The end of August saw the coincidental (re)releases of the The Matrix (1999) and Midsommar (2019); the former in celebration of its 20 year anniversary as a landmark cultural milestone and the latter as a kind of victory lap from an indie film studio on an impeccable genre streak.You can find my review of Midsommar here; to be brief, I found Ari Aster’s sophomore effort to be a less-urgent, albeit quieter and deadlier affectation of modernity’s spell. Dani’s trip down the pagan rabbit hole of the macabre Hårga tradition in the director’s cut of the film occasioning the re-release, nicely parallels that of Neo in his awakening from the literal dreamwork of the Matrix, a computer simulation of neoliberal society maintained in the real world by an intelligent machine race. Two lost souls desperate as for connection, Dani and Neo take the curious leap into the perilous unknown.
Nearly all of the discourse I’ve come across around Midsommar – and The Matrix in other significant ways – seem to not know what to do with the films’ political implications nor the ramifications of their thematic ends. **spoilers ahead** Dani’s relationship woes don’t as much stem from her emotionally stunted boyfriend Christian, but a broken social system necessarily dependent on the alienation of its subjects. Likewise to The Matrix, Neo’s existential choice between ‘red pill’ and ‘blue pill,’ when taken in its correct, neoliberal context, is a brutally honest denouncement of the entrancing, hegemonic complacency that is capitalist realism. The Matrix itself is a means of completely severing the human mind from its reality by supplanting a new one. Even when plugged out of the Matrix, Neo struggles to escape the restrictive consciousness learned in his virtual imprisonment. “There is no spoon.” We are only as limited as our consciousness. Our accepted breadth of possibilities must be fluid to our distinctive needs as autonomous individuals. Dani is clearly more suited among the Hårga than her own American countryfolk despite her repulsion for the casual ritualistic violence, but violence is more than blood and gore. By the end, Dani and Neo are born anew through death set forth a bright, limitless future.
The Farewell Rated: PG Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes Director: Lulu Wang Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Han Chen, and Shuzhen Zhao
In The Farewell, director Lulu Wang poses a fascinating question on the logic of lying in the modern sense. Based “on [the] actual lie” of Wang’s experience with her real-life grandmother’s illness, the film is about Billi (Awkwafina), her relationship with her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), and the difficult news her Chinese family insists they all keep from the dying matriarch. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; the doctors say she maybe has three months to live. Having more or less assimilated to the American way of being since she, her Mom Jian (Diana Lin), and her Dad Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved West when she was still a young child, Billi naturally struggles with the prospect of keeping the known fact of her grandmother’s mortality hidden from her; especially given the cult of individualism so engrained in the Western dream. Her family has decided to stage a fake wedding back home in China so that everyone can come together for one last farewell before Nai Nai passes. Afraid Billi won’t be able to hide her emotions well enough, they plea for her to stay away, for Chinese people have a saying, “when people get cancer, they die.” Nai Nai may be sick, but knowing she’s dying will only affirm the prognosis and that will kill her for sure. At least this way, she won’t suffer from the impending knowledge of her death – she can enjoy the rest of her life worry free, as it should be.
Some spectral parallels to July’s Midsommar (coincidently another A24 release not even a month apart), TheFarewell is too juxtaposing contradictory cultural modalities, namely Western (American) and Eastern (Chinese) traditional perceptions of who one’s life belongs to. As Billi’s uncle puts it, in the East, one’s life belongs to the whole – the family is to carry the burden of the bad news so that Nai Nai doesn’t have to. To ruin what’s left of her time by telling her, so to keep their individual consciences’ clean, would be needlessly unfair to Nai Nai. There is little point to life if its remainder is to be tainted by dread and despair. In the West, one’s life is committed to oneself foremost. Billi and her parents even make a note of it being illegal in America to keep news of someone’s dire ailment from them. Lying in the West is primarily done to conceal individual insecurities as opposed to keeping information from people whom aren’t necessarily entitled to know, as Billi lies about the rejection letter for the fellowship she’s applied to that everyone’s waiting to hear about. We can look at the film’s parallel lies as inversions encapsulating the valuations of their respective cultural sources. Not to say one is right and the other wrong, but to simply value life where you can, how you can.
The Farewell is nowhere near as intense as Midsommar, but those intrigued by the latter’s themes of cultural consideration will find in the former a wise account of empathy missing from the existential discourse today.
