The opposition looks just like us

How to think about art in the age of taking sides.

The opposition looks just like us

How to think about art in the age of taking sides.

One hundred percent of the movies Jordan Peele has written and directed, which is to say both of them, feature a scene in the third act where a villain literally explains to the protagonist what’s going on, resolving both their and the audience’s confusion. In 2017’s Get Out, which netted Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, beleaguered photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) sits strapped to a chair as the grandfather of his unfortunately evil girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) explains how his family abducts black people to implant the brains of rich white people in their skulls. 2019’s Us, which recently debuted with the second-largest box office opening for an original movie, is fresh enough that I’ll avoid any specifics, but suffice to say there’s a moment where the action pauses and an explanation is lucidly presented for the red-jumpered, nightmarishly grinning body doubles haunting Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her family.

The revelation is also the weakest part of the movie, which is unfortunate considering the answer to “why is this happening,” if it must be given, ideally ties everything together instead of leaving viewers to check Wikipedia after the credits roll to see what they missed. In fact, if you skim the reviews, most of the criticisms of Us relate to the plot, which suffers from enough logical inconsistencies past the stock “why do they act so dumb” complaints about characters in horror movies. Even so, Us is sumptuously presented, plausibly dramatic, thematically rich, and full of resonant performances by actors established and emerging, all of which go far toward obscuring the unsatisfying components of the plot. It isn’t Get Out, but it is a good time, and it currently enjoys a 95 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, enough to make it one of the highest-rated films of the year.

Us is not the first narratively challenged film to be recommended by critics more interested in “big ideas” than “enjoying a movie,” but its basic existence is a relative outlier. Off the top of your head: How many of the top 25 highest-grossing movies of 2018 were original concepts, not a sequel nor based off pre-existing intellectual property? Just one: A Quiet Place. In 2017, there were four, two of which were cartoons, and one of which was Get Out. The further you dig back, the further the trend goes. Noting the dearth of high-performing original films isn’t a new observation, but it puts Peele’s success in stark context. He’s just one of a handful of critically acclaimed directors making original films that millions of people actually want to see, and maybe the only one to emerge in recent memory without getting sucked into doing film franchises, like Rian Johnson (from Brick to Star Wars: The Last Jedi) or Ryan Coogler (from Fruitvale Station to Black Panther).

Us is an enjoyable movie. I liked watching it in a crowded theater on opening night; I laughed out loud several times and was spooked a few; I admired the visuals and the acting and the music. But I also wanted to like it, for the basic human reason of wanting to like things that align with my values, and the awareness that one of those values — the belief that more studio-produced, original, thought-provoking films should exist — is so rarely reflected by Hollywood that only a truly terrible film would’ve provoked my ire. My responsibilities as a critic — dissecting the aesthetic, technical, and political merits of a piece of art — felt secondary to the relief I felt as a viewer, watching something thoughtful I could actually discuss with most of the people in my life and the world at large. And I think this awareness was keenly felt by many critics, which is why the subtext in so many reviews has been “it’s good that a movie like Us exists.”

I also felt this while watching Captain Marvel, a movie whose ideological lines are more clearly drawn. Ahead of its release, the film attracted negative attention from the worst losers alive, who could not stop ranting about how lead actress Brie Larson was a reverse-racist misandrist, and how Marvel was costing itself millions of dollars by deepening its commitment to featuring diverse cinematic leads. I didn’t particularly care for Captain Marvel, which is fine because I’m not a child. But I was also acutely aware that my feelings ran parallel toward the necessity of taking a side. Writing a critical piece about Captain Marvel would’ve meant committing the cardinal sin of punitively over-analyzing a product not exactly made for me, but it also would’ve possibly caught the attention of the foaming hordes upset it existed, period. It was easier to appraise it as “fine” instead of admitting my unvarnished opinion, which is that it sucked.

Hell for critics would be a world in which all art is rated on the basis of where it fits into a messily defined culture war — where “good art” and “bad art” have little to do with aesthetic goodness and badness, but with how faithfully art represents a supposedly positively agreed-upon value or demographic. If the critic’s job is to dredge subtext from text, in this hell the subtext will be the only text, as far as an increasingly politicized and polarized audience is concerned. And if this isn’t already the norm, then we’re getting close.

“We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge, and yet we have not learned to think.”
James Bridle, author of ‘New Dark Age’

James Bridle’s 2018 book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future explores a simple premise across multiple modern industries: The world has become more technologically complex, but instead of providing us enlightenment, it has increased confusion and division as we struggle to identify what’s really useful. “We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge, and yet we have not learned to think,” he writes. “In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon the knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.”

One of Bridle’s recurring themes is the proliferation of computation, in which immensely intricate calculations — like, say, the prediction of the weather — are boiled down to the most presentable summary that we then funnel into our lives with no understanding of the underlying architecture. And because these invisible computational processes are increasingly interwoven into our everyday life — and because the processes are themselves fundamentally flawed due to human limitations — we are dependent on what which we don’t understand, which itself does not hold up to scrutiny, effectively turning us into babies, ceding control to those who have arbitrarily appointed themselves the controllers even though their credentials might be up for debate. “By conflating approximation with simulation, the high priests of computational thinking replace the world with flawed models of itself; and in doing so, as the modellers, they assume control of the world,” he writes.

