Wednesday 13 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #44b: Get Out (2017)

Look, I can number these posts any way I want, OK? OK.

So you may remember I wrote about Jordan Peele's Get Out before, while it was still in cinemas, without spoiling much. That other post, which is as close to a review as I get, is really the first half of the essay that'll appear in the book, and that's the part of it you can read without ruining it for you if you haven't seen it. Go read it first. I'll still be here when you get back.

Today, I'm going to be giving away the twists and surprises of Get Out from the, ah, Get Go. So if you haven't seen this film (you should, because it's great), and want to see it and not have it wrecked, stop reading now. But if you do, you'll know why I'm writing about this in a series about folk horror. Decisions!

You think I'm in with a chance?
So. This is what's up in Get Out, and this is the context of everything that's going to follow.

Chris has been lured to the Armitage house to be shown to their wealthy, aging friends. They will auction him off, and the winner will get to steal his body, having a vital part of their brain transplanted into his by Rose's father the brain surgeon, forcing him to be a passenger in his own body, while they become the pilot. They get to be young and black and he gets to watch, powerless, from a distance. Everyone in the community is in on it, even Rose, his girlfriend, especially Rose, who has seduced a succession of Black people, men and women, and brought them here to be turned into skin suits for rich people. 

Is it better?
Just because you're trying to be friendly, it doesn't mean you're not being racist
So at the Armitage party (which is in fact not the annual get together everyone says it is, but entirely there so that he can be ogled and auctioned off), Chris endures a parade of awkward conversations: the bloke who says being black is fashionable, the retired pro golfer who says he "knows Tiger", the woman who feels Chris's arm and asks Rose if it's better. They cover all the bases.1

Like a man who rates women from one to ten, or thinks he can just walk into a beauty pageant dressing room and have an ogle because he paid for them to be there, who treats them like objects, that's exactly what these people are doing to Chris, they're fetishising him, they're behaving like he's property.

And of course, in the USA, Black people were treated as literal property for a very long time. A central point in American history pivoted on a slave owners' revolt for the right to keep slaves, and a big chunk of that nation still mythologises the slave owning side. I think it's not too much of a reach to say that this is still very much a thing that the USA hasn't gotten over.

And let's not be disingenuous here, I'm in a glass house too. I mean, if Britain didn't have a problem with racists Nigel Farage wouldn't still be on the bloody TV all the time. I'm just saying. If this wasn't a Thing, then we wouldn't have Get Out, right?
Into the sunken place.
It's the polite racists you have to watch. One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves about politics is that the really right wing candidates are supported by the dirty, stupid poor, and that lets us laugh at the cracker with the bad skin in the MAGA hat when actually the really poor people don't vote for racists, or even bother to vote, and the heart of Donald Trump's support was always the affluent bourgeoisie in the suburbs, just like the heart of the support of the worst Conservative governments has always been the most affluent area of England.

Racists love astroturf, they spend an awful lot of money laying down plastic grass roots, but no matter how they try to hide it, the hard right has always been in line with the money.
Dean: By the way, I would've voted for Obama for a third term if I could. Best president in my lifetime, hands down.
Oh really?

Maybe you would have, Rose's Dad, but even if you could, even if you had, you'd still be Trump all the way. Liberal elites are just elites, and racists love pretending that somehow they're against the "liberal" elite, when it's the elite running the campaign. Even when they don't know they're doing it.

