FC Discover: Ari Aster’s Film School Project, The Strange Thing about the Johnsons, Film Companion

FC Discover is a new series about obscure and exciting films we unearth from the weird and wonderful world of online viewing. 

Film: The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

Streaming on: Vimeo

Hereditary, Ari Aster’s first feature film, begins with a father entering his son’s room as he lies on his bed. So does The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, the short film Aster made 10 years ago when he was still a film student. The similarities end here. Here, Sr. Johnson walks in on his son masturbating, is embarrassed like any normal parent, shuts the door, but then, does what most normal parents would not: he decides to have a chat with his son. A frank talk on sex education never did anyone any harm. Except there’s something odd about the whole thing, in the way Billy Mayo, who plays Mr Johnson, wears a smile that’s almost unsettling, seeming a little too eager than expected. The line between cool dad and creepy dad is a fine one.

I already feel like I’ve given away too much of what happens in The Strange Thing about the Johnsons, but trust me when I say this: you have no idea what lies ahead in this 29 minute film. The closing shot of the opening scene is a shocker and then we cut to 14 years later. The term ‘disturbing’ barely does justice to the theme. Does it make a difference that we are watching the story of an African-American family? Aster has said that the choice of a black family was purely incidental. He merely wanted to work with Brandon Greenhouse, his batchmate at the American Film Institute, who was a part of the project at the ideation stage. He thought Greenhouse will be perfect as the son (the grown up version). The rest was retrofitted into it: if Greenhouse was black, the family had to be black as well.

But it does seem to add to what Aster was trying to achieve. The director of such films as Hereditary and Midsommar has described AFI as a film school that trains students the Hollywood way, making them strive for the kind of films that are in the good books of the Oscars. Aster wanted to challenge that, and the portrayal of the Johnsons is the opposite of the kind of pious, upright black family the Academy would approve. 

And yet, The Strange Thing about the Johnsons harks back, in its own twisted way, to the melodramas of 50s Hollywood. Aster has described the film as ‘Sirkian’, a reference to Douglas Sirk whose lurid, technicolour masterpieces often subverted the idea of the happy suburban American family, with its manicured lawns and homogenous houses, and dealt with taboo subjects. The film was a sensation in the independent short film circuit in 2011, went to Sundance, got leaked online and expectedly attracted controversy. In retrospect, it also laid bare Aster’s preoccupation with such themes as family with terrible secrets (Hereditary) and toxic relationships (Midsommar). 

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