Monday, January 30, 2023

Go West, Young Man: A Lingering Postscript on Nope


I was invited to write a piece for the APA's blog about film. I decided to write about Nope a movie that has become one of my favorites of the year. I am generally pleased by how the piece came out. In the piece I generally viewed the film through the way in which it is framed in relation to the science fiction film. I think that one of the way in which the film addresses the dominance of the spectacle is that both the characters in the film as well as the audience views the film from the perspective of the "first contact" film. Of course the film subverts these expectations, illustrating that what we see and understand is itself already dominated by the dead images that overwhelm our vision. We see a silver disc as a flying saucer and expect it to be filled with "viewers' because so many films have taught us to see things that way. That the film ultimately forces us to confront the limitation of that way of seeing suggests that this film is in some sense about unlearning what the spectacle teaches us to see. 

There is one thing that I had to cut from the APA piece and that is that the film can also be viewed through the lens of the western. (on that point see this piece by Jacob Walters). It is a western aesthetically, horses, cowboy hats, the desert of the west, and also thematically, right down to a final showdown in a valley. I am increasingly unhappy with leaving that out of the piece, and to tie it with the themes of the film, it is something that I overlooked because of where I was looking from.  OJ, Em, and Jupe's struggle with the spectacle can also be understood as a struggle with the Ur-spectacle of American life, the Western. We have all heard by now perhaps how many cowboys were black and how many immigrants from China built the railroads. Despite those historical facts our image of the west is still dominated by Hollywood images of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. It is the spectacle that dominants our imagination, not the actual history. I would argue that just as the film confronts the way that the spectacle has taught us to see aliens it has taught us not to see anything other than white cowboys. 

Otis, OJ, Em, and Jupe's struggles can be understood as an attempt to write themselves into a spectacle that has excluded them. This is another way of looking at Haywood's Hollywood Horses, part of the invisible labor that makes the spectacle of the West possible. Jupe's role as "Kid Sheriff" is more visible than the people who train the horses, but is only visible as a joke or comic relief. Their attempts to capture the spectacle are also an attempt to fit into a narrative, an image, that functions and sustains itself through their very exclusion. I am not sure how I would have fit all of these threads, animal consciousness, the spectacle devouring everything, and the spectacle of the west together, but for now, as a brief conclusion to a postscript, it is perhaps enough to say that the west is an image that will devour us all. 

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