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Get Out, Jordan Peele (2016) & Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986)

Warning for minor spoiler alerts below.

There’s a particular type of scene that often appears in movies, where the protagonist, who has witnessed or suspects something absolutely unbelievable, goes to “the authorities” in one form or another, to tell her/his story, seeking assistance or solace. It would be fun to put together a montage of these scenes. Having seen what the protagonist has seen, we know she’s telling the truth. But usually, the jaded cop/teacher/counselor/parent/adult on the other side of the desk is deeply skeptical.

The tension in such scenes arises from the question of whether the powers that be (a.k.a. the system, the man, the patriarchy, the hegemony, the superstructure, political society, what have you) are going to help or hinder the protagonist’s struggle toward life, liberty, happiness, success, etc. Or will this particular movie instead propose a world where the detective says, that’s ridiculous, get out of my office, and the protagonist gets no help from the very institutions that supposedly exist precisely to help citizens in need.

Jordan Peele sets up a scene like this in the marvelously disorienting Get Out. The protagonist is in grave danger. His best friend has come to an outrageous, ridiculous, and entirely correct theory concerning the nature of that danger. He goes to the police, and relates his story: He believes liberal upper-middle-class white people in the suburbs are kidnapping and brainwashing black people from the city to take control of their bodies. The black female detective listens intently. There’s a pause. She goes and gets some colleagues and has the guy tell the story again. All three cops, all black, stare at the guy for another beat. Then, predictably, they burst out laughing and throw him out. But for just a second, I thought they were going to say, “Yes, that seems entirely plausible. Let’s go investigate.” That would have been funnier, and also way grimmer. Because Get Out’s power and pleasure derive from its constant flirtations with opposites and inversions: what’s unbelievable is probable, what’s absurd is reasonable, what’s comic is tragic. And black people are always ready to entertain the possibility that white people are up to insane stuff.

I’ve enjoyed Key and Peele’s TV show, but this movie is on another level altogether. Watching it, I kept thinking of Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” Not only do characters in this movie wear the mask, and in a sense find themselves forced to wear other masks; the movie itself keeps changing its masks so rapidly, we can never really feel sure of the expression or tone that lies beneath what we’re seeing and hearing. Many scenes seem both funny and horrifying, and in the theater, I many times heard laughter at moments that seemed to me heartbreaking. I’ve never really seen anything like this before. I would describe it as a work of social commentary, but the commentary is so ironic, complex, and self-reflexive, figuring out its “message” is like making your way through a hall of mirrors.

I just so happened last week to catch David Lynch’s Blue Velvet on TV, after not seeing it in decades, and it’s maybe an interesting double-feature with Get Out, actually. Here too a guileless and handsome young male protagonist. Here too he has some set ideas about iniquity, but little substantive experience with it. Here too he discovers that the world he thought he had a reasonable understanding of, the world he thought was not necessarily fair but was at least reasonably stable and predictable, is in fact a thin veneer beneath which teems extraordinary chaos, violence, hatred, greed, perversion, and fear. The Get Out protagonist leaves the safety of downtown and almost dies in the suburbs; the Blue Velvet protagonist leaves the safety of the suburbs and almost dies downtown. Indeed if I was going to write a full comparison and contrast essay for EN 101, I’d probably start with how the two films end, with the Get Out survivors hightailing it back downtown, and the Blue Velvet survivors doubling down in the suburbs with sandwiches and lemonade. “Now it’s dark,” says Dennis Hopper, and truer words were never spoken. But which darkness is darkest? Hard to know for sure, but I think we usually believe it to be other one.

Wow, there’s so much more to say about both these movies; no time to do it.