Leslie Jamison on the Role of the Graspy Grad Student in Midsommar
In Conversation with Mychal Denzel Smith on the Open Form Podcast
Welcome to Open Form, a weekly film podcast hosted by award-winning writer Mychal Denzel Smith. Each week, a different author chooses a movie: a movie they love, a movie they hate, a movie they hate to love. Something nostalgic from their childhood. A brand-new obsession. Something they’ve been dying to talk about for ages and their friends are constantly annoyed by them bringing it up.
In this episode of Open Form, Mychal talks to Leslie Jamison (Make It Scream, Make It Burn) about the 2019 film Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster and starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, and William Jackson Harper.
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From the episode:
Leslie Jamison: At least two of the characters, maybe three, are anthropology grad students. So there’s this whole subplot not just about the cult but about people who want to understand the cult, or people who want to write about the cult, or people who want to get to the bottom of the cult. And to me, I guess I felt seen by that. Never have I had an experience that I was not also in some way trying to make a dissertation about, or something like that.
You can project or honestly apprehend a certain kind of villainy in the ways that the members of the cult are treating each other or outsiders; there’s a lot of violence and often it looks, to our eyes at least, like pretty horrific violence. But as you say, it’s all directed towards a communal understanding of property, whether that’s the food they grow or the houses they have or the feelings they experience.
The grad students are enacting a different kind of villainy, because their villainy is all about individuating everything, even intellectual property. Each one of them wants to write THE dissertation about this cult. And Christian’s trying to poach the dissertation subject from his friend. I think you’re so right that Christian is the last gasp of individualism here.
He’s interested in like, what are my boundaries? How can I make boundaries around my ideas or claim things as my intellectual property or try to take them as my intellectual property? And the dissertation is another way that that individualism—the desire to absorb this entire community into an item of of intellectual property—is realized.
But I have a lot of sympathy for that position, too, because it is also my way of understanding the world. I kind of do want to claim things to think about. I want to say things about what I encounter. I don’t necessarily think of those as unequivocally villainous things, but when I see those graspy grad students onscreen, it feels dishonest to completely disidentify with them.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, and the novel The Gin Closet. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and her work has appeared in publications including the Atlantic, Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review, the Oxford American, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. She directs the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her family.