Wednesday, November 06, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

One of the reasons I've continued writing reviews through the years (aside from the fact that it's something I enjoy) has been that I've wanted to give the people who are reading them some alternative to the kind of film geek culture that's emerged since the advent of the internet and the explosion of film journalism and social media on it. There's a lot of good film journalism out there, don't get me wrong. There's also a whole lot of what I now refer to as the "Reign of Geekdom."

Where the kind of people who tend to be obsessive about film, and especially genre film, in the way I am were the outsiders and generally looked down upon in relation to the rest of the culture at large (and within the film community) for the majority of my life, we've now become the ones who are running the websites, writing the articles, and driving a lot of the film culture. In some ways, that's great. I can't imagine what without the last ten or fifteen years worth of shift in film culture hadn't happened, something like John Dies At The End would have gotten made and/or distributed. Edgar Wright is a successful film maker. Genre film has come out of the basement in a big way.

At the same time, something kind of ugly has come out of the basement with it. The vile side of film geekery. Now we actually have popular and well respected film websites dedicated space to parsing the finer points of "fake geek girls," and the kind of bizarre, self righteous, self aggrandizing attempts at attempting some kind of geek hierarchy. It's roughly described as the kind of attitude that feels that anyone who does not share ones opinion about the quality of one piece of culture or another is somehow automatically, inherently inferior and treated as such. And really, worst of all, it can be incredibly mean and cruel. It won't take too long sifting through the more popular film sites to come across some articles that are written from this kind of perspective and it only takes a quick look through the comments section on any article on any film site to find this to be true.

I've attempted to the best of my ability to not write in a way that contributes to that kind of environment. I can vehemently dislike a film, but that doesn't mean I have to insult the people who've made it or the people who do like it. It just means I don't like it. Writing about it does mean I need to specifically explain why I like or dislike it, but that's as far as it goes. There are some rare exceptions, but for the most part, that's one of the basic perspectives I always try to come from when I'm writing about film. One of the things I've always been drawn to about film, and art in general, is that it can be open to anyone who takes an interest in it. The possible inclusiveness of film, music, novels and just about every kind of art is one of the most attractive things about it as far as I'm concerned. It's a genuinely individual decision to say, "This is not for me," or "This is for me." I was never impressed with the kind of art snobs I had to contend with when my own obsession with film, music and literature was beginning. Seeing the geek community supplant them made me pretty happy. Then seeing the geek community institute it's own variety of snobbish conceit was disappointing. The greatest gift film, music and literature have given me is to expand my world and give me a way to connect to people I otherwise wouldn't have, not narrow narrow my world and create another reason to shut people out.

I say all of this to make a specific point. I've done my best, in keeping with the idea of writing from a perspective that isn't being subservient to the idea of some kind of hierarchy of geekness or fan-ship, to lay out the things that could be improved or given more attention in films that I absolutely love. I'm talking about films like John Dies At The End or House Of The Devil, which I am very aware are films that are not for everyone. They speak very much to people like me, who are steeped in and have a history with genre film. I try to make clear what I think it is will be attractive or repellant to people who are not coming from that perspective. The same goes for films that do not speak to me or that repel me in a certain way. I try my best to look at that from a perspective that can acknowledge the things they do right.

Now, I'll finally get to 12 Years A Slave, which is probably what you're actually interested in if you are reading this.

In the minutes and hours after sitting through this film, I was doing everything I could to come up with something in the film I felt was lacking or could have been given the same level of attention and care as the better aspects of the film. I couldn't come up with anything.

The last film I saw that I walked away from with this impression was There Will Be Blood. It is one of my favorite films. The only thing I have been able to say that some audiences might not like about it is that it is long and that it is at points lacking in the kind of action/drama that those audiences are going to find compelling. That's not something actually wrong with the film though, that's a matter of the tastes of different individuals, on a technical and storytelling level, it is as close to perfect as I've ever seen. I feel just about the same way about No Country For Old Men. I didn't write reviews for either of those films because I just didn't feel like I could write about them objectively at the time.

In more ways than not, I feel the same way about 12 Years A Slave. It is about as close to perfect a film as it is possible to make. If perfection, as an abstract concept is removed, and taken to be that which has no discernible flaws, instead of something more exalted and almost divine or metaphysical, it is perfect.

