Sunday, February 26, 2023

Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele has turned out to be one the major breakout directors in Hollywood over the past few years.  Seeing as how he got his start way back in 2012, as part of the comedy series Key and Peele, perhaps its a mistake to call him anything like a "new voice".  However, all of his important cinematic accomplishments have arrived within the span of seven years.  So that makes him a recent addition by the uncertain standards of pop cultural awareness.  From that perspective, Peele got his first big break with his directorial debut with 2017's Get Out.  That's a film which does everything that a good Horror movie should do.  It sneaks up on its audience from out of left field, and when it comes time to go for the jugular is where Peele demonstrates his skills at crafting a well told tale of terror.  

Rather than just one big jump scare, or resorting minor and unimpressive gore tactics, Peele plays his hand like an architect who is well aware of the genre he is working in, and hence knows a thing or two on how to elevate this type of narrative to the level of genuine art.  His entire story is a multi-layered trap lined with multiple springs and trip wires primed to go off at just the right movement of the plot.  The way Peele builds up his house of horrors in that movie rests upon the strengths the director has gleaned from past entries in the field, while utilizing them all to express his own individual talent.  In doing so, I think what Peele has done there is to give us the modern incarnation of the Body Snatcher Invasion trope.

Get Out proved to be the film that got the attention of a mass audience, and put Peele on the map.  A powerhouse breakout performance like that is sure to raise a lot expectations in viewers, though.  This is true especially for those who now consider themselves the directors fans.  To say that a lot weight was being placed on Peele's next effort is a bit like saying that a stock broker has to hope that the market goes in his favor.  In think the fan created site known as TV Tropes gives a better summary of the result of Peele's next film better than I can.  

"While critics and audiences almost unanimously loved Get Out (2017), Us is proving to have a greater divide between audience and critical reception.  Audiences seem to be more mixed on the film than critics, who see it as good as Get Out if not better.  Case in point, Get Out had a CinemaScore of "A-" (a rarity for horror films, many of which get "B+" rankings if they're adored by audiences) and Us had a less enthusiastic "B".  A big component of this seems to be that the film's slow-burn approach to horror is completely different than Get Out, along with the movie's central allegory being a lot more esoteric compared to the unsubtle but important moral presented in Jordan Peele's previous film.  Another common complaint is the movie's explanation of what the (film's horrors, sic) actually are, in that the movie puts too much effort into trying to provide a "logical" explanation that still makes distractingly little sense, and the (villains) were more interesting when they were left creepily unclear (web)".  Let me just state here, for the record, that I've got no problems at all with any Horror story that needs a slow burn in order to achieve its effect.  Some of the best work I've ever read or watched in the genre has come from narratives where a slow release of information was just the right ingredient necessary to curdle the blood.  So I don't think that's the most valid criticism for why this movie doesn't work.

I think the real reason why Us wasn't such as big a hit as the director's previous effort is explained once more by the same TV Tropes page, when it gives us an enlightening bit of backstage trivia.  "Jordan Peele has stated that one of the things that inspired the film was The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Mirror Image", about a woman encountering her evil doppelganger (ibid)".  If we assume this is the truth, then everything about Us begins to fall into place, including why it never quite works like the director intended it should.  What Peele has done here is to commit a tactical error, of sorts.  He's a taken a very simple idea and complicated it to a level of epic proportions.  His problem is this is a storytelling weight that the initial concept just isn't able to bear.  The notion of a creepy run-in with an evil double, or duplicate, is one of those creative ideas that is best served in smaller doses, like that of either a short story, or half hour television episode.  This is a vital aspect of the concept that Rod Serling appeared to be very much aware of, so he was smart enough to make sure this fantasy didn't wear itself out by over-staying its welcome.  Instead, where Peele tries to make the idea fit into a mold it can't accommodate, Serling pairs it down to its very essence, delivering a lean, mean, and frightening exercise in paranoia and existential dread.  It's a good way of comparing and contrasting the two creator's strengths and weaknesses.  The latter waters the concept down, the former makes it iconic.

With this hindsight in mind, it's no wonder if Peele's Get Out follow-up didn't exactly live up to expectations.  In fact, I'm starting to wonder if a lot of the fallout from that film's release might have bled into the inspiration for his next project, the movie up for review and discussion here today.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (2017)

Stephen King doesn't need much in the way of an introduction as of this writing.  There's bound to come a time when that may change.  When it does, it will be necessary for proper introductions, if anyone ever decides to get reacquainted with the author and his writings.  For the moment, however, we live in a time lucky enough when a goodish enough majority of the audience not only has a workable a familiarity with King, it's also still possible to agree upon a number of facts about the kind of work he does.  His life itself reads like the 20th century equivalent of an American Dickensian novel.  He was born the proverbial poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  His dad left him and his mom one night to "go get a pack of smokes" and never came back.  King doesn't dwell too much on it in real life, and yet it reverberates through his fiction, especially in the writer's treatment of fathers and father figures.  

His major literary influences could also be described as regional.  He grew up in the Northernmost half of the eastern United States.  His home was and remains the sate of Maine, to be exact.  It's one of those factoids that's destined to pop up from now until eternity in every literary dictionary.  It's just one of the things most people are aware of, and yet only a handful will ever understand the true meaning of.  The crucial thing about it is that being raised as a Northern Yankee has given King a very important, and specific set of literary influences.

