Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Cinema of Pain: "12 Years a Slave" and Steve McQueen

This post will be a little less formal than usual, since it's largely an attempt to gather my thoughts about a film that spurs a lot of them: 12 Years a Slave, the current Oscar frontrunner by British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen, which left me deeply shaken as a human being (as it's meant to) and deeply ambivalent as a moviegoer.

For starters, though it may go without saying, the film is difficult to watch.  The cruelty on display—not just physical cruelty (more on that in a bit), but humiliation, degradation, and hopelessness—had me sick to my stomach by minute 40, with another 90 minutes, a lynching, and a rape scene still to go.  You could call movies like this the "cinema of pain", and even before I saw the film, I saw the old aesthetic arguments it revived.  This is McQueen's third feature, after Hunger (about an IRA hunger strike, in which Michael Fassbender gets emaciated) and Shame (about sex addiction, in which Michael Fassbender combines orgasms with anguish), and the overall impression is that McQueen's supreme goal is to take loaded subject matters and present them in the most "unflinching" manner possible.  Over at the MUBI Notebook, my friend Adam Cook has asked the excellent question of whether McQueen would be able to make a movie without loaded subject matters, and that's the question that will loom over his career as a director.  On a technical and visual level, his filmmaking is top-notch, but pain tends to be the overriding experience: you go in expecting it, and come out thankful that you made it through.

Over the past few years, this M.O. has earned McQueen detractors as well as fans, much in the same way that many cinephiles have rebelled against Michael Haneke (of Amour fame), finding his provocations viscerally effective but hollow and technocratic.  After all, once you've got the audience in their seats, showing them images that make them physically and morally repulsed isn't hard.  So for McQueen's most mainstream film yet, there are two key questions.  First, is "hard to watch" synonymous with good art?  And second, is there more to 12 Years a Slave than scenes of unflinching cruelty?  To answer both in turn: no, it isn't, but yes, there is.

The dramatic effect of the cruelty—once the nausea passed—is something I found fascinating, because if you want to talk purely in terms of onscreen gore, there actually isn't much of it.  By coincidence, the movie I saw before Slave was Prisoners, a well-made but fairly typical forensic thriller that probably has more gore than McQueen's film.  Yet in Prisoners, you don't feel it.  Countless moviegoers have probably watched Hugh Jackman torture Paul Dano while they ate popcorn.  Paul Giamatti patting a slave's pecs during an auction is so much more unsettling, as is the way the slaves are so reduced to survival instincts that they're unable to help or trust each other.  So you might say that one of McQueen's accomplishments is making us feel cruelty in a way that most movies, even cruel ones, do not.  In part, this is due to the tone of 12 Years a Slave, and the way it gives a historical scenario the texture of a nightmare.  The scene of Chiwetel Ejiofor dangling an inch above the ground by a rope is brutal enough as it is, but the way everyone goes about their business in the background is downright surreal.  When Ejiofor is chased around the barnyard by a drunk Michael Fassbender, who yowls semi-coherently while slipping in mud and pig shit, it would be absurd if it wasn't also terrifying.  That's the thrust of 12 Years a Slave: to be a 135-minute madhouse, effectively saying that by all our standards of morality and logic, things like this can't happen—but don't doubt for a minute that they did.

As 12 Years has been getting crowned "the definitive film about American slavery", the film's choice for its point of view has been scrutinized.  Solomon Northup was a freeman who was kidnapped from the North, sold into slavery in the South, and finally freed again over a decade later.  It's what trailers call a remarkable true story, but I've been pulled into conversations where critics and cinephiles raise an interesting point: if you're going to make a film about slavery, why make it about him?  A man like Solomon was the exception, not the rule.  Why not make the film about one of the millions who were born into slavery and stayed there?  In some circles, this has been received as a cynical compromise: Solomon is educated, well-spoken, and from the middle-class, and is thus a "movie hero" that wouldn't scare away the mass audiences (and white audiences) of 2013.  I'm not sure how cynically compromised the film is; overt cynicism is pretty much the point.  But Solomon's status as an outsider is essential to the film's DNA.

The early scenes that show Solomon living comfortably are what might today be called "post-racial America" (a phrase that's circulated on the airwaves, as if racism somehow disappeared on Election Day, 2008).  He has a good job, an education, a loving family, and a nice house, and in the few moments we see of his freedom, he interacts with white people as equals.  As a framing device, this gives Solomon's trip to hell and back a very different kind of context and psychological arc: Solomon starts with our post-racial ideal, is then dragged to the depths of sub-human treatment, tries to maintain optimism, escapes by luck, and in the end, as the title cards inform us, becomes an activist.  By making the film about him, the film's message is something more incendiary than just a recreation of 19th century cruelty.  It throws down the gauntlet and announces that you may think you're free of all this, and that if you just explain yourself you'll be judged independent of race.  America's greatest sin may seem a world apart—separated in space for Solomon, and in time for the viewer—but it's still there, and it's not going away.  Wander to the wrong part of town, and it will arise all over again.  And that challenge, more than the long takes of whipping and rape and lynching, is what's stuck with me.