There are examples of film being given way more credit than they deserve because they are attempting to tackle a controversial or tough subject, Paul Haggis Crash is the best example I've seen in my lifetime. It has some specific problems on the level of technical storytelling and the philosophical foundations for which it was given so much praise. So many of those ignored storytelling problems, are vapid and superficial, at best, if not as racist as the kinds of issues the film is attempting to address or portray. It's just a giant pile of problems, with a first rate cast, that gave Hollywood and many, many white people a feeling of having done something good by just making it, watching it and recognizing, "Hey, racism sucks, and it's a complicated issue."

12 Years A Slave never ventures into any of that territory. It succeeds in being a film dealing with the kind of gigantic social topic that is almost impossible to tackle by never being a polemic about that topic. It sticks very firmly to the story of Solomon Northrup, because that's all it ever needs to do. Everything that could be or needs to be said is in his story.

Solomon Northrup was a free black man living in upstate New York in the 1800s. He made a good living as a violinist. He owned a home, had a family, and went about his life and business in a way that most modern Americans can identify with to some degree. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery, a not uncommon experience for free blacks while slavery still existed as an institution. The film is concerned completely and solely with that experience.

Director Steve McQueen has already demonstrated the ability to hold a disciplined perspective on stories that could balloon into exercises in boring preaching. His first film, Hunger, dealing with IRA hunger strikes in the British prison system during the 1980s, did it incredibly well, as did his second film, Shame, which followed a sex addict spiraling into despair in modern day New York. Both of those films used a similar approach in depicting or commenting on much larger issues by never straying and always being completely about their protagonist and that characters story.

Beyond that kind of discipline, what McQueen brings to the table is an extraordinary ability to seamlessly switch from the poetry of film and beautiful cinematography to stomach churning, heart breaking moments in the human experience, sometimes overlapping the two in a way that creates the kind of cognitive dissonance that exposes the best and worst of human behavior and experience simultaneously. Not only that, he is also incredibly adept at showing the kinds of pathology and psychology that lead to the behavior in question with a subtly that only adds to the reality of the story and characters he's working with.

Here, McQueen has a cast giving outstanding performances across the board. With Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender as the principle leads, throwing a strict contrast onto the two ends of the spectrum of human behavior, dignity and decency, with everyone else in the cast falling somewhere in between, the film avoids one of the major pitfalls that stood in it's way. It's not completely and solely concerned with physical brutality. It does not, in any way, shy away from the reality that was the physical brutality of American slavery, but it is just as adept at making clear the kind of emotional and psychological brutality that was inherent to it.

Instead of being a bruising exercise in what the audience can stand, in terms of violence and deprivation, there are moments where the combination of the physical violence is layered with the weight of the psychological and emotional violence, giving it a profound and unusual depth. The other, almost miraculous aspect of it is that unlike so many other films of this type, there's never a feeling of being pushed, pulled or manipulated, that kind of feeling people attribute to many of the lesser Steven Spielberg films. Here, it doesn't even feel earned, it feels spontaneous, and McQueen makes the most of that feeling by often lingering with a completely still camera, as the horror of the moment or event goes beyond shock and into the recognition that none of this is beyond the pale or out of the norm, it was the norm. The benefit of that stillness being that it doesn't call attention to the camera, and the screen literally becomes a window through which the audience is experiencing those moments. It lacks none of the artistic grace that a beautifully fluid shot would have, and forces the audience to have to sit and contend with the horrible brutality of those moments in a way that caused at least a few people in the theater to cover their eyes, not from being "grossed out" but by being just unable to handle the weight of it any longer.

He also demonstrates the degree to which this kind of brutality was the norm through just setting up his shots. There are moments in the film where there is some part of the story unfolding in the foreground, while the rest of plantation life continues, undisturbed and unabated in the background. And because of the sense of scope that's established, that this entire world into which Solomon Northrup was thrown, is the dominion of chattel slavery, it becomes clear that all of life is shot through with it's existence. Everything and everyone is effected or participating in some way. Because of that, everyone has to go about their lives and business with an amount and savagery of brutality around them every day that anyone who had never experienced anything similar would find hard to comprehend or begin to imagine. 

To that effect, the two primary antagonists in the film, Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) and his wife (played by Sarah Paulson), are beginning to show the effects of being involved in and directly responsible chattel slavery. The effects are horrifying in their own right. Sarah Paulson is chilling. She is very far from the kind of sympathetic roles she normally ends up playing (especially for those of us who have been enjoying her work in American Horror Story), and she plays the heartless, borderline personality plantation queen with a focused precision that is downright creepy.

