Freakish, Horrifying, and Sometimes Wondrous Alternative Histories

Freakish, Horrifying, and Sometimes Wondrous Alternative Histories

Freakish, Horrifying, and Sometimes Wondrous Alternative Histories

On Lovecraft Country and Tesla.


Haunted mansions are seldom built with the ghosts pre-furnished; yet there they were, the specters of Jim Crow America, already in residence when a spanking new spook house titled Lovecraft Country recently rose on a tract of HBO.

In keeping with a style of production that has flourished in the streaming era, with its high-end dramatic series and multi-episode movies, Lovecraft Country is designed and shot to make an earlier period look dewy-fresh. Not contemporary, mind you. You don’t see the 1950s of Lovecraft Country as you would if you were living in them, with the accretions of age built up to different thicknesses in objects wherever you turn. Here, anything vintage seems to have been manufactured to appear old from the start, for installation side by side with the up-to-date. It’s the same sort of not-past you see in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, where the re-creation of Manhattan in the early ’60s shimmers everywhere with a lighting and palette reminiscent of Hollywood comedies of the era. To call the purpose nostalgic would be a mistake. The effect, rather, is to de-authenticate even scenes shot on location, in a tacit revelation of the truth of creating movies and high-end series. Everything is assembled at once, into a present made to be seen by the camera.

Just so, the intense hues painted onto 1950s America in Lovecraft Country seem scarcely to have had time to dry, no matter whether you’re in an El-rattled apartment on Chicago’s South Side or at a diner on the main street of Klansville, Ind. The extraordinary Jonathan Majors (a lead actor who is himself still fresh to market) has dressed for this adventure in a T-shirt so white that it gleams, just like the moisture glistening in each of the thousand eyes embedded in a blob that at one point pursues Majors with malign intent. You’re familiar, of course, with sickeningly deformed nocturnal monsters—the characters in Lovecraft Country are familiar with them as well, from reading pulp fiction and watching horror movies—just as you and the characters are both long acquainted with other tropes in this extended film: an enigmatic letter, an ominous map, a journey into territory that proves to be unknowable. But just as the crew keeps the production looking uniformly, artificially present-tense, no matter at which date the action plays out, so too do the writers, producers, and directors succeed in making something novel out of a mishmash of scary thoughts from any number of eras. If the protagonists of Lovecraft Country can be described as Black people who have taken up residence in a just-completed, many-roomed haunted house, then the Jim Crow ghosts who came with the place still trail little white tags, which can be removed only under penalty of law (or worse).

Based on a novel in interlocking episodes by Matt Ruff, created by showrunner Misha Green, and executive produced by Green and others including Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, Lovecraft Country has the expansive storytelling, varied settings, and showy camerawork that people commonly call cinematic. Rigorously restrained filmmaking can be cinematic too, of course, as fans of Straub-Huillet recognize, but that’s a conversation for another time. The point is, Lovecraft Country begins in a dream that’s half Paths of Glory and half War of the Worlds and is wonderfully faithful to both, then takes Atticus Freeman (Majors) by bus across M. Night Shyamalan territory (a sunlit yet chilling Corn Belt) to Freeman’s native South Side, conceived here as a nonstop festival of Black vitality. A rollicking block party is in progress; kids dance in the spray of fire hydrants. But disquiet lurks beneath the revelry. Atticus’s father has disappeared in strange circumstances. A disturbing letter suggests he might have gone to an obscure Massachusetts town with a name that recalls the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. (Atticus has always lapped up Lovecraft’s tales, accepting the author’s bigotry as the price of the thrills.) Resolving to find his father, Atticus takes to the road in a wood-paneled station wagon with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), an author of guidebooks for the “Negro traveler,” and a lively but down-on-her-luck young woman called Leti (Jurnee Smollett), who seems to harbor secret troubles of her own. Then comes Klansville. Then comes the slug with the thousand eyes.

