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Review by Joshua Gibbs
The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
Here, finally, is something which cares nothing for novelty, originality, innovation. There are fine television programs which do not worship at the altar of The New, but the makers of those programs are infrequently interested in the kind of godly hero worship which has prompted Stranger Things. “What has been good? What has satisfied? What has intrigued? What is worth returning to?” Stranger Things emanates out of these questions.
If you love it, you will make your own is the basic principle of every good creative impulse. The man who loves coffee learns to roast his own. The man who loves poems wants more poems in the world, so he begins making his own poems, filling the earth with poems and subduing the earth with poems. The man who loves a woman wants more of that woman in the world, and the woman wants more of that man in the world, and so the fruit of a consumed love grants them both their wish. What have the makers of Stranger Things loved? On the one hand, nothing especially noble. They have loved John Carpenter films and Stephen King novels, Alien and A Nightmare on Elm Street and refrigerator-sized synthesizers. On the other hand, they love Stephen Spielberg, and Spielberg taught them to treat children with dignity. The Stranger Things makers (the Duffer Brothers) have many teachers, but only one master; Spielberg is the Virgil to their Dante. And while some of their influences may be less than refined, the creed at the center of their cult is a venerable one.
The lover and the maker seek out the perfect, as well. The poet who wants to populate the world with poems imitates the poems he loves, but also refines them and purges them. The goodness of children is the essential dogma of Stranger Things, though the horror shows from which the Duffer Brother borrow typically demonize children. The age of abortion has popularized the demonic innocent; American theaters are ever more chock-full of suburban nightmares about parents who unwittingly purchase new homes infested with evil spirits prone to possessing kindergarteners. Spielberg, however, is a Sovereign Grand Inquisitor General in the Order of Sentimentalists and Stranger Things is safe from mediocrity because the A.I. director has always refused to sell the cheap and kinky shivers which come from watching toddlers slaughter their mothers— and Spielberg’s newest pupils have intuited the power of their master’s deepest precept. Of the show’s three strata of characters— the adults, the horny adolescents, the D&D elementary students— it is the last who grant the program metaphysical coherence. It is the children who interpret the world as opposed to merely observing it. The children also stand for the ideal viewer of the program, for just as the children look for corollaries between game and reality, so the viewer slowly picks out all the references, all the homages, all the paeans. Both the children and the viewer delight in finding what is familiar.
It is pleasant to see the world explained in terms of organic and tangible things. Board games mirror reality. Physical distance can truly separate people because cell phones do not exist. The world rebecomes wild, land is oceanic, the woods are deep space. Over the last several years I have become increasingly interested in the 1980s as The Last Era Before The Internet Made Everyone Lose Their Minds— a time when people could still become lost, willingly or unwillingly. Were Stranger Things set today, the government creeps would simply hack every ballpoint pen, toaster, and coffee mug until they had a camera on Eleven. It would take all of thirty seconds in a Bourne flick. But thirty years ago, “off-grid” was a mere 2 miles due East. Technology has made the plots of films increasingly non-contemplative. Information is accessed instantly, transferred instantly, passed along instantly. Locations are known immediately. Drones kill immediately. Characters in modern films have less and less time to think, and we are given less and less time to think alongside them. We are all hurried from scene to the next, but a slower world, which Stranger Things offers, paces us to ruminate. We do not drive, but walk from scene to scene, and talk as we walk, and think as we talk. There is more time to plan, to question, to doubt. Stranger Things could not exist in a contemporary setting because there are too few strange things left. We know too much, think too little, act too quickly.
“Who do I want to please?” is a question any artist (or critic, for that matter) must ask before beginning his work. The artist may not cut corners and answer “God,” for whose conception of God is he referring to? His own conception of God? The educated audience member’s conception of God? The uneducated? I pray it does not sound pretentious, though I think the artist who aims at first pleasing his audience is both in the wrong and rarely successful. The greatest works of art aim to please the teacher. Novel works, innovative works… these are works which aim for the audience, to wow them and make them say, “Well, we have never seen anything like this before.” Such stories are interesting for exactly as long as it takes someone else to come up with something “we have never seen before,” which, in the realm of science fiction, is often only a few weeks. The greatest crowd pleasing story of the 20th century, Star Wars, was not made to please crowds but to please Joseph Campbell. The Duffer Brothers have told a story to please their teachers, too, and because they have not sought novelty or wealth or fame, but the nodding approval of the master, they have become wise.