While I note, with bemusement, that a commenter below has taken me to task for some "same-old same-old" critic bashing, and hence I ought to be more maybe more circumspect before making note of this, but hey, YOLO and all that: I was a little surprised that my friend Manohla Dargis took such a hostile tack against Tim's Vermeer in her review of the movie in the Times today, expressing, in her customary vivid and vigorous language, a real distaste with pretty much all of the people responsible. I cite this not to take Dargis to task, but merely because the movie she describes is pretty much the movie I was dreading before I saw Tim's Vermeer at the New York Film Festival. I thought the actual film sidestepped glib reductionism and offered fascinating casework detail (while also, less fortunately but not fatally, sidestepping a lot of aesthetic ind philosophical implications). Manohla makes a case, though, and in a lively way. See the movie and decide for yourself, as they say.
David Cairns, the blogger behind shadowplay, is also the co-director, with Paul Duane, behind Natan, a remarkable short feature documentary having its New York premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, on Sunday January 19th at four in the afternoon. Duane will be present for a post-screening Q&A.
The movie opens with a series of sepia-toned images as the smooth but hefty tones of Scottish actor Gavin Mitchell address the audience: "Imagine a man has been murdered. The body has been burned. What's left..." Yes, what is left? The movie got its hook into me right away, and never let up.
Natan is, among other things, a remarkable piece of cinephile detective work. Its subject should be a celebrated legend of French cinema. As an overseer of the great French studio Pathe, which for a time also bore his own name, Bernard Natan produced and/or presented films by Rene Clair, Raymond Bernard, and Marcel L'Herbier. He was also, it seemed, a tireless innovator with respect to distribution and exhibition. He was also, according to some sources, an early producer of pornographic films and a some time actor in them. He was indisputably a Romanian-born Jew, finally, and that proved his undoing in Vichy France—thanks in part to anti-Semitism stoked in the country well before Hitler's troops ever set foot in it.
When David, who's a pal, gave me a heads-up on the movie, he said that he hoped that I would find it "packed with information, outrage, and emotion." Indeed. The movie does not attempt a "rehabilitation" of Natan so much as insist that such a state of affairs in which such a treatment were needed is, in itself, an awful injustice. It does this using methods that are risk-taking by conventiona documentary standards, with an actor silently standing in for Natan as narrator Mitchell assumes the man's voice. Scholars and writer such as Serge Bromberg and an especially impassioned Bart Bull, and Natan's own granddaughter, express indignation over Natan's fate even as Cairns and Duane carefully unpack all the available data concerning certain allegations against the man, and reach a tacit conclusion that there are some things about the man that we'll never be able to know. The tragic, convoluted story isn't just for cinephiles—it's for anyone consumed by the mysteries of mankind and the glories it aspires to, and alas, the atrocities it commits. See it.
WARNING: This piece should only be read after you've seen The Wolf of Wall Street. Thanks.
Writing about the Randy Newman album Born Again in 1978, the critic Robert Christgau registered a mild but pertinent complaint: "[R]ather than making you think about homophobes and heavy-metal toughs and me-decade assholes the way he once made you think about rednecks and slave traders and high school belles, he makes you think about how he feels about them. Which just isn't as interesting."
I suppose that in certain quarters, the only thing interesting about a movie, or the launching pad for anything interesting about a conversation or consideration about a movie, is how the moviemakers feel about their characters. Golly, the Coen brothers sure hate their characters don't they? But that David O. Russell, he LOVES his characters —characters who, like those in Wolf of Wall Street, are criminals—but they're NICE criminals, they're passionate they're in love, they're cuddly, and Jennifer Lawrence is AWESOME. Gosh, when did the critical class become so a) filled with flowery feeling and b), for lack of a better world, thick? Buñuel wouldn't do well with this crowd at all. "Hey—he's...he's...he's making FUN of us!"
