The Explainer

The Explainer

One evening in late 2012, I attended a small movie premier in downtown Manhattan. The film was Blue Caprice, an excellent and highly disturbing dramatization of the D.C. Sniper Attacks of 2002. There was a Q&A session with the director after the movie was over.

“What was the movie about?” asked a man a few rows behind me, about halfway through the session.

The director was a bit flabbergasted and had to think a moment about how to respond.

“Well,” he answered finally, turning with open arms toward the now blank movie screen. “You just had 90 minutes to see what it was about.”

The crowd laughed and applauded. On some level, it was probably how the director could have answered just about every question.

Now, a decade later, there exists an online content industry built around "explaining" and decoding popular film releases—particularly ones that feature abstract ideas, plot twists, and uncomfortable endings. This industry existed before the pandemic, but has exploded since 2020 as the big movie and TV companies have shifted heavily toward streaming. As Film Stories pointed out in 2021, film “explanation” articles have seen a “startling proliferation” in recent years.

“Had [2001] A Space Odyssey been released in the far-flung year of 2021,” wrote Ryan Lambie for Film Stories. “It would’ve probably only been in cinemas for all of ten minutes before the Internet film writing hive mind clicked into gear with the dreaded headline: ‘2001: A Space Odyssey—Ending Explained.’”

Google any recent release and you are likely to find dozens and dozens of explainer articles.

If you have not read an explainer article before, I can provide a hypothetical example. Let’s use the aforementioned Blue Caprice. If I were to write a "Blue Caprice Explained" piece, I would likely open up with a punchy, two- to three-paragraph intro designed to capture your attention. Next, I would ask and answer a bunch of questions related to plot and character like, "Who Was Lee Boyd Malvo?" or "Why Did John Allen Muhammad Want to Kill People?" or "Is Blue Caprice Based on a True Story?" Then, to conclude, I would “explain” the ending of the film and provide a witty kicker.

The most important function of these articles is to generate clicks and thus advertiser dollars by ranking higher on search engines, like Google. Everything else is secondary.

So, I should be very clear here: I am quite aware of the landscape out there for writers these days. Writers are underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked. We are ultimately expected to submerge ourselves with the techno-dystopia and write for the financial profit of others rather than engaging with the world and society in difficult, important, and compelling ways.

And, hey! There are plenty of writers out there who like said work, and more power to them.

That is to say: I don’t blame or begrudge any writer for writing the kind of SEO-driven, “explainer” articles I address and argue against in this piece. I am not here to disparage the work of any of my fellow writers but rather critique wider culture. I also do not exempt myself from any of the criticisms. I am hardly a big-brained iconoclastic cultural puritan and have indeed had to write—and will still have to write—many articles of the kind I am describing.

But what, to be crass, of art?! What of our ability to grieve, engage, and change at a point in time where we need to collectively practice all three? Is Art not democratic and direct? Does how we feel, deep down, about a given work matter? By cutting ourselves off from ourselves are we hollowing out artistic engagement?

What, finally, if art, like life, cannot actually be concisely and comfortably “explained”? Are we missing the point entirely?

Let's talk a little bit about Nope and about that cuddly and lovable Chimpanzee, Gordy.

Nope was the third feature film directed by Jordan Peele, and starred Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun. Kaluuya plays “OJ” (an obvious wink toward one of America’s most infamous media spectacles), an introverted rancher from California who loans his horses to the entertainment industry for movies and special events. Palmer plays his sister, “Em,” who is quite extroverted and energetic, a stark contrast with her brother. Brother and sister co-own the horse ranch which was inherited from their dead father.

Nope’s plot begins to unfold when OJ and Em visit Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun). Ricky is a former child TV star turned old west theme park owner. He is looking to purchase some horses, and as he discusses the business deal with OJ and Em, he talks about his role on a 1990s sitcom called “Gordy’s Home” and about a highly traumatic and violent incident involving the show’s star, the chimpanzee Gordy. We are spared the most gruesome details until the middle of the film, where we directly, through Ricky’s eyes, (re)live the event.

Ricky’s flashback to the “incident” later on is highly upsetting, unsettling, and plain disturbing—and it is precisely because it does not at all start that way. The scene simply begins during a soundstage filming of “Gordy’s Home,” in which all the show’s titular characters are gathered in a generic-looking, American living room to celebrate Gordy’s birthday.

