Sardoni Selects: An Exhausting Email Exchange: Part One

(Editor’s Note: Taylor “T” Sardoni is currently in Russia, which complicates recording a podcast that no one will listen to about movies no one saw. To simplify matters, we decided instead to collect an endless email discussion of our favorite 2013 movies into a blog post. This is that blog post, a three-part, 10,000-word blog post. Part One begins, naturally, with our analysis of 12 Years A Slave and ends somewhere around Joaquin Phoenix’s high-waisted wool pants in Her.)

CARMEN: Before we discuss 12 Years A Slave, I think it’d be apropos to revisit the climactic scene from Norbit:

What theater! The parallels speak for themselves. For various reason(s), 12 Years A Slave didn’t make my Top Ten Movies List of 2013, but I included it in our hodgepodge list since it was your top movie of the year. Now it is time for you to show your work. My inevitably long-winded rebuttal will follow. And to jump the gun: didn’t this strike you as the most charged Oscar statue electromagnet in history? Which, as we know, is the truest gauge of a movie’s mediocrity? Jai ho, bro!

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“T”: And we’re off…

Yes, because when sitting down to write an Oscar-baiting script, every writer thinks of the quintessential “Paul Giamatti slapping young African-Americans on the stomach” to get ’em.  You forget who the Academy is made up of, and more importantly, how rare it is that they award the correct films…

Let me back up and say thanks for inviting me to do this.  It’s about time one of our year-end Top Ten Films, pseudo-intellectual, ramble seshes has been transcribed. (Editor’s Note: Nope.)

I shall start by attempting to 8 Mile you here–(spoiler alert but watch it because… well, watch it)– as I propose the things wrong with 12 Years a Slave, in song (I won’t do it in song).  Is the film overly-dramatic?  Yes.  Is it incredibly slow-moving?  Yes.  Is it a flawed film?  Absolutely.  There are scenes that are downright poorly acted, directed and edited (here’s looking at you “Stop cryin'” scene).  Also, ya know, the whole Brad Pitt segment is kinda embarrassing (“Hey guys, I’m here to save everyone and don’t worry, my character is not American so we’re not letting anyone off the hook, he’s Canadian and I also produced this film, yay me!”).  But I’d argue that, like any great piece of art, its flaws, its imperfections, its moments of pure bafflement only add to its greatness.  Perfect things are never great.  Imperfection is what makes art, art.  This is not my favorite film of the year, that honor goes to Dallas Buyers Club.  But 12 Years a Slave definitely is the most important film of the year.  And it’s also one of the best crafted films of the year, despite its flaws.

After his overlooked–let’s face it–misstep Shame, McQueen goes back to what was most successful about his debut film, Hunger — creating a unique portrait of a character with the backdrop of a country’s embarrassing, disastrous, historical moment in time.  And he does what a lot of filmmakers attempt to do, but always shy away from: he puts the mirror up to the face of the audience, he recreates history.  Surely there are things wrong with this film.  But in a year of so many irreverent movies, no other movie this year, or in the last few years, actually rewrites history in the way this does.  It rights all the wrongs that, and you’ll have to go back to 1915, that the incredibly well-shot but mind-numbingly racist Birth of a Nation did, portraying African-Americans as crude, vile, drunk rapists (not to mention more Blackface than even Roger Sterling could handle).  Oh and McQueen gets some incredible performances: Chiwetel Ejiefor is at the top of his game and saves some scenes from being downright cheesy (I’d like to see Django sing a historic slave song and go through the emotional arc within a five minute scene that Ejiefor displays here).  If anything, the film brought us to the attention of Lupito Nyong’o.  Oh and McQueen (he did have his start in photography) captures images in way that when you juxtapose the nature with the brutality of the beatings, you can’t help but meditate on your place in this history.

