12 Years a Slave
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Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave: a Review
– Oct. 21, 2014
I wrote after watching the film off Redbox back in August, after finally prompted enough by all the (quite obvious) over-hyping of the film. You could not find greater demonstration of the shallowness of U.S. cinema culture or the Oscar culture than the reception and conversation about this film. It is also possibly you could not find greater demonstration about the shallowness and opportunistic nature of of race/identity culture in the U.S. than the reception and conversation about this not at all good film.
It should be obvious to anyone who has the films that 12 Years a Slave is, visually, heavily influenced by the style of Terrence Malick's recent work. It may, however, be but a kindness to us in that sentence the word influenced. The film nearly grunts for its effort to maintain the pacing, visuals, and general ambiance of Malick's work. It was not infrequent while watching 12 Years a Slave that I felt the want of the film to be like (or to become) The Thin Red Line.[FN] All the film needed in its visual reveries was the meditative voice-overs to complete the illusion (or transformation), which did arrive at the scene where Epps -- the primary slaveowning character of the film -- is looking over his worm infested field, a sequence that could not be more Malick and this time with the voice over, the only one in the film of which I have memory, about being visited by a plague.
[FN] It should be noted here that I have not yet seen To the Wonder, and I have only seen parts of Tree of Life. My focusing here on The Thin Red Line as stylistic source material is, however, not weakened by that want. I have watched The New World a couple of times, and it is to The Thin Red Line that 12 Years a Slave continuously pulls me. Indeed, the argument I present below does have an avenue for expansion through the shared themes of violence in the two films and how they are handled visually.
However, the dialog turns upon itself when Epps pulls away from any meditativeness and switches to the blunt, nearly non-sequitur casting of blame for the plague upon the "godless" slaves working the field. It is a statement that makes little sense within the context established thus far, which is why I found it so jarring. At the point, at that moment, the film makes it quite clear to anyone paying attention -- though, in truth, if you were paying attention you recognized this far earlier, the plague sequence merely the most overt stating of the fact -- that 12 Years a Slave is neither influenced by nor in creative engagement with Malick's style but merely mimicking it. Through the first moments of the "plague" scene the film was on the verge of creatively realizing the potentiality of the style brought to brilliant fruition in The Thin Red Line; but, then came the turn in the dialog and the idea of the the "godless" slaves and the film collapses into energy-less convention. The accusation of godlessness has no support within the film. It exists not for any ideational purpose but only to give banal prompting for the next shot, the absolutely generic image of Epps riding about the field lashing about delivering random accusations by way of whip.
Generic: which is to say shallow, hack, without ideational depth or resonance; a wholly conventional image, one which is expected by the patrons of the genre and which is duly offered in justification based solely as satisfaction to that expectation.
In truth, 12 Years a Slave never really rises above mimicry and conventionality, both in screen play and in cinematography. However pretty the shots -- and many of the cut scenes are quite lovely -- they are in themselves empty vessels, incapable of adding resonance or depth to what is a paper thin narrative. It is not at all unfair to call the film, as I have heard others so call it, period torture porn, only with not much of that upside-down humor that usually accompanies the over-the-top violence of torture porn, the same humor that inadvertently had me -- and many other people -- laughing at Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.
Though, I must admit, there was the occasional moment -- as with the above described scene -- where the violence of 12 Years a Slave did have me laughing, so perhaps the humor was there but displaced, for while Michael Fassbender's Epps was as cardboad cut-out a caricature as was Fiennes's Amon Goeth (fault wholly to the scripts, not to the actors), the humor in 12 Years a Slave was greatly pulled into the Malick mimicry, the constant cuts to surface-only prettiness that could only stand in counterpoint of meaning -- and thus humorous counterpoint -- to the events in the equally surface-only script. And there we see the difference between Malick's visual ideation and McQueen's mimicry.
