Tag Archives: Academy Awards

The Horror of “Get Out”

23 Feb

A week away from the Oscars means a rumination on a nominated movie is a great idea. A good friend and writing mentor, Jeff Meyers, has a take on “Get Out” I find extremely thought provoking and fascinating, so much so I asked him to let me post his ideas here. Whether you liked the movie or not (I realize as much as it invigorates many of us it befuddles others) , I think you will find his essay worthy of consideration and discussion.

It’s no secret that, historically, horror has been regarded as junk entertainment, a genre that relies on cheap thrills and lurid subject matter to draw audiences. And while critics have been willing to extoll the technical and cinematic achievements of the genre, they typically overlook the thematic, intellectual, and emotional resonance of the genre.

The well-deserved nomination of Get Out for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award is only the sixth time a horror film has been considered for such an honor. The first, 1973’s The Exorcist came 45 years after the Oscars were first introduced. Since then, only The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, Pan’s Labyrinth (Best Foreign Language Oscar) and Silence Of The Lambs (the only one to win… and regarded, by some, to be a thriller rather than horror), have been given such regard. Classics like King Kong, Bride Of Frankenstein, Psycho, Alien and The Shining were all, notably, overlooked.

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This dismissal of horror as a serious-minded expression of cinematic art and opinion has such a long and pervasive history that even some its own practitioners feel a need to distance themselves from the label, lest they be devalued as artists. 

In the introduction to The Walking Dead graphic novel, creator Robert Kirkman insisted that his goal was not to scare anyone, and that he wasn’t writing horror but rather “social commentary and character.” Writer-director Jordan Peele asserted that Get Out is not a horror film but rather a “social thriller.” 

With all due respect, Kirkman and Peele are wrong. While genre labels are often fluid and inexact, there is little doubt that a graphic novel that involves hordes of flesh-eating zombies, and a movie about a mad scientist that cuts out the brains of his victims in order to replace them with someone else’s brain qualify as horror. The rejection of the label is undoubtedly the result of those long standing dismissals of the genre. 

Nevertheless, horror’s artistic pedigree is well-established in literature. The works of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shirley Jackson, Mary Shelley, Henry James, and others are considered true classics that confront matters of ethics and morality, politics and philosophy with the same force and vitality as the rest of the literary canon. 

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Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”

To confront the reasons why horror films are so often dismissed it may be prudent to first consider why so many people have such a visceral aversion to the genre. Though gore and violence may occasionally be cited as a reason, what often becomes the deal-breaker for filmgoers is that they don’t like the way horror films make them feel. Ie. They don’t like to be scared. 

And this reaction is completely understandable. In fact, as far as genre labels go, only horror uses an emotion to define itself. The genre describes the very feeling it intends to evoke. But this is also part of the underlying reason why the genre should be held in higher regard. 

When an audience member goes to see a comedy or an action-adventure or even most dramas there is an unspoken social contract that no matter what happens during the film, the story will ultimately deliver a resolution, and the audience will experience catharsis. There may be hardships and dangers along the way, but ultimately justice, victory, true romance, or personal growth will be achieved. 

Of course, not all films deliver a reassuring outcome–and some of the best throw the audience a curveball–but by and large, your average film-goer expects to leave the theater feeling that all is right in the world.

Horror films offer no such guarantee of safety. They do not blanch in the face of evil. And by their very nature rely on our discomfort to generate fear or anxiety. The underlying supposition of the horror film is that all is not right in the world. 

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the finale of “Rosemary’s Baby”

So, is it any wonder that so many filmgoers are reluctant to embrace the genre? 

But horror also has the ability to provoke feelings of anger, empathy, disappointment or injustice that resonate more deeply than simple startles or scares. In fact, those darker more uncomfortable emotions become a vital part of genre’s thematic power. 

