Thursday, September 14, 2017

Get Out! Fear and Horror

Fear:  this is the predominant subjective experience of African Americans as related by DorothyHolmes, an African American Psychoanalyst, in her Plenary Address to theAmerican Psychoanalytic Association

Horror: what better means of conveying fear to an audience within a movie setting?  The master of horror – before it became a cheap thrill industry – was Hitchcock, and it was Hitchcock’s conscious intent to induce in the audience the fear he felt as a five year old child when he was taken to be locked in the local constable’s jail cell for an overnight stay after some infraction that he had committed at home.  Apparently his father was friends with the constable and thought this would teach young Alfred a lesson – boy did it ever (btw, there are various versions of this tale, I don’t know which is true – I offer this one less as a historical note than to illustrate that movies can be used to communicate emotions – and fear is one that Hitchcock traded in – apparently from some early trauma which induced fear in him).

Jordan Peele is the director of Get Out.  I know his work primarily from the Key and Peele show, which I generally am seeing streaming on the T.V. when the oldest reluctant stepdaughter is watching it.  The show is witty and sometimes downright funny, but it can also seem loose and it occasionally beats a joke to death (I’m thinking of the sketch about weird names associated with African American football players).  He is the more rotund of the pair...

This movie is not loose.  It is incredibly tight, well-acted, and the plot is so well crafted that the ending is a delightful blind side – this movie is Hitchcockian in both the intense suspense, but also in the production value.  So, if you haven’t seen it and intend to, stop now before I ruin your experience and come back and read this once you’ve seen it.  I will let you know that it is a bit gory in the more modern horror tradition, but not over the top gory – in fact, the reluctant wife who saw it with me and is more uncomfortable with violence onscreen than I currently am, found the gore to be almost cathartic.  That said, there are some surgical moments that she and I had to look away from (and now I am coming close to the spoiler time, so if there is a chance you will see it and haven’t, really do stop reading).

Before the opening credits, we are treated to a violent kidnapping – one that takes place not in the inner city, but in the suburbs, and the violence is done by a helmeted – though it could be a KKK hatted – white against an African American male who is freaked out by being in the suburbs - and knows that he is vulnerable there.  Without explanation, we transition after the credits to a wonderfully warm interaction between a black man, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) whose photographs adorn the walls in his hip apartment and his white girlfriend Rose (played warmly, authentically and then chillingly by Allison Williams) as they prepare to go to her home in the country to meet the parents – who have not been told that the boyfriend is black.  This is the first warning signal to Chris – and to us – that something might be amiss.  Rose reassures Chris that her parents are liberal – her father will tell him that he would have voted for Obama a third time – but Chris – and we – are uneasy.  This is her first black boyfriend she is bringing home and we know that will be an issue.  Perhaps even more so for a family that denies their own racism.

Chris and Rose meet the Parents

After killing a deer with their car on the way up – which we just know is foretelling what is to come – Chris enters Rose’s parent’s home like a deer in the headlights.  After being treated to a tour of the house by Rose’s father (played in as straightforward and comfortable a fashion as I have seen Bradley Whitford play a role), where Chris learns that Rose’s paternal grandfather lost his chance to race in front of Hitler because he was beaten by the great black track star Jesse Owens – and that “he almost got over it”, and seeing the kitchen “where a slice of Rose’s paternal grandmother” remains – in the form of the black maid who cared for her when she died, and the black gardener who cared for the grandfather is also still working on what is beginning to feel like a plantation – we get more worried.  And it all seems a little too weird that Chris and Rose are to bunk together in Rose’s room – there’s an “it’s cool” vibe that feels forced.  Yes, she is an adult.  Yes adults can choose who will sleep in their rooms.  But she is going home to her parents and they, who don’t even know how long the couple has been dating, are fine with them sleeping together?  Oh, and there’s the reunion party this weekend that Rose didn’t know about – like she should have figured it out and of course the parents didn’t need to mention it when she talked about coming up.  Huh?


But the part that is the spookiest and that clues us in (as if we didn’t know from the advertising) that this is a horror movie, is the behavior of the black servants.  They looked hypnotized or drugged or something – and they don’t act black. Or maybe they are acting old time black – where they are subservient in an obsequious manner – but they don’t drop this when they talk with Chris – another African American… They are odd.  And oddness is the hallmark of horror.  Something isn’t right – and over time we discover what that is.  In the worst horror movies – and I have been treated to Texas Chainsaw Massacre – what is not right is so over the top that the movie falls apart and you can laugh it – or so my friend claimed who promised to meet us at the film to laugh at it – as if it were a comedy.  But generally, at least for me, by the time the thing falls apart I am so horrified, grossed out, and nauseous that I don’t gain any pleasure from how thin the premise is that is holding the movie together.  So I expected that the secret behind the odd behavior of the blacks would be the unravelling of the movie.

The comic relief centered around one explanation of the black servants.  Chris’s friend Rod (played by Lil Rel Howery) keeps howling that they are using the blacks as “sex slaves” which makes sense because he is hearing the description, but if he were actually seeing these spaced out creatures, he would never imagine that – these are the least sexual beings you could imagine.  They are all but dead.  But they are creepy.