I'm still not sure that McQueen, an emissary from the art world whose influences reportedly include Andy Warhol, is interested in being a storyteller.  In fact, the "period drama" aspects of the film are handled with something close to contempt, featuring a parade of celebrity cameos with unconvincing accents and half-hearted verbal tics.  For a while, this bothered me.  But relentlessness has its impact (a Warhol lesson if there ever was one), and by the end, I'd decided that perhaps contempt is what the mill of period dramas deserves.  Awards season is full of movies with celebrities in powdered wigs, and few have this much formal rigor or shrewdness.  McQueen may well end up pigeonholed as a provocateur, and like most provocateurs, it feels like he places himself both above his characters and above his audience.  How much you value such provocation, and whether you feel that the cinema of pain can actually change anything, is up to you.  But as for the Oscars, if the Academy wants to congratulate themselves for making Important Films, 12 Years a Slave will be one of their better choices.  Best Picture winners about race in America tend to be the opposite of provocative, either falsely reassuring (Driving Miss Daisy), pseudo-complex (Crash), or both (In the Heat of the Night).  By comparison, McQueen's film is downright radical, living up to his earlier statement that while art can't solve problems, it can start conversations.  If and when he wins the Oscar (and becomes the first black director to get one), I wonder if the Academy will realize he's been making fun of them all along.

12 Years a Slave is now in theaters.  Bring xanax.

Friday, January 3, 2014

250 Words or Less: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I miss physics.  Without them, the last 10 years or more of CGI action sequences have largely been extended Roadrunner cartoons, and it should noted that Roadrunner cartoons work because a) they're three minutes long, b) they're comedies, and c) you don't need to invest yourself in any life-or-death stakes.  So one way of approaching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is to say that Peter Jackson seems stuck in both the standards of the times and a quagmire of his own making.  This one is better than the last one, I suppose, but the same issue remains that it feels like Jackson and co., who now have nothing to prove (a deadly condition), are adding things to stretch out the plot.  And in doing so, they are both losing the narrative's focus and dissipating the sense of wonder that their Lord of the Rings trilogy did so well.  Few of the additions—including political intrigue, an elf-elf-dwarf love triangle, and a few Tolkien paragraphs turned into setpieces—feel like they should have been included in the first place.  At its best, there's a certain grandeur that makes the wide shots a joy for the faithful and the nostalgic.  But the atmosphere is cartoonish and the storytelling swollen, ending on an action spectacle where nothing is risked, nothing is settled, and it all goes in circles for 30 minutes.  And like I said, I miss physics.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters everywhere, but at the showtime you're looking for, they're probably only showing it in 3D.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Of Empathy and Gargoyles: "Inside Llewyn Davis" and the Cinema of the Coen Brothers

"The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art." —George Bernard Shaw 
What do the Coen brothers believe in?  It's an interesting question, particularly since a tour through their body of work provides more negatives than positives.  They don't believe in the meritocracy of institutions, public or private.  They sure as hell don't believe in human nature.  They don't believe in the redemptive power of Love, or Sacrifice, or Brotherhood.  They don't believe in a grand universal plan, or the romantic notion that the joys and sadness of life are beautiful.  As witnessed in The Big Lebowski, they don't even believe in nihilism, which is just another belief system ripe for hypocrisy.  But in their own devoutly middlebrow, pop-culture-obsessed way, the Coens believe in art.  They may not believe in artists—hypocrisy again—but a night at the movies or a song on the radio is the best that the world, or rather their world, has to offer.

You can see this implicitly throughout their work, the way their rigorous, referential, highly "cinematic" cinema has rewired Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Dashiell Hammett with the expertise of two moviehounds who, in building an entire movie around anecdotes of 30s Hollywood (Barton Fink), would be sure to include a period-appropriate reference to Ruggles of Red Gap.  (A secret handshake for cinephiles if there ever was one).  It's elevated to something resembling an explicit "philosophy" in A Serious Man, where the best advice that anyone can offer is hiding in plain sight as a Jefferson Airplane song.  The brothers didn't steal the title for O Brother Where Art Thou? from Sullivan's Travels just to be clever.

