"Why so hard?" the kitchen coal once said to the diamond. "After all, are we not close kin?" Why so soft? O my brothers, thus I ask you: are you not after all my brothers? Why so soft, so pliant and yielding? Why is there so much denial, self-denial, in your hearts? So little destiny in your eyes? And if you do not want to be destinies and inexorable ones, how can you one day triumph with me? And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut through, how can you one day create with me? For all creators are hard. And it must seem blessedness to you to impress your hand on millennia as on wax. Blessedness to write on the will of millennia as on bronze — harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard. This new tablet, O my brothers, I place over you: Become hard!
-- Zarathustra, quoted in "The Hammer Speaks!" from Friedrich Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.
-- Manny Farber on what he called "Termite Art"
I wasn't going to see Lee Daniels' Precious, figuring it would be a bunch of liberal claptrap about the struggle of an inner-city black teenager overcoming adversity to make the rest us feel better -- something along the lines of what Manny Farber used to call White Elephant Art. That is, the big Hollywood message films of old, the style and substance of which now tend to be relegated to the Sundance circuit due to multiplexes focusing on big budget spectacles (albeit, such films are making a commercial comeback, cf. Sandra Bullock's current star vehicle Blind Side, or Will Smith's recent Happyness). But, being on a Sam Fuller kick, a recent Fresh Air review of his new box set piqued my interest by suggesting that Daniels was carrying on in the exploitative, knee-to-the-groin style of the Termite master. Rather than practice a nuanced argument in his films, Fuller would pummel you with so many messages (the difference between textual and subtextual mattering little) that any overt ideological points would become buried, challenged or eaten away, leaving you bewildered as to what exactly he was trying to say. Consider his critique of racism from Shock Corridor, where a black patient has taken on the oppressive iconicity of white supremacy as a defense mechanism, donning a Klan hood to repress another black patient:
There's no subtlety in the scene, but it defies any easy categorization. It manages to be both vile and comical at the same time. The insightful Dave Chapelle did a twist on this in his show where he had a blind, black Klansman spouting white power slogans, never having seen his own reflection. Was Fuller deadly serious with this sort of exploitation, or did he see the comedy in such lurid, almost literal, metaphors? I'm not sure, which is why I can't stop watching his films. I bet that Chapelle could see the humor in Precious, though, which, despite being promoted as some monumental indictment of urban destitution by producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry (leaving the former "breathless," while the latter could only say "powerful"), is as comically exploitative as anything Fuller ever came up with. If you're the type who regularly bursts out laughing during an Aronofsky or Von Trier film, then this is the movie to see. Precious, in fact, borrows the Von Trier formula for existential drama: heap so many social tortures on a female character until the only plausible reaction can be be a hearty, absurdist laughter. Any social realism hinted at in the trailer disappears in the first 10 minutes when you see Precious get knocked unconscious by a bottle her mom throws, resulting in a nightmare montage with boiling pigs snouts and dad's hovering gut as he expresses his "love" for his little girl.
There's just about no current stereotypical urban plight not foisted on the character of Precious: illiteracy, aids, welfare, obesity, teenage motherhood, Mariah Carey, etc. Where Requiem for a Dream just comes across as pretentiously goofy in its approach to drug addiction, Daniels and his scenarist Geoffrey Fletcher create a dark comedy of ill-manners (which might or might not be intentional). Precious's relation with her mother is the evil distaff version of Sanford & Son, in which mom constantly berates her as a "dumb bitch" who needs to "forget school" and get her "fat ass down to the welfare office." This is punctuated with mom attacking her with the aforementioned bottle, a frying pan and eventually a TV set.
Beware: spoilers follow!