Kathryn Bigelow and the Few Bad Apples

For most of its sprawling, thematically dense runtime, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—is a politically daring, eerily prescient rebuke of the historically racist Los Angeles Police Department. As much as the film’s futuristic VR recording tech was predictive of the way police body cams & citizens’ cell phone footage would later change the way we publicly processed police brutality in the coming decades, it also served a snapshot of its then-current political angst. Strange Days plays like a big-budget blockbuster amplification of the racial police force pushback that led to the Rodney King riots, reinterpreting real-life civil unrest through a futuristic sci-fi lens. It’s a bizarre jolt of a letdown, then, when those citizens vs. police tensions are resolved in a last-minute turnaround where a police commissioner swoops in to admonish his corrupt, racist employees – simplifying the LAPD’s systemic racism to just a few rogue cops who don’t follow protocol. That same misinterpretation of racist policing in black neighborhoods would pop up again decades later, when Bigelow fixed her eye on a racist past instead of a racist future.

2017’s Detroit drew much more vocal criticism for its political shortsightedness than Strange Days suffered in the 90s, but that’s likely because more people happened to see it in the first place (not to mention the democratization of critical publication in a post-Twitter world). A brutal historical drama about the 1967 Detroit race riots, the film wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleasing box office smash, but Bigelow’s transformation from underappreciated genre film auteur to Oscar-winning establishment director means that every feature she releases in the modern era is something of an event. Like Strange Days, Detroit rushes out the gate throwing wild punches in a frenetic, meticulously detailed account of how one police raid of an unlicensed black nightclub spiraled out into a weeks-long, city-wide riot. The first hour of the film is an adrenaline-flooded nightmare as handheld war-style photography mixes with real-life news footage to paint the backdrop for the smaller, more confined story to follow in its second hour. It’s once the story slams the brakes to park at The Algiers Hotel in that second hour that the film draws a lot of its political backlash from critics – an unease with depictions of police brutality that was only exacerbated by the film being released the same week as the police-condoned racist mayhem of Charlottesville.

Once Detroit shifts from its macro view of how the 1967 riots ignited & spread to the specific, intimate terror of The Algiers Hotel, its interests shift from political unrest to militaristic torture. Convinced that a sniper in the hotel is shooting at the National Guards, a small band of police officers torture the business’s residents to “confess” who is guilty of the (non-existent) crime. The duration & methodical repetition of this sequence, in which several black men are murdered & psychologically tormented by white cops, drew a lot of criticism as torture porn that turned black pain & brutalized black bodies into mass entertainment. That lingering fixation on physical abuse & torture had been part of Bigelow’s visual language since her earliest features, an approach to storytelling that could only be described as “unflinching.” Whether that sensibility was worth continuing when she shifted into telling real-life black stories as a white artist is a conversation worth having, especially since Charlottesville was such a raw nerve when the film was first released. What really disappointed me about Detroit personally, though, was Bigelow’s continued reluctance to interrogate the racism of the offending police force as an institution rather than a defect among a few bad apples. She showed very little progress on that front in the 22 years between Strange Days & Detroit, if any at all.

In its superior opening hour, Detroit is actively interested in the institutional reinforcement of racial segregation & subjugation, which only makes its third-act backpedaling all the more frustrating. In a bewildering mixed-media collage of animation, real-life newsreel footage, and blood pressure-raising historical reenactments, Bigelow paints a wide picture of the systemic racial inequality that led to the civil unrest at the film’s core: the history of urban housing inequality and the cycle of white flight; the media coverage of the riots as senseless self-destruction rather than a purposeful expression of political discontent; the police force’s unwillingness to shoot looters dead, as they value property over black lives; etc. When we zero in on the extensive torture session at The Algiers, however, that critical eye towards institutionalized inequality becomes much murkier, to the point of being meaningless. Every commanding officer, National Guardsmen, and varying other police force higher-ups who catch wind of what the “rogue” cops did at The Algiers (entirely under the direction of a single bully, played by the eternally punchable Will Pourter) is disgusted by their actions. Although the real-life cops who committed these heinous acts were never fully held accountable, the movie makes sure it’s clear that they acted as a standalone gang of rotten apples. It makes no moves to interrogate how their evil acts may have been encouraged or even deliberately trained into them by their higher-ups. They’re portrayed as human flaws in the system, instead of the ugly truth that they’re a sign of the system working exactly as intended.