There’s quite a bit of schmaltz and light humor as the family trade barbs and prepare to give the chimpanzee his birthday presents. The young Ricky, who is playing a character named Mikey Houston on the show, holds a small present while his TV sister, a character named Haley Houston, has a much larger one. The family opens the large one first, and all is joyous and high-spirited as the present is revealed to be a bouquet of balloons, which float up to the ceiling. One of the balloons, however, pops and Gordy is startled and the once adorable and irreproachable chimpanzee becomes extremely violent and massacres the cast.

Gordy maims and kills the actress playing the mother character on the show; then proceeds to chase and maim the actor portraying the father who attempts in vain to calm Gordy down. The fate of the sister actress is for the time being unknown (though it is revealed later in the film). Ricky is then completely alone, hiding underneath a table behind the tablecloth. Gordy has calmed down by the time he sees Ricky, and reverts into old form, offering the terrified child star a fist bump, which is apparently a signature between the two on the show. Before the fist bump can be completed, though, authorities finally arrive and Gordy's head is blown off.

For the sheer violence alone, it is understandable that Gordy comes up in just about every Nope explainer article. Understand, we must! Various “Nope: Explained” pieces work to untangle confusing plot-points, unpack symbolism, and uncover interesting behind-the-scenes info, such as the fact that the scene was based on a dream Peele had during the height of Key and Peele. There is also a lot of hubbub about an upward facing shoe that appears on screen during Gordy’s meltdown.

But here’s the problem, one rife with no shortage of irony: one could argue (I am arguing it) that Nope and the Gordy sequence is precisely about the limits of explanation as it relates to trauma and spectacle; concepts, Peele is suggesting, which are at once one in the same and separate, vicious reactions to one another.

He is asking us to consider how we encounter the world and one another as well as our notions of comfortability and certainty.

The Gordy sequence in Nope exemplifies the ways in which we seek “explanations” for instances of unavoidable, unspeakable “reality” by avoiding and talking around said “reality.” Take that Ricky makes reference to a (fictional, within the universe of the film) 1990s "SNL" skit which parodied the Gordy massacre, and that the skit is still widely watched (within the universe of the film) on YouTube. One can assume, too, that the actual footage of the Gordy massacre would have also appeared online in some form. "SNL" was frankly an innocuous choice by Peele compared to options like "South Park" and "Family Guy," which would have absolutely had something to say about the Gordy massacre and would not have been delicate.

Peele must be self-conscious about his own role in the culture—after all, Peele is not a stranger to TV comedy and starred during the 2000s on an "SNL" knock off, that of MadTV (it is in fact a print of a Mad Magazine cover about the Gordy Incident that sparks the conversation between Ricky, OJ, and Em). And Key and Peele, of course, frequently provided comic relief by parodying cultural figures and events during the contentious 2010s.

Regardless, the Gordy’s Home sequence ends as many real-life mass shootings do, with the immolation of the perpetrator. Can such a thing be “explained”?

The problem with explainer articles is not even necessarily that they are bad criticism or analysis—there is genuinely good criticism and analysis to be found within some of them. In the case of Nope, it's that the articles seem to miss the point entirely; they grasp at comfortable linear certainty when Peele is begging the audience to think hard about comfortability, linearity, and certainty and the extent to which these things are illusionary and, in fact, dangerous.

The point is that there is much to existence that eludes language and thus explanation.

The beauty of art is that it enables conversation, however abstract or non-linear, between human beings about the uncertainties of life and the universe so that we may grieve, engage, and change. That which seeks to definitively explain art—for the purpose of financial profit, no less—actually serves, in the end, to obscure and obstruct this conversation.  

The result is commodification and debasement, forms of which art is supposed to challenge and destroy. If such things are not being challenged, it is us, and the literal and metaphorical ecosystems which sustain us, that will be destroyed.

*Feature photo Nope (Monkeypaw Production)

Toby Jaffe is a writer from New Jersey published in the New Republic, American Prospect, Paste Magazine, the Gay and Lesbian Review, and elsewhere.
More posts by Toby Jaffe.
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