Midsommar Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes Director: Ari Aster Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter
In the Swedish commune that is the predominate setting of Ari Aster’s Hereditary follow-up, the community elders, at the ripe age of 72, willingly give their lives to the nature divine; in their archaic life economy, the pain and suffering of old age is circumvented through the ritual act of suicide, so as to not taint or corrupt the soul with needless torment. To the typical subject of modern society, which tends to value life only as far as its potential to produce material goods, such a macabre cultural mode is surely to inspire terror rather than celebration – exactly what happens when Dani and company witness the graphic practice in the film. But is the ancestral symbolization of suicide really that taboo held up to the mainstream attitude towards the subject? Midsommar is in major ways a spiritual sequel to Hereditary in its visceral dive into the psychological terror that comes with the existential challenge of living under the oppression of modernity’s uniquely alienating effects. **mild spoilers ahead**
Dani, our main protagonist and a magnificent, authentic performance from Florence Pugh, is the prime subject of the film, around whom the effects of social reality has rendered a guilt and anxiety-ridden mess. We meet Dani whilst leaving a nervous voicemail to her parents on the account of a trouble message she received from her mentally ill sister. It’s clear Dani has some issues of her own – she’s admittedly leaned on her emotionally inept boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) far more than she’d like as she confides to another friend in another early phone call. Dani’s lurking fears comes to pass with the news that her mom, dad, and sister have all been killed in an apparent murder-suicide, of her sister’s doing. Dani needs Christian more than ever, but he’s not equipped to give what she needs from him. And why would he? He came up in the same twisted framework she did. He’s pressured by friends (William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter) to break-up with her, but when the news comes and along with it Dani’s grief-stricken comatose, he can’t help but be there for her, even if he doesn’t know how. Dani and Christian’s relationship, fueled by a mutual desperation for connection and stability, is surely to resonate at least partially to any modern romance, and is requisite to the visceral horror at the film’s center. Codependency is a perfectly organic development under the psychosocial ineptitude of neoliberal modernity, incubating a permanent-lasting, dull drain on lived, irreversible time. When that codependent insecurity is touched by the collective tabooism of the Hårga Swedish commune, the subsequent culture clash yields horrifying conclusions.
Dani, Christian and company spend some time with the Swedish natives for sometime before any cause for concern arises; specifically the grotesque ritual suicide midway in. The film makes a point to contextualize the disturbing display of violence within the Hårga tradition, which doesn’t view the act of suicide/euthanasia in the derogatory light the neoliberal dreamwork does. In fact, the Hårga community isn’t even really an oppressive hierarchy at all from the perspective of its active members. I mean sure, they casually indulge in ultra-violence against the unlucky sacrifice victim, but everyone in the commune share a spiritually fulfilling livelihood where their material needs are sustainably met: food, shelter, emotional support, and a tangible, egalitarian purpose that gives a respectable meaning to everyone’s life. Who is the modern subject to judge them when our dominate social mode is infinitely pervasive, relentless in its ends, no matter the psychological cost to its people? The theme of suicide weighs heavy on the film, especially considering the explicitly graphic nature of its depiction in the film’s more harrowing sequences. The difference between the suicide at the beginning of the film at the one in the middle is clear in spiritual intent, but what’s mutually true of the respective acts is salvation from future misery understood to be ultimately unnecessary. Death is a cruel mercy from the harsh existential truth of suffering, but we don’t really have just cause to judge either.
Midsommar succeeds as dramatic commentary as well as compelling aesthetic exercise. It’s unconventional use of brightness, white, and daylight is almost disorienting, sneaking up on you like Dani and her group’s inability to differentiate the days apart in the region’s extended daylight hours. It’s very cool how the scenes in America are shrouded in darkness and shadows, which we tend to strictly associate with the vulnerability at the core of fear, juxtapose with the festive, flowery whiteness, perpetual illumination, like the communal openness, where that vulnerability is inverted in a scary way; where that fear comes not from being unable to see, but from being too seen, because where you come from, letting people see how you feel in its full extent is dangerous and you’ll be punished for it.
Like with Hereditary, Ari Aster once again uproots a horror inherent to our way of life in the 21st century: the unsustainable psychological deficiency of our system of relationships. Modernity has fundamentally done away with public accessibility to the mental facilities necessary to enjoy the life you have, with the irreversible time you are forced to forfeit. Some cope by finding meaning in their work, like their pHd thesis, or they play it safe through life, never committing to themselves in a state of permanent anxiety. Others cope by taking their own lives, and while not ideal by any means, the very logic of modern culture does not cultivate such sufficient valuation of lived time. The Hårga traditions are nowhere near as depraved as the ones Dani, her boyfriend, and us the audience, have been forced to live in. That’s scary.