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Film Review: The Fifth Element

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

The Fifth Element (1997; Directed by Luc Besson)

The Fifth Element is primarily a vehicle for madly creative visual design, secondarily a Bruce Willis shoot-up-’em fest, and tertiarily a male-gaze ogle-orgy of the then-fresh-faced Milla Jovovich (who hooked up with and briefly married director Luc Besson during and after the film’s production). The operatically bugnuts French-financed science fiction action-comedy has accrued the status of something close to a genre classic, obvious flaws, general goofiness, and questionable performances aside (Jovovich and Chris Tucker both fully earned their Razzie acting nominations, and Gary Oldman wuz robbed). The Fifth Element might be too silly to be a great film, but it’s fun and imaginative and certainly not unmemorable.

Co-written by Besson with Robert Mark Kamen, The Fifth Element is pure pulpy sci-fi on the narrative level, although perhaps space opera is the truer generic classification (and is made quite literal in one showcase sequence). It pits absolute, merciless, all-devouring evil in the form of a gigantic, expanding, fiery black space singularity which threatens 23rd-century Earth against plucky, naifish, prophesized good in the form of Leeloo (Jovovich), a perfect distillation of titular elemental power in a red-haired female-fashion-model package. Leeloo’s importance is presaged in a (too-lengthy) prologue set in Egypt in 1914, wherein an absent-minded Italian archaeologist (John Bluthal), his louche artist/assistant (Luke Perry), and a mysterious hereditary priest (John Bennett) encounter lumbering, mechanized, Gilliamesque extraterrestrials called Mondoshawans. They warn the priest of the greater coming evil 300 years hence and entrust him with a magical key, which in combination with their treasured elemental stones will muster divine light to defeat the shadowy evil.

The Mondoshawans’ heroic appearance to fulfill their destiny in 2263 is thwarted by porcine mercenary warriors known as Mangalores, who turn out to have been hired to steal the prized stones by the eccentric Southern-accented industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). The only surviving tissue remnant recovered from the wreck of the Mondoshawans’ spaceship by Earth forces is grown in a lab to become Leeloo, who chatters in an ancient language while being leered at by scientists and generals. She escapes and drops into the flying taxi of one Korben Dallas (Willis), a former special forces soldier who is failing his way out of cab driving and elects to help her to escape the authorities. She directs him to bring her to the current priest, Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), who seeks to bring her together with the stones, apparently held for safe-keeping by a blue-skinned opera diva who will rendezvous with them aboard a massive interstellar cruise ship. With the reluctant aid of effeminate chatterbox radio personality Ruby Rhod (Tucker), Korben, Leeloo, and the priest will attempt to beat Zorg and the Mangalores to the stones and then save the universe from oblivion.

If this written synopsis makes The Fifth Element sounds like a deluging cascade of exhausting, fanciful, whimsical nonsense, imagine what it’s like to actually watch the damned thing. It’s an avalanche of gallic excess, from Dan Weil’s production design (based on concept art by French comics artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières) to Jean Paul Gaultier’s magnificently odd gender-bending costumes to Thierry Arbogast’s saturated cinematography. Besson and his team create a spectacular and deeply weird cinematic world, defined as much by its tiny details and wacky sight-gags as its wider vistas. Its humour can manifest broad slapstick one moment and slyly satirical the next. Besson can veer from the artful avant-garde to the explosive action blockbuster in a quick flash, and frequently does in the film’s final hour: the alien opera singer performs while intercut with Leeloo kung-fu-ing a squad of Mangalores to save the stones, followed by a manic-destructive shootout between Korben and the rest of the piggish thugs.

These broad brushstrokes continue into the supporting performances by Oldman, so insane and over-the-top he’s almost back under again, and Tucker, whose grating high-pitch motormouthed riffs contrast with Willis’ usual stoic directness and self-deprecating irony. Tucker really is a bit too much, but at least Besson doesn’t give in to the temptation to throw him together with the more amusingly wild Oldman for an overacting-off (Tucker and Holm share a brief comic scene over a bomb timer that surely must constitute one of the most incongrous mis-pairings in film history).

