A roundtable on ‘Ma’
Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Beat Editor: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the film beats roundtable on the 2019 film “Ma,” maybe one of the most perplexing movies of that year and maybe ever made. Let’s get started. What was your experience watching “Ma” for the first time?
Mary-Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer: I wrote in my notes just a couple question marks. Just bizarre. I mean, it wasn’t the craziest movie I’ve ever seen. The pacing, and the tone was just kind of weird. Confusion was my experience.
Elise Godfryd, Senior Arts Editor: This movie was my idea for the roundtable. I saw it with my dad and my little sister in the movie theater and it’s perhaps the most iconic movie theater experience I’ve ever had. My dad had to leave 30 minutes before the movie ended due to the extreme subject matter in the film — if you know, you know — and then my second time was two nights ago with our very own Drew Warrick over Teleparty. A very different experience, but just as beautiful.
Andrew Warrick, Daily Arts Writer: The first time I saw it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the second because I was kind of in shock. Every choice they could have possibly made wrong. They did it. It’s not even very campy. It’s just bizarre, and it lingers, like with you just because there’s nothing else like it. As I told Elise, Ma is going to be an iconic horror movie villain. Not because she’s scary, because there is nothing else like this character.
Tamhaney: To your point about camp, I agree. This movie is kind of made with serious intentions. I was looking at the genres listed as and it’s just horror. It’s not comedy. It’s not satire. It’s just horror. And I personally love disaster projects that are made with good intentions and just end up so different from those intentions. That’s what I loved about this movie.
Ross London, Daily Arts Writer: After I finished it, I stumbled upon a review that pretty accurately labeled a B-movie. I went into this with no preconceptions, none. I had seen one clip, and it could have fit into any film — Ma’s run in with Mercedes, if you will. Another reason it’s so elusive is because it has an A-list cast. And for me, that begs the question, you know, is it still a B-movie if it doesn’t feel like one? Because I think the contrast between the cast and the screenplay sort of confuses the viewer. I think we saw that confusion a little bit in our group chat in the past couple days. The initial reaction is like, ‘What was that? What reaction was I supposed to have?’
Judith Lawrence, Daily Arts Writer: I love this movie. But I do wonder what was going through people’s minds when they were making it. Obviously Octavia Spencer is the best part of this. She’s so good. I wonder how she felt about it. It was definitely advertised as kind of like a complex horror movie. And I laughed so much and had such a good time, but it’s definitely not scary. So yeah, it is kind of interesting to think about.
Tamhaney: This a good time to just ask, what were they thinking? Was the process not just, the filmmaking and screenwriting, but Octavia Spencer herself?
Warrick: To Judy’s point, Octavia Spencer is an executive producer on the movie, which I found really fascinating. Because I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what they were thinking like. It engages with class and race a tiny little bit. It’s trying to be scary and knowing it’s not, so also trying to be funny and both sort of cancel each other out in a wonderful, bizarre way.
Johnson: Something I want to talk about too, is that I don’t know if it’s really an A-list cast. “Ma” seems more similar to this movie Edward Norton did like last year where it was his own pet project. Maybe that’s what it was for Octavia Spencer. The thing about race is that, I feel like, just a lot of it could have gone further. There was definitely a racialized tone with the sexual assaults. And then, obviously, she paints his face white, like, but I feel like they could have gone way further. I kind of felt like, it was just meandering, like it didn’t really know what it wanted to be.
Tamhaney: One really weird detail I just want to point out about the end when she paints his face white — that is a symbol and “Get Out.” At the very beginning when Daniel Kaluuya is shaving. You just see him with the white shaving cream all over his face. A very small but weird connection between these two movies, which are completely on complete opposite sides of the horror spectrum.
London: I do think it raises an interesting point — could they have taken that further or or pulled that thread through the rest of the film? Because I recall that the moment of the dialogue in that moment is ‘there’s only room for one of us.’ It brings up this idea that in this small town America, there is pervasive racist culture, but also that race is or can be performative. There’s something inherent to that small town, American racial experience of sort of wearing masks.
