Tag Archives: Michael Fassbender

“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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“13 Assassins,” “The Green Lantern,” “Super 8,” and “X-Men First Class”: Weekly Movie Diary

Koji Yakusho (third from left) leads 13 assassins

13 Assassins

I can’t claim to be an expert in the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike, but I can say he made one of the best and most repulsive horror movies I’ve ever seen, Audition. I’ve only seen it twice and not only was the second viewing just as disturbing as the first, but I really don’t want to ever have to watch it again, though I know I will be compelled to rewatch it at some point. (The DVD sits on my shelf patiently waiting to assault my senses again, but I resist … for now.) Now the prolific Miike has remade a 1960s samurai movie that isn’t as viscerally disturbing as Audition, but is still a remarkably good action movie.

It is a time of peace in eighteenth century Japan, but Lord Naritsugu, the brother of a powerful shogun, threatens to disrupt it. He is sadistic and heartless, killing, raping, and maiming for the sheer fun of it. A powerful official, unable to directly do anything himself secretly charges Shinzaemon Shimada, retired samurai, to assemble a team to kill Lord Naritsugu. Shinzaemon recruits eleven masterless samurai and, together with a mountain “hunter” (though there are suggestions he may not be entirely corporal), the thirteen men buy out a town and fill it with booby traps to help defeat Naritsugu’s superior forces. There could have been more time spent building the characters of the samurai, though I suspect there is some of that in the 20 minutes that has been cut for the international release.

The most interesting relationship is between Shinzaemon and Naritsugu’s chief samurai Hanbei, former rivals. Hanbei knows he is protecting an evil man, but he cannot break his oath to protect his master. Masachika Ichimura delivers a wonderfully conflicted performance opposite Koji Yakusho’s Shinzaemon. We realize early on that neither is evil or righteous; had circumstances been different they could well have ended up in each others’ shoes and would have still fought just as bravely and committed. (Rating ****1/2)

The whole movie looks as cheesy as this ... and the script isn't much better.

The Green Lantern

There’s a lot of goofiness in Warner Bros’ attempt to jumpstart their DC Comics franchise. The Green Lantern takes one of DC’s most recognizable (but least known) heroes and inserts him into a lackluster, been-there-done-that story opposite one of the least interesting actresses of recent years, Blake Lively. To make matters worse, we aren’t given a good villain to root against – no Joker, Lex Luther, or Magneto that have helped make other superhero movies so good. On the one hand we have a cheesy looking black cloud floating around the universe gobbling up entire civilization making a b-line for Earth and on the other we have Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond, a scientist infected with some of that clouds evilness. He goes a little crazy, but his story rarely intersects in any meaningful way with Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan/Green Lantern.

I already mentioned the cheesy special effects, but they are worse than that silly cloud. The whole movie looks phony, especially when Hal transforms into his all-CGIed suit and travels to the planet where the other Green Lanterns lives (they are some kinds of protectors of the universe). Ryan Reynolds has a great body. Why not give him a real Green Lantern suit to wear? It all looks cartoony and unconvincing, which might have worked if the script was more tongue in cheek. However they tried for a middle ground that does not work.

But director Martin Campbell had a mess of a script to work with – a script that was written and rewritten by what seems to be a whole staff. (I began to suspect that the original script may have been innovative, but each draft removed a bit of originality to come up with something as safe as this.) For instance, Hal has siblings and a nephew (who idolizes him) who appear in one scene and are then summarily dismissed from the narrative. No one even asks why he left his nephew’s party without a word. Why don’t we get to see their reaction to his new superhero status? Or, better yet, watch Hal’s conflict as he has to keep it secret from them. I did enjoy Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the cocky test pilot, but like Campbell there was little he could do when CGI silliness undercuts any suspense and his romance with Blake Lively was less than compelling. This is all the more insulting after good superhero movies like the X-Men series, Spiderman, and Nolan’s Batman series. We know they can do it, so stop trying to pawn off on audiences lazy junk that might have seemed innovative in 1981. And studios wonder why people are less and less inclined to risk their hard earned money at the movies. (Rating *1/2)

 

There is no passion for movies or for childhood in "Super 8"

Super 8

Super 8 is a bad movie that looks fantastic. This movie looks and feels more like the late 1970s than some movie actually from the 1970s do. Unfortunately this homage to the popcorn movies of the 1970s, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. – fails to connect on any other level. I’m dazed that so many critics have given this thoughtless junk a passing grade. There is little excitement from the mystery of the derailed train and no wonder of the changes that occur in adolescence. These kids live in a hermetically sealed world that, sadly, has little relation to ours or the worlds that Spielberg created in his early films. These feel like kids created by a writer who is more concerned with making an action movie than a movie about them. They are set pieces meant to scream on cue in front of special effects.