Horror, through its tropes, instills in us a sense of humility, the recognition that we are flawed, fragile, sinful and vulnerable beings in an infinitely dangerous universe. It ruthlessly reminds us that we are not the indomitable species we think we are, that despite all our achievements we are, to something somewhere, just another meal, womb, or body to possess. Because horror relies on the inherent uncertainty of life and the dark projections of both the conscious and unconscious mind, it is ripe to examine humanity’s deepest fears and doubts. Horror is not expected to be respectable, and so it can confront matters of social justice and ethical responsibility in ways other genres of film would fail to be convincing. And it can attract audiences that might otherwise avoid those topics. 

Jordan Peele’s Get Out is proof positive of horror’s unique and vital power to address serious thematic issues… and is, in my estimation, the nominated film most deserving to win. 

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A devious critique of liberal racism disguised as a horror-thriller, it is, essentially, a dark mash-up of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Much has been written of the film’s savvy mix of social messaging, creepy genre thrills and racial satire, but what is equally impressive is the number of meaty issues it manages to reference: Mixed race relationships, suburban racism, police brutality, eugenics, the slave trade, and even Hollywood’s treatment of minority characters all come under review. 

What is truly remarkable about Get Out is that it is less about race than it is about racism. Peele rejects the role Hollywood often bestows upon black filmmakers—as artistic ambassadors of the black-American experience—and instead looks at what scares black Americans today. He has both inverted and subverted normal horror film conventions in ways that are wickedly smart. For instance, notice how his plot flips the script on the all-too familiar white woman in inner-city peril fantasy. Instead, he strands a black man in an affluent (and politely hostile) white community. And do we need to spell out the symbolic underpinnings of the silver spoon Rose’s mom uses to subdue her victims? Or the ‘cotton’ that Chris literally picks to save his life? 

Get out Cotton

While several articles could be dedicated to Get Out’s confrontation of liberal racism and social microagressions, the genius of Peele’s horror film is best summed up by the choices he makes for his protagonist and how enriched with metaphor they are. In particular, it’s interesting to look at Peele’s decision to cast his protagonist as a respected photographer and how that single, seemingly simple choice allowed him to masterfully exploit his thematic conceits.

Consider the way we first meet Chris, the film’s protagonist. The photographs on his apartment walls are raw and spontaneous—candid moments of urban street life—the kind of work show that Chris is an artist attuned to his surroundings, as he looks for that perfect shot. In other words, he is a trained observer, not only as a black man in a white man’s world but also by profession. This skill will prove vital to the plot. 

 

A creature of habit, Chris brings his camera to Rose’s house, and it’s through his camera lens that he first spots the another young black man, a party guest who seems both familiar and oddly out of place. At first, Chris is excited to find someone he can bond with. But when he snaps a picture, the flash causes the man’s nose to bleed. He charges at Chris, screaming, “Get out!” and as we will later learn, it is a warning rather than a threat. 

Now consider the symbolic power of Chris’s camera— which quite literally exposes the truth of Rose’s family’s victims —and how cellphone cameras have become the proof of longstanding complaints (often dismissed by white America) that African-Americans are being racially profiled, unjustly brutalized and even killed by law enforcement. Chris’ camera, just like the cellphones that filmed, say, the murder of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, has the ability to r eveal the truth. Peele is a smart enough writer to realize both the plot utility and thematic depth of such a character choice and exploits it to its fullest potential. 

Get Out Camera

It is ironic, then, that Jim Hudson, the blind white man who has bid to own Chris’ body (in a creepy slave-style auction that’s disguised as a game of bingo) cares nothing of Chris’ black skin. He only wants his eyes– not just the ability to see, but to ‘see’ life as Chris-the-artist does. This is the very definition—and a gross perversion—of cultural appropriation. Hudson assumes that he can step into Chris’ body and, absent all the things Chris has experienced as a black man, see the world with new eyes. Hudson’s desire also lays bare the sins of white American history. Whether it be the slave trade, the Tuskegee experiments, or our current for-profit prison system, whites continue to exert ownership over black bodies with little consideration for the people they belong to. 

