Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Screening Notes #21

Backyard (1984): One of Ross McElwee's earliest attempts at autobiographical documentary, Backyard is a surprisingly accomplished piece of work, already featuring a subtle display of familial eccentricity dovetailing with larger socio-political issues. After years of living and planting the seeds for his impressive career in Boston, McElwee's return to his North Carolina home is completely free of any overarching sentimentality; the film's prologue, which introduces McElwee's sarcastic narration and establishes the bitter father-son relationship that is one of the movie's backbones, quickly snuffs out the possibility of any nostalgic warmth. On the surface, the film documents the family's gathering for a wedding in the neighborhood country club, but McElwee's more interested in the stuff that occurs around the main event, the in-between moments that highlight the casual racial, gender, and power dynamics of the community. A black beekeeper that works for McElwee's father as a groundskeeper is one of the key subjects, a quirky elderly man whose discomfort at the superficially compassionate belittlement directed his way by the family is barely concealed. The title comes from a song sung by McElwee's grandmother in a rocking chair in which she croons about idling around in her own backyard. Initially a charming offhand moment about the importance of family values, her words start to retrospectively solidify as a metaphor for stubborn conservatism in the south.

Of Time and the City (2008): Upon a second viewing, my admiration for this film remains at a slight remove. Whether it's the candid reflections on specifically Liverpoolian rites of passage, the sometimes too-florid (for my taste, at least) baritone narration of Davies himself, or the identity of the filmmaker as a homosexual working-class outcast (something only so much empathetic guesswork can account for), I've always felt a certain opaqueness here. I love Davies' use of music (particularly that inaugural arpeggiating piano line that inspires instant melancholic swooning) as much as his perfectly timed silences, and the selection of footage is often unbearably poignant (archival monochrome snapshots of mundane street scenes do the film far more favors than the artifact-y digital video), but his fiction films have always felt, for lack of a better term, more universally accessible and less regionally airtight. This may sound odd coming from someone who prefers the outlandish hometown specificity of Guy Maddin's own memoir My Winnipeg, but maybe I just feel Maddin's fever dream retro-fetishism is a more direct route to accessing the complicated relationship with one's hometown than Davies' rambling and reference-heavy poeticism.

Carrie (1976): Brian De Palma carves out no more than two equally undesirable paths for the titular everything-phobic high school outcast in what is perhaps his quintessential revenge yarn: that of terminally self-denying, hermetically sealed Fundamentalist Christianity or that of the image-obsessed status quo. These two routes receive quite distinct tonal treatment: the former is played as histrionic B-movie horror with Dario Argento's exaggerated lighting effects and the melodramatic tenor of a radio drama while the latter feels like some obsolete drive-in teen flick with Roger Corman-esque plot quirks (namely, a pig-slaughtering prom night ruse). Imagine the film as an early television set with a shoddy antenna that can't keep one station intact for more than 10 minutes. Jarring transitions abound, but the unique effect of the film's relentless gear-switching is that it's always rhythmically in sync with the topsy-turvy mental space of Sissy Spacek's profoundly dejected loner. De Palma's ballsy formal irony – mystically fogged slow dollies of the female locker room, an accelerating spinning shot of slow dancing to deceivingly suggest romantic bliss – is used to hypnotic effect, seducing the eyes even as it lays bare the ugly cosmic imbalance that ushers Carrie towards eternal insecurity. Still one of the most relentless portrayals of all-encompassing adolescent anxiety in cinema (I know next to nothing about the remake).

Duck Soup (1933): The idea behind this priceless Leo McCarey/Marx Brothers collaboration – that all government bureaucracies are filled with daft and irresponsible buffoons – is ridiculously simple, but that's not what matters. What matters is the snappy cadence of Groucho's histrionic smart-ass accent as he delivers a torrent of baiting one-liners, the swiftness of Harpo's hands as he conducts his wordless horsing around, the disapproving glares of Gummo as his sidekick nearly flubs every plan, and the way in which McCarey's mise-en-scène – patient, unshowy, but extremely rhythmic – draws attention to the brothers' tomfoolery. Understandably, we tend to remember a comedy like this based on its performers, but the bottom line is that, in order to be elevated beyond mere theatrical spectacle, comedy of such impeccable timing relies on direction that is sensitive to the movements of bodies, the comic dimensions of space, and the humor imbedded within certain cutting patterns. A joke can fall flat if seen from the wrong angle, or if seen without a cut at the right moment. There's no better evidence of this fact than the film's riotous climactic sequence, a vision of indolent warfare in which the gradual implosion of the set becomes an integral part of the joke.

