August 31, 2016

There’s More to “Stranger Things” and the Girl Called Eleven Than Are Dreamt of in Our Philosophy

DVD rev

Responses to Stranger Things, the Netflix summer sensation from Matt and Ross Duffer, have placed the eight-part series in the context of 1980s pop culture, sci-fi/horror flicks, and the novels of Stephen King. There’s more of the same in Monday’s New York Times under a head that refers to how Stranger Things and another show “feed nostalgia with a historical remix.” If that’s so, then the remix goes centuries beyond the 1980s, which means that anyone patronizing the show should heed the message from Hamlet obliquely echoed in its title: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”

In addition to Shakespeare circa 1603, Stranger Things evokes the 1970s by way of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the early 1990s through David Lynch’s network television landmark Twin Peaks.

The reflected glory of the fantastical mother ship in Close Encounters that made awestruck children of us all can be seen in the galaxy of Christmas tree lights Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) creates in Stranger Things as a medium of communication with her son Will, who has been sucked into a parallel universe called the Upside Down. Call it what you will, the Shakespearean version of the Upside Down is where Hamlet’s father’s ghost sets everything in motion. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer may be dead, but what fascinated and mystified a nation was the impending presence of the unknown. With help from Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting theme, domestic surfaces like ceiling fans and lights and curtains and stairways seemed alive with a sinister presence.

Watching Stranger Things, we become lost children again, vicarious versions of Will, but with all the comforts of home and preferably in the company of a friend or family member, but definitely not alone, not a chance, not when otherworldly forces are invading the very wiring of domestic life, everyday surfaces giving way, and every long dark hallway primed with horror.

The Girl Called Eleven

Released for streaming on July 15, Stranger Things became an immediate online phenomenon. Huge Missing Child posters for Will Byers turned up at the latest Comic Con convention. YouTube theorists abound: “More Mysteries Explored,” “The Montauk Theory,” “The Mythology of Stranger Things,” “The String Theory,” “Concept Art Reveals Hidden Details,” “The Untold Truth,” “Illuminati Symbolism Exposed,” “Is Will Byers a Demigorgon?” “50 Facts You Didn’t Know About Stranger Things,” ad infinitum. You could explain the mania as the predictable response to any sci-fi-related phenomenon with a Dungeons and Dragons subtext. But that’s not enough to justify the pitch of the excitement. Nor is Winona Ryder’s career-renaissance as Will’s mother, nor David Harbour’s performance as her steadfast ally Sheriff Jim Hopper, nor the cinematography of Tim Ives and Tod Campbell, not the score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, not even the effective use of songs from the Clash, Joy Division, Toto, and Peter Gabriel and others. Put all those positives together and it still doesn’t explain why poor doomed Barb (Shannon Purser), seemingly the least attractive character, has already inspired a devoted following on social media while online fan clubs have no doubt already been formed for Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), the boys committed to the quest to find their lost friend. Even with all that, there’s still no convincing explanation for the magnitude of the show’s reception. Actually, there is one, and her name is Eleven.

The force that lifts an otherwise middling-good series to another level is a 12-year-old British actress named Millie Bobby Brown who does something wonderful with the character of El, short for Eleven (from the number 011 tattooed on her arm), the little girl with shaved head and telekinetic powers. While it’s fun to watch her topple trucks with her mind, catapult small boys out of deadly falls, and humiliate bullies, the wonder of El has less to do with her superhero abilities, which come at a cost (nosebleeds and worse), than with the multiple dimensions of her character (she’s cute, she’s pretty, she’s weird, she’s a he, she’s an it, she’s a monster, she’s a victim, she’s hungry, she’s sorrow incarnate, she’s heartbreaking, she’s adorable) like the facets of a diamond catching light. Imagine someone who contains depths of vulnerable ET-like alien innocence as well as Svengali-hypnotic intensity, who after reducing a bully to a laughing stock with a look wipes the blood of the effort from her nose with the cool of a gunfighter holstering his weapon and who can with a brisk nod of her head break another bully’s arm. And she accomplishes these feats wearing a blonde wig and a dress, disguised as Mike’s Swedish cousin, after a delicately handled make-over scene, with Mike doing the honors. In fact, nearly every scene El is in has that special quality, the mixture of pathos and power, thanks to the eerie, endearing gravitas she communicates, gently, firmly, sweetly, even when she quietly admits, “I’m the monster.”