Besson’s tone is so consistently frenetic and wacky that when he belatedly attempts to make a weightier point about the immorality of human conflict, it ought to, by all rights, fall flat. But just as freakish visual eccentricity manages to coexist with action blockbuster conventions elsewhere in The Fifth Element, pausing amidst the fabricated madness to contemplate the true madness of war. This is hardly the only French film to slam seemingly incompatible elements together until they vaguely fit with one another, nor the only one to bring Gallic flourishes of lush artistry to the action-adventure genre. But The Fifth Element, for all of its silliness, is perhaps the purest and most entertaining distillation of that embrace of hybridity run rampant. Besides, of course, France itself.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Insidious Perspective of Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

April 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Were Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita not centrally concerned with one of western society’s most controversial taboos, it would remain one of the 20th Century’s paragons of literary fiction. Nabokov was a prodigious prose stylist, and his 1955 novel is magnificently written, a giddy rush of wit, innuendo, puns, sly allusions, vivid descriptions, and hilarious, wicked observations of and judgements on human foibles and American culture alike. His infamous unreliable narrator protagonist Humbert Humbert, the learned, urbane European “gentleman” nursing an illicit fascination for prepubescent girls and the titular American nymphet (to use his coinage referring to female minors with a certain inestimable sexual spark) in particular, is surely one of the great characters in the modern novel.

To call him “great” does not imply that he is good. Humbert is pathetic and sympathetic, confident and simpering, delightful and repulsive, a cultured monster like Hannibal Lecter, a more elusive Humbertesque character who would come to define the type. He coolly assesses and dismisses most of the people he encounters through the novel as inherent beneath him, but his snobbish judgement of their inferiority is only rarely applied to his own reprehensible conduct. The reprehensibility of that conduct – he abducts and repeatedly rapes an underaged girl, to state matters in strict legally-defined terms – must be constantly kept fixed in the foreground while reading Lolita, because Humbert’s (and Nabokov’s) intoxicating aesthetic reveries and elaborate web of deceptive justifications insidiously obfuscate the moral dimensions of his actions.

Lolita has been tarred since its publication as button-pushing tittilation and even brushed aside as mere pornography, while Nabokov has been pilloried as a dirty old man for writing it. Dismissing the book as smut is a simple and surely comforting response to its unsettling effect on the reader: its seductive inculcation of its audience into the crimes of its protagonist and the troubling implications for fictional perspective. The unreliable narrator element that Humbert typifies is generally understood in a rather literal manner: although the reader views a text’s events through the imagined gaze (usually male, and Humbert’s is just that, with a twisted intensity) of the narrating character and thus comes to at least identify and perhaps even like this narrator-character, the character’s version of events cannot be trusted, cannot be believed, may be an embellishment, a lie, a perversion. In the most common cases that this narrator-character’s perspective is the only one provided, this trust gap between reader and narrator destabilizes the consistency and internal truth-claims of the fictional work.

There is an easily-detected irony in that last phrase, and it’s one that Nabokov delights in throughout Lolita. Fiction is not truth. Indeed, it is its precise opposite: a lie. At its best, an artful lie, even a profound one, that in its culturally-heightened ideal reveals greater fundamental truths than could an accurate recitation of verifiable facts about the world (which is also far from how the coyly-named “non-fiction” functions, though that is a discussion for another time). Nabokov openly derides that ideal of fiction as “topical trash”, and considers it “childish” to read a work of fiction in order to strive to understand something important about an author’s place and times. His 1956 afterword to Lolita, from which these observations are torn, also focuses on the passages (“favorite hollows”, he calls them) in which his words convey pure sensation, as in Humbert’s obsessively involved description of the bodily movements and contortions made by his preteen paramour Dolores Haze (whom he fondly nicknames Lolita) while playing tennis.

It’s instructive to consider the corollary of this passage, however: namely, that Dolores’ exquisite corporeal aesthetics do not lead to success on the court. Indeed, her impeccable form, romanticized to sublime heights by Nabokov through Humbert’s desirous aestheticized gaze but also through her own internalization of the effects of that gaze (she reads movie magazines constantly, absorbing the cinematic star’s ideal of feminine beauty), detracts from her chances of winning. This reflects quintessential facets of Dolores’ character, of how Humbert’s fascination with and possession of her body is not paired with intellectual fascination (she’s moody and a bit shallow, her interests those of a standard girl her age, in many ways). She is always a bit of a mystery to Humbert even while she is held as his sexual captive, so seemingly simple and yet so inherent inscrutable even to his learned and nimble mind.

