October 4, 2019 | Arts and Culture
burning hot-take roundtable!
five writers stir controversy on the latest in film, music, and…podcasts
Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster
Content Warning: Sexual assault
Alright, we’re gonna do it: We’re gonna talk about some problems with Ari Aster’s summer horror hit, Midsommar. Be warned, spoilers await.
On the whole, I find Aster’s commitment to exposing the subtle, microaggressive behaviors of the everyday male a refreshing project; rarely has assholery in cinema looked so realistically… mundane. The last thing the world needs is more dudes like Christian (Jack Reynor). The accuracy of this portrayal, along with Florence Pugh’s magnificent performance as Dani, his much-abused partner, have helped Midsommar gain traction as a favorite of feminist audiences and grief sufferers alike. Again, to be clear: I think this is awesome. Good on Aster for creating a piece of art that serves as sanctuary and catharsis for so many people. Well done.
That said, Aster struggles with ending his films, and I don’t really think Midsommar is any better at it than his last effort, Hereditary. Here’s the deal: I think the details of Midsommar work to undo the catharsis of its final moments. Christian’s obviously an abusive jerk, it’s true, but the tipping point for Dani appears to be when she finds him engaged in weird cult sex with a bunch of naked Swedes. There’s a glaring issue here; namely, Christian has been drugged and more or less forced into said weird cult sex on threat of death, which makes him, in simple terms, a rape victim. We also shouldn’t forget that Dani’s moment of catharsis comes at the behest of a bunch of obviously sadistic cultists, one of whom is obviously trying to get in her pants. This complicates Christian’s death. Can we really be empowered by the murder of a rape victim in concert with all of his rapists? I don’t know; call me crazy, but I would argue that Aster can’t deliver on his own pretensions of “wokeness.” Look, as well, to his blatant ableism and ageism (in the grand tradition of exploitative horror films, Aster’s camera lingers, fascinated, on the bodies of the elderly and disabled, and it’s a bad look every time), let’s not forget the fact that, in interviews, Aster has cited his own breakup with a female partner as the impetus for the film’s creation. Flipping those gender roles looks a little slimy on his part.
By all means, enjoy the barn-burning, though. I’m as happy as anyone to watch that piece of shit get sewn into a bear costume and lit on fire.
It: Chapter Two, directed by Andy Muschietti
I never thought I would see a fifty-foot clown with spider legs roasted to death. Not by fire, mind you; I mean by words, disses, insults made by grown men and women. They point at this oddly thin-skinned spider-clown (Spider-Verse 2, anyone?) and scream, “Clown! Clown!” until he shrivels into Baby-Spider-Clown and is promptly murdered. Yes, It: Chapter 2’s ambitious narrative concludes with Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a shape-shifting alien force capable of nearly omnipotent power, essentially losing the burn battle to a bunch of nervy adults (to be fair, they did have Bill Hader). I, for one, think Pennywise kind of deserved it. His performance anxiety upon being called the literal name of his assumed form was not only the most (unintentionally) hilarious thing I’ve seen within the past year, it was essentially summative of It: Chapter 2: a movie that lacked a certain kind of confidence, both in its audience and itself, to ace the landing. This sequel could have been an incredibly poetic and terrifying look into childhood trauma and grief; instead, like Pennywise, it made me laugh.
For while Stephen King’s intentions and ideas from the original novel would seem to provide a solid foundation, the film’s ultimate failure is rooted in its story structure. Taking place 27 years after the first film, much of Chapter 2’s pre-release hype centered around the adult actors who would step into the (now slightly enlarged) shoes of their younger counterparts. But this jump forward proved problematic. The largely successful prequel had succeeded on the back of its evocative, nostalgic imagery and the winning performances of its child-actors; it was less a horror film than an amplified coming-of-age narrative, both easy to interpret and fun to watch. On the other hand, something about those childhood fears placed within an adult context makes its sequel tougher to engage with— largely because the film insists on comparing the protagonists’ younger selves every five seconds, often with no agenda besides reminding us that being an adult is hard, man. Flashback after flashback, fright after fright, all undercut with random jokes that obliterate any sense of seriousness…why couldn’t the film show the same growth as its characters, and let them conquer different fears than they did at the conclusion of the first film?
