The Hidden Specters of Ghostbusters: Afterlife

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.

The Epicenter of Mourning

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. 

Nostalgia on the Streets

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. 

The Imperium of Gear

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.  

Review: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

There is a period of ten minutes or so at the beginning of a film when it can be anything. We have some idea of what to expect from trailers, posters, and other hype, but we are ready for the film to surprise us, to subvert our expectations and carry us into a world we did not expect to discover. That ten minute window is rich with opportunity for the filmmaker, and it is vitally important to the success of the film that follows.  

In the first few minutes of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Director Michael Chaves sets up a possession film. If the ritualized prayers and weird body contortions in the first scene aren’t enough, the ham-fisted homage to the famous poster scene from William Friedkin’s masterpiece of the genre, the priest standing in the accursed light of evil outside of the Regan’s house in The Exorcist, should clue us in. A few minutes in, therefore, I was prepared for a good possession and an exorcism.  

Homage, much?

Imagine my surprise when the story shifted gears, grinding awkwardly like the clutch in an old diesel truck from what seemed like a trite but entertaining exorcism feature to a haunted murder mystery. Imagine the complete whiplash, then, when the gears ground again, and the film turned into a kill-the-witch cat-and-mouse chase. A film is traditionally structured in three acts. The Devil Made Me Do It is three different films. With some investment in the story, any one of the three separate acts might have stood alone. When you stand them one atop the other, though, like children in a trench coat sneaking into an R-rated movie, the whole thing falls down.  

The Devil Made Me Do It takes its title from a briefly infamous Connecticut manslaughter trial in the 1980s in which a young man named Arne Johnson claimed that a demon who had taken possession of his soul compelled him to stab his landlord with a pocketknife. Johnson’s case would have garnered little more attention than a few “isn’t that weird” news reports and a couple of law review journal articles if not for the intervention of self-proclaimed demonologist Ed Warren and his wife, spirit medium Lorraine Warren, in 1981. The “case files” of the Warrens, a New England couple who rose to fame in the latter half of the last century by cashing in on Americans’ growing fascination with the paranormal through a series of expertly marketed “investigations” resulting in numerous books and publicity events in the 1970s and 1980s, provide the basis for the films in The Conjuring series. The paranormal interpretation of the Amityville murders remains the most (in)famous of the couple’s investigations, but the success of The Conjuring franchise has certainly replenished the coffers of their estate for generations to come. 

The story The Devil Made Me Do It tells is about as complicated and neurotic as you might expect a tale of demonic possession, crafted by master hucksters to defend a man from murder charges in pursuit of their own fame, to be. There are spoilers ahead, so skip a couple paragraphs if you think, for some inexplicable reason, that you might want to subject yourself to this film. I recommend reading ahead and then spending your time watching a better movie, but you do you.  

In the first scene, we meet the Glatzel family and their possessed son, David. The Warrens are there—as charming and down-to-earth as the very capable Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson can render them—and so is Arne, David’s sister’s extremely friendly boyfriend. David and Arne share a moment of tenderness while waiting on a priest to arrive for an exorcism and, when the exorcism doesn’t go as planned, Arne invites the demon inhabiting his girlfriend’s brother to go ahead and enter his body instead. Things start to get weird for Arne after that, until he has a freakout that would have thoroughly amused Burroughs or Hunter Thompson and murders his drunk and stupid landlord while Blondie’s “Call Me” (1980) plays on the stereo for some reason. Thus ends the possession film in Act 1.  

In Act 2, the haunted mystery, the Warrens need to build a case proving that Arne’s act was a consequence of demonic possession rather than a freak brawl with a lame soundtrack. Sure enough, guided by Lorraine Warren’s extremely reliable and specific connection with the spirit realm, they find a witch’s totem underneath the Glatzel house. Makes sense, right? The Glatzel kid was possessed, the demon jumped to Arne, bing bang boom, the landlord is dead. Seeking a pattern of similar occult influence in other crimes, therefore, the Warrens reach out to police throughout New England. The search leads eventually to a skeptical cop working an inexplicable murder and disappearance in Massachusetts and a former priest giving the world his best impression of a thousand-yard stare after investigating a satanic cult in Annabelle, a prior instalment in The Conjuring universe. After the Warrens solve the case for the cop—drawing, again, on Lorraine Warrens amazingly detailed second sight—the priest reveals that his own daughter is the witch causing all the trouble. How convenient! Thus ends the haunted murder mystery film in Act 2.  