In The Thin Red Line the fields of battle may be stunning in their visual presentation, but the nature -- the Nature -- being revealed through those fields was a nature of which violence was an inherent part: the shadows of that tropical world always whispered of -- if not embraced -- the bloodshed to come or the bloodshed just passed, and with the brilliant use of tracer fire, the bloodshed ever present. Whether the images were of the fields of war or of the native village, the film always speaks of, to, and out of what was occurring within the script, are always a part of the gestalt, the psyche, of the film. In 12 Years the visuals are only ever visuals: they are never part of the movie as a whole, they never coalesce with the rest of the movie into a whole. At the practical level, they barely even establish the setting of the film: is there ever really any visual speaking of the heat of a Louisianna summer, something brought to the fore primarily in passing dialog. One would think that an world of oppressive heat would be fruit to the ideation of the film. But in 12 Years a Slave visuals are only ever visuals, however prettily shot and cut. They are empty of the energies of the film's story -- what little energies there are -- and for it often, as stated above, stand mostly in comedic opposition. That is, if you but pay attention.[FN]
[FN] I recognize there is the possibility that McQueen might have been trying to set the idyllic, nature shots against the violence of the story line. Little in the resulting film would speak to much success to that end or to the justification of such a reading of the film. It is far easier to show how the film is at odds with itself. Though, at the level of a more immediate reception, the visuals are used well -- as such can be within torture porn and ultra-violent horror -- as mechanical devices to set up the shock value of the torture porn aspects.
I say opposition in that last paragraph rather than "conflict," and opposition itself may be far to active a word, granting to the visuals and the script much more energy and presence than there actually is to be found in the film. The far majority of the script is constituted of scenes of empty violence of one form or another. Once the Northup character arrives at the Epps plantation, story development pretty much comes to a halt until the Brad Pitt character shows up, and what he brings is only the trivial, very mechanical movement from the unvarying body of the plot to its quick close. Close, not resolution. There is nothing to resolve in 12 Years a Slave. There is only a continuing presentation of violence. Indeed, it is hard not to believe that the extended Malick-like scene of Northrup alone, silently looking about after his conversation with Pitt's character, exists primarily to extend the length of the rescue part of the plot beyond what is but a couple of minutes of length. As well, the far majority of the script is amazingly generic -- if not stock -- footage found in nearly every film of such subject matter. The emptiness of the film is such that there is no ideational value to the embrace between Northrup and Patsey except as requisite, generic closing to the story line. If you at all think about the film, can it be said that Patsey exists in any manner beyond as a stock character (or a combination of stock characters). Is there any depth to the character as written that can be said to be generated by the film itself? Except for the begging of murder scene, she is mostly only the needed whipping post for the Epps caricature. That is to say, she exists only for cheap emotional manipulation.
In truth, the film is almost entirely stock images and generic scenes interspersed with an equal amount of the ideationally banal, Malick mimicry. From the requisite whipping post scenes to the fearful stumbling upon a hanging; from the slave dropping dead at the fields to the sing-a-long after his burial. There is almost nothing in the film original, and almost everything in the film follows very well established lines. Even for its prettiness, it often falss into visual banality as well, There is no funnier scene in the film than the sing-a-long scene, a wholly contrived moment, not only in its occurrence and its progression but also in its visual composition. It could not be more artificial than the slave dancing by demand earlier on. It was worthy only of a high school level production, and about as hammily acted. In his defense, I am not sure how else Chiwetel Ejiofor could have dealt with that ridiculous scene.
Though, it is a scene important to the reading of the film, if you dare to read the film, as will be seen below.
