Ari Aster's Families On The Fritz

In Ari Aster’s 2016 short film C’est La Vie, Chester Crummings, a homeless man, speaks directly and combatively to camera about his life and society at large as he wanders the streets of LA, surviving, begging for change and casually murdering people. At one point, he says: “You know what Freud says about the nature of horror? He says it’s when the home becomes unhomelike. Unheimlich.” 

In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 paper on the subject, the German word “unheimlich” is translated to “uncanny,” a word quite often associated with horror, but a more literal translation would be “unhomely” or “not belonging to the home.” In C’est La Vie, Crummings stares down the barrel of the lens as he rambles about his lived experience with homelessness and society’s downfall. But in recounting the death of his family in a house fire caused by his mentally ill uncle, he must turn his back to the camera. It is the literal and symbolic destruction of his home, his family, that truly horrifies him, not the dolls, doppelgangers and demons of the “uncanny” tradition in horror cinema. 

Much of Ari Aster’s filmography focuses on the home, and more often than not, the trauma that can rot a home’s foundations and destroy a lineage. Aster’s families have fascinated me since I saw his feature debut Hereditary (2018) in a theater alone. It was one of those cinematic experiences that just stuck with me, rattling around in my subconscious. Later that year, my grandmother passed away, so there’s probably something else that makes this film feel so inescapable. (I should probably stop psychoanalyzing myself right about now.) But I think much of Aster’s rise as a contemporary cinema auteur is due in part to his unflinching exploration of family dynamics, and more specifically, how relatives traumatize each other.  

Ari Aster certainly didn’t pull any punches in his opening salvo, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011), a 30-ish minute short that served as his thesis flick at the American Film Institute. He’s spoken a bit about the types of projects that tend to get made at AFI (politically-correct Oscar-baity social issue dramas, essentially), and he was intent on making something that was canonically not that. Let me tell you, it is a shocking viewing experience. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is about a son who sexually abuses his own father, while the mother knows but can’t confront it. At first, this seems rather low brow, and the short’s cold open does relish in its own provocative premise. A father walks in on his adolescent boy masturbating, and after some awkwardness and a valiant attempt at a “birds-and-bees” conversation, it is revealed that the son was holding a photo of his father. Slow push-in. Climaxing score. The set design and costuming are vibrant and colorful, giving the Johnson home this dollhouse quality, an aesthetic that Aster will continue to build upon in his later works. But as the story progresses, the film’s tone becomes so self-serious. There’s a genuine effort to, as Aster puts it, “remove the tongue from the cheek,” such that it forces you to grapple with the complicated (to say the least) relationships between these family members. The son, now recently married and well into adulthood, confronts his father with a monologue about love and cowardice. The father and son play this moment with such straight-ahead, vulnerable performances so devoid of irony that you almost feel like you’re watching an alternate universe Lifetime movie. Parents are often accused of laying their children’s psychic bear traps, but The Strange Thing About the Johnsons portrays mom and dad as unambiguous victims. Maybe the path trauma takes down a family tree isn’t one-way. 

In the silent short Munchausen (2014), Aster explores a more “conventional” familial phenomena. A mother, anxious about becoming an empty-nester, decides to poison her son to prevent him from moving away to college. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, or as it’s known today, Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA), has been explored in popular media before (It, Sharp Objects, The Sixth Sense, The Act, and Phantom Thread, to name a few), and honestly, Munchausen doesn’t have anything particularly profound to add to the conversation. But its bold choices in art direction, set design, and wardrobe, tightly packed into its live-action Pixar aesthetic, toy with the image of the idyllic family. On the short’s Kickstarter page, it even has links to Up’s 'Married Life' opening and the 'When Somebody Loved Me' montage in Toy Story 2. As Mother’s dark impulses are revealed, so are the layers of artifice built around this family, just as Aster is poisoning our own idealized imaginings and associations of home and family that the Disney and Pixar films of our childhood helped to construct. Munchausen is long, a bit on-the-nose, and generally underwhelming, but its aesthetic conceit points toward the mastery of visual subtext that Aster will showcase in his feature films.

Hereditary (2018)
opens in the home office of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), a miniatures artist. The camera moves omnisciently, scanning the miniature models, including one of the Graham family home. We push in on the model home, into one of its bedrooms, and seamlessly transition into the first scene, where Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) is woken for his grandma’s funeral. What follows is a harrowing story of intergenerational familial suffering. Annie is dealing with the loss of her mother and daughter, the latter of which her son, Peter, caused, as well as a complete breakdown of support and communication. Oh, and Annie’s mother may or may not have dabbled in some light satanism that cursed (or blessed, if you’re a devout follower of the demon King Paimon) her family for generations.  As Aster described his elevator pitch for the film: “A family tragedy warps into a nightmare.”

Aster is extremely particular about shot listing, camera movement and scene blocking, so his films are often made on painstakingly crafted sets, and in the special case of Hereditary, excruciatingly accurate miniature recreations of those sets. Walls can be removed. The camera can roam freely. Shots can move from room to room without having to cut or pass a door frame. It’s difficult to say whether Aster’s approach to filmmaking stems primarily from thematic curiosity, practical concerns or neuroses, but its use in Hereditary is undeniable. From the opening shot, you feel the Graham family’s impending doom as they become dolls that the cruel hands of fate, demonic entities and Aster himself can play with. And to complicate the metaphor, Annie is the artist creating the miniatures. The subtext becomes the text. 

