At the Gutter: Ari Aster Makes the Best Movies

You know, I could have huddled up with Midsommar’s Josh in the campus library and written a freaking thesis on these films, and it was already a fairly long article. Hereditary and Midsommar are both on Amazon Prime right now, and you really need to watch them if you haven’t. They’re both instant classics. Two years old? Pssht, whatever, go ahead and pop ’em in the canon to be studied forever. There was a bit of a paint trade with Peter Strickland’s In Fabric there for my favorite movie of 2019, but Midsommar burst ahead in repeat viewings and even passed The Lair of the White Worm as my favorite movie, and that’s without having Peter Capaldi anywhere near it.

One of my dear friends what I like to pop culture critique with did some post-Midsommar podcast listening and brought up to me the criticism (not his) that Aster uses “disfigurement and disability as a trope” and that “disability equals monstrosity” in these movies. And for all my comparing and contrasting, I never did talk about Ruben in Midsommar and skated pretty fast past Hereditary’s Charlie, which honestly bothered me since a) Milly Shapiro was amazing and b) Charlie is half the bloody film. So allow me to here supplement that a) Milly Shapiro was amazing and b) Charlie/Paimon’s journey is not something that should be elided in the focus on Annie’s doomed attempt to save her son and Peter’s ultimate demon sleeve destiny. I spent a lot of time in my article dwelling on how relatively pleasant the Hårga are and how that’s deceptively seductive, but the flipside is Jesus fuck what the Paimon cult did to Charlie!

And as for the monstrosity/disability equivalence, I guess I feel like that’s a superficial take. I mean, sure, I can see it. Ruben in Midsommar is primarily there to shock you. In the script, there’s a proper scene to emphasize how honored and beloved he is, but the film is text, and that scene doesn’t make it in. His presence in the film generally is a peripheral reminder that, like weird group fertility rituals and what happens at 72, the Hårga are a closed community with a virtually incompatible value system with…most other humans, really. They deliberately breed deformed oracles through incest, one of the most taboo of taboos in pretty much every human culture because ew. Can you even imagine the level of social control that implies? And you can’t be with who you want to be with unless they’re a Pisces with a moon in Aries? Much less that they all go out on pilgrimage and come back to this community (one assumes, OK), that they harvest technology and actual people (for breeding, not necessarily sacrificing, but maybe sacrificing) and understand the world outside and watch Austin Powers, but deliberately eschew it all? I mean, Mormons just wear special underwear and that still made Mitt Romney a suspect presidential candidate. Ruben is the avatar of these values, and he presents as inarticulate, seemingly indiscriminately mashing paint onto the pages of the Rubi Radr, and physically quite disturbing to look at.

But they love him. Maybe it’s not shown as explicitly as it was written, but it is still pretty obvious. If Ruben’s deliberate creation and his disability is meant to disturb us, what about not just his acceptance, but his veneration? Is that an incompatible value they hold? It seems pretty idealized, right? Like the shared suffering with Dani. The thing she needed that her society, our society, couldn’t give her? If Ruben is only there to creep us out in the trailer, that’s exploitative, but that’s not the only reason he’s there. He illumines the most inspirational aspects of Hårga society that any of us might be tempted by. I mean, Dani definitely is, right? It is a sort of happy ending. If you squint. #TeamPelle

Charlie’s neurodivergence, which is never defined, is more complicated. Aster absolutely uses it as a mask for Paimon’s demonness. Inappropriate and disturbing things she does and says seem like they’re the first thing when, on reflection, you can see that they are clear tokens of the demon within her. “Who’s going to take care of me?” she asks Annie sullenly after Grandma’s funeral. That seems to be a blunt reference to needing caregiving into adulthood, but if you recognize High Priestess Grandma has been protecting Paimon on the downlow his entire Charlie-existence, it slides into different focus. I wondered if it was implied that Charlie’s disability, possibly even her food allergies, were the product of Paimon being disjointed in a female body. Maybe not. But in any case, it’s harder to say that disability doesn’t simply equal monstrousness here because, um, it does. This is straight up Red Right Hand. And if you add in the mental health history of Annie’s side of the family, that only adds to the list of charges. But I still think it’s a bit much to suggest it’s simply flinging a discomfiting trope at the audience without a deeper story purpose. And I definitely don’t think you can say Charlie is comparable to Ruben in Midsommar.

Anyhoo, a mild plague is laying waste to society while Twitler golfs, so I should probably be off hoarding canned goods and training the child on how to wring water out of feces for the post-apocalypse. Please check out Aster’s movies before our civilization disintegrates and I hope you like my article all about their implicit fatalism in this time of incipient contemporary doom. xx

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