I am giving away very little of the plot when I tell you the slug and other terrifying things come almost as a relief. They break into the picture just when the trio has fallen into the hands of racist backwoods white cops. The nightmare creatures provide the opportunity for a hairbreadth escape; but, in another sense, they also provide reassurance. George and Leti, no less than Atticus, are deeply versed in the “weird tales” branch of popular culture. When a cop shows signs of metamorphosis after receiving a creature’s bite, George knows to tell the man’s uncomprehending partner, with authority and low-voiced self-control, “You… you… you need to shoot him.” And why can George hold it together so well? I suppose it’s not just because he knows his vampire lore. In the worldview of Lovecraft Country, Black Americans are accustomed to coping with a freakish, horrifying reality every day. Shrieking, bloodthirsty monsters pouring out of the Massachusetts night? Yeah, that too.

With that in mind, I momentarily interrupt these thoughts about Lovecraft Country to reintroduce another movie about Black people taking the uncanny in stride: Attack the Block, the first feature of writer-director Joe Cornish.

This rousing blend of sci-fi and social critique has somehow managed to stay in the margin of consciousness of hardy moviegoers, despite a commercially disastrous release nine years ago. Not that Attack the Block cursed everyone associated with it. John Boyega, all of 19 when he played the male lead, went on to become a hero in the Star Wars movies, and Jodie Whittaker, the female lead, has since made history as the first woman into whom the Doctor has regenerated on Doctor Who. On that basis alone, Attack the Block is a monument of fantasy cinema. That said, a cumulative worldwide box office gross of $6.2 million, earned against an estimated production budget of $13 million, has left the film in a neglect from which it ought to be rescued, especially in a moment that has given us Lovecraft Country.

Set in a public housing project in South London, with the action happening amid the bonfires, mischief, and fireworks of Guy Fawkes Night, Attack the Block starts from the sort of one-line premise beloved of movie producers and the writers who pitch them. What if fearsome extraterrestrial invaders did not land in the boondocks—their usual point of entry for our planet—but instead came down on city streets roamed by low-income, mostly Black teenagers? It would be bad news for the aliens—as you see when Moses (Boyega), the alpha among a crew of five muggers, encounters the first of the aliens and promptly beats it to death. So far, so sharp and funny. I would not be fond of Attack the Block, though, if it didn’t advance far beyond the jokey limits of this story conference concept. Instead of insulting and dismissing an entire scuffling inner-city class, as it might have done, the movie gradually forges an alliance between these individuated kids and Sam (Whittaker), the young white project resident they’d robbed. More than that: The movie brings the aptly named Moses to an acceptance of his responsibilities that is heroic, in the most invigoratingly cartoonish way.

Directed with a pleasingly large repertoire of crane flights, on-the-run tracking shots, and shock cuts, designed and photographed so you see the age of things in their surfaces, and acted with a consistent drollery that extends to the aliens themselves (whose apelike locomotion was created by the celebrated creature-feature choreographer Terry Notary), Attack the Block makes the most of its budget (which at $13 million was actually on the modest side) while creating a near-exemplary study in pace, humor, and spurts of gore. But the most important distinction of this frolic is thematic. “They’re fucking monsters, aren’t they?” a white neighbor asks Sam, speaking about the young men who had mugged her, and by extension every other Black kid on the block. Without hesitation, Sam agrees. (As do the police—always there to hassle Black teenagers, but never around when you need help with a marauding alien.) After passing judgment, Sam spends the rest of the movie facing real monsters, meanwhile discovering the courage, strength, and loyalty of Moses.

This is the level on which Attack the Block itself might be attacked. You could argue that its presumed viewers are white, like Sam—because surely Moses and his friends don’t need 88 minutes of fantasy derring-do to learn they’re human. Then again, Black people know the burdens, external and internal, of living with the white world’s image of them, and so I’ve found that some Black viewers enjoy the vindication of Attack the Block. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.” It is no frivolous satisfaction to feel a portion of that destructive belief lifted away, as one symbolic white person, at least, comes to say something different.