In Act 3, the Warrens must kill the witch to save Arne. After a conventional labyrinth chase in the occult dungeons beneath the priest’s home, the Warrens destroy the witch’s altar. This breaks her magical connection to Arne, which pisses off the demon to whom she had promised Arne’s soul. The demon kills the witch, Arne is relieved of his demonic tormentor, and the Warrens have another little toy to put in their collection beside the Annabelle doll and the painting of Valak the Defiler. Arne gets a light prison sentence, but it’s OK because he’s just relieved to be free of the demon, and everyone lives happily ever after.  

Writer and filmmaker Jon Boorstin provides an excellent framework in his book, The Hollywood Eye, to explain how and why movies work. This notion—that Hollywood filmmakers, perhaps in distinction from those working in other milieus, are focused on what works rather than what is beautiful or moving or artistic—is important, Boorstin argues, because it is the font from which meaning and aesthetic value and all that other stuff flows. This is because, according to Boorstin, viewers watch a film with two “eyes” which must be simultaneously pleased for the film to capture and maintain their attention. Only when they are suitably rapt will they be responsive to the film as a work of art. 

The first “eye” is the “voyeur’s” eye, focused on realism. This is the little voice in your head that says, “that would never happen,” or, “shouldn’t they have run out of bullets a long time ago?” Next there is the “vicarious” eye, focused on feeling. This is the part of you that is carried away by the story, the part that falls in love with the characters or causes you to bite your nails at the suspenseful parts. Boorstin says that these basically correspond to brain and heart, and I can think of no reason to dispute him. 

There are things this film does well. Michael Chaves builds on the world of The Conjuring with interesting views of sweeping New England vistas. This pleases the “voyeur” eye. The cast is well put-together. The stars share good chemistry, and, at times, their talent breaks through a scene just enough to please the “vicarious” eye. There are enough such moments to say that this a functional bit of filmmaking. It progresses like a Toyota Corolla from point A to point B. It makes you jump a few times. It has a couple of good monsters and, I don’t know, you don’t see the boom mics in the shots. If you spent money on a theater ticket or forked out for an HBO Max subscription to see it, you would be hard-pressed to point to a particular moment where it went off the rails. 

But let’s be honest. You would be hard-pressed to find that moment because the whole film is a god-damned train wreck. The Devil Made Me Do It just doesn’t work. Its three acts do not cohere. Its characters are only developed far enough to fit in the panels of the comic book tie-in that is sure to follow. Here are some examples. It was unclear whether the demon or the witch was the villain. As a result, both of them were shallow, shallow, shallow. Defeating them felt more like a chore than a quest. The skeptical detective in Act 2: why does he exist? (More on that below). And who is the protagonist? I suppose it is the Warrens, but then who is Arne Johnson? I didn’t care about Arne Johnson. Captain Howdy in the original Exorcist film has more screen presence than Arne Johnson in this story, and Captain Howdy only appears on screen for three frames. Was Arne Johnson a hero? A victim? A villain? Who knows? In any event, it didn’t matter to me whether the Warrens saved him or not. Nothing mattered, in fact, because the story was awful. The fat, naked ghoul in Act 2 will make a cool collectible action figure, I guess. Sorry for the spoiler.  

One more thought before I slam the door on this one. I don’t know what Ed and Lorraine Warren were like in real life, but the characters Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjuring universe grow more insufferable with each new installment in the series. They’re always right; sanctimoniously pure; perfectly in love with each other. There’s nowhere for them to go, no way for them to grow. Perhaps this untouchability was a condition of the contract with the Warrens’ estate—a $2 billion deal for New Line so far—but it sets them apart from the characters written in the round. The villains in these movies are not the monsters and demons, who knock down like ninepens in the end, but the straights. The skeptics and normies who choose not to believe in the paranormal must be set straight by the Warrens, and there’s a mighty horde of us. We’re the baddies, the fools, wondering what in the world is going on in these movies. They’re not for us. That’s OK. 

Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and the Dark Underside of the Postwar Road

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.  

Syllabus: February 14th

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.

Articles

Adegbuyi, Fadeke. “LinkedIn’s Alternate Universe: How the professional platform makes networking weird.” Every.to. https://every.to/divinations/linkedins-alternate-universe-21780381 — Adegbuyi says what we’ve all been thinking: LinkedIn is weird.


Evans, Benedict. “Retail, Rent, and Things that Don’t Scale.” https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2021/2/6/things-that-dont-scale — Evans offers some interesting thoughts on the retail experience and, as a result, challenges readers to stop thinking of Amazon as a sort of indomitable dragon.

Ford, Paul. “The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office.” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/the-secret-essential-geography-of-the-office — What makes a successful essay? One thing you can do is take something commonplace, like the office, and make us see it in a new way. Consider the passage: “I think of those as ‘weeping paths,’ part of the secret map of every office. You cannot sob at your desk, so you must go on a journey, smiling at the floor, until you find a place where emotion can flow.“Litvinenko, Yuri.

“Windows’ Little Brother, Bearer of Microsoft’s Grand Ambitions.” 30pin. https://www.30pin.com/features/windows-ce-history/Perhaps you think that a history of Windows CE couldn’t possibly be interesting. Think again. This article sheds even more light on how Microsoft’s total dedication to the Windows brand between around 2002 to around 2010 seriously damaged the company’s ability to execute anything else.

Lowe, Katie. “The Rise of the Digital Gothic.” CrimeReads. https://crimereads.com/the-rise-of-the-digital-gothic/ — A thought-provoking critical perspective from an unexpected place. Perhaps, by placing us in constant contact with the many ghostly presences of capital, technology is hastening the end of the end of history.

Rizvic, Sejla. “Everybody Hates Millennials: Gen Z and the Tiktok Generation Wars.” The Walrus. https://thewalrus.ca/everybody-hates-millennials-gen-z-and-the-tiktok-generation-wars/ — Just to be clear, generational discourse is bullshit. But since we’re surrounded by people who believe in it, and then act on that belief, articles like this one are necessary. Roy, Sumana. “The Problem with the Postcolonial Syllabus.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-problem-with-the-postcolonial-syllabus — Roy asks, what’s the matter with merely taking pleasure in novels? Why must novels written by authors living in “postcolonial” settings impart some sort of moral or offer some deep criticism?

Videos

The Little Things.

Music

Death by Unga Bunga. Heavy Male Insecurity.

Various Artists. Cuba: Music and Revolution: Experiments in Latin Music, 1975-1985. https://soundsoftheuniverse.com/sjr/product/cuba-music-and-revolution

Art

Andrew Salgado. — https://www.instagram.com/andrew.salgado.art/

Roadsworth. http://www.roadsworth.com/

Takram. “Moriota Shoten.” http://www.takram.com/projects/a-single-room-with-a-single-book-morioka-shoten/ — profile of a unique bookstore in Japan which sells one book at a time. Benedict Evans discusses this store in his article above.

Books

Coupland, Douglas. Bit Rot: Stories & Essays. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016.

Cory, Cynie. Here on Rue Morgue Avenue. Tallahassee, Fla.: Hysterical Books, 2018.

See you next week! (Or, you could keep an eye out for more writing, photos, art, and other stuff here during the week)…

Discount Movie Review: Thoughtless Violence in Hell’s Kitchen

                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.

Stuber and the Guns

It is a statistical inevitability that someone, in a few months time when it comes out on streaming and DVD, will sit on their couch and knit a cute little hat while they watch Kumail Nanjiani’s new buddy-slash-cop-slash-odd couple comedy blockbuster Stuber. And you know what? That’ll be OK. They’ll have a great time, because it’s a funny movie. The chemistry between Nanjiani and co-star Dave Bautista is great. The timing is pitch perfect. The script is decent. I laughed a lot and I am responsible for at least one loud snort in an otherwise respectable darkened room. You should watch it. But I hope we are reaching a point in America where it will be just a little weird to knit and scroll through instagram and eat pizza rolls on the couch while this movie is on the TV, because it involves a lot of shooting. Like, a lot of gunfire. Are we still OK with this? It’s time to check in with one another.

