The Insignificance of Language in It (2017)

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, June 5, 2018

As a dummy pronoun the word “it” reduces the subject to a syntactic placeholder. But “it” is only significant if the subject is preordained before elision, otherwise “it” becomes nonsense. Only saying “it’s all unsubstantiated!” gives you no indication I’m referring to this movie; saying “it gets good in the middle” is meaningless, “[this essay] gets good in the middle” is not. In It, Pennywise, the titular “it,” is contingent upon the fear of children, fixating on the outcast children in the Losers’ Club for the plot’s convenience. Mimicking the nature of its grammatical namesake It generalizes the children’s various interpretations of fear through the guise of one permutable clown. By paralleling the clown to the word, the film considers its allegorical work done, but this accomplishment only succeeds in being reductive. The collective effect of structuring the Losers’ Club’s fears as enjambments through which Pennywise finds form is to render fear impersonal, placing the film in a moral vacuum. A black kid’s memory of his family being burned alive is as significant as a white kid’s inane fear of a Modigliani. A girl’s fear of her body being weaponized against her by her rapist father and slut-shaming classmates is as significant as a boy kid’s fear of – (Spoiler) – clowns. It is a Hollywood mega-blockbuster for the dating demographic. As such, the characters’ interpretations of their selfhood cannot be apposite with their trauma. Any expression allowing a character some quiddity of personality would rent a hole in the flattened hierarchy of good and evil, a simplification that is necessary to position each of the Losers as equally sympathetic. After all, It is, according to Josephine Livingstone of “The New Republic,” “a call for solidarity among the traumatized.” If one of the traumatized were more traumatized than any other of the traumatized, solidarity might turn into audience favoritism, and blockbusters know better.

The “it,” the unnamed but mutually agreed upon subject of It is not Pennywise. It is Hollywood’s investiture of expensive and etiolated products and the audiences’ acceptance of those products at face value. It plays out like each scene was digitized into being by a different committee of teen-scene-horror “experts.” Nazi Zombies zombie jerks around a spooky storage room, a girl writhes in the throes of female body horror à la Carrie, Inside, or, most appropriately, Exte, and the genesis and death of a slasher baddie is distilled in five minutes. A studiously Dazed and Confused camera pans the hallway postures of high school cliques and students bicker in Scream/Donnie Darko’s sun-spangled milieu. Keeping with the 80’s setting (which is only made apparent by pop culture references and serves no purpose), songs by The Cure, XTX, and Anthrax adhere the scenes that aren’t scary to the reminder that this movie’s fun.

It is a movie with no individual voice and, appropriately enough, it treats language as an impediment to be renounced.  Language in It is either an echo or agent of fear. The bullies and auxiliary villains perceive language as intractable from their dominance. This is seen when heroine Beverley Marsh’s rapist father asks her if she’s “still his girl” with the intention of assaulting her despite the answer, and when ür-bully Henry Bowers begins to carve his name in neophyte-Loser Ben’s stomach. Both examples show the perpetrator using language as a guarantee of ownership. Because the fascistic weaponry of language is adjunct to physical harm the victims can only respond through self-defensive violence. Submitting language to violence is necessary for the Losers to overcome Pennywise because he primarily manipulates them through his linguistic advantage. Pennywise’s language is solipsistic: it does not signify, it divines. Despite a small obnubilating storm, the scent of popcorn wafts through the air because Pennywise says so. Thus, the deep structure of language is eradicated and language only conforms to Pennywise’s intentions. In this context, any facile interpretation of language is dangerous. When Bill, the Losers’ Club’s de facto leader, and Richie, the movie’s de facto comic relief, encounter three doors with “Very Scary,” “Scary,” and “Not Scary At All,” respectively, inscribed in blood, they open door “Not Scary At All.” And what should honestly be “Not Scary At All” is a hanging dead girl with her legs cut off, i.e., scary. Jeopardizing the Losers’ lives is this willful perversion of language, and, as we all know, perversion’s panacea is suppression. By spurning language, the Losers become a collective generality of goodness.

Bill has a stutter. He is handicapped by speech. His words vacillate involuntarily between significance and stigma. Although the stutter is yo-yoing his plosives he tries to make his words worth the listener’s patience by always imparting facts. He tells his brother Georgy a boat is called a “she,” he tells his friends Georgy’s not dead, Georgy’s “missing,” and when Beverly flirtatiously recites poetry for him he says, “I don’t really know much about poetry.” Before Pennywise subjects the Losers to a House of Horrors where they barely escape his fang-laden Dippy Dawg mouth Bill delivers a speech ensuring his friends that he’s done running. He’s going to stand up to fear. The Losers’ are aware this speech is significant because Bill “didn’t stutter once.” Bill finally has recourse to feeling and no longer needs facts. His courage encourages the Losers to act beyond the limits of their fear, and to follow him into the house. Bill is building the collective! (Hereon referred to as the “Kollective”).

