Wednesday, March 05, 2014

12 Years a Slave

     Most of the characters in 12 Years a Slave have names, but they are all interchangeable. Their names are unimportant, and so too are the characters. The film feels stolid, even as it exhibits harsh brutality (most of which occurs in the background or off camera). There is no realistic passage of time as the title implies. Perhaps if the characters, any of the characters, had been built up -- I might have felt something more than the requisite emotions the film was engineered to wring out of me (along with the self-reverential score that drones on from nearly start to finish). This film, and last years Best Picture winner Argo, have proven to me that we have forgotten how to make movies. We don't tell stories anymore with film. We use story tropes. That is: we use words, phrases or images for artistic effect.  

12 Years a Slave is a collection of tropes, strung together by a loose narrative that should have felt more like an epic journey, or a Greek Tragedy. Instead, everything in it felt stagey or blocked to me. Especially the way extras would walk in and out of frame, or the way scenes were composed like people and objects posing for a photograph. Take for instance the way male nudity is unnaturally concealed in every single shot. So unnatural it almost felt something like a high school for the performing arts play using interpretive body language at times. Is it so hard to tell a story anymore? Must we constantly try to trick our eyes, confound expectations or over-complicate the process? There's a very clear and simple narrative trying to escape from the film, but like the main character, it's stuck in a quagmire of impassive landscapes and tedious thematics. The worst thing I can say is it felt Hollywood, like the totally rhetorical cameo of producer/megastar Brad Pitt who shows up to validate the goodness of white people.

I grew impatient and angry with the film. Angry because it demanded nothing from me, other than to endure the brutality I had already anticipated from it. But where was the heart of the film? Where was the human spirit that was fighting to endure (rendering the brutality worth experiencing)? I began to think about The Killing Fields, a film that deeply affected me in my youth. Why wasn't this film on the same level as The Killing Fields? Why was the passing of time, the waiting around idly until a sudden burst of violence and the development of characters such a huge problem here? When I revisited Schindler's List on Blu-ray recently, I was amazed at how coherent and intimate the difficult and sprawling production was. 12 Years a Slave is neither coherent nor intimate. It's incredibly impersonal. I suspect this is so because we are meant to feel how impersonally or inhumanely the slaves are treated. They are property. Like the book before it painfully elucidates. The true misfortune of the film is that it never amounts to anything more.

Worse yet, I never felt Solomon's true pain: the absence of his family. There's a moment in True Grit (1969) when Mattie, the young protagonist, cradles the enormous gun that belonged to her dead father. There is more in that single moment of wordless expression than in most of Chiwetel Ejiofor's whole teary performance here. Like The Passion of the Christ before it, after a while, what difference does one more flogging or indignity make? And unlike the film Glory, it never really put me in these character's shoes. Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong'o makes a very impassioned film debut, but if the film were more about characters, instead of epithets, allegories and exemplars, it may have earned my tears.

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