OK, I'll stop. And I'm also being unfair. I'm not talking about much that's new. The specific complaints relevant to the Why-Doesn't-Martin-Scorsese-Take-Us-By-The-Hand-And-Show-Us-These-Are-Bad-People perplex goes way, way back. I can't find the actual piece on line, but well do I remember Rex Reed, back when he was more "with it," complaining of the sound-and-fury-signifying-little-or-nothing in Mean Streets. "Three hours of horrible people doing horrible things," is New York magazine film critic David Edelstein's description of Wolf; this isn't so far from Pauline Kael's disgust with 1984's The King of Comedy, her claim that "[t]he move reduces everybody to crud." I daresay Edelstein would respond "she's right!" Critics are of course entirely entitled to see things their own way and write about them thusly. Edelstein kicks off his review by saying that with this film Scorsese "continues his worship of masculine energy." But is it really worship? By the lights of Robin Wood, certain of Scorsese's works constitute the fiercest and most radical critiques of masculinity as it is formulated in the Western world. Wood himself formulated a reading of Raging Bull as a study of repressed homosexuality that the more famour David Thomson started peddling a few years back. A conventionaly worshiper of "masculine energy" might have smacked Robin Wood upside the head. Scorsese all but thanked him.
There's this thing that I see in certain critics who don't care much for Scorsese's work. I certainly see it in David's review of Wolf, and having looked over Kael's reviews of many Scorsese movies while preparing my critical study of Robert De Niro, it's there too, with a strong class bias as well; that is, they think Scorsese is a little bit dumb. Yeah, sure, he's a "ferociously" "accomplished" filmmaker and very erudite ABOUT MOVIES and so on, but he also kind of has to be some sort of unrefined mook, doesn't he? (Scorsese's own modesty concerning his intellectual attainments in interviews no doubt also contributes to this perception.) And thus, for instance, the extended, language-and-existence-debasing scene of Belfort and his lieutenants yammering about dwarves simply cannot be an Ionescoesque tour-de-force; no, it's a pointless scene that doesn't advance the narrative. (N.b., I'm not much for points myself. Christmas Eve, three people to whom I'd recommended Inside Llewyn Davis came up to me and told me they didn't much like it, largely because they didn't see that it had much of a "point." Didn't really have a good comeback for that.)
Two recent reviews of the film from friend-colleagues Richard Brody and Matt Zoller Seitz have addressed some of these issues quite eloquently. I think Matt really gets to the nub of a particularly uncomfortable aspect of the movie in the kicker of his review, which states: "We laugh at the movie, but guys like Belfort will never stop laughing at us." Wouldn't you rather talk about the new Beyonce album a little more, while we can still afford a download, than think about the criminality inherent in certain aspects of income inequality? Most employed movie critics, inasmuch as they are employed, are in a sense pipes in the Mighty Wurlitzer, after all. There is a certain irony that Scorsese's particular critique of capital is such an expensive one, and don't believe for a minute that he is not unaware of it. We all, or most of us, do what we can with the resources made available to us.
Richard Brody's close reading of the movie is also superb. (He also keys in on the movie's exhilaration factor in a way that's more sensitive and sensible than Jeffrey Wells' Dennis-Hopper-in-River's Edge riffs of approval.) His close reading of the movie's final shot is a masterpiece of both observation and critical-connectivity. He makes his case without giving anything away.
Brody reels off a list of Scorsese's strategies that more than, um, hint at a very specific directorial perspective, including "counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale." These things aren't hidden; they are right there on the screen, filling the viewer's eyes and ears. Some, though, are more conspicuous than others. For instance, during one sequence Belfort recounts both the promiscuity and technical sexual virtuosity of a female Stratton Oakmont employee in detail that can only be called "gross." He then muses that another, male, Stratton Oakmont broker married the woman "anyway;" then Belfort tells us, "Three years later he got depressed and killed himself," and there's a flash of a photograph, practically Weegee-esque in its luridness, of a blood-filled bathtub with a dead arm hanging out of it, which the camera can't cut away from fast enough, it seems. But it stays on screen long enough to elicit a gasp, to make a near-viscral impression of the world outside of Belfort's necessarily circumscribed perspective. As do the dour but nearly lyrical shots of Kyle Chandler's F.B.I. agent in exactly the sort of workaday sad-sack scenario he mock-self-effacingly outlines to Belfort in their first meeting. Only by this point of the film Chandler's character is still "free," while Belfort is going to jail. What does it all mean, indeed.