People die in this movie. They die hard, painful, terrifying deaths involving acute shock and the extreme loss of blood–which is what happens when a person is shot in the lungs, legs, shoulders, heart, head, stomach, liver, and so on. We don’t see it in the movies, but we should know by now that most of the time people who are shot take a long time to die. They gasp and struggle. If they haven’t passed out from the shock, they moan and cry and try to cling to life. They shit in their clothes. They frequently gurgle from blood in the throat. It’s fucking terrible. No one who witnesses it can ever leave it behind, and it happens a lot in this movie.

Our movies, even the cute buddy comedies with a happy ending, continue to pass right over the hard reality of death by gunshot. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of humans–people who took their first steps, who enjoyed cookies and cakes, who scratched dogs behind the ears, who cried and loved and listened to music, even if they were bad people–die horrible deaths in pictures, and we rarely give them a second thought as the bodies pile up on the screen. They just fall dead, and the story moves on. But as we deal with the increasingly heavy toll of gun violence in the United States, it’s clearer than ever before that it’s not that easy. The dead will always be part of the story. This is why we have ghost stories. To quote the title of another recent film, the dead don’t die. They haunt us. They haunt their killers. They leave people behind. There’s no such thing as a completely happy ending if people had to die to get there.

To its credit, Stuber at least tries to deal with this. Nanjiani’s character, Stu, is never really OK with violence. He cries and vomits; he screams after a gunfight. But the basic premise of the movie is this: he needs to toughen up, while his hard-boiled counterpart, Victor, needs to soften up. They go through an extremely difficult situation together, and at the end both of them have grown. After a six-hour ordeal, Stu–who, spoiler alert, ends up shot in the shoulder–has overcome his insecurities and learned to be clear with others about what he wants from life. Victor–who also, you guessed it, has been shot in the shoulder by the end of the night–has learned to show some affection to the people he cares about. Stu gets a girl. Victor gets a dog. It’s not clear who cleans up the bodies or which funerals Stu and Victor will attend, but everyone is happy.

So, then, is Stuber trying to tell us that it’s OK for people to die horrible, bleeding deaths if the people who survive get to be a little more self-actualized in the end? Probably not. But while we struggle, as ever, with the horrible toll of gun violence, it should be weird that we could walk away from the movie with that interpretation. It felt weird to me. It should be weird that we can sit on the couch and knit a cute little hat while people die on the screen, over and over again, and it doesn’t really matter. Shouldn’t it? Are we OK yet?

Dope and the Location of Culture

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“A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.” – Martin Heidegger, “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”

A month after its release, there’s a particular scene from Dope that still sticks out in my mind. It’s when Shameik Moore’s character Malcolm Adekanbi—a charismatic protagonist, I’ll just say here at the outset—is frantically driving to meet a Harvard alumnus as part of his college application. He’s driving away from an impossibly, hilariously complicated situation to one that is even more outrageous and complicated. Along the way, he sees someone completely unexpected, however, in a completely unexpected situation. The camera pans to his face. Dumbfounded, he asks aloud: “what the fuck?” The audience asks it with him before he (and they) are inexorably carried onward, further into a story rich with anomalous characters and ridiculous situations. The scene I remember is a fleeting moment, unnecessary to the story, but that question—Malcolm’s bewildering and fleeting encounter with the wholly new and unexpected—captures Dope’s cultural meanings more than any other could.

