In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?
On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.
One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is supposed to be about ghosts. Thinking back over the film’s 124 minutes, however, I don’t remember seeing very many of them. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen most of the spooks in the script. There’s the Gatekeeper, of course. There’s the Keymaster and Gozer the Gozerian. There are the little Stay-Puft men, indistinguishable from Minions in an alternate movie universe. There’s an old miner and a new Slimer. A few more ghosts ramble around here and there, and some old friends return, living and dead.
There may not be very many ghosts on the screen, but Afterlife is a thoroughly haunted picture. Forget about those old Sumerian demigods, though. This reboot is haunted by two insidious specters that Stantz, Winston, Venkman and the kids could never hope to bust: the ghost of the American century and the ghost of science. When you put them together, Afterlife is something more than a comedy-horror reboot. Afterlife is an tragedy mourning the decline of twentieth century liberalism.
The first ghost is the specter of the American century. Like any ghost, it is difficult to pin down. Don’t seek it in the foreground. Look for it instead in the film’s sensibilities, in the aesthetic choices that shape its sets, costumes, vehicles, and props. Those choices outline a ghost of the American century. It is a warm presence, all golden hour and oversaturation, permeating the film. The prevailing kitsch of this ghostly mirage—the corn fields, main streets, drive-in cafes, grain silos, electric guitars, blue jeans, and other heartland mid-century ephemera—susurrates quietly in the background and tilt-shifts the perspective, rendering the town of Summerville and the surrounding landscape in idyllic miniature.
Like the seismic charts hanging on the walls of Summerville, we can trace the epicenter of the American century’s ghost to “Spinners,” the drive-in café in the middle of town. This oversaturated temple to the departed teen culture of the 1950s and 1960s is where Finn Wolfhard’s character, Trevor, finds love and gets a job. “Spinners” seems to occupy the vital center of the town’s social life as well. In the “Spinners” scenes there are people everywhere, drivers and pedestrians mingling in conversation, music blaring, peals of laughter, old people and young, pickup trucks and Subarus. Contrast this with the scene at your local Sonic restaurant, where rolled-up windows on idling vehicles enforce the separation of the patrons into family units. One would be hard-pressed to find the sort of inter-class, open social environment thriving at “Spinners” anywhere in the real America.
Follow the tremors of nostalgia outward from Spinners, and you will find the ghost of the American century everywhere. It drifts around the crumbling grain silos outside of town. It haunts the faded Stay-Puft marshmallow advertisement painted on a downtown wall. It inhabits the beautifully maintained 1978 Ford Ranchero GT owned, inexplicably, by one of the teenagers who works at Spinners. It squeaks in the wheels of junky Radio Flyer wagons in the old field outside of the factory. It acts as a preservative in the old half-eaten Crunch Bar young Spengler pulls from the pocket of her grandfather’s Ghostbusters uniform. See it once; see it everywhere.
Twenty years ago, a ghost of the American century would have looked like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting. All pastiche and cliché, it still would have carried itself with a sort of genteel dignity, a winking self-awareness that connected the living present to the departed past. It was both an aspirational cliché and a self-reflection: a ghost we could all see ourselves becoming someday, if we die righteously. The ghost haunting Summerville, Oklahoma is not as legible. This is a ghost haunting the post-apocalypse. The element of self-reflection is gone. We are encouraged by light, sound, and decay to situate the town somewhere in the past, but it is unclear where in time its development is supposed to have stopped. Is Summerville stuck in the 1950s? The 1980s? It doesn’t matter. Viewers in 2021 can no longer discern the difference between the two. All of it now is the 1900s, a golden era gone.
We have a harder time than ever before seeing ourselves in the old American century, but Afterlife wants us to understand that it was a better time. Rusted silos, sagging rooflines, and burnt-out lights on the marquee signs suggest that the town’s best days are gone. Except for flipping burgers, stocking shelves, or policing, it is unclear what anyone in town does for a living. The mine shut down decades ago. The farm infrastructure is old and unused. Spinners, Walmart, and the state are the only going concerns. This, too, is a manifestation of the American ghost. The signal fades.
The ghost of the American century is a specter of history. The second ghost haunting the town of Summerville is the poltergeist of science. You need not seek this spirit lurking in the background, however. It is there, everywhere, in perfect focus, lavished with thought.
