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12 Years a Slave is a real American horror story. Based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northrup, the film is about the experiences of Northrup, who was a free man living in New York when he was abducted by slavers in Washington, DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. After I saw Django Unchained last year I watched a number of other movies about slavery (and wrote about it in “Slavery stories“), and 12 Years a Slave is an interesting addition to this collection of films. Where Mandingo mocks the white audience with its portrayal of white sexual depravity, and Django Unchained and Nightjohn appeal to a black (and sympathetic white) audience with images of black heroism, 12 Years a Slave tries to make the white audience identify with the horrifying plight of the slave. Like Mandingo and Nightjohn, the film makes identification with the white characters extremely difficult, because they are the monsters in the film. But beyond that, it invites us to identify with Northrup because he is a free man, and not just a free man but a free American. He’s just like you and me until he’s snatched into the nightmare world of slavery.
12 Years a Slave isn’t really a genre horror film, although some of the ominous, discordant music wouldn’t be out of place in the soundtrack of a monster movie. But it’s a horror film of a kind in the way that it focuses on the abuse, torture, dehumanization, and suffering of the slaves — and the converse dehumanization of their white owners, who must be monsters in order to be masters. The set pieces of the film are about the extreme physical, moral, and spiritual abuse the slaves suffer, and the film is different from the other three films I mentioned (except maybe Mandingo) in that it doesn’t try to ennoble the suffering or make it the source of heroism. Northrup chastises other slaves whom he perceives as succumbing to despair, but it’s an anguished chastisement that’s always left raw and pleading. Northrup’s eventual freedom is not the result of bravery on his part, although it is the result of cunning. It relies on the intervention of others. All he can do is try to get a signal out to those who know he is legally a free man, and meanwhile he is forced to participate in the torture of his fellow slaves. That’s part of the horror of his (and our) situation.
This is not an uplifting film; it does not provide a great sense of release or catharsis, even when Northrup finally regains his freedom. It’s unsettling, it’s troubling, and it’s painful. The scars on Northrup’s body still run deep in the American body politic over a hundred years later. Perhaps those wounds will never heal.
In the past year I’ve started going to more movies at the two downtown multiplexes, the AMC Pacific Place 11 and the Regal Meridian 16, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that the Pacific Place occasionally plays popular (as opposed to art house) Chinese movies and the Meridian 16 occasionally plays Bollywood movies. This seemed like unusual fare for multiplex cinemas, and my theory was that it was some kind of effort to reach immigrant (or international student) audiences, perhaps because the audiences for Hollywood movies is shrinking. So I’ve started keeping an eye open for the oddball things playing at these cinemas.
If this is what’s going on, Nosotros los Nobles may represent another front in the effort. It’s a smash hit in Mexico, breaking box office records there, and now it’s playing in a few markets in the U.S. to test the waters here. I thought it was notable that it’s being shown under it’s original title, with no attempt to cater to English-speakers. Sure enough, the audience at the showing I went to at the Pacific Place was heavily Hispanic, including several families with children in tow. (The kids were no doubt delighted that the characters swore in English, up to and including the word “fuck”.) As with the Chinese film Young Detective Dee, which played at the same multiplex, there was no poster for this movie outside the auditorium. There was a review in the Seattle Times, but mostly the film seems to be flying under the usual radar.
It is an utterly conventional, and indeed conservative, family comedy. The title translates as something like We the Nobles, and the story concerns the Nobles — an upper class family of a CEO father and this three feckless children. The mother died some number of years ago, and in her absence the now-grown children have lost their moorings and are acting like spoiled idiots. This is the source of much of the comedy early in the film, as the outlandish (not to mention selfish) behavior of the bourgeoisie is lampooned. Soon Papa realizes he has to take matters in hand, and he concocts a scenario in which the kids are deprived of their luxuries and have to work for a living. Under the salubrious influence of hard labor and working class values, ancient family grievances are aired and addressed, and balance (and credit cards) are restored.
When I say this is a conservative film, I mean it has some very traditional, if not retrograde, notions about sexuality and gender roles. (One of the “jokes” is that the youngest son is sexually exploited by his female boss, ho ho ho.) That, and the fact that it was all completely predictable, were my only complaints about the film. It’s very well done for what it is, it moves right along, develops the characters, and provides some good laughs. I confess that this is something I wouldn’t give a second look if it were a Hollywood film, and the only reason I went was to see what such a thing looks like when it’s made in Mexico. Perhaps I’m developing a nagging interest in the popular cinema of other countries. My own conventions when it comes to foreign films tend toward action or crime genres or art films, so it’s good for me to stretch my boundaries a bit. The result was a perfectly agreeable evening of light fun.