Stock scenes; empty characters. For all the people in the film there are really only a small number of characters of any but passing importance. That the slave merchant, Freeman, is played by Paul Giametti does not change the fact that the character is nothing more than a generic merchant character. (Though it is worth noting that in the Freeman-Cumberbatch scene McQueen felt it necessary to add the absolutely unnecessary element of child prostitution. Speaking of Cumberbatch, perhaps it was only me but seemed like his entrance into the film was orchestrated as a big star reveal, and I half expected Giametti to stop the film and announce to the audience, "Ladies and Gentleman, Benedict Cumberbatch.") The Cumberbatch character is himself stock depiction of a prissy, religious slave owner, a version of a whore with a heart of gold. His overseer Tibeats is only the necessary uneducated ego threatened by Northup that moves the latter on to the next destination. Once we get to the Epps estate there is only Epps, who is the stock psychotic overlord (just as with Fiennes's SS commander) accompanied by his stock commandeering wife. Beyond that there is only Patsey, who serves as both the stock target of sexual assault and stock victim of senseless brutality. Her role in the film is wholly mechanical in purpose and often self-contradictory in that her presence must fit the moment's purpose, not the other way around. The only moment of non-stereotypical characters in the film is with the three captives (including Northup) during the conversation in the hull of the boat. The rest of the character list is mostly extras, filler material performing roles dictated by the mechanical needs of the scene.
But then, when you think about it, once the story gets to the Epps plantation, which is the point in torture porn where the victims are wholly in the torturer's domain and the only real plot issues is whether and who escapes, the script is mostly about the portrayal of various kinds of violence. Ask the question: why did the Epps character have to be psychotic? Why could he not have simply been a plantation owner running their farm to as high a profit as was possible? The answer to that question lies in a second question: what would have been different about the film if it could not have been filled, from end to end, with depictions of psychotic violence? It would have been a very different film. Imagine a film where it was Northup and a character like Cumberbatch, who was about running a business and understood the necessity of slaves to that business. It could set up a very interesting ideation as to the culture of slavery. But McQueen shows no interest with 12 Years a Slave about creating an engagement with the depicted historical moment and cultural psyche thereof. The film is wholly dedicated to one thing: getting the main character to a situation where he is under the thumb of psychopath and then depicting a long sequence of scenes of torture.
The great irony of 12 Years a Slave is that it never itself rises above the level of the slave narrative, genre fiction of the nineteenth century, which could itself be called the torture porn genre of its time. Slave narratives were a very popular literary genre, and were a potentially lucrative endeavor for their writers and publishers -- and even for the person whose life the narrative purported to relate. It also was a quite conventionalized drama: to enter a work into the field meant writing to the expections of the reader of the genre. Thus they were constructed out of expected scenes and expected characters: whatever the buying public was clamoring for, wholly the same as the stock characters and plots of such contemporary genres as romance, western, and epic fantasy. Not that I am accusing the book 12 Years a Slave of being such a work. The book is wholly irrelevant to my discussion. What I am accusing of being such is McQueen's film. The film is wholly conventional, wholly generic. There is barely a moment in it that develops any ideational power. Everything in it serves one end: the depiction of the torture of individuals by a sadistic psychopath. Yes, the historical nature of the subject is used to make social appeal, but that begins and ends with the opening "based on a true story" statement. In both content and structure, it cannot be denied that 12 Years a Slave fits quite neatly into the genre of torture porn, if one making claims to autership through its Malick-mimicking visual style. Or perhaps I should say there is nothing in the film that rejects such a categorizing. In truth, it never rises above the depth or complexity of an Eli Roth film.[FN]
[FN] I do not generally watch films of the contemporary torture porn genre. For the most part it is simply a matter of taste. Though, I did very much enjoy Saw. And I have somehow managed to see -- and on their terms enjoyed -- both House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects from Rob Zombie (assuming they both fall into the genre). I have seen maybe thirty minutes of the Hostel series. Though, to be honest, in reading about the Hostel series, even if just as concerns the Bubblegum gang, I honestly wonder if that last sentence should read: "In truth, it never rises to the depth or complexity of an Eli Roth film."
Empty and generic, except, perhaps, for one moment.
