12 November 2013

246 Years, Millions of Slaves

12 Years A Slave is the most important film of the 21st century. The most important since Schindler's List, and probably, one of the best and most vital films ever made. To say Steve McQueen's film is essential viewing is a comic understatement. Although there is absolutely nothing funny about anything going on.  

If The Diary of Anne Frank is required reading in high schools across the country, then Solomon Northup's memoir, and the corresponding film should not only be required reading and viewing, it should be enforced reading and viewing.  There is simply no conceivable way to grasp the history of the United States -- nor the present, for that matter -- without the human catastrophe that is slavery shoved in your face.  Otherwise, we're doing ourselves, those who suffered through it, but most importantly the generations to come, a massive disservice. 

Don't misunderstand me. This isn't just about reengineering white guilt. In a world where a white guy on the Miami Dolphins can slur his fellow teammate as a "half-n----- piece of shit" and then have his Black teammates back him up as an "honorary Black guy" while ostracizing the African-American victim as soft, proves that as much progress as we've made, we still have far to go.  Or rather, to be more precise, once we've achieved great social progress, the work doesn't end there because newer generations are going to plead ignorance of the fight of their forefathers. None of the Dolphins ever marched on Washington or personally witnessed Martin Luther King speak. They never had to experience the indignity of being refused service at a restaurant or being forced to use segregated facilities. If they had, there is no way they would condone, let alone support(!) that kind of behavior. This isn't a race issue, this is a human issue.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a prosperous freeman living in Saratoga Springs, NY with his wife and children. It is 1841, and Solomon lives a life of music and punctiliousness. One day, he is lured to Washington DC by two men who invite him to perform with his violin and promise exorbitant pay.  They take him out to dinner and their kindness overwhelms him. Turns out the men poison him and when he comes to he's chained to a wall in a building not far from the still unfinished Capitol.

He's not Solomon anymore, he's now Platt, and if he tries to claim that he is anything but a runaway slave from Georgia he receives a whipping.  And so his fate drags him from a slave ship, to a New Orleans slave market, and to one master then another. At each stop, the dehumanization is ratcheted up to incrementally extreme levels. But nothing -- and nobody -- is worse than Michael Fassbender's Master Epps. Here is the most vicious and vile character in film since Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth. Fassbender fully embraces his worst primordial instincts to create a character for whom there are no words sufficient to describe his utter depravity. 

Shot in Louisana, the sweeping cinemotagraphy and the hauntingly beautiful shots of nature contrast grotesquely with the events happening onscreen.  This aesthetic style harkens back to Francisco Goya's striking paintings of the horrors occurring in Spain during the Napoleonic occupation.  And unlike Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained there are no laughs or gags that make the slavers look dumb or incompetent.  No, in 12 Years A Slave, the villains all know precisely what they're doing. They don't make mistakes and even the slightest unusual movement of their victims is cause for suspicion and violent retaliation. When told by another kidnapped man that the only way to survive is to keep your head down and tell no one he's educated nor free, Solomon responds, "I don't want to survive. I want to live."

The truly frightening thing to ponder is that Solomon's story follows one man who faced this nightmare for twelve years before being rescued. This is a human travesty on a scale that is simply unfathomable. What about all the other slaves, who weren't literate, who didn't have connections in the North, who were born slaves and died slaves? Whose parents and grandparents were slaves and whose children would be slaves? This wasn't an isolated incident, but a recurring crime against humanity that went on for centuries and affected millions of innocent people. 

History has a way of softening reality. Tragic events drift further away into the distance and become theoretical events read about in textbooks and spoken of in generalities. First hand accounts are truly the only way to preserve the funk, the realness, the truth, of what happened. Obviously there will never be any video footage of the horrors of slavery, but at least, with a film like 12 Years A Slave there will be a motion picture record that will live on in perpetuity for all generations hence, so that we can look ourselves in the mirror and say, "Human beings treated each other like this in the not-to-distant past, but we will never let this happen again." 

