Saturday, July 30, 2022

Between Legacy and History: On Peele's Nope

Seeing Nope at the Bridgton Twin Drive In 

Movie critics, even amateur ones, love puns, love working the title into their reviews in some sort of play on words. So it takes a certain amount of confidence to call a film "Nope". It just invites too many titles for negative reviews, say "Nope to nope" and so on. In the case of Peele that confidence is earned. It is the third movie by a director who is developing his own vision in an era where such things as vision or style, even directors as auteurs, are increasingly obsolete. The title of Nope recalls the title of Peele's first film, Get Out  which was an homage to Eddie Murphy's bit about how a haunted house movie would never work with a black family, they would Get Out at the first warning.  

Just as Get Out was about a man, Chris who ignored all the warnings and did not "get out" until it was almost too late, Nope is a film about about saying yes, about going towards the horror rather than away from it. It seems to me that any attempt to understand the film has to begin with that, why do the characters not just say "nope" and walk away. That question seems central to the film.

Nope is about  OJ or Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya.) and Emerald "Em" Haywood (Keke Palmer) who, at the beginning of the film, inherit Haywood Hollywood Horses a horse ranch that trains and supplies horses for films, television, and commercials when their father is mysteriously struck and killed by a nickel falling from the sky. Metal objects falling from the sky is the first hint that things are amiss in their little valley, but it is not the beginning of the Haywood family problems. Their family business, as the trailer below indicates, has been in Hollywood since before there was a Hollywood. Their great great great grandfather was the unidentified jockey in Muybridge's famous footage of a horse galloping.  It is a secret legacy, one obscured by the official history which remembers Muybridge but forgets the jockey. The Haywood's have no official claim to any real legacy, OJ and Em still have to work and hustle for every job. He handles the horses and she handles the people, he is the craftsman and she is the salesperson. However, when a horse almost injures an actor on the set of a commercial, all of their skills are quickly replaced with a CGI prop horse. What does a legacy, a connection to the past mean in an industry, and in a country, that is constantly retelling its story, reinventing itself. What do skills mean in an economy that is constantly deskilling, replacing knowledge with technology?

This same question burdens the Haywood's neighbor, Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun) a former child star who now runs a wild west show capitalizing on his role as "Kid Sheriff". Jupe was also the star of a short lived but popular show called Gordy's Home that ended after one season when its chimpanzee star, the Gordy of the title, went on a rampage on set and killed and mutilated several of its cast members. Jupe was the only person to be unharmed, at least physically, in the attack. Jupe works with one version of the past, a western theme park, one myth, but hidden behind his office is a museum to the tragic history of the show which might be a more lucrative attraction. A Dutch couple once paid thousands just to sleep in the museum.

Television, or memories of television, play a central part in all of Peele's films from the commercial for the United Negro College Fun that pops up in Get Out to "Hands Across America" that drives the plot of  Us.  This is because Peele understands that our memories, collective and individual, are made as much by what happens on screens than in the so-called real world.  Peele's three films, Get Out, Us, and Nope, can be placed in a progression in terms of these video memories. In the first, Get Out, we hear the United Negro College Funds' slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" in a commercial in the background just as Chris is about to have his mind wasted; in Us the image of hands across America is Adelaide/Red's primary memory and the structure of the tethered's revolution; and in Nope Jupe's traumatic memory of Gordy proves to be central to the whole film. Peele weaves together the audience's and characters memories of old commercials, media events, and cheesy sitcoms because these things make up our world as much as the clouds and desert of the valley. 

OJ, Em, and Jupe are all linked by the way that they deal with a legacy, with a past. In the case of OJ and Em this legacy was recorded but never credited, no one knows the name of the jockey in the famous pictures that created cinema, they are in some sense erased from history. They need to create their reputation anew, selling their business and their skills to clients without ownership of their legacy. Jupe on the other hand seems tied to a traumatic past that he can neither escape nor entirely live off of. His niche fame or infamy does not provide enough to live on, but it is what people remember.