The Mother and The Whore (1973): Maybe it says a lot about my demeanor, but please excuse the fact that I was genuinely amused by the narcissistic ramblings of Jean-Pierre Léaud's ungrateful protagonist in Jean Eustache's quintessential post-May-'68 film, which is to say the issue of despising the character too much to care never really factored into my experience. The Mother and The Whore doesn't feel exhausting in the extremity of its focus on character because it's so light on its feet; much of the regressive, highfalutin' hogwash spilling out of Léaud's mouth is very funny, and Eustache's direction (though initially seeming pedestrian in its barrage of shot-reverse-shot setups) is tinged with enough dry detachment to encourage some critical distance even for those more prone to identifying something of themselves in these casually self-destructive individuals (a lot of this has to do with the timing of the cuts to the perpetually blank victims of Léaud's incessant talk). But the film's greatest accomplishment is its gradual transformation into something much darker and sadder than its seemingly aimless first two hours suggest. Eustache spends so much time and burns so many close-ups surveying the day-to-day delusions of these unfaithful and compulsively hypocritical pleasure-seekers that there's bound to be an eventual implosion, and when it does come it nearly matches Bergman for toxic soul-baring. By its messy conclusion (love Rosenbaum's matter-of-fact summary: "he leaves, then runs back and proposes; she accepts, vomits into a basin, and Alexandre collapses on the floor against her refrigerator"), the film has shuttled through a turbulent range of emotions, representing perhaps the definitively cynical take on polygamous French romantic notions.

The Evil Dead (1981): My first time seeing this (fear of Raimi fanboys always kept me away), and I'm pleased with the experience. Less reliant upon camp than I was expecting, the film's basically a sly exercise in style and the tweaking of narrative expectations. Once the allure of plot surprises is extinguished – one of those hideous ghouls (like permanent manifestations of Linda Blair at her ugliest in The Exorcist) goes ahead and spills the beans in the opening act regarding what will ultimately go down – Raimi's left to spin formal tricks. The question of "who will die next?" quickly becomes secondary to "when, and more importantly, how will they be dispensed with?" Sometimes a deceiving stretch of lugubrious build-up leads to a jolting shock cut; other times the ostensible downtime between deaths is poisoned by the grisliest, most emphatically bloody murder of all. Too goofy to really be deemed nihilist, the film has no pretensions, self-consciously treating death as little more than it often is in the slasher genre: an excuse to play around with narrative and visual strategies.

Black Sabbath (1963): Structured like a spooky radio hour with three separate tales introduced by a stage-settingly macabre Boris Karloff (and thus a feature-length precedent to Are You Afraid of the Dark?), the supposed personal favorite of director Mario Bava among his many films is an inconsistent but otherwise efficient Halloween spectacular. Together, the three shorts – in chronological order, A Drop of Water, The Telephone, and The Wurdulak – are deeply fixated on the past, haunted as they are by a specific motif: ghosts are metaphorical vehicles for unresolved, ignored, and ultimately destructive tensions among people who are (or were) close to one another. With the exception of the second tale, a vaguely misogynistic Hitchcockian riff about an angry ghost exacting vengeance on his two-timing closeted lesbian wife, Bava works in a baroque folktale mode here, whipping up vertiginous zooms, pre-Suspiria color treatment, and janky handmade special effects to communicate simple, symmetrical parables. Gargantuan, ornately designed sets consume so many square feet of Bava's studio that lights appear to be just barely tucked out of frame, a limitation that only makes the film's acrobatic camera wizardry all the more impressive. That the seams, ever so precariously implied, never quite show is a testament to the considered craft on display to saddle these potentially tawdry quickies with their necessary levels of punctuation. However much it dates itself, Black Sabbath remains a film of dazzling directorial confidence.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Flattening History: Some Notes on the Films of Nicolas Rey

I spent a welcome chunk of the past weekend with the work of French experimental filmmaker Nicolas Rey, who made a stop in Boston on his brief US tour. Intrigued by Differently, Molussia (2012) from a distance based on the rumblings of MUBI and Cinema Scope during the film's festival run, I was sufficiently curious as to how the film gestating in my mind would match up with the real thing, knowing, oddly enough, that the film I was about to see would actually not be the same film seen by the writers I was reading months before. Differently, Molussia's unusual and (I suspected) gimmicky exhibition quirk – its 9 reels are randomized before projection via card flips – nearly guaranteed that the ordering of this feature-length film essay would be different than before, potentially even unprecedented in the film's screening history (there are a whopping 362,880 possibilities). The purpose of this serendipitous maneuver, I would wager, is to frustrate the spectator's impulse to both evaluate a clear beginning and end and process a logical structure enclosing the events occurring in the film. (Rey's odd, discordant sound design – which is developed entirely in post and ignores the assumption, built into the majority of cinema, that a corresponding soundtrack must be tethered to the very beginning of a corresponding shot – works similarly.) A subsequent viewing of Schuss! (2007) confirmed Rey's desire to refuse the viewer a stable orientation within his film world; made up of 9 or 10 chapters (I can't remember exactly) that are spaced out in achronological order, the film's a jostled and discursive look at a number of interrelated stories around a French ski resort of which the viewer is ultimately tasked with making heads or tails.

Rey's films are about key technological, industrial, political, and aesthetic developments in the 20th century—obliquely so in Differently, Molussia and directly so in Schuss!. His structuring principles, meanwhile, encourage the viewer to see everything as eternally relevant; they flatten the course of history into a dense whole in which the happenings of a seemingly distant past exist alongside and inflect or affect (cinematically and otherwise) the movements of the present. This idea is worked out formally in both films. In Schuss!, found footage of idyllic skiing vacations from the early 1900s is rephotographed and processed in 16mm using the same techniques Rey incorporates into his contemporary Alps footage, visually homogenizing the two time periods. In Differently, Molussia, a liberal "adaptation" of Günther Anders' as-yet-untranslated German novel The Molussian Catacomb, Rey conjures up defamiliarized images of contemporary Germany to parallel the imaginary totalitarian State described by Anders in 1931, both Rey's images and Anders' words simultaneously communicating with and commenting upon their authors' respective presents.

Both films share a nondescript visual palette, a habit of draining the physical world of its specificity and vigor – movement within the frame, color saturation, and cultural signifiers are largely dispensed with – until it takes on a naked, protean quality. Differently, Molussia takes this drabness to a hypnotic extreme: everything is gray and weathered, signs of life are kept to a minimum, and the buildings that protrude from this ashen wasteland all reflect a steely, brutalist design sensibility. Emphasized by Rey's sturdy, unmoving long shots, the landscape has a heavy permanence to it; when coupled with narrated excerpts from Anders' writing (stories of ineffectual human resilience to authoritarian conduct), a sense of unconquerable malignance is layered into the environment itself. Schuss!, though comparatively visually varied (in terms of sources alone, there are Rey's contemporary images of the ski resort, the early found footage, optically printed text scrolls, patches of pure abstraction, and dated footage at an aluminum manufacturing plant), is marked by a similar consistency. One of the film's recurring motifs is the rhythmic intrusion of second-long blips of black leader in the middle of extended scenes. The afterimages that are created from this disruptive editing scheme linger in the eye until the next shot commands the optical attention; applied throughout the film to different temporal sections, this technique creates a sense of different eras of history bleeding into one another.

Schuss!'s title (translated as "shot") refers to a term French skiers use to describe a speedy downhill descent, a fitting analogy for the way in which Rey analyzes the course of the 20th century in these films. Without becoming outright environmentalist screeds, they lament the steady corruption of nature by capitalist forces. They look at how landscapes are coded with a century of power struggles between civilians and those in power. In this context, aluminum (the machine-based production of which dominates the Alps setting of Schuss!) becomes a symbolically loaded material. Its onscreen and offscreen uses include (but are not limited to): skis, ski boots, chairlifts, firearms, cars, snow-blowers, the structure of the manufacturing plant owner's mountain home, the structures of the buildings in the totalitarian landscape of Differently, Molussia, film cameras, and film canisters and reels. One of the achievements of Rey's work is first to detect the world as a result of a dizzying sequence of economic and political decisions made over a large period of time, and then to recognize everyone as somehow complicit in a process that slowly corrodes the Earth and drives us out of touch with the organic, the tactile, and the handmade.

Implicit in this critique is the question of the fate of another manufacturing industry spawned in the final decade of the 1800s: celluloid. Whereas aluminum has only grown in its relevance and variety of uses, film stock has become increasingly marginalized. Rey's films would seem to argue that this is because of celluloid's element of difficulty, its identity as a time-consuming, hands-on medium in an age of technological speed and efficiency. Thus, its use here becomes a politically involved act (as it so often tends to in the 21st century), albeit one that differs radically in tone from those which Rey's films subtly attack. These films, aesthetically speaking, are engineered towards openness. They completely respect the unique space of the viewer, trusting that he or she will arrange the visual information in their own special way. In one of the most gorgeous moments of Differently, Molussia, the camera surveys an overcast valley in a continuous tilt-and-pan movement; throughout, the thick dancing grain of Rey's outdated stock nearly overpowers the image's representative components, and in some instances becomes indistinguishable from the precipitation coming from the sky. It's a mysterious, enthralling abstraction brought about by the medium's particularities, and its effect is miles from the machine-like (totalitarian?) rigidity of the digital image. In such cases, the values of Rey's work are not directed or expounded upon, but rather felt.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Great Beauty (2013) A Film by Paolo Sorrentino

I've never actually seen a film by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, This Must be the Place) until now, but based on my positive response to The Great Beauty, I'll be sure to start hunting more down. His latest is a virtuosic visual hymn to contemporary Rome, indelibly haunted by the influence of legendary Italian filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni especially) and other formidable European auteurs of generations past (several shots suggest the grandiosity of the late Theodoros Angelopoulos). My review can be found here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) A Film by Adellatif Kechiche

After about 45 minutes of Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, I found myself wondering if there's some sort of quota, unbeknownst to us, regarding the number of challenging and distinctive films that can win the Palme D'Or at Cannes in a given decade, and if the festival might have reached it, and whether or not the jury's selection of Lauren Cantet's palatable but unremarkable handheld jabberfest The Class in 2008 might have been made as part of an effort to clear the runways for something like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives two years later, and whether or not Kechiche's coming-of-age romance might be another mark in that tradition (and what that might foretell for the next two years). All of which is to say I was reasonably skeptical of a lot of things that were going on in the French-Tunisian director's latest: competent but commonplace "naturalistic" handheld camerawork sprawled out seemingly irrationally to a 2:35:1 aspect ratio, a narrative setup about teenage self-actualization, a "tricky" and underrepresented subject (lesbianism), and ongoing rib-nudging intellectual discourses – on fate vs. predestination and Sartre's existential philosophies – that underline the film's themes. Oh, and there's also a close-up of the film's female lovers backlit by the sun as if to suggest their lip-smacking birthing holy light, the kind of shorthand visual kitsch I parodied with a friend on a short video skit several years ago (excuse the self-promotion).

To hell with first impressions, I guess. Two and a half hours later, I didn't want the film to end. Blue is the Warmest Color is a movie of constant, sometimes rocky evolution, a form it shares with that of a turbulent romantic relationship. It channels inward on a plot level but expands consistently outward in terms of resonance, starting out as a film tuned in to the coming out process and its interpersonal repercussions and concluding as a remarkably sensitive, all-inclusive portrait of the challenges and rewards of having a significant other. As the film progresses, an increasing amount of peripheral narrative context is shifted aside to yield heightened attention to Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux), a decision that matches the flood of disregard for the outside world that tends to occur in the throes of infatuation. Suddenly, months and years start skipping by, and the initial charge of passion felt by the young lovers starts to wane, in its place arriving a different and more labor-intensive form of emotional commitment.

It's true that there's something of a porn-like plot setup at work in the first hour (sexually confused high school tomboy gets seduced towards fantastic girl-on-girl sex by the exotic blue-haired ambassador of lesbianism!), the obligations of which the film satisfies with its dramatic foreplay and careful build to the first sexual act. It's also true that what follows is a well-trodden story of a first love's valleys and peaks. But what makes the three-hour Blue is the Warmest Color work so beautifully is its elongated dramatic rhythms, performed with such commitment and actorly invisibility by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Where Kechiche's script and direction is marred by infrequent spurts of overstatement (a flippant analogy between seafood and female erotica certainly is not needed, nor is a scene in which Adèle's high school peers berate her on suspicions of pussy-licking), these actresses radiate behavioral nuances that transcend the ideas on paper.

For instance, a pair of back-to-back scenes of family dinner at Emma and Adèle's homes are simplistically designed to illustrate the contrast between Emma's liberated aunt and uncle and Adèle's conservative, careerist parents. Through a mix of actor rapport and a camera alert to telling gestures and glances, however, what they end up doing is hint at the extent to which the values of each family are not static; dinner conversations function as casual opportunities for belief systems to be willingly tested. Another example would be the way in which Kechiche's so-overt-it's-in-the-damn-title chromatic symbolism – implying muted, sublimated passion – works overtime to codify the expressive scope of Seydoux's character; meanwhile, Emma's eyes and body language get at something more: as comfortable in her own skin and confident on the sociocultural margins as she is, she also seems troubled by emotional insecurity, by an anxiety of giving too much of herself to someone else.

Until later in the film, Adèle, on the other hand, never quite knows what she's doing. Inexplicably drawn to Emma when she meets eyes with her on the street (the reverberating steel drum music playing nearby in this scene has a Rivettian sort of mysticism about it in the way the urban space serendipitously reflects psychological realms), Adèle's doe-eyed lustfulness becomes marked by an existence before essence complex, Sartre's idea that we experience the world pre-cognitively before defining our understanding of and place in it. Emma's hand-holding explanation of this philosophy in the couple's first hangout outside of the neon-soaked gay bar in which they meet drives the point home a little too heavily, but the wandering movements of Exarchopoulos' eyes, her seemingly constant sense of being on the brink of compulsive dancing, and the way her mouth, usually agape, suggests an uncontrollable impulse to either say something or devour her object of interest organically embodies this impression. By the time the couple first have sex (vehement, ravenous sex), it feels as though Adèle is being compelled by some out-of-body experience, her brain somehow two steps behind the clairvoyant physicality of her body.

This particular sense of subjective transcendence drives the beginning-to-end sex acts that overload a good thirty minutes of the film's middle (a hefty chunk of time, yes, but proportionally scant in the grand scope of things). Kechiche is clearly interested less in sex as something to ogle at (though, being an allegedly hetero male director, it's impossible to completely relinquish that suspicion) and more in its metaphysical properties as an abstract crystallization of romantic love. The marathon-like quality of the film's sex scenes pushes them beyond mere dramatic functionality and into something more balletic. Kinetic bodily contortions are captured by a tight, roving camera and soft natural lighting, both of which render the distinction between limbs void—in effect, Adèle and Emma "become one." It helps to be able to buy into Kechiche's earnestly spiritual conception of love, but even if you remain skeptical (I do), these scenes are harmonious combinations of form and content. In their totality, they make Blue is the Warmest Color one of the fleshiest of all romantic films; it never once forgets that bodily interaction is as vital a component of romance as verbal bonding.

Images of Adèle and Emma making love secretively in the bedrooms of their respective homes suddenly make way for scenes of them cohabiting the same living space, and little is made of the shift. In the meantime, Adèle transitions from student to elementary school teacher and Emma, having symbolically lost the blue dye in her hair, reconnects with her art-world posse, registering for Adèle as a sign of their drifting apart despite Emma's notable efforts to integrate her uncultured girlfriend into the fold. Ennui sets in, not drastically or overtly, but rather cumulatively, in the spaces between scenes and in wordlessly expressive close-ups. In a film of so few wide establishing shots (I can count on two hands the total), Kechiche allows no space for detached observation, for moment-by-moment analysis of what's happening on a deeper level. Adèle's eventual heterosexual infidelity, then, doesn't register as a stale and predictable plot beat so much as another instance of underlying emotional chemistry propelling her somnambulistically to action. The same is the case with the couple's ensuing breakup fight, an explosive, tear-filled affair that plays as shockingly as it must feel for the characters.

Blue is the Warmest Color's portrait of a romantic relationship, therefore, is governed by an uneasy but valuable idea: we are not in control of our relationships so much as they control us. The very knowledge of being in a relationship brings with it a certain kind of baggage that is bigger than either individual. It makes us question ourselves and question our partners. The unmistakable intensity of Adèle and Emma's affection for one another in the film's final scenes of attempted reconciliation is equaled only by their awareness that there's something inherently combustible in the sum of their parts. This is the truth that makes a scene like the one when the lovers briefly, teasingly rekindle the sensual abandon of their initial lust for one another in the public space of a restaurant so devastating. Fervent kissing and naughty feeling up leads inevitably to self-doubt and regret. That's an admirable reality to arrive at in a film that initially proposes love as a phenomenon of feel-good, transformative infinity.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Golden Slumbers (2011) A Film by Davy Chou

This is a very belated post, and foolishly so, because now not even New Yorkers have another chance to see this in theaters, but I reviewed Davy Chou's excellent documentary Golden Slumbers a week ago. Hopefully this film will get some kind of online release, if not distribution from a niche DVD label, because it's a fascinating portrait of a society whose culture has been stripped forcefully from them. The subject is the demolition of any traces of 1960s and '70s Cambodian cinema by the Khmer Rouge, as well as the defeated wistfulness of the country's once well-regarded film artists. Read my review here, and definitely check out the film if it ever sees the light of day beyond New York's Anthology Film Archive.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Brief Thoughts and Rebuttals Towards 12 Years a Slave

To bookend its dutifully merciless tour of America's darkest hour, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave begins and ends in relative comfort. Its first twenty minutes involve enigmatic intercutting between the wealthy Washington lifestyle and subsequent enslaved drudgery of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the dreamlike way in which it transitions between these two existences – some of the shifts are actually prompted by shots of Ejiofor lying down in the dark – establishes a feeling of vertigo, of disbelief at what's happening. Two hours later, the film concludes on a sudden, miraculous return to normalcy and a parting image of harmony and reunification—with a family, with a lifestyle, and with an identity. With this structure alone, the film gives off a sense of the evils of slavery merely being a bad dream out of which moneyed connections can be a dependable savior.

These two sections probably only make up thirty cumulative minutes of this bloated historical saga, but I think it’s a crucial span of time. It builds a framework with which to view the events contained within and demonstrates McQueen’s outsider's view of American history. Though the director's tonal extremity and emphasis on the tested body bode well for hurling the savagery of antebellum plantation life at the audience, McQueen can't quite escape the lure of a simplified Hollywood narrative, a reality that results in unfortunate soft-peddling, be it in the form of digestible good-bad dichotomies (Michael Fassbender's amoral slaver vs. Lupita Nyong'o's virtuous and quiet dissident, for instance), a barrage of big-name actors, or the distractingly emphatic speaker-busting of Hans Zimmer's orchestra, which by now has a built-in blood-boiling factor. Given the circumstances as McQueen crosses over from arthouse aesthete to prestigious A-lister, some of these irritations are more forgivable than others. What's really problematic is the way 12 Years a Slave's use of a self-controlled, compliant protagonist as a merely temporary eyewitness to history ultimately gestures towards the closure of a larger narrative (racial tensions within the country) that remains anything but sealed off.

At Grantland, Wesley Morris, one of the film's biggest champs, goes long on the movie, which he exalts as a cultural milestone in the representation of national race issues. The crux of his discussion lies in this statement:
“You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.”
As passionately articulated and polemically charged as Morris’ ultimate thesis is, I would argue that 12 Years a Slave doesn’t go quite as far as he seems to imagine it does. After all, it is not a black man’s determination or anger that finally fuels his discharge from enslavement, but rather an exaggeratedly benevolent, egalitarian Brad Pitt—in a role that’s a shameless reminder of the Good Samaritan sensibility that brought about the celebrity’s well-documented financial efforts in Third World countries. The lasting impression is of a compromised wealthy patriarch saved from obsolescence by a noble white man, and in his dust are hundreds of more fiercely rebellious individuals, most notably Nyong'o's character. The film comes awfully close to implying that it was Solomon’s bred-from-money stoicism, his ability to put his head down and turn the other cheek to acts of brutality towards his brethren, that ultimately enabled his return to freedom, while the less “sophisticated” of the slaves were left to endure brutal beatings until death. That Solomon's outrage ultimately wound up in a belated book only compounds the sense of a neat, detached narrativization of a messy history, an angle that relegates the peripheral slaves to mere catalysts in Solomon's riches-to-rags-to-riches arc.

Guiding the bold, audience-reassuring turn of fate that concludes 12 Years a Slave is a privileged worldview, a perspective from which the horrors of slavery can only be rendered in full, grisly detail if there’s a guarantee of hope, however hard-won or downright unrealistic, on the other side. (No wonder McQueen sees "white people looking at Solomon and seeing themselves.") Despite the grim verisimilitude of McQueen’s achievement, there’s a scrubbed-down softness in its ultimate trajectory. Any attempt to funnel history through a single point of view must be dealt with via a carefully selective process of inclusion and omission, but what these heinous and far-reaching crimes really require is anything but the kind of roundness and schematism occasionally applied here. While Morris skewers pre-existing films about slavery that “pad a cozy nest for white audiences,” I’m not sure McQueen’s film does anything different beyond exerting healthy doses of sweat and gore in scenes of racial injustice that, historically, have received their fair share of watering-down. These troubling images may dominate the film, but they're contained in a package that nearly trivializes them, nearly categorizes them as visions of an exotic nightmare rather than something that truly happened and continues to happen in less violent forms today. There’s plenty to appreciate about the film's brave acts of representation on their own, but I nonetheless find myself disappointed by the few damning bids for audience comfort that prevent 12 Years a Slave from seeing the gut-punching brutality that comprises its stuffed middle section to its most productively unfathomable end.