This weekend Us opened to an outstanding 70 million dollars at the North American box office. Those numbers make it the biggest opening ever for an original horror movie. And yet, despite its commercial success, the movie seems to be regarded -by critics and audiences- mostly as a step down for writer-director Jordan Peele, whose previous movie was Get Out. Walking out of the movie theatre this weekend, I overheard quite a few variations on “I didn’t get it”, “I’m confused” and “What was that?” The cultural impact of Get Out would be impossibly hard to follow-up no matter what -expectation are just too damn high. However, the response to Us –which I think is a great movie- has me wondering about what we consider to be a good movie. Or rather, about the conventions that we have accepted to be the signifiers of a good movie.
The biggest difference between Get Out and Us comes at the end. For most of its running time, Us works beautifully as a horror movie. It focuses on a family (led by the incredible Lupita Nyong’o) whose beach vacation is ruined when they find themselves haunted by mysterious monsters that look just like them. It’s an intriguing set-up made all the more enjoyable by Peele’s abilities as an artist. He proves in just two movies, that he has a talent for balancing nerve-racking suspense with hilarious satire. Us moves from one horrifying set-piece to another with an ease that recalls the masters of horror filmmaking. It isn’t until the third act of the movie, when we start to get a sense of what the hell is going on with these “clones” that the audience starts to get disappointed.
Exactly the opposite was the case in Get Out, which deliberately uses its third act to explain the intricacies of its plot in detail. The answers at the end of that movie make everything clearer, validating the main character’s suspicions that he shouldn’t trust his white girlfriend’s family. In Us, however, things don’t become clearer. It’s not that the movie doesn’t make sense (if you’ve seen the movie and want some analysis of its themes, I recommend this article), but rather that the final minutes of the movie totally re-contextualize the previous two hours. Some might think of it as a cheap last-minute twist, but it is so much more than that. It confronts us with the way we were reading the movie, so much so that my initial reaction was of absolute rejection. “No, this movie was supposed to be this one thing, it can’t all of a sudden be this other thing.” But I thought about what I had just seen, and not long after my wife and I were exchanging theories of what it all meant.
I think of my immediate guttural reaction, and the comments I heard coming from the audience around me and I wonder if those people will have similar conversations as the one I had with my wife after the movie. Worrying about how other people will react to a piece of art -let alone a piece of art you are not directly involved with- is a futile exercise. There’s just no way of knowing. But one of the things that I loved so much about Us was how open it was to interpretation, how it forced me to consider the way I felt watching the movie and try to understand first, why I felt that way, and second, what those feelings mean in the context of the movie. However, in order to do that, I had to trust that Jordan Peele knew what he was doing, that me feeling uncomfortable wasn’t a failure of filmmaking, but part of the experience. I had to give him the benefit of the doubt… And that’s what I worry about.
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Not long ago, after a performance of the play Noura, a man complained that what he had just seen “wasn’t a real play.” What was this man trying to say? A little context: Noura is a play written by Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo, and loosely based on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In case you weren’t a theatre major, Ibsen was a pioneer of naturalist theatre in the nineteenth century. A Doll’s House was a particularly controversial work because it ended with a woman -Nora- deciding to leave her husband and children. Noura recasts the main role of Ibsen’s play as a woman caught between her Iraqi past and her American present, and it also ends in a somewhat controversial note. Not because it goes against any norms of decorum, but against narrative norms.
As it is nearing what we would usually understand as its dramatic climax, Noura ends abruptly. I think you know where I’m going with this. It’s a purposely frustrating ending, one that -to me- emphasizes the fact that the author’s priorities are not in the plot, that what Raffo wants to communicate with her play is not tied up to a resolution. What exactly she is interested in -character, ideas, theme- could be debated, but categorizing the ending as a mistake rather than a deliberate choice is an incredibly narrow-minded decision. I wonder what the man who thinks the lack of resolution makes Noura “not a real play” would think of Us.
Is that all we want out of our stories? A satisfying ending? If you’ve ever taken a writing class or read a screenwriting book you’ll know what I’m talking about. There’s the inciting incident, then the twists and turns, and finally you pay it all off in the big finale. It’s a formula that has been developed over centuries and found its ubiquity thanks to the enormous influence of Hollywood. Film technology, which allows for movies to be exported without major alterations, made Hollywood movies into a world-wide phenomenon. The influence was immense. Practically all of the renowned international auteurs either take their cues from Hollywood, or purposefully try to go against its conventions. Akira Kurosawa, the French New Wave, Spaghetti Westerns… they all exist in relationship to Hollywood.
But just because we have this is the most popular way of telling stories does it mean it is the right way. We have accepted the dramatic structure presented to us by Hollywood (and its predecessors) as a gospel truth when maybe it isn’t. The idea of inciting incident, rising action and climax is most closely associated with 19th-Century theorist Gustav Freytag, who explained the structure of Greek and Shakespearean theatre by illustrating it as a pyramid:
Now here’s a caveat: this illustration isn’t perfect, since it makes it seem as if the “Climax” came in the middle of the structure, which is not true of most dramatic arts, and certainly not true in Hollywood storytelling, where the climax comes pretty close to the end. In any case, Freytag’s pyramid has been extremely influential in the way we have developed play- and screenwriting; so much so that a lot of us forget that this structure is not a requirement. In fact, this structure has its limitations. For example, playwright Sarah Ruhl observed that the trajectory of Freytag’s pyramid closely resembles that of the male orgasm.
This pyramid was created in a specific context, accepting it as the only viable dramatic structure is limiting our view of dramatic storytelling tremendously. Sure, it’s nice when the latest superhero blockbuster stars a person of color, or a woman, but there is a difference between playing ball within the parameters that have been established, and to truly subvert expectations. Let’s remember, movies will evolve. They’re only been around for about a hundred years (a minuscule amount of time compared to plays, music, poetry). What we are living through is not the logical end of filmmaking, it is barely its “classical period.” Youtube, Snapchat and whatever comes after them will shape the future of filmmaking. Nobody knows what a movie will look like in a hundred years, but how disappointing would it be if they looked just like they do today? I hope that as more people (with backgrounds and identities) get to make more movies, they will bring new ideas of what a movie can be.
Considering where this conversation has gone, the twist at the end of Us seems incredibly traditional. But if this is how we react to something that differs even slightly from the norm, then what hope is there for the future? The possibilities are endless, so why temper them with a restrictive pyramid?