by Dan Kennedy
Plenty of people argue that approaching any medium of art with an intensely critical eye is a joyless endeavor, one that results in little more than deconstructed cadavers. It’s a valid stance. For me, however, some narratives welcome critical engagement by virtue of an implied promise that the task will be challenging, the results unexpected. Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror flick, Us, is one such narrative.
When I was a sophomore at Boston University, I took a course called “Literature and the Art of Film.” It was an introductory film studies seminar designed for English majors. Each week, a screening was paired with assigned readings. Professor Leland Monk’s primary goal—aside from exposing us to filmmaking techniques and movements like German Expressionism, French New Wave, etc.—was to show us how the analytical skills we used for accessing literary texts could be similarly employed when watching, and understanding, complex movies.
I was recently reminded of Professor Monk’s lectures while preparing one of my own. I currently teach Intro to Creative Writing at Virginia Tech, where I’m completing the final semester of my MFA. My class is using Janet Burroway’s textbook, Imaginative Writing (4th edition). In her chapter on image, Burroway writes, “It is said of filmmaking that ‘every close up is synecdoche,’ meaning that when, for example, we see a close-up of a hand, we assume that it stands for the whole person. If we see that hand go limp, it may be metonymy suggesting that person’s death.” Burroway alludes to film to articulate one of the ways figurative language and imagery can be used—and thought about—in creative writing.
Two days ago, some fellow MFAs and I went to see Us. Given the depth and quality of Get Out—a superb blend of horror, humor, and searing social critique—I walked into the theater with high hopes, ready to be entertained and challenged. I was not disappointed.
The film opens with an epigraph about underground tunnels in America. Its first scene hones in on a little girl, Adelaide, who strolls the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. Before long, she wanders off on her own. She encounters a creepy prophet holding a sign, which reads, “Jeramiah 11:11”—a Biblical passage promising the Lord’s wrath and subsequent indifference. She then enters a funhouse. The structure is conspicuously ornamented with offensive Native American imagery. The décor makes sense: it is a place where, like oppressive historical representations, images are distorted. A storm causes the power to go out inside. Within the darkened hall of mirrors, a panicked Adelaide encounters her doppelgänger. The experience leaves her traumatized and unable to talk.
The adult Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, returns to the beach years later with her family, the Wilsons: husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). She suffers from PTSD and tries explaining to Gabe, from whom she’s concealed the specifics of her childhood trauma, that she has a bad feeling. Her unease proves premonitory: a family of doppelgängers called The Tethered shows up in the Wilsons’ driveway. An evening of propulsive, circuitous horror ensues. The romp is bloody and tense, the plot ambitious and complicated.
The New Yorker’s film critic, Richard Brody, writes in his review of the film, “Here, as in Get Out, Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world…the movie turns the screen into a funhouse mirror.” Like a funhouse mirror, Us is a movie that is as fun to think about as it is to actually watch; the process of reflecting on it distorts one’s ideas about the film and its skein of meanings, allowing interpretations to bloom anew. The movie is memorable in lots of ways, from the soundtrack to the camerawork to the haunting images, which keep resurfacing in my mind, vying for additional attention. In the context of Us, Burroway’s borrowed adage—“every close up is synecdoche”—is well represented by a scene in which Elizabeth Moss, playing Kitty Tyler’s doppelgänger, goes from crying over her Tethered husband’s death to laughing uncontrollably. The inversion of the ‘normal’ response to grief underscores the absurdity of the conventions to which we conform, emotional or otherwise.
In thinking about the movie and its structure, I recalled John Barth’s postmodern, metafictional short story, “Lost in the Funhouse.” In the story, 13-year old Ambrose explores his uncomfortable adolescence while interrogating traditional conventions of narrative form and highlighting their inadequacy. Ambrose finds himself in a setting much like Adelaide’s: with his parents, on a boardwalk near the beach, and then inside a funhouse. Barth’s metafictional probe itself takes many forms—for example, the line, “The diving would make a suitable literary symbol,” and the following images, which he includes in the text:
At one point readers are told that “[Ambrose] died telling stories to himself in the dark; years later, when the vast unexpected area of the funhouse came to light, the first expedition found his skeleton in one of its labyrinthine corners and mistook it for part of the entertainment.” A ‘vast unexpected area of the funhouse’ comes to light in Us, too, in the form of a group’s oppressed, underground existence and their bloody revenge—a pointed critique that is tethered to a specifically American past and present. The film’s culminating twist asks the question, at what cost do you lead the life that you lead?
Richard Brody’s review offers a possible answer, positing that “Us highlights the unwitting complicity of even apparently well-meaning and conscientious people in an unjust order that masquerades as natural and immutable but is, in fact, the product of malevolent designs that leave some languishing in the perma-shadows.” I agree with Brody here, but I think the film operates on a more personal level, too—by which I mean the film, through example, invites its viewers to perform an act of untethering by looking beneath the surface of the self and discovering the distorted reflections contained therein. Peele alludes to other horror movies throughout Us. He adheres to and subverts various genre conventions, lending the theme of untethering oneself from one’s influences a metafictional, intimate quality. His own struggles with his material are reflected in the plight of the Wilsons and their attempt to understand what The Tethered—whose rage becomes manifest in extreme violence—ultimately want.
In addition to “Lost in the Funhouse,” on a more thematic level, Us is reminiscent of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” For me, Us has illuminated connections between movies and literature and teaching and my past, something of a network of tunnels.
Barth’s story begins with a question and answer: “For whom is the funhouse fun? Perhaps for lovers.” Similarly, Us will be fun for those who love spending time in a space where traditional narrative is broken apart and the shards require reassembly—a space where fiction and reality reach through liquid mirrors and hold hands.