And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Saturday, March 16, 2024


corsepresentblog, "Midsommar and Temporality

One strand runniig through Midsommar concerns the use and understanding of temporality. Midsommar is already, even for those who have yet to see it, a film situated in a historical context thanks to its acknowledgement of The Wicker Man as a cinematic and spiritual forebear. It is consciously locating itself in a folk horror lineage and so it must look back to films like The Wicker Man even as it situates itself firmly within the context of 2019. But the engagement with temporality runs deeper than simply updating a film from 1973.

The title of the film, Midsommar, is itself an explicit reference to a particular point in time, the point in the cycle of the year at which the majority of the film takes place. Midsummer is not just one other day out of 365 others (at least not for the Swedish cultists), it is a significant and special point in the ritual calendar. But before the action concerning the Swedish cult gets going there is an opening sequence set in America in deep winter. In fact, the opening shot of the film is of a painting that depicts the upcoming plot running through from midwinter to midsummer. The polarity between the two points is emphasized by the dark, death-like, nocturnal images of winter on the left contrasting with the bright, diurnal images on the right. So, the time in which the film’s main narrative plays out, midsummer, is set up as a counterpoint to the dark backstory from which Dani is attempting to flee. And it should be remembered that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow.
This sets us up to note the way in which time passes and particularly the way in which people mark time. And this attention to the temporal is also signalled by the way in which the characters note how bright it is in the late evening. It becomes a significant thread to the film because of the way that the Swedish cultists have managed to stop time; they have preserved rituals and customs so that they themselves have become an atavistic anomaly, living in the world but not of it. For them, time is marked with ritual divisions and is thus sanctified.
The Americans on the other hand have their time divided up by quite different systems of measurement. They are all more or less drifting through grad school, aimless and unfocussed. For them, time is demarcated by the education and employment systems and has a socio-economic rather than a numinous significance. In an American context time is a means to an end, the particular end being most often the accumulation of money and social standing. But this use of time to augment social capital does not provide the Americans with a better way of life; in fact it doesn’t even really act as a compensatory substitute for the older way of marking time. In fact, they all give the impression that they are simply killing time, drifting aimlessly without any perceptible spark of life. In this respect (and in others) they stand in for most of the audience who will share in the unspoken assumptions of how a society is regulated and controlled. The Americans are the present, the Swedes are the past.

When the Americans encounter the cult they respond to it as an anthropological case; it is something distinct and worthy of objective study. Even when they witness the ritual suicide of the elderly couple there is still a lingering hesitancy that prevents them from reacting with the absolute horror that the London couple evince. Josh even insists that it is ‘cultural’, meaning that the Swede’s community is a particular culture with its own distinct customs and it is not for us to be judgemental about it. This politically correct display of cultural relativism gets to the heart of the conflict between the visitors and their hosts.

Nonetheless, in some respects the two groups might seem quite similar. They are both tolerant of drug use and neither is sexually conservative. But these superficial similarities mask a deeper distinction that might not be immediately obvious. Despite the Swedish cult’s permissiveness and general hippy demeanour, they actually have a strict moral code and tightly enforced social mores. Their tolerance and laid-back attitude tends to obfuscate this but when their codes are broken, such as when Marc pisses on the ancestral tree, the fury it provokes is literally a visceral response to a form of blasphemy. This is one of the film’s many disorientating ploys. The outward display of permissive, even degenerate behaviour is only made possibly by the fact that it sits on top of a firm base of ethical in-group behaviour. The permissiveness of the Swedes does not lead to a state of existential ennui in the way that it seems to do for the Americans. The Americans seem unable to commit, either to relationships or to vocations, and this manifests in a drifting fug of meaninglessness.

Josh wants to treat the Swedes as a case study, as an anthropological subject for his dissertation, and in this he is followed by Christian. Again, it is a case of using them as a means to an end, of failing to understand that the instrumentalism of the sacred in this way is a profanity. There is though something playfully subversive in the way that Ari Astler depicts the Swedes being treated as an exciting and exotic anthropological case. They are framed in the same sort of way that anthropologists often frame subjects from places like Papua New Guinea. But these are 21st century white people in Europe. They all look more or less like an alt-right idea of racial purity. The trope of the exotic outsider is subverted but not exactly turned around on the audience because the audience can be assumed to identify more readily with the Americans with all their modern angst and complaints. Aster is quite deft in the way that he manages to retain a sense of ambiguity regarding our feelings towards the Swedes. Are they a monoracial, inbred, cult? Are they a communist ideal, somewhat matriarchal and cleansed of property and commerce? Are they drugged up, sexed up lunatics? All of these interpretations contain some truth but a final judgement proves elusive because Aster plays with the way that audiences have come to understand and approach folk horror.

