Monday, April 22, 2019

Belated Thoughts on "Us", "Shazam", and the State of Art Criticism

Two of the most successful flicks of the year, and one of the most popular. Is either a masterpiece? Should white liberal critics even try to review films by minorities?

Jordan Peele and the Soft Bigotry of Lowered Expectations

The following contains brief spoilers for Us, mostly in the third and fourth paragraph, so if for some reason you’e yet to see it and are waiting on the home release, you may want to bookmark this page and come back later.

As more and more curious people come out of the woodwork to understand the swollen hype around Us, which shockingly grabbed the best opening weekend gross for an original, non-animated film since Avatar, Jordan Peele’s sophomore film will probably gain a reputation as a cinematic personality test, splitting viewers into more creative/liberal thinkers and logical/conservative ones. For the latter party, the mental exertion of dwelling on the premise for more than 30 seconds will both hurt their brains and dilute whatever emotional response the movie momentarily wrung from them. “Why did the doppelgangers wait until the present day to attack their surface-world counterparts?” these critics will ask. “Why did the rules that restrained them for so long arbitrarily cease to function, and why is the central family able to exploit those rules for survival anyway? Nothing that happens has a logical reason for happening in the time or manner it does, and only happens so that there can be a movie.”

The liberal party of thought, in contrast, will undoubtedly chastise the “nitpickers” for fixating on plot holes to an unfair extent, missing the dense forest of political themes and symbols for the trees of how it all works. “It’s all a metaphor, and should be treated as such,” they will argue. “Focusing on the mechanics of how the doppelgangers move or reproduce or survive ignores the deeper, more crucial subtext of the movie, which is about disenfranchised or forgotten people living in the shadows. Also, Jordan Peele is producing the reboot of The Twilight Zone, and since nobody raises the feasibility of a gremlin terrorizing William Shatner on the wing of a plane, Us deserves the same suspension of disbelief. Also, you raved about Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Mr. Author, and that movie literally makes no sense, so you’re a hypocrite.”

Nothing would bring me more pleasure than to take Us as an extended Twilight Zone episode and grapple with its ideas separate from the linear home invasion plot. At times the movie seems to court an allegorical reading, as in the mind-bogglingly hokey declaration by Lupita Nyongo’s double: “We’re Americans.” Get it? Because Us = U.S. I’m certain almost nobody else noticed this connection. As fleeting broadcasts and exposition dumps peel back the curtain on a heavily coordinated, nationwide clone uprising, Us half-heartedly masquerades as a class warfare fable, designed more to jog the moral noggin than to move logically from point A to point B.

Nonetheless, Us differs significantly in practice from mother!, one of my favorite films. Whereas the latter worked as a Kierkegaardian satire staged in a malleable, figurative environment, with some Lynch and Polanski elements thrown in to distort reality even further, Us is definitively not an allegory, and so it has the added burden of maintaining some internal consistency. Most of Us’ narrative shortcomings could be alleviated by merely leaving the doppelgangers’ origins open to interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with choosing Pure Evil or Magic as the threat to be overcome; whatever deviation from our material world is necessary, audiences will generally allow it if the storyteller announces it up front. Peele sets up his grand reveal in a multitude of places: text drawing attention to a network of underground tunnels, seemingly throwaway dialogue about government mind control, a creepy zoom shot of caged rabbits all along a wall. When he does at last unveil the truth, though, I couldn’t help but wish he hadn’t. I didn’t need a real-world, rational explanation for the origins of the tethered, but since the author saw fit to provide one, such is the lens by which many will reasonably judge, and thereby reject, his text.

With the exception of its opening flashback to a stormy night in Santa Cruz, freed of any overbearing music or editing tricks, Us never particularly inspires fear, nor does it earn its comedic beats as well as Get Out, which kept the horror and the humorous knuckling of liberals mostly separate yet equal, so to speak. Left with a defective story occasionally elevated by inspired string sections, some cool shots, and a decent dual performance by Lupita N’yongo, the average horror fan will disassociate from the plot holes of Us by playing spot-the-film-reference (There’s Funny Games! And there’s the ’78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers!) and later gawk at the onslaught of utterly shameless rave reviews penned by professional journalists.

Has another movie’s point more expertly eluded its target audience than that of Get Out? A rare film from mainline Hollywood to reach across the partisan divide, Peele’s directorial debut spoke to certain pockets of conservatism by relentlessly taking the piss out of guilt-ridden white liberals. An Obama-era update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Get Out supplants the disapproving and prejudiced family of the Sydney Poitiet original with a no less bigoted progressive cabal, who aggressively ingratiate themselves to the protagonist and flaunt their racial wokeness. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could,” Mr. Armitage confides to his daughter’s black boyfriend, Chris, with no pretext whatsoever. “Best president in my lifetime, hands down.” Later in the film, the visiting friends of the Armitages vocally appraise the interracial couple and make such cringeworthy, overcompensating remarks as, “Black is in fashion.” Spoiler alert for anyone who turns a blind eye to the Democrat Party’s actual perception of black Americans: all this patronizing special treatment belies a misconceived ploy to lower Chris’ guard, lulling him into a false sense of value and belonging before his liberal benefactors surgically hijack his superior black body for their own gain. Get Out, whether by accident or by design, was the ultimate rebuke to our mainstream media’s insidious language of white-knighting and two-faced racial paternalism.