Let me diverge for a moment. I love historical photos. I can look at them for hours. Mostly, I enjoy viewing images like this one, of hot Hilary Clinton:

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or this one, of Hitler bringing sexy back:

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But then sometimes I come across a shot from history that displays an iconic moment from another perspective:

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One that is and will always be overshadowed by its cousin photo, the iconic photo we all have come to know:

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That first photo is not perfect by any means, in fact, as a “photograph” it’s flawed — the composition is ugly, the distractions in the foreground, etc.  And had its cousin never been famous, that first photo would be nothing.  And yet, it tells an important moment from a new perspective.  And it does it without shying away.  I don’t go to the movies for a history lesson or to be taught what is morally right.  But when a movie attempts to do that, succeeds and still stays true to its form, I can’t help but admire it.  12 Years a Slave takes history from a different perspective, focusing on one man’s journey, and it places us right inside that moment in time.  It’s not trying to be iconic, and at the exact same moment, it’s not shying away from showing the terror of others in its place.

You can’t “love” a movie like this (sidebar: one of my students declared that he “F*ckin’ loved that slave movie,” which made me very uncomfortable).  But flaws (and again there are many) aside, this is not about a movie or le film or about art.  I’m eager to hear your rebuttal (probably because I’ll agree with a lot of it), but at the risk of sounding nerdy (as if I didn’t succeed already), this is the reason movies are made — to cause that debate.

A seven-minute long take of an African-American man being hanged to die?  McQueen won’t let us ignore it anymore.  Oscar bait?  No, that’s being brave.  We had our moment with B-Rabbit, why not let 12 Years take the spotlight for now?

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CARMEN: Wow, that is one of the Top 50 pictures of coy Hitler you’ve ever sent me. That’s a discussion for another in lieu of podcast email exchange though…

Per your arguments about Academy voters and Giamatti belly-slapping, that’s exactly my point! The Academy never awards the deserving film. Paul Thomas Anderson has zero Academy Awards, Adele has one. This is precisely why 12 Years A Slave will win Best Picture. While it may not have won in years past, the current collection of Academy voters is starved to show its openness to “minority” voices who are “young” and “experimental,” who aren’t afraid to engage with “dicey” and “controversial” issues in a “graphic” and “unflinching” way. 12 Years A Slave checks all those boxes, and it does so with the most nonsense symbols next to its title on Awards Daily. From the second Steve McQueen donned his Warby Parkers to type the script on his Wurlitzer, this was a movie ready to scream of its own importance from the uppermost branches of the lynching trees. In my opinion, this is a paradoxically but nevertheless comfortable position to make art from, and 12 Years A Slave struck me as a lesser film because of it. If it doesn’t win Best Picture, something has gone terribly, horribly right.

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My central problem with the movie doesn’t arise from its flaws; it arises from the movie’s utter lack of flaws, its clinically perfect utilization of the independent cinematic toolbox to tell a very mainstream Hollywood story. Had I been pressed during the Regal First Look to predict what Steve McQueen’s adaptation of 12 Years A Slave would be, my prediction wouldn’t have been far from the final product. The only surprise would be how little the film affected me. Shame isn’t a great movie (could have used more incest), but it locked me inside its not-good, foggy atmosphere for its overlong run time. It felt like the product of a singular consciousness, and I’d argue that no other director could have made that not-good movie as not-good as McQueen made it. This movie, for all its “artistry,” seemed more of a collaborative effort among McQueen, the co-writer, the cinematographer, and the source material, with an above-all agenda not to discomfort, as its been positioned, but to appeal. Much of the power and depth of art lies in its flaws, the friction between artistic intent and formal limitation, I fully agree with that. I’d argue that flawlessness can be a flaw too, though. Unlike Shame or Hunger, everything presented to me in this movie scanned as it was intended to in my brain; I have minimal use for art like that. My brain and heart are profoundly broken. They need all the change they can get. I didn’t feel changed after this movie. I felt appeased.

In the immortal words of Gerald Stern, “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking, then you’ve written a poem about two dogs fucking.” 12 Years A Slave is entirely the movie that its makers set out to make. There is a lack of feeling and depth in that reality, at least on my end.

I had the completely opposite experience with Fruitvale Station, which turned my body into an amorphous pile of skin and tears, twitching in a movie chair like a prodded, surgically-removed organ. To bridge the gap, my takeaway from 12 Years A Slave was a statement: slavery was horrible, and Americans must confront its horribleness forever. My takeaway from Fruitvale was an argument: slavery is horrible, because slavery didn’t end, it was just re-branded, and Americans will never confront its horribleness. Do I simply prefer (what I perceive to be) eristic art? You tell me.

