Is Snowpiercer the Best Action Movie of the Year?

There has been hum of anticipation preceding the U.S. release of Snowpiercer Joon-ho Bong’s first (mostly) English language film that, ironically, found distribution abroad before finally being released in the good old US of A. Harvey Weinstein apparently wanted to cut something like 20 minutes out of the film for us stupid Americans. Too much talky-talky, I suppose. Reports say the edited version tested poorly and, voila, we here in the Land of the Free get to see what the rest of the world saw.

Chris Evans isn't Captain American anymore.

Chris Evans isn’t Captain American anymore.

I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Weinstein wanted to cut. There are extended scenes of dialogue where Chris Evans or John Hurt or Tilda Swinton go on about order or revolution, but none of it struck me as unnecessarily dense or confused. In fact the entire premise is almost absurdly simple, its points obvious, its metaphors almost labored. Still, while Snowpiercer isn’t as strong as some of Mr. Bong’s past efforts (Memories of Murder and Mother immediately come to mind), he manages to overcome the scripts shortcomings and spins a compelling and entertaining post-apocalyptic, dystopian adventure story.

We are some 18 years after the world’s end. In an effort to curb global warming, the nations of the world banded together and dispersed a chemical into the atmosphere that would have, they thought, cooled temperatures enough the maintain our polar ice caps and salvage beach front property values around the world. But the chemical worked too well and froze everything and everyone. Earth is now a giant block of ice. Whoops.

That's one way to fix global warming.

That’s one way to fix global warming.

The only survivors (that we know of) are packed on a giant, high-speed train that circles the globe, built by a billionaire, the mysterious and never seen Wilford, who always dreamed of living on a train. Well, the world froze and those holding tickets didn’t have a choice about where they could live. Here’s your compartment, welcome to the rest of your life.

While everything is more or less cozy for the first class passengers, those who elbowed their ways on without tickets are confined to the rear of the train, in the grimy filth and dark decay of poverty and repression. They are rationed blocks of gelatinous protein bars, but otherwise are left to their own devices in the rear of the train.

You'll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

You’ll find John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans among those in the back of the train.

After 18 years of scraping and exploitation, after 18 years of watching armed guards take away their children for who knows what ends, they decide to fight back, to band together and move forward. Using the security expert who designed the train’s system (Kang-ho Song), they override the barriers and slowly move forward, car by car, discovering more about the world they’ve been barred from than they ever wanted to know.

A new world that hasn't run out of soap.

A new world that hasn’t run out of soap.

As entertaining as the movie is, we can’t ignore the fact that Bong is making a serious point about the responsibility of power and the senselessness of exploitation. Tilda Swinton’s Minister Mason, the henchwoman for Wilford, tells them they all have a preordained place and they must know and keep that place, the same words used by those at the top of all exploitative systems since the dawn of time. Feudalism, slavery, unregulated capitalism all rely on extracting as much value from those below us without regard to their well being. And while there is a long scene at the end of the film in which we are almost convinced that this is the way things need to be, we are reminded that exploitation, while profitable for a while, is not sustainable. Those being stomped on will stop being grateful just for being saved and being alive; they want the opportunity to live well like everyone else.

There’s nothing terribly subtle about the way Bong explores these issues. Not that subtlety has much of a place in a picture like Snowpiercer. Absurdity and horror go hand in hand on this train. As ferocious as Mason is, Swinton laces her performance with a gleeful gusto and gets the movie’s biggest laughs. She’s something like a demonic mixture of Margaret Thatcher, Nurse Ratchet, and Joanna Lumley’s Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason.

Swinton’s performance is part of Bong’s acknowledgement of the absurdity of not only the premise of the movie (the perpetual motion engine of the train and its closed ecosystem would likely wither under careful scientific scrutiny), but the way we hold constructed social structures as sacrosanct. Just as nobles told serfs that God put them where they were and they should keep their place, Minister Mason tells the passengers in the back of the train the same. Much as factory owners said (and continue to say) working hard will be rewarded (when and with what they usually fail to specify), Snowpiercer’s third class passengers are told just the fact that Wilford allows them to continue living is their reward.

But life isn’t enough. Social structures that demand repression are dangerously shortsighted. There is nothing sacred about any social structure: they can be upended and, if things are bad enough, they usually are violently disturbed. Just have a chat with Louis XVI about that. And these violent uprisings threaten not just those sitting comfortably at the top, but everyone. If we want a functioning, healthy society, we have to include all voices, give everyone opportunities to flourish (rather than just live), and, above all, we need to respect one another.

