12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.

The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.

Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza  from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.

Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.

It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.

No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty.  There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.

Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.

There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.

Grade: A

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt


Mr. Arkadin

An exasperating movie whose beauties need to be extracted from the mire of its bungling weaknesses. Mr. Arkadin is the cinema equivalent of a down-and-out scamp with an irresistible personality, a movie whose topsy-turvy production history is typically Wellesian: Shot in 1954 as a Spanish-French collaboration, Welles fiddled with editing Arkadin for months before his producer wrested it away and edited it as a conventional, chronologically linear story (contrary to Welles’s more intricate, Citizen Kane-like vision of it) and called it Confidential Report. That was, more or less, the release version of Mr. Arkadin until the Criterion Collection helped assemble what it calls The Comprehensive Version, that is, a version of the film as close to Welles’s vision as possible. The Comprehensive Version stays true to the flashback structure that Welles had in mind and posits about 15 additional minutes of footage in conformance with his original script. So, if you’re going to watch Mr. Arkadin, Criterion’s Comprehensive Version is probably the one best in line with what Welles would want you to see.

Welles himself dons the beard and opera cape of the titular Arkadin, an eccentric, pompous, egotistical billionaire (a variation on the kind of roles that Welles excelled at playing, beginning with the equally tragic, equally imposing Charles Foster Kane). Claiming amnesia, Arkadin enlists the services of Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), an American ex-pat in post-War Europe, a black-market smuggler, to investigate his origins. Van Stratten’s job is to find out how Arkadin came to become Arkadin; that is, how a poor refugee from Poland rose from the ranks to become one of the world’s most legendary industrialists. It’s only as Van Stratten becomes aware of the trail of bodies lying in the wake of his investigation that he suspects that Arkadin has more up his ample sleeves than he bargained for, and that he himself is in line to be one of Arkadin’s victims or his fall guy. What links Van Stratten to Arkadin is the latter’s daughter, Raina (Paola Mori). Van Stratten is in love with Raina while Arkadin wants to shield his daughter from anyone with knowledge of his less-than-squeaky-clean past.

With its hectic, lurching pace, uneven (if not downright awful) performances and a hodgepodge of a script riddled with scenes that barely make dramatic sense, Mr. Arkadin wears all the battle scars of a movie hobbled by budget and a slapdash production (and post-production) made all the more tenuous by Welles’s capricious working methods. That his vision for Arkadin was never fully realized is less a surprise than Criterion being able to piece together the Comprehensive Version, thanks to meticulous scholarship and research.

As pulp noir, Mr. Arkadin is not particularly successful because it’s haphazard elements prevent any coherent sense of story and suspense. Van Stratten, as a character, is never very appealing; he never projects the authentic desperation and contained poise of a noir anti-hero, a fugitive in search of redemption, and there’s nothing romantic about his persona at all. What Welles needed was a strong, silent Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden type. What he got was someone closer to William Bendix by way of Andy Devine, garrulous and irritable.

Granted, Arden’s performance speaks less of his talent and more of Welles’s ill-thought-out direction of it. Indeed, weak or slapdash performances abound in Arkadin: Mori as Van Stratten’s love interest is neither particularly sexy nor charming, and she comes off as just a rich girl wearing the costume of a grown-up sophisticate; Patricia Medina as Mily, who also wants the goods on Arkadin, is so temperamentally all over the place, we can’t be sure if she’s a sly gold-digger or an innocent naif in a bad situation. In any case, Welles’s preoccupation seems to have been with his own role. Welles plays Arkadin with his always-amusing blend of kitschy, charismatic bravado; he’s a commanding presence eliciting either delighted chuckles from fans of his larger-than-life stagecraft or groans from those who’ve had enough.

Still, for all its flaws, Mr. Arkadin is a mesmerizing experience, a schizoid crime caper that’s half-potboiler and half-reverie. While the script threatens to implode with its incoherence, the acting can be awful and the pacing erratic, there are also scenes of pure cinematic bliss. And the last is why we come to Welles anyway. The scenes, for example, in Arkadin’s Spanish castle draw from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in their expressive, geometric use of interiors and of the vast landscapes. The sequences in Munich, Mexico, North Africa and a terrifically oddball one inside Arkadin’s storm-tossed ship are all hallmarks of kooky expressionism (a la Carol Reed’s The Third Man) melded with a chic, ultra-modern visual posturing that presages Fellini and Antonioni.