Since The Wicker Man’s rebirth (which probably started sometime in the 1990s) it has become customary to view the villagers of Summerisle as being on the side of a more progressive and healthy worldview than that of Sgt Howie. This of course is because the villagers represent a revival of paganism set against Howie’s Episcopalian Christianity. Howie is shown to have unwittingly chosen himself as a sacrifice by clinging to his Christian abstinance. But in Midsommar the paganism of the cult is difficult to read in similar terms to that of the Summerisle villagers. It has the same sort of in-group mentality but in Midsommar the cultists all wear a uniform of white robes, they live in a space that has the feeling of a meditative retreat rather than a lived-in and worked-in environment, and they feast together in a ceremonial banquet whereas the Summerislanders gather in the pub. These differences are important as they work to distance Midsommar from a ready-made interpretation based on the precedence of The Wicker Man.

The pagans in Midsommar seem to embody something sinister that has little to do with their paganism. This relates back to the earlier observation that they look like an alt-right ideal community. Part of the film’s strength, in my view, comes from the way that Aster muddies some of the folk-horror antinomies that have become standard. Yes, the cultists represent paganism against secularism, the old ways against the new; but before one can embrace this interpretation it is necessary to remember that they also represent white separatism against multiculturalism. Their community has strengths that the visitors cannot even suspect. The triumph of the cultists and the weird, ambiguous smile that descends on Dani’s face at the end have a force that is difficult to parse clearly.

Aster could have chosen to depict the Swedes negatively as a far-right cult, or positively as a pagan alternative to materialism, but he has chosen instead to do neither and both at the same time. It is this ambiguity that is at the heart of the film’s power. At one level, he shows the Americans to be hamstrung by their cultural relativism and in this I am reminded of Zizek’s critique of political correctness. Zizek points out that in Western societies there is often an assumption that it is positive for minority groups to have their own cultural identities but harmful for white majorities to have theirs. Zizek warns that this is a form of cultural exceptionalism; in positing myself and my own identity as less important than the identities of others there is a hidden arrogance, an assumption that my own identity does not require a particular expression because it is in some sense a universal given. The Americans in Midsommar suffer from this lazy vice and are ruthlessly punished for it. Aster appears to sympathise with the inadequacy of such a position.

But he is clearly not agitating for support of white separatism either. What I think he has done with Midsommar is to show certain aspects of the past of European societies as an atavistic resurgence into the modern world. To condemn this past as something other, to look at it as a foreign, anthropological subject is, Aster seems to suggest, not going to give us a clear picture. To do so is to still remain trapped within the colonial viewpoint of the universal subject. This is why he avoids fully disavowing the cult community. The past is always operative in the present, and conscious disavowals of its reality will not succeed in retroactively destroying it. For Europeans to disavow their past is another form of exceptionalism. So, on the one hand there is a monoracial European idyll; on the other a dysfunctional American secularism. The trick is to avoid both by integrating the past into the present in a functional way.

Aster has created a disturbing and ambiguous horror and it is not yet entirely clear what the horror consists of. By avoiding a clear moral line he has not (as is often the case) defaulted to some form of moral relativism; in fact he shows such relativism to be inadequate. Neither does he simply warn of the evils of the far right. To the extent that the cultists stand in for an atavistic re-emergence of nationalism they are not wholly demonised. As noted before there are things about them that are alluring. So, returning to that remarkable, unreadable smile that Florence Pugh (as Dani) delivers at the film’s conclusion, a smile so profound that it makes the Mona Lisa look banal, one must assume that many women would have sympathised with Dani as her useless boyfriend goes up in smoke. “Every woman adores a fascist,” as Sylvia Plath wrote. The horror and the attraction of Midsommar are mingled together in just the sort of way that the past and the present are mingled together. Aster has posed some difficult questions and Midsommar will continue to provoke wildly divergent answers for some time to come.

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