This Ari Aster short films essay contains spoilers for Herman’s Cure-All Tonic, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, TDF Really Works, Beau, Munchausen, Basically, The Turtle’s Head and C’est La Vie. Check out VV reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
Three feature films into his career, Ari Aster is a household name. With Hereditary (2018), the American director established his horror credentials. Starring Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, the film terrified audiences upon it release but also emphasized its craft, textures and a meticulous yet unpredictable narrative structure. With Midsommar (2019), Aster hauled the horror genre in different directions, exploring psychedelia, paganism and uncomfortable comedy. Moving away from the nuclear family of his first film, the second focuses on a young couple (played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) and their group of friends as they travel to Sweden for a midsummer festival. Aster’s third feature — Beau Is Afraid — was released last month in the USA and hits UK cinemas later in May. A surreal, three-hour odyssey following Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to get home to his mother, the film signals the increasing versatility of Aster’s work.
Beau Is Afraid is adapted from Aster’s 2011 short film Beau, which is just one of eight shorts he made before Hereditary. Viewed together, these shorts display the variety and diversity that, project to project, Aster’s features are reproducing. From the self-deprecating mockumentaries Basically (2014) and C’est La Vie (2016) to the provocative, depraved black comedies The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011) and Munchausen (2013), Aster’s short films are at present the best representation of his eclectic taste and elastic interests. It is particularly worth returning to this mini-oeuvre as his features gradually replicate this aesthetic range while actively reworking the narratives of his formative short films.
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Aster began with the dorky horror comedy Herman’s Cure-All Tonic (2008). The short involves a pharmacist who, while running his father’s store, struggles to keep up with high demand for a mysterious new tonic, kept in a bottle with a handwritten “whisky” label. As viewers learn, the father is hooked up to a machine in the store’s backroom, where his belly button fluid is being extracted, collected in vials and used for the tonic. This narrative revelation is like Mulholland Drive’s monster behind the diner scene writ small, with mise-en-scène that recalls Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991). The specifics of how the tonic is being made and the camera’s zooms into the belly button feel influenced by David Cronenberg’s body horror. Out front, Herman’s son Harold looks at the pharmacy’s regular customer — who gets too curious and ends the film hooked up in the backroom — through her comically oversized glasses. Aster’s camera spies on Harold on a separate occasion through the pharmacy’s wall-mounted mirror. There are layers to both visual perspective and cinematic influence in Herman’s Cure-All Tonic, as befits the earliest work of a filmmaker whose career has built on these foundations.
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In 2011, Aster released three shorts. One of these is the two-minute mock-TV advert TDF Really Works: a bizarre skit about how corporate-speak can be as ridiculous as it is manipulative and about whether farts are funny. Tino’s Dick Fart, as the fake advert breaks down, is essentially a cock ring that holds farts in, for which there is a disclaimer that “TINO’S NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR EXPLODING DICKS.” TDF Really Works restricts itself to the hermetic, hyperreal space of its advert, and limits its runtime to the brevity of a quick overload of nonsense information, well aware that it is ensuring that no consumer on earth would ever buy a TDF.
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Aster’s second 2011 short film is The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, which is the filmmaker’s longest and most well-known short. The production starts with a boy named Isaiah Johnson being caught masturbating by his father, Sidney. Aster immediately turns this scenario on its head, with Sidney re-entering the bedroom, sitting down and addressing what he just saw. The boy then says, “What you were doing was completely natural.” This is swiftly followed by another early twist, with Sidney leaving the room and the audience realizing that the character’s son had been masturbating over a picture of him.
Aided by fluid, kinetic cinematography and fast-forwards to a family photo shoot,The Strange Thing About the Johnsons picks up pace at Isaiah’s wedding 14 years later. The man sneaks away from his new wife to sexually abuse his father — an act that is witnessed by the mother. The Johnsons’ story of incest and trauma escalates, with Aster applying physical comedy to deliberately overblown narrative developments before ending the short film with two dead bodies.
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Aster also released Beau in 2011. Rejecting a traditional title card or sequence, the short provides its title before adding “CANNOT,” “WILL NOT,” SHOULD NOT” and “SLEEP.” The short film comprises a series of weird and possibly imagined encounters which plague Beau, who just wants to leave his apartment and visit his mother. Beau’s key is stolen, and a man he has never seen before runs up and shouts “you’re fucked, pal.” Later, Beau tiptoes down his stairs wielding pliers after hearing voices outside his front door. This feels like Aster’s most DIY, most transparently low-budget short so far, full of low angles and close-ups, and restricted to a singular, claustrophobic narrative setting. Beau is therefore miles away from the scale of Beau Is Afraid, yet it’s underpinned by the same absurdity and schizophrenia.