I don’t mean to say that leftists can’t enjoy or write highly of Jordan Peele’s films, but I do wish that they’d attempt so with some modicum of self-awareness. Notice Richard Brody’s review featured in The New Yorker, extolling the film as a “colossal cinematic achievement” and “work of directorial virtuosity” because, among other things, “Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world.” In other words, sometimes (hardly enough to note) the director positions the camera to put viewers in the shoes of the hunter, for reasons of tension. Such technique is old hat for horror aficionados. Brody goes on to argue, “This world-building has a stark thematic simplicity that both belies and inspires immense complexity,” but even he has trouble abiding by his own moratorium on applying “jigsaw-fit, quasi-academic interpretation” to Us. “The results [of receiving Peele’s inner world],” he concludes, “Are intrinsically political, even revolutionary.”

The hyperbole continues with the beltway’s haste to coronate Peele a perfectionist alike to Kubrick or “this generation’s Hitchcock”, two films into a career that, if he were closely following Hitchcock’s output, would have 50 more movies to assert his mettle. Peele has more in common with a mischievous satirist and remixer like Wes Craven than with the master of suspense, and I’m not even that partial to Hitch after chowing down half his filmography. Is it responsible or just to hold Peele to a lower standard as a genre director, merely as reparations for decades of horror treating people of his pigmentation as expendable? Was Obama the best president of my lifetime, hands down?

If you take a film or gender class at university now, you may hear that Alfred Hitchcock was a Bad Person because he allegedly harassed Tippi Hedren, because he liked to cast actresses he found sexually attractive, or because Marnie is super Problematic. All that may or may not be the case, but at least Hitchcock never shoehorned ominous-sounding, yet largely tangential Bible quotes into his lowbrow shock films—full of murder, obsession, and men on the run—in order to goad gullible or self-effacing people into thinking they’re enjoying something deep and smart.

This Is Not a CW Original Show

Shazam! left such a feeble impression on my memory that I can’t guarantee the accuracy of any detail recounted here, but I’m tempted to say that it features the first on-screen depiction of a completely secular prayer. The patriarch of the central foster home reaches his palm face-down across the dinner table and instructs the others to follow suit. Everybody at the table stacks hands with the father, as if in a team huddle, and he proceeds to lead them in this act of “prayer”. “Thank you for this food, thank you for this house, thank you for this family,” he says to nobody in particular. Then they split hands and eat, the recipient of their thanks never addressed by name or consolidated with so much as an “Amen.”

Having been raised in a religious household that occasionally observed traditional Christian prayer at the dinner table, I couldn’t understand this ritual, and the strangeness of it continues to bother me while writing this. If anybody who worked on the set of the movie, or anyone who identifies as a member of the “Spiritual” religion, can tell me what the heck was happening in these scenes, I will append the explanation to this review for the benefit of paying filmgoers likewise nagged by the question.

Why focus so much on an aspect that will fly right over most superhero fans’ heads? For me at least, the noncommittal football prayer sequences and confusion they entailed were the most fascinating takeaway from Shazam!, which is perhaps the closest that DC has gotten to making a Marvel Cinematic Universe product: visually flat, predictable, and challenged for good humor. The major comp for entertainment writers will be Penny Marshall’s Big, which Shazam! briefly and lazily references, but the new film reminds us yet again that the 1980s were a much brasher and more offensive—ergo, more interesting—time for comedy than the hamstrung, overly sensitive 21st century. Who could forget the scene in Big where the na├»ve boy trapped in Tom Hanks’ body ushers a woman into his apartment for “a sleepover”, on one condition: “I get to be on top!” One of the funnier scenes in Shazam! follows the main foster kids’ endeavor to grab beer from a gas station, taking advantage of hero Billy Batson’s newfound height and manly man looks. When the boys crack open a cold one outside, we get to laugh at their subverted expectations.

On the whole, though, the movie steers clear of the humorous travails of an inexperienced kid having to grapple with the responsibilities of adulthood. Billy is a superhero. Punching the bad guy harder than the bad guy punches him is about as adult as he can get. For most of its runtime, Shazam! is weightless entertainment wherein nobody with a name gets physically or emotionally hurt, and when they do, we only know because they talk about the incident afterwards. Several YouTube-based critics I watch have admonished parents over the “intensity” of scenes involving the interchangeable, bland CG ogres who are supposed to represent the seven deadly sins. Their concern rubs me as ironic, since director David F. Sandberg, a man with a background in horror, has shepherded the least horror-inflected movie in the DC canon.

Between Shazam!, Justice League, and Aquaman (which I nonetheless loved as unadulterated IMAX spectacle), Warner Bros. has neutered a franchise that used to offer an eclectic, director-sculpted alternative to Disney-Marvel, clumsily broaching real-world topics like immigration, eugenics, or the Gospel. Even the foster household angle in Shazam! feels like second pickings after Instant Family, a much funnier, edgier, more holistic, and more heartfelt precis of the system that too few people saw.

I have more issues with the movie, but most of them were already covered by Kyle Smith at National Review, so I won’t waste anybody’s time repackaging them.

Author’s note: The Shazam! copy originally included the language “traditional Judeo-Christian prayer at the dinner table”, which is not at all something I would write today. As in many protestant American families, my childhood was molded by some Judeo-Christian beliefs, but the Judeo-Christianity never manifested in prayer, and it pains me to have flippantly asserted it did.

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