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.
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.
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.