Richie is the movie’s most garrulous character, always flapping his gums in a crude intimation of humor. He insinuates having sex with his friends’ moms, mocks Pennywise’s victims, and brags about his dick size despite his friends telling him to shut up. His use of language isolates him in a protective delusion of mirth that enables him to ignore his fear. That is, until his inevitable engagement in some not-joking-around head-on action. Richie, the funny guy who contradicts beleaguering fear with belabored jokes, renounces language through apophasis. Nose to nose with Pennywise he recites a litany of reasons he should leave, the final reason being that he [maintaining a pause equally pregnant with the bathetic importance of a bad poem’s stanza breaks and the anticipation of laughter before a comic delivers a punchline] “[has] to kill this fucking clown.” He swings a copper pipe at Pennywise like it’s a conductor’s baton and the Losers’ Kollective violence commences.

Eddie is a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (his mother is overbearing and annoying, but her disease manifests itself in bite-size ways meant to be digestible for a mainstream audience. She doesn’t give Eddie enemas or tell him his teeth are rotting, thereby affording herself just cause to yank them out – she does tell him not to play in the sewer though. She exists only to construct the linguistic obstacle Eddie overcomes). Upon learning all his Munchausen medications are placebos, a word he doesn’t know but is told means “bullshit,” he spikes the pills at his mother’s feet and yells that they’re “gazebos!” Words have become arbitrary. All that matters is divesting oneself from the products of fear and joining the Kollective.

Ben is in love with Beverly. He’s mealy-mouthed around her, a regular Bill, who, incidentally, Beverly actually loves, but Bill can’t register her love until he becomes a throbbing vein of feeling. Yeesh. Ben writes Beverly the poem that she recites to Bill because she thinks Bill wrote it. Double yeesh. Love triangles are notorious for fracturing Kollectives. Well, only when the triangle is delimited by double-speak and lies and neuroses. The triangle disintegrates when language is abandoned. Pennywise has placed Beverly in a trance – a trap! to lure the Losers to his lair so he can eat them – but she is awoken by a kiss from Ben. Knight errant Ben, a paragon of chivalry whose lips dam his words with a pucker. Unfortunately for Ben, this kiss was only for the Losers’ Kollective good. The kiss sacrifices the individuated language Ben harbored in his love poems, turning love into a weapon whose virtue is obsolete upon Pennywise’s death.

And Beverly screams at her dad, “I’m not your girl! (*I’m part of the Kollective*).”

Stanley, the Jewish kid, and Mike, the black kid, do not have language-based arcs, or any character arc at all. They exist for the Kollective blob but are not a part of it. They exist to make the Billrichieeddiebeverlyben blob seem inclusive. To ease the audience’s conscience, Mike is rarely seen not suffering hate crimes. His blackness is martyred for us to think, “we don’t like ‘reeeeal’ violence, and if we did we wouldn’t like this movie because it’s about solidarity.”

Hollywood solidarity. The power of the Losers’ purported bond is meaningless because it is contrived by omission. Dismissing language also dismisses individualized reactions which dismisses characterization. The Losers are a blank slate upon which the plot’s projected: a two-hour pantomime of an audience being satisfied.

To further refute that solidarity is the moral of It, that there even is a moral to It, the film’s finale is typically happy: one man makes a decision.

After the Losers “kill” Pennywise, Bill is sitting in a glade with Beverly. She gets up to leave and Bill’s face is a stuttering dichotomy between impulse and reticence until he propels upwards in an erection of total feeling and runs to her. He arrogates a kiss from her mouth and her consent is assumed by his emotion. We, the audience, are made swoony by this kiss although it a) turns Pennywise from the catalyst through whom a group of kids are supposed to have found confidence in themselves and each other into a wingman who was sacrificed so Bill could get the girl, and b) contributes nothing to the movie besides a tacked-on ending. The kiss is indispensable though. If it wasn’t included we would have suffered fright for nothing, no denouement, just the dead air that accompanies dead bad guys and which, without a kiss, not even a mellifluous score and a montage can compensate for. The kiss is a prerequisite of a happy audience. The characters can strip themselves of language and interiority and we still like and understand them because the movie plays to all of our expectations. The characters’ language is easily suppressed because the dialogue the audience and the movie are engaging in is so acquiescent.

Does A lead to B which leads to C on and on to Z?

Nothing subverts the character’s obvious intentions?

Is the ending happy?

Is there a kiss?

And we’re all in agreement, especially when we leave the theater and find we have nothing to say about the movie.

– Bryce Jones, Guest Contributor

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Bryce Jones is a former child comedian who used to open for Doug Stanhope at too impressionable an age. He is now a mild-mannered bookseller. His writing has been published in Treblezine and Slant Magazine.

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