A Film Above the Criticism
By Jay Armstrong
As nostalgic exploitation and cultural appropriation choke the soul out of the last vestiges of creativity, we look back on the golden age of cult fanaticism through the lens of IT, our cold shallow like/not-like hearts boldly warmed to life once more through what we are shown.
On the surface IT has everything scoffers need to ooze their vile acidic condescension upon; a reboot, reimagined in the late 80’s, curtailing the success of Stranger Things in the ultimate case of a carbon copy of art being carbon copied yet again. Such criticism, albeit true, misses the mark of director Andy Muschietti’s acute awareness of how marketing teams and corporate greed leech off what should have remained holy about the 80’s and through such awareness found a successful way to navigate within the parasitic nature of this film, turning it nobly into a beautiful approach giving resonance to the stifling death march of middle American societies revolting ideological standards. IT embodies the glowing fuzzy youth at odds with the inevitable omnipresent conforming brutality of perpetuated antiquated ideals while at the same time finds motivation by and through 2014’s It Follows with the same affecting and near brilliant take on the loss of childhood at the feet of metamorphic change in those pivotal seconds where we became strangers to each other and ourselves which essentially is the same sentiment that made Raw the blinding best film of the year (at least that is until Mother! hit us last week), Muschietti doing it with the awe and laughter found in this film should not go unspoken. IT is a story of interdependent love which transforms our inner confusion into the self-love of acceptance, finding oneself, defining oneself, through the adverse ALL by collective weaknesses metamorphosing in the refusal to allow the terror of that ALL to break the ones for which our passions and protective nature refuse to sit idly by and watch the demoralization into ineffectual nothings ever happen without going down together. Most importantly though IT is an adventurous transformation lighting a nostalgic candle in the tombs of our childhood fading memories allowing us with highbrow contemplation to make sense once more of what it all meant feeling truly alive with confusion and oppression spinning madly about our minds.
Before all else, can we be honest and open with each other for a moment? Because if we are being honest and open it is long overdue to get this off our collective chest. It may be painful for some to admit, which is fine as long as in the end we find acceptance of the truth; secretly we all know despite the idol Tim Curry’s Pennywise has become within horror folklore, and I’m most definitely of the Curry-is-a-god camp as much as you are, the miniseries was not great. Hell it’s barely even good. Compared to the other options when flipping through your thirty basic cable options in 1990 certainly IT was incredible– couldn’t the same be said for why people still think Taking Back Sunday’s Tell All Your Friends or Weezer’s Blue Album are solid? Hell even The Riffs Underground Kicks could fall in line with this argument, shit sucked for a solid amount of time. If you were teenage when these came out they bore weight in your psyche for the escape and reflection which you had not found elsewhere yet let us not pretend any of these examples are more than they are. I loved the book when I was twelve, I love Stephen King all the more, the miniseries has a notable place in our hearts, but played for one of your friends who hasn’t seen IT without selling your opinion beforehand you will find yourself in one of those inevitable roundabout arguments we get caught by when someone believed to be an ally doesn’t meet us on the same level on something we ourselves see as great. If you don’t like Lou Reed, good for you, I’m not going to argue with stupidity so I’ll shrug it off, if you don’t dig My So Called Life I’ll find myself aggressively defensive out of the gate. We see these same sort of ego fueled arguments screaming from Fox News segment after segment. When you “feel” you are right without actually having facts to back it up then of course the typical tendency is to puff up while dumbly letting your own unfounded beliefs take shape in hot air. In Stephen King lore IT should be on par with Salem’s Lot in comparison for quality and experience– goddamn you Tim Curry for lifting it above that. To hold onto the past so tightly though would be to miss the equally perfect take by Bill Skarsgard–arguments as to who else could have been more fitting to reincarnate Pennywise are completely demolished from the moment we taste his presence. Skarsgard standing out so boldly while playing an understated character in Atomic Blonde then to follow up with this level of perfection should have studios lifting his name to the top of the stack for future projects. With or without makeup he has developed into an actor who chews the screen before us. How he’d feel as the lead with a huge budget is still vague as to whether it would work or not but if Robert Pattinson can prove himself as he did in Good Time then how much more could be done by someone more skillful with an openness to walk around challenging their limitations to the point there are none the way Skarsgard does as Pennywise.