03 September 2013

A Streetcar Named Retribution

One of Ingmar Bergman's most overlooked and theatrical films is The Devil's Eye.  Released in 1960 and sandwiched between classics like Wild Strawberries and his Trilogy of Faith (Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence), it's easy to see how The Devil's Eye has become lost in modern film circles.  But it's one of Bergman's most inspired works.  The film opens with Don Juan seducing a young maiden only to have his conquest fizzle into nothingness at the moment of consummation.  You see, Don Juan is in hell, and his eternal punishment is to replay this Sisyphean game of seduction, without respite. 

Jasmine, played to neurotic snobby brilliance by Cate Blanchett in a likely Oscar nominated role, shares a similar fate.  The titular character in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Blanchett is a cold, condescending gold-digger whose sole talent in life is to attract and gracefully seduce obnoxiously wealthy men.  This is in extreme contrast to her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a simple woman drawn to salt of the earth types.  Their paths intersect when Jasmine's husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), a not-so-thinly veiled version of Bernie Madoff, loses everything and hangs himself in his jail cell, leaving his estranged wife with no choice but to move from Park Avenue to live with her blue collar sister in San Francisco.

Yes, in Woody Allen's world, San Francisco is representative of a rough-talking, pizza-loving, grease-monkey working class because, obviously, his conception of the City by the Bay is stuck on Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon. 

Jasmine, destitute, is forced, horror of horrors, to work as a dental assistant, and worse, share an apartment with her sister and two kids.  And yet, by the grace of the 1%, wealthy men find her irresistible.  Blanchett's best moment comes when she's dragged to a Marin County fête whose regal vacuousness quickly reminds her of own glorious Hamptons past.  When wealthy widower Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard) begins cooing to her of a home by the bay, a diplomatic mission in Vienna, and a potential future in politics, Jasmine realizes she unwittingly has got a live one.  The universe is restoring her innate place at the top of the social order.  The light in her face is reilluminated as she instantaneously spurns her unbalanced self-pity for a confident, alluring, and completely fraudulent air.  Jasmine's transmutation alone is worth the price of admission. Dwight falls for her immediately.

Somewhat clumsily (Allen loves churning out these films with such frequency that sometimes details aren't given the attention they deserve), it all falls apart for Jasmine, via Andrew Dice Clay in an understated performance as Ginger's ex-husband Augie who was burned personally and professionally by Jasmine and her criminal husband, and her dreams are once again fizzled into nothingness just at the moment of material consummation.  It's a classic morality tale of the pitfalls of greed, pride, and selfishness.  Maybe in some seventh circle, Don Juan and Jasmine will find each other.  

07 February 2013

Super Sunday

It was around 5pm on a Tuesday when I got the call from my brother.  His voice sounded sheepish, like when we were kids and he was up to mischief.  He embarked on a winding tale of NFL referees, personal connections, unlikely raffles, and other miscellany, all revolving around his desperate attempts at procuring Super Bowl tickets.  

Our Baltimore Ravens were making their second appearance -- the first in 12 years -- in the biggest sporting event in American culture.  I now realize the true reason why the NFL corporate heads schedule two weeks between the conference championship games and the big game.  A week had gone by after we'd defeated the dainty New England Patriots before the reality of our triumph had fully sunk in.  Not until then, the beginning of the second week -- when were we absolutely certain it wasn't an amazing, yet transient dream -- did it even occur to us that we should inquire as to how to make it to New Orleans to be there in person.  

Back to my brother's sheepish voice.  I had my suspicions, but dared not indulge them.  To me, this call was simply an elder brother regaling his younger brother with the convoluted account of how he secured himself a ticket to the Super Bowl.  And then came the climax, there wasn't much more to tell, but there was a revelation followed by a question:  there was an extra ticket; would I like to go (aka could I afford it)?

This is the Super Bowl.  Any way you break it down, it ain't affordable.  But our arrangements had some incredibly fortuitous breaks in it and I thought to myself, "Years from now, what am I going to say?  I had a chance to go to watch the Ravens in the Super Bowl but I was too cheap?"  No.  I would not go gently into that impecunious night.  

