The Short Films of Ari Aster Part One

Part Two and Part Three

This week, Ari Aster’s third feature film, Beau Is Afraid, will be released in theaters. I am a big fan of Aster mainly because his aesthetic and sensibilities match with filmmakers I already enjoyed when I saw Hereditary for the first time. The director has openly talked about his admiration for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence). Both directors employ a dark sense of humor in their work, along with framing & blocking that gives scenes a slightly unreal atmosphere. Aster is also hugely influenced by The Coen Brothers, particularly when they blend elements of their Jewish background into their work (A Serious Man, for instance). Albert Brooks (Modern Romance, Defending Your Life) is another Jewish filmmaker who has shaped Aster’s cinematic eye. And then there’s Ingmar Bergman, whose movies PersonaFanny and Alexander, and more are the source for much of Aster’s interest in exploring suffering. 

When I first saw the trailer for Beau is Afraid, I was struck by how little it resembled Aster’s two features, Hereditary and Midsommar. Instead, it reminded me of his short films that I devoured after I saw his first movie. Aster’s penchant for incredibly dark humor has yet to be entirely displayed in his broader work. There are macabre moments & bits of humor in those previously mentioned pictures to add some levity, but the third feature looks to be Aster no longer choosing to hold back what makes him laugh. I suspect this may be the film where fans of the previous work sour on Aster. I, however, am looking forward to seeing this nearly three-hour epic comedy which the director has called “The Jewish Lord of the Rings, about a man going to visit his mother.” It will be divisive, but a film that makes you feel something is far better than the apathetic crap commonly churned out and thrown up on screens. 

To better understand what we will see in Beau Is Afraid, it would be good to look at the short films Aster wrote & directed. We begin with “Herman’s Cure-All Tonic,” a short made during Aster’s time at the American Film Institute. The premise is that Harold works the pharmacy counter for his sick father, Herman. Herman sits in the stockroom watching television all day and griping at his son. Meanwhile, Harold deals with a particularly obsessive customer who chugs down the snake oil Herman sells. Through sheer luck (?), Herman strikes upon a new recipe for the tonic and, well…. it’s pretty fucking gross, yet a great example of what Aster finds funny. 

The most well-known of Aster’s short films is The Strange Thing About the Johnsons. This was his thesis at AFI and went viral after being shown at Slamdance in 2011. The concept of the short came out of Aster’s discussion with friends about taboos. I would say the taboo he landed on is quite…original? I don’t think I’ve ever read a story or watched a film that featured this boundary being crossed. Because of its bizarre nature and the way Aster shoots the picture, I always get disoriented when I watch it. Is this the world as we know it? Or is this a heightened cartoon-like reality? That surreal tone acts as a sort of emotional buffer, holding back the true horror of what happens to the protagonist to a degree. 

Due to it’s mature content this short film cannot be embedded, you can watch it here.


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