Tuesday 4 June 2019

OatW #19; TQiB #23: A Conversation that’s all about Us

Us (2019)

It’s what they call a Very Special Episode today. So over the space of a couple of weeks, my old pal and contributor to We Don’t Go Back, the luminous and epic Monique Lacoste, engaged in a conversation about Jordan Peele’s recent film Us. Us, you may know, stars Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide, who in returning to a place of childhood trauma finds her family under threat. To say any more at all is of course a spoiler, and as usual, we’re going to have all the spoilers in this post.Seriously, the whole plot. Laid bare.

The one thing I’m going to say before we start that is not a spoiler is this: we both think Us is brilliant. Neither Monique nor I had a bad thing to say about it. In my opinion it’s better than Get Out (and I loved Get Out). I think everything about it, its pacing, plotting, performances, images, ideas, is absolutely spot on. It works on every possible level, and our conversation about the film is essentially predicated on the simple fact that we don’t have a bad word to say about it, so there’s that.

It seemed right somehow, for a film about duality, for two of us to do it. 

Here we go, then. This is what we had to say about Us.

hdi: I decided that Us goes into both On a Thousand Walls and The Question in Bodies, but then I think that the urban wyrd/weird and identity horror often bring each other along with them. I think that's something to do with how people in developed societies frame their identity along local and political lines, so that when the social landscape fractures, so do we.

Us begins with a crawl recounting the urban semi-legend about the vast number of tunnels that run around the continental USA, and finishes with the disquieting statement that many of them are there for unknown reasons. It doesn't finish that story. It leaves out the part about who inhabits them. So if you've heard those stories, you'll know what to expect, which is delicious, I think; if you haven't, you will get the feeling of an absence, the feeling that the story is incomplete. And that's pretty delicious too, the way that you're either anticipating a thing or aware that something is coming.

ML: I think the most exciting thing about Us is the multiplicity of readings it allows for because of its complex, and some might even say somewhat messy, narrative construction. It’s impossible to talk about Us without placing it, in all senses of that idea. Certainly the film is about how our social landscapes shape our sense of reality, but we must ground this in the tangible as well because Peele is so specific about locality in this film. The conversations the film is engaging with - classed, racial, psychological - are also highly spacial.

For me, the opening passages about unused tunnels was intriguing but not necessarily frightening. The idea of “the creepy thing underground” is a staple of horror movies, but focusing on the tunnels specifically was interesting because tunnels are such liminal spaces. And of course we’re talking about Jordan Peele, who, for better or worse, is at the forefront of what’s generally being called politically or socially-conscious horror, meaning the straight-forward read is out. So for me this opening made me think that the tunnels would feature as, if not a positive space, at the very least a productive or contested space, an opening to...something. And then of course, after a brief sequence of a television blaring commercials about Santa Cruz and Hands Across America (which of course come back later as significant plot points) the film cuts to show us Adelaide for the first time. And little Adelaide is walking around a carnival, which is a very deliberate kind of liminal space. Here we see her interacting with her clearly unhappy parents, winning a Thriller t-shirt at a game, and then wandering past a man holding a sign referencing the biblical passage Jeremiah 11:11 before entering a shaman-themed hall of mirrors.
hdi: And a hall of mirrors is a liminal space within a liminal space. A mirror is a thing that serves as a gateway between a world that is back-to-front and ours, and of course as Us goes on, it'll draw on that, asking which world is back-to-front, or even if either is in fact back-to-front at all.

What Adelaide sees in the funhouse mirror is of course not a reflection. The other Adelaide has her back to her (and to us) but is of course facing the same way, which a reflection cannot do. She's not a reflection, she's a doppelgänger. A reflection doesn't threaten in the same way. A reflection doesn't pose the basic existential threat. A reflection is, unlike a doppelgänger, an imperfect copy.

A doppelgänger has always been the stuff of folk beliefs, an omen of disaster, and everything in those first few minutes of Us is the stuff of folk tale, but not the rural folk music folk tale, the urban folk tale, half way between the classic flashlight-under-your-chin sleepover shocker and the bloodier, stranger stuff of full-on pathological conspiracy myth.

For me for example, the framing of the tunnels in the opening crawl, and then the fairground setting, and then the split-second demonic smile of the doppelgänger made me think of the Deros.

