South Dakota and the Movies: Part VI—On A24

In this series of posts, I reflect on twenty-five movies that were released between 2012 and 2021, when I lived in Brookings, South Dakota. These movies provided a cinematic backdrop to my years in that cold, sparsely populated place. This was a period of my life that wasn’t particularly happy but that nevertheless shaped who I am today. The films are organized in alphabetical order. Here is the next installment:

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

One thing that this essay series makes clear to me is the influence of A24 on my experience of American cinema over the past decade. Of the twenty-five films on this list, six are A24 productions…and looking over their filmography, I can find at least four more I might have included: Obvious Child (2014), Ex Machina (2015), The Lighthouse (2019), and Uncut Gems (2019). So I’ve seen and loved nearly ten percent of their entire catalogue. And I haven’t even seen Room (2015) or Moonlight (2016), the production company’s most visible award-winners. I haven’t seen Locke (2014), A Most Violent Year (2014), The End of the Tour (2015), Swiss Army Man (2016), American Honey (2016), 20th Century Women (2016), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017), A Ghost Story (2017), It Comes at Night (2017), The Florida Project (2017), The Killing of a Scared Dear (2017), Climax (2019), Lamb (2019), The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), or Saint Maud (2021). I’m certain I’d enjoy most of those titles. Did you know A24 distributed an adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in 2019? I didn’t until today!

I think all serious moviegoers would agree that A24 is the defining production company of the last decade, roughly the equivalent of (and, I’d argue, more impressive than) Miramax in the early 1990s. Why more impressive? Well, consider both the speed of A24’s rise (they are only ten years old this month—Spring Breakers [2013] was released only nine years ago) and the degree to which, despite all the prestigious awards on their shelves (including Moonlight’s Best Picture Oscar) and their recent mainstream success (Everything Everywhere All at Once is this year’s most hyped movie), they’ve maintained their artistic credibility. A24’s reputation hasn’t decreased except among cultural contrarians.

Spring Breakers
Ex Machina
Uncut Gems

The repellant Brothers Weinstein, meanwhile, founded Miramax in 1979, a full thirteen years before Reservoir Dogs. People know that Miramax was purchased by Disney but forget that the purchase occurred in 1993, a full year before Pulp Fiction and four years before The English Patient won the company its first Best Picture Oscar. And almost everyone admits that Miramax’s Oscars are largely the result of the disgraced Harvey Weinstein’s machinations (unless you earnestly believe that the Academy would have otherwise sprung for a slow-paced Michael Ondaatje adaptation or a comedy about Shakespeare written by Tom Stoppard).

So yeah, Pulp Fiction is basically a Disney movie.

(Yes, it’s true that Miramax’s sex, lies, and videotape won the 1989 Palme d’Or, but Cannes jurys are erratic and the jury that year wanted to give the award to almost any film whose name wasn’t Do the Right Thing. Besides, does anyone doubt that a Palme d’Or is in A24’s future?)

Perhaps the most boring “take” on A24 belongs to those Twitter randos who, like tiresome conservatives insisting that the United States “is a republic not a democracy,” insist that A24 “is a distribution company not an auteur.” For instance:

As I said in the Mank essay, I don’t subscribe to auteur theory. Given the intrinsically collaborative nature of filmmaking, identifying a single auteur—usually the director—occurs ath the expense of the essential nature of editing, cinematography, screenwriting, production design, costume design, sound design, makeup, acting, etc., etc., to any particular film. (Not to play the SJW card, but auteur theory also historically diminishes the role of women and people of color in filmmaking.) Surely we can imagine a distribution company as, if not an auteur, then certainly as a powerful curator or collector. Companies like A24 have more power over the style, themes, and content of the films we see than any single filmmaker.

Not to keep crapping on Miramax, but do you remember that in 1992 the risible Weinsteins created a spin-off company, Dimension Films, to distribute their sci-fi and horror titles? A24 has earned its reputation primarily by doubling down on its horror films. My wife wanted to see Everything Everywhere All at Once but worried that it might be “too scary.” That’s how many casual filmgoers view A24—as a producer of horror films—and it somehow churns out both Oscar-bait and critic-bait every year.

This all reflects another change in the past thirty years, which is the rising prestige of genre cinema and, more generally, of “genre fiction” in English-language literature—big guns like Colson Whitehead and Marlon James are writing genre fiction, while the stock of traditional genre writers like Margaret Atwood, Jeff VanderMeer, China Miéville, and Ted Chiang continues to rise. If this shift toward genre wasn’t apparent by 2014’s It Follows or 2016’s The Witch, then it was clearly apparent by the release of Ari Aster’s Hereditary in the summer of 2018. Aster’s debut was among the best-reviewed films of the year. It was marketed as a conventional horror movie a la The Conjuring, and so it divided audiences (Hereditary earned a D+ Cinema Score rating). But the film was undeniably a huge hit, a rare feat for a horror movie released in June: it earned $80.2 million on a $10 million budget.