As for the film's sexual politics, such as they are; because the themes of Scorsese's films have largely centered around masculine worlds, he's bound to come in for some critical challenges, some of which may be based on misunderstanding and some not. It's worth noting that prior to Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese was not known to use female nudity a whole hell of a lot. Nude scenes were frowned upon by his friend and mentor John Cassavetes. Scorsese himself has said that they tend to "stop a movie dead." With few exceptions (and even those exceptions weren't particularly outstanding), the women in Belfort's world were commdities, objects, and those who didn't play along with that scheme (see the stewardesses in the flight-to-Europe scene) were subject to special abuse. As rife with female nudity as Wolf is, Scorsese doesn't shoot it with anything like the sharp-focus knuckle-biting of a Michael Bay or the dreamy luxuriant arguable overappreciation of latter-day Bertolucci. And the glimpse of Donnie Azoff pulling his pud I think automatically answers the "where's the male full-frontal" question (which, yes, some have asked).
UPDATE: "What the fuck are these people watching?" a friend asks, in an e-mail headed "Every frame is soaked in point of view." He then cites the Stratton Oakmont employee who gets her head shaved. YES. That scene (aside from harking back to Dreyer) tilts the debauch of Wolf explicitly into the realm of the grotesque—of Guignol, even—and it takes place in the first ten minutes of the movie. "What the fuck?" my friend continues (he's a little worked up, and understandably so); "Did people forget what GoodFellas felt like the first time through?"
“Once, my father told me that the difference between the average Briton and the average American was that a Briton looks at a man driving a Ferrari and thinks, 'What a b*****d,' while an American thinks, 'I’ll be him one day.' This my father considered a great virtue — as do I. By the time that I was ten years old, I didn’t just think that America was the world’s great hope, I knew it.”
That's Charles C. W. Cooke, a British-born writer for National Review, in a piece for that magazine's online outlet, a piece titled "Why I Despair," which title is followed by a subhed reading "The central problem is that America, knowing Obama, gave him a second term." This is not the sole piece of writing in which Mr. Cooke trots out that cute little Ferrari story, but the story neither gains nor loses charm in different contexts. (The coy asterisks blacking out the word "bastard" are the author's own.)
Anyway, The Wolf of Wall Street—written by Terence Winter, adapted from a book by Jordan Belfort, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and directed by Martin Scorsese, who co-produced the picture with DiCaprio—is about a guy who drives a Ferrari. The guy—whose name is, it happens, Jordan Belfort (for Belfort's book is about his own early life)—drives a Ferrari that, he emphatically points out early in the movie, is white, not red. This is important for the movie of his life to get right, he avers, because there's a reason the Ferrari he bought is white. That reason is because the Ferrari that Don Johnson drove on the television series Miami Vice was white. Not red. The movie is about why he, and maybe why you, want the Ferrari in the first place. And about how the Ferrari is gotten.
There is a structural similarity to Scorsese's 1990 Goodfellas, but there are crucial differences too. While Goodfellas maintained a nearly breakneck pace throughout, Wolf of Wall Street has a start-stop rhythm. There are breakneck fast-forward voice-over led sequences that give way to long scenes, scenes which a lot of critics have called pointless. For instance, once finance tyro Belfort is making ridiculous money heading up his fake-respectable firm of Stratton Oakmont, the viewer learns that Belfort's father (played brilliantly by Rob Reiner) has a prodigiously bad temper, and was hired to oversee Stratton Oakmont's books. What follows is a conference room scene in which Belfort and his senior staffers are sitting around very earnestly discussing the dwarves that they are looking to hire for some in-house revelry. Because they now inhabit a world in which everything is commodified, their talk is half earnest, half "can't believe we're getting away with this shit" shitty awe, trading observations about how you should never look a dwarf in the eye and how the wee folk gossip among themselves. It's only after several minutes of this that Reiner's character bursts in, fit to pop a blood vessel over a corporate American Express bill just shy of half a million dollars. Can one genuinely not see the point of this scene, or would one just rather not? In any event, from where I sat the banter among these young capitalists was Ionesco out of early Python—and by early Python I mean Swiftian Rage Python. It's important to remember that it's at the very beginning of the movie that a character played by Matthew McConaughey explains that the entire edifice of investment banking is built on a "fugazi," or "fairy dust." Think of all the people who got incredibly angry and genuinely outraged when the current head of the Catholic Church said "How can it not be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
The movie's main action is bracketed by two television commercials, each telling the same lie, but at a different pitch. The first is an extravagantly mounted but irredeemably poshlustian ad for Stratton Oakmont in which a regal, well-groomed line lion strides through the firm's offices wherein many serious men and a few women make very grand decisions for your financial future. The second is a fast-paced, underlit, shot-on-video-as-in-magnetic-tape ad for Belmont's post-epiphany get-rich-quick motivational course. They're the same commercial, pushing the same dream, the dream that Jordan Belfont realized by being a criminal.