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“T”: Maybe we are viewing the film in different ways.  Maybe you’re viewing it as an individual and I’m trying to view it as more than that, more societal.  And don’t get me wrong, neither method of viewing is right, in any way.  I just see how ugly and sometimes flat-out wretched the filmmaking is, and I cannot help but admire it for not taking on the cliche, Hollywood practice.  You didn’t feel anything after the film, you didn’t feel change — I can’t blame you for that.  I did feel something. I also felt for the society around me that needs a movie like this.

Don’t cast your Awardsdaily Oscar Predix ballot so quick though, I don’t know if the Academy is brave enough to award 12 Years a Slave and it may just go with the highly entertaining, yet over-rated and messier than Christian Bale’s comboverAmerican Hustle

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So we disagree, no big deal.  It’s happened before (Minority Report?) and it will happen again (Upstream Color).  But something we can agree on is the power of a film like Fruitvale Station.  Talk about “unflinching,” the way the opening punches you right in the face with true footage.  Yes, at times the film was a bit manipulative trying to paint Oscar as a “good guy” who was “really trying to make things right.”  You know what, I don’t mind it one bit.  Michael B. Jordan carrying around a dead dog while crying is gonna get us, and you know what, if you pull that off, you deserve it.

Look, the filmmaking in this is tighter than tight — no shot is wasted, not even the numerous transition inserts of the BART train passing in the distance.  Everything is about tension, everything is about creating an atmosphere in which you feel safe, yet you know what’s just around the corner.  This is how you portray a loving, “working on this” couple.  This is how you execute flashbacks.  This is how you make a statement film.  Unforgivably overlooked, this film shows the talent and potential of all involved.  Oh, and the writing. Talk about rewriting history! Melanie Diaz is finally making up for her disastrous turn in Be Kind Rewind!

This movie really is a testament to the horrors of a specific part of our culture, much the way another film on our list captured a culture in a completely different way — Frances Ha, in all it’s beauty, and pacifying grace.  Fruitvale captures the prejudices against African American youth in Northern California as well as Frances Ha captures the ambivalence of twenty-something hipsters in New York. Both are well-made films because of that.  And that’s why they’re in this discussion.

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CARMEN: We are certainly viewing [12 Years A Slave] in different ways, because the filmmaking never felt ugly or wretched to me. The visuals are intended to juxtapose the ugliness of the actions, but those actions and violences didn’t even irk my (admittedly desensitized) cover-my-eyes receptors. Which may be tied to the greater issue of why we’re meant to empathize with Solomon: he’s been robbed of the “whiteness” that he’d been promised. Like, when will Solomon be able to go back to being a white person! Well, by the end of the movie he will, while every other black character whose suffering is rendered peripherally will continue living Whole Fucking Life A Slave. It’s a brave bit of filmmaking to tease hanging a character for seven minutes; I think it’s a braver one to tell the story of someone who actually hanged.

What a neat segue to Fruitvale. (Actually, before that, since when do you not like Minority Report?) [And who the fuck is awarding American Hustle anything except Best Picture for Future Syndication on USA?])  As a person who hated the dead dog scene/thought it could and should have been cut and burned and MIB nueralyzered out of everyone involved’s memory, the whole of this movie was so much more than the sum of its parts. Everything you wrote about its efficiency is spot-on. I’ll only add how excellently the movie integrates the text message into the narrative. Because that’s a part of our lives now! Like rampant, everywhere-overlooked racism! We can finally cash in all that Melanie Diaz stock we bought in 2007.

Economics is super important in this movie too (as it is in Frances Ha, smart counter). The sheer hopelessness and immediacy of Oscar’s situation is galaxies away from Frances’s frittering economic circumstances. They’re decidedly different kinds of tragedies, but both tragedies just the same. (Somewhere in my brain is a blog post that casts Frances Ha as a horror film.) The seeming lightness of Frances Ha betrays its ultimate heaviness: how media saturation and upper middle class stability has birthed this useless, deranged “creative class” that haunts the streets of an increasingly hostile city like the zombies of people who were never born. I loved it, of course, because I am one of those never-born zombies. “He’s the kinda guy who says, ‘I gotta take a leak.'” I mean, come on. Thankfully, I’ve already resigned to failure, gotten my desk job, and found the apartment in Brooklyn in which I’ll die. “Ha.”

