A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, USA, 2018)

American cinema, Blogpost, Uncategorized

A Quiet Place depicts a world in which no one can fart, or at the very least where humans have developed exceptional sphincter control in a bid to ease out silent (but violent) guffs rather than make a noise. For, if they do make a noise, then aliens with exceptionally sensitive powers of audition will hear you and kill you.

We open with the Abbott family leaving a city in a post-apocalyptic time when the streets are empty, but strangely not littered with the corpses of humans who have been eviscerated by the monsters—begging the question of how they managed to clear up the devastation without making a noise.

They follow a trail of sand that has been laid down between the city and a farm in the countryside. How any human being managed to carry that much sand in order to lay down a path along roads and through countryside is not explained. Nor is the fact that no one else is travelling along this trail of sand, with the sand acting as a way of muffling footsteps.

By a railway bridge, youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) puts batteries in a toy spaceship, which starts to make some noise. Given the stakes, this is a dumb move, but Beau’s only three and a half years of age, so clearly does not understand what is going on. Summarily he is slaughtered by an alien, which happens to be in that exact area and an exceptionally fast runner—so fast, in fact, that Beau has not been able to move to a different spot and remain quiet, or throw away the noise-making toy, such that the alien, which is blind and can only hear, can either no longer find him or goes and follows a false trail towards the plastic toy.

Indeed, although blind, the monster clearly roams the wooded area through which the Abbotts travel without bumping into trees, without being distracted by the wind in the trees, and without there being any leaves or twigs on the ground for people to crunch and snap (even though the Abbotts end up on a corn farm, as discussed below, Kellogg’s will clearly have gone out of business in this dystopian world).

The next we know is that it is Day 472—either since the apocalypse or since the Abbott family arrived at the farm.

Even though more than a year has elapsed, the farm is in excellent working order, with pater familias Lee (John Krasinski) having somehow managed silently to maintain a giant crop of corn, which remains in neat rows and has not overgrown at all.

Despite not being able to flush a toilet, piles of faeces do not lie strewn everywhere. Luckily no one in the Abbott family snores. And Lee has managed silently to ejaculate inside his wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), such that she is now pregnant. By some stroke of fortune, the electricity is also still working, even though no silent power generators seem to have been developed—meaning that the monsters clearly have not found and disrupted the otherwise noisy electricity grid.

That said, the internet is apparently not working, with cell phones also being out of action, meaning that no one is sending or receiving texts (with ringtone and keypad set to silent, obviously), such that humans can communicate to each other the whereabouts of the beasts, information about them and so on.

Instead, humans exist in isolated micro-communities, every night lighting a fire atop corn towers to let others know that they are there. All very idyllic.

During these 472 days, Lee has managed to install and keep running in a basement an old-fashioned radio kit, through which he sends messages in Morse code saying SOS, even though he also clearly sees the fire signals of others at night. Why he wants to be helped (SOS) seems unclear, and why he does not go see the bearers of the other torches also is unclear (smoke signals might also be a decent way of communicating, except that Native Americans do not exist to pass on such skills).

In his basement den, Lee also has in over a year managed to accrue the following ideas: the aliens follow sound, you must be silent, and you must survive. Even though he has a go at electronics—trying to develop new hearing aids for his deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds)—one gets the impression that if this is the sum of his knowledge after one and a half years of living under alien invasion, then Lee truly is a Salt of the Earth American. Or as Mel Brooks might put it: you know, a moron.

Indeed, while one newspaper headline announces ‘steps to survive the apocalypse’ (or words to that effect—with silent print presses clearly having also been developed, together with a silent transport infrastructure that allows for the silent distribution of print newspapers during the period of alien invasion), Lee has not actually put up on his noticeboard what those steps are. Instead, he just has the headline showing—to let him know that there are steps to surviving the apocalypse. Some humans are happier just knowing that they could improve their lot, with no inclination actually to do so…

Clearly it has been beyond the ken of humanity, with all of its technology and know-how, to learn how to, for example, make noise in one place in order to attract one of these beasts, while actually being in another place, and then using this ruse as a way of trapping the beast and then working out its functioning and, bluntly put, how to kill it.

