TALK TO ME
Directors Danny and Michael Phillipou come to us from YouTube, where they operate some sort of channel apparently, which may explain why this BFI showing was full of young people. They were probably taking advantage of the BFI under-25’s offer (as if youth wasn’t privileged enough as it is) but I can hardly blame them. They made the right choice.
The latest craze among the youth of an Australian suburb is ‘parties’ in which selected guests are invited to clasp a ceramic hand (supposedly constructed around the actual bones of a medium) and, by uttering two simple phrases – ‘Talk to me’ and ‘I’ll let you in’ – are instantly possessed by spirits.
At which point, instead of fleeing in terror, the assembled guests get their phones out and start filming their bizarre and sometimes alarming behaviour, cackling away at the spectacle.
When Mia (Sophie Wilde), who is grieving for her mother (who committed suicide) permits Riley, the younger brother of her best friend, to take part in this, he seems to be taken over by her mum’s spirit, and Mia’s reluctance to let her go results in an overextended session which lands the boy in hospital, body broken and soul apparently trapped in some ghastly hell of eternal sexual abuse.
Or so Mia, who has been drawn further and further into the world of spirits by guilt and grief, supposes, though it is increasingly unclear whether the spirits she is dealing with are real – or, if real, trustworthy – as her involvement with them results in ever-greater estrangement from those she loves.
This is a tautly effective horror film with a firm grasp of its underlying subtexts. That ceramic hand provides a perfect metaphor for the internet’s untrustworthy promise of connection, something that is difficult to achieve at the best of times (a theme underlined by the several attempts at actual handholding – faltering or rebuffed – depicted here).
Talk to Me is also about grief, which haunts Wes Anderson’s latest offering too. I’ve never been wholly won over by Anderson’s mannered quirkiness, but this could be his masterpiece.
In Anderson’s typically stylized and unreal version of 50’s America war photographer Jason Schwarzmann hasn’t quite got around to telling his four young kids about the death of their mother three weeks previously.
On the way to stay with Grandad Tom Hanks, they have stopped off in the titular city (barely a town really), built around the spot where an asteroid once fell and now hosting a celebration of the scientific achievements of child prodigies like Schwarzmann’s son, who has figured out a way of projecting the US flag onto the moon.
They are joined by a distant star (Scarlett Johanssen’s glacial Hollywood actress) and (briefly) a stop-motion alien ‘voiced’ by Jeff Goldblum (though he merely clears his throat).
As if this wasn’t enough, the whole thing appears to be a stage play whose production is covered by a black and white TV show presented by Bryan Cranston, to which we return every now and again, a show which takes us backstage, and further back, to the play’s origins.
If all this seems like it should push Anderson’s self-awareness to the point of self-parody, it actually makes a surprising amount of emotional sense. The artificial, whimsical mise en scene of the Asteroid City scenes can be seen as expressing the hollowed-out world created by the central character’s grief – it’s a world where anything can happen (aliens, the A-bomb) but none of it matters very much. A world of the surface, which is also the world of science – full of wonders but with no animating spirit.
Not that Anderson has suddenly turned into Bela Tarr – this is full of polished, witty dialogue but there’s a sense of the aching void beneath the airless aesthetic of Asteroid City; meanwhile the backstage scenes, though just as mannered in their way, offer a certain amount of relief from this – a note of the provisional, even a hint of chaos, as glimpses of alternative, unexplored narratives arise (a now-beardless Schwarzmann exchanging a kiss with playwright Edward Norton.)
At the end there is a dreamlike sequence set in the ‘real’ backstage world, with a bunch of performers approaching the camera, chanting the mantra: ‘You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep’, which may be a reminder that all art, even art as painstakingly constructed as Anderson’s, originates in the murky, inscrutable world of the unconscious.
The self-consciously artificial world of Asteroid City, featuring both Margot Robbie and A-bomb tests going off in the background, seems to make this summer’s all-consuming screen spectacle, Barbenheimer, redundant.
This Bride of Frankensteinish creature was created by the alignment of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, released at the same time – a media joke, really, but one that caught on. The idea of punters going to see them both on the same day was mooted, though I’m not sure if anyone did this unless with the express purpose of writing about it.
At the height of the fuss, it appeared that someone could come up on my Google newsfeed merely by watching Barbie, Oppenheimer, and the latest Mission Impossible one after the other. And by writing about the experience.