I asked in the introductory note above why a movie review on a blog about writing poetry. The answer is that to write one has to be able to read. Most people think they know how to read; few actually do. Or, few actually do it. Films like 12 Years a Slave prosper only because of that reality. For 12 Years a Slave does not want to be read. It does not want its viewers to actively think about what is on the screen. It wants passive viewers who are willing to accept emotional manipulation and generic narratives in replace of depth of ideation. It doesn't want viewers who pay attention and notice the contradictions being generated because the film itself only is thinking about the moment present on screen, to hell with what has already passed. It does not want viewers to think about the dialog or the scenes in the way that a good reader thinks about dialog and scenes in sophisticated literature. For, as is so very often the case, if you actually read the film 12 Years a Slave, what is found is not at all what was intended.[FN]
[FN] Yes, wholly an assumption that. But since I think I would have heard if otherwise, a fairly safe one.
The central scene, the defining scene of 12 Years a Slave is that which occurs on the boat, after the kidnapping, in the conversation in the hold between Northup and two other men. I would argue these three persons, in this scene, is the only non-conventional, ideation generating scene in the movie of any importance. In fact, I would argue, these three characters, in this scene, are the only characters of depth in the movie.
In the scene they are discussing their current options and their futures. The critical words are found in the dialog about the possibility of overtaking the boat and immediately after. There are two moments in the dialog: first, that spoken by one of the men in rejection to the possibility of taking over the boat.
|"The rest here are niggers. Born and bred slaves. Niggers ain't got no stomach for a fight. Not a damn one."|
The second is the brief exchange between one of the men and Northup following right after:
|[Other man:] "Survival's not about certain death, its about keeping your head down." [Northup:] "Well I don't want to survive. I want to live."|
(There is a slight ideational clash between the two excerpts in that the first is about combatting the situation and the second is about its opposite, merely surviving the situation. But considering the rapidity by which McQueen's script moves through the opening sequence, it can be argued that in the brief moment between the two utterances the threesome had rejected the idea of fighting their way out, and I will let it pass as such.)
That is the defining exchange of the movie. It is one of the few moments in the movie of real (non-conventional) ideational energy. What does it do for the film as a whole? It establishes the primary conflict of the film: that between surviving and living. In far more important terms, those of the first excerpt, that between being a "nigger" (a person of slave mentality) and being a individual, a human.
And yet, the film is nearly entirely populated -- using the term provided -- with niggers. With willing slaves. People with "no stomach for a fight." And I am not speaking here solely of the actual slaves: I include in this nearly every character in the film. Even, by the end of the movie, Northup. He is (presumably) human in that boat -- a scene that sticks out from the rest of the movie so violently because it is a scene of three humans. He is still human when he rejects Patsey's request for him to murder her. The moment of transformation occurs in the graveside sing-a-long when he joins in to the spirituals. I am fairly sure what McQueen intended was for the scene to work along the lines of showing Northup bonding with the other slaves at an emotional level -- by the by another quite generic scene, the new, educated slave becoming one with the established, uneducated slaves. But read within the narrative of the movie as the movie itself provides information, the scene works to a far different end: it is the scene of Northup giving in and abandoning his humanity and becoming but one more nigger among a massive culture of niggers, black and white, slaves and slaveholders all.
Not a person in the film beyond Northup, the two men in the boat, and the Brad Pitt character later can be said to escape that characterizing judgment. I am led to add to the small list of people in the movie Paul Giamatti's character, Freeman, the slave merchant. Every other character in the film speaks their slave mentality (to the degree they speak anything at all). What speaks most detrimentally to the film, however is that while the condemnation is cast over the whole of the world, the depiction of it among the slaves themselves is the most severe.
Greatly the success of the broad condemnation lies in that the characters of 12 Years a Slave can barely be said to exist at all except as empty cut-outs and in that the film as a whole is so devoid of ideational depth. It is an astoundingly shallow film. Which is what makes that moment in the hull of the boat stand out so very much and what gives the spoken contrast between humans and niggers so potent throughout the film: it is perhaps the only moment in the film of any ideational depth. (Again, excluding the Brad Pitt character, who is even for his brief screen time equally if not more developed than Northup. It is worth noting that Northup himself has almost no back story development until the conversation with the Pitt character. It is also worth noting that McQueen did not feel it necessary to develop any story around the Northup character except a wife, children, and fairly well off.)
