Saturday, April 21, 2018

There are times when I can't help but think that Richard Brody is a ultimately the kind of moralizing scold he formally distrusts, such as his review of the "regressive politics" of A Quiet Place

A good deal of the time, really, I find it hard to think of Richard Brody as more than the embodiment of much of what is worst about The New Yorker (not that it's all bad, mind you, in that magazine, Menand is sometimes worth reading and I've enjoyed Alex Ross and Ethan Iverson's writing about music quite a bit over the years).

For instance, Brody recently wrote about John Krasinski's film.

The title conveys the judgment, but it wouldn't be a piece by Brody were there not a lot more.  Last time we looked at his stuff was on the topic of food allergies and Peter Rabbit, which as straight up moralizing goes was understandable and defensible because the guy admitted he had kids with food allergies and that it was not possible to separate that knowledge or withhold that knowledge from his review of the film in question.

But then there's his more recent bit.

The success of “A Quiet Place,” the new horror thriller directed by John Krasinski, is a sign of viewers craving emptiness, of a yearning for some cinematic white noise to drown out troubling thoughts and observations with a potently simple and high-impact countermyth. The noise of “A Quiet Place” is the whitest since the release of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”; as horror films go, it’s the antithesis of “Get Out,” inasmuch as its symbolic realm is both apparently unconscious and conspicuously regressive.

“A Quiet Place” is the story of a white family living in rustic isolation that’s reduced to silence because a bunch of big, dark, stealthy, predatory creatures who can hear their every noise are marauding in the woods and, at any conspicuous sound, will emerge as if from nowhere and instantly maul them to death. I won’t spoil the plot twists, but Krasinski ultimately delivers a pair of exemplary images, a lone bearded man (whom he himself plays) with a rifle, and a lone woman (played by his real-life wife, Emily Blunt) aiming a rifle into the camera.


skipping ahead ...

The only moment of authentic inner expression, the acknowledgment of any identity at all, arises when, under siege from the creatures, Evelyn challenges Lee when their children are in danger: “Who are we? Who are we if we can’t protect them?” In that moment, “A Quiet Place” disgorges its entire stifled and impacted ideological content. The movie’s survivalist horror-fantasy offers the argument for turning a rustic farmhouse into a virtual fortress, for the video surveillance and the emergency lighting and, above all, the stash of firearms that (along with a bit of high-tech trickery that it’s too good to spoil) is the ultimate game changer, the ultimate and decisive defense against home intruders.

In effect, “A Quiet Place” is an oblivious, unself-conscious version of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies, such as The 15:17 to Paris,” which bring to the fore the idealistic elements of gun culture while dramatizing the tragic implications that inevitably shadow that idealism. The one sole avowed identity of the Abbott parents is as their children’s defenders; their more obvious public identity is as a white rural family. The only other people in the film, who are more vulnerable to the marauding creatures, are white as well. In their enforced silence, these characters are a metaphorical silent—white—majority, one that doesn’t dare to speak freely for fear of being heard by the super-sensitive ears of the dark others. It’s significant that when characters—two white men—commit suicide-by-noisemaking, they do so by howling as if with rage, rather than by screeching or singing or shouting words of love to their families. (Those death bellows are the wordless equivalent of “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) Whether the Abbotts’ insular, armed way of life might put them into conflict with other American families of other identities is the unacknowledged question hanging over “A Quiet Place,” the silent horror to which the movie doesn’t give voice.

We're not given, Brody asserts, characters who have any observable inner lives.  This seems like one of those bugbears for Brody.  That part of the set up for a horror film like this is that absent any safe way to express yourself you're trapped within your own emotional cycles and that those cycles can be permeated by terror could actually be part of the premise of the narrative.  Brody pointed out that voice over could be used, but voice over can altogether ruin a film; The Thin Red Line was ruined for me by Sean Penn's stupid voice-over monologues both that film and Saving Private Ryan were overhyped war movies but for different reasons.  On the whole a lot of films have been weakened by soundtrack issues, too much music, too much sound.  A film that re-examines the idea that the jump scare depends on the anxiety the viewer brings to a moment and not on what the director imposes upon the audience might be a welcome change of pace and to go by other reviews of A Quiet Place that seems to be what genre fans have liked about the film.