What is more, poor bloody aliens: they kill or at least attack anything that makes a sound (which in the film includes an alarm clock, previously unseen, and a television monitor). For clearly sound annoys the hell out of them. And yet even though they make one hell of a racket as they go about, they do not attack themselves, nor do they go crazy with rage at the sounds of cicadas, birds, and the wind, and nor do they drown endlessly trying to fight rivers. God knows what they’d make of a thunderstorm.

We do see one of the monsters eat a beaver or some such critter at one point, so the aliens clearly do attack and possibly eat more than humans. And yet, the countryside is not an Armageddon of bleating animals—from cows to mice to rabbit to pheasants to squirrels to badgers to sheep to goats—being torn to shreds by terrible monsters, who also might attack each other. Indeed, given that these monsters have such sensitive hearing, one wonders that they have ended up on the wrong planet, really. With no one realising that because their hearing is so sensitive, sound might actually be used against them. And certainly with no one realising that the aliens clearly are vulnerable when they expose their ears, and thus can be killed really quite simply—if you can shoot inside their open ear rather than at the rest of their impenetrable body.

(Presumably in this scenario, Cuba is safe, since Cuba knows how to use inaudible sound frequencies as a weapon, as per the rendering-deaf of various workers at the American Embassy in Havana. God damn those spick communists for being better able to stave off the apocalypse.)

Back to Lee. In 472 days, he has not been bothered to fix the massive nail that sticks up out of the stairs down to his basement, and on which Evelyn will later tread, presumably because he a) does not really like DIY, and b) because he really just wants to be left alone down there (he wants people to tread on the nail so that they won’t go down, with Lee refusing Regan entry to his den at one point in the film).

Furthermore, even though Lee climbs atop the corn tower every day to do his fire ritual (having not yet run out of lighter fluid), in 472 days and as a full-size human adult, he has not managed to fall through the roof of the corn tower, even though his small son manages to do exactly this later on in the film on what is, as far as we know, his first visit to that place (we can guess this because his son, Marcus, played by Noah Jupe, is a wuss who does not want to venture outside; Lee forces him to go fishing, where Marcus, clearly the inheritor of his father’s brains, finally realises that if he is around things louder than him, he can make noise, although why no one else has decided that behind a waterfall might be a good place to live in the era of these acoustic monsters is unclear).

When Marcus does fall inside the corn tower, one of the aliens arrives to kill him, but is put off by feedback from Regan’s otherwise malfunctioning hearing aid. The monster then bursts through the corn tower and out into the (still perfectly kept) corn field, only to reappear a bit later when Marcus and Regan are inside a now defunct car. But where the monster just ripped through a corn tower with ease, it apparently has much more trouble with car windows, meaning that Lee has time to arrive and sacrifice himself for his kids by causing a distraction.

Meanwhile, Evelyn has given birth and she keeps her new son (a replacement for Beau – yay!) in a coffin to keep him quiet—and an oxygen tank, which hopefully will last for three years or so before the newborn learns to be quiet. Even though this secret room is soundproof, and Evelyn and Lee can talk down there, it has enough holes in it that it floods when one of the monsters sets a pipe leaking upstairs while looking for them.

The point of this blog is not necessarily to demonstrate that A Quiet Place has as many holes in it as Lee’s sound-proofed room. Nor is it to suggest that if this film can get a major release, then The Room (Tommy Wiseau, USA, 2003) really should be upheld as an entirely legitimate film, since it makes about as much sense as this film, and yet was made for so much less money. Likewise, anyone who derides as inferior a movie like Mega-Shark versus Giant Octopus (Ace Hannah, USA, 2009) is duty-bound to do the same with this film—unless it is really cosmetic issues like budget that one wants to deride (i.e. what one really wants to deride when deriding Mega-Shark over A Quiet Place is poverty; this film may not make sense, but it’s a film with money, so it cannot be shit; only poor films are shit, like only poor people are shit, even though they may be much smarter than the rich male ‘heroes’ we have on display here).