Writing about the then-upcoming-on-Broadway musical Miss Saigon for the New York Times in 1991, the novelist Robert Stone talked about the much-tossed-about phrase "the American Dream." "For the record, the phrase 'the American dream' is attributed to a historian named James Truslow Adams, who in 1931 wrote a treatise called 'The Epic of America.' 'It is not,' Adams wrote of his American dream, 'a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.' Since then the phrase has taken on an adventurous life of its own. 'We defend and we build,' said Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of his fireside chats in 1940, 'a way of life, not for ourselves alone, but for the world.' Surely the days are long gone, victory in the Gulf or no, since anyone would say such a thing publicly. The younger contemporary American audience is likely never to have heard the phrase 'the American dream' used other than ironically." Stone's a very smart man but he did not have it quite right: then and now, there was a way in which "the American Dream" came to be used absolutely unironically.
"Stratton Oakmont is America," Belfort tells his minions in what's supposed to be his "old soldiers never die" speech. The opportunity is sitting right in front of your desk, he tells his traders; if your life's not going the way you want it, "Pick up the phone and start dialing." Look at him: he's got the trophy wife, the yacht, the Ferrari, and much, much more. Of course, Stratton Oakmont is only America so long as America and Stratton Oakmont are getting along. Not ten minutes after this scene, as he literally pisses on a subpoena, Jordan's second-in-command Donnie (Jonah Hill, also brilliant, damn him) is leading a chant of "Fuck you U.S.A." Because, you know, they're not to happy that the F.B.I. is under the impression that Stratton Oakmont has been breaking the law.
Underneath all of the fast-paced "fun" and entertainment value of the movie that so many critics have been made ecstatic by, or made alienated by, there lies, ever present, in the fact of the way the frames are composed, a distance. And within that distance there is a steely anger, that Swiftina rage I mentioned. The rage only explicitly shows its hand a couple of times. There's a bit in one of the narrated fast-forward interstices in which Belfort details the sexual escapades of a female employee, and recounts the fact that one of the male employess at Stratton Oakmont married her anyway; there's a couple of shots from their wedding album, and then Belfort says blithely, "Then he got depressed and killed himself," and the image that accompanies this, in its framing and grading, is distinctly unlike anything else in the film. Then there's an interlude into the world that most of us observe Belfort's world from, a few quiet, poetic (in the T.S. Eliot rather than William Wordworth sense) shots of Kyle Chandler's F.B.I. agent character on the subway. It's in these brief shots that the genuine nerve endings of the movie are located, and these shots are No Fun at all.
We all remember the story Peter Biskind recounts in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, during which one of the executives in charge of Raging Bull's production expresses frustration at Scorsese, and at that movie's leading man Robert De Niro, that they are making a movie about someone this executive considered to be "a cockroach." To which Scorsese De Niro replies, quietly but very definitely, "He is not a cockroach. He is not a cockroach."
Finally, Scorsese has made a movie about a cockroach. But the cockroach is not just Jordan Belfort.
In an interview last winter with Mary Kaye Schilling of New York magazine, the director Steven Soderbergh, prompted by Schilling’s remark “You’ve never been a fan of film critics,” responded, “It’s what Dave Hickey said: It’s air guitar, ultimately. Was it helpful to read Pauline Kael’s work when I was growing up? Absolutely. For a teenager who was beginning to look at movies as something other than just entertainment, her reviews were really interesting. But at a certain point, it’s not useful anymore. I stopped reading reviews of my own films after Traffic, and I find it hard to read any critics now because they are just so easily fooled. From a directorial standpoint, you can’t throw one by me. I know if you know what you’re doing, and, ‘Wow, critics’—their reading of filmmaking is very superficial.”