Godfryd: I am really glad we’re talking about this because I think 30 minutes ago, I thought the fact that “Ma” attempted to engage with all of these things, horror, comedy, race class, gender was funny, because it failed. It fails I think in so many ways. But when you do choose to engage with something as sensitive and important as race in America, you got to take it seriously. And I don’t think “Ma” does as much as it could have.
Warrick: I do think it’s interesting that we’re talking this seriously about a movie where Octavia Spencer injects Luke Evans with dog’s blood. I can’t, it’s over the top.
Johnson: Wait, was that Luke Evans? That was one part I really liked. I think that was one of the stronger moments because she’s saying ‘men are dogs.’ I wish it went that full force for the whole movie. If we’re talking about Midwestern America, we could talk about how racism is more covert than overt. But I almost wanted them to hit me over the head with it the way that they did with the flashbacks. Ma wasn’t just an outsider because she was like this dowdy, nerdy girl, she was an outsider because she was the only Black person there. I don’t just want the Earth, Wind & Fire when she runs over this white jogger. I want more interaction with that.
Tamhaney: We’re talking about the serious things this movie engages with but also, we’re talking about how “Ma” is this slippery slope of ideas. We can kind of broaden that and just ask, where does “Ma” fall in the canon of horror movies from the last decade? Where do you think we’re gonna be with this movie a few years from now?
Godfryd: I know I’ll never forget it. In the same way that I’ll never forget “The Room,” which I think is another example of something that was intended to be one thing but turned out being perceived as something entirely different. The tragedy of that, but also the comedy, is so funny to me. Personally, I’ll never forget “Ma” in my life, the character or the film.
Tamhaney: Yeah, I agree. With the “Room” connections, I think it’s definitely on the surface pretty standard Blumhouse trash horror fair. But far more fun than the average movie of that category, and so it’s something that I think will be rewatched by a lot of people.
Warrick: I definitely place it like a Nicolas Cage movie right now, the stuff that he just churns out. Because he’s a skilled actor, but he’s just doing this trash. So it’s just interesting to see someone like Octavia Spencer do this. It’s like seeing Toni Collette in ‘Transformers” or something, there’s just something wrong there.
Godfryd: And not only be in it, but executive produce it, I feel like that indicates that she really cared about the project. Just really funny.
Johnson: I am also wondering about author’s intent. But, starting from the beginning, this premise of moving to a small town, hoping you make new friends. Is it trying to pay homage to “The Evil Dead” or “Amityville Horror”?
Tamhaney: Let’s move on to some specifics we loved about “Ma,” namely fashion. Tell us some of some of the highlight outfits you found in this movie.
Godfryd: At Ma’s first party with the kids in the basement, she wears this glorious beret. I don’t know what the official word for it is — the pink cap this gorgeous, tie dyed bedazzled tunic. She’s dancing and grooving while doing the robot. That was my favorite look, for sure. Also, the cheetah print.
Lawrence: I really like her classic look. Her scrubs and the sweater. I feel like it’s very iconic.
London: Allison Janney in a lab coat. It was really convincing and I want Allison Janney to be my doctor.
Tamhaney: Irrelevant, but it is ridiculous that she’s in three scenes in this movie.
London: I don’t know how much they paid her. But I’m so glad that she was in this film.
Tamhaney: How does this film deal with dramatic tonal shifts? Because I think most of us agree, it starts as like a small town high school movie. And then somewhere along the way, we get to sheer blood and violence.
Warrick: I took notes through my rewatch and I wrote down the scene. After the first party, Ma says, ‘Now you know where the party is,’ and she’s smiling. But as her new friends disappear into the dark, she just starts weeping. And so I really think so much of this tonal shift is anchored by Octavia Spencer’s performance. If she wasn’t in this wielding the character in such an amazing way, it would be a failure.
Johnson: My short answer is I don’t think it deals with tonal shifts. Well, like at all, I think it’s kind of all over the place.
Tamhaney: I agree with you, but I actually love it. It feels like you’re getting into a roller coaster, but no one’s really strapping you in. So you can hold on if you want to. If you do, it’s incredible. The degree of unhingedness is kind of rewarding for me.
London: This is like a directorial playground. It’s just like, ‘Let’s do let’s do everything,’ and in some strange way it works.
Tamhaney: What “Ma” moment resonated with your personality the most?