Rather than make these points, though, the issue that I really want to address is why A Quiet Place is the way that it is.

Lee basically sits down in his basement doing completely useless things: making hearing aids that do not work, not fixing the nail, managing in 1.5 years to realise that ‘survival’ is key (no shit, Sherlock), and not reading the ways that might help him to survive the apocalypse, but just the headline that tells him that there are ways to do so. In other words, Lee is a redundant male and completely useless, consoling himself as being useful because he can fish and because he can light a fire with lighter fluid on the top of a corn tower, and sending pointless SOS signals via his radio rig.

At one point, we see a list of radio frequencies for him to try, and as Lee crosses out about the fifteenth frequency down a list of about twenty, you wonder whether he has really been trying to get help at all… Fifteen attempts in a year and a half, Lee? I mean, come on, man… how much do you want to get saved?

But this is the point: in its utter flimsiness, and in being predicated like many recent films around the premise of a dead and/or imminent birth (or in this case both), then A Quiet Place would seem to suggest that Lee does not want to get saved (he does not want anyone to answer the SOS call).

And why not? Basically because he fantasises about being in a world where finally his kids shut the fuck up and leave him alone to fuck about in his basement den doing absolutely nothing useful, but pissing away his time in the way that he wants and not responding to the demands of his family.

‘What do you mean I’ve only tried fifteen frequencies in a year and a half? Shut up! I’m busy. And no you can’t come down here to see how busy I am. You’d just get in the way. And ruin everything, like you’re ruining my life!’

‘Thank God that annoying kid got killed by that monster, even if I did make a token effort to save it. And better yet, I can punish his deaf sister for giving him the batteries and still claim to love her, even though she is deaf. And to top it all: hopefully my new son will both shut my wife up as she keeps banging on about replacing my dead son, while the screaming infant won’t have a hope in hell of surviving, so we might as well put him in a coffin already.’

The moral of the film, then, is that your kids will kill you—making your personal way of life untenable and taking away from you every freedom that you had and which narcissistically you do not want to give up, but in fact want to prolong, and preferably by producing not alien monsters, but clone versions of yourself.

Conversely, if you want to be a responsible father, then you must basically die for your kids—especially if humanity is to have a future. But who is prepared to die? While Lee does die in this film, the film is also about the difficulty he has in coming to this decision.

In its transition from selfish to selfless father, then, the film speaks to a contemporary world in which unruly kids are an abomination, and we pathologise and diagnose kids as having all manner of conditions, disorders and diseases in a bid to get them to shut up, and in a bid to get them to internalise as wrong the very things that make them most alive—namely their differences from their parents (with the pathologised kid being made both to shut up and getting to fool themselves that this uniformed shutting up is a signifier of how different from everyone else in the world they are, perhaps especially their parents, such that they feel exactly like an alien; that is, through their pathologisation, the kids are interpellated into solipsistic silence).

‘A kid that cannot behave? Socialise it through medication and medical diagnosis! Get to a world of silence where parenthood involves no sacrifice, but just a continuation of single and perhaps partnered life as usual.’

Perhaps this also reveals the function of horror stories: equally to get kids to behave by scaring the shit out of them (except that we can flush away that shit in our world, while it magically disappears in A Quiet Place).

More: it is the kids that are the monsters, since they, like the monsters, function in a world without language, without sense, in touch with chaos. It is through language (by being made not just to hear, but by being deafened by the cacophony of modernity) that they will be socialised and made to conform to the law of the father. Or else kill the father.

What this film reveals—the narcissism of the middle class white male (and perhaps of Krasinski as director, co-writer and star)—is also part of the problem: in getting to die for his kids, the useless white male is also rendered a hero, in the process having his cake and eating it—being correct to tell his kids to shut up, being allowed himself to do some shouting, and then being correct finally to let the monsters/the little monsters take over from him.