I mean, OK, the word “Dero” isn't ever mentioned in the film, and that's to the good, because it's a stupid name, frankly, but the myth must 100% have been there in the genesis of this film.

The idea comes from Richard Shaver, who in the late 40s, after a life of tragedy and mental illness, approached his delusion of being controlled by voices from beneath the earth by writing his pathology into a series of stories, which Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer lightly dressed as “science fiction, except not really”. Readers began to write in talking about their own experiences, and the “Shaver Mystery” became a sort of outsider art mythology. Shaver wrote about a parallel civilisation of people trapped underground in a sort of industrial hell that drove them mad and transformed them into near-automata, “detrimental robots”, de-ros. The Deros puppeted us from beneath the earth with vaguely described mechanisms, and I think Peele's tapping into this very American vein of pathological folklore was a very smart move. The Deros are born of a very human madness, both diegetically (in that the industrial hell drives them mad) and extradiegetically (the whole idea came from a medically documented condition) and I think that theme of the madness of crowds is a great foundation for what this says about Us.

And note it's a film about Us, and not a film where We star. It looks at Us. It reveals Us. It displays Us. Us is an object. Us is the thing seen, not the thing seeing.

ML: The thing about the Deros myth is fascinating. And honestly, thinking of the film this way helped me reconcile some of my initial feelings about the third act not quite working with the first two. But again, that’s also why this film is so exciting - all of the choices are so thick with reference that it’s possible to argue different meanings for every scene and have all of those arguments bare weight. From what I understand, Shaver’s writings are considered a huge point of inspiration for a number of the UFO and sci fi inspired cults that sprung up around the country, and specifically in Los Angeles, during the 1960s and 70s. This seems oddly significant given that the eventual “mission” of the Tethered is extremely evocative of Manson-style cult ritual.

For me, the combination of the opening crawl about the tunnels and the appearance of the Adelaide dopplegänger immediately evoked the work of Ursula LeGuin. The reference to her short story Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is perhaps obvious - the idea of a “perfect society” being fueled by the pain and suffering of a deprived and barely-human child who is always kept underground, in a dark room, is not far from the truth of the Tethered. But it also reminded me of the speech LeGuin gave at Mills College in the 1980s, which I read last year when she passed away. In it she spoke about the inevitability of failure and the idea that in moments of despair we should look to the “dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls” for answers instead of to the heavens. Then as the film progresses and it becomes clear that Peele is using the dopplegängers to interrogate how one develops a human soul, among other things, this similarity became more and more pronounced.

There are two more elements of the opening sequence that I want to focus on as well. One is the Jeremiah 11:11 sign, and the other is the Thriller t-shirt Adelaide’s father wins for her at the carnival booth. The bible passage is the first time we see the theme of “tethered doubles” or twin things bound together as one while also existing separately. We see this again later with the scissors, and of course the Tethered/Human duos. I’ve seen some critiques of the film argue that the Jeremiah 11:11 reference marks the Tethered as inherently evil because it’s about doom that one cannot escape. But I believe the use of this passage strongly supports Peele’s desire for us to question what it means for an enemy to be “us” and who “us” is in the first place. In the King James version, Jeremiah 11:11 reads:
Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Without the context of the Bible itself, there’s no guide for interpreting who the “them” is and who, or what, the evil might be. And without getting too far into the story yet, it’s also important to point out that the only one who ever proclaims a belief in God is Red, Adelaide’s Tethered double.
hdi: Literally the first thing I did when the lights went up was turn on my phone and look up Jeremiah 11:11. And you know, it didn't occur to me that it's a pair of pairs. But course it is.

Without context, it's a scary Scripture. With context, it's worse. Jeremiah 11 is a statement of judgement on God's People for failing to keep God's Laws, and that's pretty ambivalent because God's Laws in the Old Testament have some pretty profound points about wealth redistribution and political asylum, but also some vicious statements about women and followers of other faiths. It's not simple. And in a sense, you can argue that literally no one is innocent, that the contradiction in Divine Law means that no one gets away. We brought destruction upon ourselves – and the Scripture is clear, it's our fault – simply by picking a side, and the most horrible part of that that is that it doesn't matter which side we pick.

And obviously any religious faith worth anything has ways around that, but the God of the Old Testament, YHWH, the LORD, is a narcissistic abuser, without a redemptive reading of the text to alleviate that.

