December 2013
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I had mixed feelings about Twelve Years a Slave (2013), directed by Steve McQueen. As a movie it has the qualities: good script, performances, cinematography. As a movie embedded in and reflecting history, politics, the zeitgeist, I have some half formed doubts. Years ago, I said of Schindler's List that some topics should be off limits for movies, which always cheapen and glamorize them. At the time I doubted Hollywood could ever make a realistic Holocaust movie, because actors tend to be too well fed and in good physical condition to play Auschwitz inmates starving to death. I also felt that a realistic Holocaust movie would be entirely despairing, while Hollywood films, by their nature, give false hope. Finally, vivid displays of cruelty tend to be enjoyed by a certain portion of the audience, regardless of whether the filmmakers so intended.

Since even a philosophical or political work still has to function as a film, we rather embarrassedly bring to the experience of watching it the wish that it comply with certain rules of the medium. It can't be as shapeless or as occasionally meaningless, as life itself. The characters, no matter how great their suffering, should have an opportunity to develop, some kind of an arc, some chance for a little greater dignity at the end. Anything else, in which we watch people merely being humilated and killed, may be different from slasher porn only in degree, but not in kind.

Twelve Years avoids some of these problems. Since slaves were largely not emaciated and dying, and great care was taken with casting, costuming and design, I didn't feel that the actors were too glamorous to play the roles. Nor was the movie as chintzy in its emotional effects as Schindler: there was no hero, white or otherwise, who singlehandedly counteracted slavery.

But the intense cruelty bothered me: we see two characters, one the protagonist, the other a woman, whipped so hard that flesh flies off their backs in ribbons while blood splashes everywhere. Part of the problem goes back to McLuhan's insights about hot and cool media. Books are cool, and I have learned everything I needed to know about slavery, including the horrendous and insensate cruelty of the owners, from reading books like Stampp's The Peculiar Institution. I am not sure what is gained, what is added, from depictions in hot media. Scenes of horrendous violence, rather than being teaching moments or improving us morally, may secretly excite some people, and make others feel despair,a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There is a scene in which the protagonist is ordered to whip another slave. She says she would rather he do it than the master--a moment I am fairly sure was inserted by the scriptwriter to give the protagonist some excuse, some moral cover for his compliance. I know this movie is based on a true story, and I value accuracy highly. But I really wanted him to say no, and accept the consequences. When he picked up the whip and went to work, I felt we were in torture porn territory. A touch of history can't be enough to excuse this kind of art-making; certainly people have invaded homes and done terrible things to others and that too is history, but becomes torture porn when accurately portrayed onscreen. Its all very confusing.

The movie has a quick title at the end that Solomon Northup, after being freed, disappeared again a few years later. I did a bit of research and its true: its possible he was kidnapped into slavery again, or murdered, or became a homeless alcoholic. Nobody in the world of written records stayed close enough to him to know. So its a terribly shapeless story after all, not the strand I would have selected to tell a story about slavery.

Dallas Buyers' Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, had a more normal moral arc. Also based on a true story, it portrays a rodeo riding electrician's diagnosis with HIV and his fight against authority to stay alive, to get drugs and supplements not FDA-approved, and to distribute them to others. Along the way, a pragmatic homophobe, he abandons hate and becomes friends and business partners with a transvestite. Its not overly sentimentalized (none of those Spielbergian "AHA!" moments to swelling music). Mostly its the remarkable Mathew McConaghey who carries it; he actually became emaciated somehow to play the role, and could probably play a concentration camp victim. He, like Christian Bale, has a wonderful intensity. It has a slight case of the ickiness pandemic in movies about non-mainstream and possibly fraudulent cures, supplements, and therapies, but does not stress it. At the end, you know what his arc was: he was told he had a month to live, hung on seven years, made friends and influenced people. That's something.

I have a vivid memory from childhood of watching a TV ad for The Defiant Ones (1958) directed by Stanley Kramer, over and over--the black hand reaching out for the white one. I never saw the movie until some years ago. Watching it again, I am impressed; so many movies about race are heavy-handed, and the director, Stanley Kramer, was notorious for his hammer hand. There is an Internet trope that he didn't really direct it, but let his second unit folk do a sterling job, which is possible. Watching Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, chained to each other, start to cooperate and then even like each other is a pleasure. Its a simple, stripped down movie about working together and overcoming hatred, and then about honor. Unlike movies of ten years later, like Cool Hand Luke, it doesn't end with a hail of bullets; just Poitier, cradling the wounded Curtis, and singing defiantly, while a compassionate sherriff puts his gun away. Its an understated, brilliant moment.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012), directed by Drew Goddard, was a hoot. I am a Joss Whedon fan, and am glad he's had a second act to his career after Buffy. He's a really smart, funny guy, and his deconstruction of horror movie tropes is very entertaining. The conceit is that underneath the archetypal creepy cabin which the good looking young people visit for a weekend is a huge lab full of people who, while manipulating the situation above them, do exactly what people do in offices--banter, gossip, and bet money in an office pool on whether the people in the cabin will be attacked by zombies, mermen, dragons, etc. The ways in which the office folk work changes on the people in the cabin is amusing: one character's blonde hair dye makes her dumber; but the pot-smoking clown unexpectedly becomes more intuitive. Behind it all, and revealed cleverly in little slivers of information, we discover that the people in the cabin are a planned sacrifice to some ancient god who requires that he be delivered a whore, an athlete, a scholar, a clown and a virgin (all of the horror movie character archetypes); that the virgin survive the others and may live, etc. Whedon sets up some very funny little pay-offs: an office guy who has always wanted to see a merman is slaughtered by one in the general rout at the end. Sigourney Weaver, the queen of science fiction horror, turns up for a few minutes. However, as some of the reviewers pointed out, in the midst of the cleverness, we are still watching young people being tormented and gored.