Writers Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman cast these two spirits in opposition to one another. “History is safe,” Paul Rudd—who plays Gary Grooberson, a geologist moonlighting as a summer school teacher to study the seismic anomalies in the area—tells the kids in one scene. “Science is all particle accelerators and hydrogen bombs.” One is boring, in other words; the other is cool. One is quietly dead; the other seems almost alive.
Set aside the question of history for a moment. What is science? “Science is punk rock,” Grooberson says. “Science is a safety pin through the nipple of academia.” Punk rock, like science, is an attitude, a set of beliefs. We learn little of the philosophy of science in Afterlife, however. Instead, the ghost of science in Summerville is made of gear. Egon Spengler’s old workshop overflows with stuff. Ecto-1 is top heavy with racks, hoses, antennae, and other things. Proton packs, goggles, scopes, sensors, containment units, gauges, switches, pedals, buttons, and other bits of equipment surround the characters when they do science. There is no method. There are no hypotheses, no failed assumptions, no notebooks. Characters see a problem; they deploy a tool. The problem is solved. If academia is full of uncertainty, science in Summerville truly is the safety pin in its nipple. There is no uncertainty in the haunted mansion of science.
We do not pierce the veil of science in Summerville, but we are encouraged to see its moral shadow. This, too, is not what the characters claim. Grooberson says: “Science is pure. It’s an absolute. It’s an answer to all the madness.” It was “science,” however, which flowed from Summerville’s vein of selenium through the twisted hypotheses of Ivo Shandor to shape Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building in New York. “Science”—the sciences of mining, smelting, electrical engineering, et cetera—enabled the construction of the building. Science, too, brought the original Ghostbusters together and informed their work. In the Ghostbusters universe, as in real life, science is yin and yang, promise and peril. Afterlife buries the peril in the promise. Where have we seen that before?
A “pure” world without uncertainty was a key promise of the American heyday, too. The brutal efficiency of the marketplace, the genius of its innovators, the inherent righteousness of its existence: these forces had triumphed over fascism, the story went, as surely as they would triumph over communism, cancer, hunger, the colonization of space. Along the way maybe history itself—that incessant dialectic of class warfare—would come to an end. It is an idea worth mourning, perhaps, if you can believe it.
Try as they might, however, the filmmakers cannot separate the ghost of America from the ghost of science. My schoolbooks from the 1900s maintained that these two were symbiotically linked. American greatness flowed from the font of science, they argued, which flowed from the font of greatness, and so on. American power was transcendent, airborne, contemptuous of limits, devastating in its mastery of the natural world. The comfort it enabled was highly engineered.
The ectoplasm of American scientific power paints a different picture. The chronicles of nuclear devastation on Planet Earth, the inexorable decline which renders the memory of the American century in Summerville through a darkening glass, and the persistence of an ancient Sumerian demigod in a mountain just outside of town suggest that history is unsafe, and science is impure. We should not mourn them, but we cannot escape them. Like intrusive thoughts, they color our experience of the world. They refract our understanding, twist our nostalgia in subtle ways. They haunt even our blockbuster film franchises. Our only hope to overcome their decrepit influence is to leave them in the past.
Let us create new things.
There was a prolonged moment after World War II when the road symbolized for Americans ultimate freedom. These were the years of interstate highways, land yachts, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, teenage hot rodders, drive-in movies and drive-up restaurants. Empowered by all things automotive, the story goes, Americans were footloose and wild. As a result they lived through hard drinking years, fast living, devil may care years. So it goes. From Happy Days to the good-old days long gone in the animated film Cars, we’ve idealized the period to the point of caricature.
Underneath all of this there lurked a menacing darkness. Killers roamed the highways. Cons, pimps, and addicts thrived in the automotive underground. Post-traumatic former GIs, reliving the horrors of Guadalcanal or the Bulge, struggled to hold it together. Women and minorities took the brunt of it. Woe betided those who happened to be both. Automotive freedom ran like a wine dark current beneath this moment, empowering some as thoroughly as it shackled and destroyed others.
A modest but brilliant noir picture emerged from this ambivalent milieu: Ida Lupino’s chilling feature, The Hitch-Hiker. Released in 1953, it is important that this is the only classic noir directed by a woman. It is not the only entrée in the genre to call the free-wheeling postwar world to account, but Lupino’s gaze, executed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and carried out by deft performances on the part of the film’s three stars, is attuned to cruelty and power in a way that her male counterparts did not grasp in their cynicism or machismo.