First, the film itself. Dope is a bildungsroman for the twenty-first century. Protagonist Malcolm Adekanbi is a product of Ira Berlin’s fourth great migration—a Nigerian-American geek living in a rough section of Los Angeles—where he and his friends Jib and Diggy share a love of early-nineties hip-hop and play robopunk songs in their band, Awreeoh, while they finish their senior year of high school. Malcolm is ambitious. He plans to attend Harvard University, on one hand, and his college application frames the narrative. Much of the story takes place at school and in classrooms. But Malcolm wants to be “dope” on the other hand. An encounter with drug dealers and street violence offers Malcolm an inside look at his neighborhood and his own strength. Stuck with a backpack full of molly, death threats and the danger of arrest hanging over his head, and looming standardized tests, Malcolm (and Director Rick Famuyiwa) must resolve the tension between his ambitions in order to survive. Famuyiwa resolves them in style. Dope is engaging, warm, outrageously funny, beautifully rendered, and vibrant.

While I’d like to take credit for reading Heidegger closely and taking detailed notes, the quote that opens this review is the epigraph of postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha’s 1994 book The Location of Culture. In The Location of Culture, Bhabha argues that the re-iteration and repeated translation of hegemonic cultures associated with colonialism—or “globalization,” if that term is more palatable—leads to the formation of new cultural identities in the “interstices” between opposing social or cultural forces. Because they can only translate the received hegemonic wisdom of nation, race, gender, and so on for themselves, minorities and oppressed populations create “hybrid” identities that transcend these simple categories. Globalization and hybridity go hand-in-hand. Forced to puzzle over entirely new identities and situations, colonizer and colonized alike must both sometimes throw their hands in the air and ask, like Malcolm Adekanbi, “what the fuck?”

Dope is about hybridity. Malcolm crosses the boundaries between “geek” and “dope”; between generations, marrying his love of nineties hip-hop to his skill with the tools of twenty-first century cunning, like bitcoin, digital money laundering, and the dark web; between poor and affluent; between East Coast and West Coast; between African and African American. Without entirely new categories, it is impossible to pin Malcolm down and label his identity.

Malcolm’s friends and enemies demonstrate the futility of creating new labels. Drug dealer and gang member Dom quizzes his street counterparts on logical fallacies; Malcolm’s lesbian friend, partner-in-crime, and bandmate Diggy crosses the boundaries between genders; friend Jib—who claims to be 14% African—and stoner hacker Will—emphatically not African but unapologetically crass in his use of the N-word—cross the boundaries between races. Even Malcolm’s band, Awreeoh, crosses the boundaries between punk rock and hip-hop with a subtle nod toward race. Situations, too, cross the boundaries of class and morality: upper-class acquaintances struggle in vain for street cred; Malcolm is sympathetic and good, but he sells drugs to earn his way into the Ivy League. Hybridity abounds.

And it is wonderful.

Dope crosses boundaries without turning the mirror on itself and preening for attention. Its characters navigate a world of ambiguous definitions and unsteady moorings without sinking beneath the onerous weight of racial awareness and class-consciousness. Their awareness feels more real, more like a tool to adapt to the world as well as shape it to their own ends, rather than the self-destructive rebellion or acrobatic accommodation a previous generation of storytellers demanded from their characters. Famuyiwa—perhaps uniquely positioned to comment on hybridity by his location within the Nigerian diaspora—captures the fracturing of the twentieth-century’s colonial order better than any filmmaker in recent memory. If millennials exist, this is surely their film.

Insidious: Chapter 3 and the Wage of Postmodern Capital

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Open with a reluctant medium, an unsuccessful reading.

These first five minutes or so of Insidious: Chapter 3 sum up the remaining ninety-two minutes with depressing clarity. Sure, Leigh Whannell and Blumhouse have manufactured a suitably dark aesthetic, an occasionally unsettling package of jump scares and visceral death fetishes, a nightmarish and demonic villain, and an angelic white protagonist, but the parts are greater than the whole.

Neither individual parts nor whole package, to be clear, are very substantial.