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Aster’s next short — Munchausen — came two years later, in 2013. The film departs somewhat from his previous work. It is a silent production about an overbearing mother with separation anxiety who poisons (and accidentally kills) her son. Munchausen feigns a flash-forward outside of its present tense but otherwise uses a montage structure (like The Strange Thing About the Johnsons) while sticking within the same narrative moment: the run-up to the unnamed boy leaving home and going to college. The short also recalls Herman’s Cure-All Tonic and signposts another point of genealogical connection between different stages of Aster’s career. After the mother imagines her son going off to college and falling in love, she poisons and incapacitates him by lacing a sandwich (and later, his dinner) with a substance labeled “FEEL BAD — Sickness Prompter.” Unlike Aster’s previous shorts, Munchausen opts for harsh lighting and vibrant colors, alongside its lack of dialogue. The short contrasts with a film like Toy Story (1995), due to its subversion (perversion) of Toy Story 3’s ending in which a mother discovers her son’s favorite toy and ensures that he does not go to college.
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In 2014, Aster released Basically and The Turtle’s Head. The former is a mockumentary focusing on Shandy Pickles — an actress, privileged nepo-baby and spoiled brat who is at least self-aware when it comes to the self-absorption and vapidity of her social world. Basically begins as a family history narrative and moves to a discussion of finding meaning in both art and life, complete with framing and whip pans that bring Wes Anderson and Jean-Luc Godard to mind. The short film is one monologue, which continues as Aster cuts to Shandy in different costumes, with different hairstyles, in different rooms of her mansion. At one point, the director even cuts to her speaking as a man goes down on her at a beach. Shandy is erudite but narcissistic, socially conscious but self-interested (like her family and the impression of the film industry she gives more broadly). The character states that the recession and its fundamental changes to the American economy have not “really effected my quality of life.” Shandy’s access to capital and her vain materialism are unchanged, suggesting that the monologue’s opening line is a lie: “I’m not one of those entitled L.A. cunts.”
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The Turtle’s Head, on the other hand, sees Aster experiment with genre even further, with a foray into the world of detectives and law enforcement. The short begins with a jazzy score and stereotypical male voiceover before introducing the protagonist, Bing Shooster — a disgraced, misogynistic detective who cheats on his wife and begins to see a doctor about his shrinking penis. The Turtle’s Head shows Aster at his most simple and tasteless but offers a continuation of his narratives of bitterness and pessimism.
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Aster’s final short to date — 2016’s C’est La Vie — is a companion piece to Basically, adopting the same mockumentary approach to discuss wealth from the opposite end of the spectrum. This monologue is given by Chester Crummings, who lives on the streets of L.A. and spends his days asking passers-by for spare change. Crummings tells the spectator that “There’s a place to piss out here — a place to shit, a place to fuck and a place to die,” before touching on his past life with a wife and working in a mailroom, getting 19 raises and then moving up 14 floors. If C’est La Vie proves to be Aster’s final short film, it’s an appropriate note to end on, as both a title and a piece of work. The production ties up a lot of interests across these smaller productions, which offered a platform for Aster’s much longer, baggier and more expansive features.
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So far, Aster’s feature films have continued where his varied, restless and pissed off shorts left off. It’s a selection of small productions that work in different genres but return to forms of horror at home; they aim to make no friends and include everything from incest to sexism, from homophobic slurs to ableist ones. As Crummings ends C’est La Vie, he says that “I want my life to mean something. I want to change things around and make something beautiful out of all this shit.” After viewing Aster’s three feature films and eight shorts, his filmmaking has perhaps inevitably improved but has also gotten bleaker. This is as good a reason as any for Aster to keep making movies, because — like Crummings — he is still trying to find that “something beautiful.”
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant at King’s College London, a short fiction writer and a freelance culture writer. He is also an assistant editor at Coastal Shelf. George’s recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press and Offscreen. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.
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Categories: 2000s, 2010s, 2023 Film Essays, 2023 Horror Essays, Comedy, Drama, Featured, Horror, Short Film
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