I dutifully saw Hereditary upon its release and wasn’t especially impressed. Sure, I was thrilled that such an ambitious horror film gained wide distribution, especially a horror film that recalled Rosemary’s Baby cut with The Shining. But Aster’s allusions to these superior films rendered Hereditary a little disappointing. Toni Collette’s performance, along with wonderful supporting performances, did too much of the heavy lifting for the film’s otherwise conventional take on the whole “coven” thing.

Hereditary

If Hereditary was poorly marketed, Midsommar was downright deceptively marketed. Word of mouth spread fast: audiences expected a scary movie shot almost entirely in daylight, one that would spook you despite (because of) the lack of shadows. What they got instead was a film that, in terms of style and pacing, seemed directly and exclusively targeted at me. Needless to say, audiences were disappointed. I certainly wasn’t.

I could waste your time explaining why Midsommar spoke to me so directly. Instead, I’ll let Ari Aster, whose ambitions seemed to have skyrocketed in the year (one year!) since Hereditary but whose vision narrowed into something more focused and more unique, explain why I loved this movie in a single quote:

The goal was ultimately to make a big, operatic breakup movie that feels the way breakups actually feel: catastrophic, like the world is ending.

Operatic is the key word there. This is a big, brash movie that, like any good opera, paints everything in bold, broad strokes. The theme—”breakups suck”—is relatively minor. The execution is just enormous, huge, immense. I cannot tell you how much this movie blew my mind and continues to blow my mind three years later, even though I have only seen it once, at the Brookings theater on its opening day. Midsommar instantly became my favorite movie of that year.

The big movie of 2019 was, of course, Parasite. Several friends assured me that once I saw Parasite, it would easily replace Midsommar as my favorite movie of 2019 (which was the best movie year in recent memory). I saw Parasite, understood it, enjoyed it, and promptly forgot about it. But I continue to revere Midsommar as something really special. Parasite is an exemplar of Korean cinema and a timely commentary on class, but it’s also, beat-by-beat, a fairly typical Korean thriller. Midsommar is something totally exceptional in contemporary American cinema. I don’t believe Aster is overstating anything when he described his ambitions as “operatic,” and I think he absolutely achieved that. No, it’s not a completely original film in setting or subject matter (1973’s The Wicker Man is still the classic of creepy pagan movies). But I don’t really care about Midsommar‘s place in the genealogy of small-budget horror. I care about its vision and scope, and in that, it ranks among the most striking American films since the 1970s.

If I haven’t convinced you that auteur theory is bunk, consider Midsommar. What would this movie be without the production or costume design? The crew might have been executing Aster’s vision, sure, but where would Aster be without them? I remember when, in the days after the film’s release, it was nearly impossible to find still images of Florence Pugh’s iconic flower dress on the Internet (such images are now ubiquitous). I complained about this on Facebook, and a friend who worked in a movie theater in Colorado told me he could sneak into a screening and snap a photo of the dress. He did, and so I got my first image of the film’s famous costume:

How can you look at that and deny Midsommar‘s sheer ambition, its wonderful excess. Everything about it is over the top, from the performances to the gore to the awesome set designs. The film’s scale, its desire to be huge (the director’s cut is nearly three hours), matches its operatic designs.

Midsommar is also one of the great graduate school movies. It appeared two years after I finished my dissertation but smack-dab in the middle of my disillusionment with academia. I was still very much in a “grad student” mindset in summer 2019. Midsommar mocked grad student sensibilities and mockingly portrayed the flexible ethics of its grad students’ anthropological research. One of the great themes of the film is how scholarly subject matter violently renders the real lives of real people into abstractions, and how those realities subsume—even devour—the researcher. Thematically, Midsommar doesn’t resemble The Wicker Man so much as Cannibal Holocaust or Eli Roth’s embarrassing The Green Inferno. Like those films, Midsommar delights in taking its smug anthropologist-tourists down a peg. And when we consider Midsommar alongside those much crasser, similarly low-budget films, we begin to realize just how great it is.

One comment

  1. I’m a fairly young guy and only really got into horror in college, but it was then that I really saw just how different A24s projects were from the majority of other horror I was glutting myself on, only to be further proven several years after graduation. To this day the Blackcoats Daughter remains my favorite modern horror film. The fact that it remains so criminally obscure still boggles my mind. I’d be curious to see what your take on it is. I know that your scope in these reviews are films you watched when in SD in the 2010s, but the Blackcoats Daughter is a special cat in a decade that definitely saw a renaissance in the genre.

    Like

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