Snowpiercer7

Snowpiercer takes on these issues less elegantly than I would have liked, nearly battering us with its point, but it’s still far preferable to most of the action/adventure films out there. It also lacks any major surprises. I’m not talking about twists, but the entire trajectory of the movie essentially followed the path I assumed it would take. There was nothing there that I didn’t expect to see in some form with, that is, the exception of Tilda Swinton’s performance.

But these reservations shouldn’t hold anyone back from seeing Snowpiercer. When the movie ended I thought, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t need to see it again.” But as the days have passed I have been tempted to rewatch it, remembering moments I want to re-experience, like Alison Pill’s demented schoolteacher. It’s certainly one of the more memorable movies you’ll see this year. The anticipation has not been squandered.

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Goldie, I Love You Just the Way You Are

Back in 2007, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Sherry Lansing, the former chairman of Paramount Pictures. Whatever one may think of Ms. Lansing, she had had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. She produced blockbusters like Fatal Attraction and later helped steer Paramount into one of its most profitable periods. The Academy decided to honor her for work in cancer research, founding the Sherry Lansing Foundation in 2005 for that work. In 2007 the Academy still allowed recipients of honorary awards the opportunity to give a speech and the night of the ceremony Tom Cruise introduced her and presented her with the golden statue. She gave her speech and that should have been it.

What did everyone talk about? Not her work for cancer research and awareness. Not her prowess as a producer in Hollywood. Not even her incredible rise in the boy’s club that is Hollywood.

No, I heard one person after another say, “Can you believe she wore that dress?”

You see it showed too much of her arms and the skin under her arms sags.

Stop smiling, Sherry! You look terrible.

Stop smiling, Sherry! You look terrible.

Saggy skin, you see, trumps everything. She could have cured cancer, but we would have still gasped at her sartorial audacity. I sat in awe, listening to someone who identifies as a feminist go on and on about how bad she looked. (Let’s forget that she looked great otherwise. One faux pas is apparently enough to erase every other accomplishment.)

And we continue this obscene focus on women’s appearances today. I generally don’t read post-Oscar critiques; they’re even more pointless and less entertaining than the show. One could probably recycle the same piece year after year and few would notice the difference. But I noticed a theme lurking through all the headlines I was ignoring—including one with the snarky title “Goldie We Love You Just the Way You Were”—and I made the mistake of pursuing the threads.

The gist of the article was what the hell were you thinking! Kim Novak made an appearance at Sunday night’s Oscars and all we can talk about is her face. Goldie Hawn was at the Oscars and all we can talk about is her face. Liza Minnelli was at the Oscars and all we can talk about is her face.

Goldie Hawn

Forget that all are accomplished actors, that all have had long careers, forget that we claimed (once) to love them. Now we can’t believe they even leave the house.

Imagine if Kim Novak showed up on Matthew McConaughey’s are with her 81-year-old face. Or Goldie showed up with her nearly 70-year-old face. Imagine the responses then. It’s no great revelation that we live in a culture that inordinately, obsessively values youth. So let’s not wonder how Kim and Goldie and Liza could have “done that to themselves” when we wouldn’t be any more kind had they not. Actually we probably would have been less kind—who knows how long Goldie Hawn stretched out her career because of her plastic surgery. Hollywood doesn’t have roles for old ladies; they think we won’t go see those pictures. Cate Blanchett made about this point nicely in her acceptance speech.

Kim Novak

When Hollywood finally realizes there are other audiences beyond those teenage boys they’re so eager to grab, when they realize adults and women go to the movies, then we might start seeing better roles for not only women, but older women as well. And then we might not see such an addiction to plastic surgery.

Maybe it’s because I live in Los Angeles, but Kim Novak and Goldie and Liza didn’t look all that bad to me. I see women who look like that all the time and I don’t gasp in horror (like the women on The View did, audaciously suggesting Kim Novak shouldn’t leave the house). I just feel bad for them. I feel bad that we live in a society that makes them feel they have no value if they don’t look young and attractive.

And let’s be consistent about it. Nowhere has anyone talked about how bad Bill Murray looked. Or Robert DeNiro. I didn’t hear much about how old Kurt Russell is looking. Harrison Ford was critiqued for his uneven reading of his lines, but if he’d gotten through them cleanly we’d hardly have known he was there. Sidney Poitier was applauded and all we heard were words of admiration. No one suggested Sidney Poitier shouldn’t have left the house because he looked his age.

Why can’t we treat our women the same way? Why can’t we admire the way a woman ages and refuse to treat wrinkles and sags as automatic deniers of beauty? If we can’t do that, then we can’t complain about Kim Novak’s face.