Notably, Regan and Evelyn take about two minutes after Lee’s death to work out how to kill the aliens, while Marcus whimpers in the corner with his baby brother. And so yes, we have an empowered pair of women, one of them ‘even more empowered’ because physically impaired/hard of hearing—which makes A Quiet Place all very fashionable given the presence of mute and/or deaf women in Oscar-winners The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) and The Silent Child (Chris Overton, UK, 2017), even if collectively these films suggest a desire for women to be mute and deaf in the era of #metoo.

But then we have just spent the best part of ninety minutes watching the patriarchy. Even when in auto-critique mode, then, the patriarchal film still preens itself in an overblown peacock display of uselessness, asking us to marvel at its ability to fart (or not)—and expecting to be loved for it. Much as there is some capable acting and directing here, A Quiet Place just seems to ask for too much.

NOTE: I arrived a few minutes after the beginning of the film, and so might have missed something important. That said, I asked one guy what happened and he said that he was asleep. And so I asked a couple what had happened, and they said that I had missed nothing (with one of them saying, remarkably, that they could not remember the beginning of the film).

Orfeu branco: You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, UK/France/USA, 2017)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

If The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017) recently won the Oscars for Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat), then clearly the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is completely incapable of discerning what makes a good film. Or rather, its concerns seem very far removed from mine, and its definition of cinema is vastly different from mine.

The Shape of Water is perfectly competent, and it has a few nice ideas. But it is nothing like the total masterclass in filmmaking that is You Were Never Really Here, which sees three of the finest filmmakers in the world (Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix and Jonny Greenwood) at the absolute top of their game (which is not to mention the film’s excellence in cinematography, editing, general sound design and more).

Oscar has deemed fit to reward You Were Never Really Here with zero nominations, suggesting that it is not interested in what I would call mature storytelling, but rather the infantile fantasies that we see peddled in The Shape of Water.

(Although, if Oscar is going to reward kids’ movies, then why it has not honoured the superior Paddington 2, Paul King, UK/France/USA, 2017, seems incomprehensible to me.)

Anyway, a gripe about how the Oscars seem to revel in a kind of puerile conservatism aside (the recognition of Jordan Peele and Sebastián Lelio’s work notwithstanding), this blog just wants to offer up a few thoughts about Lynne Ramsay’s masterpiece, which seems unlikely to be topped for me between now and the end of the year.

Firstly, Lynne Ramsay seems to have seen and to have taken notice of the growing body of work by the Safdie brothers, with its moody, claustrophobic cinematography and Greenwood’s dark retro synth score bringing to mind the recent Good Time (Ben and Josh Safdie, USA, 2017), with which You Were Never Really Here is in many ways comparable, given its emphasis on New York by night, New York on the move, and the interiors of lower middle and working class domestic spaces.

The other recent film that You Were Never Really Here resembles is S. Craig Zahler’s equally moody Brawl in Cell Block 99 (USA, 2017) – with ‘moody’ here clearly being a by-word for an emphasis on darkness, confined spaces, and an ambulatory approach to violence that is physical, intimate and gory.

For, You Were Never Really Here and Brawl in Cell Block 99 are both re-tellings of the myth of Orpheus, who must descend into the underworld in order to rescue Eurydice. But unlike Marcel Camus’ Orfeu negro/Black Orpheus (Brazil/France/Italy, 1959), which casts the myth alongside carnival and the slums of Rio de Janeiro, thereby giving a sense in which poverty is hell, in both Ramsay and Zahler’s films, hell is entering into the dark corridors of power – be that of the state’s penitentiary system in the latter, or the kiddy dungeons of the rich in the former.

The motif of ‘descent’ is clear as on at least two occasions, we see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe drop into frame from above – giving a literal sense of downwardness to his journey.

