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Showing posts with label Solomon Northup. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Solomon Northup. Show all posts

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

What if we read the book from 1853 ?

A rating and review of 12 Years A Slave (2013)


More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)


15 January

A rating and review of 12 Years A Slave (2013)

77 = S : 11 / A : 13 / C : 11 / M : 10 / P : 12 / F : 10


S = script

A = acting

C = cinematography

M = music

P = pacing

F = feel
9 = mid-point of scale (all scored out of 17, 17 x 6 = 102)







If you think that, as films go, 12 Years A Slave (2013), despite its emotive content, is just an average piece of film-making, and patchy in places, you are almost damned before you open your mouth : people refuse to separate the content of a film, when it is such as this, from the worth of the film itself, even if it does function in large part as a medium for the story (or message).




Of course, what happens is objectionable (either crime, or people turning their eyes from it), but one cannot make out that slavery exclusively resides in the cotton-fields of Georgia, not, say, in tribes in Africa long subjugating each other's people by war or raiding, and with the well-known example of the people of Israel in captivity in Egypt. In the same way, The Roman Empire had freemen and slaves, and that goes back two thousand years, such that the New Testament is talking about slaves obeying their masters almost as a given (and which is a source for the preaching heard in the film).



The same director's (Steve McQueen's) film Hunger (2008) evokes The Maze Prison, but making a feature about the IRA hunger-strikers in the early 1980s was likely to make a modest gross at the box office (IMDb reports $154,084 at 5 June 2009 in the States, with $1,980 for the opening weekend (5 December 2008)), compared with the relative distance that one has on events 130 years earlier in Slave. As to a powerful piece of film-making, one may think that Slave does not pull any punches, but, compared with Hunger, it is all of these things - mainstream, stereotypical, and stylized in a very conventional way - and feels like a betrayal of that earlier aesthetic.

There are also scenes in the film (of which follow a few) in which McQueen seems to revel as moments, whether or not they work with the film, and so lose its direction and weight :

* For no very good reason (when he would not help her as asked), Northup, when he brings Patsey back to the drunk Epps as requested, tries to pretend that he has not whispered to her to make herself scarce (which he could have done at any point), and a ludicrous chase, in and out of the piggery, ensues - does it do any more than show Epps as gross, and that Northup is capable of a tactical misjudgement ?

* When Northup makes a request for a letter to be carried to his family, he certainly is - it is only by conceiving that he had worked out the lies of his cock-and-bull story beforehand, in case he was betrayed (but, then, he would not already have written the incriminating letter), and that he catches Epps at a good time, that it is credible that he escapes punishment or death by his excuses

* It is clever, but very foolish reasoning (as in any workplace), to contradict and show up your overseer in front of the owner, because, even if you demonstrate your cleverness by proving him wrong and that hardly justifies him finding fault to have an excuse to lynch you, you must know that he will not see it thus Your slick nigger ways

* A more subtle enemy might have got at Northup by breaking the violin that he has been given, and then showing it up as his ingratitude - that approach might have got Ford on his side and against Northup, where this one of finding fault to provoke a fight did not

* Patsey is almost definitely flogged out of deeper motives than whether she went to a neighbouring property for a bar of soap, and no one wants to flog or see another flogged, but can the irrational zeal of Epps (for once in tune with that of his wife against Patsey, whose urging renders him impotent to the task and makes him involve Northup) be yoked to the explicit reasoning of spelling out the doctrine that a man's 'property' is his to do with as he wishes (as Epps' wife would be, since she has no rights except through him, and so he early on chooses Patsey over her, if she wishes to exert herself) ?

* The uneasy moment when other men whom Northup finds on the way to the store are being strung up - maybe just scene-setting that lynching is a part of life (though that seems contrary to a film whose ethos is not to make everything normative), but a lost opportunity, with Ford's wife (who declared, when Northup and the fellow woman slave arrived, that the latter would soon forget her children) to set up some other resonance

What does not seem like a betrayal is simply lifted from someone else's vision (that of Terrence Malick) :



The vision was in the cinematographic ethos, for example the gorgeous close-up of the caterpillar that, although Epps (Michael Fassbender - also in Hunger as Bobby Sands) denies it, is causing the blight of his cotton-plants : it feeds into other moments of the film, but not in the absorbed way that the wide landscapes do of Days of Heaven, and so makes the downright ordinary photography seem gratingly poor and uninspired.

The film contains four main moments of extended dialogue, first with the weeping woman who has been separated from her children (when sold with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor)), then when Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) makes a request of him, then when he makes a request of a white former overseer with whom he is working, and finally when he makes the same request of Bass (Brad Pitt). Certainly, the first two (whether or not the conversation is written out in full by Solomon Northup's memoir Twelve Years A Slave (in which he was assisted by a local writer, David Wilson)) sounded very stagey, trying too much to imitate the manners, language and diction of the age to be more than artificial - even if people ever did talk to each other in that way, it sounded more Shakespearean than from the mid-nineteenth century, and one felt that one was being told that these were Important Words to Heed : for example, How came you there ? How is this ? Tell me all. (I doubt it, but maybe some sort of attempt at Brechtian alienation, as when Northup arrives home and says I have had a difficult time these several years ?)

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack sought by means of rumbling, low-frequency percussive sounds, which would not have been out of place in Peter Gabriel's Millennium Show Ovo (e.g. the machine music of the track 'The Tower That Ate People'), or even The Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999), to impart a sense of menace or the like, but it lacked subtlety for a composer who had scored Inception (2010), and sounded derivative :



If this film is remarkable, and breaks ground, it would be good to know in what way, and how one's understanding is advanced beyond that of Alex Haley's t.v. series Roots in 1977, or even the t.v. film Solomon Northup's Odyssey (1984) and the slavery strand in Cloud Atlas (2012).




Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)