On the red carpet a Buzzfeed reporter asked Kevin Spacey some of the dopey question female actors get asked: How long did it take you to get ready? What are you wearing? And he handles it all fairly well until she asks to see his mani-pedi and if he’s wearing Spanx. He treats her with the contempt she deserves.

I’m not saying we can’t notice and comment on someone’s appearance, but if that’s all you notice and have to talk about, then maybe you should re-examine yourself and not Goldie Hawn’s face. She’s just fine. 

Good article from Reuter’s on this:

http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/03/04/kim-novak-and-the-vertigo-of-aging-beauty/

 

 

 

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When Beauty Isn’t Enough: Paolo Sorrentino’s “La grande bellezza” (The Great Beauty)

Just see this movie.

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The opening sequence of Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande belleza is one of the greats of recent memory. Sorrentino and cinematographer Luca Biggazi send the camera sweeping and gliding through the splendor of Rome. It’s Gianicolo Hill – monuments and statues and a massive fountain, all punctuated by a female choral rendition of David Lang’s haunting “I Lie.” As the camera explores the park we meet Romans inured to the beauty around them. One woman sits beside a statue reading the newspaper, a cigarette precariously dangling from her mouth as she looks up, annoyed, we think, at the garrulous birds in the trees above her. Another man in his undershirt washes himself in ancient fountain. Another sleeps on a park bench, his face turned away from the world around him, as though he can’t face it any longer. They are surreal figures, the kind that haunt most cities: idle and indifferent to the beauty and excitement around them, to the history they wash themselves in. Sorrentino eventually moves on to a group of Japanese tourists listening to a tour guide. One man peels away from the group to take photos of the view of the city. It’s too much, too much beauty. He keels over – and doesn’t get up.

 

Narratively this has nothing to do with the story of Jep Gambardella but, as we discover through the course of the film, it is the essence of Jep’s story. Once a great writer – or at least having the promise of being a great writer – Jep (Toni Servillo) now lives in an endless swirl of parties and women. He still writes, but he writes fluff pieces for a cultural magazine. The promise of his first and only novel has faded. He tells us he came to Rome and fell pretty quickly. The allure of the nightlife overtook him and his art crumbled. Others mourn the work he never did, but there’s nothing he can do about it. He can’t denounce the life he loves – the life that makes serious writing impossible. He hints, though never really says, that he saw the pointlessness of it all. Nothing is real, everyone is as phony as a facelift. Everything is wrapped up in irony and pretense; how can he cull any meaning out of that? He remarks more than once about Flaubert’s failed attempt to write a book about nothing and, Jep seems to think, the only thing he’s capable of writing about now is nothing. And if Flaubert couldn’t do it…

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But something happens at his 65th birthday. Forty years of parties begin to feel like a wasted life and he begins his surreal odyssey through the nightclubs and back alleys and strip clubs and palaces and ancient ruins of Rome. He isn’t exactly looking for meaning; he isn’t exactly questioning his life choices. (He’s too self-aware for anything so hackneyed.) But we think this will be a typical journey of redemption – you know the ones where the protagonist realizes he needs to do this or that to get whatever it is he or she lost before whatever it was happened and so on and so forth.

 Sorrentino makes it more complicated than that though. He throws all the typical redemption figures at Jep and when each one is introduced we, being sophisticated filmgoers, map the trajectory of the story in our heads. We meet the stripper with the heart of gold, a figure from the past with tragic news, a chance meeting with a cardinal, an 104-year-old nun on her way to sainthood (who looks like a cross between Mother Teresa and the Cryptkeeper). But they all fade away without offering that catharsis for Jep. Even a chance encounter with Fanny Ardant feels promising. We think this must be it! After all, Sorrentino wouldn’t have gotten an actress of such stature for just a few seconds of film time, right? She has to return, help save Jep, but she wanders off into the night, never to be seen again.

There are no easy answers, no one who can save him from himself. He has to walk the path alone. Others can help point the way, but there won’t be any emotional life preservers tossed from anyone else. Toward the end of the film he thinks about leaving Rome, one of those simple solutions we might expect. His loyal friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) has already decided to desert the city. Rome has disappointed me, he tells Jep and he hightails it to his hometown without even packing. But let’s be honest: A simple solution is right for Romano, a man who writes corny melodramas and makes a fool of himself with a much younger woman who is clearly using him for rides to the airport and we can only imagine what else. Jep on the other hand is violently self-aware. Running away wouldn’t be any more productive than staying. Then he would be both unproductive and bored. Staying in Rome he can at least stay only unproductive.

