12 Years A Slave
If you want to convey the horrors of slavery, you don’t need to do much – the very idea is horrific in itself. Steve McQueen’s film based on freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup’s memoir is bare and lean and stark. I have read (though I can’t verify) that the film was shot with one camera for 35 days, and you can see the economy in the use of images. It opens with a silent shot of Solomon with a number of slaves staring at an as-yet unseen master. There is no intensity in their eyes. No fight. No life. Most scenes are silent with no non-diegetic music and no dialogue. How do you convey the horror of lynching? Show several minutes of Solomon with a noose around his neck, abandoned by his would-be lynchers, standing on tiptoes from sun-up to sundown while slaves go about their chores, not wanting to be whipped by getting involved. There are stretches of rare beauty — the music (singing on the field), moments of peace (Patsey creating her corn dolls) — but the film is only made bearable by my knowing that Solomon will be reunited with his family. I did not know about Solomon prior to this film. I did not know that freemen (Solomon was born to a freed slave and a free woman of color) were kidnapped and brought to states where slavery was legal in order to be sold. The fact that I had to say “free woman of color”, that I had to qualify, makes me choke by the grim injustice of it all. Goddamn it, let’s not allow ourselves to do this again.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Speaking of the economy in the use of images, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street ends with a shot of men and women attending Jordan Belfort’s motivational talk, looking on, waiting for wisdom to sink in. You can almost smell the despair and hope – and it serves as an indictment. It is the best image with which to close this film, this shameless show of debauchery and disgusting excess. Belfort and his ilk are loathsome creatures, and they are fascinating, but they do not deserve our admiration.
To quote Matt Soller Seitz:
There will be a few points during “Wolf” when you think, “These people are revolting, why am I tolerating this, much less getting a vicarious thrill from it?” At those moments, think about what the “it” refers to. It’s not just these characters, and this setting, and this particular story. It’s the world we live in. Men like Belfort represent us, even as they’re robbing us blind. They’re America, and on some level we must be OK with them representing America, otherwise we would have seen reforms in the late ’80s or ’90s or ’00s that made it harder for men like Belfort to amass a fortune, or that at least quickly detected and harshly punished their sins. Belfort was never punished on a level befitting the magnitude of pain he inflicted. According to federal prosecutors, he failed to abide by the terms of his 2003 restitution agreement. He’s a motivational speaker now, and if you read interviews with him, or his memoir, it’s obvious that he’s not really sorry about anything but getting caught. We laugh at the movie, but guys like Belfort will never stop laughing at us.
I am reminded of the infamous Enron tapes while watching this.
In the now infamous Grandma Millie exchange, recorded on Nov. 30, 2000, two traders, identified as Kevin and Bob, discuss demands by California officials that electricity-generating companies and traders pay refunds for price-gouging. They also refer to the disputed presidential election, which was as yet undecided.
Kevin: So the rumor’s true? They’re [expletive] takin’ all the money back from you guys? All those money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?
Bob: Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to [expletive] vote on the butterfly ballot.
Kevin: Yeah, now she wants her [expletive] money back for all the power you’ve charged for [expletive] $250 a megawatt hour.
Bob: You know — you know — you know, Grandma Millie, she’s the one that Al Gore’s fightin’ for, you know?
Later in the same conversation, Kevin and Bob express little sympathy for Californians.
Kevin: Oh, best thing that could happen is [expletive] an earthquake, let that thing float out to the Pacific and put ’em [expletive] candles.
Bob: I know. Those guys — just cut ’em off.
Kevin: They’re so [expletive] and they’re so like totally — —
Bob: They are so [expletive].
Nothing funny about these disgusting men.
This film adaptation is a visual treat, and it’s a good translation of a good book. The writers made changes but kept the essence of the narrative intact. The SFX and the film’s overall design are stunning.