The center of the story though, is the relationship between Fassbender's Edwin Epps and Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup. Michael Fassbender is horrifying. Solomon Northrup shows up on Epps plantation just in time to see the man is beginning to unravel. Northrup's arrival and subsequent inability to be completely subservient to the order of chattel slavery does nothing but help to speed that descent. Plantation owners aren't new in American cinema or literature. What is different about Fassbender's Edwin Epps is that there is a very definite and very real pathology behind his character. He is no cartoon villain. As much as his explosive rage, it's that pathology and Epps attempts to keep some kind of semblance of facade on the contradictions and moral bankruptcy that chattel slavery imposed on everyone that make his character horrifying, frightening and absolutely disgusting. At times, he even comes across as just plain pathetic and pitiful. With his performance in this role, Fassbender asserts himself as one of the great actors of his generation. If he is fortunate enough to get any more roles this well written and brings this level of performance to them, his name is going to go down in film history next to the likes of De Niro, Brando, Pacino, O'Toole and the other incredible performers of the medium.

Where Edwin Epps is fire, volatility and unpredictable rage, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup is a determined, terrified dignity faced with unimaginable decisions. Ejiofor is no less spectacular and the scenes when the two men are squaring off in a battle of wills or a battle of wits are among the films best. The amazing thing about them, beyond just how well done they are from a writing and technical standpoint is that even as Epps is without a doubt the man with the power in every one of them, because he is the slave owner, Ejiofor is still able to always make it very clear that Northrup isn't the lesser man. It's the kind of subtle thing that makes this film so powerful. Epps may be the man with the power, but in every scene Northrup is the stronger man. Ejiofor does this with a character that is much less able to be expressive than Fassbender's Epps. My first encounter with him as an actor was when he played The Operative in Joss Whedon's Serenity, and even with the inherent silliness of a space western, he brought a conviction to the role that was impressive. Seeing him again in smaller roles in Children Of Men, Inside Man and American Gangster  made me hope that at some point he was given a role that would give him enough room to prove he deserved to be a leading man. Well this is that role, and he does more than prove it. From here forward, there should be no reason to question whether or not he has the ability to carry a film as an actor. He portrays the dignity, heartbreak, confusion and horror of Solomon Northrup in layers as the film progresses and anyone who can sit through this film and not be affected by his performance is incapable of being emotionally effected by any artistic medium.

There are a number of other familiar faces that have small parts in the film, most of whom are involved in the story prior to Solomon ending up on Epps plantation, and all of them give strong performances, though most don't get enough screen time to make the kind of impact that Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sarah Paulson do. It's an altogether outstanding cast. 

12 Years A Slave is an emotionally battering and draining experience, as well it should be. The most miraculous thing that it does though, is to never come close to feeling or seeming as if it is itself exploitation. Steven McQueen pulls off an amazing feat by never shying away from the horrors of what the story has to show us, but also never engaging them as titillating, cheap or spectacle. It is a hard, bruising film at the moments that it has to be, but always with a degree of reserve and discipline that keep it deeply grounded in the respect the material deserves. Even as he occasionally lingers on scenes of horror and absolute human degradation, he is able to infuse them with a combination of sense of purpose and emotional weight that it only ever veers into the territory of shock when that shock serves to hang that weight even heavier on the audience. In short, 12 Years A Slave has nothing in common with a film like The Passion Of The Christ, which is essentially a 70's exploitation film with higher production value relying on the audience previous identification with the character to do everything but shock and gross them out.

If 12 Years A Slave isn't the best film of the year, not only have I missed something really amazing, it means that we, as an audience are incredibly lucky to have gotten two bonafide classics in one year. There is one very interesting thing to note about this film. The majority of the cast and crew are British or Irish, including Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and a number of the supporting players. I can't help but wonder if the fact that this film wasn't a chiefly American undertaking helped the cast and crew to have a bit more objectivity than an American crew would have, and therefore have made a better film. Having now seen the film, and become acquainted with his story, I wonder why Solomon Northrups autobiography of the same name isn't something taught in schools alongside, or possibly instead of things like Uncle Tom's Cabin.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments should be respectful. Taking a playful poke at me is one thing (I have after all chosen to put my opinion out there), but trolling and attacking others who are commenting won't be accepted.