 This is an overwhelmingly visual movie in which we experience Rome through a lens we probably haven’t seen since Fellini was making movies. All of Fellini’s favorite surrealistic flourishes are here: the dwarf, the incongruent exotic animal, the ambiguous but consistent presence of priests and nuns, magicians, quacky doctors, chance encounters in the night with a beautiful women. Some critics have called it a modern day retelling of La Dolce Vita. I think that’s a bit too easy though. I prefer to read it as a grown up version of Fellini. (Because wasn’t there always a childlike playfulness about his work?) The scene with Fanny Ardant strikes me as a sequel to Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg’s date in La Dolce Vita. Instead of whispering “Madame Ardant” he may just have well have whispered “fröken Ekberg.” Older, wiser, they see each other again, share an unspoken but fond memory and move on. Their evening together in the Trevi Fountain can’t be repeated.

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Jep is a man looking for beauty. He tells this to the nun who asks why he never wrote another book. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he says, but he never found it. That he doesn’t see the irony is shocking. He has this conversation on the terrace of his apartment – a terrace that overlooks the Colosseum. The Colosseum for cying out loud! If you can’t see they beauty here, in this city, where do you think you’ll find it? Beauty is all around him. He visits the wreck of the Costa Concordia and damn if that isn’t beautiful too.

 We realize that beauty isn’t enough – physical beauty anyway. Rome has taught him we need more. Beauty is everywhere but what does it mean when it’s populated by plastic people who don’t understand or care about anything other than their own enjoyment? Fellini’s – and countless other artists’ – imagination was complimented, enhanced by the excesses of Rome so any claim that Rome stifled art is a self-satisfying excuse. Empty people do not squeeze the life out of artists. Artists with nothing to say, however, are easily distracted by empty people (something that rings true here in Los Angeles).

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So if not physical beauty, what? At 65 Jep finally wants it all to mean something. At one point he breaks down and cries at a funeral after diligently explaining that one never cries at a funeral (for you don’t want to upstage the family). We feel his tears aren’t for the lost life in the box, but for the wasted life all around him. He desperately wants it all to mean something. Jep and his friends embrace meaninglessness because they too were once awed by Rome, only to spend enough time there to realize it’s all a show. At one point Jep says the most interesting people in Rome are the tourists, or the ones attending the show. Tourists aren’t part of it. They can stand outside and ooh and aah at the Panteon or the Spanish Steps. They can’t.  

 Whether or not he finds meaning is up for debate. The end is rightfully vague, leaving us to determine whether the journey ultimately has any meaning on our own. I prefer to believe Jep finally acknowledges there is no meaning beyond that which we assign, that art and life are only as meaningful as we believe them to be and, like faith in God, is easy to lose. After 40 years he’s finally willing to submit to faith – faith in truth and beauty and life – and, thereby, will finally be able to write his second book.

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It’s Not All Lost When Movies Like This Still Get Made

It might sound like an exaggeration to say All Is Lost is very nearly a perfect movie, but I’m going to go ahead, throw caution to the wind, and venture into this unlikely territory. All Is Lost is the best movie I’ve seen this year though, admittedly, I haven’t gone to the movies as much as I have in past years. But the movie overcomes so many hurdles that it’s hard not to get excited about it; hurdles, not incidentally, that were purposely constructed and laid out and are exhilaratingly shattered. In lesser hands these constrictions would have left us with a snoozer.

Robert Redford as our unnamed protagonist.

Robert Redford as our unnamed protagonist.

A snoozer is sort of what I was expecting. A man stranded in the middle of the ocean, struggling to survive can go very wrong. And I’ve never been a huge fan of Robert Redford. But Redford holds his own (if he doesn’t dazzle) in this smart film full of suspense and surprises unburdened by unilluminating and unnecessary backstory. Director J.C. Chandor (who helmed the exceptionally good Margin Call from a couple years back) executes those risks by showing us (not telling) the story of an unnamed man fighting for his life after his sailboat is crippled somewhere in the Indian Ocean. We suppose he’s one of those gentleman sailors who, once retired, takes up the challenge of a lone trip around the world.

We suppose because Chandor doesn’t give us a hint of anything that came before in this man’s life. A brief voice over in the first few minutes of the film (during which my heart sank, fearful that this was a taste of what was to come) gives way to a sparse, objective view of the events. Chandor discards the florid dialogue in favor of a gritty, naturalized narrative. We aren’t subjected to by-the-number explanations of everything Redford’s character is doing; Chandor assumes we’re smart enough to figure it out, eventually. And it’s refreshing to experience a movie that doesn’t spoon feed it’s plot to us.