The premise of the film is straightforward. It was based on the killing spree of Billy Cook, a drifter and small-time hood with a deformed eye who gained notoriety for a 22-day rampage that left six people dead on the road from Missouri to California. In the film, Cook is represented by the character Emmett Myers, ably performed by a dead-eyed William Talman in his best role before moving to the small screen on Perry Mason. We meet Myers mid-spree. His M.O. is to hitch a ride, kill the driver, and steal the car, along with the driver’s wallet, before moving onto the next victim. After another grisly killing, Myers sticks out his thumb and hitches a ride with fishermen Roy Collins, played by Edmond O’Brien, and Gilbert Bowen, played by Frank Lovejoy. These two are old friends enjoying a taste of freedom from their domestic lives on a weekend outing to the Gulf of California when they pick up Myers, who proceeds to lead them at gunpoint on a wild odyssey into Mexico, where he plans to kill them and board a ferry to freedom across the Gulf of California. A taut thriller ensues, driven by stark contrasts, interesting inversions, and powerful frustrations, until Myers runs hard into the arms of justice and the fishermen are delivered from their terrible captivity.
Lupino manages to achieve much in the film’s meagre 71 minute runtime. Most striking to me are the contrasts, both visual and atmospheric, that serve the story. The setting alternates from the hotbox enclosure of Collins’ and Bowen’s car to the wide-open desert spaces through which it is passing. Collins and Bowen are seated in the light up front; Myers is shrouded in darkness in the backseat. Myers is blind in one eye and sharp as a hawk in the other. These contrasts are amplified by inversions, however. Collins is a mechanic and driver. He possesses the most power, therefore, in the most enclosed space. Bowen is the only character who can speak Spanish. Myers holds a gun, then, but Bowen has the power of knowledge when they need to resupply in one of the sleepy Mexican hamlets along the way. Ultimately, the dynamic that emerges between the three characters is a sort of inverted buddy feature. I often found myself wondering whether Bowen and Collins would remain friends when the ordeal was over, or if they would go their separate ways.
The Hitch-Hiker was a B picture for a reason, however. Its weaknesses are plain. There are holes in the plot big enough to drive the fishermen’s Plymouth through. The opportunities for the captives to overpower Myers and run away are seemingly endless, for example. The plot does nothing with the interesting inversions of power represented by the captives’ advantages in mechanical and linguistic knowledge, either. When Bowen speaks with Mexican characters in the film—all of whom are represented in the round, an unexpected breath of fresh air for the time—the opportunities are as tantalizing as his failure to capitalize on them is frustrating. The outcome is predictable, and the film’s short runtime does not allow Lupino to introduce many curves in the road on the way there.
Despite these flaws, The Hitch-Hiker is a must-see noir thriller. Uncluttered and raw, beautifully shot and intelligently optimistic in the shadow of the dark real-world events that shaped its story, the film captures the ambivalence of a moment in American history rich with opportunity but scarred by violence and despair. Imagine watching it in the bench seat up front of an old Chrysler parked in a darkened lot, soundtrack blaring through a speaker hung on the window. After the movie you drop off the speaker on the way out and drive home laughing about your date’s white knuckles when they clutched your knee at the suspenseful parts. You round a bend in the road, straining to see in the weak headlight beams what might be in the dark pavement ahead, and there is a lonesome man in a dark jacket on the side of the road, thumb stuck out, pointing your way. You keep driving.
In The Practice of Poetry, Robin Skelton argues that the poet’s “problem is finding out… how to detect the verbal excitements surrounding our perceptions, and how to discover in ourselves a confusion rich enough to compel us to investigate it.” Inspired by these words, I created a notebook (entitled, fittingly enough, “A Treasury of Verbal Excitements,”) to jot down all of the little bits of inspired writing I come across during the day. It’s helped me to be a more attentive reader and a more productive writer, so I highly encourage giving it a try.
We need not limit ourselves to verbal excitements, however. Why not visual excitements, audio excitements, culinary excitements? With that in mind, I started another notebook this weekend–“A Treasury of Visual Excitements”–and started filing away clippings that I liked. But why not share them here instead?