By choosing the horror genre, Peele has selected a vehicle that gives him the freedom to present his ideas without accusations of being pedantic or on-the-nose. While a dramatic treatment of the same material could work, the odds are against it successfully reaching a wide and diverse audience. The calculated chills of horror offer us the promise of entertainment first, messaging second. 

One final point about Get Out … and its ending. After escaping the Armitages’ nefarious plans and killing each member of Rose’s family, Chris flees from his murderous girlfriend only to be intercepted by a car with flashing lights. It is here that the mainly white audience at Get Out’s Sundance premiere let loose an audible groan. They could see where things were headed, what videos on the Internet and a history of systemic racism had taught them to expect: Rose would plead to the police officers that Chris—a black man– had attacked her defenseless white, up-standing suburban family in a fit of rage, and our hero would either be gunned down or imprisoned, yet another black man consumed by American racism. 

Ending Get out

And even then, Peele surprises us, allowing his black hero to walk away victorious. The police car turns out to be the work vehicle of his wise-cracking best friend Rod, a TSA agent.  The audience’s laughter during the final scene was as much about Peele’s gift for comedy, as it was an expression of relief: for once, a horror film was less horrible than the world outside the theater. 

Get Out’s ending is a both a distillation and illustration of the true power of the horror film–to disturb an audience in such a way that they recognize the unsettling issues that fuel the film’s subtext. 

Great horror films refuse to let the audience off the hook, they tell us that no one is safe and that a happy ending is not guaranteed. Though we have been rooting for Chris to escape the clutches of the evil racists (that sort of look just like us… but surely couldn’t be us), horror suggests that he might not make it after all. And this is why the best examples of the genre resonate so deeply. They challenge us to see the fragility of civilization and the hollowness of moral certainty. Horror demands that we appreciate that acts of evil and injustice are a permanent, ineradicable aspects of our world. And maybe, if the film’s message disturbs us deeply enough, we can begin the slow process of change.

For the horror writer, Get Out offers a very clear lesson in craft–and most especially the power of creating unity between story choices and thematic subtext. But beyond those mechanics, it’s important to remember that the best horror is not just about ghosts or zombies or evil cults or mad brain-swapping scientists. Good horror recognize that we are the zombies that mindlessly devour. We are the monsters who prey upon women. We are the race that claims ownership of black lives. Consumerism is the monster. Sexism is the monster. Racism is the monster. Humanity is the monster.

                                                                                                           Jeff Meyers

A Movie for the Political Season Vol. II

7 Oct

Spellbound, a 2002 documentary about kids competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, is hands down one of the most entertaining movies ever made. You may not think a movie on this topic could ever be enjoyable but damn! Alternately hilarious, joyous, spellbinding (had to go there) and heartbreaking, the second half of the movie also becomes as riveting and suspenseful as The Fugitive or Die Hard. 

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Beautiful in its narrative simplicity, the first half of Spellbound introduces us to eight different teens. We meet each contestant, one after the other, in short vignettes. We find out about their families, their interests, their various quirks. Then all arrive at the National Spelling Bee and, given the wonderful emotional work done by the filmmakers in the first half, the spelling bee itself is an absolute nail biter. When I saw it in the theatre, people were audibly reacting in the second half as if it was the original screening of Rocky. As Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post, “This just might be the most action-packed suspense thriller of the summer.” 

Please don’t let the title of my post put you off. Spellbound is not an outwardly political movie. It truly is wildly entertaining and is one of my personal favorite movies of all time. (I’ve seen it many, many times, it is that much fun to watch.) Yet given everything that is currently going on in our country — and world —  Spellbound, without trying to do so, has a subtle yet very powerful message, much more so than when it was released almost 15 years ago. Given the broad range of families depicted in the movie, Spellbound will make anyone who watches it, whatever their own background and political belief, proud to be an American. At the same time, it might challenge some beliefs on what exactly our nation of immigrants means.