The disaster starts off when Redford awakens from a hole punctured in the boat, water sloshing in. He finds a stray cargo container lodged into the side of his boat. (We wonder if he considers the irony: The very globalism that made his trip possible also could prove disastrous.) So he sets out to patch the hole and find his way to a port. But the water soaked his radio and laptop. No communication, no navigational tools. Back to the stars for navigation.

One mishap after another makes for an almost comically disastrous trip, but Redford faces them with a stoic resolve. He maneuvers and manipulates the materials at his disposal with a resolve that suggests a man who has spent a lifetime solving problems, though the stakes have never been higher.

I’ve heard complaints that we don’t know anything about Redford’s character. There’s no backstory, they say. It’s true. Chandor doesn’t give us anything about this character other than what we see on the screen – and the choice is glorious. All we need to know about this man is right there on the screen. His reactions, his resourcefulness, and that weathered face that tell us more than a goofy voice over ever could. It’s all there. The experiences of a lifetime distilled into several desperate days. We walk out of the theater knowing this man without knowing the details of his life. We fill that in for ourselves, and probably better than the film could have. The mawkish flashbacks, the son he regrets neglecting as a child, the wife he drove away with his alcoholism are all happily absent. These troubled pasts have become hackneyed. Once filmmakers used them to humanize their characters, but now they just feel like cheap plot points, bought and paid for at screenwriter school.

Chandor has enough faith in the audience to put those pieces together for themselves, a bold calculation in an era of dumbed-down entertainment. It was a gamble, but he pulls it off magnificently and has made a remarkably good film. Movies like this continue to give me hope, they remind me why I slog through all the terrible and mediocre ones. I just wish screenwriters and directors would pay attention, try something new, something edgy instead of churning out the same dreck year after year. Keep it up Mr. Chandor. I’m looking forward to your next film.

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“I Hate History”: 12 Years a Slave for Modern Audiences

Coming out of the theater I heard a man say, “I hate history.” Now he could have been lamenting the prospect of attending a history class the next day, but I suspect he was responding to the violence in the film we just saw, a remarkably good movie about slavery in the U.S. south. No matter how worthy the film 12 Years a Slave isn’t the definitive movie about U.S. slavery, a subject people who don’t really know what they’re talking about think has been absent from U.S. culture (Roots, Amistad, Beloved, Nightjohn, even the schlocky Mandingo have already treaded these waters). But let’s not mistake precedence for worth. This is a movie well worth watching, but too many are mistaking 12 Years a Slave as the first, as U.S. slavery’s Schindler’s List, as though Schindler’s List was the first and only movie about the Holocaust.

12 Years a Slave

But 12 Years a Slave isn’t as harrowing as Schindler’s List – nor is it as traumatic as so many are billing it. Whereas Schindler’s List chronicled the horrors of Nazi death camps and traumatized audiences, 12 Years a Slave is a more discreet journey through the horrors of slavery marked by an emotional objectivity Spielberg is probably incapable of. So let’s place this movie in its rightful place: a personal testimony of one man’s experience of slavery, an institution that dwarfs the horrors of the Holocaust. The Nazis perpetuated the Holocaust over a relatively short period of time, but U.S. slavery extended over centuries. It evolved and adapted over time and to the demands of specific regions. It was even practiced in the supposedly slave-free North; something like 20% of New York City’s population was a slave of African descent around 1700.

So it isn’t possible to make the definitive movie about slavery, but that isn’t stopping people from tagging this movie as just that. I don’t think that’s fair, not only to the absurdly high expectations it places on the film, but also for ignoring the complexity and nuance of the subject. Slavery in 1853 was different from slavery in 1750. And Maryland practiced it much differently than Alabama. Slaves on cotton plantations had vastly different experiences from slaves who lived in cities or worked on rice or indigo plantations. Some places it fazed out (New York), other places it exploded, especially after the invention of the cotton gin. So no one can make a definitive movie about this subject.

Critics have latched onto the objectivity as callousness or pretentious art-house pandering. Stephanie Zacherek has called it antiseptic, “history made safe by art.” She’s not wrong in that assessment; there is an emotional disconnect that most of its supporters are ignoring. Armond White, always a safe bet to have an interesting idea supported by twisted logic and indefinite critiques, has called it dishonest and slammed director Steve McQueen as fraudulent. White does not specify exactly what he finds fraudulent, except for McQueen’s artistic choices, which he sneeringly and passive aggressively drapes in quotation marks. He labels it as ahistorical, though again he never specifies where it blunders, historically that is. McQueen, according to White, is using the violence of slavery as a safe tool to pacify the guilt of white audiences, “to feel good about feeling bad.”