This judgement though, the judgement in the film, we literally bring upon ourselves. Even the 11:11 guy isn't exempt (and his is the first doppelgänger we see in the present-day portion of the film, although it's a while until we realise that). We are the victims and the vehicle of the violence, in that we're descended upon by our doppelgängers, alternative selves, from a dreamlike industrial space, that they built, maintained, and imprisoned themselves within.

And in that space, they know who we are. They know what we wear, and provide themselves with inferior mass-produced copies, even down to pop culture artefacts, like the Thriller T-shirts, both of them.

ML: As for the t-shirt, it’s clearly a nice period detail. But I would argue it’s also a foreshadowing of the Tethered, because they’re not just dopplegängers - in their flattened affect, lack of agency, and violence, they’re also presented as a particular type of zombie. I will touch on this more later when we get to the scenes with the Tethered, but it’s worth pointing out that zombies and dopplegängers might have more in common that it appears on the surface. Zombies are as much a creature of folk horror as dopplegängers, albeit from a colonized American context instead of a European one. (Also, dopplegänger means “double walker,” which is interesting given that zombies are referred to as walkers a lot in contemporary pop culture because of The Walking Dead.)

hdi: I absolutely think you have something there, although I also think that Us neatly sidesteps my big problem with zombie media (that isn't Night of the Living Dead) as a whole. I can't help feeling that zombie stuff is usually Ayn Rand for Teenagers, with the monsters an othered, faceless mass that the Protagonists Who Retain Their Individuality must either join (and in joining face existential defeat) or conquer. All too often there's someone who dares to approach the faceless mass with compassion, and pays the price. And OK, there's plenty of zombie media that interrogates that or subverts it, but then you're still stuck with either that story or a reaction to it. Basically, nine times out of ten, I'm rooting for the zombies.

Us avoids this right away by making sure that we know that these are people. One of the first things Red says in her strangled whisper (the main point of difference between her and Adelaide, and the signifier of her identity, as we find out at the end of the film) is, "We're Americans."

They're Americans. They're doppelgängers but they have their own names, their own histories and their own identities. Every double in the cast list has their own name, even the ones where neither of the characters' names get a mention in the dialogue. That cannot be anything other than intentional. OK, that's a thing in the modern cinema world, inasmuch as the second alien from the left in the back row of the alien casino in the last Star Wars movie has a name and a backstory, but in a Star Wars movie that's so you can sell an action figure and have a comic book issue/short story/audio drama spin off based on them, and here it's a different thing entirely. Like, why is (as we can see from the cast list) Elizabeth Moss's second character, Kitty's doppelgänger, called Dahlia? There isn't any conscious reason in the film for this, because no one gets to find out what her name is, no one says it. And the reason has to be that Peele wanted to encourage his actors to devise performances for these characters, make them real people. They're tied to their overground alternates, but they're also Americans in their own right. They bleed. They scream. They have scars (especially and most horribly in the case of Jason's double, Pluto).
ML: I’m with you on the problem of most modern zombie films. I would argue that it’s entirely appropriate for one to root for zombies, actually, particularly in their original form. Though modern zombies have become a sort of semi-floating signifier for our atomization due to everything from technology to modern political systems, the original zombie was a monster born from the horrors of colonization in Haiti and other French-occupied Caribbean islands. Zombies originally symbolized the fear that even death wouldn’t free African slaves, that they would be bound and “born again” into soulless bodies after death, forever serving their colonial masters. After the Haitian revolution and the birth of new religious systems gave way to voudon, this took on a magical quality but still remained a fear rooted in colonization and its aftermath. This message has been aggressively - and you can even argue deliberately - neutered in the zombie mythology of American cinema, starting right off with Bela Lugosi’s 1932 film White Zombie, that exerts whiteness into a monster designed to express the fears of a black population.

I didn’t start thinking of the Tethered as a metaphor for zombies and colonization until my second viewing. It was the initial confrontation between Red and Adelaide that called to mind Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon argues that colonization is inherently violent because it entails the replacement of one society with another, fundamentally incompatible, society, and that the process of decolonization thus necessarily results in a reversal whereby the former colonizers become reduced to the mute, controllable zombie status once occupied by the colonized. And of course, it’s fairly clear from the moment they arrive that the Tethered plan to use extreme violence to effect replacement of one society by an eerily similar one.