Here’s the first “visual excitement,” a beautiful clip from Ang Lee’s woefully under-rated 1991 film, Pushing Hands. This scene comes near the end of the film. The rest is beautiful in its simplicity, and in the space it allows its characters to fill, but this moment captured my attention and stayed in my head the for the rest of the evening. I love it.
A list of interesting things new and old that I’ve read or experienced this week. I do not endorse or even necessarily agree with anything on the other side of these links.
Broderick, Ryan. “Happy Birthday, Guy Fieri,” at Garbage Day. — Because after I had read or heard about eighty GameStop and wallstreetbets explainers this week I was thrilled to read: “It is both terrifying and liberating to look clear-eyed into the meaningless void at the heart of modern life and accept it for what it is.” This looks like a decent mailing list, actually.
Cho, Adrian. “The cloak-and-dagger tale behind this year’s most anticipated result in particle physics,” at Mel. — If the wild intro that uses the R.E.M. song about the beating of Dan Rather in 1986 as a way to start an article about particle physics doesn’t grab you, perhaps the science will. Bonus: fans of Bruno Latour and the anthropology of science will definitely nerd out on the breathless description of laboratory heroics.
Grimm, David. “Ice age Siberian hunters may have domesticated dogs 23,000 years ago,” at Science. — Fuck it, I like dogs and I wanted to include this one.
Klee, Miles. “Everything you Never Wanted to Know about the ‘Sigma Male.'” — Machines turn inputs into outputs. The internet is a machine that transforms time into ever more toxic forms of masculinity.
Pahokee. Directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan. 2020. — A beautiful documentary on four high school students in the titular town, a small (by South Florida standards) farming community down on Lake Okeechobee. The link goes to Kanopy. If you have a library card you can probably watch the film for free and then choose a few more to watch gratis, too.
Vast of Night. Directed by Andrew Patterson. 2020. — Look, this isn’t Spielberg, but it captures a little tiny bit of the magic from Close Encounters while imparting its own awareness of space, pace, and light. It’s a memorable film on Amazon Prime.
If you like the ’90s you will probably enjoy this playlist of songs from a 1996 compilation called This Is… Trip Hop. I found this CD at Goodwill and love it.
Florida landscapes by Eleanor Blair at Signature Art Gallery in Tallahassee.
Clarke, Susanna. Piranesi. New York: Bloomsbury, 2020.
Cheryl Dumesnil, Showtime at the Ministry of Lost Causes. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.
If you were struck by the ineffable urge this week to point your phone out into the cold, lonely void and project an image of Bernie Sanders sitting in a chair somewhere out there, you might like this Sitting Bernie AR Meme. Use your phone and press “AR” to enjoy yourself for a few seconds.
I was inspired by Nicely Small, a curated list of small businesses in Vancouver created by the design firm Engine Digital. Tallahassee needs something like this.
I finally developed some film that I’ve been sitting on for almost a year. The two panoramic shots at the top of the page are my favorite from this little excursion, but I’ve attached a few more shots from the roll as well at the bottom of the page. I love this little Nikon Point and Shoot for these quick Ilford snapshots, and it lives in my travel bag alongside a Sony Rx-100 for quick, no-fuss shooting opportunities.
Taken just before sunset on the last day of 2019, in a field alongside US-331 outside of Paxton, Florida, I feel that these shots capture the cold quiet of the field in winter. In retrospect, they seem now to say a little more.
And in color..
The rural panhandle is full of these haunted landscapes. I remember watching Cold Mountain years ago and thinking about how the filmmakers had to travel to Romania to find an alpine landscape that would convince viewers the films was set in the 1860s. You can travel back roads in rural Walton County through landscapes that have not changed since the Great Depression. Time is a little more evident in these photographs, but not much. If I squint, I can still see the mule working the rows. at the edge of the field yonder. I can breathe the quiet rhythm of the plow, the sun, the wind.
Not far up the road there is a garish sign alongside which shouts, “Visit the Beaches of South Walton!” If you like the outlet mall, that’s fine. Most of the time I’d rather grab the Nikon and drive the back roads, though, searching for the past.
Finally got my scans back from the Chicago film. It was a cool, foggy day when we made our way across the city last month gawking and taking these photos. I shot these with my Nikon Lite Touch 120 Zoom and Ilford HP5.
