TIFF 2017: For all the monkeying around, Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! from 2015 has given us a mirror – and we may not like what we see!
You won’t need to read between the lines with Steve Oram’s Aaaaaaaah! (2015) because there aren’t any. Stripped of words, the film leaves us with naked humanity, warts and all, with no verbiage to paper it all over with the veneer of civility.
Any poststructuralist worth her salt will tell you: it’s not so much what people say as what they don’t say. Forget all the noise and pay close attention to the silences. The opaque dialogue of Aaaaaaaah! focuses our attention on all that is left unspoken. Thus revealed is a human (or monkey) drama played out to our collective disgust and dismay. This is how it should be; we are meant to find it extreme. Regrettably the film is extreme enough to have driven some punters to the ultimate ‘theatrical’ cliché of walking out in disgust. The beauty of Oram’s work is nevertheless that it’s actually more dismal than disgusting, and dismal in a good way. Bear with me on this one…
At the heart of Aaaaaaaah! is a sense that the deverbalisation employed does not really dehumanise the characters, but rather brings their innate apelike qualities into sharper relief. Humanity per se is more wishful thinking than reality and, generally speaking, we’re not quite making it. More likely, we’re faking it. Indeed, we tend to laugh at these ‘monkeys’ to relieve the tension of seeing ourselves in their beastly behaviour. Those who last to the end of the film will feel a certain melancholia, the product of an unwilling self-identification with the protagonists, as demoralising as it is irresistible.
The opening sequence provides a good illustration. Skip forward here if you’d rather experience it fresh! Here emotions are running high to the point of tears and…well…ritual and spiteful urination. The real genius of the scene lies in the evocation of that most familiar and oppressive quality of human existence, yes, it’s our old friend social hierarchy. The emotional heartache of the natural aristocrat is leavened – as it should be – by the abject submission of his natural underling. The latter is at pains to wipe a tear from his master’s eye, and any drops of urine still leaking from his his penis.
Here we learn that a picture really is worth a thousand words. Indeed, the words with which we narrate and explain our relationships typically hide more than they reveal. They will tell us, for example, that our kings and queens, our glorious leaders, and other natural authority-figures, are just like us – not stuck up at all – and only there to serve. Indeed, we may even refer to them as public servants. Such are the reassuring stories we tell ourselves about the business of ruling. That is why an encounter with Osram’s film is like a rude awakening from the effects of a powerful sedative.
Aaaaaaaah! is a unique take on the human condition. It creates another world, so cleverly drawn it casts new light on our own. In this respect, and this respect only, it resembles another recent gem, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, also from 2015. It’s the playfulness and humour that makes Oram’s take on suburban primates a very good movie.
It is, after all, as much fun as a barrelful of monkeys, and literally very much like one. It is, however, the little light it shines on ourselves that makes this, in my estimation, a great movie. I suspect many of those brave souls who make it all the way to the closing credits will agree.