This is where Armond White stumbles onto a legitimate point. There are many who are walking theaters whose approval of the film is predetermined. The hype is telling people it’s the best movie of the year, that it’s about slavery and we haven’t really grappled with slavery in film yet (see above). It is an easy picture to get behind. No one is on the other side of this issue, no one is cheering Michael Fassbender’s “slave breaking” plantation owner or nodding in approval at the decisions of bitterly cold and insecure wife (played by Sarah Paulson).

But none of this takes away from the raw power of the film. Director Steve McQueen uses the story of Solomon Northrup, a free New Yorker who is kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery. The real Solomon Northrup wrote about his experiences after being liberated, 12 years after his enslavement and it is this book that screenwriter John Ridley and directory McQueen base their story. While questions about Northrup’s veracity have popped up over the years, no one doubts the evils of the system under which he suffered. And McQueen captures those evils with uncompromisingly graphic imagery, including an extended beating with a wooden paddle (that shatters under the force of the blows) and an attempted lynching that goes on and on and on and on and on.

Zacherek is right. There is an emotional disconnect, but it’s a calculated disconnect. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup as a man who, in response to the life he’s been thrown into, turns off his emotions. He shuts everyone out, even us. The pain he’s experiencing, torn away from his family, beaten into submission, stripped of his identity, is a liability. Play dumb and keep quiet, a slave tells him on the ship south. He only learns this the hard way.

 

Chiwetel Ejiofor continues his excellent career as Solomon Northrup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor continues his excellent career as Solomon Northrup.

Once he does learn though, he becomes our guide, the lens through which we not only see, but experience slavery, albeit a narrow experience uninformed by a larger social and historical perspective. But that’s not necessarily bad. He understood he wasn’t alone; he understood the slaves he lived with for 12 years weren’t alone either. Millions suffered, some less and some worse than him. So his betrayal and injustice may be great, but is it really any greater than someone born into slavery? When he’s first kidnapped, his protestations are heart-wrenchingly ironic. “I don’t belong here,” he says, but then who really does belong there?

Northrup was painfully aware of this irony when he wrote his book and his witness to the injustice around him is a more compelling story than his alone. How could he privilege his experiences and elevate the trauma of separation from his family when there is enough pain and suffering to go around? Like Frederick Douglass, he had a voice because he escaped, but he doesn’t waste it belaboring his own injustice. He uses it for a greater purpose.

One might wonder at the brutality, how exaggerated it may have been. Did Solomon Northrup represent his experiences without embellishing? I suspect the narrative isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but who cares? Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle was criticized for exaggerating the horrors facing of immigrant life in a turn of the twentieth century Chicago meatpacking plant. Sinclair stood by what he wrote, all of it he said having happened – maybe not all of the terrors occurring in the same family, but that doesn’t diminish the book’s power. The fact that any of these things could have happened is a crime. And the fact that everything Northrup wrote about could have happened (if in fact they didn’t) is also the point. Biographical accuracy isn’t required when exposing the brutality of slavery to a country that, at the time (1853), wasn’t keen on facing its realities.

When I was leaving the theater I overheard another man talking to his wife, wondered what he had just seen. Torture porn, he called it. Two hours of beating and psychological torture to what end? My first though was someone read Armond White’s review. My second thought was a concern for the man: Who wanders around crowded theaters loudly and proudly proclaiming they missed the entire point of the picture we just saw?

I suppose he though thought it was an anti-slavery movie and vaguely remembered something from school about the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution already settling the issue. Well it did settle the issue and we probably don’t need an anti-slavery movie in 2013. But this movie isn’t that narrow. Institutionalized injustice is the point here. Wherever of for whomever we let it flourish, no one is truly free. If rights and freedom can be denied arbitrarily for one, the effects can seep over and affect us all, no matter how secure one may feel. Be it slavery. Be it Jim Crow Laws. But those are in the past. What about a complaisant criminal justice system that regularly sends innocent men and women to prison based on coerced confessions or testimony coaxed by promises of lighter sentences or dropped charges? What about exploited labor and unsafe working conditions? What about supposed war criminals rotting away in Guantanamo even years after they’ve been cleared? What about drone strikes blindly killing the innocent as well as the guilty?  What about a financial system rigged to make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us? The list can go on and on.

12 Years a Slave is not a perfect movie. McQueen almost comically idealizes Northrup’s pre-slavery life. No friction, no stress, perfect wife and children. Maybe this is how Northrup would have experienced his previous life in his memories late at night in the slave quarters, but it smacks of falseness, as a gimmick intended to inspire outrage rather than understanding.

