When Meaningful Cinema Is Entertaining

By  · Published on March 30th, 2017

‘Wild Tales’ and ‘Get Out’ prove entertainment and depth are not mutually exclusive.

“I am altogether opposed to popular entertainment,” says Jean Cocteau, “because I consider that all good entertainment is popular.” The filmmaker and poet continues by describing how “film expresses something other than what it is, something that no one can predict. In any event, the measure of love with which it is charged will affect the masses more than any subtle and witty concoction.” Whilst there is an over saturation of images in 21st century culture (be that through small-screen phones or widescreen televisions) that leaves viewers familiar with repeated tropes and narrative devices, it’s easy to forget that cinema created to entertain the viewer can still have artistic depth. Rather than being about itself, or l’art pour l’art to use Théophile Gautier’s 19th century phrase, films intended to entertain can only exist with a mass audience. As Cocteau writes, “a mass audience is without preconceptions. It never forms a judgement based on an author or the actors. It believes in them. This is the childhood audience – and the best.”

This existence with the audience rather than separation from them emphasizes the skill needed in creating cinema of entertainment; the filmmaker has to combine beauty and art with commerce and breadth. And it’s Damián Szifrón’s 2014 comedy/thriller Wild Tales, Argentina’s most successful film to date, that encapsulates film’s ability to entertain its audience while still being a work of art that holds depth and beauty. Along with this is another, more complex tale of revenge, that’s found in Jordan Peele’s recent horror Get Out.

Focused on revenge and revenge only, Wild Tales is a series of six short segments that explores the many different forms revenge comes in. The first and opening segment of the film, titled “Pasternak,” acts almost as an example as to how the film’s comedy will work. Following a woman, who later turns out to be a model, onto a plane and finding out two of her passengers are connected to her ex-boyfriend, the viewers’ suspension of disbelief is subtly brought into focus. Yet, as more and more of the flight’s passengers reveal they knew Pasternak – which results in everyone, including the air hostess, declaring their relation to him – this suspension of disbelief is dramatized and heightened. From here on, the viewer knows what to expect; exaggerated reality.

What follows this opening segment are sequences titled “Las Ratas” (The Rats), “El Más Fuerte” (The Strongest), “Bombita” (Little Bomb), “La Propuesta” (The Proposal), and “Hasta Que La Muerte Nos Separe” (’Til Death Do Us Part). In one, a woman poisons a man with rat poison; however, instead of being concerned about the consequences of her criminal actions, she’s more distracted by whether expired rat poison is more or less harmful to humans. In another segment, viewers see a victim of a corrupt towing company and government go from being a disgruntled middle-aged man to a hero known as “Dynamite.” While these stories may sound silly – and Szifrón accepts that they are, portraying each tale with confidence in the slapstick-esque portraits of his characters – they are also examinations into the different ways humans interpret and use revenge for themselves. After all, Wild Tales is a black comedy, emphasizing the portrayal of reality through its humor.

For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw has described the Roald Dahl-like sense Szifrón’s ‘gripping nightmares’ have, relocating Szifrón’s stories and his audience back into the world of childhood; there’s lessons to be learned from each ‘wild tale,’ but each lesson is established as if through a fairytale or a dream rather than a lecture.

It’s not just in Szifrón’s story where the depth of his entertainment comes from, however, with the filmmaker’s technical mastery emphasizing the thought put into each sequence. There’s the Hitchcockian feel to each segment, with Szifrón often adhering to the director’s bomb under the table theory both literally and metaphorically (something Get Out’s director also does successfully). Meanwhile, Wild Tales’ cinematographer Javier Julia has discussed the thought put into the aesthetic style of each tale, noting “we [Julia and Szifrón] talked about shooting each segment differently: in black and white, then in 35mm with anamorphic lenses, then video cameras for the final wedding segment,” while Szifrón instead thought “that would be distracting, disconnecting. […] I wanted it to be one dreamlike experience for the audience.”

Similarly, Get Out’s cinematographer Toby Oliver wanted this dreamlike experience – of the audience’s ability to get lost in the world of cinema – to translate into Peele’s horror film too. In an interview with our Ciara Wardlow, Oliver says “most of the movie should feel really grounded in a reality that suggests a real world rather than a heightened, horror movie kind of visual experience… to make sure that it feels very grounded for the main character, Chris.” It’s clear that the thought of entertainment is on the minds of both Get Out’s production as well as Wild Tales’. The “dreamlike experience” created through each films’ cinematography enables the audience to return to what Cocteau called the “childhood audience.” On a surface level these films are fun, but beneath their appeal lies important messages.

There’s also a Shakespearean technique at play in Szifrón’s film, too, with each segment feeling as though it is told through the perspective of the fool. However, like how Shakespeare often used the fool, Szifrón uses this archetypal character in order to make social commentary easily digestible for his audience. Szifrón’s film, then, is not simply about revenge, but also about, for example, the corruption of the government or the privilege of the wealthy. This results in the final segment at a wedding party, what Szifrón establishes as a type of storytelling where a tension “begins and has to come out. You have to release it.”

In a similar way to Szifrón’s use of the fool in each of his segments, Peele uses the horror genre in order to discuss racism while still creating “popcorn entertainment.” “As with comedy, I feel like horror and the thriller genre is a way, one of the few ways, that we can address real life horrors and social injustices in an entertaining way,” says Peele in an interview with Forbes. He continues, “we go to the theater to be entertained, but if what is left after you watch the movie is a sort of eye-opening perspective on some social issues, then it can be a really powerful piece of art.” And for The New York Times Peele says, “the best comedy and horror feel like they take place in reality. You have a rule or two you are bending or heightening, but the world around it is real.” From Peele’s use of intense and what feels slightly distorted close-ups on the faces of the Armitage’s black servants to the warm, inviting glow that almost suffocates Daniel Kaluuya’s character Chris, the director achieves his aim in making what he has called a “social thriller.”

Notably, both films do not want to distance their viewers by transporting them to unfamiliar territory. In Wild Tales, the furthest we are taken out of reality is through the exaggerated and heightened personality of its most memorable characters. In Get Out, however, Peele opts for a more poetic kind of experience with his visualization of an Other world, the Sunken Place. With Kaluuya’s Chris metaphorically pushed into a void that comes to mirror the audience and the viewer when watching through a screen, the Sunken Place is visually a whole new world for Get Out. The way in which Peele not just makes this place look like a cross between the depths of the ocean as well as space, but feel like it too, reflects on the immersion of the audience.

However, the Sunken Place is also the most familiar place for Chris. Not only does it reflect a childhood memory, but it’s a representation for the true horror that the film is portraying: extreme and elite liberals that see themselves as so progressive that they refuse to acknowledge their racism, believing they live in a post-racism world. Viewers never see or hear of any white people having been sent to the Sunken Place, yet viewers hold the knowledge that Walter, Georgina and Logan have each been there. The voyeurism and paralyzation of the Sunken place – the inability to do anything, or the fear of inaction itself – becomes a visual conceit for what Ivie Ani describes as Jordan’s use of “Chris’s interaction with white people to delve into how black people can be paralyzed by fear as we maneuver through racism.”

Like the episodic nature of Wild Tales allows the film’s many forms of revenge to build upon themselves in order to create entertaining, short series of commentaries on real life, it’s clear that Get Out, with its reliance on the luring in of its audience, needed to be in the horror/thriller genre in order to work. By both Wild Tales’ and Get Out’s ending, the directors’ messages are clear: it’s humans who audiences should be afraid of. This cinema of entertainment, then, turns into a mirror into which audiences can reflect.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.