Now exactly what constitutes "authentic inner expression" for Brody would involve reading vastly more of his work than I think any reasonable person should bother with.  That said, this is the same Richard Brody who concluded that Susan Vernon didn't break any of the "important" rules of moral conduct in her quest for a husband for herself and a husband for her daughter.  Anyone who watched Love & Friendship and got the impression that Susan Vernon was not the central villain of the whole story is an idiot.

In middle age I realize I am not a cinephile and I have never thought of myself as one to begin with, actually.  So I'm not in any rush to see A Quiet Place.  But, that said, the last film I saw to which both Krasinski and Blunt lent their acting was the English language dub of Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, which I regard as a masterpiece. Unless there's some evidence that Krasinski and Blunt are Opus Dei types or Mel Gibson types declaring that the politics of a movie they worked on are regressive seems like a bit of a stretch, but it's the kind of stretch Brody seems comfortable making.  The sum of what Brody has done is not even, really, a review of the film itself but we'll get to what (and all) he has effectively done momentarily.

The film A Quiet Place telegraphs its high concept exploration even in trailers, riffing on a horror story in which making a sound could lead to your death. Horror films explore ways in which seemingly pedestrian aspects of daily life in its social or physical forms can put us on the threshold of death.  It may be full of cheap ways to re-enchant life and it's even more obviously a history of stereotypes. Now maybe the politics of the film are exactly as regressive as Brody insists, but Brody has demonstrated that venerable tradition that someone described in `Scott Pilgrim' vs the Unfortunate Tendency to Review the Audience, although in Brody's case he's got to be at least slightly more direct because, you know, he's writing about a film for The New Yorker.  But he conveys his review of the kind of audience he believes will enjoy A Quiet Place in the first sentence of his article.  His concluding wind up, that the kinds of people who will enjoy the movie are paranoid white racists, doesn't convince even on the terms of its own presentation.  It's a conclusion which has its premise built into it from the opening sentence and merely winds itself up to a more direct statement at the end.  I liked Get Out, too, but the idea that Krasinski's film has to be seen as an anti-Get Out because Brody insists on the point is not an assertion that has to be accepted.

I mentioned Krasinski and Blunt working on the English dub of The Wind Rises to highlight what Brody has conspicuously failed to do, situate the couple's work in genre (since they are, in fact, a couple, and by now obviously have some demonstrable shared interest in genre work) in some context beyond a gotcha hot-take piece.  Imputing to anyone who might enjoy Krasinski's new film, by some kind of implication, the status of being white reactionaries requires some kind of support, and there's nothing in Brody's review that produces any support.  Which, again, is not to say I'm going to even go see the film.  I'm more focused on writing about other stuff, like music.  But what Brody has done is to essentially write a review of the kind of audience he thinks would enjoy this new film and what he thinks of that audience.  The film?  The film becomes a pretext for the real review.  That way, by not really saying anything about the actual political or social commitments of Krasinski and Blunt, if that issue were ever pressed, he could say that he was writing about the audience that enjoys this kind of film that he says A Quiet Place is rather than say that he ever implied or accused Krasinski and Blunt of having what he regarded as regressive politics.  

But a review of the kind of audience you think will like the film is ultimately not quite the same as a review of the film, even if the film gets discussed along the way. 


Cal of Chelcice said...

The angry scream is proof of "silent majority" racism? The fact that the creatures are dark (like almost every horror movie) is proof of race dualism? He's reaching like a fool, but that's what ideological blinders do. I recall claims about how black folks in some movies were far too dignified, or that appeals to love or singing a hymn seem folksy, and that real anger needs to be released. Even if it it were a political statement, I hardly see how a "white" person expressing aggression is now a sign of "regressive" politics. And, truly, I can't get my head around the idea that a rural environment having only white folks is proof of anything. Is he asking for a token black character? That would be even more racist. I guess he can't grasp that there are plenty of places in rural and/or small town US that have a near 100% "white" population.

But the saddest part is that a bunch of smarmy idiots will read his piece and swagger into the office watercooler to relay their woke information. These people exist and they're dumb as a sack of bricks, but they're too well educated to ever learn anything.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

My impression is Brody's set up a double bind that's unwinnable. Had Krasinski and co. taken the song route he suggests actually been chosen for the film he would have insisted it was emotionally manipulative and twee and preachy. But angry bellows are a sign of ... apparently some kind of white flight anger thing. Brody seemed to decide this was the anti-Get Out film to bag on.