Amoeblog

American Monomyth: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, November 5, 2013 09:51am | Post a Comment
12 years a slave poster

It should no longer be necessary to defend Richard Fleischer's Mandingo, not after the eloquent and thorough defenses proffered by Andrew Britton and Robin Wood. Anyone who dismisses the film as exploitative trash hasn't read their essays. I say read them if in doubt about its substance. What's interesting to me about the film here is the great amount of narrative overlap it shares with the current slavery epic, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave: the brutal whippings, the race-horse inspection of prospective slaves, a castrated slave uprising, the decimation of black families by separating children from their parents across plantations, enforced illiteracy, hangings, the demeaning and ambivalent status of the house negro, the rape of a young slave girl by her master and the subsequent jealousy and violent reprisal from his wife, who is herself much abused. The latter film even suggests a Mandingo-type vengeful desire on the part of the plantation mistress, Epps, towards a slave, Solomon Northrup, through a couple of closeups (one occurs as Solomon hangs from a tree). This desire is much more than mere suggestion in Mandingo, of couse (cf. poster below), but it's the master-slave sexual attraction that's always served as the locus classicus for the dismissive reading of the film as mere exploitation.

Despite these many commonalities, 12 Years a Slave is being celebrated as a primary Oscar contender and demanding of serious respect by the majority of critics writing about it. It's a decent film, but doesn't say anything more than Mandingo did. Indeed, it says (or attempts to say) a good deal less, since Mandingo was much more concerned with exploring the structural relations of slavery to other features of American life, particularly sexual politics (as both Britton and Wood detail, the purpose of women and children are linked with that of the slave, devices by which the system ensured the spread of capital through space and time, i.e.,  the plantation and its generations of familial owners). Ownership of others is endemic to the country's development, not an evil otherness that can be put to the side as something we now reject. And that structural concern has a lot to do with why Mandingo has been largely rejected as exploitation, but the psychological analysis of 12 Years a Slave is celebrated. The latter mostly puts the model viewer into the place of the slave, Solomon, which is a morally comfortable place to be: owning others as property is something someone else would do, I (the model viewer) am on the side of the oppressed. Slavery is almost entirely subjective in the film. Mandingo, as "exploitation" tends to do, has the viewer principally identify with the morally compromised position, that of the slaver Ham, who both partakes in and guiltily rejects the advantages of his position. There is no Schindler's List sort of redemption awaiting audience identification with him. His position in the peculiar institution, although inherited, implicates all of his choices, even when he's attempting some bit of kindness as he sees it. By aligning the film with his point of view, the institution isn't pure otherness and we aren't allowed to run away from it. All actions are read through the evil of slavery.

Continue reading...

Incestern: Pursued (1947)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 27, 2013 06:54pm | Post a Comment
pursued poster italian

Just watched this on blu-ray. As Martin Scorsese says in his introduction, Pursued is known as the first Western Noir. That's because it features cinematography by James Wong Howe, one of the best at conveying the menace of the big city through its shadows (cf. Sweet Smell of Success), and here he treats the alleys (or, maybe, just alley) of the small town in New Mexico as if it were every bit as dangerous as New York's hidden arteries. He even gets claustrophobic configurations off of barns in the middle of the day. Contemporary Westerners could learn a thing or two from him, too, about how to shoot a man on a horse: counter the heroic three-quarter shots with ones of his reduced significance against an infinite landscape. Another noirish characteristic is Robert Mitchum, as Jeb Rand, narrating the movie through a diddly-diddly flashback as if everything's preordained (cf. Out of the Past) with his present situation the only possible world. Along with the flashback comes a lot of Freudian-inspired psychosexual plot twists that were really popular among scenarists of the time. 'Solid' is as good a word as any to describe director Raoul Walsh, so it's the sexual suggestions that make the film into something a bit more special (which I'm guessing came from Nevin Busch's script). His matter-of-fact style adds to the perversity, whereby all the questionable emotional entanglements seem commonplace.

After losing his family to a blood feud with the Callums, Jeb is taken in at a very early age by Mrs. Callum, who raises the boy as a son. She has two children around the same age as Jeb, daughter Thor (short for Thorley) and son Adam. Jeb's only memory of life as a Rand is that he keeps his name and has a recurring nightmare of a spurred boot heel grinding into the ground. Everything else is repressed, but that doesn't matter to the one-armed stranger, Grant Callum, whose only goal in life is to erase the name Rand from existence. Along with occasionally taking a shot himself, Grant acts as a slick talking demiurge, convincing others to help him kill Jeb -- one of whom is Adam. Not that this was particularly difficult, since the selfish prick has held a long simmering animosity against Jeb whom he sees as an intruder. What his adopted brother intruded on was the two-way relation with Thor. These three kids are raised in a ranch version of Flowers in the Attic with few contacts but each other and Mrs. Callum. Leaving Adam a third wheel, Thor and Jeb eventually fall in love and decide to get hitched -- as if one can freely choose to no longer see one's sibling as a sibling. To reinforce this incestuous theme, it's revealed that the reason Grant hates Jeb so much is that the boy's father stole Mrs. Callum away from Grant's brother (Adam and Thor's father) ... that's right, just like Jeb stole Thor away from her brother. Furthermore, the narrative never makes it clear who the boy's biological mother is or when Mrs. Callum's affair took place and how long it lasted. All we know is that Grant sure wants to get rid of the Rand boy. Maybe he would've been doing Thor's future children a favor, but we'll never know for sure due to the sibling union being treated with the Production Code's mandated happy ever after.