So how to do justice to a characterization of such subtle depth and grace from a 12-year-old? Is it fair to patronize her by bringing up her age, as if to imply a mere child is incapable of acting at the highest level (an issue with young Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien)? Is it fair to want to credit the shaping influence of adults like Shawn Levy and the Duffer brothers, especially after watching videos of the real-life Millie Bobby Brown acting her age, doing push-ups on the shore or tweeting a video of having her hair cut for the part of El? My instinct is to back off, mind the superlatives (sorry, did I say she was enchanting? unforgettable? etc etc), and pray that she can keep being so just-right in the second season even as I hope that all the attention she’s getting doesn’t spoil her. Emily Nussbaum said it well in her August 22 New Yorker review, calling it “a career-launching performance” while citing El’s “fearless emotional transparency” and the “air of refugee desolation that makes her much more than the subject of someone else’s fantasy.” Yes, and the shaved head and the number on her arm suggest an evil four decades removed from a small Indiana town in 1983.

Significant Others

There’s plenty to say about the other special qualities of the show, particularly the stunning visuals of Eleven emerging from the sensory deprivation tank into the liquid black void of the Upside Down, a tiny figure in the remote fluid distance, approaching what may be the monster or in one instance a Soviet era Russian agent (a Reagan era Cold War aura shrouds the mind-control experiments at the Hawkins Lab). Then there’s Winona Ryder’s crazed, all-out embodiment of the maternal life-force, inspiring a look back at her work in school-based films like Lucas (1986) and Heathers (1988) or my favorite Ryder, the chain-smoking cabbie in Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth (1991). The most conventional aspect of Stranger Things is in the high school and grade school stereotypes of bullies and sexist jerks and their victims, so we have to grit our teeth and bear with Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and her loathsome boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery) when a more bearable match for her is obviously Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), her partner in the war against the monster. Steve is allowed to join them in the battle at the end, presumably so we can live with the fact that Nancy ends up cuddling on a couch with a redeemed douchebag.

Going to Strange Extremes

But enough with the genre cliches. Eleven is in another realm: think Shakespeare and Nabokov. It’s true, the conception behind Eleven and Brown’s portrayal generates extreme associations. El could be Alice in Wonderland, or Snow White on her way to becoming the Dragon Queen in Game of Thrones, or Jane Eyre or Prospero’s Miranda or Ariel or Puck in the enchanted realm of Midsummer Night’s Dream, or one of the Shakespeare’s mercurial Imogens or Olivias. There are times when she even has a hint of the nymphet about her, true to the ambience of Humbert’s Lolita ideal, “the little deadly demon among the wholesome children … unconscious herself of her fantastic power” who inhabits “that intangible island of entranced time.”

Except of course Eleven is anything but unconscious of her power.

Stranger Things Breaking Bad

In an interview about Season 2 with Chris Tilly on ign.com, Matt Duffer speculates about how long Stranger Things will go on (“how much time we need”). Speaking of “the shows that we really look up to,” he says Breaking Bad is his favorite because “it feels like it was never treading water … like it built to an ending that was very much intended from the beginning. It feels like a very, very complete show, and it just nailed the landing, so that’s the goal and the hope, and it’s really, really difficult. But hopefully we get there.”

The story in Monday’s Times is a Critic’s Notebook entry by James Poniewozik, who imagines Stranger Things “coming from child prodigies who grew up in an abandoned Blockbuster full of VHS tapes.” Additional responses on the same level can be found at Metacritic, where the definitively misguided putdown in its focus on Eleven is by The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz. The bloggers who devastatingly repudiate it will give you a fair idea of the enlightened excitement this show has created.