How to Dramatize with a Hammer: Precious, Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Posted by Charles Reece, December 6, 2009 10:04pm | Post a Comment

"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 DanielsPrecious, 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!

Make no mistake, this is modern day blacksploitation, which always bordered on empowerment and stereotyping. In one scene, they have the rotund Precious running down the street, chomping on fried chicken after having stolen it from a local grease pit. It's pretty much impossible to reconcile the conflicting thoughts this scene elicits: it's played as a comic respite for the films darker moments, but it recalls the infamous racist stereotype of blacks and fried chicken, while critically suggesting something about the unhealthy dietary constraints determined by the impoverished inner-city economic situation (where shitty food is the most affordable). Plus, are we supposed to find humor here, given that the theft was initiated by Precious' mother not caring enough to feed her girl at home?

Even more in defiance of safe categorical judgments is the treatment of Precious' first child from her father (she's pregnant with his second through the first half of the film). As she explains to her teacher at an "alternative school" that she's attending to get a GED, her daughter doesn't think too well, is stupid, so is referred to as "Baby Mongo," never having been given a proper name. The film veers into Harmony Korine's territory in using a child with Downs Syndrome to play the part. Precious is learning to read and write by expressing her thoughts in journal, which she turns in to her teacher for written responses. So there's a prolonged scene, backed by schmaltzy music, that cuts between Precious in a hospital bed (after giving birth to her second child) and her teacher, who's lying at home on her stomach with feet in the air and pen to mouth (like Gidget thinking about a crush on a boy) as they discuss in voiceover Precious' decision to take care of "little baby Mongo." Finding humor in this is likely related to how funny one found Gummo. Regardless of ironic detachment, it is without a doubt tasteless and insensitive. But to react to this stuff in a purely straightforward manner, as a literal portrait of the urban poor borders on seeing them as savages, rather than as destitute. Perhaps Oprah felt such scenes function as parody of bourgeois caricatures when she decided to fund it. Because surely she doesn't share the same views of poor blacks as the average conservative radio talk show host. No, that would mean Marx was right about money eroding meaningful cultural distinctions.

I could go on, but suffice it to say Precious is indeed hyperbolical drama in the tradition of a Fuller or Aldrich, where social issues are delivered like a series of grapefruits to the face. If atomic energy were still a front-page worry, Precious would've been afflicted with radiation poisoning, too. Nuance means here that there wasn't enough time to fit in drug addiction and prostitution. If Kafka's depressing narratives are funny, why not this? What keeps the film from being the kind of ridiculous miserabilism that Von Trier practices (where you laugh at him, not with him) is the character arc of Precious. You actually do get emotionally invested in her struggles in this absurdist universe, like an attachment to the protagonist in an existentialist novel. Upon learning she has aids (of course), she accepts a life that isn't ever going to improve; a new misery awaits her in every act. She's both Sisyphus and his rock, taking pleasure in the fact that no smug government worker trying to help her could endure what she does. Von Trier's characters remain slaves to their own misery, whereas Precious becomes a hardened, Nietzschean heroine (a character type born of hyperbole, I might add).

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Cinema Criticism (32), Drama (5), Precious (4), Sam Fuller (7), Lars Von Trier (4)