But just as Dolores’ visually-evident physical prowess does not make her a tennis champion, Nabokov’s evident prowess with prose quite purposely does not reveal truths. Instead, it shows how truths are constructed, Frankenstein-like, from lies, which is then labelled fiction and sold at a bookstore (though not at so many, any longer). Humbert lived a lie with his Lolita for a lengthy period of time, posing as her father while acting as her lover. His narrative account of that time is another lie, making excuses for his immoral behaviour, his shocking acts, and displaying just enough humour and self-deprecation and well-placed pathos to wheedle the reader’s tentative, fleeting forgiveness. And Nabokov, in constructing this nesting-doll of self-reflexive literary dishonesty, displays fiction’s insidious power to deceive, to pervert the certainty of meaning and of moral conclusions. If words can create such impressions and conceal the inherent nature of things in a novel about a grown man who loves a young girl below the age of consent, what even more troubling perversions can they exemplify and coax into being?

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Tower

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

On a hot, sunny morning in August 1966 in Austin, Texas, a young man climbed to the outdoor observation deck of the iconic tower of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas and began shooting at random people below with a sniper rifle. Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent former Marine sharpshooter with violent tendencies and a brain tumour that may have exacerbated such issues, killed 14 people (not including his mother and his wife, whom he had murdered the night before) and wounded 31 more before he was shot dead by police.

Were it to happen tomorrow, Whitman’s killing spree would shock but not surprise America and the world, occupy a news cycle or two and inflame long-simmering political and social debates (gun control, militarism, treatment of mental health, any number of potential identity-politics flashpoints). The trauma might overwhelm those closest to its epicentre, gutting the lives of victims and their loved ones and shaking the communities where they occur. But then, all too quickly, it would slide into the annals of the collective memory, its dead decorously mourned, its heroes propagandistically lionized, its applicable lessons summarily suffocated under memorializing stone. American public discourse has thoroughly ritualized mass shootings, conditioned reaction and response to them, and rendered them as a common feature of the social landscape. Mass shootings have become as American as Chevrolets, Coca-Cola, the crack of a baseball bat on a summer afternoon, and highways stretching to the horizon. They might not evoke a sense of pride (even the self-styled “patriots” of the pro-gun right have not such atrophied souls as that), but they have certainly achieved a perverse but stable level of tolerance and acceptance, with the social errors they point back to removed from cleansing reform at a protective distance.

But in August 1966, a troubled loner slaughtering his fellow citizens still held a seismic charge of disorienting unfamiliarity. Keith Maitland’s truly remarkable re-created document of the terrible events of a half-century before, Tower, brilliantly and artistically captures the hyper-real unreality of bearing witness in the eye of a shooting-spree storm by depicting that perspective in a form of hyper-real unreality: rotoscopic animation. Animating over filmed actors playing principal victims and players in the saga on the re-created stage of the mid-’60s University of Texas campus, Maitland’s striking method of telling the story of the shootings was partially driven by necessity. His indie documentary was made on a small budget raised through online crowdfunding and matching grants from UT alumni, and he would not be able to film extended re-enactment scenes on the campus itself, which could be reconstituted instead through animation. But necessity can still be the mother of invention, and Tower is nothing if not inventive.

Maitland mixes the re-enactments with re-enacted testimonial interviews, all animated in a warm, colourful, but unsettlingly jumpy visual style, vaguely reminiscent of fellow Austin filmmaking impresario Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, albeit less surreal in its intentional effect. Indeed, the animation greatly heightens the powerful affect of Maitland’s film, emphasizing the sturdy, understated Texan lyricism of the interview accounts, which convey the flow of events, emotions, and impressions in a unified tapestry of mood and tone and feeling. Aesthetically, tonally, and symbolically, Tower renders the tragic dimensions of the event – its uncertain, sweaty panic, the horror of its silences, the strange guilt it engenders in even the most selfless of participants – as a work of art. Maitland even allows himself flights of artistic fancy, as when a movingly-timed flashback account of the dayglow romance of wounded pregnant student Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman (both Tom and Claire’s unborn child were killed by the tower-top sniper, losses of a weight that is almost unfathomable) is portrayed amidst delicate Art Nouveau lattice frames.