A personal favorite is the scene in which Arkadin asks Van Stratten to investigate his past. The exchange takes place in what is presumably a secretary’s office, littered with filing cabinets, but, in the spell of the movie’s imagery and setting, this office becomes an obscure catacomb in some bizarre alternate reality. Watching this scene, I always wonder what secrets those filing cabinets contain, why there are no windows in this “office,” and ponder the room’s stuffy, claustrophobic atmosphere. Knowing that Welles shot the movie in scattershot fashion, the scene and space have a hit-and-run, spit-and-glue quality about them. It’s a scene in which we really have to play “pretend,” because Welles insists we do and the fact that we don’t fully buy what’s being sold on-screen only pulls us more insistently into the story.

I suppose that these details — some deliberate, some incidental, some subjective — are what sets Mr. Arkadin apart. Details packed into moments that combine to make Arkadin less a movie than a dream of a movie you thought you once watched. It’s that dream-like quality that makes this an eternal, ethereal experience, something that’s rarely felt at the movies. And only when the movies in question are conjured by the most wizardly of filmmakers.

Grade: B+

Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Cast: Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Michael Redgrave, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff, Paola Mori, Katina Paxinou, Gregoire Aslan, Peter van Eyck

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Everyone knows the plot by now: Three down-and-out gold prospectors slumming in a small Mexican town venture into the titular mountain range and strike the mother lode. But that’s when trouble starts brewing as one of the men, Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart in one of his career-defining performances) becomes completely dominated by his greed and murderous suspicions towards the other two men — the easygoing Curtin (Tim Holt) and the seasoned, wisecracking Howard (Walter Huston, who won an Oscar) — till everything they’ve worked for and accumulated is jeopardized.

Huston’s crackerjack screenplay is a study in karmic justice as the men follow their separate paths, destined to meet their separate fates. Six decades since its release and counting, the performances by the three leads continue to exert a raw moral power, especially Bogart’s. He really goes full-tilt in a bold, unapologetic turn as the unhinged Dobbs. Holt makes a sturdy counterweight to Dobbs’ excesses while Huston holds his own as a grizzled prospector who’s seen a thing or two. His foreboding look as Dobbs begins to unravel reveals that Howard is the movie’s oracle, our resident wise man and the jokester we badly need by the time Treasure pitches and storms to its close.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an all-time masterpiece of characterization, structure, pacing and storytelling in general. While the outdoor photography could have been more expressive and textured (the early interiors are gorgeously filmed), and Huston’s early inspiration flags in the third act, the sheer narrative force of the whole thing — and Bogart’s indomitable performance — carry the film through. Among the most unforgettable action/adventure movies ever made.

Grade: A

Directed by: John Huston
Written by: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, Walter Huston

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Lang’s technically dazzling thriller about a criminal organization operating out of an insane asylum treads that fine line between horror-movie sensationalism and the brass tacks of the shrewdest policiers. The tautly structured script weaves together three storylines all of which knot together over the question of the late madman hypnotist, Dr. Mabuse (Klein-Rogge), whose criminal scribblings still exert a maniacal influence over asylum chief, Prof. Baum (Beregi). While Baum presides over his cabal of terrorists bent on destabilizing world order, one of his lackeys–the earnest, romantic stalwart Tom (Diessl)–decides to throw a wrench in Baum’s proverbial machine, and Lohman (Wernicke), a local detective, comes snooping around, investigating the disappearance of a colleague. Lang’s entire cast shines, particularly Wernicke, as the sour-faced, distempered Lohman, and Beregi as the crazy-eyed Baum, but it’s the director’s ambitious command of the medium that keeps us rooted to our seats from start to finish.

Among the greatest thriller-makers ever, Lang was also ahead of his time in the way he exploited off-screen sound (catch the even earlier, groundbreaking M) and the knowledge that it’s what you don’t see in the frame that grabs your audience. Mabuse is technically a marvel: its editing and story rhythms suggest a modern, sophisticated filmmaker, full of ingenious visual touches, all with a meticulous eye for realism (the siege on the crooks’ hideout and the climactic car chase both feel intensely palpable) and always with a wink and a nod towards the bizarre (the spectral Mabuse is unforgettably creepy). By the way, 1932-33 marked a quantum leap forward in the artistry of both cinema sound and of visual effects, as evidenced in the triple whammy of Mabuse, King Kong, and I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. All are must-sees.

Grade: A

Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Cast: Oscar Beregi Sr., Paul Bernd, Henry Bless, Gustav Diessl, Paul Henckels, Oskar, Otto Wernicke, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Adolf Licho, Theodor Loos

Stray Dog

Mifune, young and charismatic, plays the rookie Detective Murakami of the Tokyo police. On one sweltering summer day, Murakami gets his gun stolen, an incident that leads him into a twisting and turning investigation through the underbelly of post-war Tokyo. The crook into whose hands the gun eventually falls into proceeds to use it in robbing and shooting his victims. Kurasawa uses this detective’s odyssey as a framework to depict about how some soldiers in post-war Japan became screwed-up and hopeless, turning to crime after their wartime experiences. The film’s pacing is typically slow (for Kurosawa), and Mifune is magnetic in the lead. Quite lurid and sentimental at times, Stray Dog also fascinates with it terrific visual touches and as a document of life in post-war Tokyo.