This points to a question that the Graham family must confront: Of all this suffering, how much of it is out of my control, and how much of it is my fault? The way they respond to their trauma, every action and inaction, conscious and unconscious, responds to this question. Early in the film, after her mother’s funeral, Annie attends a grief support group. At first, she’s reluctant to share her story, but it all comes out soon enough. “It just all sometimes feels ruined. And then I realize I’m to blame. Or, not that I’m to blame, but that I’m . . . blamed.” Throughout the film, Annie opens up, confronts her son and husband, and eventually turns to the supernatural in the hope of healing her familial pain. 

In Peter, we see the opposite response: avoidance. In the film’s turning point, Peter’s little sister tragically dies in a car accident while he was at the wheel. But Aster chooses to withhold the bloody aftermath. Instead, we stay fixed in Peter’s gaze. He calls out his sister’s name, but can’t bring himself to look at her body in the back seat. We follow him as he drives home, parks the car in the driveway, gets into bed, wide awake and petrified until the following morning, and hears his mother scream in agony when she finds the body herself. Then, Aster pulls the rug, and shows us the carnage. I clocked the sequence, from the accident to the reveal, at 3 minutes and 14 seconds, but when you’re watching it, it feels at least ten times longer. You see trauma in real time: immediate recoil, disassociation, and the re-playing spiral in Peter’s psyche. And the more he avoids the accident’s aftermath leads to Annie experiencing a trauma of her own. 

There is a world in which the Graham family experiences a tragedy of this magnitude, and it brings them together. They share each other’s suffering, help each other cope, and their bonds are strengthened. Annie speaks directly to this in her explosive monologue at the dinner table:

“. . . Your sister is dead. She's gone forever. And what a waste. If it could’ve maybe brought us together — something! — if you could have just said “I’m sorry” or faced up to what happened . . . maybe then we could do something with this! But you can’t take responsibility for anything, so now I can’t accept. And I can’t forgive. Because nobody admits anything they’ve done!”

After an ugly pause, Peter says, “What about you, mom?”

A neck-breaking defensive maneuver. The entire sequence shoots each character singly, because even though they’re sitting together at the dinner table, they’re divided. The scene only cuts to all three characters to reveal the fourth empty chair. In the screenplay, the conversation actually continues. Annie and her husband reconvene in their bedroom, and Annie does blame herself for her daughter’s death. A couple of pages later, Peter admits to his father that he blames himself for his sister’s death. The pieces are there, and if the Graham family could put them all together, they could survive this. But in the finished film, these scenes are omitted, because the movie is just as much about what is not being said and what is not being resolved. Family history of mental illness. Grief piled on top of grief. Not only does trauma travel bi-directionally down the three generations of the Graham family tree, it also tends to form feedback loops. In Hereditary, we see a family combust as their suffering is ignited, and each member adds their own fuel to the fire. 

In a sense, Midsommar (2019) picks up where Hereditary left off. We see the embers of Dani’s (Florence Pugh) family’s self-destruction after a grisly murder-suicide. In her overwhelming grief, she is forced to lean on her new chosen family, boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), a poster child for dipshits everywhere. To make matters worse, Christian was planning on breaking up with Dani, but feels forced to stay with her. Dani travels to rural Sweden with Christian, his academic friends, and she ends up finally finding the comfort and support she needs in a local commune of empaths in the heat of their midsummer rituals. 

Yet again, Aster is building upon the aesthetic foundation he has established. In the film’s opening, we see Dani’s family home and the horrors within its walls as the camera drifts from room to room, somewhat reminiscent of the Graham home in Hereditary, both in its visual language and ominous patience. But then, Aster shows us the alternative. Hårga, the idyllic Swedish community, is gorgeous. Every exterior, and a lot of the interiors, are bathed in bright, beautiful sunlight. The dorms where the visitors stay is one, giant room with multiple beds. No doors, walls, or hallways. Aster is constantly showing his hand, communicating everything we need to know about this community visually, especially if you’re paying attention to the paintings and tapestries. There are no secrets here. Nothing is hidden, but that’s okay, because everything, pleasure and pain, is shared and experienced by every member of the community. The burden isn’t yours alone to carry.

It’s understandable why Dani would fall under the spell of a community like this, especially considering the tragedy she was experiencing and Christian’s total incompetence as a romantic partner. And we, the audience, fall under that exact same spell. While Christian and the other goons are caught in a folk horror slasher film, we’re living in Dani’s fantasy, where we find a new family and our shitty ex gets exactly what he deserves. 

Ultimately, Dani is forced to trade one codependent relationship for another, and although Midsommar ends on a darkly triumphant note, one can’t help but wonder if this won’t just continue to propagate her cycle of trauma. 
Beau Is Afraid is right around the corner, its wide release set for April 21st in some markets. Although some lucky Alamo Drafthouse patrons in New York City got to see the film early in one of the most incredible April Fool’s Day stunts in recent memory. The film follows an anxious man who embarks on a journey to get hometo his mother. Aster himself described the film: “It’s like Lord of the Rings, but he’s just going to his mom’s house.” I’m confident this next film will be a welcome addition to the Ari Aster pantheon of fucked up families. If it’s not, I might be traumatized too. 

Written by Roberto Ramirez
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