As Tower approaches its conclusion, Maitland transitions from his animated “period” actors playing witnesses and participants to current and archived interview footage of the real people themselves. It’s a surprisingly moving choice, this belated alignment of Tower with more established documentary conventions. It reflects the director’s decision to make his film predominantly about those in the crosshairs of the sniper rather than about the sniper himself. Indeed, Whitman is only named in the denouement in an archival news report, and his troubles and motivations are not explored in any detail (much of the info given above is from other sources). Those wishing to learn more about the shooter may be disappointed, but Tower is a film about survival and endurance and spirit in the face of indiscriminate violence, and it denies its perpetrator the primary product of that violence: power over others.

Maitland overtly connects the 1966 UT shootings with subsequent massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and more, in what might be construed as an overreaching late thesis-statement lunge at topicality and relevance for a film immersed in the minutiae of a vanished era. But in its striking visual style, poised balance between animation and documentary footage, and ultimate embrace of human struggle in the midst of senseless terror (for what are mass shooters but terrorists, their empathy lost in a demented swirl of foggy causes and exploded grievances?), Tower is a measured, memorable antidote to the common results of mass shootings. To state it plainly, where contemporaneous media makes the killers into mythic figures, this film gives his victims and those who stood to defy and defeat him the mythic treatment. It comes by its topical relevance honestly, with hard, smart, well-felt effort and skill. It’s riveting and reflective, realist and poetic. Tower is a great film, not only a great documentary.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016; Directed by David Mackenzie)

West Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) rob banks. Not for the thrill (well, that’s part of the appeal for the wilder ex-con Tanner) and not without a very specific, well-planned, indeed ingenious strategy. They hit only small-town branches of a single regional bank chain, only early in the morning to avoid midday crowds of customers (which in West Texas are more likely than not to be concealed-carrying firearms that they are not shy of using against criminals), and take only ready cash from the teller drawers, not the ink-marked traceable bills in the safes. They carefully bury their getaway car in prepared pits on the remote family ranch after each robbery. They launder the money through a Native American-owned casino in Oklahoma, departing its premises with a check made out to the same bank they’ve just stolen from. They are after a specific amount of money, it seems, and with a specific purpose.

Tanner’s penchant for reckless criminal behaviour creates risky deviations from the plan, as unforeseen circumstances do likewise. But the Howard boys’ spree manifests as a targetted frontier-justice scheme to secure their family’s land and future against the grasping, unfeeling greed of the financial system that Hell or High Water understands to be reducing wide swaths of American society to poverty-stricken rubble. The Texas Rangers pursuing the Howards, the canny, soon-to-retire Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, fully immersed in the crusty, wry style of his later career) and his biracial partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), discuss this system of legal, controlled plunder while staking out a rural bank branch that they predict will be their quarry’s next target. The Latino/Indian Parker openly and cynically compares contemporary capitalism’s consolidation of independent citizens’ financial means and property ownership to the imperialistic westward sweep of manifest destiny that stripped land and the political rights derived from its holding from Mexican and Native peoples alike.

Though the Rangers aren’t yet aware of it, the brothers they are chasing are carrying on a valiant outlaw resistance to this unjust system that law enforcement is sworn to uphold. Hell or High Water casts Toby and Tanner as Red State Robin Hoods with the vast near-empty plains of West Texas as their Sherwood Forest, their principled stand inherently futile whether or not it is a success. If their motives are more self-interested and focused than the mythic greenwood hero, then the bruised romanticism of their quest for socioeconomic levelling is ambiguously stained at the edges with dried blood. The brash, violent Tanner (pure, barely-checked Ben Foster id personified), ruled by his desires and his impulses like the classic American archetype, calls himself “Lord of the Plains” in a flash of fatalistic hubris during his suicidal closing armed standoff with police, but it’s a term he appropriates from the Comanche, much as his white Americans forefathers appropriated the tribe’s land. A Comanche he plays poker against at the Oklahoma casino retorts that where once they were Lords of the Plains, now they are Lords of Nothing. The Howards rage against the dying of that particular light. They choose a righteous heist caper over a hillbilly elegy, a brilliant smash-and-grab against the money men rather than a parched final ride into the sunset.

