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A Quiet Place is a metaphor for the terror of parenthood

Childbirth, a newborn’s cry, and volatile teenage emotions all become life-threatening: children are feared for their sheer vulnerability.

Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Don’t even breathe. It’s a scene we know all too well: a trembling victim swallowing their sobs to stay undetected by an approaching villain: from Jamie Lee Curtis cowering in the closet in Halloween, to Jodie Foster tiptoeing in the dark in The Silence of the Lambs, to two children hiding from raptors in the kitchen in Jurassic Park. Rarely have such slices of suspense been stretched to comprise an entire film. That’s the neat premise behind A Quiet Place.

Director and lead actor John Krasinski (the star of the US version of The Office, where he perfected communicating to camera with silent wide eyes) and his off-screen wife Emily Blunt play the parents of a family of five. We first meet them in 2020, 89 days after blind creatures with supersonic hearing took over the world. Speak, drop something, sneeze – and they’ll rush at you from nowhere, killing you instantly. They’re seemingly the only surviving family around: thanks to their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress who also stars in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck) they all know sign language. Yet her deafness is a blessing and also a curse: Regan can’t hear her own sounds, or a monster’s approach. They live below ground in an almost sound-proof home, only leaving occasionally, walking barefoot on paths they’ve made of soft sand. But even this isn’t enough to guarantee their safety.

Such a premise, of course, invites sudden noises piercing a hushed soundscape; followed by long, tense scenes of desperate, silent fear – as characters hover, barely breathing, just out of reach of the monsters. But A Quiet Place doesn’t just ask if it could be possible to build a life in a state of permanent, terrified silence. It also grows into a (sometimes blunt) metaphor for the terror of parenthood. Before the title card has rolled, their youngest child has been killed; the grief and guilt haunts each family member. By day 479, Blunt’s character is pregnant again, her belly swelling with the promise of uncontrollable, noisy wails.

Childbirth, a newborn’s cry, a toy spaceship, a game of Monopoly, childike curioisty and volatile teenage emotions all become life-threatening: children are feared for their sheer vulnerability. Like all parents, our leads are ultimately caught between wrapping their children in (soundproof) cotton wool, and guiding them into the unknown, so they might, one day, survive on their own. Must we force our children to do things that frighten them? Should we be extra protective of children with particular disabilities or disadvantages, or does that only make life more difficult? Is telling a child they have nothing to fear always, in some sense, a lie?

A Quiet Place has been compared to Get Out for its social commentary, metanarratives of diversity and representation, critical popularity, and mainstream appeal: it debuted at the top of the US box office, the best opening weekend since Black Panther. But A Quiet Place isn’t layered with complex symbolism or searing insight. Instead, its broader questions are communicated most effectively when they linger uneasily in the background, least when they are spelled out in unsubtle dialogue. For a supposedly “silent” film, there are a remarkable number of lines that should have remained unspoken – from the film’s most conspicuous quote, “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” to a climactic declaration of fatherly love. At these points, the film assumes it has greater depths than it really does: instead it’s at its best when it knows it’s gimmicky, and has fun with it – playing with its own premise and teasing at tropes of the genre while winking slyly at inescapable, universal horrors.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.