While on the subject of vile, disgusting white people, we should discuss Before Midnight and Her. You were higher on the former than I was, lower on the latter. What do you have against post-fashion wool pants and ukelele duets? I’ll begin preparing my 10,000-word defense of twee now.

“T: I don’t know, man.  Your reading of Solomon losing his “whiteness” and gaining it back really says something.  I don’t think many people, of our race or any other for that matter, would agree with that same take.  And remember, it is an adaptation of an autobiographical book; if the movie succeeds in anything, it is its unconscious ability to strive for authenticity.  I watched someone lose their manhood, go full-on beast, be tamed into an animal, and finally gain his manhood back.  DFW talked about the different types of films, some trying to keep the audience asleep and others “rendering the audience more conscious.”  I don’t think the filmmaker has to piggy-back us all the way there.  I think they have a responsibility to try to wake us up, and what we make of it from there is on us.  We don’t need Roots again (despite, of course, a remake already in the works) we can see a black man from that time play the violin.

 But back to Frances Ha, I’d say the filmmaking itself plays with the idea of economics, as there is an acute sense to the economy of shots Baumbach uses.  Every frame in that movie speaks to truths of this culture.  The choice of black and white only solidifies the “era” it captures.  And you are spot on, it is definitely a horror movie, I’d say for you and I it’s a cautionary tale.  The scenes where Leary’s Rescue Me kinda stepson talks about working on his spec scripts still haunt me.  I think you should add to your description of your current lifestyle, a flat screen TV with Frances Ha playing on repeat, because nothing says meta better than us never-born zombies commenting on Greta Gerwig dancing through the streets as we watch Greta Gerwig dance through the streets and yell “Hurrah!  Hurrah!”…  Carmen, those peeps in that movie… they’re coming for us.

Another horror movie in disguise — Before Midnight is a film that cannot be critiqued without looking at its two predecessors.  If Before Sunrise is a modern-day fairytale where Before Sunset plays as the “realistic” happy-ending, then Midnight is the nightmare.  I’ve fantasized about the plot elements in the first of the Before series and I’ve claimed that the elements in the second could happen.  Well, Before Midnight is Linklater, Hawke and Delpy in a way, saying, “Oh so that’s what you want?  Have at it.”  Is it over-indulgent?  Yep.  Does it aspire to be truthful and only turn out to be a pretty version of some truth that Linklater may have had twenty years ago when he was that guy looking at that girl from across the bookstore?  Yep (oh Ethan with your shirt perfectly untucked).  But as over-indulgent and as much as the film drowns in its “white-people-problems,” I’ve had the very same conversations like that couple had in that film.  Again, this film rewrites the two films that came before it.  It is a series of films that, love or hate, require repeat viewing at different points in your life.  At this point in my life, you know what, if that’s what we have to look forward to… I’m terrified.

You know what else I’ve had?  Text message/internet/email relationships (who just goes out to “get Pringles”?).  One may say I’m an expert on those.  And yet, something about the authenticity of Jonze’s intentions in Her just felt off and artificial to me.  Let me back up and say that the design of the film is flawless.  The way they portray our future, the city, the landscape, just the whole atmosphere of the film is really breathtaking.  And the performances are great too.  And I can’t gush about how much I admire the film for having a FREAKING VOICE go through as much of an emotional arc as Samantha goes through.  It’s pretty amazing.  What I didn’t love was the script.  I thought all the potential set up in the first act was squandered after the “sex” scene.  After that, it wasn’t enjoyable, it felt stale and a lot of it was incredibly predictable.  I wasn’t watching a relationship evolve anymore, I was watching a writer manipulate the horrors of a breakup in sci-fi form.  Which would have been fine, had the bus I had been riding said that on the front.  But the first part of the film didn’t promise that, and by the end I felt exploited for feeling for Samantha and cheated for thinking I’d see anything but a simulated version of a twelve year-old masturbating to his virtual anime porn in the back room of a Mac store.  I admire that film for a lot of its craft, but its heavy-handed agenda to try (and the fact that it succeeds) at making me feel just plain ole bad is irresponsible.  I mean, I like Michelle Williams as much as the next guy, but why’d Jonze have to make me feel like I just broke up with her too?