There is a trend to put politics over aesthetics, says 'Midsommar' director Ari Aster

The 'Hereditary' and 'Midsommar' filmmaker discusses Hollywood horror’s moment under the sun and its political undertones

March 21, 2020 12:30 pm | Updated 03:13 pm IST

Filmmaker Ari Aster

Filmmaker Ari Aster

In 2018, Ari Aster’s Hereditary both spooked and impressed critics — a rare feat for a debut filmmaker. With the supernatural horror, starring Toni Collete, the 33-year-old American writer-director carved out a space for himself in the already cluttered genre film universe, mostly occupied by big studios and franchises. His second indie feature, Midsommar , a folk horror, took him around the world on a festival run, but the film generated a divided house. Inspired by his own break-up, the film follows a group of ignorant American students who go to a remote Swedish village and are caught in the workings of a bizarre cult. While some applauded the attempt to set a horror in broad daylight, others found it hollow and gimmicky. But irrespective, Aster has enjoyed both critical and audience attention. In an interview with The Hindu in Mumbai, Aster discusses what it means to have Hollywood horror under the festival spotlight and the politics of genre films. Excerpts from an edited interview…

As a genre filmmaker who has received critical accolades, do you see horror films experiencing a revival of sorts at recent film festivals?

It does seem that “elevated horror” is having a moment now. [But] if you go through the last 70 years, you will find exceptions to the rule. Psycho (1960) was an exception to the bad B-horror movie. Even, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Alien (1979). It is still happening now, where people react with shock [when] a horror film [is] made artfully. There’s arguably a thin, but a clear line, between horror movies that are made cynically — these franchise horror films, which you can tell are made by a committee — and films that are coming from a more personal place. There’s a long tradition of both these kind of horror films, so for me it’s a new point in the same cycle. But there are a lot of really wonderful films coming out in the genre space today.

What do you think has triggered the appreciation of horror and genre films at festivals?

The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were nominated for a bunch of Oscars. The Shinning was nominated for a bunch of [Golden] Raspberry Awards, and now people don’t agree with that assessment either. It’s all kinda silly to me. Ultimately, genre films are art and of course, some aren’t. I don’t think art is an elastic term. It seems like [horror films] are being taken more seriously now than they used to be. It seems [that] there are a large number of exceptional horror movies being made now.

But in the end, David Cronenberg started in the late 70s and worked in the 80s and 90s. He’s another example of what people are saying is happening right now, so it’s not a bubble. It’s an urge people have to put things in bubbles.

Thrills and chills: A still from Hereditary; (below) director Ari Aster.

Thrills and chills: A still from Hereditary; (below) director Ari Aster.

What’s also interesting is that a lot of contemporary horror films have political undertones, for instance, Jordon Peele’s movies. How do you view this trend, where horror films in America are becoming allegorical and not just about jump scares?

You have film like Get Out (2017), which is more satire than horror, and it’s great satire but it’s obviously drawn from the school of Ira Levin [American novelist and playwright], and people like him. But movies and TV in general, not just the horror genre, is becoming extremely political, which I think in some ways is extremely exciting and in some ways, it can be a handicap. Because there is a trend in some corners to put politics over aesthetics, so what makes a film like Get Out so exciting that it feels sincere. You have the aesthetic, brilliantly made socio-political satire, that is not like a product of strategy but it is coming from an authentic place, which makes a film like that more valuable than maybe others. I also feel that it’s a trend to survey a bunch of films coming out at a time and say that this is a movement. Ultimately most filmmakers, or the ones that I like, are in their own little bubbles, making what they want to make and reacting to the world around them, rather than films being made by a committee and to answer the call of one agenda or another.

Speaking of the politics of Midsommar -- the film is folk horror, but there’s been a long-standing criticism of the sub-genre as exoticising a certain culture. How did you ensure not to exoticise or appear as ignorant Americans, like the characters in your film?

Firstly, by engaging with the culture, doing a lot of research and working closely with the Swedes who are on my team. We had a Swedish production designer, producer and a lot of Swedish actors. Ultimately, exoticising them is sort of the point, and it’s part of the comedy of the film. It’s hard to say that we were doggedly avoiding one thing and pursuing another. It’s a matter of instinct, and trying to let any sort of political correctness get in the way of telling the story in the right way.

But also trying to be politically minded and layering the film with political ideas and nods to certain things in Sweden’s history. Where to be serious and where to be cheeky? That was the question.

So where does the politics of Midsommar lie?

I’m going to be cryptic and say that there are things in Sweden’s recent history that are suggested in the film.

They are a little bit overt in the director’s cut and hopefully, the film gets some things that are inherent in Swedish culture that is by turns funny, charming, disturbing, strange and at the same time, the film takes a lot of liberties. I’ve heard from the Swedes who have seen the film, [that] they find it very funny and that for me is the best outcome. Of course, some not everyone is happy and they can't be. But ultimately, it is a dark comedy.

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