Because Soderbergh and his work are well-liked by most critics, this verdict did not elicit the howls of derisive outrage that might have attended the exact same words had they been delivered by Michael Bay or Tyler Perry (not that they would have been). Sure, I detected a slight wounded whiff of “Dad’s just giving us the tough love” defensiveness from some younger colleagues in conversation, but that was about it. (I have no real dog in this non-fight, as Soderbergh pretty much closed The Iron Door on me after I panned The Good German in Premiere magazine back in 2006.*)
However, as if to provide the Q.E.D. to Soderbergh’s blanket condemnation of a “superficial” reading of filmmaking (a generalization I feel Soderbergh might revise were he to read Kent Jones on Paul Thomas Anderson, or on anything else), earlier this month the New York Film Critics’ Circle, once considered an august, deliberative, and not-really-pandering-to-mainstream-taste entity, awarded it Best Film award to American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell. American Hustle is a film that is very engaging in parts, and full of lively performances. Also a film that is incredibly sloppy and practically incoherent and not even close, by any objective or quasi-objective standard of directing or any other aspect of filmmaking, to being the best any-kind-of-movie released in 2013.
Some Dude on Twitter™ (not a member of the New York Film Critics’ Circle) recently opined that American Hustle was a "better Scorsese movie" than Scorsese’s own The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t imagine this person will be the first to voice this opinion. It is an idiotic opinion, and it is based entirely on superficial readings of both films. (Because neither Hustle nor Wolf has yet opened [oh, wait, I see Hustle opens in "exclusive" engagements today], I’m going to try to keep my descriptions as spoiler-free as I can.)
American Hustle, directed by Russell from a script by himself and Eric Singer, is a two-hour-and-change, sort-of based-on-a-true-story picture ("Some of this actually happened," reads a title card at the beginning) about a con man and his partner in love and crime who get gathered up in a venal law man’s net and are compelled to set up "stings" with the federal agent in order to escape jail time themselves. Along the way various complications, dressed up in outer-borough and Jersey accents and 1970s fashion filigree, and including criss-crossed romantic entanglements, and the emergence of a criminal fish bigger than anyone in this scheme is comfortable trying to handle, take the double-dealing into some unusual areas. But Russell, who is nothing if not exuberant in his approach, also doesn’t really know what movie he wants to make. The narration, the hard-stressed period flourishes, and the milieu suggest, yes, Scorsese's Goodfellas, but Russell never pulls off that movie’s headlong (or breakneck) narrative momentum. Indeed, one suspects that he’s a little ashamed of the fact that his script has a very distinct plot, one that’s more in the tradition of The Sting than of any ostensibly realistic film (fact-based or not). And so, he presents the actual story of American Hustle through a series of sprawling scenes in which he lets his actors do their soulful/funny/weird things, while also giving his ‘70s song soundtrack something like free reign. Russell seems to deeply deplore the fact that karaoke had not caught on in America in the late ‘70s, or that he wasn’t able to configure the whole film as a musical, because he does love to let his actors sing, and when he can’t have them sing, he likes to cut to shots of them copping various attitudes while a particular song plays out, in full or something like it, over the soundtrack. There’s one scene about two-thirds of the way through the picture that should be a crucial one, in which the loose-cannon wife of Christian Bale’s character (played by Jennifer Lawrence) first lays eyes on her romantic rival (Amy Adams), at a big party during which Bale’s con artist and Bradley Cooper’s F.B.I. guy find out their entrapment of politician Jeremy Renner is leading them to the aforementioned bigger criminal fish, and a bigger risk. There’s a lot of character and plot material at stake, but Russell seems more interested in backlit slo-mo shots of Amy Adams being all open-mouthed luscious as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” plays really loud. And she does look luscious, and you think you’re watching a music video.
