Giving Aster Enough Rope

I’ve been getting lazy about how & why I group films together in these self-published reviews.  My methodology boils down to comparing movies I happened to see around the same time regardless of their genuine connections, which is why I’m about to unfairly compare A24’s poster Enfant Terrible against The Master of Suspense.  I happened to watch Ari Aster’s latest crowd-troller Beau is Afraid on the same day (and the same bus line) as Hitchcock’s dinner party thriller Rope, which recently screened in The Prytania’s Classic Movies series.  Watching such a messy, sprawling odyssey so soon after seeing Hitchcock at his tightest & most controlled didn’t do Beau is Afraid many favors, but the comparison was more damning to the way the movie industry has changed in recent decades than it was to the young filmmaker working in that hellscape.  This blog post isn’t an argument in favor of returning to the clockwork Studio System that propped Hitchcock up for cinematic worship & infamy, or at least that’s not how I intend it.  What I’m more interested in is the pressure imposed on these two filmmakers by their public to deliver historic greatness with every single picture, a cultural impulse that’s become exponentially hyperbolic with the modern invention of online movie fandom – something Hitchcock was lucky to die before witnessing.  When Ari Aster makes a movie that alienates his audience, fanboy freaks vocally rage against the screen, demanding that the studio executives at A24 be “held accountable” and that no fellow patrons in the theater “better fucking clap” in appreciation.  By contrast, Hitchcock didn’t make much of a name for himself until his third feature film, the silent Jack the Ripper thriller The Lodger, which did already have some hyperbolic critics declaring it “the finest British production ever made” but didn’t inspire widespread audience obsession with the boardroom politics of the studio that greenlit it, Gainsborough Pictures. Once Hitchcock really was directing the finest thrillers ever made, he had dozens more titles behind him.  Rope was his 37th feature film; Vertigo was his 47th; my personal favorite, Psycho, was his 49th.  Ari Aster will never reach those numbers with this kind of A24 fanboy scrutiny pressuring him to outdo himself with every project, a problem I’m only compounding by comparing him to a master of the artform.  If anything, it feels as if Aster’s artistry has already imploded under the pressure just three features into his career.

I enjoyed Beau is Afraid.  Lately, I’ve been struggling to get onboard with Charlie Kaufmann-style journeys into the artist’s mind, having been disappointed by big-swing solipsism epics like I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The House That Jack Built, White Noise, and Under the Silver LakeBeau is just as guilty of tedious self-obsession as those overlong annoyances, especially as Aster uses Joaquin Phoenix’s put-opon avatar as an excuse to voice his own struggles with Anxiety, Guilt, and Mommy Issues.  The visualization of those struggles is often darkly hilarious, though, literalizing an anxious introvert’s fears so that the world looks as hellish as it feels to navigate.  I appreciated Beau is Afraid most for its big-picture statements on modern life, not its insular ruminations on life inside Ari Aster’s head.  In its most powerful form, it’s a grotesque caricature of modern American paranoia, taking a misanthropic view on everyone from violent urban maniacs to suburban security freaks to self-absorbed artists & off-the-gridders to the outlandishly cruel ultra-rich.  We’re all monstrous & unworthy of love in our own way, at least as portrayed in this elaborate Aristocrats joke at our expense.  At the same time, I’m not convinced that Aster was fully ready to make a statement that grand & all-encompassing.  He’s still finding his voice as an artist, and yet he’s already blurting out everything he has to say just in case he’s never handed a microphone this loud again.  Beau is Afraid drips with the desperation of a filmmaker who doubts he’ll ever get the opportunity to make another picture on its scale, so he better exorcise all thoughts about life inside & outside of his skull lest they be trapped forever.  And if the studio-obsessed C.H.U.D.s in the audience who are throwing literal rotten tomatoes in his direction had their way, he’d be proven right.  Aster belongs to a small class of young, instantly famous filmmakers who are carrying immense anticipation to deliver an era-defining classic with each subsequent project, joined only by the likes of Robert Eggers & Jordan Peele.  It even feels perverse to say that I enjoyed Beau is Afraid just fine; it was neither the greatest nor the worst movie I saw this past week, much less the greatest or worst movie of all time.  That kind of mixed-but-leaning-positive reaction can’t take up much real estate in modern movie discourse, though, not while violent nerds are calling for Aster’s head on a pike, acting exactly like the crazed ghouls they just watched onscreen.

In a way, Rope is just as showy & virtuosic as Aster’s latest; it’s just much less desperate.  The thing most audiences remember about Hitchcock’s real-time howcatchem is its early prototype of the single-shot stunt film, which would not be practically possible until movies went digital.  Restrained by the length of his film reels, Hitchcock cleverly “hides” his cuts to simulate the experience of one, unbroken 80-minute take.  Only, he doesn’t really.  Most of the “hidden” cuts are shamelessly blatant zoom-ins on the back of the same character’s dinner jacket, as if Hitchcock were so confident that his audience would follow along for the ride that he felt no need to impress us with variations on the gimmick.  He finds other ways to show off without ever leaving the loft, gliding the camera to expertly timed character observations and shoehorning in his trademark onscreen cameo as a neon silhouette in the apartment window.  What most impressed me watching it with an audience on the same day I watched Beau is Afraid is that it managed to provoke the exact reactions Aster was looking for without ever making a big show of it.  Hitchcock had the audience laughing at cruelty & violence against our better judgement.  Speaking personally, he also took me on a journey of immense interiority, clashing both sides of my personality against each other onscreen: the flamboyantly wicked artist Brandon & the timid, guilt-ridden Cancer who ruins all his plans.  Those two unlikely murderers strangle an acquaintance they consider intellectually beneath them in the very first screen, purely for the perverse pleasure of the act.  Then they throw a dinner party on top of his corpse, earning big laughs out of the morbid tension of their misdeeds with every bitchy academic ice-queen bon mot at his expense.  Even knowing the story could only end one glaringly obvious way, I had the time of my life riding the tension to that predetermined destination, and I’d much sooner return to the theater to rewatch that glorified stage play than I would Aster’s Herculean attempt to capture everything everywhere all at once in a single, unwieldy container.  Rope somehow really was one of the greatest films I’ve seen in my life. It was also a routine matter of course for its director, who was just trying to deliver his 3-dozenth entertaining genre picture, not a flailing attempt by an upstart youngster trying to deliver one of the all-time-greats right out the gate.

As I already acknowledged, I’m contributing to the exact problem I’m citing here by comparing Aster to such a Film Studies syllabus titan, but I can’t help that the comparison is what happened to be on my mind that sunny Sunday afternoon.  I’m an indoor kid, and I chose to hide from the beautiful weather in two different movie theaters on different sides of town, despite the hellish experience of interacting with strangers along the way.  I at least hope that this aimless, self-defeating rant is somewhat in the spirit of Beau is Afraid, a film I can’t seem to write about any more clearly or directly.  I also hope, against all logic, that Aster gets to make dozens more aimless, self-defeating rants just like it so that he fully develops his craft and—sometime in the 2040s—gets to make his batshit epic equivalent of Rope when he’s at his most confident & efficient.  It’s a lot more likely that audience pressure & hyperbole will make that ideal outcome impossible, though, so I suppose it’s for the best that he settled for making a pretty good version of that movie now while he has the chance.

-Brandon Ledet

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