Here's the thing. The latter day slave owners in Get Out don't understand that they're racist. It literally hasn't occurred to them. They'll tell you they love black people, and they'll even mean it, without quite understanding the truth about themselves, that they love black people in the way Donald Trump loves women, in the way Burger King loves cows.
The Armitages have been very good to me.
And fetishising Black people is a thing that we do all the time, because society has conditioned us to do it, and it's a thing I've done myself in my art in the past, and I regret it bitterly, and I mean there's a reason why most of what I did artistically between 2012 and 2015 no longer exists. Allies aren't the same as friends. Be an ally, but don't expect the people on the wrong side of the equation of oppression to like you, don't expect that you're entitled to it because you're (gritted teeth) "woke", especially if you made these mistakes in the past. It doesn't work that way, and while Diet Coke alt NRx wannabe fascists with chins like nutsacks might decry statements in support of equality as "virtue signalling" (and anyone who says that unironically deserves no respect), you're just proving them right if you act like that. You're making things worse. Don't do that.
Dean: It's such a privilege to be able to experience someone else's culture, you know what I'm saying?
That's not how it works either. You don't butt in, you don't be the white guy crashing the Native American drum circle. The thing about a culture is that it's theirs. You can visit, but you can't experience it, even when you're actually literally wearing their skin. It doesn't work that way.

The only man at the party who shows Chris the sort of respect he actually needs or deserves is the blind art dealer, Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), who of course is at the party and hence already part of the cult. And in the end, the only real difference between him and the others is that he knows full well how ignorant they are. But it doesn't matter. He'd throw a white man under the bus just as readily, and happily admits it. Does that make him better, because he's more honest? Or worse?

I don't think it makes a difference. He's going to steal a man's body without remorse, just as readily as any of the others.
Chris: Why us?
Hudson: Hmm?
Chris: Why Black people?
Hudson (laughs): Who knows? People want a change. Some people want to be stronger, faster, cooler. But don't, please don't lump me in with that, I could give a shit what colour y'are. No. What I want is deeper. I want... your eye, man. I want those things you see through.
Get out! Get out! Get the fuck out!
White, even when Black
Get Out is of course a retread of The Stepford Wives, with race substituted for sex. We see a handful of black people in the suburbs – "Georgina" (Betty Gabriel), apparently the housekeeper, and "Walter" (Marcus Henderson), apparently the gardener, and of course "Logan", really Andre (Lakeith Stansfield), the man who we saw at the beginning of the film, terrified about being lost in a white suburb. He's an acquaintance of Chris and Rod, and when he's temporarily brought back to himself by a camera flash, he desperately tries to warn Chris.

And of course obviously, these black people are behaving in a way acceptable to the suburbanites – that is, like old white people – because there's a white person inside them, and that's the most obvious metaphor you can possibly imagine. But often, that's what you get; the well-meaning liberal people who really want to do all this work for charity and really want to "educate" the minority, and half the time what they really want, what they mean by "educating" is really "making them act and talk like you". I mean, you see this with class politics in the UK, the way that Guardian columnists and the like are all about helping poor people and people in the provinces but God forbid ever talking to them (and God forbid them having their own culture and language).

It extends beyond the simple horror film gimmick, so when Rod goes to see the police to get help, the three Black police officers who listen to him laugh it off, because the film's expectation of our understanding of the African-American experience is that the police won't do anything to help, because the police are white. Even when they're Black.  

You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation.
So why, of all the victims the Armitages have taken, is it Chris who gets out? Surely the poor woman who ended up being hollowed out and turned into grandma's vehicle (another one of Rose's collection of lovers, it turns out) must have noticed something was up? Or the guy who ended up becoming "Walter", he was a big guy. Couldn't he have put up a fight? How does Chris escape?

Solidarity, that's how. 

Rod sticks by Chris through it all, because he's a mate, and because he's a brother, and there's a reason why members of oppressed groups throughout history have called each other brothers, and it's Rod's brotherhood that brings the final rescue from the most dangerous situation of all, namely Chris, a Black man, standing alone next to a burning mansion and a stack of dead bodies, some white. There's an alternative ending where Chris does get arrested and ends up at the mercy of an unbelieving justice system, but I'm glad that in the theatrical version of the film, it's Rod who's in the car with the sirens and lights, who drives Chris away.

But it's not just Rod. Andre tries to warn him. Chris avoids the sound of the post hypnotic trigger by using the stuffing from the leatherbound armchair he's confined in as earplugs, stuffing liberated by a previous captive who clawed it out, and who, while they didn't get away themselves, gave Chris a means to liberate himself. Chris benefits from the struggles of others (and by the way, being British, I didn't pick up on this, but of course Chris is liberating himself by picking cotton, which is a brutal, intentional piece of irony).