For a few years, Spellbound was unfortunately difficult to find. It’s such a good movie and was so popular, at times even used copies on Amazon were going for over $50 dollars. While I still can’t find it streaming anywhere, a bunch of very cheap used copies have turned up on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Spellbound-Ted-Brigham/dp/B0000WN13Q

This is worth the few dollars the DVD copies cost! So stop what you are doing and watch this movie!

The Oscar Nominations

16 Jan

I’ve never done an Oscar post but, hey, this half a film blog, it’s time for a new post and the nominations came out this morning. If you need a primer on who is nominated, click here.

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BEST PICTURE 

If you read my last post, 2013 In Review, you read about my favorite films of the year: her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Prisoners, American Hustle and Before Midnight. I won’t go over my reasons for loving these again. But while it is no surprise Prisoners received little love from the Academy, it’s a damn shame Llewyn Davis also was almost completely overlooked, save a well deserved nomination for Cinematography, which, thankfully Prisoners also received. Prisoners is simply too dark and unsettling for the current Academy to embrace. It’s also regarded as a mystery-thriller. While Prisoners is much deeper than a standard mystery-thriller, this type of movie rarely gets love from the Academy, hence Alfred Hitchcock’s scandalous lack of nominations over the years. Llewyn Davis, though… well, I guess I can’t say it is a huge surprise, given how many people did not like the film. Those of us who love it, though, continue to champion it as one of the best films in many years. I am confident years from now this snub will be looked back on as, well, a polite terms would be short sighted.

BEST DIRECTOR

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I’m thrilled her was nominated for Best Picture. I was worried. It’s so modern and original and deep I figured a lot of the older members might not get it. (This happened when the equally brilliant Inception was completely overlooked.) Spike Jonze thankfully received a well deserved screenplay nomination and has, I think, a very good chance to win. His not being nominated for Best Director, though, is a huge shame, particularly given his slot was taken by Martin Scorcese. The Wolf Of Wall Street isn’t a bad film. It’s extremely enjoyable (I’ve watched it twice and could watch it again) and boasts some terrific performances. As with many Scorcese movies, though, it’s overlong and a bit of a mess. The elegance, humor, beauty and creepiness of her, combined with the fact it has a great deal to say, should have given Jonze the slot.  Alas, my own guild, the Directors Guild Of America, did the same thing to my great irritation. DGA, you at least should know better. Alfonso Cuaron pretty much has a lock on Best Director for Gravity. When he wins, it will be deserved. But David O. Russell could be a surprise win here and that would make me just as happy, even more so to be honest. I love American Hustle and think Russell is the best director working in Hollywood today. Two years in a row all four acting categories have been filled with actors from his movies – Silver Linings Playbook (winning Best Actress) and American Hustle. A year before that, with The Fighter, three actors were nominated and two won. This is very rare and is indicative of the work he is doing.

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Why THE ARTIST Should Win Best Picture

18 Feb

The Academy Awards are upon us. It is no surprise that in the run-up to the Oscar ceremony, numerous awards have coalesced around one movie, giving it ‘frontrunner status.’ This happens most every year. What is surprising this year, though, is the movie itself. It was filmed in black and white, not color. It’s a true silent movie with virtually no sound or dialogue, save a few key, clever moments. And the two main characters, George and Peppy, are played by actors heretofore unknown to 99.9% of Americans, those of us working in the movie business included. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you The Artist.

Also not a surprise is the backlash that has erupted against the movie. This happens to the frontrunner each year and it happens for a variety of reasons, from the desire to have a good horserace rather than an inevitable winner to the love for a personal favorite that has no chance in hell of winning (see Tree of Life fans). This year the backlash is intensified by the jealousy and resentment of Harvey Weinstein, a brilliant producer who was smart and passionate enough to snap up The Artist at Cannes while everyone else stood around praising a movie they didn’t have the balls to release. Go Harvey. (He’s a hero of mine, what can I say?)