In fact, the film shares most of its ills with Marvel’s interconnected Cinematic Universe, where no story is strong enough to stand alone. Aside from following the same general structure as its predecessor (only now showing adults thinking really hard about things we’ve seen already), the humor and constant visual references to the previous installment are so rickety, you’re essentially re-watching the first movie within the second. That’s a telltale sign of filmmakers too lazy to make you understand what they’re going for. By the film’s end, we’ve seen so many of the same variations on the same theme, the same takeaway, the same arc, that Pennywise— the very manifestation of fear itself— has been nullified to little more than a cartoon. In other words, a clown.
“Love Bombing,” episode 153 of The Magnus Archives, a horror anthology podcast
The arc of “Love Bombing” is a fairly basic one. A 41-year-old comedian, Barbara, undergoes a midlife crisis and attends a meditation class, receiving a radical burst of acceptance and affirmation from her classmates. She gets hooked on this sense of community until she’s offered an all-expenses-paid “spiritual retreat”—secretly, a dupe to get her to a cult compound. Even then, however, our protagonist is unfazed. Barbara feels relatively at peace with the terrifying occurrences that begin to populate the Cult of the Divine Chain. Again, pretty basic.
As horror often relies on surprise, I’ll avoid too many spoilers, but in cult narratives there are really only so many directions to go. An unexplained occurrence, some sort of ritual begins, the cult becomes much more intense, and then members start disappearing. I haven’t yet seen Midsommar, but the promotional materials lead me to believe these are fairly stock plot points. It’s not revealing too much to say that when Barbara finally reveals the terrible thing that lies in the cult’s inner sanctum it’s a disappointment. Sure, it’s horrific and brutal, but, in all honesty, I’ve seen…or rather, heard it before. Since the horror fiction podcast niche is fairly tight-knit, if you’ve listened to Magnus, you may be familiar with The Orpheus Protocol, and the plot of “Love Bombing” is almost a scene-for-scene replica of not one but two Orpheus cult arcs.
First-person horror presents something of a problem, at least as far as generating suspense is concerned. The people narrating encounters with the occult have either escaped its clutches or given it a terrible reason to let them live. In this world of victims and monsters, “Love Bombing” interjects a fascinating middle ground. Barbara didn’t find her worst fear or darkest desire but instead watched as the two blurred together. The horror isn’t in what she saw or did, but how she felt, how happy she was in a literally horrifying situation. That’s why I can forgive a lackluster climax and tired premise, because I don’t think they’re actually the point.
Our childhood teachers told us we couldn’t trust our peers: just say no to peer pressure, trust adults instead. Then, the modern college coming-of-age seems to teach us that adults just don’t get it, they’re relics of a bygone era, only your peers will truly accept you. “Love Bombing” takes both of these ideas one step further: you’ll always find someone to support you, but how can you trust yourself to be worth supporting? The dryness of the story may in part result from the fact that Barbara’s path ends in the exact same place it began: regret. She’s condemned her past choices; now she’s just condemning newer ones. She regards her time in the cult with the same disdain as her comedy career, the banality of which yields terrifying insight: the fear inherent in this piece is not that she made the wrong choice but that she couldn’t tell. Whereas most Magnus episodes and, it seems, most horror stories deal with urgent questions of what to do when you encounter a monster or what to do when you become one, “Love Bombing” asks how can you live not knowing whether you’re a monster or not?
I don’t know how necessary a message like this is in 2019. In our era of climate and human rights crises, such paralysis and self-doubt may be dangerously debilitating. So I’m not going to tell you that listening to “Love Bombing” or any Magnus episode will make you a better person. But if you want to feel the deep terror that you cannot trust anyone around you, least of all yourself? Happy October.
P.S. Should an intrepid reader be inspired by this to listen to Magnus, I recommend starting at the beginning, as there is an overarching plot to the anthology.