And it’s not only Skarsgard but the entire cast that is perfection, which goes doubly for the secondary characters who embody the stifling omnipresent ‘other‘ through perpetuating the norms of fear based small towns with the creepiness of realism which contrasts and often overshadows the slow-clap terror of Pennywise himself. Stuart Hughes delivers one of the grittiest tough lines ever spoken in a film with his, “ain’t nothing like a little fear to watch a paper man crumble,” I imagine Clint Eastwood and R. Lee Ermey getting all teary eyed hearing him say it. Allowing the kids the creative freedom to ad lib their lines gives the jokes a natural genuine air to them, for a film involving a mythical entity who lives in a sewer and shape shifts to mold into our fears it is wild just how true to life the universe created around it feels, the natural comfort of dialogue factors hugely into that. The town setting is crafted well and works at giving depth to the film similar to Gremlins and The Lost Boys in an almost Linklater way which all the more goes to show that when Stephen King steals an idea such as that of Freddy Krueger he does it tastefully better than the original concept as to make comparisons feel ridiculous– the same could be said for Muschietti’s film in contrast with the original.
Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is what dreams are made of, pulling in the whimsical necessary tone of childhood erupting emotions and swinging unnoticed back into the horror tropes tonally expressed, nearly redeeming himself after that schlock he phoned in on Hidden Figures, this time remaining paint by numbers as usual but seems to have learned his lesson on when to turn it back a notch rather than pissing all over the scenery the way we often hear from him. I’m not sure it reigns in my nervousness about his role on Bladerunner 2049 but at the very least it doesn’t work against it. The horror sweeps are a step up from the clanking around he did with Annabelle:Creation and he shines on strongly through the reoccurring whimsically fey melody used when selling the tugged heart strings of the boys caught up by IT’s puppy love triangle which is oddly similar but safely different from one of the greatest melody’s written in the last twenty years, Yurima’s “River Flows Into You.”
There are a few flat points we can’t help but chew on, the most glaring being the soundtrack. For a movie trying to sell 1989 to us they blew it huge and didn’t even play it safe as in say how The Smiths are referenced on 500 Days of Summer, the music of IT is very forgettable; a twenty minute conversations with the staff working the counter at some tiny record shop would have done well for us all. We are though through this film reminded of just how beautiful The Cure were when synth and synthetic drugs tightened their grip completely around the throat of the unique and abnormal. Soundtracks get away with missing the mark, hardly included on our needing accountability scale, especially in the realm of horror, while the other low of the film is much harder to ignore. There is a blatant failed editing decision in a scene with Pennywise in a garage where we have our ever deepening trance brought on by the film destroyed by using lame blackout tricks to heighten the terror thus treating the intelligence of the viewer with complete disrespect, something which may work well when piecing together a trailer to get fans excited but really comes across as desperate at a moment where we have already bought into the ride we are on completely, the feeling as cheesy as those hard bummmmm dubstep bass hits slowed to a stop then coming back in with the volume screaming as we see in every Michael Bay trailer and nearly every action film in general of recent past. IT could have been much better without the parlor tricks yet finds itself redeemed by every moment before and after.
Much of the attention going towards IT focuses on the Stand By Me nature of the film, raising the question why this motif within films has been discarded. While the most audible arguments fall on the tired cop out of millennial blame in the false myth that cultural appropriation is something new, I’ll take this opportunity to furthermore call on the carpet the 90’s and early 2000’s with its complete lack of substance. For ten years we watched capitalism take dump after dump on all that was great and sacred; realizing cultivated ideas, directors, writers, etc, wasn’t good for their bottom line so they just target audienced the shit out of basic anti-iconoclastic plastic ideas and shaped them into cardboard meals to be handed out via drive-through window towards the family dollar looking to be pacified in the quickest possible way. This is how we ended up with Chris O’donnell and Matthew Lillard as lead men, this is the path that led to Riding the Bus With My Sister, Gigli, and Tiptoes. So yes we are seeing a lot of old ideas resurfacing, and yes this is a sad attempt at capitalizing on an already built fan base. What is new or novel about that? We as American’s have been culturally appropriating for over two hundred years, why is it the huge funded blockbusters that are called on the carpet? As long as the juice is worth the squeeze who gives a damn. How many Star Wars knockoffs were made? What about the kicked to death summer-camp-love-and-freedom-trope? Some of those knockoffs were masterpieces. How do you think we got Elvis and Bob Dylan? Nothing is sacred and if you believe it is then you are taking it all too seriously. I have my doubts but for the sake of argument, sure we might be in a more original creative place had our parents not allowed blockbuster to run out of their sixty copies of Waterwor–my point being this is the bed we as consumers allowed ourselves to be tucked into, at least IT is comfortable, at least the room has more style. IT has the gumption to face society standards with fists up to reflect the rallying cry of modern youth which in comparison to say Point Break and Flatliners (Ughhh don’t even get me started on that trailer) is a novel noble approach.