Jordan Peele posted the opening credits to his fictional show within the film on this twitter page

When what appears to be an alien spaceship appears in the valley OJ, Em, and Jupe all see it as an opportunity to change their condition. Em and OJ decide to photograph the alien spaceship, to get proof of alien life so incontrovertible that it cannot be contested. Proof of alien life will pay off enough to save the ranch and set them up for life. As they are trying to capture the elusive craft on film it turns out that Jupe has already started to profit off of the visitors, incorporating them into his wild west show. He has been buying horses from OJ and offering them to the alien ship. Jupe makes his offerings in front of a paying audience, exchanging the alien's mysterious desire for horses for a spectacle of an otherworldly being. It appears to be a fair trade, horses for a glimpse at the ship, but how can one understand what an alien understands or wants? Nope approaches this question by way of another question, how can we know what a non-human animal understands or wants? Understanding how we would communicate with alien minds is answered by asking how do we communicate with minds that are already other, with animals.

This question is approached from two angles. First, there is the traumatic event of Jupe's past, the day that a seemingly trained chimpanzee was startled by a balloon popping and went on a rampage, killing and mutilating the cast. Jupe hid under the table and was not only spared in the rampage, but Gordy the Chimp was even about to give him his trademark fist bump before he was shot and killed. From his survival Jupe thinks he understands something about human animal communication, and thus, by proxy, how to communicate with aliens, give them what they want in exchange for something you want. In this case horses for a show. Second, there is OJ who does not presume to understand what horses want, but works from the premise that the first thing you need to understand about animals, and thus aliens, is that you do not see or understand how they do. A horse sees things differently, and to tame the horse, to work with it safely on a set, you have to understand that. To this basic principle OJ adds a second caveat he learned from his father, that some animals don't want to be tamed, a warning that OJ applies specifically to predators. As he argues you cannot tame a predator, the best you can do is collaborate with it, entering into an uneasy partnership. 

SPOILER ALERT: It turns out that the alien spacecraft is not a space craft at all but an alien monster. It is not sucking people and horses up to probe them or capture them for an alien zoo, but sucking them up to eat them. It is a predator. This is why it was not satisfied with the offer of a horse when it could gobble up the whole audience. It cannot be bargained with, but it can be appeased. OJ figures out that the only way to avoid the alien is to avoid looking at it--to not appear to be a threat. Incidentally this, and not the fist bump, may have been what actually saved Jupe when Gordy went on a rampage. Hiding under the table he avoided making eye contact with Gordy.  Gordy did not spare him because they were friends, but because he did not look Gordy in the eye, did not appear to be a threat.

OJ's strategy to photograph the alien creature without looking at it is a strategy that ties together the two themes of the film. First, and most immediately what could be considered the problem of different minds. In order to understand a different creature you have to understand how it sees things differently. A balloon is just a balloon to us, but a different creature might see it as a threat (or as potential food). Second, the difference between legacy and history is the difference of seeing. A legacy unseen, or unidentified is not a legacy at all. The characters of Nope have all been cast out from the spectacle, Jupe is former child star, OJ and Em have a connection with Hollywood history that was never recognized, even Angel, the tech support staff who helps OJ and Em instal their cameras, has been discarded in a way, it turns out his girlfriend  broke up with him when she got cast in a show on the CW. Hollywood, the spectacle eats people and spits them out, not unlike the way a space monster eats people and spits out the undigestible bits of metal like coins and keys. The spectacle of Hollywood doesn't need to hunt its prey. They are all desperate to get their legacy back, to get back into the spectacle, to capture what Em refers to as the Oprah shot, the money shot. However, the spectacle is a monster, it eats people and spits them out. To look at it is to be drawn in, to be eaten up. The only way to capture the spectacle, to get a picture of the creature, is ultimately not to look at it. 

Years ago I remember reading that Jordan Peele planned to make five films about social issues. The first was Get Out which is generally recognized to be about race, the second was Us, which I argue can be about class. I am not sure if Nope can be said to be about something in the same way in which the horror is an allegory for some social issue, but at the same time its story of how people cast out by Hollywood, not a part of its official history, trying to avoid being literally eaten alive by a spectacle. No wonder Peele considers it his most personal film. Peele has managed to somehow create a spectacle, this is his most blockbuster film, without being sucked into its maw. 

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