All of which goes to explain why, in their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, music is a much more foregrounded, likeable main character than any of the humans on display.  Most critics have been sure to mention that our titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac), who wanders Greenwich Village in 1961 looking for a gig or at least respect, is a fuck-up and an asshole.  And so he is: arrogant and irresponsible, soulful only by himself or on stage.  But the music stands apart—you'll meet his music before you meet him—and it has an arc of its own.  "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" sounds lovely at the beginning, but has picked up context by the time it's reprised at the end.  A folk standard called "Dink's Song" is a recurring centerpiece, and one of the most telling tragedies of Llewyn's life is that it will never sound as good when he sings it alone as it did when he recorded it with his former (and now deceased) partner.

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Llewyn has become the latest battleground in the critical dust-up over the Coen brothers.  The duo are darlings of cinema to many, mainstays on the festival circuit abroad, and at home are among the few "auteurs" to gain traction, respect, and prestige with an audience who wouldn't call themselves cinephiles.  But there is a faction of critics and cinephiles who find their work insufferable.  In short, the charge goes, the brothers make smug, mechanical, misanthropic comedies, populating their films with grotesque gargoyles, delighting in pain and cheap derisive humor, and targeting meaningless satire at everyone but themselves.

This charge has dogged the Coens for years, and not exactly without cause.  A film like A Serious Man, which elevates suffering to comedy (or vice-versa), splashes around joyfully in a relentlessly cynical microcosm.  Burn After Reading sinks into it.  One reason The Big Lebowski is the Coens' best film, and not just their most quoted, is that it's the one that most effectively dodges this charge, combining their morose goofiness with a genuine celebration of underachievers who want nothing more out of life than a group of friends to go bowling with. As for the rest, I've seen serious critics, not to mention serious men, write off the Coens entirely.

I've never sided with the criticism, which strikes me as a reductive reading of films that are generally a good deal more nuanced.  But when the Coens take to the stage at Cannes and the Oscars to accept awards, it's not hard to see why they catch backlash.  At a time when serious cinephiles are on the lookout for anyone who can measure up to the old masters in terms of formal innovation and emotional engagement with the outside world, the Coens are two intelligent, prolific smartasses who rarely make it a point to attempt either.  It's not so much that they refuse to explain the deeper meaning of a cryptic film like Barton Fink, it's that they laugh off the idea of deeper meaning altogether.  And this, just like Tarantino and his pastiche buffets, has made the brothers a curious case study for their oh-so-disaffected time and place.  The "death of the author" is in full swing; the Coens just know the best place to hide the body.

So where does that leave Llewyn?  In a way, it's become a victim of auteur theory, where a lot of negative criticism seems less like a review of Inside Llewyn Davis and more like a review of "a Coen brothers movie".  This is a mistake, I think, as the film is borne on a tone not normally found or sustained in their work: namely, a very melancholy sense of loss.  It doesn't aim to be riotous like A Serious Man, its closest antecedent in setting and structure.  In fact, it finds the Coens at peak empathy.  Llewyn is an asshole, yes, but not outside the normal boundaries of artists and young men.  And if it is indeed a movie about an asshole, it's also about the condition of being an asshole: of going through life thinking that the problem is everyone else, only to realize—and to a certain extent, I would argue that Llewyn does—that the problem is you.

Of course, in the end, it all comes back to music, and the way that songs can be more pure than their creators.  After all, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, to pick two of Llewyn's more famous, less fictional contemporaries, could be huge assholes themselves.  But does that make the idealism and beauty of their work any less potent?  Or is being a person more important than being an artist?  And so Llewyn will pass up opportunities for help, and the gargoyles around him will take on added dimensions.  He'll butt heads with a condescending, vitriolic jazzman (John Goodman) without realizing that the way Goodman treats him is a funhouse version of the way he treats others.  (On the pecking order of artists and squares, jazz is apparently higher than folk).  He'll brush off a baby-faced guitarist named Troy (Stark Sands) without realizing that Troy's unconditional warmth and friendliness, initially played for laughs, make him a better person.  But most of all, he'll be too proud to compromise, and not lucky or brilliant or strong enough to make it on his own.  So he'll sing his heart out and close his show by saying "That's what I got", knowing that offering it up is the best anyone can do.  Then he'll get the shit kicked out of him while Dylan strikes it big in the other room.  And throughout it all, Oscar Isaac's weary face gives this "comedy" a very serious tone.  I felt for him—maybe there's an asshole in all of us.  Or perhaps we have an uncommon sighting of the Coens' emotional engagement.  Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegy for the also-rans who were good, but not quite good enough.  This is America; there are a lot of them.

Inside Llewyn Davis is now in enough theaters that you have a chance of seeing it before they start showing Her instead.