Anak Ko by Jay Som
2019 has been the year that dream pop strikes back: Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell has been at the center of the cultural zeitgeist for over a month, American Football’s third full album merged the band’s midwest emo roots with a floating, drifting sound, and Jay Som’s recent album Anak Ko has finally seen her perfect the genre. The artist, whose real name is Melina Duterte, has been working in the genre for a few years, making the best of what some call “bedroom pop.” Hazy and ethereal while still smuggling a slight rock edge, her past two albums have emphasized a distinctly noisy atmosphere. Her music has always been summer-y, often feeling like a sticky July night while fireflies buzz all around. On Anak Ko, Duterte once again manages to turn summer into sound, but this time, she focuses on the quiet moments of the season, opening up to the kind of all-encompassing pink sunset you see on a long drive—the kind you might even see on the album’s cover.
Anak Ko is deliberately quieter than Jay Som’s past work, interested in how silence might add to the music. The title track perhaps shows this best— slow and meandering, finally settling into a two-minute instrumental soundscape, the song boasts very few lyrics save for one verse and an outro that softly hums a robotic, “Somewhere I can build, somewhere I can build it.” The music is gentle, warm, and—unlike her low fidelity roots—expertly lush.
It would be incredibly easy to write this album off; for all its merits, Anak Ko still has the potential to sound boring or “like everything else being made these days.” And in a sense, I think these criticisms hold some validity. This is not the most innovative album I’ve ever heard, and it may not even be my favorite dream pop of the year (Hatchie’s Keepsake, which also came out this summer, owns my heart). But Anak Ko has a vibe you simply cannot deny. Right now, it’s 53 degrees out and cloudy. As I love autumn but mourn summer, Jay Som has found a way to let the sun come in through the cracks of the window blinds.
Autumn Sonata, directed by Ingmar Bergman
The basic scenario here is framed with sexism, contrasting the emotional hysterics of two women with a neutral, observant (Berg)man-figure. That basic scenario is, also, body-throttling, thunderous, and dumb fucking powerful: Absentee, celebrity mom waltzes back into the life of barely-hanging-on daughter and gets a face full of, “you fucked me up.” If you’ve ever been so self-involved as to idly pick up a festering, rotting relationship and pretend it’s a happy hamburger (or, y’know, a-okay), this movie sees you, and it does not like you. After a semester wherein my intense productivity permanently alienated at least a few friends (we’re still pals, right, post- readers?), I could feel my cells divide while watching this movie. Get wrecked, bitch—essentially.
It’s fucked, but simply by existing, we affect the lives we orbit; you don’t have to be a monster to leave behind a trail of human destruction, but you might as well be if you can’t see the debris clinging to your shoes. Drama, in general, doesn’t function off that kind of unawareness, so it’s cool to see that a film can, especially a Bergman film—generally the height of closed-off naval gazing. There’s still some of that here, too—nobody has a dialogue that couldn’t be better handed out and distributed to high-schoolers as a practice monologue. Yet, all the direct-to-camera pontificating that constitutes Bergman’s basic mode here feels uncharacteristically vulnerable, the inward eye implicated rather than idealized. In general, I’d refrain from presupposing that sort of auto-critique from Bergman. Dude was an asshole who spent WW2 chilling with the Nazis and emerged with the gumption to stroke his brow over man’s “little cruelties.” But damn, this shit fucking plays like auto-critique, man! (Even though, again, the Bergman stand-in emerges squeaky clean with suds on his fingers…)
So, this is my new favorite Bergman. First I’ve loved, anyway. Helps that the zoom-heavy, wood-paneled Architectural Digest formal mode is the one Woody Allen cribbed for Interiors and Hannah and Her Sisters. Still piles in an extra ladle or two of expositional misery (Do we really need Mom to have both cheated on Dad and vicariously created baby sister’s paraplegia/speech impediment? Did Bergman genuinely believe that, without both, a case couldn’t be mounted against her neglect or—ahem—was he filling out a 90-minute runtime?).
Anyway, I know most of you are unburdened young adults. But if you somehow have a daughter at home, please call her.