The Movie Club

12 Years a Slave Would Be One of the Strangest Best Picture Winners in a Long Time
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 17 2014 6:34 PM

The Movie Club

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Entry 16: If 12 Years wins Best Picture, it will be one of the strangest films to do so in a long time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup" in 12 Years A Slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

Photo courtesy Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

Dear Dana, Andrew, and Stephanie,

So … 12 Years a Slave. Mixed bag! Anyway, bye.

Love,
Mark

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P.S. I suppose, as the final correspondent in the final round of Movie Club, I should try to say something more summarizing and big-picture-ish. And I suppose I should also try to come up with a few words about 12 Years a Slave that are as trenchant and well-considered as your varied takes. I think I sort of jabbed the collective into taking on this movie for many reasons: 1) I wanted to know what you’d all say; 2) it would have been a conspicuous omission; and 3) from the time it had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, the argument around this movie—the fervently declamatory mode of endorsement, the disbelief that there could be disagreement, the pissed-off dissent—seemed to set a tone that infected too much discourse for the rest of the year. Incomprehension that argument is even possible is a dire approach to talking about the art and craft of movies, and there was a lot of that this fall and winter. It’s the only aspect of a truly excellent movie year that I’ll be happy to leave behind.

The truth—and I swear I’m not wussing out—is that I feel common ground with all three of you about 12 Years a Slave. Dana, I share your aversion to body horror, although for me, the level of brutality in the movie was not a problem because it was excessive but because it seemed off the point. To equate the monstrosity of slavery with specific acts of physical and psychological sadism is, in a strange way, to evade a deeper tragedy. The horror isn’t mean masters but the mere fact of masters; the heartbreak isn’t about kidnapped free men but men who were born, lived, and died without ever knowing what freedom was. The institution was what was cruel; the cruelty of its practitioners is in some ways an easier out for a dramatist. However, Andrew, I completely buy your argument that what McQueen has wrought is a weird and powerful art film that is too easily misapprehended as a more conventional Hollywood issue movie, and I now feel somewhat guilty that I may have participated even by implication in the unreasonable demand that 12 Years be not just a slavery movie but the slavery movie. That kind of artistic generalization should be inimical to any serious filmmaker. (Although I didn’t feel indicted by it, by Wolf of Wall Street, or by any other movie this year—maybe I lack the gene, or maybe I just feel sufficiently self-indicted already!)  

And Stephanie, your statement that 12 Years left you with no bruises sums it up for me. I wanted it to hurt Solomon and Patsey less and me more. It’s hard to say that a movie so steeped in suffering left me cold without sounding like Sarah Paulson’s character, but after all, its natural temperature is cold. Steve McQueen is more Stanley Kubrick than Stanley Kramer, and the friction between the inflamed self-righteousness we typically associate with this genre and the frosty insect eye of his camera (he sometimes seems to be autopsying his characters’ souls as he peers at them) makes the movie at least as fascinating as it is frustrating. I hope people get that if 12 Years wins Best Picture, it will be one of the strangest films to do so in quite some time.

I’m rooting around in the bottom of the 2013 movie bag now, feeling blindly for the items we didn’t get to. I have my hand around something that could be either Bradley Cooper’s pink curlers or the prosthetic vaginas from Blue Is the Warmest Color. Best not to look; let’s just say that the treasures were bounteous this year, and I can’t be the only one who still has a list of movies to catch up with. (Next up for me: The Invisible Woman, The World’s End, Leviathan, The Grandmaster, and The Square.) All of you have been inspiring companions this week, and I will march into a new year of movies with my eyes, my heart and my mind more open as a result. Thank you for that. I can’t wait to read all of you, all year long.

Mark

Mark Harris is an Entertainment Weekly columnist and the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.

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