Dispatches from the present
When siblings O.J. and Em, inheritors of a failing Hollywood horse ranch and descendants of the virtually unknown Black jockey who starred in the first moving picture, realize that their land is haunted by an alien being in Jordan Peele’s sci-fi horror film Nope, their first instinct is not to flee but to catch it on film. Even as they witness the horrific destruction the creature is capable of, they set up an elaborate network of security cameras and stay stubbornly in place, determined to get the footage for a viral video that might garner them millions of views as well as money and fame. They are desperate to capitalize on the power of film—the very same power that exploited their ancestor—for the sake of their livelihoods and at the cost of their safety.
Nearby, traumatized-child-actor-turned-sleazy-showman Ricky “Jupe” Park has a similar idea: at his kitschy theme park, where he already charges visitors to see souvenirs of a bloody childhood tragedy, he develops a live show where audiences can pay to catch a glimpse of the mysterious, sky-dwelling alien entity. Maintaining careful control over the image he creates—control he did not have as a child sitcom star—Jupe makes a point to tell his audience that they are not allowed to film the alien on their phones or digital cameras.
At the beginning of the film flashes a line from the Book of Prophets: “I will make a spectacle of you.” Much has been made of the way Nope criticizes the exploitative nature of spectacle in Hollywood, but I think that O.J. and Em’s obsession with viral video and Jupe’s ban on cell-phone footage point to a subtler, newer aspect of the power and politics of spectacle, one that has been largely missing from the reception of Nope: the accessibility of film in our everyday lives.
The viral video has become more than just a piece of pop-cultural ephemera: now, it is a vehicle for news, entertainment, advertising and art. I open TikTok and am greeted with all forms of spectacle: comedy sketches, clothing hauls, videos of strangers wearing weird outfits or doing something funny in public—or even in private. I saw a TikTok a few days ago of a couple slow-dancing in their living room, a blurry video filmed through the unshuttered window of their apartment. The video received no less than thirteen million likes, and thousands of commenters gushed about how cute and romantic the scene was. It was cute, but it was also unsettling. One person looking through your living room window is bad enough; who wants thirteen million?
Videos like these remind me of something that happened when I was sixteen. I was taking the train into San Francisco with my girlfriend at the time, holding hands and leaning my head on their shoulder. A man positioned himself in front of us, set up a tripod and film camera, and wordlessly snapped a picture. After he was gone, I turned to my girlfriend: “That was weird. I wish he had asked before he took a picture of us.” They shrugged it off: “I don’t know. We’re in public, you’re allowed to take pictures.” Technically, this is true. But even now, I can’t help but imagine him giving that picture some kind of poetic, thought-provoking title, presenting it to his photography class at San Francisco State, all the art students making insightful comments about “queering public spaces” or “performing intimacy in interracial relationships.” Or maybe he posted it to his “Subway Hands”-style Instagram, or to a right-wing blog about the degeneration of America’s youth. I’ll probably never know, but I’ll always wish I did.
The democratization of film through smartphones and social media undoubtedly has its upsides—for example, ordinary citizens are now in a position to document police violence and potentially hold officers to account. But increased access to film also means the increased likelihood of being filmed, where we may all be both the creator and the unwitting object of spectacle. This new confluence of responsibility and vulnerability demands that we constantly interrogate the film we create and consume.
The day I saw Nope, I was walking back to my apartment when I saw a bizarre scene on the street: a man leapt in front of an ambulance as, sirens wailing, it attempted to leave the firehouse. A standoff ensued as the ambulance driver tried to shoo the man, who stood fast with his hands on the ambulance’s hood, blocking its exit. For a moment, I considered filming the scene and posting it to TikTok; it seemed spectacular enough to potentially earn me millions of views, thousands of likes, hundreds of comments making quips about the pure strangeness of the incident. But I considered what it would mean for me to film this stranger at that moment. What he needed was compassion, not to be treated as content. I left my phone in my bag.
From the inception of the moving picture in the late nineteenth century, when O.J. and Em’s ancestor was recorded riding his horse, through the 1990s, when Jupe starred in a network sitcom, and up to the popularization of the cell-phone camera in the late 2000s, the reproduction of spectacle via the medium of film was largely a privilege of money and power. Now, when TikTok boasts over a billion users and YouTube over 2.5 billion, our everyday relationship to film has shifted drastically. In this world, it’s film and be filmed: at the same time as the democratization of film allows us, like Em and O.J., to work toward reclaiming power and prestige, it also emboldens us, like Jupe, to capitalize on the sufferings of ourselves and others. (Nor is it always so easy, the film suggests by its end, to tell one from the other.) Nope draws our attention to this new relationship to film, with which we each must reckon: not a simple relationship but a profoundly unstable one, where, for better or for worse, we are on both sides of the lens.