For anyone interested in globalization and the evolution of the mainland Chinese film industry, please have a look at the comments to my recent review of the Chinese movie, My Lucky Star. I had wondered in my review why they used an American TV director, Dennie Gordon, and why this film had gotten a release (small scale thought it was) in the US. One of the producers has left a fascinating and wide-ranging comment reflecting on what they were trying to accomplish with the film and his view of what’s going on in the Chinese film industry right now. It’s well worth a read.
This Island Earth has everything against it. It’s a fantasy, it’s science-fiction, it’s slanted at adolescents, it’s a routine product from a studio with no intellectual pretensions, it has no auteurs, its artistic ‘texture’ is largely mediocre — and for all that, it has a genuine charge of poetry and of significant social feeling. It’s not cliché; with its sense of inner tensions, of moral tragedy, its myth.
Our suggestion is that academic criticism is condemned to misunderstand the film, to dismiss it as routine trash, because its psychology is straightforward, its terms melodramatic, and so on. ‘High culture’ is preoccupied with what Henry James called ‘density of specification’ and what F.R. Leavis calls ‘texture’, with the question: ‘Does it work on my level?’ But such criteria are irrelevant to this as to most movies. The question must be, rather, ‘Does it work on its level?’ (for people who freely respond to simpler textures).
The temptation then is to swing to the other extreme, and fall into the studiedly uncritical acceptance of any and every form of popular art as ‘myth’ and ‘folklore of the twentieth century’; or, at a slightly more aware level, to abandon oneself to the ironic relish of ‘camp’. Too often this is both a studied falsity and a (completely unnecessary) surrender to the (supposed) naivety of popular thought. Our implication is that some pulp-movies are very much more considerable than others, that the mythic can be distinguished from the cliché, that, through the myth, movies communicate with people’s real doubt and feelings, that such movies are in a very real sense ‘good’ art as opposed to others which are in a very real sense ‘bad’ art. This isn’t to elevate the subversive possibilities of entertainment above its reinforcing of social attitudes; This Island Earth isn’t subversive, for most of its spectators. But its tragic sense of moral tensions is very different from the comic-strip images which many ‘pop-artists’ prefer to plunder.
– Raymond Durgnat, Films and Feelings (1967)
This is kind of a placeholder review, because I went to a late show and was so tired that I kept dozing off during the first half of the movie. Therefore I can’t really judge how well this film works on its own terms. The parts of it I was conscious for certainly seemed odd, however. The screenplay is by Cormac McCarthy, and the dialogue is very literary and arch. There’s an overt, almost aggressive expression of sexual feelings throughout. There is a fair amount of gruesome violence. The basic story is that a lawyer from El Paso gets involved in a large drug deal with a Mexican cartel and things go south. so to speak. It’s a Ridley Scott film, so it all looks great. Other than that, however, it all felt very … arch and strained. Maybe I’ll watch it again sometime when I’m more able to retain consciousness. Then again, what I saw didn’t really draw me in.
Clever adapting Lovecraft’s “The Color out of Space” in black and white, eh?
I saw this three weeks ago and wasn’t sure I was going to write about it. I saw it at the South Asian Film Festival at SIFF. The advantage of seeing a film from so far out of my normal frame of reference is that it stretches my frame, but the disadvantage is that I don’t feel I have the context to really understand what it’s saying.
Set in the Indian state of Kerala (I just had to google to see whether India has states or provinces or what), the story begins with an older man traveling by boat and dirt road to an impoverished hut, where he finds a young woman and her son. He tells them he’s taking them home to live with him. Gradually we learn that the woman’s husband has just died and that the older man is her father-in-law. This latter point was confusing, however, because in the subtitles she refers to him as “father”. Later we are introduced to another man who is also referred to as “father,” and it appears that he’s her actual father who has disowned her. The father-in-law is showing her more love than the father. It was hard for me to tell how significant this was. It was hard enough just telling who was the father and who was the father-in-law.
The story has two strands. In the “present” strand, the woman starts to dance and sing as though possessed. She also stops menstruating. The village people believe she is possessed by a goddess, and they want her to perform religious rituals for them. She just wants to lead a normal life with her son. Meanwhile, her father-in-law, who seems to be some sort of medicine man or doctor is treating her to get her menstrual cycle to start again.
In the other strand of the story we travel back in time to learn that she and her husband had been excommunicated from the local church, or whatever it’s called in what appears to be the Hindu sect to which they belonged. They’ve been ostracized by the village as well. We eventually learn what transgression it was that caused all this, and we learn how miserable life was for them afterward. The one thing I’m not sure we ever learn is how the husband died. The way the story is told in dispersed flashbacks made it a bit hard to follow, so I may have just missed that part.