What needs to be talked about isn’t whether the CGI is too much (it is not) or if this one does a better job interpreting the source material than we witnessed with the first translation (it does), what needs to be discussed is how powerful what the character of Beverly represents and how Sophia Lillis manages to kill the role completely in the greatest most endearing possible way. To be fifteen, standing barely over five feet tall and controlling the screen the way she does, Beverly is the hero we want to be, Lillis is impressively better than even that. I’m not saying her role is Oscar worthy but I’ll be disappointed no doubt if she does not make the list. And this isn’t some bullshit Dakota Fanning/Haley Joel Osment free pass because they are young, endearing, and don’t break character sort of acting, this is a Jodie Foster Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane performance and I’ll argue it is better even than that. At a time when important gender equality discussions are being disregarded with bigoted condescension, as our so-called news sources find it appropriate for their hosts to use the term “femnazis” as laughable color commentary, in a place where a disgusting vile man can say “grab them by the pussy” and still be elected into office, what we see reflected through the path of this character is a dire appraisal of what the experience of a bold confident independent person having the unfortunate disposition of being female under the patriarchal boot heel of American society in the eighties and how little if at all things have changed in the time since. If only such oppression were in the past as we would like to believe. Just as Kathryn Bigalow’s Detroit reminds us how uninformed our sense of progress is, Lillis in IT brings to light the damning unjust judgement a teenage girl is forced to weather if she should so choose not to keep her eyes to the floor and to value little the depressing expectation for women to be hardly seen and less heard.
I’m avoiding spoilers as much as possible but a few slight reveals must be used to solidify this significant caveat of the film. Beverly’s role within IT remains of that like everyone else in our group of unlikely heroes, she is outside the accepted and like the others within the group revels in this separation despite the constant oppressive culture around her. There will always be a mass existence who get stoked for another Fast and the Furious installation, there will always be those who watch some uninspired mess as Annabelle:Creation or The Hitman’s Bodyguard and find it fulfilling. That is them and this is us, we crave a reflection of the real, we want understanding gained through the experience, we want the discussion to exist over why we enjoy something equally as a much as we want the enjoyment itself. Which is the catalyst for why horror films remain so powerful–the use of zombies to represent anesthetizing capitalism being the easiest example to note a common discussion we want to have, as well as an unspoken common understanding you and I possess but rarely speak about yet with a lighter approach based around our responses to the external, perpetual, evil and what it will transform us into without constant vigilance. Which allows us to discus our beliefs without the pontificating and look-at-me nature of such a discussion through the guise of eating brains and rotting walking corpses to form those thoughts around. Take how It Follows isn’t just about “growing up” but instead goes deeper into examination of the loss of innocence through the facing of death and how those things which make us feel alive, excited, soon dull leaving us surrounded by dead things wanting us to internalize them, showing us that by the time we are aware of the other we have already been infected by it, the unstoppable shadow has already began the steadfast decent upon our souls before we ever could have done something against it. This year’s standout Raw taking that line of thought further, showing just how brutal the expectations can be towards our conforming and embracing those changes but offering a little more insight into the why, reminding us again and again how society tells us those changes are to make us better, that our forced embrace of the other’s way of thinking will in the end build us into something strong yet through them we will destroy everything we love until we too are cold changed controlled….just as they are. Lillis’ character is born into a terrible situation and as all too often happens finds herself not in the understanding and acceptance as one would hope but instead judged and condemned by it. Is this not the case in real life? Non-white/poor/female, are these not conditions out of ones hands in which we witness children perpetuating their parents blind vehemence towards their peers through? “It is never me that is at fault for why things aren’t better here it is always them” being their creed and the underscored core of their “make America great again” rallying cry. As a white male I don’t have a proper vantage point to understand properly what it feels like to bare such judgement and double-standard expectations but certainly I have eyes to see clearly how they exist and how those who look eerily similar to me perpetuate such standards. I too dream of the day when those lines between you and I are so blurred it falls to our individual actions to speak for our character and the common interests within our intellect for how we find ourselves drawn toward one segment of society over the other. We need IT, we need Atomic Blonde, we need Wonder Women, we need art to chip away at all which remains divisive and oppressive until we reach a moment when garbage people are called on the carpet and heroes strengthen our hearts without qualifiers for how. We could argue over how much progress has been made, be it great or minimal depending on your interpretation, certainly though we both can agree it has not been enough. The Brock Turner’s and Daniel Holtzclaw’s continually being brought to light as much a reminder of gender inequality and the slow wheels of nearly non-existent justice as are the riots in St. Louis over the acquittal of Jason Stockley. Systemic racism, sexism, and bigotry is real and through Lillis’ role in this 1989 reflection we are empowered to face the status quo world with its “same as it ever was” ethos and stand feet apart shoulders squared boldly facing the terror of the all with six best friends and say “not on our watch.”
