Midsommar ½

The two biggest (though one has made thirteen times the gross of the other) first-run releases of fourth of July weekend resembled possibly the most instructive tendencies regarding the state of movies today. Ari Aster's Midsommar and Jon Watts and Marvel's Spider-Man: Far from Home both indicate the near-completion of the transition of movies from being a distinguished medium to becoming a piece of visual media equivalent in its potential for largely thoughtless time killing and ideological affirmation as the rest such as advertisements, TV and internet series, or news reports. This transition of course can be traced back to the very near beginning of the medium with the recreation of theatrical narrative, but there's something in the way this transition has expressed itself in postmodern conditions which starts to reveal the roots of the widespread application of the moving image to construct classically dramatic narratives against its initial construction as a means of recording reality through inhuman mechanisms.

Dramatic construction in movies is now being replaced with continual sensory stimulation; closely following a narrative which could stimulate thoughts is dispensed in favor of collecting sequences which merely modulate the audience's mood. Pauline Kael gets at this really well at the end of her essay "The Making of The Group," a long analysis of the production from casting through shooting, with final remarks on test and press screenings and the final release, of Sidney Lumet's 1966 adaptation of a Mary McCarthy novel, when she writes: "If vast audiences are indifferent to the absence of beauty on television, if they do not object to the loss of visual detail when they see old movies on television, if they do not object that the shape of the image destroys much of what remains of the compositions, if they do not object to the cuts which make the story line and characterization incoherent and to the interruptions for commercials which destroy the intensity, the suspense, the whole dramatic construction, then why not give them what, apparently, is all they really want: the immediacy of foreground action and as many climaxes as possible?" Kael was describing this draining of even dramatic construction, itself transplanted from other mediums, from the movies, leaving us with a hollowed out expression of what the mixing of literary and/or theatrical narrative with movies, which inherently have neither the centrality of mental experience nor physical presence of performance, respectively, of those two prior mediums, demands in aesthetic terms. This is what Kael pinpoints as the "immediacy of foreground action" in a succession of climaxes, only possible by attempting to construct literary/theatrical narratives in a medium which both lacks physical human presence of theater and the psychological insight afforded by the novel. With a picture like The Group, or the ones that are the subject of this review, dramatic construction of a coherent sort gets reduced meaning the movies consist primarily of, in the case of Midsommar, shocks and emotional beats, or, in Far from Home, comedic or action set-pieces.

Seeing the accepted aesthetic and representational principles of movies being reduced to those of television, Kael was decrying the ever-present failure of movies to deliver universal and non-self-evident messages to a mass audience. Her piece suggests the now ubiquitous over-specification of visual media and links it, rightly, to a sacrifice of efficacy for the medium as a unique vehicle for delivering narrative. I certainly don't mean to suggest that narrative was Kael's only concern in her approach to movies, I just want to point out that this transition she was so against is characterized by the cessation of movie narratives being constructed with recourse to the specificities of the moving image, making the movie just an opportunity to shut off thought and giving it an increasingly specious footing in reality or truth. This process is conditioned by the interpolation of genre into movies, which fit reality into a generic model, as opposed to a play or book which is a fiction that formally always takes place within reality as an expression colored by perception at their base. A movie, on the other hand, is created with the basis of recorded reality to which the elements colored by perception are applied. The narrative movies that Kael liked often used this primary aspect of film form to convey something not totally verbal, distinct from the written narrative although deepened by it, giving the story a greater potential to be universally understood. Kael often praised fairly straightforward movies, built with dramatic and/or generic principles, but her praise generally stemmed from the movie's ability to access something deeper in the story be it through a performance, the direction, or its techniques. The movies she loved expanded upon generic principles, not reducing them (The Group), or simply deconstructing them (Marienbad, Blow-Up). In both those latter cases, the movie becomes just a succession of scenes, and coupled with the often non-interpersonal conditions and lack of thought required to consume it, edges the medium closer and closer into mindless entertainment.

The reason all of this relates to the two new releases is that Midsommar is a peculiar example of how the deconstruction of generic elements has devolved over time and Spider-Man: Far from Home, being a part of the ever-multiplying Marvel movie constellation, is unavoidably an example of the reduction of movies to television. Both examples are conditioned by the medium of the moving image's ability to absorb attention through impersonal and sensational means, their adaptation of generic forms within these conditions of spectatorship, and the codependent amplification of the two over time. Both, also, are endowed with a misguided importance by their most devoted fans, with the emphatic need for "interpretation" or the obsessive consumption of relevant mythology and references, in any case scanning the pictures for minute details irrelevant to form, experiencing movie consumption as a pathological hobby.

In Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to the ghastly (in all aspects save for those intended to be so) Hereditary, the writer-director envisions an über-traditional Swedish cult as a macrocosm for the (supposed) horrors of processing grief. The joke that Aster must not be in on is that the many aspects intended to be shocking or unnerving are simply not, at least to anyone who's seen the genuinely bone-chilling Texas Chainsaw Massacre or even the less-meaningful The Shining (predictably a clear influence for Aster). Really what the picture succeeds in getting across with its evocations of cultish unity is an affirmation of the modern resistance to emotional awareness and understanding. Members of the cult cry together, fuck together, die together, and its supposed to be creepy and twisted. Given the breakup plot and the family tragedy that befalls the protagonist in the opening scene which she internalizes instead of processing, the through-line of the movie is essentially that closeness and connection are "actually kinda fucked up, man." It's actually a minor feat that Aster has managed to say anything at all, considering Hereditary was laughably meaningless from beginning to end, however the fact that the picture is bloated to two and a half hours despite its thesis being entirely established and extended in three whole scenes—the opening, the first cultic death ritual, and the ridiculous, oafishly imagined conclusion—the movie remains a complete failure. What's more, Aster merely gives his audience the reason to avoid processing their thorniest emotions, according to this movie it will only lead you on a depraved and unforgiving path. I knew it was supposed to be arresting when Pugh sacrificed her self-centered boyfriend in the end, but the obviousness with which Aster approaches his conclusion (as well as the assuredness with which he defines the wrongheaded moment as his big statement, which is just embarrassing) made me feel relieved that the dullness was finally about to cease. It would be one thing if Aster bothered to investigate the sources of the issues in the central relationship, instead a single remark is meant to indicate that Pugh is finally growing apart from Raynor, and we are treated to one of his thoughtless blunders after another, the meaning unchanging. Aster is, simply put, too busy “evoking" dread through style that he has no time, or really any purpose, for thoughtful development. A bad mushroom trip tells us how basically uncomfortable Pugh is around others, but what, really, do we get from this scene that we don't from her character crying in the bathroom to avoid openly addressing her grief? In fact, we get more in those earlier scenes, because Aster is forced to provide some exposition. When the grad students arrive for the Swedish cult's summer festival, the community's emphasis on tradition and their shared, "transcendental" experiences take over for any sense of depth we may have had of Pugh's (or the other Americans') reactions to their emotional reality. The cult's philosophies about unity, the circle of life are not inherently spooky at all, but Aster tries so hard to make us believe they are and it's like someone trying to recount a funny story but failing; they're so convinced it's funny, and they remember all the details that made it a funny story to them, but you don't laugh when they tell it because you don't have their perspective. Perhaps its because Aster's perspective is so shallow, what I would imagine are the creepiest parts to most are when the cult collectively mimics the emotive reactions of individuals surrounding death, sex, and grief are so clearly a facile attempt to vest these notions of community with creepy codependency, but this very creepiness undercuts the notions of community in the first place—a group mindlessly mimics the expressions of one. Aster inadvertently reveals his childish understanding of human connection, then doubles down and reminds us again with Pugh's ultimate sacrifice of her boyfriend as a supposedly final, purifying redress of grief and sorrow. Rather than making the continual and misguided purity rituals of modern social life the theme of his movie, Aster presents them inanely as fundamental, encouraging the audience to indulge in an uninvested, self-centered, inert approach to relationships.

