Month: April, 2019

Us

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During the spring of 2017 I couldn’t help being aware of the impact Get Out had upon cinema audiences. Working at Rich Mix gave me an insight into its huge popular and critical appeal. Jordan Peele successfully magnified the covert racism of liberal America in a skilful and entertaining masterpiece which I only managed to catch recently on Netflix. Indeed, the breath of Peele’s work has hitherto been unknown to me. I was particularly pleased to discover his sketch acting on Youtube, which includes viral classics such as the hilarious ‘substitute teacher’. It’s been a great couple of years for Peele, who went on to play a part in producing Spike Lee’s well deserved first Oscar win Blackkklansman, as well as winning an Oscar himself for Get Out.

Something like Get Out and Us could only have been made by a cinephile. In a recent MTV interview Peele himself admits that he had a face-hugger from Alien dangled over his bed as a child. Certainly there are echoes of Ripley in Lupita Nyong’o’s character Adelaide, but the references in Us go beyond that. Peele has been compared to Kubrick in his fastidiousness and attention to detail, indeed Kubrick is drawn upon several times. The opening scene of a family driving towards their doom through the American landscape is reminiscent of the opening scene in The Shining. The Vulture Blog points out both Us and A Clockwork Orange feature a sequence in which a crisp, clean, upper-class dwelling is invaded by attackers to incongruent music (“Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, “Good Vibrations,” and “Fuck Tha Police” in Us).

Peele is also a fan of Lewis Carol it seems, declaring “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US” in the films opening statement, before cutting to a horrifying close up of a rabbit which pans out to reveal more rabbits in cages stacked on top of eachother. It’s the music at this point that’s terrifying, with gothic style chanting overlaying the ominous image. We are through the looking glass and down the tunnel. As well as the gothic chanting, more biblical references abound throughout the film, particularly Jeremiah 11:11 which crops up on clocks and in the hands of street-preachers, it also happens to be the number of rabbit cages stacked by width and length in the aforementioned opening scene. The biblical idea of a dual ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is also central to the narrative, and the symmetrical symbol 11:11 feeds into the theme of ‘mirror’ images, reflecting the “tethered” and their surface counterparts.  Jordan Peele has been quoted as saying, “one thing you can be sure of in this film, everything is deliberate”.

The home-invaders theme and cold atmosphere instantly felt like Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games. Indeed, Funny Games also opens with a family drive and The Vulture Blog also points out that Zora takes out several of the “tethered” versions of the Tyler family with the chief weapon of the Funny Games villains: a golf club. Just like Haneke, Peele seems to pay close attention to the score which is a remarkable achievement for Michael Abels’ second feature as a composer. I particularly enjoyed the slowed-down version of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’, working very well as a horrific and foreboding piece – in contrast to the original.

Both of Peele’s films thus far have taken place in fairly unconventional horror settings, Get Out in an idyllic, middle class, liberal home and Us on a beach resort. He talks about daylight often being scarier than the more predictable dusty, dark basements and attics. I agree, daylight forces us to acknowledge everything is on display. In Us the build-up of tension works very well when there are several foreboding moments early on, particularly when Adelaide’s son Jason goes missing. This keeps the audience guessing as to when the real scares are going to come.

Early on in the film the characters of the family are also well-established, building up our emotional investment in them. Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson does a superb job of running with the comedy baton we first saw with Lil Rel Howery’s TSA agent in Get Out. Cast in her first leading role, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as Adelaide and Red, showing a fierce commitment and intensity.

Finally I want to talk about the films’ themes. Mark Kermode points out that Us locates our anxieties about outsiders in a guilty fear of ourselves. This ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ psychology is interesting because it’s very ambiguous as to who ‘Them’ could be metaphorically. In Ancient Greek myths monsters such as the Typhon or Centaurs are said to represent uncontrollable nature. Perhaps ‘The Tethered” in Jordan Peele’s film are repressed aspects of our consciousness, our dark natural instincts coming into focus. However, there are also modern political interpretations we can draw. When asked ‘who are you people?’ early on the “tethered” version of Adelaide responds ‘we are Americans’. Perhaps this could be a manifestation of US guilt for the native American genocide, perhaps Peele envisions a world where they once again take control. One of the good things about Peele’s film is it does not provide any straightforward hints at who ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ might be in the real world, it is very much down to your interpretation and perspective. Certainly the horror tradition established by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, playing on our worst fears in the disruption of the ‘nuclear family’ is at work here.

 

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The Song of Achilles

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I know, I know. I’m supposed to review films, but I really hope this book will eventually grace the big screen. The rights have apparently been acquired by Caryn Mandabach Productions (Peaky Blinders).

