After a moment of silence for Kameron’s holiday apple pie—may it have gone to its resting place knowing it was well-loved—I want to thank him and Mark for reminding us that the construct of the year in movies is nothing more that. The week in which we’re writing may be the last brief window in which these particular, disparate films—Dunkirk and Lady Bird and Beach Rats and Mudbound and Thor: Ragnarok—can legitimately be assembled into patterns for the sake of interpretation, expected in some way to account for themselves or tell us something about the time in which they were made. Really all of them, like all of us, are caught up in the storm of history, trying to make sense of the present as it becomes the past. It’s a strange pursuit, as arbitrary as reading tea leaves, but at least it brings us together over a hot cup of tea.
I’ve spent the past few months researching another tumultuous year, 1917, in which the U.S. made a radical policy turnaround in entering the first World War, Russia overthrew a czar and installed the world’s first communist government, and the 22-year-old medium of the movies entered its early adulthood. According to a long-standing film-history periodization that—#yesallperiodizations—is contested and contestable, this year marks the centenary of the birth of the “classical Hollywood” style, with a set of agreed-upon conventions including continuity editing, crosscutting between parallel events unfolding at the same time, the use of close-ups to express a character’s state of mind, etc. None of these developments were commented on at the time. (“Hey, as of this year, let’s go with the 180-degree rule!”) No one at the end of 1917 was debating whether the directing debut of John Ford or the first appearance of Vittorio de Sica augured longer careers to come (in fact, both would be making films for the next five-plus decades) or weighing the industry impact of Mary Pickford’s box-office smash Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or (to the point of my own research) speculating about the future of slapstick star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s new sidekick, a vaudeville refugee named Buster Keaton.
So the question is, what perceptual habits and patterns of consumption are we now acquiring that will be discernible and nameable only to observers a century from now? (That’s assuming there will be observers and a culture to observe. I am continuing to type even though my fingers have just gone cold and numb.) I wish I could say this question was neat to ponder in an abstract sci-fi way, but the near future for film looks kind of dystopian, at least as we have traditionally understood the medium. The movie industry is struggling. Theaters are begging audiences to come back with pricey amenities (big comfy seats, food and beverages, reserved spots) while most viewers, when asked, only request better movies and less expensive tickets. Now that streaming media and digital devices have made every subway ride the potential equivalent of a 1917 trip to the Rialto—without the preceding comedy short or the velvet curtain, sure, but you can carry a movie in your pocket—it’s easy to see that, whether the needle ticks up or down on box-office sales in 2018, our relationship to the movie theater as a social space has changed for good. The future of movies remains wide open; the term movie itself—which 100 years ago was still close to its origin in the wonder that, by God, those pictures moved—may soon become antiquated as the distinction between different viewing platforms breaks down. At least that will put an end to the critical bickering about whether Twin Peaks: The Return was a movie or a TV show.
And the digital space that’s replacing that classical Hollywood system is feeling less and less commonly shared as the internet moves from the Wild West John Ford openness of its early years into some unknowable but almost certainly more expensive future. There are countless entertainment and tech companies eager for our attention, skilled at grabbing (if not keeping) it and even more skilled at finding government-approved ways to commodify it and send us the bill. One of you throw me a utopic bone here. What might be the possibilities for a future of shared viewing—shared in a sense expansive enough to include virtual communities—that allows for some common experience not capturable by algorithmic sorting?
In a way, that distinction between classical-era theatrical viewing and 21st-century digital dispersion leads right into the discussion about the two endings of Get Out that I’ve been waiting to have since the unreleased one went online back in the spring, along with the release of the Get Out DVD. (Major spoilers to follow, so watch both of the endings first if you haven’t seen them.) In the ending shown in theaters, Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris, having barely escaped from multiple murder attempts on the part of his white girlfriend’s evil black body–snatching family, is rescued by his buddy Rod (played by Lil Rel Howery in one of those miraculous supporting performances that’s minimal in terms of screen time but crucial to both plot and tone). As Peele has observed in discussing the ending, “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the audience go crazy when Rod shows up.” And it’s true—the image of the two men driving away from the site of all that violence and horror, suddenly, impossibly free in the airport security car that Rod, a proud TSA agent, has commandeered, makes for an ending as exhilarating, and as fantastical, as the golden elevator that breaks through the factory ceiling and flies over the city in the last scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In the alternate version, it’s the cops themselves who arrive to find Chris on the ground next to a dead man and an injured woman, and the next time we see Chris and Rod, they’re talking on a prison phone separated by a plate of soundproof glass.
Watching both endings in a row months later, I’m not sure I can say I prefer the unreleased one—it’s horrifically sad, albeit more truthful to our lived reality, to envision a future where the innocent Chris simply rots away in jail after everything he’s lived through at the Armitages’ soul-stealing compound. And I wouldn’t want to deny any audience the joyful twist of Rod’s surprise appearance or the glint of hope it gives that maybe there is a way to “get out,” if not intact, then at least alive. But I do remember, on first seeing and loving the movie in the theater, a sense of incompleteness about the ending, a feeling that the weight of what had come before was not quite counterbalanced by the giddy release of that final scene. And in the unscreened ending, when Chris, behind the prison glass, tells his friend, “I’m good. I ended it,” there’s a dark glimmer of hope there too. If nothing else, the alternate version gives Kaluuya and Howery one more good scene to play together, a moment when the comic register in which most of their friendship has played out gives way to a beautifully acted quiet moment of shared pain (and a check-in that Sid, Chris’ beloved dog, is doing OK).
Because of the internet, both endings now exist in easily circulated form, neither necessarily more canonical than the other. Jordan Peele’s much-quoted comment that “Get Out is a documentary” was a good joke about genre, in addition to being a bitterly truthful joke about racism in America. Get Out’s story was about the violence embedded in the self-deceiving notion that our country has “transcended” race. But his movie transcended genre in the best sense: It was comedy, horror, sci-fi, and social allegory all at once, which is what made it so funny, scary, and urgent. I guess it’s only fitting that a movie with that many movies inside it should live on in two separate, tonally distinct versions, a Schrödinger’s cat of a film that changes its meaning every time you look.