Also, we never really get a sense of what life was like for Northrup and his fellow slaves at the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Like actual human memory, we experience the most traumatic of events, losing the minutiae of daily living. But I wanted to glimpse how they fashioned a sense of community, no matter how fragile. Or if they weren’t able to cobble together a community, I wanted to see why. What was the element that drove them apart? Mostly what we see is victimization and the hopelessness it engendered. But could it all have been hopelessness? Weren’t there moments of happiness or love? The closest we get is a fleeting sexual experience between Northrup and another woman, but once satisfaction is achieved, she turned away, perhaps more bitter and alone than before.

I’m not proposing that McQueen should have made another movie, but it wouldn’t have undercut the message of the film to show even the most powerless staking out a sense of identity and community. I’m not talking about anything major like rising up against the overseer. Fighting back is a fantasy modern viewers impose on the narrative. When Northrup does turn the whip on the brutal overseer played by Paul Dano (who has perfected the ignorant poor white character), I surely didn’t cheer. There was no place good that was going to end up. (And it didn’t.) But there must have been moments of quiet resistance like, say, sabotage. Even bonding with the other slaves would have been a statement.

But, as McQueen tells the story, there was no bonding, except for maybe with one woman particularly brutalized by Epps and his wife: him because he loves her and is jealous, and his wife because she’s jealous that he loves her. Everyone else on the plantation stays in the background, meek, silent. Of course this may have been exactly the way it was on Epps’ plantation. The absence of what we would like to see or what we know happened in other places doesn’t make it ahistorical. Just slightly unsatisfying.

Still 12 Years a Slave is a movie worth watching. Don’t be scared by the violence: It isn’t nearly as bad as people have been building it up. The real violence is psychological, an entire people terrorized into fearful acquiescence. Go see the movie to understand how slavery marred our history, how it continues to affect how blacks and whites interact, how we have yet to truly come to terms with its legacy.

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Come and See the Return of Movies over Matter

It’s been well over a year since I’ve written anything for this blog and I’ve missed it enormously. Some of you may have missed me as well, though I suspect more of you either forgot about me or wrote me off with a snide “good riddance” under your breath. Fair enough.

 I had to disconnect and decompress from the blogging world with the end of a long-term relationship, massive financial problems, and a crumbling PhD dissertation. Writing while worrying about paying rent was inconceivable. I didn’t even tune in to read what others were writing. All that is past though. Things are much better and the bug to write about movies has returned and, though you may not have noticed, I’ve been perusing blogs I used to follow and discovering new ones.

 This inspiration didn’t come easily. I’d thought about it off and on, but pushed it away. There’s just been too much on my plate I’ve been working on writing fiction, including a massive novel that’s humming along nicely and the idea of putting any of it aside to write for Movies over Matter wasn’t all that appealing. Or, to be more precise, was scary as hell. I don’t want to not finish writing my book because I’m stumped on an essay about Sunset Boulevard or The Seven Samurai. Besides who needs more reviews of those movies? They’ve been written about by more trenchant and articulate writers than myself.

 Oh, and the prospect of getting more hate mail because I didn’t love the current darling that everyone will forget in a couple months didn’t exactly thrill me. More on that in an upcoming post…

 But I overcame all my reservations the other day I saw for the first time Elem Klimov’s grotesque World War II odyssey Come and See. It’s one of those dozens of highly regarded movies that I’ve somehow let slip past my experience and it immediately shot up into my list of all time favorite movies. If you are familiar with the brutality and horror of Come and See it may seem odd to call it a favorite, but it’s a movie, like Kes or Pan’s Labyrinth that I saw once and, utterly moved by the experience, I thanked the gods that I never have to watch them again. Still, I consider them favorites.

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But more than discovering a new favorite, I also remembered why I enjoyed writing about movies so much: I can do more than nod and tell myself I like it. I’m able to write and share and talk about movies I love, don’t understand, or just downright hate with people I came to respect. Hopefully they are still out there, eager to spar over movies. Hopefully they are still as passionate as before.

 So I will be writing, though with less design which, as the tension rose in my life, became an unbearable yoke and it’s hard to get excited about something that’s a burden. I’m not going to commit to writing three to five reviews of new movies a week (I can’t even make it to the movies that often anymore). Nor am I going to write those essays for each movie on the countdown lists. I’ll probably revive the lists, though without the detail I used in the past.

 I will be writing about the movies I love and what moves me, what upsets me, or what downright confounds me and I hope I regain some of my readers. I’m looking forward to reconnecting. It’s been too long.