All of this is not what's worst about Midsommar, though; movies with empty and cynical content are nothing new. In fact Aster is drawing from a direct lineage of reductive moviemaking. What's quite remarkable about this movie is that not once does Aster display more than a basic understanding of visual language. He and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski can make some pretty compositions, sure, but one will only drive oneself mad trying to figure out any constructive meaning. In the opening, when Pugh wails in her boyfriend's lap after discovering her parents and sister dead, the camera does a Kubrick slow push-in to the window behind them, and eventually the frame is entirely filled with the night sky and snowfall. Then we abruptly cut to a bright sunny sky, and pull back into Pugh's apartment, and in the following scene Aster makes it clear that she still isn't over the loss of her family. The movie doesn't express anything about time itself or natural cycles by emphasizing the seasons so heavily, they are used merely to denote that a long time has passed. It shoehorns profilmic elements into the narrative to the point of confusion. What's most important is the showiness of Aster's techniques, because when the tone is that obviously foreboding it becomes irrelevant to try and think about the meaning of what's being shown. His notion of cinema is clearly cribbed from arthouse "deconstructive" pictures by Bergman, Antonioni, and even more-so the American imitator Stanley Kubrick. Aster is not equipped to deconstruct anything, and luckily he doesn’t really try. Absurd as it already was to use cinema to “deconstruct” genre or dramatic form instead of constructing meaning with the specialities of the medium, Aster goes one step further and represents the dawn of the total devolution: capriciously pairing generic elements with ostentatious technique in a brainless ploy for some warped vision of cinematic integrity. Aster isn’t concerned with his pictures making visual sense—something his influences did do, however reductive they ended up being. All he’s seemed to glean from his relationship to cinema is an emphasis on mere audience rapture through techniques, he prefers long tracking shots, deep focus, and layered staging. It’s often quite funny to see how he answers the conundrum of filling these over-expansive shots with any meaningful content, seeing as they alone are not motivated by anything remotely meaningful. His solutions are to cram the frame with paintings, which must have been intended as a rudimentary kind of symbolism but are just laughably dumb foreshadowing (most egregious is a painting in Pugh’s home in America which directly predicts the ending in Sweden), or simply presenting events his audience will find shocking or relegating the establishment of environment, which thoughtful filmmaking is ideal for, to dialogue. The wide gulf between what the image does and what’s meant to be evoked by the content should be signal enough that this is hack-work of the blandest sort. What’s amazing about it is that he really seems to believe that this is all making movies has ever been about, and critics as well as a devoted niche audience are buying it. Movies such as this, which generate short-lived hype and dozens of “explanatory” vlogs on YouTube, go past Kael’s stipulation of movies becoming TV; now movies are being reduced to picture books. The cultural memory of Midsommar, Us, The Favourite, Suspiria, Hereditary, You Were Never Really Here, The Florida Project, American Honey, It Follows, Ex Machina is/was certain to be short, but the effect stays the same: static, overdetermined world-building that kills two hours (and sixteen bucks) but can’t produce any meaningful discussion or thought. Of course this proceeds from what Kael talked about, but those movies I just mentioned, with their observable failure to have real impact by clinging to and further reducing already reduced old movie forms, reinforce the continuing trend of visual media becoming structurally homogenous following the principles of streaming and the Internet. After all, why waste money on a ticket for an only two-hour movie when you can get, effectively, the same thing just sitting on your couch? It lasts for hours on end, and costs little to nothing. Midsommar is completely unimportant on its own, but it does represent that when movies succumb to the repetitive, time-sucking entertainment that’s a huge chunk of what’s made today while still trying to look like art, they spell their own death in gargantuan letters. Conditioned by the arthouse lineage in which the profilmic was over-manipulated and broadly signified, Aster and his equivalents lack the intelligence to signify and just manipulate. The result appears like a vision, and it gives movie lovers an opportunity to “interpret” the “layers of meaning” just like the good old days. To those who see through this gimmick though, their cheap mimicry makes the current state of visual media all-the-more apparent.

Spider-Man: Far from Home, the bigger fourth of July release, is on the surface a clear example of the indistinction of movies from other visual media. It’s the twentieth-something Marvel movie to be released in this decade, part of their fourth “phase,” and the post-credits scene breathlessly sets us up for the next installment. It’s easy to imagine the pictures in this series being essentially a really expensive Netflix original series, and I don’t doubt most of them are (haven’t visited the saga since 2012’s Avengers), yet the new Spider-Man movie shows an exciting willingness to adapt itself to being continuous with an ongoing, corporate-controlled story-world. We get a raucous deluge of set-pieces that are alert to the broader social and political meaning the characters take on as heroes/super-humans in a fictional world which of course spectacularly, excessively resembles our own. The narrative of Spidey trying to shirk his world-saving responsibilities to enjoy a European vacation with his friends while contending with the one-of-a-kind technology he’s inherited from Iron Man evokes at once the common evasion of responsibility of the younger generation and the increasingly total and unmanageable scale that responsibility can take on in postmodern global conditions, sketching the superhero trope of the populace awaiting a heroic figure in a time of crisis a shade more deeply and critically. The conflict between the multiplication of disaster and the few equipped/willing to deal with it also generates an antagonist who’s villainy is undercut slightly with the sympathetic nature of his character who is desperate to appear as a hero by simulating crises and then stopping them. Gyllenhaal wants to fill the void of heroism but can’t take on the real challenges, so he invents them. However his inventions have real effects despite being simulations, recontextualizing contemporary social and political conditions of disinvested and/or mediated interaction and action and their exacerbated psychic consequences without losing the integrity of the conflict, in fact ballooning it to a larger-than-life scenario invites one to consider how this conflict resonates in a broader sense. Most of these dynamics may be lifted from the comics but this movie incorporates the acceleration of these social/political conflicts in our present day. Scenes where Mysterio simulates Spider-Man’s physical surroundings, continually changing them for a surreal chase scene, present a pursuit between moral perspective and social ideations rather than across space. Accepting the generic narrative (and the reality of movies today which Ari Aster is desperate to avoid), while also including actually resonant visual and narrative elements, Spider-Man: Far from Home is a fantastical microcosm for the increasingly fraught and disastrous conflict between personal interest and the unwieldy expansion of social and political ordering principles. The picture has no pretense of being art—the representations of social types, stand-ins for modern technology, and themes are not subtle—but in bringing its true-to-life elements together and mixing them with the heightened fictional world it generates a meaning beyond the sum of the parts. Aster produces mush by trying to continue filmmaking styles of the past and thus only goes inward and maintains his lack of self-awareness, Marvel compiles grounded elements within its narrative un-reality and ends up making something that feels immediate and is compelling.

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