Legend has it that Miami Vice was born when the President of NBC, whom I (unfairly and probably incorrectly) like to imagine deep in the throes of a head-spinning fugue state around 11:30 in the morning on day 3 of a coke binge in the summer of 1984, scrawled the words “MTV Cops” on a sheet of paper and pitched it to a producer. We can imagine a similar scenario playing out in 2016 or 2017. Some producer on a flight from Los Angeles to Shenzhen to make a superhero movie pitch jolts awake from a psychedelic jet lag dream, fumbles for his iPhone, head lightly spinning from a single Lime-a-Rita before the flight, and scrawls “The Departed with women” in the Notes app. The Kitchen is born, and I sit down to watch it on a Tuesday night many months later in a suburban multiplex on the edge of the woods in North Florida.
It’s hard to talk about The Kitchen. I think all of us gathered in the multiplex on Discount Tuesday this week were extremely aware of the trail this movie is trying to blaze. The stars are badasses, alright? They don’t take any shit. They dominate every man in the film—with the exception of fathers and Italians—and we all love that. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “this gangster movie is good, but what if the wiseguys were women?” then this is probably the movie for you. I loved that part of it. But if you value good films or human life, it probably isn’t the movie for you. Let’s talk about that.
First, life and death. Like Stuber, which I talked about on Discount Tuesday a few weeks ago, The Kitchen kills with impunity. People die in this movie and nobody really cares. Heads are blown open; dead people are dragged on the sidewalk; bodies are dismembered and dumped in the Hudson River. Spoiler alert: Haddish and McCarthy sniffle for a moment when they kill their husbands, but the audience is discouraged from joining in these brief moments of quiet. Watching these badass women rampage is just too fun, I guess, for the filmmaker or the audience to go and turn the killers and the victims into humans. That would require empathy, right, and who wants to bother with that on Discount Tuesday in the summertime?
The Kitchen’s failures as an example of filmmaking art follow, in part, from all of this sexy dehumanization. If films are meant to shed some light on the human experience, death should do something. Take the gangster movies that this movie clearly wants to emulate. In The Godfather, benefiting from death makes Michael Corleone into a monster. Each killing in the film’s pivotal seizure-of-power sequence severs him from his humanity and isolates him from his family until, finally, a closing door figuratively seals him within his own personal hell. In Casino, death is a grotesque ritual which so scars the fantasy landscape that the killers operate in the depths of the desert. Death is a reminder of the cruel masters back east, and a consequence of flying too high. Goodfellas treats death like a cruel joke, but the audience clearly understands that Ray Liotta’s character is both hero and heavy. He’s a ghoul.
You may be wondering: what if all of the people who die in The Kitchen are bad guys? Does that make it OK, like Inglourious Basterds or revenge movies? It might, except The Kitchen isn’t about revenge or redemption, and the bad guys aren’t Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The “heroes” in this film kill the “villains” in order to become the villains. With the exception of one rapist—killed by a male savior/mentor instead of one of the badass women, it’s worth pointing out, as though some villains are still too formidable for women to handle—we don’t know anything about the small-time gangsters who die in this film except that they’re standing in the way of the “heroes” racing to reach rock bottom. There is a moment near the end of the film—in the nadir of the “dark night of the soul” every screenwriting manual will instruct budding artistes to include in the script—when Melissa McCarthy says that she’s built something too great to give up. I was left wondering: does she mean the criminal enterprise the hero-villains built from theft, rackets, blood, and graft; or just the relationships they made along the way?
It’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about its moral and historical counterpoint: J.C. Chandor’s 2014 masterwork, A Most Violent Year. That film takes place just three years later and engages the late-seventies underworld this movie glorifies. It has everything this movie has: crooks, a gritty, desaturated New York cityscape, gangsters, a badass woman, even Hasidim. But instead of cruel, half-baked stereotypes, these are real people, living in a real place. Instead of racing to the bottom like the soulless heroines of The Kitchen, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain struggle to do the right thing in a world that rewards badness. If Donald Trump is the Bizarro Obama, an inverse agent whose entire political program is built on undoing his predecessor’s legacy, The Kitchen is the Bizarro Violent Year. Its nihilism betrays the talents of the performers and craftspeople who brought it to life.