So things just get more bizarre when Chris gets up in the night to go outside to smoke a cigarette and the groundskeeper comes running at him at a million miles an hour and the maid looks at him sidelong out the window and then he is hypnotized by Rose’s mother (played by Catherine Keener) who is a psychiatrist.  He has a deeply disturbing experience in which he remembers his mother’s death and then feels himself falling into despair – and he is suspended in space – unable to return to the room – but then awakens in bed and it all feels like a bad dream, except that he has no desire to smoke – one of the promised benefits of the hypnotism that he had, the day before, refused when it had been offered.  Chris now, as Rose’s father promised he would after hypnotism, wants to vomit just at the thought of smoking.

The reunion party turns out to be an odd collection of people who interact with Chris around his blackness – in ways that are incredibly creepy.  He meets another weird black guy – one who is so not black that he returns a fist bump with a handshake.  When Chris takes a flash picture of the man, he becomes black and tells Chris in genuine terror to “Get Out” (he is, btw, the person who was abducted in the opening scene, so we are now beginning to put pieces together).  After the black man is calmed down – returned to being not black - Chris and Rose go to have some alone time while the adults play Bingo, which is, in reality, an auction and we just know that they are bidding on Chris.

And this is one of those places where a horror movie should break down.  Who would collude to get together and auction a person?  Civilized people would not do this, right?  But of course they have.  The myth of the old south, promulgated by films such as Gone with the Wind, is that there was never a higher nor more honorable society than that one.  And one of its bases was, of course, the buying and selling of slaves.  This horrific movie, which is going to tell us about a fictional and unsupportable reality, is actually based on an ugly truth that we can’t erase.  This film, when it should begin to fray, becomes tighter.  We are now locked into something that is both unbelievable and undeniably true.  How can this be?

So, the next step – the horrendous moment when this becomes Frankensteinian and we should scoff at it, becomes oddly chilling.  And the gore that accompanies it – the gore of the surgery that will allow the highest bidder to occupy the majority of Chris’s cranium and just keep enough of him (a sliver) around to run the arms and legs and work the sensory apparatus becomes difficult to watch – as I mentioned before, we turned away – and this helps this most difficult part of the film seem oddly plausible – even though the notion of a surgery this complex taking place in a basement with only one assistant who is unreliable is incredibly ridiculous.  We are turning away not just from the surgery but from the unreality of what is happening onscreen.

And the other gore that occurs – the vengeance of the black man done wrong – of Chris who uses the cotton that his ancestors picked to stop his ears and prevent the continuing hypnotism that is leading relentlessly to his psychological death – is welcomed, even by those of us who are averse to violence.  We do not look away but take some joy in the retribution.  This is violence in the name of good over evil – until we see the cops come and just know that Chris is going to be blamed for all of this and go to jail for ever, especially when Rose finally quits being the cold trawler for black booty that she was all along and goes back into an act, this time pleading with what we know will be a white officer to save her from this brutal beast of a black man – and we are suddenly terrified not by the family nor by Chris and his violence – but for Chris.  We know that he will be done wrong by the system – by the man – and there is nothing that will save him.  At this moment – and it only lasts a moment – the filmmaker has, I believe, achieved his goal.  We have an empathic moment with the black man whose life is in peril not because of what he has done, but because of what he has been pulled into.  And we somehow know what it means to be scared because of who we are – not because of what we have done.

Jordan Peele releases this tension quickly – he does not hold us in it – but let’s us return to a reality where good people don’t have bad things happen to them.  He has terrified us enough in the film and with this moment.  We are like the black men who have been awakened by the flash only to return to being docile – because if we aren’t docile the whole of civilization will come tumbling down.  We need to go back to being in denial and we need to have a happy (ish) ending.

Fortunately this movie is not yet over for us.  Yes the credits roll and we leave the theater or turn off the T.V., but we stew about it.  And we put pieces together as we reconstruct it from the vantage point of knowing what was really going on.  So when Chris describes his parents by saying that his father was never in the picture and that his mother died when he was 11, I realize that I was played for a mark.  My prejudiced thought – something like this is a typical back story for an African American male – hides that this is the intent of Rose – to find someone with no family ties because they will be vulnerable to the kidnapping and destruction.  But then, to fold it back out, my prejudice is based in part on fact – the fracturing of the African American family has – what? – made African American men terribly vulnerable to, for instance, being jailed and losing the better parts of their productive lives.

This film is a deep and disturbing commentary on race in America at the present time.  In this commentary, it is the connections within the African American community that will protect vulnerable men like Chris.  These are, I think, being portrayed as being shredded by the assimilation of blacks into white culture that occurs when African Americans move into the mainstream culture.  I think that the Zombie like performances where the whites have taken over the black brains is a not too subtle reference to what Dave Chappelle noted in his Emmy winning Saturday Night Live monologue the week after Trump was elected.  He compared successful blacks to Brooklyn where, as their success increases, the blacks  in their lives move out and the whites move in.  Now this sentiment, if it is there, is deeply coded.  I don’t know if this last interpretation is correct.  But I think this movie serves a platform for many thoughts like that – and it can give us pause as we struggle with how to view current race relations in the U.S.  


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