I repeat, our arrangements included incredibly fortuitous breaks.  First, the tickets my brother secured were face value.  Still wildly expensive but hardly unreasonable (again, the key point here is that our team was playing).  Second, my brother's brother-in-law had secured his own ticket through other channels and some of his close friends were also going.  One of these guys knows a guy who works at a resort management company.  One of their properties, a condo complex in Gulfport, Mississippi, had a three-bedroom condo that hadn't been sold yet.  This friend of a friend of a brother's brother-in-law offered to let us stay there for free.  That left us with the face-value ticket and the flight as being the only major expenses.  Suddenly, I knew:  I'm going to the Super Bowl to watch my hometown team play for the Vince Lombardi trophy. (Another serendipitous twist was that I was going with my brother to watch the Harbaugh brothers do battle.)  

All the flights to New Orleans were booked solid, but there were available flights to Mobile, Alabama, an hour and a half drive from Gulfport, which itself was an hour and a half drive from New Orleans.  So, if counting the layover in Atlanta, we'd be trekking over half the old South to get to this game.  A Sherman March all of our own.

The convenience of the free condo was critical, but it came with some quirks.  The place was large and furnished but lacked the normal amenities travelers take for granted.  There were no sheets on the beds, no towels, not even shower curtains.  We had to bring all this ourselves.  The first night two of the three toilets didn't work.  It had TVs in every room but no cable boxes or antennas.  There were seven adult men in a three-bedroom condo which meant my brother and I (both of us 6'6, remember this as this will be important later) had to share a full (indeed it was) bed.  Anchovies are better accommodated than we were those two sleepless nights.

Restlessness aside, we awoke on Super Sunday ready for the wonderful bounty we were about to receive.  We had rented a large SUV to transport the seven road warriors.  Like magic, my brother unveils a large Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl flag (where or when he had the opportunity to buy this I have no idea) that he proceeded to attach to back of the roof, turning our ride into a Baltimore Ravens Supermanesque caravan.  (I also used this as an opportunity to enlighten my thirty-something, married-with-children suburban companions of the meaning of Soulja Boy's "Crank That.")

Our first stop was to gas up.  At the local Gulfport gas station, an Infiniti pulls in beside us.  An incendiary black woman with fake eyelashes, a southern drawl, and supertight capri sweats accentuating her outrageously rotund bottom gets out and asks to have a picture taken with our Ravens caravan.  As if on cue, an old RV rumbles out from behind the vastness rhythmically honking its horn while Ravens clad fans hang out from the windows and White Stripes' Seven Nation Army (Ravens' unofficial anthem) blasting over the PA.  High fives and chest bumps ensue.

We arrive in New Orleans bathed in warm sunlight.  The city is ignited with anticipation.  I had heard earlier in the week that Ravens fans were outnumbering 49er fans two or even three to one.  This rumor held true.  The locals, all die-hard Saints fans, were also strongly in the Ravens' corner as the 49ers used to play in their division years ago and were still vociferously despised.  

What happens on Bourbon Street requires no explication, and although the city had delayed Mardi Gras a week to accommodate the Super Bowl, they couldn't delay the carnival atmosphere.  One of the bars was blasting Strawberry Alarm Clock's "Incense and Peppermints" into the street and it fit the scene perfectly. Good sense, innocence, crippled and kind / dead kings and many things I can't define.

We had heard a Baltimore radio personality was organizing a seventeen block Ravens march from Bourbon Street to the Superdome in honor of Ray Lewis' seventeen year career.  Around four o'clock local time we made our way to the parade.  The sea of purple was forever.  The locals lined the streets sharing in our exuberance.  It was Ravens heaven.

We arrive at the Superdome and make our way to our seats, which are incredible.  We're twenty-six rows behind the Ravens end-zone.  

From this view we were graced with Anquan Boldin pulling in the first Ravens touchdown right in front of us.  As I mentioned earlier, my brother and I are both 6'6 and I'm not hyperbolizing when I say that every time the Ravens had a big play we would literally leap, and then fall, into each other's arms.  How we didn't topple over into the rows in front of us, I can't explain.  I don't think anyone in our section was as hype as we were and even our fellow Ravens fans were taken aback and then energized by our ecstasy.  

