Midsommar and the Problem of Grad School

“We’re not the best people… but we’re not the worst. Grad students are the worst.”

— Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon, 30 Rock

My initial take on Ari Aster’s film Midsommar was much like my reaction to hearing that Thomas Friedman was writing a book called The Flattening (later redubbed The World Is Flat):

No.  Just don’t.  I don’t like where this is going.

Friedman never walked into a bar with a rabbi and a gift horse and tried to make it keep digging in three holes with a mixed metaphor he didn’t like.  The fact that our pornstachioed hero had famously derided critics of globalization as the “flat earth crowd” made this latest literary pirouette even more galling.

Midsommar looked like the same kind of epic train wreck in the making.  All I saw in the trailer was a twenty-first century copy of The Wicker Man.  But, to my surprise, a friend saw it and raved that it was the funniest movie about grad school he’d ever seen. 

A grad school satire that borrows heavily from a horrifying cult classic about cults – it’s got layers.  They say academia is a cult, after all.

I did not see how this was possibly going to work, and maybe it doesn’t.  I wasn’t too bullish on Aster’s breakout film, 2018’s Hereditary, finding its ludicrous Satanic plot to be extremely hard to take seriously.  But it was at least a memorable, noteworthy movie, so I was more than happy to give Midsommar a shot. 

Without going into too much spoiler-y detail, here are the basics: a young woman named Dani has just suffered a major family tragedy (to put it mildly) and tags along on a trip with her dopey, Hamlet-like boyfriend and his Anthropology PhD-bro friends (yes) to Sweden.  They are going to participate in a quirky pagan festival, invited by their tall, aryan, and not-at-all-suspicious friend Pelle.  What ensues is a pageant of horny European folk symbolism and Children of the Corn-style mob fanaticism, with plenty of menstrual blood, corn husks, rabbits, and generalized human sacrifice.

In other words, it’s basically Orientalism for white people – and in that sense, truly a movie of the Trumpian moment. (Behind the veneer of traditionalist wholesomeness, our white friends and neighbors are really just scary sexual freaks.  Who knew?)

The film, then, is very much a reboot of The Wicker Man in plot, visual style, cultural allusions, and general atmospherics.  Interestingly, though, the 1973 film was more a riff on the counterculture of the time, with the villagers of Christopher Lee’s earthy dominion doing a pre-Christian Magical Mystery TourMidsommar is about…. what exactly? 

More than anything, it seems to be an extended joke on the naiveté of Americans in general (Innocents Abroad), and academics in particular.  Dani’s boyfriend Christian is possibly the dumbest PhD candidate in history (which is saying a lot), and his passel of woman-hating friends are the kind of intellectual dude-bros who are way less clever than they think.  They go off on this trip (no pun intended) on the pretense of research, but they really just want to get fucked up and fuck. (Both things happen.)

Magoo-like, the PhD dude-bros pay no attention to their increasingly dire situation as they try to “study” these people and their “fascinating” culture.  In a truly hilarious subplot, Christian (get it?) jockeys with his erstwhile friend Josh (Chidi from The Good Place) about who gets to write their thesis on the Swedish cult that is almost definitely going to kill both of them very soon. 

Your cohort

A few thoughts here: their friend Mark reminds me a lot of the short guy from Workaholics, which is in itself very funny. William Jackson Harper is getting typecast as a clueless academic. And Christian is exactly the sort of person who goes to grad school with no real ideas or passions, and just casts about for a dissertation topic the same way other people channel-surf on a lazy Friday night.  (Maybe I’ll write my diss about…. the history of tables.  Or forced labor in the pomegranate industry. Or murderous pagan fertility cults!)

I always appreciate it when arty directors leaven their portentous works with a bit of humor, and Midsommar more than obliges.  But it’s the academic comedy of manners that I remember more than the horror.  Indeed, as the film careens toward its extremely predictable (but visually striking) conclusion, the scariness of it all is undermined by its artifice and cynicism.  These do not seem remotely like real people, but they do seem like the satirical targets in a David Lodge campus novel. 

Which is fine, really.  Just never go with a hippie to a second location.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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