Directed by David Mackenzie, a Scot, and written by former actor Taylor Sheridan (the script earned him his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in three years), Hell or High Water combines the latter’s insider’s ear for language, context and setting with the former’s more unfamiliar position, which allows for an outsider’s more trenchant critical eye. As often as Mackenzie allows his camera to aestheticize the stripped-down dusty towns and ruggedly vast vistas of West Texas, he also directs his moving-vehicle panoramas (those visual mainstays of the rural U.S. film) at billboards for debt consolidation and payday loans. The tentacles of cash-ravenous capitalism stretch into the remotest outposts in the landscape.

The very first shot of Hell or High Water further emphasizes this socio-political angle of American finance intertwined with imperialism: it pans past scrawled graffiti on a bank building’s blank white outer wall that reads, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailouts for people like us”. Toby and Tanner obtain just such a bailout for their family by force, but it merely exploits and piggybacks on the existing system rather than dealing it any sort of damaging blow. They con the thieves in three-piece suits, but in the end, the thieves benefit from the con as well. Totter though it might, capitalism’s flexible ability to incorporate and even incentivize resistance to it while enfolding the profits from that resistance beneath its larger aegis is testament to its stubborn and not wholly positive endurance. Hell or High Water‘s scenario does well to recognize this alongside its more direct critiques of the system.

Hell or High Water was released mere months before Donald Trump cynically, exploitatively mustered just enough of this well-nursed sense of white rural and suburban resentment of neoliberal globalist capital and perceived cultural elitism to put himself in the White House, whereupon he proceeded to sycophantically serve the monied interests he pledged to undermine (without forgetting, as he never does, to serve himself first) at the expense of the voters whose wishes he promised to fulfill. Throughout the presidential campaign as well as after in its disheartening aftermath, the debate has raged concerning this Trumpian appeal, about where exactly its core of economic anxiety ended and its xenophobic bigotry began. Hell or High Water gives voice to the former concern rather than the latter, although Hamilton’s politically-incorrect ribbing of Parker’s “mongrel race” suggests underlying prejudice, despite being played predominantly for laughs (and Hamilton’s jibes dry up in the face of Parker’s aforementioned withering assessment of imperialistic capitalism). The film is a realist fantasy of adapted cowboy-movie anti-finance rebellion whose thematic diagnoses of the contemporary American disease are more compelling than its brazen but limited caper-flick cure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Get Out

Get Out (2017; Directed by Jordan Peele)

A surprise box office smash and undeniable film-of-the-moment, Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. Written and directed by debutant auteur Jordan Peele (one half of the acclaimed sketch comedy duo Key & Peele), it’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. Get Out works on its audience as a tense and troubling (though not often really frightening, in pure jump-scare horror terms) isolated imagined scenario but also subtly, incrementally imparts how tense and troubling (and often frightening) the experience of living as an African-American can be, in any scenario.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for a few months, and with their relationship having reached the meeting-the-parents phase, she invites him to the family’s isolated country home for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Rose’s parents aren’t aware that he’s black, and, being white like their daughter, might not approve of him. Chris’ unease with the situation is fed by a phone chat with his buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who spins fanciful yarns about all the potential dangers lying in wait for a black man in a white person’s milieu (perhaps not so fanciful, given the chilling film-opening vignette of a black man being ambushed and kidnapped while strolling lost through an affluent suburb). That unease increases when a vehicular collision with a deer activates Chris’ childhood traumas, and builds to an eerie crescendo through their visit.

Despite an initially warm welcome to Casa Armitage, discomfort gradually consumes the observant Chris (he’s a photographer by profession, a highly conscious and symbolically-reflective choice by Peele). Awkward racial assumptions and behaviours both small and inadvertent as well as more major begin to add up. Rose’s neurosurgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) persistently calls Chris “My man”, points out his family connection to Jesse Owens’ showing-up of Hitler’s master-race posturing at the 1936 Olympics, and tells him he would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could have (as Rose predicted he would with a precision that wrings out a laugh but may suggest something more). Rose’s vaguely-threatening med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more inappropriate, bragging of his jujitsu training and telling Chris that with his “genetic makeup” he could be a formidable MMA fighter. Rose’s psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) doesn’t touch on anything racially-charged, but she does offer to hypnotize Chris in order to cure him of his smoking habit, and then does so on the night of his arrival, without his consent.