It turns out he wound up coming of age in a very storied part of the Country.  If he's a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, then it makes sense to claim that authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne were (in a sense) some of his closest neighbors.  What I mean is that one of King's most vital influences were the impressions left on his mind by his local surroundings.  He was there to witness a lot of the same kind of phenomena as that observed by the writer of such books as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.  Much like King's work, Hawthorne's writings concern the sometimes insular natures of small, New England towns.  Also like his more famous literary descendant, Hawthorne's writings reveals all the ways in which his neck of the literal woods can be described as haunted.  Sometimes these ghosts of the past prove to be quite literal.  And just as in works like The Shining or Salem's Lot, it turns out that sometimes ghosts can have teeth, and they bite.  What brought about this train of creative thoughts turns out to be the same one's as King's.  Each writer grew up in the same New England milieu.  This means that both King Hawthorne spent their formative years observing, learning about, and later on, rebelling against the kind of ingrained trace remains of their shared Puritan heritage.

This aspect of their lives, in particular, seems to be more or less the heart and origin of their equal artistic abilities to deliver the good frights.  I think all American Gothic fiction keeps circling back to its birth place in some way or another.  In this case, it was all down to the crimes and atrocities committed by the Plymouth settlers in the early years of this Nation's history.  Their acts of violence, first against Native, then African Americans, and finally themselves are what helped to create what might be termed America's original sin.  This is the matrix, or historical frame of reference which helped determine the face of the modern Horror story.  It's what helps explain the constant lingering presence of some dangerous past fault exerting an often deadly influence on the present action of the ghostly tale.  It might be considered the genre's grand motif, and it's something King still appears to be very good at.  And it all came about, not just for him but for all of the best writer's in the scare business because once upon a time, the "Pilgrims" forged for this Nation it's collective sense of guilt and fear.  These are the notes that Stephen King has been most famous for playing on during the course of his entire career.

To this day it remains his greatest strength as a writer, and it's what's brought him the fame he enjoys now.  The Horror genre has become the norm which King has established for himself.  He's so synonymous with the genre, in fact, that it's noticeable whenever he deviates from it in any way.  It's not something he does often.  If that were the case, he would never get lumped in with all the things that go bump in the night.  Instead, it's more like a side hobby he's tried to indulge in on occasion.  The most notable example of these occasional detours is a series known simply as The Dark Tower.  I'll at least try and explain what this idea is in a minute.  Perhaps the best way to go about that is by asking where the writer even got the idea for such a concept in the first place?  This is the way King describes how he got his inspiration for what has to be one of the most obtuse notions in the history of literary fiction.

"Hobbits were big when I was nineteen...There were probably half a dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was madly popular in those days, and while I never made it to Woodstock (say sorry), I suppose I was at least a halfling-hippie. Enough of one, at any rate, to have read the books and fallen in love with them. The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson, and The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, are just two of many), were born out of Tolkien’s.

"But although I read the books in 1966 and 1967, I held off writing. I responded (and with rather touching wholeheartedness) to the sweep of Tolkien’s imagination—to the ambition of his story—but I wanted to write my own kind of story, and had I started then, I would have written his. That, as the late Tricky Dick Nixon was fond of saying, would have been wrong. Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed. In 1967, I didn’t have any idea what my kind of story might be, but that didn’t matter; I felt positive I’d know it when it passed me on the street...

"I think novelists come in two types, and that includes the sort of fledgling novelist I was by 1970. Those who are bound for the more literary or “serious” side of the job examine every possible subject in light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me? Those whose destiny (or ka, if you like) is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others? The “serious” novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the “popular” novelist is looking for an audience. Both kinds of writer are equally selfish. I’ve known a good many, and will set my watch and warrant upon it.

"Anyway, I believe that even at the age of nineteen, I recognized the story of Frodo and his efforts to rid himself of the One Great Ring as one belonging to the second group. They were the adventures of an essentially British band of pilgrims set against a backdrop of vaguely Norse mythology. I liked the idea of the quest—loved it, in fact—but I had no interest in either Tolkien’s sturdy peasant characters (that’s not to say I didn’t like them, because I did) or his bosky Scandinavian settings. If I tried going in that direction, I’d get it all wrong.

"So I waited. By 1970 I was twenty-two, the first strands of gray had showed up in my beard (I think smoking two and a half packs of Pall Malls a day probably had something to do with that), but even at twenty-two, one can afford to wait. At twenty-two, time is still on one’s side, although even then that bad old Patrol Boy’s in the neighborhood and asking questions.

"Then, in an almost completely empty movie theater (the Bijou, in Bangor, Maine, if it matters), I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone. It was called The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic, but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop. If you’ve only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don’t understand what I’m talking about—cry your pardon, but it’s true. On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, TG, TB, & TU is an epic to rival Ben-Hur. Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree. The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef’s mouth are as deep as canyons, and there could be a thinny (see Wizard and Glass) at the bottom of each one. The desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune. And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.

"What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size. The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona) added to the film’s sense of magnificent dislocation. And in my enthusiasm—the sort only a young person can muster, I think—I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history. I did not succeed in doing that, but I feel I had a decent rip; The Dark Tower, Volumes One through Seven, really comprise a single tale, and the first four volumes run to just over two thousand pages in paperback. The final three volumes run another twenty-five hundred in manuscript. I’m not trying to imply here that length has anything whatsoever to do with quality; I’m just saying that I wanted to write an epic, and in some ways, I succeeded. If you were to ask me why I wanted to do that, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s a part of growing up American: build the tallest, dig the deepest, write the longest. And that head-scratching puzzlement when the question of motivation comes up? Seems to me that that is also part of being an American. In the end we are reduced to saying It seemed like a good idea at the time (web)".

There's the actual truth of where he got this particular idea from, for better or worse, and I don't know how much or little that helps matters.  The very ironic truth of the matter appears to be very much as King says.  Perhaps this explains why it's so difficult to describe in any coherent way.  It might also be an explanation of why it both took so long for Hollywood to try and adapt the author's concept to the big screen, and why the final results turned out to be such a shambles.  Let's take a closer look.