This won’t be a full and proper post, but simply a place for me to scrawl down a few thoughts about Jordan Peele’s latest film NOPE. If you haven’t seen it, while I don’t believe in spoilers, I do think it’s best enjoyed going in with as little knowledge of the film as possible.
Also, the following notes may not make much sense without having seen the film.
If I had to review this film for a traditional outfit, one which required me to suggest whether the layperson should see it, I’m afraid I simply would not be up for the job. While NOPE leans on a lot of modern visual setups, mostly of the Spielbergian kind such as lots of low, center framing with the camera swooping up to them, it is primarily concerned with giving the audience a crash course in early film techniques and process.
As someone who has a dog-eareard Eadweard Muybridge photo study bookmark in my satchel right now, obviously I will respond to this film far differently than most. I simply could not judge this film without taking that facet in mind. Here’s my very lengthy evidence:
“No, please don’t look in the horse’s eyes,” horse trainer OJ says on a film set, just as a technician swivels around a reflective globe, causing the horse to see itself which results in on-set bucking.
Later on in the film, we see the incident that caused a trained chimpanzee to go wild on a 90s TV sitcom set: a group of reflective balloons cause the chimpanzee to see itself. (Some may argue that it was the popping of a balloon, and perhaps; I’d have to see it again, but this feels neater and more intended than a simple balloon pop.) The chimpanzee snaps and a violent spree ensues. As the chimp is coming down, it senses the wide-eyed stare of young sitcom co-star Ricky watching. (The result is a clever almost-fistbumb, mimicking Spielberg’s E.T., but that’s irrelevent here.)
After the first act, OJ, his sister, and a Fry’s Electronics employee are all concerned with catching an alien roaming in the desert sky on camera, hoping it’ll solve all of their financial problems, creating their own camera coverage setup, effectively shaping their own film studio, with the alien as their elusive star player. All they needed were some overpowered spotlights to complete the picture.
The alien starts off as what could be construed as an eye, but it’s designed more like a lens. The sand typhoons viewers see? Dust motes. When we see the audience of Jupiter’s Claim travel through the alien, that’s not just done because it’d be grossly amusing; they’re energy traveling down the lens to ultimately be embedded into the alien. I believe that’s why hear their screams, even after we know they’re long gone.
(Yes, upon re-reading this it makes that sound bonkers, but it works.)
Antlers Holst’s crank-based IMAX camera may seem to be important here as a callback to the days of hand-cranked filmmaking, but it’s the camera reload that is the most important part here. Yes, it heightens the suspense, but it also shows the audience how film cameras work.
There are the white eyes of the inflatable dancing noodles, an absolutely perfect visual that also doubles to underscore the use of reflective light.
As they continue to damage the alien, its form changes, until by the end it appears to be zooming in via bellows, trying to capture the glances it’s finding harder to perceive. (In this case, I believe we’re rolling back to static photography.)
There’s the mimicking of an eye with the well and the flashpot bulbs.
One could make the argument that the use of the Ricky balloon blocks the alien’s sight and that’s its downfall, but I think that might be a reach.
While all of these devices are used to thrilling effect in NOPE, they’re not arbitrary: they serve to 1) showcase the history of early film techniques and 2) underscore how something like an eyes and lens use each other: light bounces off of the iris allowing us to see, while lenses absorb the light, casting it against a rendering surface. (Or: the eye emits, the lens takes in.)
There’s a lot more to unpack from NOPE, from Hollywood’s history of shooting outdoors, before the days of reasonable artificial lighting, to the way they would use portholes with their indoor studios to illuminate them. The way the desert was used by Hollywood in the days of the westerns, for example.
Also, there’s the undeniable aspect of how people of color are often poorly lit in films, poorly portrayed in films, and thus poorly seen in general.
These are all just thoughts from an initial viewing, and I may be incorrectly remembering them, so I reserve the right to tweak this post accordingly after a second viewing! I just had to get it down before my viewing experience faded.