No doubt this is exactly the kind of thing I should have been doing, but, late to the party as ever, I am just getting round to dealing with one of last summer’s spectacles, Jordan Peele’s third film, Nope (Peele has also singled out Talk to Me for praise, another reason he is emerging into my consciousness now).
Nope is an ambitious departure from Peele’s previous offerings – so ambitious, perhaps, that it took me this long to work out what I wanted to say about it.
In Talk To Me Mia (who is black) is eager to volunteer to be the first at the party to grip the hand, possibly as a way of dispelling a feeling of social awkwardness – in this way she becomes part of a spectacle which finally consumes her utterly.
Nope addresses this notion of the spectacle more obliquely, beginning with a scene in a gore-splattered TV studio, the set of a family sitcom that has just been devastated by one of its stars, a chimp now chewing on the leg of one of the fallen actors. Child co-star Ricky hides terrified under a table, but when the chimp seeks him out it is only to exchange with him the ‘exploding fist bump’ that has become their signature move.
Nevertheless, the chimp is shot dead.
It may be that the fist bump signifies the recognition of an equivalence between the chimp and Ricky, who is Korean in an otherwise all-white sitcom – both have been presented to the gaze of a presumed white audience as comical novelties.
In a similar way we are told that the very first ‘film star’ was a black jockey on horseback who appeared in an early work of Eadweard Muybridge.
This fact is part of a spiel given by Emerald (Keke Palmer) to the assembled cast and crew of a film (Donna Mills among them) who claims that the jockey was her ancestor. She runs, along with her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) a ranch supplying horses for film work in California, a business they recently inherited from their father, who was killed by shrapnel falling from the sky.
This death introduces the main thrust of Nope – while the official line is that OJ and Emerald’s father was killed by something that fell from a plane, the pair are increasingly convinced that something more mysterious is going on, and their speculations are fueled by reports of UFO sightings in the area.
It turns out, however, that it is a mystery OJ and Emerald’s neighbour ‘Jupe’ (Steven Yuen) – the grown-up child star from the sitcom – has solved. Or if not solved, exploited.
Wearing a cowboy hat, he now runs a nearby Western theme park where he presents ‘Star Rodeos’, charging audiences for glimpses of a ‘flying saucer’, supposedly occupied by aliens he calls ‘the viewers’. Habitually concealing itself behind or within clouds, the craft is not, however, a craft at all, but a flying creature of some kind, and one with a voracious appetite (the killer shrapnel was, it seems, an undigested coin from a victim’s pocket).
Jupe soon pays the price for making a spectacle out of the creature when it eats him and its audience, which leaves OJ and Emerald, along with computer store clerk Angel (Brandon Perea) and arrogant cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to try and track the creature – mainly, it seems, in order to obtain enough footage of it to get them on Oprah (OJ and Emerald’s business isn’t doing so well).
The monster when it emerges is a pleasingly bizarre creation – initially it does indeed resemble a flying saucer (or a cowboy hat) but later it unpacks itself into a strange assemblage of fluttering ribbons with a rectangular maw like a screen. It evokes as much fascination as fear, but although this film sees Peele stepping away from horror, its evocation of agoraphobia is one of its strengths – the perverse suggestion that something could be hiding in the wide open spaces of the American sky.
The ensemble playing of the four monster hunters is amusing (I liked the cinematographer’s dry recital of lyrics from The Purple People Eater) but for too long it’s just OJ and Emerald, and although both Kaluuya and Palmer are good I never quite believed in them as siblings.
At the end Emerald gets her ‘money shot’, having killed the monster by feeding an inflatable cowboy to it. It’s technically a happy ending, but doesn’t register as such: having avoided being consumed by the monster, the survivors will now be consumed by the mass media in capitalism’s version of the state of nature – not so much eat or be eaten, but consume and be consumed.
Keep watching the skies, was the advice given at the end of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, signalling a temporary shift in the origin of screen monsters from Down There (or In There) to Up There (or Out There). Peele could be reiterating it here, while at the same time stating the complete opposite: that we should stop watching.
Keep watching/don’t look now. It’s a familiar paradox of horror – we are compelled to watch what disturbs us (or what we are ‘forbidden’ to see). Here, within a context that isn’t exactly horror, the complexity of the ‘message’ defies any attempt to contain it within the kind of intelligent, self-aware blockbuster Nope might have been.
But slickness isn’t necessarily to be prized, and it only seems right that this film should give rise to a certain amount of indigestion. Barbenheimer would probably have a similar effect on anyone who actually saw ‘it’.