Being a teenage girl who didn’t fit in during the late 80’s and refused to be silenced because of it doesn’t take much of an imagination for understanding how awful that must have been, being slyly brought to light rather than made into some woe-is-me drama should work hugely at opening up the discussion as to how society treats those marginalized and vilified not for who they are but for who they unjustly are perceived as being. Everything Lillis’ character does is judged, she has a reputation of being trash, unfounded rumors are spread about her being promiscuous and choosing to be used by people when the truth is she simply wants to be herself. Beverly has a moral compass above the rest of her class and community yet she doesn’t fit in with the herd out of her refusal to passively conform and as a result is hounded upon by adults and peers alike in their need for fulfillment at deflecting their own worthless lives. This we see in the inability of Pennywise to make her fear him, her classmates don’t make her afraid, her terrible father doesn’t make her afraid, yet she is paralyzed none the less by her role in society of which she has no power over. This point sent clearly home as Pennywise traps Beverly saying, “you’re not afraid, you will be,” Muschietti frames the shot completely different than he has shown us throughout the film. Where with others it was a mass of teeth collectively attacking, selling us on how she is different even from the outcasts she calls friends, we see individual teeth, spaced much more apart, lining his throat all the way back to a magnetizing blinding light. The throat therefore implies the typical use as an echo chamber for the voice (ie, the critical brutal words used to put her down, to keep her in place) as well as the path for digestion while the individual teeth focused on as a metaphor for the individual stabs used through the process of attempted forced submission. The first scene we see Beverly in preludes this ultimate appraisal of how society condemns her to complacency; we see her comfortably smoking and refusing to merely take the cruel words of her classmates who have trapped her in a bathroom stall. IT brings to surface the perpetuated zeitgeist of condemning small minded morality and the blind prerequisites for each individual’s implied numb vapid role in the unintelligent majority of society. The blinding light in the throat of Pennywise saying clearly “if we can’t destroy you, well we still have ways to numb and silence you.” IT facing gender bias enhanced by ones independence without laying it on heavy is a gift.
What we learn in these all-in-it-together coming-of-age tales is that to make it alone would be impossible, in spite of the headstrong will whether we want to admit it or not we need each other to even have a chance against the all, where Stand by Me is about the sense of adventure which comes at the very end of our childhood, IT approaches the group in an adverse way as not something to be appreciated for what we had together but instead for the way we find each other along the way as allies in our struggle against a world we don’t respect or want to conform to. A hushed realization comes when looking back that even though those bonds between us must end it does not take away their value and it certainly highlights how our mutual love for each other made us tighter than any family dynamic could ever achieve. We allowed each other to be individuals, we allowed the other to feel value for who they uniquely were. We need a tap on the shoulder from time to time getting us to look back, to appreciate the path which brought us here. IT is that startling tap on our shoulder. IT is the nostalgic happiness and laughter found when looking back. We need films such as IT to beautifully remind us that in those dark times there was light and through them we not only figured out how to be ourselves, we learned, as no time that should ever follow could, what it meant to truly love and belong, to know heartbreak that shattered our existence and look back on it warmly thankful for having known it at all, thankful for the friends we had beside us, even if those moments were all too brief.
We can only hope the second installment finds a way to properly remind us how those bonds which brought us together also were the catalyst for our drifting apart. We can only hope the social conversation feels as relevant when inspecting the other side of the coin, the side of the complacent herd, often judged, rarely cinematically philosophized. As with magnets of the same polarity being pressed together we wanted madly to brush beside each other with such energy forever, the strength of time and space thus showing its limitations through the inevitable allowance for those unseen forces to push us apart to doom us all the more to the alienated loneliness we see in the eyes of those adults who through Peter Panning stupidity have forgotten as if never known how much better we could be if we were to remain in this together through the end. Muschietti being brought on once more to direct Chapter Two is promising, fingers are crossed labor day 2019 finds itself as powerfully memorable as was 2017.