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Searching for Sugar Man — New Movie Review

A photo of Rodriguez from the cover of one of his two albums.

If you’re like me, you’re like the majority of people in this world and you’ve never heard of Rodriguez, a Detroit songwriter of the early 1970s who strummed his guitar with wicked dexterity and sung his lyrics with a hauntingly resonant voice. All I knew about him is what this movie told me: He recorded two albums that didn’t sell in the U.S. and he ended his career by committed suicide on stage. What he apparently did not know is his albums managed to gather a huge following in South Africa among white liberals. Though huge in South Africa, no one there knew anything much about him; they weren’t even clear on how he killed himself. (Stories ranged from shooting himself to self-immolation.) The movie follows two South African investigators who, working independently, set out to find the truth about “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, where he came from, who he was, and how he died. So I settled into my seat in the theater prepared for a somber story of a frustrated artist who finds redemption after death as people seemingly a world away find meaning in his work. Instead I got something much richer and uplifting as the movie takes a turn that I (and, judging from the gasps of surprise, most of the people in the theater) weren’t expecting. Of course now that some time has gone by the so-called secret of the movie is less guarded and obscure, which makes the whole structure of the movie feel a bit gimmicky, but I was still moved by the story. Even without the impact of the twist, the unfolding of the story is still remarkable.

At the outset the film explores two questions. First, why wasn’t Rodriguez successful in the U.S.? Forget successful. Why didn’t he garner any kind of cult following here? The movie gives us no clear answer; in interviews his producers wring their hands and shrug. The music is great (and it stands the test of time), the lyrics are creative and thoughtful, and his voice can be gut wrenching. Phil Ochs has been characterized as the anti-Bob Dylan (and heaven knows we need someone to knock Dylan off his undeservedly high pedestal), but as much as I love Phil Ochs, his lyrics and music are sometimes too playful, weighted down by irony and wit to truly rivaled Dylan. Rodriguez on the other hand had neither the time nor the inclination for those lyrical tricks. He looked at the world around him and saw little to cheer about – or get angry about for that matter. He cut to the bone – no, he cut to the emotional marrow of modern life. And if it comes off as somewhat lugubrious, well, what’s so great about modern life anyway?

 

A rare photo of Rodriguez in Detroit.

The second question the film tries to answer is why did he catch on in, of all places, South Africa? According to South African music writers interviewed in the film Rodriguez’s deep pathos and anti-establishment lyrics caught on amongst white liberal Afrikaners because it spoke to their discontent with a repressive government and stirred up feelings the heavily censored media sought to prevent. It is suggested that his music introduced the idea of anti-establishmentism in what was an authoritarian military state that ruthlessly stamped out any hint of opposition to the state or its apartheid policies. I don’t know if this endows Rodriguez with more influence than he really had or not, but it’s certainly fascinating that a quiet guy from Detroit can sing some songs, disappear, and change the lives of millions of people without even knowing it.

If you haven’t already read about the surprise of the movie do yourself a favor: see this movie cold. Avoid the temptation to read up on Rodriguez or what we now know about his remarkable life. I know it’s hard, but trust me you’ll enjoy the movie more, a movie that manages to juggle several disparate themes expertly. We come away thinking about the power of art over repression, the ability of one man to touch many (in almost Capraesque fashion), the power of myth and the insidiousness of rumor, the importance of living your life and doing what you love with integrity and passion, and, the laughably predictable corruption of the music industry.

Going back to the question of why Rodriguez didn’t catch on in the United States, I would like to pose a potential answer now that I’ve had a chance to listen to both of his albums. It seems Rodriguez came a little late. Maybe if he showed up six, seven, eight years earlier when people were open to being challenged by music, he would have been huge. By 1970, after years of strife, Americans were ready for something tamer, hence we get The Carpenters (whom, by the way, I also love). Add to the bad timing the fact that Rodriguez’s music isn’t ready made to be a hit; there are no catchy hooks, no easy refrains cleverly engineered to invade the collective consciousness of young Americans (like Call Me Maybe). They are mournful, introspective pieces of music exploring life as it is, not as we wish it could be. There is no promise of better times, there’s nothing blowing in the wind, there isn’t a bridge over those troubled waters, and he never alludes to any mythical past paradise that allegedly had to be torn down to put up a parking lot. All he sees is wind, troubled waters, and parking lots. His music was too challenging, too thoughtful for America in the early 1970s burned out by years of social strife and violent discord. This explanation is probably too simplistic to fully explain Rodriguez’s inability to make a mark, however small, in the U.S., but I think it’s at least part of it. In the meantime, go see Searching for Sugar Man and find out for yourself.

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