Grade: A

Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi

The River

I was lucky enough to see a pristine print right off the 3-strip Technicolor elements of The River on the big screen. It was the first time I saw it, and I’m so glad I waited for just this occasion to catch it. Renoir adapted a novel by Ruth Godden, who grew up in Bengal, East India, and it’s really a scrapbook of reminiscences of her coming-of-age amid the spiritual and pastoral tranquility of the Ganges. Renoir’s movie is a respectful ode to India, never condescending or cynical or ironic — all those things that make up the ugliest qualities of Western thinking. His film coalesces into a delicate tapestry of images that evoke a different way of life, of thinking, and of relating to the world.

Centering the story is Harriet (Walters), a gawky teenager going through an awkward phase of pubescence, who develops a crush on Captain John (Shields), an American army veteran who arrives at their Bengali estate on a visit. Captain John, one-legged thanks to a war injury, has demons of his own to exorcise and seems on a kind of spiritual journey to do just that. While the Captain is drawn to Harriet’s older and prettier sister Valerie (Corri), he feels a deeper attraction to Melanie (Radha), the reserved Hindu daughter of his white cousin.

You might be thrown off by the awkward, amateurish performances (I think Renoir went with non-actors for this movie) but that, I feel, is part of Renoir’s intention to draw you into this exotic land where everyone relates awkwardly to each other as they try to understand the mysteries of life and of the world around them. Overall, The River is exceptionally honest about itself, made by a director who — like all great artists — knows enough to subordinate his ego to the demands of the material at hand.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir, Rumer Godden
Cast: Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, Thomas E. Breen, Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali inaugurates Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy. This first installment introduces us to Apu, an innocent, sensitive Bengali boy born into a poor family, who, not long into his young life, must deal with issues of death, grief, dislocation, yearning and heartbreak. As the trilogy goes, it builds in narrative power. Pather Panchali is concerned mainly with the travails of Apu’s family, in particular his relationship with his sister, Durga — pretty, resourceful, and who slowly climbs out of her tomboy shell and comes of age in the course of the story. The second installment of the trilogy, Aparajito portrays Apu’s budding adolescence, and his curiosity about the wide world as it conflicts head-on with his duties to his mother and family after the death of his father. The most emotionally magisterial of the three, The World of Apu shows Ray in a form so sublime few in the history of cinema have ever equalled it. I’ll talk more about it separately, in the World of Apu section.

I’m glad I took in a recent screening of Pather Panchali at L.A.’s American Cinematheque, because it re-confirmed to me what a genius Ray was. I recall watching Panchali on tape (after I’d seen a 16mm print in college), and thinking it was somewhat slow and unfocused. But, as is so often the case in experiencing Ray’s movies, the problem is one of immersion and resistance: If you’re not going to allow yourself to flow along to his cinema’s gentle but majestic currents, you’ll be left dead in the water or twiddling your thumbs on the shore. Thankfully, I gave myself in this time.

First time out of the gate, the then-novice filmmaker Ray already wields a sure and steady directorial hand. The performances are at once naturalistic, in the Neo-realist vein, and stylized in that Soviet-Eisenstein way. Ray’s imagery, as photographed by Subrata Mitra, has a pure poetic beauty whose rhythms he modulates precisely. He paces his sequences out slowly and surely, then ramps up their emotional wattage, using sound, music and composition in raw, genuine, expressive ways. Ravi Shankar’s music score throughout the trilogy is sweet, simple, and devastating.

There is no room in Ray’s cinema, especially this trilogy, for flashy razzle-dazzle or twists of irony. His concerns are humanist and his art transcends both the medium and even the moment in which you’re experiencing it. The effect of his work goes deeper and stays with you for a lifetime. It’s something to go back to, nourish yourself with every now and then in your life.

There is a faith in the art form here, a pure, loving, embracing faith that really restores my own faith in movies. Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, they all made great movies. But none of them made movies quite like Ray. Unfortunately, due to weaker distribution links in the West, he does not share their awesome reputation here in America. The Apu movies are small, exquisite gems whose emotional power will knock you out and haunt you long after you’ve seen them. That no other filmmaker has ever achieved anything of their power is testament enough to Ray’s quiet greatness.

Grade: A

Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Written by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Runki Banerjee