Beside me sat a couple in referee garb (signalling their neutrality) from San Diego who were Buffalo Bills fans.  (Chew on that one for a while).  I guess there will always be people ready to drop thousands of dollars to what essentially to them is a meaningless game.  My effusion for my Ravens demanded that my San Diego Bill neighbor root for Baltimore (although he would not shut up about the unsuccessful fake field goal we ran in the first half leaving three points on the table).  Beside my brother sat two demure early middle-aged women 49er fans who were clearly overwhelmed by my brother's and my histrionics.  They bought us beers as a plea for mercy.  Almost immediately, the Niners began to score points in droves and we cursed our acceptance of her token offering.

To those who watched the game, I need not repeat the play-by-play.  I do however want to point out that as Jacoby Jones caught the second half kick-off, we could see his unobstructed lane unfurl directly in front of our eyes.  Like fiends we simultaneously pointed and screamed, "There it is! There it is!"  Sure enough, Jacoby must have heard us and cut through the 49er coverage like a flyswatter through a cobweb.  We were ahead 28-6 and immortality was less than thirty minutes away.  

And then the power went out.

Days later, watching the replays on TV made it seem like the entire Superdome went black, which was not the case.  In fact, the field remained mostly illuminated and everyone assumed the game should resume within a few minutes.  The delay sobered our enthusiasm and allowed the 49ers to pick themselves up and dust themselves off.  During their furious comeback, it suddenly felt like there were a lot more 49er fans than I had thought. Each time the 49ers made a first down, the PA announcer excitedly bellowed, "First down 49ers!" angering us into apoplexy as we swore he hadn't expressed the same courtesy to the Ravens. (As a side note, our father -- a good-luck charm all year when watching games -- was overseas on business and I feverishly began texting him imploring him to wake up and turn the game on because we needed him.)

Then came the goal-line stand.  It was on the other end of the field so our vantage point was minimal but when that 4th down Kaepernick pass sailed long I crumpled into my seat, overwhelmed.  My eyes welled up.  There were still some formalities but I knew this meant we had just won the Super Bowl.  We were champions.  I figured we'd just run out the clock and the game would be over.  Little did I realize an intentional safety and last second mad scramble on a free kick coverage would ensue.  

The emotions of it all were ineffable.  My brother and I hugged and jumped and yelled and exulted and whistled and shrieked until we were croaked.  The Baltimore Ravens were Super Bowl Champions.  Joe Flacco was named MVP and our little city in Maryland, whom the rest of the country and national media looks upon as a grease spot on the map, a hapless place that doesn't deserve anything good to happen to it (and if something good does happen it's because we must have cheated or got supremely lucky), triumphantly ascended to the center of the sports universe.  

28 January 2013

Tarantino Unrestrained

I confess I had to see Django Unchained, Tarantino's latest historical revenge fantasy, twice before I was able to fully grasped my reaction to it.  Django pulls the viewer in multiple and diametrically opposed directions.  At once it is an epic, a love story, a revenge fantasy, and an historical reimagining, while maintaining wickedly funny -- and gruesome -- overtones.  It is disturbing and heavy while also being witty and light. Only Tarantino.

For those who are even semi-regular readers of this space are aware of my strong affinity towards Quentin Tarantino, whom I have aptly dubbed the Patron Saint of Cinema.  There is no other filmmaker in the world who makes the kinds of films that Tarantino does.  The combination of vision, audacity, technical prowess, film history proficiency, and general auteurship, is something that Tarantino alone possesses.

From sadistic villains to anachronistically hip protagonists, Django is a classic Tarantino film, replete with all the hallmarks we've come to expect from a QT production.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a loathsome plantation owner whose idea of leisure is participating in cockfighting, except with human slaves fighting to the death instead of roosters.  Even more abject is Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, a complexly hideous Uncle Tom. Stephen's nauseating subservience to his master is the driving force in thwarting Django's heroic bid to abscond with his enslaved wife, whom Candie owns, and arguably makes him the most problematic character in cinema's history. 

Django is an important film in ways Tarantino's previous films were not.  Never before has Tarantino -- or any other filmmaker I'm aware of -- so brazenly and unabashedly confronted America's shameful slave past in such an unsolemn and untactful way.  In the Antebellum South, slaves were considered subhuman, and Tarantino misses not one opportunity to depict that debasement on screen.  Could you ever imagine seeing a film that spews the n-word with such frequency and unrepentance that after a half an hour the phenomenon is barely noticeable?