Madeline Miller’s book The Song of Achilles follows the story of Troy: the Iliad. For those of you that are unfamiliar it starts when Queen Helen leaves Sparta (Greece) with Prince Paris for Troy (in Asia Minor). This sparks a diplomatic nightmare, and the Greeks end up sailing over to reclaim her in a thousand ships, lead by Agamemnon of Mycenae and his brother the spurned Menelaus of Sparta. The Siege lasts for 10 years until it is finally broken when the Greeks construct a giant wooden horse as a pretend gift for Troy and the Gods. Hidden inside, they open the gates of Troy and the rest of their army pours in and ransacks the city.

Miller’s book focuses on the story of Achilles who, although he had no part in starting the war, is arguably its main protagonist. He is the greatest hero and fighter on the side of the Greeks, but is unruly and suspicious of authority. He has numerous disputes with Agamemnon. One such dispute results in him refusing to fight and without him the Greeks start to lose the war.

Achilles is featured much in ancient Greek pottery, literature and culture. There is no doubt he has played a part in representing masculinity for the West. Most of us will still remember the Hollywood film Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt in the role. Pitt plays him as a fearsome fighter, honourable and respected by all. He is also very much a ladies man too. In a similar way, the siege of Troy has been used by the West as a way to glorify war. The original book helped to form the concept of ‘nationhood’ for the Greeks, and since then fighting for your country has been held in great esteem – and also the sign of a ‘real’ man. I want to argue here that this is a problematic interpretation of the original ancient Greek text, written by Homer. Miller’s perspective shows a clearer understanding of the complexity of the original themes and ideas.

If you want a breakdown of the original ancient greek text, I would recommend Lindybeige on Youtube. He points out that what Homer’s text does is simultaneously glorify and condemn war.

These are heroes! Fighting is the way to attain immortality. AT THE SAME TIME we are acutely aware of the tragedy. So many deaths – for what?

Lindybeige draws our attention to the death of Iphidames in Homers text as a great example of characterisation. The tragedy here is brought into sharp focus when this insignificant minor character (with barely a paragraph of space devoted to him) is given a rich background story. He is incidentally the first Trojan to die by Agamemnon. We hear about his life growing up in Thrace, his wedding and father attempting to persuade him not to leave to fight. The description of his death that follows is extremely melancholic; ‘he slept a sleep of bronze most piteously, far from his wedded wife’. We never hear from this person again.

Anyway, back to Madeline Miller. Both the condemnation and glorification of war are actually present in her book. Her description of Achilles’ fighting is glorious, she seems to revel in the beauty of his movements. However, Miller’s true focus is not on the heroic fighting or the epic battles, it’s on the simple relationship that altered the course of the war – Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus that was underplayed in the Brad Pitt movie. Why did Achilles go so mad with grief when Patroclus died? How could this relationship have meant so much to him that to seek revenge he abandoned his pride and continued fighting, turning the tide of the war? This relationship seems to have been infinitely more significant than Hollywood portrayed, and had a heavy bearing on the entire life of Achilles, before and after Troy. Miller made the bold choice of telling the story through the eyes of Patroclus and thereby shedding new light on the ancient text. Homer leaves it ambiguous as to wether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or not, however there are suggestions. In Millers book they are.

Certainly a character worth exploring then, and a relationship that can explain a lot of Achilles’ motivations and choices. Patroclus is described by Homer as always gentle. From his time growing in Pithia and the crucial friendship blooming, to his pivotal role at Troy.

He didn’t have any godlike abilities or an aptitude for fighting. He was largely ignored by the more important figures such as Agamemnon and Menelaus. At first he was only really noticed due to his relationship with Achilles. What did Achilles see in him then, to consider him a worthy companion?

Early on in the book Achilles is sent to train with the centaur Chiron on Mount Pelion. As the son of a goddess, he is expected to grow up to become a legendary hero. Thetis, his mother, is a sea nymph and detests Patroclus as an unworthy mortal. She does everything she can to separate the two. And yet Patroclus does not give up, and on discovering Achilles’ absence, runs nonstop to Pelion from Pitha to find him. This takes him a full day. The wise Chiron then allows him to stay, sensing I think, a unique kind of unwavering determination. Later on in the book, at Troy, Patroclus starts working in the medical tent in order to make a contribution to the war effort. In the course of his training with Chiron he is more interested in learning the healing arts than fighting. This is a very different version of masculinity.

In an interview I watched on Youtube Miller stated her great affection for Patroclus. An ordinary character who makes important choices, some of which alter the course of history. It is clear throughout the book he trying to make the world a better place, without seeking glory or immortality.