There is in 12 Years a Slave one potent moment of ideation. What does it do? It calls nearly every character in the film a nigger, a slave not in social status but in psycho-emotional being. I have to say it does not speak well for any intended social commentary that might be taken from the film when a straight reading of the film speaks that the film is not at all praising slaves, but calling them out as being willingly complicitous in the very culture a social-criticism reading would be trying to condemn.
Which would have made for quite a daring film: a film that uses a slave narrative to condemn slave mentality of whatever manifestation. A film that says "in this film there are but a handful of people among a populous of slaves." That too would be quite a film. Though, I am sure McQueen had no intention to that end. I am equally sure McQueen intended nothing of the ideas generated in the hull of that boat to be carried beyond that scene. In fact, considering the choppiness of the dialog in that scene, I am sure the purpose of the exchange in the boat was merely to answer what would be an obvious question in the audience: why didn't the captured people simple take over the boat (as there are only, I believe, three captors shown). Such a purpose would also explain why the one man is so easily murdered by one captor when the man rises in defense of the woman: it is an easy way (indeed a cheap way) to establish the situation of "the captured cannot overpower the captors." Of course, the question of why that captor would readily murder a person who would probably garner him and his mates a couple hundred dollars of income must be wholly ignored. But then, as said above, this film has thrown its hat into the ring of psychotic violence. That is where it wants to go, that is where it is going to go. (How again is it not torture porn?)
For all the praise that has been thrown about for 12 Years a Slave, I wonder just how many of the reviewers bothered to pay attention to what was going on screen. Bothered to listen to the words and then actively think their way through the film. Or how many of them were rather suckered by the gimmickry of the Malick-like visuals into believing the film was something it most definitely was not. There is no statement here about slave culture in the US: even at the level of realism the characters are not representational. They serve the purpose of violence, not any purpose of ideational engagement. The film does not depict a positive image of its characters -- but for a rare few. It condemns every character in the film as being of slave mentality -- of no stomach to fight their own situation. (Or of being psychotic, which is an easy way to escape having to create a complex character.) But above all it condemns -- and openly -- the slaves themselves as being nothing but niggers, born and bred into the mentality of a slave. The movie is in no way a positive depiction of the individuals who were the slaves. Time and again the visuals speak affirmations to the condemnation, even the scenes of the slaves tending the the injuries of the whipped. More than I once I was brought to think of Passolini's brilliant Saló and its critique of the populous of a tyrranical state as being willing participants in that culutre, willingly assuming the roles assigned to them.
Patsey herself says she does not have the strength to take her own life, and for it Northup -- in that scene still his own person -- rightly turns from her in disgust. That is one reason why that final embrace is so problematic. That is, unless you read the film as the film intends you to read it: generically, surface only, the requisite emotion of the departure (in fact, the only available emotion for the departure). Or, alternatively, unless you accept the film as it presents itself to be read: the Northup who left Louisianna was not longer human, but a nigger among niggers; and he embraces Patsey in recognition of his being one of that culture. Of course, because of the shallowness of the film, he then turns from the slave-niggers to climb in to a carriage of white-niggers, then return to his home town of northern-niggers, standing before his family of niggers as a nigger. After all, he has nothing to apologize for.
Another stock scene that final scene, that closing, with the requisite infant grandchild. An empty scene closing an empty movie. Though, there is also the text about the life of historical Solomon Northup after his release. One which offers yet one more opportunity to readers to read.
Did you notice how there is nothing in the film about his life after rescue? Likewise that there is essentially nothing in the film -- except for the quick comments of Brad Pitt's character -- that engages the culture of slavery? Solomon Northup went on to become an speaker for the abolitionist movement, but that no place in the film whose borders are quite definitively set. The story of the film has ended. It comes what has to be described as a screeching halt once the carriage shows up on the Epps plantation. But that does make complete sense if the film was written to be nothing but an extended depiction of violence. The violence was over: there is therefore nothing more to say except for a generic homecoming moment. The victim has escaped; the whole purpose of the film is passed. There is no reason to go on. The story of 12 Years a Slave closes because the situation has come to a close. There is no place -- as the story is written and intended to be read -- where the story can be said to reach out beyond being what it is: the depiction of the torturing of people.
Torture porn. Unless you read the film as it presents itself to be read. (Unless you read what the film presents to be read.) Yes, it is of the genre of torture porn. But it is also the depiction of a culture of "niggers." What is Benedict Cumberbatch's character except the presentation of a white, land-owning nigger?[FN] Which is to say, what is it -- if it can be said to be anything beyond conventionality -- but demonstration that the culture of niggers brought under condemnation in the boat is not found merely among the slaves. Then there is the Alfre Woodard character, who is demonstration that in the world of the spiritually dead one can yet be materially comfortable. That character is the link between the slaves and the Cumberbatch types, who is himself the link to the Epps types. Cumberbatch is slave to his debts; Epps is himself enslaved to the economic necessity of his crops and to his wife. (At times, at least; the film cannot decide what her role is in the film. Her most important dialog seems to be those yelled out when she is out of frame. But then she also really only exists to extend the psychotic nature of the Epps plantation out from the Epps himself, to give Epps a character to play off of.)
[FN] And, of coures, the mechanical next step in amping up the torture porn aspects.
And I could go on demonstrating both sides of this presentation -- the shallowness of the film and the reading it presents despite itself -- and how the latter mostly gives emphasis to the former, but I should bring this to a close.
12 Years a Slave is with no doubt a very pretty film. Though, I use that word with a pejorative taint. That is all its prettiness is: prettiness. Makeup. Empty ornamentation. No different than the cut scenes in a nature documentary. The prettiness exists solely for the reason of being pretty, though I am sure McQueen was hoping for otherwise. But that is the difference between being influenced by someone and mimicking someone: the latter is focused only on the surface details. It misses the more fundamental creating.
If you at all stop being wowed by the prettiness (and shocked by the violence) and pay attention to what is being presented, if you stop passively watching the film and start actively watching the film, you will see that the prettiness -- and violence -- is mostly all there is. I do believe that and I believe the banality of the film will become more and more apparent as viewers become innured to its violence by repeated viewings. For all the claims about it, 12 Years a Slave is a remarkably shallow film constructed mostly of stock characters and conventional, hackney scenes -- if scenes prettily filmed.
I do not want to try to transform this into a discussion on the practice of writing and would rather the discussion above about depth versus genre, ideation versus conventionality, be sufficient fodder for contemplation as to the writing of sophisticated text. So let me just say this small bit. To read something is to not be suaded or conned by the prettiness and shock value and emotionality of the text. The sophistication of a text does not lie in the emotionality evoked by the scene. That, in writing, is diary, not literature. To write well is equally not to depend on prettiness and shock value and emotionality, or social or political sentiment -- I do not believe I need to mention hackney or conventionality, though for the amount of it in contemporary poetry perhaps I do. Sophisticated reading and writing is to actively pay attention to the development of ideas, to question them, to notice (as with 12 Years a Slave) when the visuals are conflicting with the story not to wave it off in favor of whatever the film-maker/writer intended (but was unable to pull off), to recognize at poorly crafted scene for what it is and laugh when it is wholly at odds with the film because of it. It is the ability to call a films bluff. Perhaps even before that, it is the wilingness to demand of a text that it meet your standards, your sophistication, and the refusal to lower yourself to its. It is having the stomach for a fight, whether with something you read or something you are writing.
Critical, close reading is an absolute requisite to the craft of writing to any degree of sophistication. To write well demands the ability to read well, to read ideationally, attentively, with intelligence. In the end, I see no critique of 12 Years a Slave that does not end up showing that it is a rather stupid film, one begs its viewers to be as stupid as it is, something no different in character or essence than the last piece of Transformers schlock. As a final question: do you notice how readily and how easily social and political importance has been attached to the film, despite what the film actually is? how easy it is for a culture to say "this is what this is"?