Johnson: Maybe this is basic, but when she runs over Mercedes and then plays Earth, Wind & Fire, just really it just speaks to me. I don’t know if it’s me, but it’s who I want to be.
Tamhaney: I chose the same moment, probably for a different reason. The actress who plays Mercedes is also in “Gone Girl,” and she’s the most annoying character in that movie. So when she dies in “Ma,” it feels like personal fulfillment because of “Gone Girl” for me, like something had been satisfied that I didn’t know I needed.
Godfryd: I’m gonna say three moments. One, the moment Drew mentioned earlier, when Ma is saying goodbye to the kids but as they leave, she starts weeping. That feels personal, and then also the robot dance. That’s something I would do at a party. Number three happens more than once — when Ma starts bombarding the kids with calls and FaceTime messages, because that also feels like me at times when I’m being especially annoying.
Lawrence: I say all of her dance scenes, and then definitely the ‘Don’t make me drink alone’ and that ‘It’s five o’clock somewhere’ lines. And I also really like when Diana Silvers’s friend says ‘Damn Ma, don’t you have a job?’
Warrick: I think my favorite line of Ma’s ‘Now you know where the party is’ is when she points upstairs and says ‘That’s my world and right now it’s a mess.’
London: In terms of a moment that resonates with my personality, I’d say the party scenes. I would love to party with Octavia Spencer. That sounds like a dream come true. But I think my favorite moment, one that I wish that they spent more time on, was when Ma crawls into bed with the transfused and drained Ben at the end of the film.
Tamhaney: Speaking of which, what “Ma” moment did you find the craziest or the most shocking?
Lawrence: The whole sequence when she’s when she has them all tied up. She paints the one of their faces and irons that guy’s stomach and sews the one of their mouth’s shut. That was all very, very shocking.
Warrick: I think when I first realized “Ma” was going to be an insane movie was when she just pulls the gun during the really calm, drinking teenage season. She just picks up a revolver and says, ‘Take your clothes off,’ out of nowhere.
Godfryd: So, the obvious answer to this question is the scene with Luke Evans involving the knife. I won’t say any more, if you know, you know.
Johnson: I really love horror movies, so the knife scene didn’t really shock me that much. It kind of seemed like the bread and butter for this kind of movie. But the flashback scene with the janitor’s closet was really shocking for me.
Tamhaney: I will only add, when Ma shows up to Maggie’s house and is talking to her mom, I don’t think that moment is shocking in and of itself. But when she hugs her mom and looks at Maggie with the most evil face that there ever was, that took the movie from ‘Ma a little bit crazy’ to ‘Ma is the end of these people’ and I loved it.
Tamhaney: Give us a synopsis of your “Ma” prequel or sequel.
Johnson: Genie, Ma’s daughter, gets her revenge on all the kids for killing their mom by having Munchausen by proxy with them. Maybe called “Am” just because it’s “Ma” backwards?
Warrick: A prequel revealing how Allison Janney and Ma met would be very fascinating.
London: Andy and Maggie get married, and in trying so hard not to become their parents, they fall out of love. Both develop an obsession with Genie, and ultimately tear her limb from limb. I don’t know.
Godfryd: Like both Ross and Mary Elizabeth, I like the idea of going into the future and exploring Ma’s daughter. Maybe events repeat themselves but with a twist.
Tamhaney: I would love to see a really shoddily drawn CGI ghost Octavia Spencer. And for that reason and that reason only, I want Ma to come back as a ghost and finish the work she started.
Judy: I was also thinking of a ghost kind of thing. I think that would be very interesting.
Tamhaney: As we close up this conversation, does anyone have any parting wisdom or final thoughts that they haven’t shared yet?
Warrick: It’s rare for a genuine terrible movie to get released. I think a lot of times nowadays, they’re intentionally terrible like “Sharknado” or “Velocipastor.” I never want to watch those because they’re trying to be bad. This is just this an example of a true bad film and it doesn’t get made a whole lot. It usually doesn’t get made with millions of dollars like this.
Tamhaney: Last, but certainly not least, would you let her drink alone?
Warrick: We couldn’t do it.
Godfryd: I’ll stand by her till the day I die —
London: At her hands most likely.
Godfryd: — forever and ever.
Tamhaney: Thank you all for participating.
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