21 October 2013

OF HUMAN BONDAGE

There is something especially wonderful about watching a hyped-up movie that justifies it. So let me now add to the increasing pile of loving encomiums for 12 Years a Slave, which probably isn't actually as good as the OH MY GOD tenor of the reviews have promised - for starters, it's definitely not director Steve McQueen's best movie, not with Hunger out in the world in all its emaciated glory - and probably seems marginally better than it actually is because of the Unbelievable Gravity and Importance of the subject matter (it feels very like Schindler's List in that regard), but is still, no matter how many qualifications you want to hang on it, really fucking good. And it would still be good even if films elucidating the horror of antebellum slavery in the American South weren't so unaccountably rare, and it didn't feel like such an altogether necessary film, on top of being a gripping drama and immaculate depiction of human suffering and strength.

The film is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, here played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in what I might even be willing to tag as a career-best performance, and given the overall quality of performances in that man's career, that's saying a huge fucking amount. Northup was, in 1841, a professional violinist, a father and husband, a resident of New York state, and a freeborn black man. The last of these is the one that mattered most in the United States in the middle of the 19th Century, and at a certain point, Northup was hired to play in Washington, D.C., from which city his kidnapped, dragged down to Louisiana, and sold as a slave, renamed "Platt". Over the next 12 years, he lived in the abject misery common to millions of persons of color at that period of history, until a chance meting finally allowed him to get word to his friends in New York, and extricate himself from his ghastly situation.

Let me just say one thing that bugs me about the film's reception: this is a tremendously interesting story, harrowing and powerful and sobering, and it reveals several truths that American culture has been hellbent on forgetting for many generations now. But it's not The Great Film About Slavery, except to the extent that it's The Only Film About Slavery. Let us return to ways that it resembles Schindler's List; if that film is about "600 Jews who didn't die" as Stanley Kubrick cuttingly put it, so to is 12 Years a Slave about one man not dying in the hideous machinery of slavery (the title is not, after all, 60+ Years a Slave). And this absolutely should not serve to distract from what the film does right, which is virtually everything: it's telling a compelling story that allows it to investigate a certain moment in history, and not capturing in documentary-like detail every bitter moment that leads to the moment a slave keeled over dead in the fields to be tossed in a bog for eternity. This is ultimately a film about hope, not despair, and that's fine - it's important, though, to observe that this is the case.

Anyway, the plot of 12 Years a Slave is pretty well covered in the title: there is no single dramatic conflict throughout, just one sequence after another of the horrible things that happened to Northup and, one can readily presume, to hundreds of other people: being propped up in a gallery full of naked slaves for sale like a nightmarish parody of an art show, lashed with a whip for breathing wrong, humiliated to stave off a slaveowner's boredom, forced every single day to confront the reality of who he was until that day in Washington versus who he is now, and obliged to constantly ask how much servility can be stomached, how many compromises of his own moral code he can make. There is an arc, just not a narrative one, but a moral one: starting from the moment he ends up for sale, he is advised by two more experienced slaves (cheekily perched by McQueen above Ejiofor's shoulders like the angel and devil of a cartoon), one of whom preaches resistance and fighting, the other who argues the exact opposite: do whatever the masters say, no matter how degrading and vile and humiliating, do what you can to survive. When the rebellious slave ends up dead, Northup makes his choice, and 12 Years a Slave is in part the exploration of how much agony a man can endure before he concludes that survival isn't enough, as Northup says initially, before immediately consenting to do whatever horrible things he must to get through.

Along the way, many actors embody both the population of slaves (Michael K. Williams, Adepero Oduye, Lupita Nyong'o, all of whom are excellent) and the white slavers (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, all of them decent). Towering above everything are McQueen's muse Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as Edwin and Mary Epps, an exceptionally cruel pair of plantation owners, though 12 Years a Slave quite thoroughly blows up the legend of the "kind" slave owner sold in things like Gone with the Wind; Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett), the wife of Cumberbatch's minister, the self-appointed nice and loving slaveowners, gets one of the movie's most shocking moments when she consoles a weeping mother with the promise that she'll forget her children in no time at all, a statement of rich Christian charity, to be sure.

But for all the evils meted out by a lot of people, the Epps couple represent something closer to fairytale evil. They even hate each other; Edwin sneers right in his wife's face that he rather abandon her than quit raping his favorite slave. It's no slight to a generally strong cast (outside of Brad Pitt, whose cameo as the One Good White Man is possibly the worst performance of his career, done in by a ludicrous accent) if I suggest that Fassbener and Paulson give the best performances after Ejiofor himself, both of them playing outright monsters in such a way that they cannot even for one minute be dismissed as wicked caricatures.

