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A Conflict of Vision

A Conflict of Vision

The response to Poor Things exposes our inability to talk about art that defies ideology.

The meme hit the conservative influencer circuit around the same time Poor Things earned 11 Oscar nominations: “You watched [The Hunger Games, Star Wars, The MatrixDivergent, V for Vendetta] and sided with the resistance. When it’s fiction you understand. Yet you refuse to see it when it’s the reality you’re living in.” It was supposed to be an incursion, taking direct aim at the movies the libs love and calling attention to their hypocrisy. Yet, its novelty largely resulted from the fact that it’s likely the most nuanced piece of cultural critique to come from the mainstream Right beyond the pages of The New Criterion

The problem with the meme is not its central argument, but that it reveals the general lack of curiosity at the heart of a movement that seeks to stoke the flames of the culture. Such a movement displays neither the intellectual curiosity to engage with texts or the demonstrated ability to seek out the breadth of options beyond the blockbusters the Hollywood they build their brand decrying churns out every year with little variation.

Its interventions into cultural critique can’t even be bothered to peruse Alan Moore’s graphic novel or the YA bestsellers on which two of the aforementioned films are based. Like a Religious Right that only expressed concern about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass as atheist propaganda when the movie hit theaters twelve years after the book’s debut, such posturing says more about the precarious intellectual foundations of mainstream conservatism than the objects of its ire. 

When the likes of Ben Shapiro and Jack Posobiec came for Barbie, it was easy to dismiss such ranting as the product of a carefully curated outrage by those who either willfully suppressed their Ivy-honed critical analysis skills for the sake of the algorithms or couldn't grasp that a crowd-pleasing movie could work at two levels. However, this faction of the Right’s response to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things has laid bare the utter shallowness that defines much of its thought. Of course, the now three-month-old film that has earned a steady stream of fans and accolades during its impressively long theatrical run only appeared on most conservative radars when it claimed four Oscars last Sunday, including Emma Stone’s surprise win as Best Actress over Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

As one mid-level conservative blue check wrote: “I tried to watch Poor Things and had to turn it off because why the hell are y’all hyped about a movie that is blatantly normalizing pedophilia?... It’s weird and disgusting. I’m so tired of Hollywood and all of the pedophiles trying to normalize it.” Not to be outdone, Students for Life wrote an inane blog post entitled, “Emma Stone Thanked Her Daughter for “Poor Things” Oscar Win: An Egregious Late-Term Abortion, Pedophilia, and Sexual Abuse Praising Movie,” a piece that serves as an indication that the university's failure to teach critical thinking may be less partisan than we’d like to admit. 

Poor Things is not an ideological litmus test. It is not propaganda. Much to the chagrin of run-of-the-mill lefties who have directed their vitriol at Stone for taking away an award from the first Native American actress who was destined to win or said dunderheaded things about the film’s feminist street cred, it is also a defiantly problematic movie much more concerned with examining contradictions than any sort of ideological cohesion. In short, it’s the type of unadulterated art for which neither faction of hyper partisans has a framework to discuss, much less enjoy. That’s also why it’s the best film of last year. 

One could characterize Poor Things as a riff on Frankenstein charting the journey of Bella Baxter (Stone), a reanimated woman who tries to make sense of polite society when a scarred mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) brings her back to life with the brain of her unborn child (a quite apt allegory about the abortion debate’s nuance and ethical underpinnings if there ever were one). However, such would be a gross oversimplification. Adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 satirical novel, Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D., Scottish Public Health Officer, the film leans into its Neo-Victorian literary pedigree, creating a portrait of Europe equal parts Steampunk and early silent cinema. 

For a Scot like Gray, the Neo-Victorian novel has long served as a strategy to reconcile the fall of the British Empire from a subordinate perspective steeped in the literary form that most explicitly represented England’s cultural reach–a way for the Scottish, Irish, Australian, Indian, etc. subjects to reinsert themselves into imperial narratives while maintaining a keen sense of ambivalence more concerned with calling attention to ideological fissures than making the type of rudimentary and grandiose political statements that have marked Poor Things’s reception in the Twittersphere.

As a Greek director working in a global film industry, Lanthimos has long toyed with structures of Empires past and present, whether in his examination of his native land's families from the higher echelons in Dogtooth, the overarching nanny state in The Lobster, or the English Court in his previous Stone collaboration, The Favourite. In adapting Poor Things, he borrows equally from the literature of each stage of Britain’s ascendancy not merely Shelley’s Gothic Romanticism and the Brontë’s depictions of Victorian womanhood but also bawdy picaresques like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Smollett’s Humphry Clinker as well as the novels of female confinement most fully realized in Richardson’s Clarrissa that remain highlights of the Restoration lit canon. Given the leveled literary history on full display in Poor Things, the same conservatives who mourn the shift away from the classics while calling out the film for its puerile treatment of sex and violence appear curious.

Likewise, Lanthimos is far more concerned with breaking down the sanitized barriers of history and uncomplicated politics than making some type of bland feminist statement tailored to directly appease the culture class and ignite its most vocal enemies. Poor Things is beyond understanding because it’s about the impossibility of understanding. It’s a film best left experienced, not diluted by the superficial plot summaries of a review form ill-equipped to discuss its full impact. Thanks to Stone’s undying and Oscar-worthy commitment, it also manages to be one of the few films in recent memory that earns the mantle of provocative in every sense of the word. And, we need more work like it if only to topple the cultural hierarchy and upset the clout chasers who leave no room for anything but their own bloviations. 

Poor Things is now playing in theaters and available on premium VOD.