I don't like horror movies. It's not just the gore or the misogyny. I don't like the way in which the suspense takes over my body, exacerbating the tension and anxiety that already run through me. I don't like having to hold my breath, watching and awaiting some wretched outcome, when I spend enough time in my own life, with my face all scrunched up, desperately hoping things will be okay.
That said, we watched Jordan Peele's latest movie last night, and it was pretty tremendous. I suppose I'm willing to sit through another Peele film because I'm keen to hear his capital-M message. (I haven't seen Us, but damn, Get Out. Damn.) And to that end, Nope delivered.
Like Peele's first film, Nope stars Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Otis Jr. (OJ), whose father Otis Sr. ran Haywood Hollywood Horses, a horse training company that draws on the family's legacy as the kin of the unnamed rider in Eadweard Muybridge's famous Animal Locomotion photographs, the series of chronophotographic pictures that demonstrated the motion of horses — are their hooves ever all off the ground? Although Muybridge is not often credited for his contributions to motion pictures, his technological innovations were important nonetheless, and people do know his name. The Black jockey on the back of Leland Stanford's horse that Muybridge captured? Nope.
Nope is about spectacle — cinematic and otherwise — as the opening quotation, taken from the Book of Nahum cautions: "I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle." We are implicated in spectacle, as its creators and its viewers.
As Guy Debord wrote in 1967, "In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into representation. …The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images."
Ricky "June" Park, owner of a Western theme park near the Haywood's ranch, exemplifies this. A child star, Park (played by Steve Yeun) continues to exploit his earlier fame — he was an actor in a sitcom in which his co-star, a chimpanzee, attacked, maimed, and killed everyone on the set one day. Despite the trauma, Park cannot break from spectacle, and he is eager to exploit a new predator: the alien that is living in the clouds above the ranch.
OJ's sister Em (played by Keke Palmer) is also keen to turn the mystery into money — into a viral video worthy of an appearance on Oprah, at least. She and OJ purchase an elaborate security system from Fry's (the chain closed the last of its stores during the pandemic, interestingly), and their cashier, Angel, helps them install it, realizing as they point the cameras to the sky that they're on the lookout for aliens, not just any ol' intruders. Em also solicits the help of Antlers Holst, a cinematographer who comes to the ranch with a hand-cranked camera — the alien's presence causes all electronics to shut down so this is the only way to capture it on film.*
* Spoiler: it's not the only way.
The only way to survive the alien, OJ discovers, is to look away, even as he reenacts his ancestor's run on horseback so that, hopefully Holst can capture the groundbreaking footage.
Indeed, that's the only way to survive the spectacle: look away. If we gawk, we are sucked into it — just as the crowd at the theme park are quite literally sucked into the belly of the alien.
Debord and his fellow situationists argued that the "détournement" could subvert the spectacle — turning media against itself. (Think Adbusters.) Easier said than done, of course, and the spectacle is always eager, Debord recognized, to recuperate revolutionary thoughts and acts and turn the subversive into marketing for the status quo. Into Content(™).
Sometimes — no, actually, often — it's so fucking overwhelming to think about the incessant drumbeat of the trauma and drama and buzz that the spectacle delivers for us. Life itself is so damn precarious — today is the 17th anniversary, for example, of Anthony's death. When Kin and I walked around Lake Merritt this morning, it was full of tens of thousands of dead fish — an algae bloom, I guess, that is killing fish throughout the Bay. So how do we continue to find what's good without slipping into the kind of "good" that the spectacle shines up for us?
I don't know.
I made a delicious salty caramel peanut butter cake the other day. I made a reuben chicken skillet that was pretty damn good too. Kin and I made dumplings from scratch, something that was both more work and less work than I anticipated. Only one of these items was Instagrammed — so spectacle thwarted there, I suppose.
We finished listening to Ed Yong's latest book An Immense World, about the ways in which animals perceive things — and importantly, experience the world in ways that are radically different from human perception (and our reliance on vision). This perception — "umwelt" — challenges us to expand how we think about "reality." We don't have the complete picture; we cannot know what others know. But by recognizing that, we can work towards a more just future, one that's governed not by the alienation of spectacle but rather by the care and commitment and responsibility to all life.