a presence and voice, her pain made real rather than a past tense justification to gobble down donuts and dance under the fluorescent diner lights. The film strips away the twee trappings of its original text, reducing the fat until only the ugliness is left.  A fascinating exercise, outperforming the original series run and providing a superior version of The Return and its climax by doing away with the hopelessly indulgent exercise of fan service orgasm denial. While one could pooh-pooh FWWM’s merit as simply saying the quiet part out loud, the film is able to make a grand statement in two hours on systemic abuse as well as paint a harrowing portrait of psychic torture; accomplishing in two hours what the series failed to do in 48.

This is not to say Twin Peaks is irredeemably bad, in fact as far as network television goes, it is quite good, even great. However, it would be equally as valid to say its influence towers over its merit, and an outsized cultural importance is the result. Twin Peaks is a success in that it provided a precedent for authorship within television, broadcasting difficult images throughout the nation, intimating that television could be more than drivel. However, it is the very failures I have laid out are why it has had such profound cultural staying power. Its aesthetics of accessible transgression become an easy reference point for artists in all other mediums, reproduced easily when there is not much substance to interpret. Badalamenti’s iconic score has certainly done the show a great service in its longevity, becoming another object of cultural affection. David Lynch has become less of a filmmaker and more a cultural signaling point, an art school evolution of the “NORMAL PEOPLE SCARE ME” t-shirts after the Tumblr cohort aged out of schlock. As a result, a cult of personality has erected itself almost overnight, throwing a never-ending pentecostal revival, speaking in tongues over a man who makes profound statements just as often as he makes blundering, often problematic failures. A television show that combines the great dopamine rushes of soapy love triangles and procedural mysteries with avant garde credentials, Twin Peaks and its continued relevance makes much more sense in a neoliberal hellscape in which consumption and commodity signals personal identity, but as some sort of unrivaled artistic triumph, the worship rings less true.

Hot Takes

Hot Take – Trolls World Tour is good

An adage frequently referenced in film schools posits that all films are political, because any given film reflects its circumstance and its context, whether it be that of the filmmaker, the subject, or the generation that surrounds it and that it blooms from. I generally agree with this. The ideological exhaustion that comes from not being able to loosen ones shoulders and enjoy something just for what it is is something that I am very familiar with, and so I do believe that, for what it’s worth, a movie is inherently valid as entertainment. But, the message and/or perspective of a movie is far louder than its entertainment value, especially when viewing critically and ideologically. Thus, with an accommodating asterisk, yes. All films are political.

The contextual relevance of Trolls: World Tour is undeniable. That’s been screamed from every mountaintop that you can see and I don’t really care to fully and comprehensively do it again. Yeah, this film probably changed the moviegoing experience and the structure of film production, distribution, and exhibition to the same extent that Jaws did, that’s not what I’m here to say.

Instead, I want to focus on the ways that this movie plays into the general clash between the constitutional moneymaking nature of movies and their enjoyability. Godard, in one of his many rebukes of Hollywood and the American industry, said that cinema is capitalism in its purest form, and he’s right. It is a well-oiled machine that is perceived as soulless, because it is. Hollywood is fueled by profit, plain and simple. This isn’t news. But, in the case of many, many recent movies, the self-aware masses that attempt to engage with the media that they consume and the environment that said media sprouts from write off pictures like these as blatant product pictures, skeletal representations of capitalism and the movie-watching majority’s pliability and susceptibility to distraction. Such is the case with this sequel to one of the worst instances of product moviemaking, Trolls. It functions as a cash grab, fodder for toys, a 2-hour reprieve for parents. Apparently, with the risk that the film represents regarding format and distribution, as a cash grab this grabbed quite a lot, and is continuing to grab. It didn’t grab mine, I ripped it, although spoiler alert, I did purchase it again to watch it with a family a few weeks after my first viewing.

I started this up really for the sake of completionism–I wanted to see what this was all about, and to be able to say I’ve seen it in case the conversation ever comes up. What I wasn’t expecting was to laugh the entire time. I wasn’t expecting a foundational racial theme that bests pretty much any attempt that nu-Disney has made both in authenticity and fullness. I wasn’t expecting the music to be so fun, for this to be paced so well, and just to enjoy it so damn much!

It is so easy to passively write off movies like this with a laugh, claiming it as another Hollywood death trap, another cheesy factory picture lab-tested to assuage and distract and coddle. Maybe I’m too optimistic, maybe I’m too glass half full to let myself buy into the bleakness that loudly surrounds movies like this, even moreso the context around this film in particular. But there’s such a warm core in this movie, there’s something to it. There’s something really genuine here. The message about diversity feels different, it feels a bit more open and welcoming. The “differences do matter!” theme transcends the vast majority of colorblind fake woke liberalism that is so present in family films of the last decade. Technically, the animation is great, All recent animation is technically impressive, but the animation style here is just so fun and filled with personality. Overall, the style of this movie just totally rocks. The worldbuilding surrounding all the different musical kingdoms, the way they all compliment each other and make every plot “checkpoint” so to speak feel like it has a reason to be there, the way the different trolls and worlds and songs all confirm and bolster the general message about diversity…it’s just so great. It’s so impressive to me.

Again, Godard would be spitting on his screen if he read this. Things look bleak. The industry is damned and corrupted. But there’s something here. I had a great time watching this movie, and its message is good. It is surreal and hilarious and reflexive, and just a wonderful, easy watch. Maybe it’s naive of me, maybe I’m ignoring things, but I really don’t think I am. I think if you see the good in things, you’re gonna find it, and there is lots to find here. I’m not unaware of it’s potential thinness. I don’t have on context blinders, I just had a great time watching this and I think this movie is really fucking good. And that’s fine.