But because they’re dopplegangers who share a soul, this dynamic is also a commentary on self-colonization and how suppression of our darker impulses and behaviors will destroy us. As you say, the Tethered are aware of and adopt the behaviors and clothes of their human counterparts. But how much control do they really have? Red’s initial narration of how her “shadowing” of Adelaide affected her seriously challenges the idea of agency. For example, she mentions that when Jason was born and Adelaide had a c-section, she had to cut herself open to give birth to Pluto. Her choice here is inherently constrained by the actions of her human self, with her only real choice being how she apes the human, not whether she does so. Red’s violence is a product of her constrained choices, which….is exactly how zombies originally operated. Much like colonized humans, the Tethered develop a sense of agency and identity through how they do and do not relate to their “colonizing” force. To me, this is the really chilling thing about Red’s “We’re Americans” comment; the Tethered try to overthrow their human halves and establish their own agency by engaging in the most American of pastimes - gratuitous violence and commercialized “community” activities. And really, this is the only way it can be, because “us” is the enemy.

The names are also intriguing and clearly deliberate. For one, Adelaide means noble. Though many have interpreted both the name and the color Red to be a reference to Trump, it can just as easily be read as a class commentary. Communists are also called Reds, yeah? Then there’s the Zora (dawn)/Umbrae (shadow) dyad. And Jason wearing a mask the whole film seems like an obvious reference to Jason Voorhees, but also, Pluto is the god of the Underworld. Such nice details.
hdi: The attention to detail to this film is stunning. And it's all to a purpose. I'm normally suspicious of praise given to "worldbuilding" because it's usually not really about building worlds, to be honest, but Us is one of those films where we get the impression that there are entire stories going on outside the immediate scope of the camera, and we get glimpses of these things, which become more important as the film progresses, and it becomes apparent that we're not only witnessing the invasion of one family's space by the uncanny (having been led to guess that this is because of Adelaide's childhood pre-credits experience), we're seeing one isolated act of an apocalypse.

When we get past that first act, where Adelaide and Gabe (Gabe short for Gabriel, a New Testament sort of a name, as opposed to Abraham, an Old Testament sort of name) and the kids escape from the clutches of their doppelgängers and immediately head to find Kitty and Josh. Only we find that Kitty and Josh and their kids have also been attacked by psychotic doppelgängers in red boilersuits too, but unlike Adelaide's family, this is with fatal results.

Josh and Kitty are a source of unease for Adelaide and Gabe. They're like Adelaide's family in a lot of ways: middle class, two kids, and the mom played by the other of the two most recognisable actors in the film.

But they're somehow more successful, and wealthier. Gabe buys a boat; Josh has a bigger, better one, and Josh mocks Gabe for not having all the kit. Josh and Kitty have little luxuries Adelaide and Gabe don't – for example, the whole sequence where they're dispatched by their doppelgängers is soundtracked by their (not called by the brand name but totally the thing) Alexa. Their kids are better adjusted and more accomplished and therefore a little bit mean, but then successful people so often are.

There are two reasons the Black family survives while their white counterparts don't. One, we'll find out later. The second, though, is simply this: they are not caught by surprise. Now part of that is down to Red's family choosing to terrorise Adelaide's family before attacking them, again for entirely explicable reasons that become apparent later. But mainly this is down to the fact that they live precariously. A white middle class family in the US doesn't have to worry about losing it all the way a black family does. A white family doesn't have to worry about a bullet from a police officer. Adelaide's family don't even try to call the police until they're in a position of relative safety. Kitty tries (and fails) to raise the cops as soon as she realises what's going on. Which is far too late, and futile anyway: the not-Alexa doesn't hear her right, and we get the rest of the scene played out by "Fuck the Police". They have more stuff; their stuff fails them. Kitty's family is secure. They're not expecting to be murdered. Adelaide's family lives with a sort of fear white people don't have.
ML: Peele has said the film is not about race, but I don’t think it’s actually possible to make a film with a mostly black cast without applying a racial lens to its analysis. And there are a lot of things in the film that lend themselves to that critique. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the idea of the double consciousness of black people in a country that never allows them to be American, but first and always “Negroes,” and other scholars have talked about the twoness of a hyphenated identity (African-American, Asian-American) that cleaves one’s very being in two. For DuBois, this splitting affects the very souls of black people, who are always torn between waring impulses - he uses the phrase “two unreconciled strivings.” Other critics have noted the significance of Red’s “We’re Americans” line in the context of DuBois’s work, which of course wouldn’t have a similar resonance at all if the main cast was white.