Throughout, McQueen depicts the unmitigated cruelty of the slaving world with the same unblinking eye that he used to capture the withered hunger strikers of Hunger and Fassbender's enormous wang in Shame, relying once again on longer than usual takes that offer no respite from the material and in one grand, bravura moment, depicting a hideous whipping in one sinewy tracking shot that feels like it never ends, using the merciless lack of cutting to insist on the physical reality of the moment to punishing effect. He and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt do occasionally offer a break in the form of some picturesque dashes of nature photography (the film as a whole looks slightly prettier than I think it might benefit from), but the overwhelming majority of the film consists of things that are not pleasant to look at, but are too powerful, too grandly staged, too deeply felt by the performers, to turn away from them.

Everything in the film is calculated to hurt the viewer: Hans Zimmer's score, used quite sparingly, is made up almost exclusively of sharp edges; the structure of the story eschews clear chronology and linking events in favor of flowing across time like a blur punctuated by violence (it does, unfortunately, open with one of those damned "scene from the middle of the film, without context" beats, justified only in that the scene itself - a quick and joyless sexual encounter between two broken, desperate slaves - is so haunting). It's a hard film to sit through; I can't think of any objectively great film this year that I'd be less inclined to describe with the phrase "I liked it" (even the three and a half hour Holocaust documentary The Last of the Unjust isn't this anti-entertaining). It is, however, great cinema: not only because it depicts images that have been too long ignored in American films, but because its depiction of a man struggling to keep alive long enough to remember what it means to be human is so profound and exquisitely performed by an actor whose success in creating a meaningful character defined by his obscured personality is surely one of the great pieces of acting of the 2010s thus far.

9/10

6 comments:

kevin said...

"If [Schindler's List] is about "600 Jews who didn't die" as Stanley Kubrick cuttingly put it, so to is 12 Years a Slave about one man not dying in the hideous machinery of slavery (the title is not, after all, 60+ Years a Slave)."

This is a good point, and it's the reason that I found a moment near the end to be such a major misstep. [Spoilers, I guess] When Solomon is finally rescued, he hugs Patsy goodbye, gets in the cart with his rescuers, and rides away, with the plantation slowly fading out of focus in the background of the shot, as if it were a nightmare that's finally ending. And that's it for Patsy and the other slaves. Solomon comes home to a family that's been loving and missing him all those years, and then the film ends. It's a disappointingly pat resolution, and what makes the flaw more glaring than it otherwise might be is that it could have been fixed with a simple reversal of that shot where Solomon rides away. If we had seen that moment from Patsy's perspective, with Solomon disappearing into the distance with his white friends, it would have made Solomon's breakdown in the final scene much richer and more complicated. One gets the sense that McQueen intended his apology in that scene to hint at the guilt he feels for his happy ending, but thanks to the direction in the rescue scene, the moment doesn't land with the force it should.

This is just a quibble, I know—the film deserves the praise it's been getting. It's just too bad that it bears this blemish, in the same way that it's too bad that Psycho has that psychiatrist scene at the end.

Tim said...

That very specific shot bothers me most of all because of the very audible "Patsy faints dead away" audio cue that feels like, I don't know, he should glance back, maybe?

But the reality of the situation is that this film likely wouldn't have been made without a relatively safe, reassuring ending, just like it wouldn't have been made if executive producer Brad Pitt hadn't put in a sympathetic, easy-to-advertise cameo. It CERTAINLY wouldn't be at the forefront of the Oscar conversation.

Brian Malbon said...

I caught an accidental snippet of an E!-type entertainment news show last month in which they hyped up a "new Brad Pitt" movie, mispronounced Ejiofor's name, briefly admitted that Brad Pitt has barely a cameo and that Ejiofor was the star and then went on about more Brad Pitt. does that count as ironic or offensive in light of what the subject matter of the film was?

Jackie Theballcat said...

Yeah, but it was an E!-type Entertainment review show. What do you expect?

gina.b said...

I didn't think the final plantation shot was flawed at all - yeah, there is something uncomfortable about Solomon's not looking back at Patsey as the backdrop slides easily out of focus. It felt indulgent, bordering on selfish. And that sounds about right for a man who's learned to make the kind of compromises Solomon had to in order to survive.

I would even go further and say that the scene, set up as it is with the focus on Solomon, makes viewers complicit in the selfishness. I don't know about you, but I nearly missed Patsey fainting. By the time I realized what happened, her body was almost off-screen and I felt guilty as hell - I'd been all too willing to let myself get caught up in one man's happy ending and forget the continuing plight of the rest.

gina.b said...

and oh, btw, great review!