Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Midsommar: Excessive Collectivism and the Death of the Individual

Still from the movie with white-clad men and women in a field
Ari Aster’s Midsommar not only estranged many viewers due to its unsettling tone and uncomfortable and disconcerting content and themes, but it also provided a wide-open blank canvas for different potential interpretations. As a movie, it has a mishmash of various elements and possible influences ranging from the exploitative horror flick and subsequent franchise Hostel to the classic The Wicker Man (including its awful 2006 remake in which - if memory serves me right - a disoriented and utterly confused Nicholas Cage in a bear costume was being chased by various maidens) to an additional whiff of Shyamalan’s rather unjustly maligned The Village.

And, of course, we cannot talk about Swedish cinema without recurring to and being reminded of Ingmar Bergman, in a similar way, that Fellini has shaped our general concept and conception of Italy. But this post is not so much about filmmaking but rather what on Earth filmmaker Ari Aster is trying to say with his piece (if he indeed has anything to say at all).

Nowadays, since the wound is still afresh and a-beating, we cannot ignore the elephant in the cinematic room, the pandemic, and its psychological, social, and political repercussions. For instance, the depressing downer The Banshees of Inisherin is somewhat justified under the circumstances, that is, if seen under the banner of the collective madness that has held the whole world in its wild grip leading to irrational actions and often shocking unexpected behaviors from our neighbors and fellow beings.

Not to mention many a star has fallen from the domes of the sky and been dropped or pushed from the pedestal due to their (apparently?) inappropriate words or actions. Relationships have broken apart, families have gone astray, and friendships have abruptly ended, sometimes inexplicably and sometimes justifiably so. The pandemic has been a punch to the gut for many on all possible levels and it has managed to expose many failings and weaknesses both on a macroscopic (globally, nationally, socially) as well as microscopic (local, personal, psychological, and individual) level.

Midsommar starts right in the midst of a cracked and cracking romantic relationship and loads it with an extra heaping of angst, dread, and lingering anxiety. Dani, the female protagonist, and future May Queen (though neither she nor we know this yet) is confronted with emotional trauma from her bipolar sister while encountering a general lack of support and understanding from her boyfriend underscored by her own personal demons that she is not able to shake off or get rid of and which end up taking over.

Some have read and interpreted the movie as our need for social support and belonging, which is only increased due to a lack of community. There is also an undercurrent of emotional dependency and neediness on Dani’s part as she relies rather too heavily on others instead of taking a personal stand and facing and confronting her trauma upfront and in a direct manner.

All of this is certainly true but what struck me was how cults tend to thrive under these specific circumstances. It is as if we all had that ceremonial tea that manages to break down our defenses making us vulnerable to harmful and toxic substances and viruses (not only the ones that affect our bodies but also - and perhaps more pronouncedly - the mental, emotional, and spiritual ones). 

Dani is vulnerable, and since she lacks will, independence, and determination, it comes as no surprise that she falls for the cult. But the same can be said about her macho friends who play it tough and claim to be in control of the situation but are also eaten up by unacknowledged anxiety and insecurities. Neither one of them manages to escape, but what’s even worse, no one even tries to stop these atrocities from being committed in front of their eyes, let alone attempt to change sickening and stomach-turning actions undertaken under the name of religion, culture, and tradition – have your pick.

This is where the movie has much to show and teach us as it shoves a mirror right in front of our faces and under our noses. As we speak, we have become a place where we are afraid of speaking up because we are afraid of being seen as “disrespectful” toward other people’s cultures and ethnicities.

Ethnocentrism is held up as the original sin and no matter how depraved other cultures may act, we are currently wary of criticizing them so as not to potentially appear racist. The ancient Nordic tradition presented here is disregarding and disrespectful of basic human rights and decency but at one point the American visitors are brushing off suicide rituals as simply and irrevocably part of ancient idiosyncratic culture and tradition and believe that it is they who must “acclimate” to this. An awkward and unwarranted comparison or “justification” was made to our own brand of ageism in which we merely send off our elders to retirement homes.

In a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, they do not want to see or accept that the apparently idyllic world around them is absolutely insane and batshit crazy; in fact, in the eyes of the guests and visitors, it gradually becomes normalized and even accepted! In fear of hurting the feelings of the community while also being dragged and bogged down by their own doubts, insecurities, and lack of confidence – and most likely also for the purposes of self-preservation and protection - they go along and say nothing even when the lines have been crossed, and then some.