For me, Detroit is overall a mixed bag, but the in-the-moment effect of its intense opening hour is almost enough to carry it. There’s some truly impressive, ambitious craft on display from Bigelow before the film slams its brakes to dwell on militaristic torture tactics for a literal eternity. Strange Days is similarly upsetting in is own depictions of intimate brutality, but its bigger sci-fi ideas remain a work of sprawling ambition throughout, making for a wholly satisfying picture in its entirety. No matter how much my genre-nerd impulses allow me to overlook Strange Days’s political shortcomings, however, I can’t help but be disappointed to see Bigelow’s “a few bad apples” misinterpretation of systemic police brutality & racism continue all the way into the 2010s. It only makes the superior firm’s own backpedaling conclusion more of a letdown in retrospect.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Midsommar (2019)

“For Dani, it is a wish fulfillment fantasy. A fairy tale.”

About a week after seeing Midsommar, the friend with whom I attended a screening featuring a post-film Q&A with director Ari Aster turned to me as we were hanging out and asked, “Boomer, did you actually like Midsommar?” And I replied, “Yeah, of course I did. Didn’t you?” To which he responded, “I’m not sure. I think that Q&A kinda ruined it for me.” And I have to admit, as soon as the film ended, I was fully ready to do my write-up, only for my excitement to dwindle as Aster and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League swirled mostly-empty rocks glasses and chuckled. At first, I was mostly concerned for Aster’s feelings (I’m a softie like that); when I saw Hereditary, there wasn’t a single guffaw or chuckle from the audience with whom I sat in the dark and partook in a somber meditation on grief (at least until the very end, but I’ll circle back around to that), but in the sold-out audience for Midsommar, there were laughs within the first 5 minutes, leading to out-and-out peals of laughter until the film’s closing moments. I worried that Aster would hear this reaction and determine that we were a theater filled with bumpkins and deviants–and not the fun kind–who didn’t appreciate his work.

This was not the case, or if it was, Aster did a good job covering his disappointment, engaging in the good natured ribbing of the characters’ foibles, noting that if a viewer didn’t think the film was intentionally comedic by the time an older woman was manhandling the male lead’s buttocks and helping him thrust, then he must not have done his job. Comedy was his real interest, he stated, and he had gotten sidelined into doing horror because that seemed to be of greater public interest. And that is one of the beautiful draws of Midsommar: it is hilarious. I needn’t have worried at all it seems; I wrote in my Hereditary review about “a moment close to the end of the film that sent much of the auditorium agiggle, despite being one of the creepiest sequences,” but Aster stated that he himself found that scene hilarious, and it was intentionally comedic.

It’s been long enough since Midsommar came out that an extended director’s cut rerelease has already happened, but in case you’ve had the misfortune of missing the film, a brief synopsis: Dani (Florence Pugh), recently having experienced a horrific family tragedy, accompanies her douchebag boyfriend Chad Christian (Jack Reynor) on a trip to Sweden. Ostensibly, this is not a holiday but a research expedition as part of Josh (William Jackson Harper)’s thesis research about Hårga, the commune from which the group’s exchange student friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) hails. However, the inclusion of Mark (Will Poulter), a doofus completely lacking in even the least bit of self-awareness, cements that the Swedish foray exists solely for the purpose of eating a bunch of mushrooms and trying to bed as many commune girls as possible during the Hårga’s titular Midsommar festival, with this year’s being a special kind that only comes every ninety years. And then, as is the genre’s wont, bad things happen. And good things, too. After all, that quote about Dani above? That’s from Aster.

