jenn and i just watched 12 years a slave the other day. i know i’m 3 years late to the party but that’s beside the point. what i want to say is that it’s a crazy, nightmarish story and it’s hard to believe that such atrocities were ever widely accepted here. it’s eye-opening stuff.
but i think the film itself sucked. not because some of the acting was garbage, and not because i got really tired of the overuse of super long, largely static, ‘this is going to disturb you’ shots, but because the film took an extremely serious, weighty story and turned it into a one-dimensional, easy to market, typical hollywood story.
how does one make a one-dimensional, easy to market, typical hollywood story?
- establish main character as strong, faultless, morally sound, devout family man/woman in a simple but pleasant living situation.
- inflict cruel injustices upon main character, eg kill their family, separate them from their family, convict them of a crime they didn’t commit, enslave them, etc.
- tempt main character to break their strong moral code but have them rise above the temptation and continue on with their dignity and values still intact, head held high.
- allow main character some kind of quiet or proud redemption.
ta daaaa, that’s it. now flesh it out with some details and sit back and rake in the phony awards for your mantelpiece.
12 years a slave hits on all those things i just listed. so does gladiator. so does braveheart. and guess what, they won a bunch of academy awards too. so it’s no surprise that soulless film makers keep coming back to a formula that is proven to illicit tears and make people proclaim it “the best movie of the year.” why make something original when you can make something successful?
needless to say, that formula is hollywood cookie cutter shit, fairy tale shit. real people aren’t flawless heroes or perversely evil villains. real people are somewhere between those extremes. but if you want an old-fashioned hollywood tearjerker you need to simplify characters into good/evil, right/wrong terms so that it’s really easy to root for one person to win, and the other to lose — no shades of grey, nothing that might confuse the bovine audience.
for example, 12 years a slave implied that northup was steadfastly devout to his wife the whole time he was enslaved. i think that’s absurd. even if he personally maintained it was the truth, i wouldn’t believe him. i think that in 12 years, trapped in a world where sex would be one of the very few pleasures you could attain, i would bet my balls that 99.9% of even the most morally sound people would end up fucking a few other people. suggesting northup was some kind of moral superman who never even considered something like that was just plain dumb to me. but that’s what the dummies want to see — the perfect man.
the other characters were similarly bone simple. edwin epps was cruel and evil without a good bone in his body. samuel bass (the little we saw of him anyway) was confident and virtuous. well, that certainly makes it easy to tell who to cheer for.
fuck off. disney-style villains and heroes in a story based on real, horrific events. that’s insulting. it carefully, intentionally turns a true travesty into a marketable product that fits the tried and true formula. i don’t like that.
but shit, thinking about it now, that sums up an awful lot of big, ‘loosely based on historical event’ films.
oh well. i don’t like them either.