But in addition to being about downwardness, the film is also about absence – as the title of the film makes clear.

Joe is a military veteran whose hulking frame carries numerous scars, and who seems to have been shot, or witnessed a shooting, by a kid in a vaguely Middle Eastern-seeming location during his service. Now home, he rescues missing children from sex traffickers, while also living with his mother (Judith Roberts), whose health is clearly not great. Both his mother and Joe suffered at the hands of an abusive husband/father, with both Joe’s childhood and his military experiences being given to us in flashbacks that are haunting both for their brevity and for their beauty.

Ramsay’s film time and again marries the brutal with the tender, with an especial emphasis being articulated time and again on human touch and the feel of objects (hands on windows, hands on hands, hands on feet, and so on). Culture also is able to bring humans together, as characters sing songs (including an astounding sequence that sees two characters sing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’).

What is more, Joe and his mother bond over Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960), a film that is most famous for achieving maximum shock value while also showing next to nothing.

And in this intertext we get a sense of Ramsay’s mastery. It is not just that a good amount of the violence in You Were Never Really Here takes place offscreen, as per Psycho. It is that the film repeatedly stages Joe leaving the frame, with the picture then simply showing the spaces of the film’s action, rather than the action itself. This includes the film’s utterly absorbing final image, in which we see nothing more than a table at a diner where human figures earlier sat.

(Apologies for the vagueness in not saying who those figures are. But where normally I do not care about giving away spoilers, here I think it works to give as little of the film away as possible.)

With its emphasis on ’empty space,’ the space within the film becomes a ‘character.’ But more than this, we get a sense that space shapes character and behaviour more than human agents shape space.

That is, You Were Never Really Here suggests that humans are in effect utterly mindless in their belief that they are in control of their destiny and their choice of action, with the film seeking to make us mindful of how it is the environments that we create that shape our actions. New York lends itself to violence and to the trafficking of children for sex – even if any reasonable person would say that it is humans who are responsible for their depravity. It is not that humans are not responsible for their depravity; but we build environments where depravity is encouraged, and so it inevitably will grow.

Perhaps we can get a sense of this through the film’s final sequence, in which Joe attempts a second rescue in the house of wealthy businessman and state Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola). The camera emphasises in particular a black statue of a woman, and a painting of a semi-nude woman at the end of a corridor.

We are surrounded by depictions in our contemporary world of women as objects. We divide our contemporary world into small capsules (houses, rooms in houses) that we divide for the purposes of ‘privacy,’ and increasingly we remove common spaces for the purpose of developing property (the city as a pit of property development).

In each of these processes, there is an ideology of separation – of separating humans from each other and from the world that surrounds them through the erection of walls, and through the reduction of humans to objects (statues, paintings). If humans do not view each other as humans but as objects, then it is clear that humans will enact on each other things that are not humane, but which instead reinforce separation and objecthood.

For this reason, I say that sex trafficking is almost a logical consequence of the city.

But in making a film, is Ramsay not herself creating objects? Clearly, this is a risk that she runs. But it is perhaps for this reason that the characters in her film regularly elude the camera’s gaze – Joe leaves the frame, or is obscured from view – such that his life (and the lives of other characters) is paradoxically conveyed to us through its absence (Joe cannot be captured), rather than through its presence (which would be to reduce life by rendering the person an object; life must necessarily be other – otherwise it is not alive; and if it is other, it must necessarily elude us, since in eluding us, we get a sense that it has a life of its own, rather than being something that is there for us to/that we can control).

Through Joe regularly being absent from the frame (in never really being here), You Were Never Really Here suggests how in order to get a sense of ourselves, we have in some senses to question our own reality, rather than simply unthinkingly accepting it and its values.

What I mean by this is that if I am a product of my environment as much as I am an autonomous agent, and if life consists in an otherness that by definition eludes us, then ‘I’ am not what I think I am. In seeing that ‘I’ am not an ‘I’ that is separate from, but rather which is entangled with, my environment, I realise that ‘I’ is not really here. Indeed, I realise that ‘I’ is both here and there. And that to say ‘here’ is to  presume a fixed and autonomous ‘I.’ Properly to discover myself, I have to realise that I was never really here. You were never really here.