Outside of the Armitages themselves, Chris is also weirded out by their African-American servants, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who speak and behave in a very odd, old-fashioned (and, to Chris’ mind, non-black) manner. His paranoia waxing, a series of encounters at a garden party attended almost entirely by older, wealthy white people (friends of the dearly departed Grandpa Armitage, it’s claimed), who are inordinately interested in the colour of his skin and his physical attributes, finally drives Chris to insist on leaving. But it may be too late for him to extricate himself from a situation that will become far more sinister than a mere series of embarrassing social expressions of half-unconscious racial prejudice.

It’s impossible to properly discuss Peele’s ingenious embedding of the persisting fundamentals of African-American exploitation by the white supremacist order in his core horror concept without completely spoiling it. Consider yourself forewarned. But Get Out is so unsettling and challenging as it moves towards its expected twist because it deploys that twist’s active, leading clues alongside the hints of racism that Chris keenly feels throughout the awkward weekend retreat. Peele’s writing and direction and Kaluuya’s performance are all so keenly attuned to even the most minor of slights that this heightened attention disguised the film’s sleights (of hand). As Peele makes his audience, black but especially white, increasingly uncomfortable with a million pinpricks of racial prejudice, he also wratchets up the tension derived from the growing awareness that Chris may be in real danger of a worse fate than social mortification.

That fate, revealed following Peele’s exquisite depiction of the strained interpersonal interactions of those on both sides of the American racial divide, is a powerful punch of a metaphor for the enduring agony of African-Americans’ exploitation and marginalization by the nation’s generational white elites. As is revealed to a bound Chris by a television screen in an eeriely symmetrical wood-panelled basement den, the Armitages have maintained a secret family medical “process” for years known as Coagula, which allows privileged but aging whites to cheat death by transplanting their brains and therefore their consciousnesses into the captive host bodies of young black men (and occasionally women) chosen specifically for their physical prowess and robust health. The whole Armitage clan collaborates in these abductions: Rose acts as the attractive honeypot to lure them in, Missy hypnotizes them in order to control them with Jeremy ready to provide stiffer physical compulsion if required, and Dean swaps the white brain into the black body. The strange dinner party? A twisted form of auction, the attendees’ bizarre, racist assessments of Chris revealed to be simple, blunt probings of his potential as host-body merchandise.

Behind Get Out‘s body-horror-lite conceit lies a very clear message from Peele about African-Americans’ tragic history of corporeal oppression. Brought against their will to the Western Hemisphere to work for nothing to make white men piles of money, their bodies reduced to commodities no different than (and sometimes less valued than) livestock, furniture, or any other property, Africans in America were always defined above all in physical terms by their white masters, terrorizers, bosses, and superiors in privilege and wealth. Exploitation of the black body (once achieved in cotton fields, now carried on in high-gloss sporting arenas and low-wage jobs alike) has subsisted alongside its destruction: by the overseer’s whip, the lynch mob’s rope, the state trooper’s fire hoses and dogs, the city cop’s service weapon, by drugs, gun, and prison. For African-Americans, body horror is not a mere queasy, tittilating cinematic escape. It is a crushing daily reality, a discouraging way of life. Peele even has a zeitgeist-ready term for the space of dispiriting hopelessness this plight engenders: the sunken place, Missy’s name for the starfield-like empty space that Chris’ consciousness is banished to when she hypnotizes him. The concept of Coagula contains all of this and more, a disturbing genre-movie fantasy built out of a more disturbing real-world truth.

Get Out is flush with its own ideas and position-takings of race in America, but it isn’t difficult to notice that it’s a darkly inverted homage of sorts to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967 progressive Hollywood drama about an affluent young woman bringing her African-American boyfriend home to meet her liberal but still stubbornly bigoted parents. Whitford’s thick-rimmed black spectacles and white hair suggests that film’s patriarch Spencer Tracy, certainly. Williams, meanwhile, is the daughter of news anchor Brian Williams, a link to White America’s cultural elite that makes her casting seem like another peeled-back layer of the larger joke (Whitford, a veteran of neoliberal television monolith The West Wing, and arthouse mainstay Keener seem to be similar chosen for more than merely their thespianic skills). The clean-cut creative-class Chris may contain something of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, a best-and-brightest, twice-as-good black professional, but Peele provides him with a crucial link back to African-American culture in the form of his outspoken best friend Rod, a TSA agent who plays amateur detective amusingly in the film’s last act-and-a-half.