Recently, DiCaprio admitted that during filming he began to have serious reservations regarding the content matter and even confronted Tarantino asking, "Are we going to far with this?  Are we crossing a line we should not cross?"  Apparently, Tarantino was joined by Jackson in adamantly defending their unrelenting approach.  If there is going to be a movie made about slavery, and Tarantino is behind it, then it has to go this far.  It has to be done right.  To borrow a phrase Cornel West used to defend Huckleberry Finn from modern editing:  "The funk must remain." 

Christoph Waltz's cognoscenti Dr. King Schultz and Jamie Foxx's muted Django may be the protoganists, but slavery is the main character in this film, as every second of screen time, every characterization, every word of dialogue, is weighed down by its albatross.  And still the film is wildly fun and entertaining.

One of the things Tarantino does best, and for which we love him for, is he takes a general setting, say, a heist, an underworld double-cross, World War II, antebellum South, whatever, and then he creates an environment in which the most horrific occurrences -- specific to that particular moment in time -- are allowed to come to fruition.  Of course he plays with the facts, but it's solely to maximize the effect. Tarantino doesn't bother with pedagoguery, instead, what he is concerned with is eliciting the greatest possible audience reaction, preferably visceral, and followed quickly by a loudly audible, "Ohhh!!"

The scenes of slavery at its worst are an absolute nightmare.  And yet what might be even more frightening is that no matter how exaggerated Tarantino makes them, we know through the lens of history that nothing that is shown can ever go far enough.  Slavery, by default, is an unspeakable human catastrophe.  

Now, of course QT's last film dealt with another unimaginably terrible event, World War II and the Holocaust. But what makes Django even more affecting than Inglourious Basterds is that the latter wholly avoids the ultimate mechanism of the Holocaust, the death camp.  Surely there are terrifying scenes as Landa, the Jew Hunter, stalks his prey, but Tarantino elides the crematoria.  In the Antebellum South, there is nothing to elide.  Slavery is chains, whips, rape, commodification, and just about every other possible dehumanizing act one can and can't imagine.  Skip over even just one of those and it is no longer slavery, not in the way we know it truly to be.  In short, don't expect to exit this film psychologically unscathed.

Mental scarring aside, the film looks marvelous and the cinematography is exquisite. And of course, there are the usual sight/sound gags, none better than when the freed slave Django and his bounty hunter and abolitionist partner, King Schultz, ride off into the wilderness to Jim Croce crooning "I Got A Name."  Ironically, as much as I enjoyed that scene, it is precisely here that my adulation of Tarantino recedes.

Tarantino has reached such cinematic heights, is imbued with such supreme confidence, and has had his sense of cheekiness emboldened to such an extent, that he has over-indulged the part of his creative mind that fetishizes the minutia, at the expense of the bigger picture.  The devil is indeed in the details and I fear Tarantino is well on his way down the river Styx.  He exerts a tremendous amount of effort in developing over-elaborately fascinating backstories, inside jokes, set-pieces, and constructing a cinematic kaleidoscope, that he inevitably runs out of room (literally and figuratively) when the climax comes due.  If the film is like a jigsaw puzzle, then he's got all these magnificent pieces but they can't all possibly fit onto one board.  

Like Basterds, Tarantino again finds himself in an untenable position once he hits the 150 minute mark and must rely on a bit of deux ex machina to right the ship.  Probably, Tarantino's past virtuosity is his own undoing as there are only so many ways to revolutionize (Tarantino-ize?) a final shoot-out scene, and he's already done them all. The finale, the main confrontation, suddenly becomes an afterthought, an incongruently consequential tangent, rather than a properly organic culmination, to everything else that has already happened.  Although, I must admit, I did find the Antonioniesque fulmination of Candyland a nice touch, a symbolic blowing up of the institution of slavery and everything it stood for.

As I've declared many times before, I love Tarantino's films, and I love his uncompromising vision, how he gleefully manipulates our expectations, and even challenges our sense of history and values.  And this film was by no means a disappointment.  As I mentioned, it is quite an important film, in fact.  But if I had a few moments with the man, I'd entreat him to return to the days when he firstly crafted a magnificently deranged, fully-fleshed out story, and then went to town on the details of how to get there, instead of the other way around.