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Newsletter | In Nope, Jordan Peele Weaponises Our Curiosity Against Us

Newsletter | In Nope, Jordan Peele Weaponises Our Curiosity Against Us
With Nope, Jordan Peele continues to reshape the language of horror

Last Updated: 12.15 AM, Mar 10, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on August 28, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


CHOOSING TO look or overlook is a question of life and death in horror movies. Those who go seeking the truth tend to regret finding it. But we can’t help ourselves, can we? When there’s a noise in the basement, the urge is to look for the source. When there’s a traffic collision, the urge is to get a quick peek through the tiny cracks between the crowd gathered around the wreckage. When there’s news of a tragedy, the urge is to keep switching channels or doomscrolling till we find the most gruesome account reporting the highest body count. Why the urge? Partly the feeling of safety in knowledge. Partly morbid curiosity.

Jordan Peele weaponises our curiosity against us in his new fright fest Nope. The title says it all. It is a simple interjection of refusal available in the arsenal for any horror movie character thinking of: spending a weekend at a cabin in the woods, visiting a haunted house, opening a door they shouldn’t, opening a book they shouldn’t, or even answering the phone. Edgar Wright’s fake trailer “Don’t” had the same idea. The problem is, the deterrent only reinforces the urge.

In Nope, a brother-sister pair of horse wranglers, a tech surveillance expert, and a documentary cinematographer come together to capture the money shot of a flying saucer fiercely opposed to the idea of being looked at. Those with the misfortune of meeting its gaze get pulled into its mouth shaped like the aperture of a camera. Peele’s film serves as a two-way mirror laying bare how the act of observing changes the observed and the observer.

The sky in Nope, like the sea in Jaws, is home to an enigma with a tendency to appear out of nowhere. The enigma, dubbed Jean Jacket, takes cover behind clouds during the day and comes out to play at night. By only teasing brief glimpses in the first half, Peele lets the suspense brew with spooked horses and power disruptions. So, when we see Jean in all its terrifying majesty in the second, we share the characters’ look of awestruck rapture, mouths half-open in the shape of a saucer. It is the Spielberg face tilted more upwards, as merits an all-consuming spectacle.

Being a meta-meditation on spectacle, Nope emphasises the desire to look in the same way Rear Window did. Peele, of course, renews Hitchcock’s ideas to befit a time where image making has never been more democratised. The desire to capture a disaster-in-waiting on film is stronger than the instinct to make a run for it because it makes for a spectacle that can be monetised. Given the ubiquity of camera phones, all one needs is to be is at the right time and the right place to own a piece of their own spectacle. No matter the scale of the tragedy, there is always a crowd of bystanders waiting to capture it. For money. For clicks. For retweets. For likes. All feeding into our image-saturated culture.

The idea that we can’t grapple with reality unless we point a camera at it makes Guy Debord’s theses in The Society of the Spectacle all the more prescient. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles,” Debord wrote. “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.”

The idea of spectacle, from creation to commodification to consumption, recurs throughout the film. When a character wonders if there’s a word for a “bad miracle,” Peele seems to whisper: “spectacle.” The Old Testament verse Nahum 3:6 that opens the film — “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle” — foreshadows the spectacle to come, just as Jeremiah 11:11 did in Us.

Otis Jr “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) are struggling to keep their family-run business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses Ranch, afloat in the wake of their father’s death. Green screen and computer-generated images have rendered the need for horses and horse wranglers just about obsolete. So, OJ has been selling off the horses one by one to a nearby Western theme park run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun).

Well before he became a theme park owner, Jupe used to be a child actor who survived a traumatic incident on the set of a ‘90s sitcom when his chimp co-star Gordy went on a murderous rampage. The scarring memories from that day now exist as a spectacle — of paintings, memorabilia and an upright shoe — in a museum hidden inside his office. Through Jupe’s “bad miracle,” Peele builds on the idea of how we have come to process even tragedy as spectacle.

The chimp Gordy went feral because it didn’t want to be wrangled or made a spectacle of. The horse Lucky rears up and nearly kicks a crew member on set because it didn’t want to be wrangled or made a spectacle of. The same goes for the flying saucer Jean Jacket. It’s when OJ discovers Jean is really an extra-terrestrial animal, not a ship, that he realises the chink in its armour: if you don’t look it in the eye, it won’t get you.

In the efforts to get the “Oprah shot” of Jean Jacket, OJ and EM enlist the help of two others: tech guy Angel (Brandon Perea), who knows his way around surveillance cameras, and ace cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who comes with a hand-cranked celluloid camera seeing as the UFO drains all batteries and causes all sorts of electronic interferences. When the four put their grand plan into action at the risk of being swallowed up with their ambitions, the on-ground practical effects spectacle is elevated into a heroic act of defiance against a CGI entity.

By completing a horror trifecta, Peele has reached a point where the last of the sceptics may finally be convinced he is a modern master and few of the early believers may now think it’s fashionable to pan him. There is no denying he belongs to a rare group of modern filmmakers reshaping the language of horror. What puts him in the vanguard is that his perspective brings a revelatory new dimension to horror movies and the depiction of Black people in them.

Get Out reimagined 'Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?' as a horror movie where the bogeyman was white liberal racism. Us was a doppelganger nightmare about the unpleasant histories and collective traumas we bury away so we can live our lives of privilege. Nope continues the fight for Black legacy while redefining the alien invasion movie and the larger sci-fi genre in a manner not seen since Arrival, and Under the Skin before that. By putting ranchers and a UFO in conflict, Peele taps into two rich veins of American frontier mythology. Westerns look to the past. Sci-fi looks to the future. But both are rooted in our desire to explore what lies beyond the horizon.

There is also a nerdy sense of history in Peele’s films, full of trivia ready-made for Reddit and pub quizzes. For instance, the Haywoods claim to be the descendants of the Black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,” a series of six cabinet cards often regarded as the first motion picture (and GIF). While history remembers the name of the white English photographer, it doesn’t of the Black jockey. Peele adds this fictional character detail to expose how Black talent has been marginalised by the film industry since its very beginnings.

For a film that functions as a critique of spectacle, Nope also celebrates the form — and how. Clive Barker once suggested “story” is secondary to “spectacle” in horror movies for the same reason why we remember the monsters but not the names of the human protagonists that ultimately prevail against them. ”I say ‘spectacle’ rather than ‘story’ because in the end it isn’t the intricacies of narrative that draw us to horror films,” he wrote. “I am here for The Other. I am here for whatever form of monstrousness or freakishness the filmmakers can provide, be it Blob, Thing, Werewolf, Vampire, Alien, Zombie, Patchwork Corpse Animated by Lightning, etc…It’s a confrontation, in the end, with something we’re half-afraid to see, and half-afraid not to see.”

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