It's such a privilege.
Any sufficiently advanced magic
None of this quite explains why this should be thought of as not only a folk horror film, but an essential one. But this does:

Behold the Coagula. 

In the (hilarious) infomercial Chris is strapped into a chair and made to watch, the pre-op Grandad Armitage (Richard Herd) begins to talk about the "coagula", and "our order", and that's very specifically occult language. But it's also very specifically socially-anchored occult language.
COAGULA is the word seen inscribed on the left arm of the daemon Baphomet, as drawn by Eliphas Lévi in the mid-nineteenth century, in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and it's Latin for "join together", presented as a verb imperative (i.e. this is a thing you have to do). The other arm says SOLVE ("separate", also as a verb imperative). Specifically harkening back to this, and using quasi-religious language to boot ("BEHOLD"), ties what the Armitages are doing to high magic, or if you want to be even more specific, magick with an extra k, because racists do love their extra ks.

High magic is framed as the magic of the privileged, the well-born, the wealthy. It is magic that is at the very least expensive, magic with nicely made props and specially made buildings and gilt on your wand, and the investment in time that you can only really put in if you can afford not to have a job. Poor people have witchcraft, where you, I don't know, suckle a ferret, or they have spiritualism where you're all set with a table, a couple of teacups, some shaving foam and a sing-song round the old Joanna. And of course Black people have witchcraft too, and, yeah, they have voodoo, and the thing about any kind of witchcraft or spiritualism is that it's cheap, anyone can do it, but the thing about Eliphas Lévi and Israel Regardie and McGregor Mathers and A.E. Waite is that poor people need not apply, and that goes double for Black people. And I know that the Rider-Waite Tarot deck was drawn by a Black woman, but she doesn't usually get her name on it and she died in penury, which sort of  proves the point.

Anyway. Coagula. Ritual magic(k). Got that? Now this baggage-laden occult term is applied to what is in effect a surgical procedure. And seriously? We are supposed to believe that a portion of the brain of the victim is replaced by a portion of the brain of the buyer, and that the transplanted portion of the brain takes over, leaving the victim's mind trapped and a passenger in the body, but presumably that's a whole brain between them, so which part of the brain is the mind stuck in? The bit taken out or the bit put in?

Don't think too hard about it, because of course it's not science, it's magic. The surgery is a magical ritual, and in the words of Sylvester McCoy's Doctor, "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science".

This sort of black magic is the whitest magic there is.  

Because here's another axis of oppression. Science. Establishment science has not been kind to Black people, especially in the US. The US Public Health Service observed and experimented on Black men with syphilis in the 1950s and 60s and didn't treat the disease and didn't even tell them they were doing it. Evolutionary science was taught as race science for decades. Science, especially medicine, has been a tool of cruelty, and a lot of this science has been exposed over the years as, no better than, well, magic.

So if Dean Armitage is performing what can only be a magical ritual, as if it were a scientific procedure, with liberal use of post-hypnotic triggers courtesy of Missy Armitage's "Sunken Place", that's really the only way it can be.
Get Out is absolutely a folk horror movie. It has a magical cult, a pagan conspiracy out in the lonely isolated areas, and it has that same wonderful it-was-you-they-wanted twist that is so often a trope of folk horror. But it's presented from the eyes of a minority; the pagan witches are brain surgeons and liberal elites, whose occult powers (masquerading as science, and that quintessentially white blind faith in any old shit, as long as you call it science, isn't that a bizarre pagan belief right there?) are used to tear out the soul of brotherhood and hollow out the oppressed and put white people inside them.

I find that watching a film a second time is when I really know if it's as good as I thought it was. And it is! It's great! It's salty. It's fun, it's fast paced and suspenseful.

And it's really funny.

1One of the men at the party is not white, he's Japanese, but evidently complicit, and someone else can unpack that, frankly. I'm not going there. I'm just pointing it out. (back)