"So what?" you may ask. All those things I cite—slow motion, pop-song soundtrack, digressiveness—are hallmarks of, yes, what people associate with Martin Scorsese movies. (It's clear too that Russell has also seen Boogie Nights. And Magnolia.) Except here’s the thing. In Scorsese’s films—in Goodfellas, and, yes, in The Wolf of Wall Street—these elements are put together with very distinct purpose, and they fuel the dynamic of the scene and what’s going on within it. (Think, in Goodfellas, of the overhead shot of Joe Pesci's Tommy hitting the floor at his “made man” ceremony, juxtaposed with De Niro smashing up the pay phone.) Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are not dogmatic about “matching” (and as filmmakers heavily indebt to a New Wave that had a deeply ambivalent relationship to “invisible editing,” why should they be), but they’re damn serious about scene construction, and when it’s necessary, they cut in microbeats. Russell goes all over the place. As he waxes up an “everybody cons everybody” theme that isn’t really justified by the movie’s payoff, and drops empathetic notes about various of the characters’ debilitating or potentially debilitating instabilities, hints of Soderbergh’s own The Informant! emerge, but Russell isn’t nearly conceptually or technically accomplished enough to come within swinging distance of Soderbergh’s achievement. Still, the showy generosity of Russell’s vision will no doubt (if it hasn’t been already) earn praise for being “visual jazz.” Which it is not. Believe it or not, even the free-est of free jazz, as in actual music, has its rules. What Russell’s up to in American Hustle is just plain can’t-make-up-his-mind sprawl/bloat. It’s possible that Russell's movie is sloppy for arguably the best of reasons—he loves his actors, man!—but it’s still sloppy. In a movie that didn’t selectively hit their pleasure centers so squarely, the critics who are proclaiming this the best movie of the year would be deploring its incoherence.
But isn’t hitting the pleasure center all that matters? That was pretty high on Kael’s priorities, “entertainment” value or more-than-entertainment-value or not. Again, I did not find the experience of watching American Hustle to be pleasure-free. Indeed, I’ve never heard or seen the intro to Chicago Transit Authority’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” put to better use than in the Bale/Adams meet-cute scene. And Jennifer Lawrence really does do the trick, although Russell serves her ill with the movie’s second faux-karaoke scene. But while Lawrence is indeed a very good actress, the way the chattering classes fall all over her is getting kind of embarrassing; every profile of her reads like a wordy upmarket variation of a “Celebrities! They’re Just Like Us!” caption. She’s certainly a factor in the overpraising of American Hustle. But the real reason I believe Hustle is winning over so many is because it rather overtly flatters its audience. Its observations concerning corruption ultimately take a back seat to a cockeyed optimism and a consoling (conditional) tolerance of everyday venality. While the now-beloved Goodfellas, The Informant!, and The Wolf of Wall Street are all deeply pessimistic, distinctly un-ingratiating movies, American Hustle slobbers all over its viewers like an overeager puppy. (That’s something that 12 Years A Slave, reportedly the main challenger to Hustle during the NYFCC’s vote, certainly doesn’t do, either. Hmmm.) It likely sounds pat to say that the people going gaga over American Hustle have fallen for some kind of con, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
* This is a joke.
...is Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis. Granted, I'm seeing Wolf of Wall Street this afternoon, but even if I love Martin Scorsese's new picture, it will probably not knock Davis out of my heart's top spot, because, well, I might as well just admit it, I feel an abiding/irritating kinship with the cranky folk singer of the Coen picture. I reviewed it for RogerEbert.com, and I'll write more about its magnificent knottiness once more potential readers have seen the movie. All I'm going to say to you is that you have to see it from the very beginning. It's not even an opening credit thing. If you're three minutes late, even, you're lost.
But go, and see. It's awesome. My friend Michelle Dean has a nice piece at Flavorwire taking issue with the movie's naysayers and putting her finger on some of the reasons it resonates so naggingly with folks like herself and myself.
I also reviewed The Last Days on Mars, a close-but-no-cigar sci-fi horror thingie.
