Monday, April 20, 2015

It Follows

It Follows is the most recent horror movie darling of critics and audiences alike. The plot is relatively simple: a girl (Jay) sleeps with her questionable boyfriend, and in so doing becomes the target of It, an undefined monster that wants to kill her. The only way she can get rid of its relentless stalking is to have sex with someone else who will then become the target - unless he gets killed, which will then make her the target again. 

Even the director acknowledges that the plot sounds silly on paper. Apparently, seeing it does the trick. It's been getting great press from critics and fans alike for its artistic merit, and it's garnered the dubious distinction of becoming what The Daily Beast called “an STD panic nightmare.” Considering how many have noted the movie's innovation as well as its  relevance to current social issues, It Follows piqued my interest.

It Follows creates a remarkably tense atmosphere through anticipation rather than gore. The artistic accolades are well deserved: David Robert Mitchell has made a truly frightening movie with a minimal amount of violence.* However, I want to push back against what many are saying about the message. 

It's Not About STDs

Mitchell has insisted he did not make the movie with STDs in mind. He told Yahoo,  “It just sort of made sense to me that if it was something that was passed through sex, it would be a way to link the characters — to connect them both physically and emotionally. And it tied in to some of the other larger themes that I was working towards.”

When asked if there was any kind of statement in the movie about current standards of promiscuity, Mitchell responded, “No. No, I've heard some people who seem to think the movie is making some sort of puritanical viewpoint, and I hate that. It's not my intention. Again, people can read whatever they want from a movie, and it's going to happen regardless of what the intentions are. To a certain degree it's valid…That was not my intention, though. I have a very different read on the film." Clearly, Puritanical moral standards and sexual scare tactics were not the point of the movie. 

So Mitchell did not intend to make a morality tale revolving around sex. Even without his own statements, it's hard for me to see where one would find any kind of moral point. Sure, sex brought the haunting, malevolent It, but Jay could have slept with anyone other than her scummy boyfriend and been fine.  Fortunately (?), sex was also the means by which one could be freed of the curse by passing it on to someone else - and believe me, Jay tried. Sexy physician, heal thyself. 

If it's not an STD scare fest, is there a deeper message? Some have suggested that It represents the relentless stalking capability of social media, the way Twitter and Facebook connect people, or how "human comfort is just a fragile distraction from the horrible inevitabilities that plague us."  Mitchell is fine with all this creative interpretations, but the only two cultural connections I've heard him reference are the division between the city and the suburbs as well as the separation of wealth and poverty.

It Is About "Waiting Spaces" 

None of those intellectual forays reveal the primary inspiration of the movie. Mitchell has said in numerous interviews that he got the idea for It from a recurring childhood nightmare. The core of the horror takes place in what he calls "waiting spaces," that place of frightened uncertainty where we wonder when our looming nightmares will become real. Other than the obvious supernatural aspect in the movie, I would like to offer two other ways in which the fear and uncertainty of some current cultural "waiting spaces" can be seen in this film.

1) The "waiting space" of unexpected consequences

According to Mitchell, the sex is a plot device to add an emotional and connective element to the story. It certainly does that, but in so doing it incorporates (perhaps accidentally) a "waiting space" that I believe haunts our culture: the fear that sex might not be as free as we thought. Specifically, I'm talking about the nagging sense that sex is far more profound than we have been led to believe.

Maika Monroe (who plays the main character, Jay) told an interviewer, “My generation is different than my parent's generation; I don’t think sex is as big of a deal now." If Maika's sexual perspective reflect reality, then whatever follows from sexual encounters should be no big deal either, right? And yet that's not how life unfolds. 

Sex connects people physically and emotionally. What if sex - something we want to believe is recreational, casual or without consequence when we want it to be -  has a ripple effect that is much greater and more profound than we've been told? What if sex always matters?  What if there are consequences looming from an activity we thought was essentially without consequence (at least if we were 'safe')?  That is the kind of "waiting space" in which the heart of a worldview is challenged. 

2) The "waiting space" of impending cynicism and despair

Jay has the Curse of the Pretty Girl: she never knows if people (particularly men) are helping her because they like her or because they just want to get laid. The first guy sleeps with her to relieve himself of It; the second and third sleep with her because they want to “help” her. Uh huh. I doubt they would have made that offer if they didn't think she was hot. 

What if we could never know if people who said they cared about us only liked how we made them feel?  What if all that kept people interested in us was how attractive we were? What if everything women learned about men always made them increasingly cynical and guarded rather than transparent and free? What if, every time we tried to be truly known and loved, we could never get rid of the fear that we would once again be betrayed or discarded?  That  "waiting space" between asking those questions and finding answers is a space that has at some time hauned us all.

Does 'It' Always Follow?

I walked away from the theater thankful that in real life we are not doomed by the daunting It that so often haunts our bad choices.  We can choose a life in which Goodness and Mercy will followOur history is not our destiny.  The old will pass; the new will come.  That's the kind of space where I don't mind waiting. 


*It Follows is Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language. The violence was minimal; the sex and nudity were never seen together (It sometimes showed up as a woman, often showing signs of abuse and sometimes in various states of undress). In spite of all that, It Follows was an oddly sterile and unsexy movie. There was sex, yes, but at least one partner was always emotionally detached. It was functional, desperate, sad and empty.  

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