Back to the Roots

I have a confession to make: I was underwhelmed by 12 Years A Slave.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is extremely well made. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is impeccable, and I would go as far as to say that Steve McQueen’s latest may just be the best, most accomplished slave narrative on film. My problem with it is that I was entirely bowled over by his earlier two works, Hunger and Shame. Especially the former of these took me completely by surprise, its style amplifying its story to an almost unbearable extent, and Shame, while perhaps not being quite as immediately striking (no shit mandalas in this one, for one), was similarly effective. 12 Years A Slave deals with what I’d consider a historically more major issue, but the film didn’t surprise me. In fact, it felt weirdly predictable.

12 Years A Slave

Not every film has to be surprising, and I can’t think of anything that 12 Years A Slave does wrong, but I came out of the film thinking that I’d basically seen a more cinematic, nearly perfectly executed version of the early episodes of Roots. There’s absolutely room for such a film, but McQueen being the director made me expect something, well, more, or perhaps rather something different. I expected something more unique – and I want to stress that this is my problem more than the film’s. However, I came away thinking that McQueen could have done more with what’s unique about the story he’s working with.

The big difference to other slave narratives is that the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born free in the USA and abducted into slavery. This is touched on in 12 Years A Slave: Northup, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, holds himself differently from his fellow slaves, he sees himself as separate from them for a long time. His situation, from his perspective, is immediately wrong to him in ways that the other slaves’ situation might not be in his eyes. This is alluded to occasionally throughout the film – but it is of much less interest to the film McQueen has made than the shared reality of what being a slave must have been like. There is clearly a purpose in depicting this universal reality, but I couldn’t help wanting more of what made Northup’s story different as much as what made it universal.

Does 12 Years A Slave deserve the accolades it gets? Absolutely. It is, as I have mentioned, a beautifully made, engaging film. It just isn’t the surprising, unique work that I expected from McQueen.

This blog is based on a true story

Yesterday evening we watched Kinky Boots, a film that tries too hard to be in the vein of recentish British comedies such as The Full Monty, Waking Ned or Saving Grace. It wasn’t exactly a bad film, it was simply deeply mediocre, which may be even worse… Even Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the transvestite Lola, couldn’t save this film which clearly believed itself more charming that it actually was.

However, much worse were the trailers before the main attraction, all of them for films that proclaimed themselves to be “Based on a true story” in a deep, authoritative trailer voice. What worries me even more is that there’s obviously an audience for movies that make that claim for themselves. Are there really so many people who think that the seal of Factuality(tm) makes a movie better?

I’ve always thought that a story is elevated simply by itself, by the strength of the storytelling. A badly told, hackneyed story isn’t miraculously made less so by suggesting that it’s based on something that really happened – and let’s face it, realistically speaking there’s precious little left of the original facts by the time the film makes it to movie (or, in this case, television) screens. A great, well written and acted story, on the other hand, isn’t somehow worth less (or indeed worthless) because it is made up.

Perhaps this is just me being an arrogant ex-literary scholar, but I actively resent this attitude that there’s a clear cut division between fact and fiction. There’s truth in completely made up stories, especially emotional truth, if the storyteller knows what he’s doing; and there’s probably no genre that is as fictionalised as autobiography, which also tends to live off the claim that “This really happened, man!”

As it is, unless a film is written, directed and acted by talented people, the dreaded label “Based on a true story” is often reason enough for me to give it wide berth. If some pretend factuality is all a movie has has going for it, count me out.

But I would be a git if I just left you with this crabby, cranky monologue – so, as promised, here’s some more Tex Avery, supplemented by a Bill Plympton short. I love the malleability of the human, or lupine, body in the cartoons done by those two – and I love the absurdism and silliness. How needs stories based on real life if you can have cats in the shape of milk bottles and eyeballs literally popping out of a horny wolf’s head at some red hot riding hood?