Sunday, January 19, 2014

Competing Ideologies - 12 Years a Slave

The fact that 12 Years a Slave won Best Film at the Golden Globes without picking up a Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress or even Best Supporting Actor has caused quite a stir in critical circles and on the web.  You can see why.  The whole "awards season" is based on the idea of certain films "cleaning up", triumphantly proclaiming that they have all the prime cuts, allowing the marketers to blaze "Awarded 12 Oscars" across the publicity.  But this year, it seems, things may just be a little different.  12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly the best film of the last twelve months - in fact, it's one of the best films I have ever seen - and one of the reasons it is so good is precisely the same reason that it hasn't been mopping up the individual awards.

Awards for individual attainment crave the showy, the flamboyant.  The Academy loves it when an actor loses huge amounts of weight for a role, or makes some excruciating journey into an abused past, or recreates a known historical personage, or "lives inside the character" on set.  The Method still rules in Hollywood.  But the Method, derived as it is from a psychoanalytical view of the human condition, is diametrically opposed to the sort of films made by Steve McQueen and his collaborators.

In a world view driven by psychoanalysis, everything is about the self.  Human behaviour is explained in terms of insecurities, neuroses, the fact that somebody's mother didn't love them.  It ignores the wider forces - political, economic, even spiritual - that shape the world within which we operate, and which can have a huge effect on our experience of it.  If you are depressed, psychoanalysis tells you to go inside yourself and look for the cure.  The Academy would no doubt applaud the strenuous efforts required to do so.  But perhaps the real reason for the depression may be (for example) the economic structure that causes someone to lose their job and have little chance of finding another.  A reason located outside the subject, not inside the psyche.  And this is what makes the Method so convenient for the political right - all those depressed people just need to pull themselves together, because it's their own fault really.  Give the man an Oscar.

Steve McQueen's work is remarkable for its avoidance of a moral agenda driven by personal psychology, and its privileging of a strange and disturbing factual presentation in the manner of Brecht.  As Sarah Churchwell argued in her Guardian piece on the memoir used as the film's key source, Solomon Northup "repeatedly insists that not all slave-owners were depraved, defending William Ford and others he encountered. These people were not inherently evil; rather, 'the influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit'."

The story of Northup's enslavement is the perfect vehicle for a morally sophisticated piece around this subject.  Because Northup was an educated, middle-class, violin-playing, literate person,  he can be established at the start of the film as a participant in a complex socio-economic system: the more conventional narrative, seen in work like Roots, of the loss of an African Eden and the bringing of an outsider into the corrupt society of slave-owners generates a more simplistic binary (one which has been contested by a number of African writers, perhaps most pointedly by Ama Ata Aidoo in The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa).  Northup was kidnapped, and so the nexus into which his life was taken bears a closer resemblance to the narratives of contemporary human trafficking than to those of the Atlantic crossing.  As a result, there is the potential to generate real moral dilemmas in every scene, because there is a commonality of understanding between Northup and the slave-owning characters, as well as the other slaves.  The scene where Northup tries to stop a female slave from mourning so publicly the loss of her children, largely on pragmatic grounds, is extraordinarily complex and eschews easy answers.  These scenes are very involved, very disturbing, and very well acted indeed.  But they are not Methody or showy at all.

P.S.  Yes, I know Michael Fassbender lost huge amounts of weight for Hunger - but even so, his Bobby Sands was not a Method performance, and it was not a psychological film.  Sands starved himself to death for political reasons (and whether you agree with them is another matter).  McQueen and Fassbender are true to that.