As for the work, I'll keep you posted on those things that are actually relevant to My Higher Calling As A Film Critic, and maybe a couple of things that aren't. And I'll soon weigh in here on a Particular Aspect At Least, of...wait for it...The Counselor.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, which played at the New York Film Festival last week and comes to theaters on the 17th of October, is as extraordinary a film as most of its reviews claim it is. The acting and the direction are indeed remarkable, but I was also struck by John Ridley's script, the dialogue in which very convincingly simulates mid-19th-century modes of North American speech while augmenting the already-powerful narrative with extremely trenchant philosophical and psychological observations, pronouncements, and maxims. The implications of these words, particularly within their contexts, are extraordinary, and it's to the credit of Ridley (an extremely able writer whose prior work as I've experienced it has been notably smart but never acheived precisely this level of depth), McQueen and the extraordinary cast that the nuggets of disquieting added value never play as contrived or forced. I record nine of them below, with descriptions that I hope are sufficiently discreet so as not to constitute "spoilers;" nevertheless, some readers may prefer to look at this piece after they have seen the movie themselves.
It's worth noting that there is not a whole lot of recorded dialogue in the first four-fifths or so of the Solomon Northup memoir on which the movie is based. What dialogue is taken from the book is, as it happens, lifted almost verbatim. Of the nine bits of dialogue examined below, two derive directly from the book, and it's a testament to Ridley's sensitivity and inventiveness that he makes his dialogue not just out of such speech that's recorded in the book, but out of certain particular emotional articulations put down by the memoirist.
1) "The reality to come is that we will be transported Southward."
Shortly after free man of color Northup is hoodwinked into entering a slave state and subsequently drugged and kidnapped, he waits anxiously in a cell with a two other black men who have arrived at a similar circumstance. They both speak to him with an articulate resignation, because they know what's going on, to the extent that as soon as their brutal white handlers enter the room they put on the masks of shambling half-idiots. Northup expresses absolute incredulity at his plight and wonders aloud as to how he might be able to correct what he believes to have been a mistake. The line above, in which the phrase "the reality to come" has a particular resonance in its resignation, is spoken to Northup in a devastating fatalistic tone by the actor Chris Chalk, in the role of Clemens.
2) "You luxuriate in his favor. I survive."
Also in Northup's party traveling from Virginia to Louisiana to be sold is Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a woman who is subsequently mercilessly separated from her two children and sold with Northup to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), an ostensibly "humane" master who nevertheless employs a brutal overseer played by Paul Dano. After the educated and worldly Northup, while continuing to conceal his identity (on arriving in Louisiana he is commanded to take the name "Platt"), impresses Ford with his engineering acumen, he is treated in a fashion that makes his station somewhat more tolerable, while Eliza, heartbroken over the loss of her children, literally cannot stop crying. She directs the above accusation to Northup after he (very gently) upbraids her about her behavior, which he fears will bring her into disfavor, single her out for punishment.
Not to trivialize the situation of the people depicted in the motion picture, but luxuriating in the favor of an individual or corporate entity very much remains a condition pertaining to employment to this day.
3) "Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. But I fear no good will come of it."
Because of some confusion in my notes, I initially wrote, "This is spoken to Northup/Platt by Epps (Michael Fassbender), the 'nigger breaker' to whom Ford sells Platt. Epps' 'fear,' obviously, is for Platt rather than for himself. Or is it? As cut and dried as the master/slave relationship might seem, this line implies hierarchies within it that subsequent events lay out most discomfitingly." As it happens, the line is actually spoken by Cumberbatch's seemingly kindly Ford, and is a reflection of the fact that his very exceptionalism has put him in a position where Dano's raging overseer has very nearly lynched him. The point of Cumberbatch's character, and something the actor plays with considerable resourcefulness, is that he is in no way redeemed by being a nice slave owner: he directly benefits from human misery, directly partakes in a system that allows him to do so. That he goes about this business with more gentleness and consideration than others does not change the fundamental fact of the matter. And like the song says, "isn't he a bit like you and me?" Or more than a bit, even. The movie is not blunt in showing the viewer his or her complicity in injustice, but it's very definite in doing so. It seems that many people deal with this by changing the subject to how well the movie ought to do in the Oscar race, which is pretty funny. Maybe.
4) "Nigger among niggers. God gave her to me."