I didn’t like the movie much, but it has stuck with me. What put me off, more than just the fact that it was difficult for me to understand, was the sheer number of scenes in which the woman, Gouri, sat there crying helplessly. It’s a melodrama, and it’s about her ordeal, her suffering and her conflict with the traditional religious values of the village. I’ve grown to like melodramas better over the years, but I tend to prefer the really stylized, artificial ones like those of Sternberg. Hues of Red is not glossy or stylized in the least. It’s about poor peasants in India, and it’s fairly naturalistic and down-to-earth in its approach.
So why does it stick with me? I think part of it is just that it’s such a strange world for me. The film dwells on religious mystery at times, particularly around the question of whether Gouri is really possessed by a goddess or not, but this whole world is a mystery to me. What exactly is Gouri’s father-in-law — a traditional village doctor of some kind? Why is her brother-in-law such a dick? Why do her parents ostracize her while her parents-in-law take her in? How did the husband die? Who is the goddess who is said to possess her? The ending of the film, which I won’t spoil, is itself a question of sorts, open-ended and unresolved. And thus I am left wondering what it is I saw.
The description of Hues of Red on the festival website has a lot of interesting information. One of the interesting tidbits is that the film, by first-time director Manoj Kana, was funded by thousands of people from Kerala and around the world. It has the feel of a grassroots film, made for and by the people.
Alfonso Cuarón’s new film is a very effective tension-generating machine. His previous film, Children of Men (2006), hit me like a punch in the gut. It left me feeling devastated at the same time that I had a lot of problems with the dystopian scenario and the religious (well, really, Christian) overtones to the resolution. Gravity had a similar effect on me. As a thriller it is expertly crafted and kept me riveted throughout. But the characters and thematic elements are less satisfying. Really, however, I’ll need to see it again before I can judge how important those disappointments are. I had a similar reaction to Prometheus before I saw it again and found that the things that bugged me the first time through weren’t as important as I’d thought.
I’ve been looking forward to Gravity since I saw the first trailer. The trailers for the film have been some of the best trailers of the past year, and it says something that I liked the movie as much as I did despite the high expectations raised by the trailers. It lived up to the hype.
The scenario is that a shuttle crew is working on the Hubble telescope when space junk from a destroyed Russian satellite sweeps through and leaves two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) marooned in space. From there it becomes one long desperate flight from disaster to disaster. As I said to my friend Luke on walking out of theater, “That was the worst day in a life ever.” Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. This in itself feels a little bit ludicrous after a while, but the almost Rube Goldbergian way in which one disaster kicks off the next is fascinating in its own absurd way. As fiction, it is completely compelling.
There has been a lot of focus on the technical achievements of this film, and for good reason. It looks absolutely magnificent. One thing that struck me over and over is that it takes one of the basic premises of Elysium – that the Earth looks incredibly beautiful from low orbit — and then makes Elysium look completely superficial in the way that the beauty is depicted. Gravity explores the different moods of the planet’s surface as the characters orbit through different lighting conditions (look for the night scene with moonlight on ocean), and the sheer range of beautiful vistas discovered is endlessly fascinating. One of the constant unspoken tensions in the film, in fact, is between the horrific catastrophes being experienced by the characters in the foreground and the serene beauty of the backdrop below them. The silent beauty of the planet ratchets up the yearning for relief from distress and also, in ways that brought to mind Kubrick’s 2001 more than once — creates a sense of the insignificance of the human struggle for life in the face of such sublimity.
Over all, however, the film is an argument against that sense of insignificance. This is where I had some problems with it. The character moments felt too melodramatic to me, but that’s the kind of reaction I often have the first time I see an intense movie that is punching my emotional buttons. Clooney’s character (looking a lot like Buzz Lightyear, I’m afraid to say) is a generic all-American can-do hero, but Sandra Bullock is more appealing as an Everywoman type who has to struggle and fumble with her own panicked reactions. Her backstory, however, is where I really felt the melodrama was overdone, a little too on-the-nose. Still, since the point of the story is the tension and thrills of the actions, maybe it’s only right to have generic characters written in the broadest, bluntest strokes. They give the audience a point of emotional identification to pull us along through the adventure without distracting us with too much complexity to consider.
As a cathartic rollercoaster ride, Gravity cannot be faulted. If I’m not yet convinced by its greater spiritual aspirations, well, I want to give it another try. It actually makes me want to give Children of Men another try too. Sometimes a punch in the gut is just what the doctor ordered.