Given the connection between class and race in the US, the racial critique really can’t be separated from the class critique. You’re right about the differences between the Wilsons and the Tylers - the white family is far more comfortable in their safety, and this is most definitely part of the reason the Wilsons survive when their friends do not. Being black in America is always a position of precarity that’s only barely mitigated by class privilege. In fact, before I knew “the big twist,” I read one of the earliest scenes in the film as a commentary on this. When the two families are at the beach and Adelaide panics because she doesn’t know that Jason has gone to the bathroom, my mind ran through the tragic litany of little black children killed by police. Adelaide’s fear resonates on that level, so much so that even knowing the “twist” doesn’t erase that reading. But the other reason Adelaide fears the beach, the “twist,” presents a real challenge to reading the film as a straightforward commentary on class and race. And that’s a very good thing - though I don’t believe creator intention should be taken as holy writ when analyzing a work, I also want to keep in mind that Peele wants to make a commentary about life in America using a black family as an “everyman” family.

In fact, one of the things I found quite interesting about the film is the degree to which the Wilsons are portrayed as a very “average” family. Or at least, what an average family in a modern home-invasion horror film looks like. The Wilsons have two children, dress in modern American sportswear, and most likely have common “good” jobs (we’re all sure Gabe is probably a lawyer, right? Or some kind of financial exec? Something boring?). And this is also what really struck me about the differences between the black and white families - the Wilsons display a level of affection and connection that’s practically ideal, while the Tylers seem to hate each other. When we first meet Kitty at the beach, she talks about how much she hates her husband. We also get the feeling that she has a bit of self-hatred when she talks about her plastic surgery, and later when we see her Tethered Dahlia mutilating herself and making grotesque faces that mimic “beauty shots” in the mirror. We see the twin daughters bonding through cruelty to the Wilson kids and to each other. And later, right before the Tethered attack, Kitty and Josh argue about who should check on the “noise outside” in a conversation that drips with hostility. By contrast, Gabe and Adelaide have a playful, affectionate relationship. Adelaide is a very loving and attentive mother. She understands her children, she’s patient with them (in particular with Jason, who’s dreamy), and there’s a very real sense that the family trusts and “gets” each other. This is established in the early scenes, as the family chats and listens to music in the car. We see it when Zora immediately follows her mother’s order to “get her shoes on” when the Tethered first attack. We see it again when the children go into the Tyler house to save their mother. And we see it again after that, as they argue about who has the highest “kill rate.”
hdi: And that plays strongly into what I love the most about that Big Twist: the Wilsons are nice people. They are likeable people. They're not perfect people. But they love each other, and for all that the Tylers are more externally successful, they're basically kind of jerks. Which means that when we discover that Red is really the original Adelaide, and that who we thought was Adelaide is in fact Red, and that this simple substitution is, well, just that. A person exchanged with a person.

And that's the basic thing that makes Us workable. The red jumpsuits, the meaningless "hands across America" slogan literalised, they're both there to make you think of how a big chunk of our society wants to Make America Great Again (or if we were in the UK and the jumpsuits were purple, Take Our Country Back). And the reveal is not that half of society is a murderous other, it's that we did this. And that it isn't even our dark shadow halves responsible for this, it is we. This is not a film about the other, it is about Us, like it says in the title. We brought this on ourselves, we made this happen, we are the harbingers of our own apocalypse. The mad Deros who live in their industrial hell and ape our lives are the same people. We are they. We could swap places and the result would be almost the same, except that we might know, and be radicalised by the knowledge.

Fundamentally, Us is a film that has delight after delight. The way in which it unpeels its onion is perfectly paced, perfectly toned, and its twists are just signified enough that it you got them in advance, it doesn't harm your enjoyment of the film. I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time, and keeping an eye on Jordan Peele. I'm a fan.

ML: I think that’s well said. The ambition of this film is the most exciting thing about it, whether you think it all entirely works or not. One criticism I’ve read of the film is that it’s “too ambitious.” But what a strange thing to say about a piece of art, and what a wrong thing to say about a filmmaker who’s pushing the genre and the very medium forward in a time when most mainstream filmmakers have totally given up on anything approaching innovative or original storytelling. If nothing else, this film makes me very excited to see what Peele will come up with next.