If you go with this perhaps necessarily obscure point (it is obscure in the sense that it is hard to see and, like Ramsay’s film, shrouded in darkness; we need to understand the importance of darkness and how to shine a light on darkness does not help us to understand it, but rather destroys it), then perhaps we can ask what cinema is.

For what cinema is, or what cinema can do, is to remind us that there is a world beyond us, and that we are thus not autonomous beings, but entangled beings.

How does cinema do this? Cinema does this by showing us other worlds.

Most films, however, show us other worlds as if they were objects for us to do with what we please. Like the statue and the painting, most films objectify the world that we see, and in the process they make us forget that we are watching a film (as the child molester forgets that he is molesting a human being). They do this through light and speed: there is nothing that eludes that mainstream film, but all is visible (darkness is destroyed), and everything moves so fast that it we do not have time to look at it for long enough to get a sense of its otherness.

In the film’s slowness and in Joe’s lumbering slowness, meanwhile, as well as in its emphasis on sheer physicality, we get a sense in You Were Not Really Here of how the film is other, moving at its own pace and not at the pace that we demand from it like slave drivers torturing their object-slaves into evermore accelerated productivity. Absent and slow, You Were Never Really Here runs the risk of alienating its audience (which is why Oscar does not and cannot acknowledge the film).

But through these very qualities, it takes on a life and shows us another world, reminding us not that we are immersed in a story-object as if we were there, but that we as viewers are seeing something other, and that we as viewers were never really here in the world where the story of You Were Never Really Here unfolds.

That is, the film in its title tells us to our faces that we are watching a film and that while this is a fiction, the power of its falseness lies in telling us that we are not autonomous beings, but that other people exist and that there are other ways of seeing the world beyond simply our own (paradoxically mass-produced) vision.

Not only were we never really here, but we’ve also never really been to me.

In 2010, Joaquin Phoenix returned to cinema after a hiatus with I’m Still Here (Casey Affleck, USA, 2010). In casting Phoenix (as well as in its references to Psycho), Ramsay seems once again to be making a film that self-consciously is a film – and one that approaches the critique of solipsism that we also find in Affleck’s film.

For, in Affleck’s mockumentary, Phoenix plays a would-be rapper called Joaquin Phoenix who is so out of touch with reality that he has absolutely no understanding of himself, so corrupted has he become by celebrity and self-absorption.

With Ramsay, Phoenix seems perhaps to be the only person who can see others as human beings and not as objects – the only person who is not solipsistic (and who rejects suicide on multiple occasions in spite of the pull towards it as an expression of how he regularly is made to feel alone in the world; perhaps it is noteworthy that his sense of otherness is experienced as a trauma undertaken both at home and at war, as if the family were as much a tool for war as military service itself).

What is more, Phoenix embodies arch solipsism in another film where he has to learn that he was never really Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 2013). That is, Theodore in that film must come to understand that the AI called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) eludes him, even though she/it should be an object that he can control.

We are all connected. But we are connected by difference, and not by an ability to control each other. To reduce each other and our world to objects is to destroy the life of that world and those people, much like shining a light on darkness destroys it. Its otherness is a marker of its life.

Lynne Ramsay’s latest film is from start to finish a masterpiece, filled with pregnant images that promise great meaning. Greenwood’s score and Phoenix’s performance are as good as they get.

As Oscar struggles forever to get to grips with otherness (issues of gender, issues of race in the American film industry), it seems a shame that a masterpiece like this one should get overlooked. Perhaps Hollywood cannot recognise otherness when it sees it (and when it does, perhaps it seeks to control it, perhaps even by giving an award to it). In this way, perhaps You Were Never Really Here is better off outside of the Oscars. But I for one feel that my world has improved by having seen it.