From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dead Calm to upcoming Movie of the Month Who Can Kill a Child?, I’m pretty much always on board with a daytime horror movie. Midsommar pushes past the boundary of the “day won’t save you” concept into a completely disorienting perpetual daylight. This starts even before the audience has the opportunity to ask themselves if something’s rotten in the village, when Mark expresses unease upon learning that it is after 8 PM, despite the sun still appearing high in the sky; the film takes advantage of the northern latitudes’ geographically anomalous prolonged days and plays on the effects that could arise from being unaccustomed to such an unusual night/day rhythm. Characters attempt to circumvent community rules under the cover of “darkness” with about the success that you would expect. People lose track of time and then possibly lose track of the concept of time, all under the watchful and unfaltering gaze of the sun. That alone isn’t enough to make the film worthwhile, of course; the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man kept the seminal original’s daytime frights, but lost the core of what made Robin Hardy’s version a classic (although what it lost in the fire it gained in the flood; it’s a romp).

What makes Midsommar work isn’t just the unease that comes from the finding of no safe haven from horror in the light, it’s also the discomfiting nature of lingering on what Aster called “static image[s] of relatively little interest.” It’s been three years since the YouTube channel “Every Frame a Painting” stopped updating, but I have no doubt that they would have a lot to say about the growing Aster oeuvre. His two big features so far have depended heavily on lingering shots of mostly-static settings to convey a sense of displacement and balance. The mainstream horror-going audience has spent over a decade now subsisting on films that depend heavily on unearned jump scares to produce a reaction, but Midsommar and its predecessor instead use the quietness of their presentation to inspire a disquiet of the soul. We’ve been forcefed Baghouls hiding behind open medicine cabinet doors for so long that when lingering shots of pastoral peace are succeeded by calm pans across striking farmhouses or documentarian framing of a Swedish banquet, there’s nowhere for that energy to go; so it just builds and builds until whoops, now you’re wearing a bear suit and boy are you not going to like it.

A friend who is known for his tirades recently produced a new rant about the performative sententiousness of horror fans, noting that many he has met seem to think that horror fans have a kind of ownership of subtextual analysis. And hey, I know I’ve been guilty of that. (Said friend also hated Hereditary, unsurprisingly.) In a way, Aster reminds me of Panos Cosmatos, in that his films act as originals in spite of being pastiches of older genre films; I’ve said before that my favorite thing about Hereditary is how it starts out as an apparent homage to The Bad Seed, before turning into Ordinary People for so long that you gaslight yourself into thinking all that seemingly extraordinary stuff from Act 1 was just in your head, before bam: Rosemary’s Baby all along. In Midsommar we find a movie that, frankly, owes its existence to the aforementioned The Wicker Man (1973, just to be clear), but has a lot more going on than at first meets the eye. You don’t need another thinkpiece on this movie; various outlets have already dove into the apparent pro-eugenics nature of the narrative, an argument that I’ve read four times now and still have difficulty following, and have read the film as a trans narrative and a new camp classic. And if a slightly sloppy Q&A (someone actually gave Aster their contact info on a Drafthouse order card and asked to work on his next project, so the audience was matching the level of “shoot your shot” that the director was putting out, at least) in which Aster admitted under questioning that the 72-year life cycle didn’t actually jibe with the 90-year festival cycle didn’t ruin it altogether, I don’t think anything can.

P.S.: I didn’t even get to touch on my three favorite moments, but here they are:

  1. The paneled cloth depicting a particular Hårga fertility ritual, and each time that something popped up on screen that had appeared in it previously (how Christian didn’t notice that his lemonade was distinctly pinker than anyone else’s is a mystery).
  2. The foreshadowing in Pelle’s scene with Dani, where he tells her that his parents died too. In a fire.
  3. “What game are those kids playing?”
    “Skin the fool.”

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond