Best Picture Project: 12 Years A Slave

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12 Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)

So, as a middle-class white girl, this is a tricky movie to review. If I criticize it too much, I come across as a racist jerk, and if I gush about it I’m just saying what everyone else has already said. Just thought I’d put that out there. Food for thought.

In spite of the fact that this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture while it was still showing in theaters, I waited until it was out on DVD to watch it. I expected, rightly, that I would want to pause and walk away for breaks sometimes. That said, I’ve had the DVD in my hands for over a week and have been experiencing severe approach avoidance. I think it is fair to say that if I had not embarked on this project to watch all Best Picture winners, I would never have watched this film. I admire its tackling of difficult subject material, and I applaud the Academy for recognizing its merit, but I don’t like it. As a friend of mine, the blogger over at Cinematic Excrement, remarked, “It’s the best movie I never need to see again.”

We all learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in high school history class.  That law, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern slaveholders to track escaped slaves even into the Northern states.  It seems that the effect of the law was many more cases like that of Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, in which a free black person could be “identified” as a fugitive and taken back to the South as a captive. Instead of bringing North and South together, it pushed them farther apart as abolitionists, fired by publications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, protested the law in word and deed.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, begins in 1841, nearly a full decade before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The outstanding performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o have garnered much deserved praise, and I cannot say more of them than has already been said in many other far more prestigious places. The only word for both, especially Ejiofor, is “astonishing.”

I also find the performances of certain of the white characters particularly interesting. Somehow it’s easier to see them as representing archetypes of this kind of story than as unique individuals. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who is currently appearing in Every Film Project Made, as a kind, sympathetic, but financially strapped slaveowner. His polar opposite is Michael Fassbender’s depiction of the more stereotypical harsh-to-the-point-of-bloodthirsty master, who is more than matched by his harsh, bitter, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). And of course the abolitionist Bass (Canadian, but somehow has a Southern drawl), played by Brad Pitt.

Speaking of which, what is it with Fassbender and characters who are devoid of morals? Who are, for lack of a better word, evil? There’s evil slaveowner who amuses himself by waking up the slaves in the middle of the night to dance for him (does that sound like a 19th-century CRIMINAL MINDS episode to anyone else?), there’s the incapable-of-feeling sex addict of SHAME, and of course Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Admittedly, Magneto’s merely reflecting his life experiences, but still.  Hes capable of going to dark places and inhabiting such levels of anger that I’m a little afraid of him, to be honest.

In spite of the fact that this film was dark and difficult and it is unlikely to be one that I seek out for subsequent viewings, it was not quite as difficult to watch as I had anticipated.

As a final note, I’d like to add something I noticed in the credits. The names of the cast and the director (Steve McQueen) are well known by now.  What I had not seen in any of the reviews, summaries, or lists of vital statistics is the fact that the film had the eminent historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as its history consultant. That, to me, is quite the stamp of approval.

So that’s it until next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Any guesses on what the next Best Picture will be? Please leave your predictions in the comments!

National Poetry Month: I Am Not Yours

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Well, it’s April again, and that means it’s National Poetry Month here in the United States. I’ve been pondering what to do about it this year, since I’m really not much of a poetry reader.  The ones I’ve posted over the past two years are really the ones that come to mind when I think of poems I like.

But it occurred to me that I have spent nearly half my life in choirs, and listen to a lot of music. So this month I’m starting with songs and seeing where they take me.

This first poem is going to seem like an immediate contradiction of the plan to post different texts that have been set to music, but bear with me.

During my senior year of high school, I joined a choir that was intense and amazing and challenging.  One of the pieces we tackled was a setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem “There Will Be Rest.”  Eventually it proved too challenging even for us, and after only one or two attempts during concerts the director removed it from our repertoire.  Indeed, one of those attempts stands out in my mind as a spectacular failure – the high voices, the sopranos and tenors, pushed so sharp that eventually the entire soprano section had to drop out.  Not good!

But in my memory the poem and the music shimmer gently, like dewdrops on a spiderweb or the way starlight is sometimes set to music. And it’s this great unattained milestone in my mind, so I’ve never forgotten it.  I went to poets.org to try and find the poem again.

Instead, I found this other one by Sara Teasdale that left my jaw on the floor.

I Am Not Yours

by Sara Teasdale

I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love — put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.

This perfectly verbalizes something that’s happened to me a few times now. I find myself involved with someone who’s good and kind and funny and by all accounting someone who is a great match for me, and I desperately wish I was more attracted to him.

It happens to everyone at some point, and it’s so difficult.  We want the fairy tale romance, to be swept off our feet and let the world fall away, but modern cynicism says that’s not possible.  Except people keep writing about it, so it must happen to someone, right?

There’s this popular idea that if you have to stop and think about it, you haven’t been in love. And anyone who’s been in love will tell you that for a while at least the world DOES fall away.

I suppose I just have to keep looking.

Best Picture Project: Cavalcade

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Cavalcade (Best Picture, 1933)

I wish I had been able to watch this one in its proper place in the lineup.  However, until a few months ago, it had never been released on home video, in spite of the fact that it was not only the first Fox movie to win Best Picture AND the second most popular film of 1933.  Due to the number of write-in votes, Fox finally released it on Blu-Ray and DVD last year, in honor of its 80th anniversary.

CAVALCADE is a grand sweeping epic that follows two English families from the relief of Mafeking in the Boer War in 1900 to New Year’s Eve, 1932.  One family, the Marryots, is clearly of high society, and indeed become titled partway through the film.  The father (Clive Brook) has no identified career other than soldier, fighting in the Boer War and World War I, while the mother, in a notable performance by Diana Wynyard, stays on the home front to worry and occasionally contribute to the war effort.  Wynyard has particularly expressive eyes.  This is useful for her character, who is both prone to despair and given many real reasons to experience despair in her life.  Her elder son begins his honeymoon on the RMS Titanic, so we all can predict how THAT ends, while the younger survives four years in the trenches of WWI only to die in the final hours before the armistice.

The second family is lower-class, beginning the film as butler and head housemaid to the Marryot family.  I’d just like to point out here that it’s unusual to find a period story that has two servants married to each other – not unheard of, but unlikely, you might say. That said, the story wouldn’t work as well if Coward had been strict about historical accuracy, and it’s always possible that there were more married servants than is generally known. The Bridges family comprises a father, Alfred, who goes to the Boer war and returns to run a pub and become a drunk who dies in a street brawl, a mother named Ellen who is kind of a stereotypical strong common woman who comes up in the world, and the daughter, Fanny, who has a gift for the performing arts and becomes a singer/dancer/actress.  Naturally they continue to cross paths with the Marryots even after leaving service, and Fanny and the younger Marryot son have a love affair during the war.

It’s not that this movie is heavy-handed, though it is, and it’s not that it’s a bummer, which it is as well. As I watched, I was trying to figure out exactly WHY this movie had never yet been released for home consumption.  It was the only Best Picture winner left unavailable, after all.  It’s no worse than CIMARRON, and it’s certainly better than BROADWAY MELODY.  What I read back when I was originally trying to find the film implied that though wildly popular when released, it aged badly very quickly. I’m not talking about the physical film reels!

There’s a style of acting distinctive to the late 20s and early 30s, and in this respect CAVALCADE bears a strong resemblance to CIMARRON in particular. It’s a grand epic spanning several decades and featuring a weak-but-strong woman at the center of the story. Unlike CIMARRON, however, Lady Marryot’s husband isn’t a complete waste of space. But I digress.

This acting style is somewhere in between utter melodrama and the broader, declamatory style of the stage in Noel Coward’s day.  In some of the scenes of the film, you can hear Coward’s distinctive rapid-fire dialogue, but this film is based on one of his dramas, not a comedy. I can see how maybe it works better on stage – perhaps I should say “worked,” since according to the IMDB trivia page it’s never been revived.  In the film format the style is extremely dated and comes across as somewhat fake.  I’m reminded a little of a bit in one of British comedian Eddie Izzard’s shows in which he mocks the stilted style of British films.  I suspect (though it’s unlikely he’s seen CAVALCADE) that he’s basing his mockery on films like this one.

So yes, it’s dated, and yes, it’s not going to be as wildly popular now as it was when it first came out.  But then, neither are most of the Best Picture winners. When was the last time you heard someone talking about WINGS* or CIMARRON or TOM JONES? I still haven’t figured out why its release took so long and so much pestering of Fox.  Hollywood loves an epic, after all, and this film involved 15,000 minor characters, 25,000 costumes, and one scene had 2,500 extras. And while I wouldn’t list it among my favorites of the lineup, it’s really not that bad.

So why did it take eighty years to return to audiences?

Next Up: Twelve Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)

*If you ask me, WINGS really ought to come up more. It was fabulous.

The Real Game of Thrones: Shakespeare’s Henriad and “The Hollow Crown”

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For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare

George R. R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy epic A Game of Thrones is wildly popular – both the books and the critically-acclaimed television series. You really have to try to avoid having heard of one or the other, at least.  Both have been recommended to me several times by many people.  The theory is that I love fantasy literature (I did manage to get academic credit for studying The Lord of the Rings and related Tolkien works no less than three times) and I enjoy the kind of pseudo-feudal world Martin has created. Both are to some extent true, though I begin to suspect my preference is for specific authors’ creations rather than the genre as a whole.

I’ve tried watching the television show. It was well-done, I freely acknowledge that, and I greatly admire the performances of actors like Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. But I felt no great drive to continue watching after the first episode or two. So I didn’t.

I’ve tried reading the book – in fact, I am about 100 pages into my fourth attempt to read the first book in the series.  Each time I have gotten about 200-250 pages in and lost interest.  Even though I know I’ll never have time to read all the books in the world, the fact that I have so little interest in reading a well-written (if ridiculously LONG) series of fantasy novels that are so popular kind of rankles. Perhaps this time I’ll finally give myself permission to stop trying.

Part of my disinterest is that most of my reading material is nonfiction, and has been for several years now. After all, why read Game of Thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of Stark and Lannister (and others), when I can read about the REAL, historical game of thrones, featuring the struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster for the throne of England?  Also, seriously, Mr. Martin, you didn’t even TRY to be subtle on that, did you?

For the past four nights I’ve watched one of each of the four plays of Shakespeare’s Henriad, the tetralogy that covers the last gasp of the Hundred Years’ War and the start of the Wars of the Roses in England in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.  In 2012, the BBC created four films of the plays and released it for television under the title THE HOLLOW CROWN.  From Richard II through Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and concluding with the brief flash of military glory that is Henry V, the series is breathtaking.  Indeed, there were entire scenes during which I’m not sure if I was breathing.

The cast lineup is phenomenal – performances by Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, David Suchet, Richard Griffiths, Clemence Poesy, Rory Kinnear, John Hurt, Geoffrey Palmer, Maxine Peake, James Purefoy, and many others are all wonderful. Jeremy Irons turns in a masterful performance as the aged and unwell Henry IV, burdened by the guilt of his usurpation years earlier.  One of the things they did to make this such a personal, moving, gripping production was to continue the trajectory of the masters’ evolution in filmed Shakespeare.  Laurence Olivier declaimed his speeches as though onstage in a very traditional kind of theater.  Decades later comes Branagh, who speaks Shakespearean English as though it is his natural manner of speaking, but still the great powerful speeches are meant to rouse the troops, and they come smoothly, as if practiced.  In THE HOLLOW CROWN, some speeches are done as voiceover, such as Henry V’s prayer before the beginning of the battle at Agincourt, or Falstaff’s speech about honor at the end of Henry IV, Part 1. The intention and effect is to seem not just like that’s how the actors normally speak, but as if they’re coming up with the lines on the spot. It is, for lack of a better word, vernacular in style.

In spite of the fact that Irons gets top-of-the-top billing, the three performances to watch for are Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Simon Russell Beale as John Falstaff, and Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V. Beale’s was recognized by the director of the two parts of Henry IV as one of the best, if not THE best, of the past century.

I’d never actually seen any of these plays all the way through, though I read Henry IV, Part 1 in college and have seen parts of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.  My impression of Falstaff as a character was fat, drunk, comic relief.  I hadn’t understood from my earlier reading that the man’s a weasel. He’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. Literally. It is incredibly difficult to feel any kind of sympathy for him, and yet, at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 when he tries to rejoin the newly-crowned Henry V’s company only to be publicly, harshly repudiated, you do feel grieved for him.  In Beale’s performance you see a man who is stunned as if struck a heavy blow.  Falstaff suddenly looks old, scared, and confused.  At first he is in denial, believing he’ll be sent for privately, but then he and his companions are all arrested.  By the start of Henry V he’s a defeated man, and though he has no lines in the play, is said to have died of a broken heart.

Tom Hiddleston, known to many of my friends as Loki from THE AVENGERS charts the young prince’s transformation from what can only be described as a fifteenth-century frat-boy to the ideal medieval king – young, athletic, and militarily victorious.  He looks the part, too. Instead of trying to look like the extant portraits of Henry V, which feature the frankly unflattering haircut reproduced by Branagh in his version, the film’s designers worked with what they have, which is a man who at times looks like energy personified and at other times looks as though he might have been carved from marble, so perfect are the angles in his face.  His pale eyes laugh at times, look sad at others, and can blaze and pierce you right through the screen.

The winning performance, however, is Ben Whishaw, who dives headfirst into the complicated role of doomed king Richard II. Richard II is one of the more troubling medieval kings of England. He ascended the throne as a child, and dealt with the Peasant’s Revolt at something like age fourteen. And yet he was not hugely popular as an adult. He was considered extravagant, morally questionable, and in short, the barons did not entirely approve of him.  Even Shakespeare is unable to make him all sympathetic or all wicked. This is no Richard III, in which you know who the bad guy is. Richard II is all shades of grey. In fact, it was originally titled “The Tragedy of King Richard II,” and he is indeed a tragic character.  In one analysis I read, the author writes, “Pathetic and yet too self-conscious to be entirely tragic, sincere and yet engaged in acting his own sincerity, possessed of true feeling and elaborately artificial in expressing it, Richard is the distant predecessor of more than one hero of the mature tragedies, who suffer in acute self-consciousness and whose tragedy expresses itself in terms that clearly point to the presence of the weakness that has been, in part, its cause.”

Whishaw’s performance is redolent with the air of otherworldliness that you see in someone like Michael Jackson – he is always on stage, always acting a part, and not entirely on the same wavelength as other humans. And yet you sense that in spite of the magnified presentation, his feelings are real and deep. In the making-of featurette to Richard II, the actor and the director spoke of Richard’s sense of himself as an almost messianic figure, and they worked with that.  The image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows also arises more than once, and the production does an admirable job of never quite straying into heavy-handed religious imagery. It’s there, it’s impossible to miss, but you don’t feel like it’s beaten into you.

This is an extraordinary set of films.  I heartily recommend it. I suspect I will be returning to it to watch it many more times.

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