Beyond these more superficial intertextual suggestions and self-aware subversions, Get Out repurposes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner most strongly in terms of the insights and sense of perspective that its scenario grants its audience, which in the case of the half-century-old film was presumed first and foremost to be white. More precisely, although Get Out presents a certain perspective on the African-American experience of racism, unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner it never allows a white audience to feel a surge of comforting, positive fellow-feeling about this opening of vision.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concludes with Spencer Tracy’s grizzled newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (known professionally for his progressive social concern) reluctantly acknowledging his inborn prejudice and giving his belated blessing to his daughter’s union with Poitier’s Prentice, recognizing with sad resignation that he may not have the time left in a waning life to banish his racial assumptions entirely. Made more poignant by the production reality that this was Tracy’s final role, one that he fought bravely to complete before dying (which he did, 17 days after filming wrapped, as it happened), Matt’s pained realization coupled with his magnanimous acceptance of his daughter’s choice in love made Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not merely a major ideological focal point of liberal white attitudes towards anti-black racism, but a moving emotional expression of those attitudes as well.

But Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also carries a legacy of helping to define white racial animus against blacks as a personal foible, a mere fault of social manners and behaviour to be overcome, or at least politely contained and then disavowed. This is how Get Out depicts such racism in its first half, often with nearly-transcendent insightfulness and a sharp satirical eye. But when the pivot comes, it comes hard, and shifts the film’s ideological axis firmly into the more “woke” symbolic space of emphasizing racism in America as structural, institutional, and as emanating powerful, inescapable social conditioning into the cultural spheres of whites and blacks alike. African-American professor Otis Madison, quoted by colleague Cedric Robinson, said that “the purpose of racism is to control the behaviour of white people, not Black people”. Though Madison added with a fatalistic turn that for African-Americans, “guns and tanks are sufficient”, Peele understands the awareness of racism as seeding not merely black-white interactions but discourse within each segregated community as well.

Chris is given a relatively happy ending, despite a stomach-churning tease of his potential arrest for the murder of the Armitages effected during his desperate escape. Although the flashing squad-car lights belong to TSA agent Rod and represent Chris’ rescue, they might just as easily (and, in an earlier, darker cut of the film, in fact did) belong to white police bringing the unjust arm of the law down across his chest, cruelly punishing him for achieving his own release from bondage and mind-slavery. But Chris’ escape, even alongside the reduction of Coagula, offers no comfort. Racism is greater and more terrible than one imagined scenario. Hate wins even in violent defeat, as Rose’s creepy smile as he strangles her in anger makes Chris realize, at the last.

Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in American and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. Before he gets out, Chris’ body was to have been the host for the mind of Jim Hudson (the always indispensible Stephen Root), a blind art dealer who admires Chris’ photographs (at least as they are painstakingly described to him by an assistant) and covets the younger man’s “eye”. Quite literally claiming not to “see colour”, Hudson doesn’t get to quite literally see through Chris’ eyes. I would argue that, despite Get Out‘s complex depiction of fraught social racism, we don’t get to really see through Chris’ eyes either. “We” in this case is white people watching the film, always already including myself, whatever dubious claims to laudable progressive attitudes I like to entertain and whose every crack and fissure of doubt this film mercilessly probes and enlarges.

Perhaps African-Americans watching the film can see through the protagonist’s eyes, and maybe Get Out is compelling, resonant, or painful for them in ways that white people, like myself, cannot ever really understand. Perhaps that assumption is another form of prejudice. Fundamentally, we cannot know what another (an other) sees, especially across the tremendous, fantastic wall that is the American racial divide. Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead. It’s a form of cold comfort, maybe, but recognizing and embracing that truth, and the truth of racism’s historical atrocities and contemporary conditions alike, does bring us closer to living with it, if never managing to overcome or contain it. Or to escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews