Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

A well-to-do New York musician is tempted by a lucrative touring gig, dined, and wined and wined more before waking up in chains and transported to the south and sold to a plantation owner as a slave. Oh, the musician is black and it antebellum USA. Not nice. As the title gives it away, he lives for a long time this way and is either freed by paperwork or death in the end. Apart from a slight blend of tenses at the start to allow us a view on his citizenship's ownership we get a representation of a time line for a long time. Linear, is the word.

I remember coming out of Casino with a frown. The reason I loved Goodfellas and was unmoved by the later film was this patchwork linearity which all but prevented sufficient motion between the screen and the audience to allow for some empathy. I saw the artistry but couldn't care less. 12 Years a Slave doesn't have this effect and it took me until after the credits rolled to work out why. It has to do with the work of another great director whose influence is signalled in the first minutes of screen time.

First, a little about why I like this director. I am yet to see his debut feature Hunger but what I've heard of it is borne well through his second, Shame. In the latter film a slight premise is examined as much through mise en scene as it is through dialogue and performances. This works to such an extent that it allows for a greater reliance on the blend of look, performance and speech than in even the more edgy of mainstream fare. As a cinema experience it lies somewhere between a series of tableaux and a conventional narrative film. Director Steve McQueen began as much of an installation artist as a filmmaker. This might remind the cinestorians among ye of David Lynch but for once in comparing one director to a favourite of mine I'm not thinking of him.

After we fade in from the various corporate badges we are in a field of tall green cane. A middleaged man dressed for warm weather is demonstrating how to use a cane knife. His accent obscures his words so much that he sounds like he's imitating bird life. Reverse shot reveals a group of twenty or so young black men and women in plain sack like clothing. There is fear in their eyes. The overseer is hard to understand yet they will face pain if they don't do as he says. A young affluent white couple observe. Slavery.

Six unsubmerssible units later (with a few necessary joins) we are sitting through the credits. With me? We are Kubrick's film about slavery.

This is not a tribute by McQueen. If there were quotes from Full Metal Jacket I didn't notice them. This is even more than influence; it is applied Kubrick. At each stage of Solomon/Platt's mental double life as an educated observer and humanity-stripped victim we are led through scenes that filter mainstream convention through an alien eye, recreated history that is less realistic than it is interesting. There is a frightening undercurrent to the opening scene described above and we share the fear by feeling the starkness of the situation: there is no sentimentality to cloud or comfort.

The thing is that McQueen has come to this through hard work rather than film school. He has arrived here rather than aspired to a share of glory and this is the difference between understanding and plagiarism: a Tarrantino likes showing off; McQueen has a job to do. The practicality of applying Kubrick to a long linear narrative is that the force of the artifice allows a more objective involvement than with more regular fare.

Spielberg failed in the comparable Schindler's List by insisting on character polarity which he took to counterproductive lengths: Schindler was so reprobate that his newfound humanitarianism seems engineered and Amon Goeth is so charming, boyish and violent he becomes far more attractive as a screen presence. The "one more" speech of the former is thus rendered as believable as an oscar speech against totalitarianism and Goeth's unceremonious dispatch is warmly funny.

Here, Ford, the first plantation owner, is shown as benign but only within his system, he is a kinder slave owner who seems never to have doubted his right to forced labour. Epps, who might have been Speilberg's villain, is here a man whose enjoyment of his own power and near unrestrained surrender to his own biology make him a spoiled brat with a cattle whip. The fact that his vulnerability shows in the ingested tenderness when drunk or poignantly when he lifts his illegitimate daughter to his side with the pleasure of a parent are enough to tell us, more importantly than a scene staging his good side, that he does not perceive any fault in himself. That is instructive. It doesn't take a grandstanding scene to show that Tibeats' bullying is borne of his knowledge of his mediocrity as a tradesman, it's folded into the flow and we have no trouble seeing it.

These are people whose historical circumstances do not compel them to be essentially good or bad but to expect them to act against their personal architecture would be our fault. This would change if the film were more conventional and we'd expect more of a psyche test for each player but here we witness nature plus culture and it is for us to understand rather than condemn. Drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket is not a bad guy, he's a drill sergeant, he has to be like that: Epps is a living nightmare but you can see why.

Chiwetel Ejiofor at the centre shows us Solomon's acceptance of the contradiction forced upon him. His early heroic declaration that he doesn't want to survive but live undergoes a rapid expansion of definition as soon as his captivity becomes slavery. His struggle is to keep Solomon alive within the shell of Platt (the identity assigned him by his captors) despite not knowing if he will ever be able to free the man within. The various failures and successes he observes around him in the press of the coercive life that victimises them are atomised and incommunicative. Solomon must stay as still as a mouse playing dead while Platt functions. Which one is life and which mere survival? Not always easy to tell when the suppressed one might never be wanted by the world again. His moments of action have consequences (including an excruciating sequence which feels like forever and made more unnerving for all the life that surrounds it) that allow us to withhold our judgement on him for hiding his true self. Finally, because of this, we feel for him with our minds before our hearts; we feel for him more profoundly than we would in something more mainstream.

Like Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave is offered knowing its audience agrees with it. The test for any such work is how extensive is its reach beyond its setting. Nazis are bad, can you be a good person under their rule? Slavery is bad, how do you keep your humanity? Etc etc. Solomon lives as Platt the same as dissidents in Stalin's Russia or Pran in The Killing Fields. Because of this 12 Years a Slave is curiously closer to John Frankenheimer's Seconds or Roman Polanski's The Pianist than Schindler's List as it does not flinch from the effect of its historical moment upon its characters (all of its characters) even to flirt with sentimentality. There's no point in declaring McQueen a new Kubrick. I think he's a cleverer artist than that. But, boy, if you wanted to know how Stanley saw slavery ...

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