Transgressively Yours

Posted by Charles Reece, October 20, 2013 03:03pm | Post a Comment

susan mcnamara richard kern my nightmare


I recently wrote an essay taking a perverse perspective on this comic book called Fukitor. It mixes questionable views on sex and race in a comedic manner that, I believe, undermines any straightforward reading of the book as mere support for white male power (the straightforward approach caused a brief controversy here and here). But, because it clearly revels within genres that are exploitative, the comic could hardly be thought to be clearly promoting good progressive values, either. Without a doubt, the book contains images of bigotry, but it's no more a sympathetic portrayal of white male privilege than a film like Fight for Your Life. All the white men in the book are knuckledragging imbeciles, but the comic (like said film) uses the bigotry for comedy, which is just too much for some people.

Being a fan of exploitation and not a fan of bigotry, it seems to me that the disagreement over exploitative imagery has more to do with the political demands one places on art rather than any necessary disagreement over politics itself. I don’t need to agree with the ideology of the art (whether or not it’s actually the view of the artist) to find some enjoyment there. In fact, like Groucho Marx, I'm skeptical of anyone who pats me on the back. Karns’ critics, however, seem to oppose his comics based on the fact that they aren’t expressing a correct view. I’m not the least bit sympathetic, for example, to Martin Wisse’s view on transgression ('transgression' being the word for 'exploitation' that lends it intellectual respectability):

Continue reading...

One Bad Day: Breaking Bad, The Killing Joke & Something or Other about Mark Millar

Posted by Charles Reece, October 2, 2013 09:48am | Post a Comment
breaking bad: jesse reacts to andrea's murder

As if you don't know, that there is Jesse Pinkham from Breaking Bad having one very fucked up day (in the episode "Granite State"). He's just witnessed his ex-girlfriend, Andrea, get knocked off by Todd, whom Jesse has appositely summed up as "that dead-eyed Opie piece of shit." Todd belongs to criminal clan of ratio-instrumentalist racist rednecks and he's the least emotional of the bunch when it comes to taking care of business. He shot a child witness last season without flinching, now terrorizes Skyler by threatening to kill her baby girl Holly should anything come out to the cops about Lydia (Todd's crush and criminal business partner), followed by murdering Andrea to prove a point. The point being that Jesse better keep cooking meth for Lydia and the rednecks or he'll kill Andrea's boy, Brock, just as easily as he did his mother. Contrary to the cannibalistic hillbilly savages that Hollywood tends to depict the under-employed and -privileged white Southerner as, Uncle Jack's family are real cold motherfuckers. Everything is about profit and risk assessment. They are the smartest criminals in the the entire five season run of the show. And they're probably the most evil, too, for that same reason.

Andrea's murder is the most heinous of all in a story that has featured many, many murders. Why? Because of its iniquity: she was killed because of what it would mean to Jesse, not because -- as was the case in killing Hank or even the boy witness last season -- she had anything on Todd's family or business associates. In terms of the criminal ratiocination that makes up the show's diegesis, her death was the most unfair. Hank was actively going against the criminals, so chose to put his life at risk. And the boy on a bike, at least potentially, had knowledge that might've been actively used against Walt, Todd and the others. Andrea had nothing on which to ever actively go against the rednecks. Instead, she was killed as pure means to an end of which she had absolutely no knowledge or ability (potential or actual) to alter as a free agent -- that end being the continuance of Uncle Jack's family business. Her death was pure collateral damage, in other words. Hank went out with honor, accepting his fate as a result of trying to live as a moral agent, Andrea's life was simply used by others.

Continue reading...

Breaking Bad Maintained Course and Didn't Get Lost

Posted by Charles Reece, September 30, 2013 08:34am | Post a Comment
breaking bad finale walt dying

I found every final showdown Walt had, including with himself, to be emotionally satisfying, maintaining a consistency in characterization to the very end. I'm sure some will say it was all too pat and wrapped up, but the show was never big on narrative realism (it was, however, great at the psychological variety). Besides, the opposite criticism was made of The Sopranos, so there's no way Vince Gilligan and team could satisfy everyone. Also, was the final shot a big raspberry blown at the most notoriously disappointing finale in TV history? To wit:

lost finale jack dying

BACK  <<  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  >>  NEXT