New Dark Age is a great book to read if you’re increasingly suspicious that technology is making everyone confused and angry, and a bad book to read if you want to confidently board an airplane. Since finishing it, I’ve been thinking about how its premise applies to the way we consume culture — how modern technologies have made us increasingly aware of the divergent interpretations and extratextual considerations related to any piece of art, and put them into direct conflict with each other because that’s just how the internet works.

Twenty years ago, the cottage industry of getting unfathomably pissed about Captain Marvel simply could not have existed. Nerds may have been mad about it in isolation, but their grievances would’ve been confined to the real-life comic store, or message boards that nobody but the heavily online were using. But today, thanks to YouTube and Twitter and the many other platforms in which people use to instantaneously transmit their opinions to thousands of others, a corrosive and insane belief like “Captain Marvel is bad because Brie Larson hates men” auto-populates constantly, with no natural check beyond the platforms’ willingness to censor (which, lol) and the community’s own willingness to police itself (which, also, lol). Even though I and many people don’t participate in these closed-off ecosystems, we’re aware of them — and once aware, it becomes impossible to form an opinion about Captain Marvel without taking it into consideration. The dozens of smaller reasons to dislike Captain Marvel (the plotting is boring; CGI Samuel L. Jackson looks creepy; the music cues are unoriginal) seem to mean less against the one really big reason to like it, which is that it infuriates misogynists. All of these data points go into an equation spitting out a moral judgment of “good” or “bad,” which then becomes coded into the history of the art, without telling us anything about its actual quality.

Most likely you are passingly familiar with Leaving Neverland, the recently released HBO documentary that presents the most visually and emotionally compelling case to date that Michael Jackson, the most popular musician of all time, was a serial pedophile. The documentary, which unfurled over two excruciating episodes, presented credible evidence of Jackson’s behavior as described by two adult men whom he allegedly molested as children. It is not easy to watch, for multiple reasons; the descriptions of Jackson’s sexual behavior is extremely detailed, and unless you’re a sociopath, it almost certainly forces you to reconsider your relationship to his music. When it was released, many publications published well-intentioned essays grappling with its conclusions in the context of modern culture’s Forever War, whether we can separate the art from the artist. As far as left-leaning cultural critics were concerned, Jackson’s art should now be regarded as haram as Roman Polanski’s, R. Kelly’s, or any number of newly canceled artists’ output.

But the so-called cancellation of artists is almost wholly dependent on the values of its fanbase, which become increasingly diverse the larger the fanbase gets. Consider the indie rock band PWR BTTM, whose career permanently ended in 2017 following the revelation that lead singer Ben Hopkins had engaged in repeated sexually abusive behavior. Because PWR BTTM was a queer, politically conscious band with a largely queer, politically-conscious audience, the downfall, which occurred just ahead of what would’ve been a career-defining record, took place in a matter of days. They quite literally had no defenders. As Spin’s Jordan Sargent wrote, “the queer community that incubated Hopkins has, in the wake of the allegations, proven to self-police about as stringently as possible, a necessity given that those within the community have sought it out as that proverbial ‘safe space,’ a place where queer youth can actualize their identities and be themselves with some modicum of peace. Allowing an alleged abuser like Hopkins to operate within that space would render the entire concept meaningless, and make the community as unsafe, or more, than the outside world.”

This is how it should work, at least when bad behavior is concerned, but sometimes it’s simply not. The bigger you go, the less likely it is you’ll get anyone to agree on anything, and the incredibly ugly in-fighting among Michael Jackson fans following Leaving Neverland exposed the banality of conscientious critics and consumers seeking to impose their behavioral standards on others. We can all identify this kind of piece, in which a writer urges us to do better, because it is almost the only conclusion they can draw; they were all written after Leaving Neverland. But without being patronizing, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say millions of Michael Jackson fans (which, given his popularity, means half the world) have probably not so keenly examined their position in these debates, because thinking deeply about morality and art is a luxury afforded to people who attended liberal arts college, or hang out with people who do. And because we live in an era where these myriad debates are readily viewable to anyone with an internet connection, what transpired was a real-time, days-long argument about whether he was actually a pedophile and whether there was actually a conspiracy against him, which could only fill any reasonable person with dread, or at least, the understanding that their neatly-drawn conclusions about the “right” way to approach Jackson’s music are disavowed by millions.

How do you block all of this out when trying to come to a personal understanding of Jackson’s music, or Captain Marvel’s quality, or any other flashpoint subject in modern culture? I don’t know. There are dozens of acute perspectives from which anything can be examined; to consider them all makes it more difficult to confidently settle on any position that doesn’t become uselessly nuanced. At one point in New Dark Age, Bridle writes of the Richardson effect, which demonstrates how the length of a measured border depends on the tools used to measure it, which given the limitations of technology means a truly accurate accounting can never be determined. “It demonstrates, with radical clarity, the counterintuitive premise of the new dark age: the more obsessively we attempt to compute the world, the more unknowable complex it appears,” he writes.

Thankfully, the stakes for Us are only so high as “should interesting movies be made,” which only a crazy person would disagree with. (And as I write this, I am sure there are those who consider Peele a cheap provocateur who’s only fomenting the race war, which is a reason to stock up on AR-15s, or something.) But thinking about it, I thought about everything else. One of the movie’s recurrent ideas is about the lurking underclass of have-nots who don’t care about the complexities of human life, who are just waiting to arise and take their rightful place atop the haves. That’s how everything is now: the increased sense that there is always some unknown force on the periphery, waiting to deny the right to live in a world of our own making. The scariest part is that they look just like us.