The story takes place a few years before the initial installment in the Insidious series, some time in the late-mid 2000s, when teenager Quinn Brenner opens a door to the dark reaches of “The Further”–readers familiar with the rest of the Insidious series will recognize this dreary world of underpowered handheld lamps and hideously re-embodied voices–by visiting spirit medium Elise Rainier in order to make contact with her departed mother, Lilith. After the reading goes wrong, Quinn ignores Rainier’s frank advice to avoid talking to dead people and makes a connection with a respirator-wearing demonic presence–an angry old miner with black lung, perhaps?–through the air vents of her family’s hipster-proletariat apartment building while trying to reach her mother. This initiates a classic haunting sequence–what screenwriters call “fun and games”: bumps in the night escalate rapidly to full-on bodily violation and spirit possession. Skeptics must turn believers and seek the assistance of psychic intermediaries. Elise Rainier returns, thus, and overcomes her own demons to lead the final confrontation with evil. But–surprise!–the battle is far from over at the end. The Lambert haunting from the first movies hangs over the ending and clears the air once again for a fourth instalment in the series.

Storylines float to the surface and sink away again, barely acknowledged. Main character Quinn’s teenage friendships, fledgling romantic interest, and acting ambitions form an important leg of the story in the beginning of the film, for example: they are almost completely forgotten by its conclusion. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” haunts a seemingly empty building. His backstory–a former resident of the building turned soul-devouring denizen of “the further”–is left undeveloped. The fact that he is old and was obviously disabled at death is enough, apparently, to explain his paranormal anxiety. Quinn’s troubled relationship with her father is unconvincingly resolved; her brother is a foil, at best; her friends are forced caricatures.

There is little here for viewers interested in questions of race, gender, class, and age–Insidious is a rather retrograde product on the whole in these areas, in fact–but the cinematography is effective in a workmanlike way, and the movie will keep your attention for the entire 97 minute runtime. Which is nice, I guess.

This, then, is the wage of postmodern capital: a wholly predictable haunted house, a ham-fisted and cynical rumination on mortality mediated by basic cable spiritualism, and an open door for the next commodity in the series to enter the pop culture milieu. Insidious: Chapter 3 is effectively ineffective. It is maximally profitable with a minimal investment on the part of its producers. They’ve risked no cultural capital, placed nothing more than money on the line. Viewers–myself included–have so far responded by paying them back the money and then investing our own cultural capital in the film. This insidious arbitrage is the truly horrifying part of the entire experience.

The producers of the Insidious series are not alone. Neither are they cynical magnates laughing and rubbing their hands together as they steal from bovine audiences. They are logical actors at work in a global system that glorifies the most gruesome forms of self-interest. Hollywood is driven by profit, after all, and motivated by an army of willing promoters among the public to profit from the easy sell of franchises today more than ever before. They can’t help themselves.

We can’t help ourselves. Brand relationships broadcast through social media are an easy and powerful forge of identity claims. If I’m the kind of person who likes Insidious in a public way, whether you agree with my preference or not I hope that you’ll form an opinion of me that is favorable to my social strategy. Bundles of preferences are movable pieces in a game of identity claims that, powered by the internet, forms the very fabric of postmodern existence. Preferences can be easily and quickly located on the left-right spectrum of the culture wars; rapidly deployed to build or dismantle relationships with other people; worn; shouted aloud; photographed. We are what we like.

Hollywood franchises like Insidious are vitally important pieces in this game. Simple preferences–for the color green, say, or for long walks on the beach–are easily overshadowed by the cultural complexity of brand relationships. More than merely personal decisions, preferences for brands involve negotiating bundles of meaning. Apple computers, for instance, are symbols that stand in for images, videos, songs, other people you’ve known who have owned them, and conversations you’ve had or overheard–in addition to objects that do things and with which you may spend a great deal of time in interaction. These symbols do thirty years’ worth of cultural work daily. So, too, The Avengers, Jurassic Park, and so on. So, too, Insidious.

Viewed alone, Insidious: Chapter 3 is mostly hollow. It is merely visceral. As part of a franchise, it is completely empty. It is little more than a single level in a vertical marketing video game. The “Man Who Can’t Breathe” is just a minor boss in a dungeon, a bump on the road to progressively “harder” bosses in even more deeper dungeons. Where does the game end? Who will be the final villain? Will the whole finale be one long jump scare planned and carried out by the Dark Angel Beelzebub to put this “insidious” horror film brand in a shallow grave once and for all? One can hope.