Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019) – review

Image result for midsommar poster

Below are my thoughts on Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There are mild spoilers.

Midsommar is Ari Aster’s second wholly wonderful horror film, coming after last year’s Hereditary. It shares with his debut feature some stylistic, tonal, and thematic similarities. It stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who is coming to terms with a family tragedy and bereavement. So like Hereditary, the camera lingers on a character struggling with the aftermath of severe grief. Aster includes a very similar moment to one of the most affecting scenes in Hereditary, of Dani howling in anguish and being comforted by her partner after she has just received the most dreadful news.

It also includes some shocking and unexpected edits to close ups of deformed faces – both dead and alive, and there are several moments of blunt force trauma that are, if anything, more severe than that of the head collision in Hereditary.

The film is also about a cult/close community. But whereas Hereditary disguised this twist and revealed that it had been about a cult only at the climax, Midsommar‘s structure stays strictly within the formula of the folk horror movie/film about a cult from the beginning – using The Wicker Man as its template. (Though with its emphasis on flowers as a motif, May Queens, and with an errant boyfriend who is sexually tempted by other women in the community, it reminded me more of Robin Hardy’s belated, and maligned, follow-up, The Wicker Tree). That it sticks so closely to the Wicker Man‘s structure is not a criticism. The pleasure to be had in these films is the slow building of tension, and increasing weirdness, with the audience understanding exactly where it is all leading – typically to a final orgy of excess.

One way Midsommar foreshadows this eventual spill over into excess is through depicting tapestries and paintings hanging on walls that hint at some necessary bloodletting to come. Though one moment depicted in a tapestry, that recalls some disturbing self harm familiar from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, never arrives on screen for real.

Midsommar leads exactly where you expect it to (if you are familiar with this sort of film), and this is its strength. Aster plays with horror convention, but is not afraid to be formulaic where necessary, so part of the enjoyment is in seeing how those moments you know are coming are about to be delivered. And, also like his first movie, Midsommar is hilarious as well as being genuinely emotionally affecting (though the grief depicted in this film isn’t as impactful. There is no drama as effective as the dinner scene in Hereditary, for example).  The humour comes in a couple of very funny one-liners as well as in its moments of pure absurdity.

With only a couple of hours of daylight in the fictional community (supposedly Sweden), most of what we see is set in bright sunshine. Aster’s camera continually shifts perspective, from very high angles, shots that are upside down, and point of views (including of eyelids being closes). Later on he uses shots that are either super imposed or long cross dissolves (I will have to watch it again to see). The effect is frequently hallucinatory, to which the diegetic folk soundtrack contributes.

Overall, this is superb piece of horror, at once original and familiar.

 

 

Burma VJ introduction

Below is the transcript for an introduction I gave at the University of Kent on 4th February 2014 for Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, 2008). The event was part of the campus takeover/politics week run by Kent Union.

The screening took place in the Lupino, the university’s dedicated screening room.

Film Sundance Burma VJ

Burma VJ has an unusual production history. Much of the footage is shot in Burma by activists on the ground during political demonstrations. But the film was compiled in the West, after the footage was smuggled out of the country. I am not going to talk much about how the film was made, because that will become evident as you are watching it. The film is, in many ways, about its own creation. Instead, I am going to briefly discuss some of the vital themes the film touches on.

Though the film deals with a very specific set of events from a particular place and time in history, it is an important indicator of some of the ways protest and activism has changed around the world. In particular, the film chronicles how effective the use of camcorder and video recording technology can be to political activists.

Camcorders are used in the film to expose authoritarian and institutional abuse, and to expose the often brutal reaction by authorities to direct political action. In protests worldwide we can see how the use of camera-phone footage dominates reporting on civil unrest, with much news footage comprising of pictures taken by the citizens involved.

Burma VJ is a prophetic film. The year after the film was made Neda Soltan was killed by police during an anti-government protest in Iran. Her death, captured on mobile phones by her friends, was broadcast worldwide, and was used to shine a light on events in Iran happening at the time.

In the UK, in a political climate far less intense than either Burma or Iran, we saw how footage captured by civilians can be used to hold authority to account. Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests in the same year as Neda Agha- Soltan – 2009. The first police reports of his death, ones which were repeated widely in the media, were that he had collapsed, and that protesters had bombarded the police as they attempted to resuscitate him. These stories were soon contradicted by eyewitnesses, and several days after Tomlinson’s death video footage emerged which confirmed that he had in fact died after contact with police, and that protestors had not thrown anything or attempted to prevent police from giving first aid. The incident culminated in a police officer being tried for manslaughter.

These incidents highlight a recent development in political activism. We have to acknowledge that the process of recording is a two way process. The police use video to record protesters – and protesters will increasingly use video to record the police. Both are vital to democratic processes. Rather than providing a full stop to this debate, Burma VJ helped to mark the beginning of a new era of political activism.

How to make a Toy Theatre

A short clip from a documentary on Victorian Toy Theatre. I was in Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden earlier, and was intrigued by the designs of the toy theatres, shadow boxes, and shadow theatres that were available.

C.S. Lewis – ‘Tyranny’

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology), 1970