Nope ★★★★

"Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a Black man on a horse?"

There's something inherently metacinematic about Jordan Peele's Nope. It's not just that our protagonists OJ and Emerald Haywood train horses for the movies, that movies are in their blood, that they're part of their heritage ("since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game"); the most enigmatic elements of the film are the repeated references to the disaster on a fictional TV sitcom where a trained chimpanzee mauled several actors to death (perhaps inspired by the 2009 Travis incident). The film even begins with this segment, which ends with the chimp staring directly into the camera — the significance of which will make sense later.

What I love about Jordan Peele as a filmmaker is the way he's increasingly rewriting American mythology. If his first two movies were about the repression (brainwashing) and disavowal (doubling) characteristic of American ideology, here he tackles the mythology of that ideological edifice itself as it manifests in western cinematic history. And I mean "western" in the sense of both geographical cardinal directions and cowboys settling the great American frontier. The setting of Nope calls heavily upon the iconography of the western: OJ and Em work on a ranch, and their friend Jupe runs a Wild West amusement park. But here this iconography is reclaimed from its traditionally white characters.

This is where the monkey staring into the camera comes into play: Nope is not just a movie about movies, it's a movie about looking, about the gaze, and about Barthes's concept of the punctum; it's not just about looking through movie cameras and security cameras, it's also about looking at animals — and about not looking at them. One of the points the movie repeatedly returns to in training horses is not to look them in the eye, and in the context of training animals for the movies this amounts to a kind of filmic control, an insidious cinematic power, but OJ eventually extrapolates this onto [Nope Antagonist]. OJ and friends must learn to look differently if they're going to survive to see the end credits roll.

But here's the thing about [Nope Antagonist]: "It's territorial, and it thinks that this is its home." So if we return now to the film's involvement with the western cinematic tradition and weave this retraining of the gaze into the iconography of the Wild West, we begin to see a pattern emerge. Classically speaking, there was another mythological character who was territorial about the American frontier, but it wasn't an antagonist. It was the cowboy, that great symbol of American civilization defending the homefront from the supposed savagery of native peoples. Here, Nope is not only reframing this territorialism as an antagonistic force, it is also teaching us (literally) to look at it differently.

There are a lot of threads here, but you could hardly weave such a tapestry without so many. Nope is a coin in the eye of the American cinematic canon, an abduction of the iconography of the Wild West that seeks to retrain the way we watch, an assault on the American ideological edifice that aims to own its own gaze and to resist the imposition of filmic control that it once represented. This is what's so inherently metacinematic about Nope: it's not just a movie about people who work in the movies, it's about how we watch movies, about rewriting American mythology, and about recolonizing a new metacinematic space free from the reign of this mysterious territorial monster.

"Pops did something when he made this place. He changed the industry."

"What we about to do, they can't erase that."

2022 | Metacinema | Horror
Non-Western Westerns

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