I ran into someone with a book about Chinese folktales wrapped in a Barnes & Noble plastic bag in the elevator, and having just watched Ari Aster talk about folk horror components in his film “Midsommar,” I asked what she thought about him. I fell into the Ari Aster trap.
What is the Ari Aster trap? The trap that the man with the most adorable profile picture on Twitter I’ve ever seen sets? He makes us think about things for days. He tells stories that sit in the human conscience months after we’ve seen them. I’ve taken to showing his films to my father so he will shrug at the plots — an attempt to rid my brain of them.
The recurring, never-ending flashes from his shorts and feature films have a consistent theme of warped familial relationships. Anyone who feels they have a stable family ultimately will second guess those relationships as Aster plants an idea of what can happen within a family, an idea that most people’s deepest, darkest anxieties have not even shown them — that is, until Aster has slapped you with a new fear. For example: the grotesque interpretation of a father-son relationship in “The Strange Things About the Johnsons”; “Munchhausen” depicting a mother poisoning her son; or tragedy striking in both “Midsommar” and “Hereditary.”
Along with traumatic familial situations, he presents unimaginable grief as independent from the plot that is actively guiding the story along. As a viewer, the traumatic events occur early on, so you are forced to sit with the shock of it the entire movie — along with the ongoing action of the plot that will likely keep your jaw dropped for some time. Allowing the viewer to sit and fester the entire length of the short or movie ensures a constant rethinking and reanalyzing, over and over (and over) again, after watching … Until you go back for another watch.
The viewer can see a clear development of these ideas from the short to the feature-length film. Keeping his shorts accessible on YouTube unlike some of his noteworthy predecessors — looking at you, Scorsese, burying yours — he lets us viewers in on the process of making movies and processing a voice. His shorts also show how he uses tropes and genre to set up a plot quickly while choosing to divert, juxtapose or follow through on expectations.
Speaking of genre, Aster has a mastery of genre and an ability to manipulate it from character to character. Take his most critically-acclaimed film, “Midsommar,” which has a majority of the characters experiencing a folk-horror or cult-horror movie while the main character, Dani, experiences a drama involving choice and grief. A similar thing happens in “Hereditary.” Aster’s command over genre in order to portray a full story in a short amount of time is seen in his feature-length films through his ability to show the trauma that efficiently builds a character’s development.
Aster moves beyond horror as a genre to instead attach fear to feelings such as grief and pain. He does all of this while talking about the process — and while producing art that fulfills the bits of us that crave pretentiousness without ever coming off as egotistical or overly masculine.