I did like Joel Courtney in the lead, playing Joe, a good kid trying to connect with his father after the death of his mother while helping his friend make a zombie movie for an amateur film festival. The rest of the kids who make up his circle of friends are obvious types: the bossy fat one, the lanky pyromaniac, the pretty one, the dumb one. It’s hard to believe filmmakers who have created such believable characters in the past would think these work. There’s even a contrived rivalry between Joe’s father, Sheriff Jackson Lamb, and the father of the pretty one – it’s so obvious how that will play out it’s embarrassing.

The premise is great, unfortunately writer-director J.J. Abrams doesn’t know (or care) what to do with it. While secretly shooting Charley’s movie late one night, the kids witness a military train derailment and accidentally film it. The U.S. Air Force swoops in and assures everyone that there was nothing hazardous on the train, but doesn’t give any other information. (You know it’s something because if it’s nothing, they can tell you what it is.) Strange things begin occurring in the Ohio town making it clear that there was something on the train. Their film could help them figure out what it was. As intriguing as all that sounds it’s executed as formulaically as one could imagine. The creature is derivative, the personal conflicts and dramas are muted in favor of chugging the plot forward, the Air Force guys are unbelievable sociopaths (why couldn’t they be genuinely fearful for the population of the town, rather than two-dimensional heartless goons that only seem to exist in writers’ heads?) Why couldn’t this have been more about kids in love with movies instead another monster movie without an original twist? I never got the sense that any of these kids loved movies. They don’t seem to watch them, talk about them, or even know they exist beyond posters on a wall. Charles’ movie, then, becomes a gimmick. In the end, this is a flashy exercise in boredom. I didn’t much care about the alien, about Joe and Alice’s (the pretty one) relationship or whether their dads will make up (because you know they will and why they will from the first time they meet). (Rating **)

Young mutants begin to come together in 1962.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men – whether the comic books, TV shows, or movies – are always strongest when they are rooted in a reality that asks how society would react if we knew there were mutants with supernatural abilities living among us. They have also dealt marvelously with how factions within the mutant community would arise, each advocating differing methods of dealing with their human counterparts. The movies have had varying levels of success, though I largely liked all of them (yes, even the third though there is still room for someone to make a truly great movie out of this material). X-Men: First Class traces the roots of Charles Xavier’s school and his relationship with Erik Lehnsherr, soon to become Magneto, the super-villain who not only thinks a war with humans is inevitable, but desirable.

The main problem with First Class is too much is packed into such a short time span. It would have been nice to have spent a little more time with these characters, seen their stories, before we get to the inevitable action sequences, especially the relationship between Charles and Raven (a wonderfully cast Jennifer Lawrence) and their eventual falling out. There are so many characters with great story potential like scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who shamefully hides his mutated feet. There are about five or six such characters that are introduced in a breeze, but whose stories would have made the movie richer (especially a disgracefully underused Darwin played by Armando Muñoz). Or what about some of the stories of villain Sebastian Shaw’s team like Riptide, Azazel, or, most intriguingly, Emma Frost.

The casting is mostly well thought out. I enjoyed James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles and Erik, respectfully. They both capture the characters brought to life by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKlellan without mimicking them. The only dud for me was January Jones as Emma Frost, a wonderfully complex character that Jones can’t keep up with. I cringed every time she had to string more than one sentence together (which, thankfully, director Matthew Vaughn handled nicely by giving her short lines). In everything I’ve seen her in she’s played a variation on Betty Draper or, I’m beginning to suspect, on herself.

Otherwise, despite the rushed story and a weak link in the cast, I enjoyed the insertion of X-Men into the Cuban Missile Crisis and was shocked that they even got a lot of the history right (no one ever seems to remember that U.S. missiles in Turkey precipitated the incident), even though they went on to have mutants save the day. But that made sense. We’re talking about an alternate universe here, like The Watchmen. This is a re-imagining of what would have happened had mutants been around – and a pretty entertaining one at that. (Rating ***1/2)

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