In a sense and various ways, it reminded me of the Zimbardo prison experiment, which to my knowledge is the closest we have in terms of studies demonstrating and exposing the underlying psychological dynamics and dimensions of a growing cult. Every participant in the study, including staff and the researcher himself, gradually but quite quickly became so entrenched in a cult-like mentality that if left alone, it could have had even more dire and devastating consequences for everyone involved.

All the supposed prisoners become “acclimated” to the growing abuse perpetrated by the “prison guards” just like the analogy of the frog in boiling water. And yet, this was a supervised experiment that was undertaken not out of malice but out of scientific curiosity. So much worse are the circumstances when people are blindly following a tradition or are willfully misleading and manipulating fragile and vulnerable people as narcissistic leaders are wont to do.

Today, as we tend to view and re-evaluate the many exploits of capitalism while also being at the same time envious of and deaf and blind to its various successes, traditional Western cultures and their worldviews are under constant attack. Not all of it is unjustified of course but, in their eagerness and zealousness, people are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Individualism and property rights, part and parcel of the capitalist outlook, are not necessarily evil, vicious, or harmful, but rather it comes down to how it is used and manifested. Freedom of expression is of course essential, but it has its limits and constraints since individual freedom and social responsibility need to go hand in hand or be the two sides of the same coin to work effectively and for the benefit of all, and not just become an expression and supposed justification and mask of self-indulgence.

Yet the real nightmare is a world that is run by extreme collectivism, which is akin to and a close cousin of fascism. Stalin and Hitler were dictators who had no regard for human life, and yet they stood on polar opposites in terms of their political beliefs and ideologies. When we assign more blame to one or the other side of the political spectrum, we are ignoring the millions of innocent people who have lost their lives because of these two unscrupulous totalitarian beings.

In the imaginary world of Harga, the elders seem to be the ones that are running the show, at least at first glance. But then, we realize that there is an age limit stipulated to their lives and after which they must ceremoniously jump off a cliff and unceremoniously die in front of everyone else, sometimes even with a “little help” from their “friendly” community.

Moreover, they refer to the scriptures passed on from their ancestors, but it is said that these are not complete yet and shall be completed by those with physical and mental challenges, or to use the more commonly accepted and familiar jargon of today, one that is neurodiverse in nature. These individuals - purposely and intentionally brought into the world via inbreeding as a deliberate product and measure - are allegedly untainted, unencumbered, unclouded, and free from “normal cognition”! In other words, they are deemed superior in their thinking and their understanding of the world and of life in general. It is one thing to treat people with specific incapacities and perceived limitations with respect and dignity, it is yet another to see them as role models to follow.

But what is the most frightening thing is the killing off of the individual. In a collectivistic society, the individual not only loses their rights but also their idiosyncratic essence. Everyone is treated the same and is expected to think and act alike and in unison. No dissent or breaking of written and unwritten rules or regulations will be tolerated. If they did so, they would be banned from the commune, today’s equivalent of being dropped from social platforms, losing their jobs, or being shunned by the local and global community. Anything or anyone that does not fit these limited norms is seen as a potential threat and is hence canceled or eliminated. 

Yet in this awful society of Harga, even the most intimate aspects of life are taken away and are engulfed and swallowed whole by the community. There is no privacy to speak of as everything is done in, with, and within the community. The sexual act becomes a showpiece and is ritualistically and vicariously performed in front of the naked community. Even expressions of grief and sorrow, the most personal space within us that we have the option of either holding onto or sharing with others becomes commonplace and a shared commodity and this negates all personal feelings and dimensions. Everyone starts shouting in delight and/or pain, which in turn denigrates the authentic individual feeling and dilutes it with a monstrous, brutal, and sterile takeover of the entire community.

Everything is shared and nothing whatsoever belongs to the individual anymore. In such a world, it takes a community to raise a family, while property (including people, children, and spouses) is shared by each and every one. And such a world is horrendous and atrocious in many aspects. We ought to be aware, mindful, and cautious not to become victims or trapped in such a place, a living hell that squashes human rights, dignity, and individual freedom and liberty in the name of a so-called rural and traditional community or religious doctrines and traditions.