Sunday, January 12, 2014

12 Years a Slave - Some Thoughts


We went to see a movie yesterday. Everyday life in its current state for us has been short on visits to the cinema. It's easier to pull off the shelf a DVD that has been waiting for a couple of years for its turn. First run movies are expensive. The seats are uncomfortable and the light of the neighbours' phones is distracting. Yet somehow we found ourselves paying UKP14.50 to sit on a little sofa at the Hampstead Everyman and watch "12 Years a Slave".

It was long. It was brutal. We cried. At one point L had to walk out because she couldn't bear it any more. The acting was excellent. The cinematography was stunning. The story was harrowing. And knowing that men and women in the world today still treat people as inhuman hurt so much.

Today I wondered what the purpose of the movie was. It is being mentioned in connection with all the seasonal awards for excellence. I am bruised by its violence, and do not understand how my social conscience should be enhanced by the experience. So I googled some reviews, and began with this from the Guardian:

"The appearance of this film coincides with an upsurge in the debate about Hollywood's traditional reticence on the subject of slavery's everyday existence; recently, it has taken iconoclasts and pulp provocateurs such as Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier to break the tactful, diplomatic hush with refreshingly tasteless pictures such as Django Unchained (2012) and Manderlay (2005). Victor Fleming's stupendous epic Gone With the Wind (1939) always looked culpably naive historically – and McQueen's movie has made that perspective even clearer – but perhaps no more culpable than the placidly apolitical, ahistorical output of modern white Hollywood." (Peter Bradshaw)

So it's a blow against the hegemony of Hollywood? Hurrah from the north of Finchley. I tried another commentator - Mark Kermode writes in the Observer today:

"That McQueen may be on the verge of becoming not only the first black film-maker to win an Oscar for best director, but the first to do so while in possession of a Turner prize, lends enough historical precedent to merit your attention. But more important is the reward of seeing an artist using the medium of film for its highest purposes: to elevate, educate and ultimately ennoble the viewer by presenting them with something that is visceral, truthful and electrifyingly "real"."

Hmmmmm. I'm a pretty decent old liberal child of a man who marched with MLK. I've got a resume full of activism. The raping and the beating were certainly visceral, but I fail to see how their presentation on screen may "elevate" and "ennoble" me. How does traumatising me help to heal the world?

I stopped looking at the reviews. They are mostly all full of praise. The first six I read were all written by men. If you find a female perspective, please tag me on it.

I'm trying really hard not to define my response along gender lines. A film made by a man showing men being brutal, most viciously towards women (yes I know there was one evil woman who scratched  another woman), is reviewed by men who see within this work something that helps them to understand how evil men can be. Ok. So will people be altered by this knowledge? Will it encourage them to act on what they have learned?

Of course I am no longer living in the USA, where the fictional wounds depicted in the film are real and still raw and yet to heal. But when the shock has run its course and the next thing takes its place, what will have changed? Another product of the entertainment industry will duly take its place on the DVD shelf.

your thoughts?

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