This is Epps again, speaking of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the small, delicate but very hard-working (she consistently outpicks her fellows in the cotton field, and by huge margins) slave girl for whom Epps nurses a very deep erotic obsession, and obsession not unnoticed by Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson). His pride, his sense of possession, his torture over his attraction to her: Fassbender of course plays all this with absolute commitment. The character, also a very nasty drunk, is powerful, and powerfully repellent. In an interview with Film Comment, director McQueen observes "The funny thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Epps because he's in love with Patsey." That's true, but it's also true that there is no possibility of any kind of fair exchange of emotion or understanding between them because of the absolute power Epps has over Patsey. One thing that's gone largely unremarked upon in the praise of this film is how mercilessly it lays bare the debased, depraved psychosexual pathology of slavery in the United States. Through patient demonstration, it argues quite coherently that the thing that destroyed black culture was white people. More than once watching 12 Years A Slave I recalled Susan Sontag's notorious 1967 pronouncement "the white race is the cancer of human history," a statement subsequently renounced by the writer. It is arguably a hyperbolic and rhetorically irresponsible statement. And yet I think it bears some examination with respect to this particular narrative. In any event, this may sound flip, but I defy anyone who sits through this movie to ever be able to comfortably listen to the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" again any time soon.
5) "The curse of the Pharoah is but a poor sample of what awaits the plantation class."
Alfre Woodard, playing a once-slave whose own amorous relations with a master have elevated her to a house mistress, makes this prediction in casual conversation with Northup/Platt. For what awaits the plantation class, see, of all things, Gone With The Wind, specifically the sequence depicting the burning of Atlanta. To see the lesson the great great grandchildren of the plantation class have learned from it, see...well, never mind.
6) "Did you beguile him, Platt? With your slick nigger ways?"
Once, many years ago at the Village Voice, the columnist Nat Hentoff, commenting on something he perceived as specious in a piece by Clayton Riley, characterized Riley, and/or his use of rhetoric, by evoking a "three-card monte dealer." This resulted, as I recall, in Hentoff sustaining a shitstorm of blowback in which he was accused of racism. This was absurd on the face of it, because, really, at the time there was no white man in the United States who had less reason to be tarred as a racist than Nat Hentoff, who, for instance, in 1960 produced Charles Mingus' "Original Faubus Fables," for Christ's sake. And also, you know, three-card monte was a real thing. (I rather wish it would come back: as a method of fleecing New York tourists, it's a hell of a lot more entertaining and even innocent than dressing in a bad Elmo costume and extorting tip money for snapshots.) Still (and—again, if I recollect correctly—Hentoff came to understand this), making the analogy in this case amounted to buying into/perpetuating a vicious racial myth, one that is articulated in the question Epps asks Northup/Platt after Platt returns from a sojourn serving a different master, one who procures for the slave a paying gig as a musician. You can hear the poison narrative of "slick nigger ways" retold by white America every day, and you don't even have to listen terribly hard.
7) "But beggin' the law's pardon—it lies."
This line is taken directly from the book, spoken by the Canadian-born carpenter Bass, played by Brad Pitt. It refers to the law that permits slavery. Some have commented that Pitt's character plays like some sort of deus ex machina. I would commend those people to the narrative from which the movie was adapted, which is eminently readable and pretty short. In any event, Bass' observation is terse and powerful.
8) "Sin? There is no sin. Man does as he pleases with his property."
There is a scene late in the picture in which Platt/Northup is compelled to perform an absolutely abhorrent act, at the insistence of Epps, upon a fellow slave. This, like almost every other event in the movie, is in Northup's narrative. In the book, Northup observes, "I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—‘Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!’” In the movie, Northup actually says a variant of this out loud, and with great emotion, to Epps, who, like everyone else in the story, deems himself a Christian. The above is what Epps answers in the movie, and it speaks strongly for itself.
9) "It would be an unspeakable happiness to see my wife and my family again."
This is what Northup says to Bass when he finally decides to confide in the kindly and moral carpenter. This is not rendered as dialogue in the book; rather, Northup writes, “I spoke of my wife and children, mentioning their names and ages, and dwelling upon the unspeakable happiness it would be to clasp them to my heart once more before I died.” The notion of "unspeakable happiness" is one well worth reflecting on.