As for Lovecraft Country, its Black characters know damned well who the monsters are. They also know that your evaluation of America—whether you see it as a shining city on a hill or a vast, threatening terrain that might have been populated by H.P. Lovecraft—“depends on what your sense of reality is.” (So says an actor in an anachronistic voiceover, imitating Baldwin in his fabled Cambridge Union debate against William F. Buckley Jr.) Maybe that’s the justification for the production’s look of an eternal present. Lovecraft Country does not pretend to give you anything beyond a highly malleable “sense of reality”—one in which Black people contend against the products of diseased imaginations that have also pictured them as uncanny and nonhuman. The worst of it is, Atticus grew up loving those exciting, racist-born tales.

In Attack the Block, an unpretentious, brusquely made film full of humor, Moses breaks the constraints of what white people think of him. (The clinching moment, in the final shot: John Boyega smiles for the first time.) In the far more ambitious and elaborately wrought Lovecraft Country, Atticus Freeman has (in a certain way) accepted the invitation to live in a white man’s nightmare—and very few chuckles are to be had.

Michael Almereyda has given only one of his films the title Experimenter—his 2015 not-quite-biopic about the social psychologist Stanley Milgram—but the name fits them all, along with the writer-director himself. He has made, among much else, a study of early ’90s sexual mores shot with a toy camera, a languorous yet screwball vampire picture, a Manhattan business-world Hamlet (with Ethan Hawke in the lead and Bill Murray as Polonius), and a deeply felt and beautifully acted adaptation of Marjorie Prime, a melancholic sci-fi play by Jordan Harrison. Laurence Sterne famously wrote that if his reader were able to guess what was to come on the next page of Tristram Shandy, “I would tear it out of my book.” I sometimes wonder if Almereyda would burn the rushes of his next scene if he guessed what they’d show.

Restlessly inventive and willing to give almost anything a shot, Almereyda now turns his attention to yet another experimenter in Tesla, which resembles a fictionalized biography of the great inventor as a hippogriff looks like your housecat. Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), a daughter of one of Nikola Tesla’s investors, J.P. Morgan, narrates Tesla’s story while scrolling on a laptop computer. (She died in 1952.) Occasionally, she stops the film to admit that an incident didn’t happen as just enacted—for example, Tesla and Thomas Edison never quarreled over money while poking each other with soft-serve ice cream cones—and then calls for a do-over. Anne recalls having flirted with the awkward and withdrawn Tesla while roller-skating with him in a marbled foyer to a tune provided by a violinist who was also on skates, but I can find no more evidence for this episode than for the ice cream.

Ethan Hawke plays Tesla with a slight accent (a sibilant “s,” a lightly trilled “r”) and a soup-strainer mustache, his hair parted in the middle and perpetual worry furrowing his brow. Sometimes Almereyda poses him in front of projections of key sites in Tesla’s career (the high plains of Colorado, Niagara Falls), and sometimes he puts him inside roughly carpentered replicas of the inventor’s experimental stations. In this succession of odd circumstances, Hawke gives an inward-looking performance that emphasizes the alliance in Tesla of spiritual delicacy with globe-spanning ambition—an uneasy combination, which led to what might be called, at a minimum, eccentricity and isolation. Whether an element of Almereyda’s self-portraiture enters into this characterization is open to speculation. Tesla is based on Almereyda’s earliest screenplay, completed in 1982. Perhaps the author feels that, in some ways, he’s grown into it. I’m certain he’s had time to ponder the question Anne Morgan poses about Tesla: whether idealism can ever work hand-in-hand with capitalism.

Tesla is now available for streaming on the wireless services made possible by Nikola Tesla’s experiments. Viewers who want to see more of Almereyda’s work may visit the virtual cinema of Museum of the Moving Image, which is presenting a small survey through September 20.

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