While the backlash has revolved around a number of arguments, the possibility of Harvey releasing yet another Best Picture included, the main attack I keep hearing is “the movie is fluff. It isn’t about anything. Or, well, it’s about a rich actor who suddenly can’t find work. My heart is breaking.”

I’d like to take a two-pronged approach here: Bullshit. And so what.

Let’s start with the latter. Oscar history is strewn with Best Picture winners about something that are near impossible to watch. They won not because they were good movies, but because they were about something. Ok, fine. But they sure as hell don’t tell a good story, nor do they entertain. Telling an entertaining story, by which I mean holding someone’s attention in an engaging way, is ultimately what movies are about. Sure, if I learn something or am deeply moved while watching, wonderful. But ultimately a movie’s reason for being is to entertain. I’ve seen The Artist four times now and each time I’ve seen it, the audience has laughed, cheered and clapped their way through the movie, then literally danced out of the theatre, appropriate given the deliriously joyful way the movie ends. My Facebook post when I saw the movie the first time was ‘Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.’ I stand by that. When a movie is as joyous and wildly entertaining as The Artist, and is also incredibly well crafted on every level, that’s reason enough for me for it to win Best Picture.

But what about being ‘about something’?

Every person I know who has seen and loved the movie has repeated to me in their comments a variation on a theme. While certainly loving the movie for the experience it provided, each also said they found it relevant to their lives and the world today. It resonated deeply with them. When you talk to people who feel this way about The Artist, some universal emotions and themes emerge that the movie explores beautifully. The fear of losing your job and the problems that occur if you do lose your job. Not only your job but your place in society and your identity. The struggle to define or redefine yourself in a world that seems to be changing faster than is possible to keep up with. How to survive personal adversity and find a way to overcome emotional and circumstantial strife.

The Artist addresses all of this, at times in very dark, emotional fashion. The journey George takes in the movie is a journey all of us take at some point in our lives, if not repeatedly. And he survives. One of the supremely satisfying things about great movies is the chance to see characters we love triumph over adversity. The Artist allows us to experience this yet again and it does so while also veering brilliantly from the traditional Hollywood formula. Usually in such stories, a lead character like George, after a series of obstacles and revelations, pulls himself up from the gutter on his own strength and ingenuity. In The Artist, however, George is redeemed not through his own wiles but through the love of another… an extremely talented and successful woman, no less! (Hello, feminists?? Peppy is a remarkably strong female character. Smart, talented, able to stand up to a studio boss, capable of great emotion and love… she rocks.) Only by humbling himself, admitting his pride and accepting the love and care of Peppy is George able to come back from the brink and survive. This is pretty original in terms of classic Hollywood fare, which tends to celebrate the individual over community. It isn’t often that a Hollywood hero has to rely on others for help. Given the adversity many in our society are facing currently, The Artist not only entertains, it resonates.

Were there other great movies this year? Certainly. Two of the best movies of the year, Warrior and MI:4, were not even nominated. Moneyball is nominated, thankfully, and like The Artist, Moneyball is also one of the best crafted and most entertaining movies of the last few years. (That Bennet Miller’s direction is not being cheered to the sky is perhaps this year’s most egregious oversight.) But The Artist is the movie that should win. I haven’t even discussed how difficult it was to pull this off so effortlessly, and for a modern audience no less. And along with everything else, it celebrates the medium as well! The opening strains of Ludovic Bource’s brilliant score call to mind Franz Waxman and Sunset Blvd (click link below for one of the best CD’s you will ever purchase), and from that opening moment each successive shot or scene celebrates and references great movies of the past, reminding us of why we go to the movies, why we love the movies. This movie cheers, it entertains, it sweeps you off your feet with a wonderful romance, and, dammit, it instructs as well.  The Artist is magical in all the ways a movie should be. And for that alone it deserves Best Picture.

There are many great composers out there. We’ll debate many of them in upcoming posts. But Waxman is amazing. If you don’t have this CD, it’s incredible:

The Best Of Franz Waxman (CD on Amazon.com)

(click on comments section to leave a comment… would love to have you join the discussion!)