Monthly Archives: January 2014

12 Years a Slave is Brutal and Beautiful at the Same Time

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Steve McQueen is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors…and he’s only made three full-length movies. I’ve only seen two of the three, Shame, which came out in 2011 about one New York City man’s addiction to sex, and recently 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s movies are highlighted by an intense focus on the body and the physical, as well as stories that have gone untold, such as his first debut Hunger, which focused on a prison strike by IRA inmates in Northern Ireland.

The camera work of his films is incredibly interesting, artsy even, the shots long, and the detachment visceral. 12 Years a Slave is no different. It follows the trials of Solomon Northrup (played heroically by Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man who is duped and drugged by two frauds, and awakes to find himself in Washington D.C. in chains. His new captors tell him that he is no longer a free man, but a slave from Georgia, and mercilessly beat him till he agrees, or at least stops talking. As the camera pans up we see we are not but a few blocks from the capitol of the United State of America.

Northrup is then shuffled off to Louisiana where he has a relatively kind master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being transferred to the manic cruel servitude of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way he must keep his reading and writing skills a secret lest they get him in trouble, as they must assuredly do throughout the course of the movie. Northrup is smart, too smart for his own good, and finds his education, status, and name all but worthless in the bayous and plantations of Louisiana. He is merely the “property” of another human being.

12 Years is complex in that it refuses to generalize or demarcate its characters. Some of the white people are good (well only a few), some utterly evil. And yet there is almost the sense that within the “masters” of the plantation, the guilty consciences over their treatment of others in fact spurs even more violence, violence to cover guilt in an endless circle. Michael Fassbender is insane in this movie and I mean it in both the bad way and the good. 

12 Years also draws our attention to the fact that some of the greatest evil was in fact imposed by the hands of fellow slaves at the behest of their masters. How much crueler can a whipping get? By having the perpetrator (themselves a victim) perpetrate the violence upon another victim. Was race-on-race violence a form of oppression and suffering devised at the hands of the white elite unknowingly years ago? I might say so. 

 Of course Brad Pitt gets to be the good Canadian abolitionist in the end, his speech and opinions coming so late in the movie it feels as if he is from another planet, but who can resist Brad Pitt? Actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, and Adepero Oduye are incredible and even surpass the heroism of Northrup, especially Patsey (Nyong’o). Each portrays a different version of how women handled their situation with grace and perseverance, and yet not without a few tears, or scars.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit let the camera linger on scenes of 12 Years for extended periods of time, as if McQueen is forcing us to look when other filmmakers would cut or the average person avert their eyes.

“Look!” the entire film seems to scream out.

In what is perhaps the most infamous scene of the film, Northrup is disciplined by standing on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for an entire afternoon as plantation life continues on around him. Some images, particularly Ejiofor’s burning of a compromised letter, are stark and say more than words can. Certain critics have complained that this “artsy” camera work takes advantage of Northrup’s story and allows McQueen to showcase his talent of imagery and beauty at the expense of the story. To that I say, “Pssht.” No way. It makes the film.

Detachment is a huge theme in all of McQueen’s movies and while 12 Years is a deeply heartfelt and passionate experience, there is something about it that leaves you numb and void of emotion, or perhaps so overcome by emotion that you have nothing left. Even though the film recreates the South and experience of slavery in a way that is so real and visceral, it also lacks a hearty psychological interior. I see this detachment as the only experience of emotion left to feel at the end of such horrific events. It is the absence of feeling, anti-attachment, that visually recreates experiences such as slavery or addiction in ways you can’t otherwise. To be addicted is to be utterly overcome with desire, and yet completely numb. I can’t speak for slavery but there is something about the way in which Northrup must categorize his servitude and refuse to give in to despair that requires a certain amount of stoicism or even ignorance on his part.

McQueen is able to take a story and historical experience shown or written about thousands of times and make it feel fresh, deeply important, and utterly terrifying. One friend I was with remarked that the entire feeling of the film felt more like a horror film than historical narrative. My body was tense from the minute the first image drifted on screen to the moment the credits started rolling. So, be prepared when you see the movie, but the result is breathless. Breathless in beauty. Breathless in terror. Breathless in acting and directing. If this movie isn’t the best of the year I will be personally offended. 

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A Tale of Beer and Small Interactions

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Director Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is perhaps his most palatable and commercial film to be released in a while. You may never have heard of Swanberg, unless of course you’re an avid indie movie viewer, but he has directed and produced such titles as Kissing on the Mouth, LOL, and Hannah Takes the Stairs. His films are marked by improvisation, a lower-budget, lesser-known actors, and hails (if such a genre term still exists) from the “mumblecore” scene with the likes of Jay and Mark Duplass. Drinking Buddies has all the same elements of previous films but transcends the bounds of low-fi-indie-world-cinema to a greater commercial success largely in part to its casting of more prominent actors.

Drinking Buddies features co-workers Luke (Jake Johnson from New Girl, Safety Not Guranteed) and Kate (Olivia Wilde from House, Rush) who work together at a brewery. They both have significant others but have an undeniable chemistry at work. The two often hang out outside of work and have a friendship that borders on the inappropriate for two people who are also dating other people. On a double date to a cabin however, we begin to see that their significant others Chris (a much missed Ron Livingston, Office Space) and Jill (the adorable Anna Kendrick) may have just as much chemistry between the two of them as Luke and Kate. I know.

From this point I thought I could see the entire trajectory of the story. Luke would break up with Jill and get together with Kate and Kate would break up with Chris to date Luke. Things looked so predictable I was about to yawn. Not so, however. While these tensions do exist and a reality beyond this time frame may prove these events to be occur, we never see the end result. Mostly we see small interactions. Glances and hand touching and conversations with underlying subtexts. It’s funny, but slow and winding. Real enough to hold our interest but not so real that it becomes boring.

Luke really does love Jill and they’ve even talked about getting married. It’s hard to know if he’s merely being naïve in his relationship with Kate or if he doesn’t want to explore what he knows is there to break the status quo. Kate’s not exactly sure what she wants. Chris is the only one who seems confident, he’s older, more experienced with relationships and life. All actors turn out funny and terrific, albeit subtle performances.

Drinking Buddies defies rom-com or even it’s own name. If a movie called Drinking Buddies was to come out of mainstream Hollywood you know it would include lots of binge drinking and frat parties with a heavy emphasis on the drinking. Do people in here drink? Sure. Do they drink a lot? Yeah. But that’s not the point.

I thought I knew for sure where this movie was going at first but it never went there. It offers a look in time at the overlapping of relationships between two couples. What happens beyond this point of time, it’s hard to say.

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Amelie the Dog

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My wife and I recently got a dog. It was an idea I had been averse to for a while. It wasn’t that I didn’t like animals, I just found myself, what would the word be, indifferent to them. I could see why people liked animals, but if you’re like me, life seems to be enough trouble as is without worrying about cleaning up some other being’s feces. Not to mention those people whose lives practically revolved around their dogs, spending every waking moment talking about their dogs eating and social habits. I never liked going over to another person’s house where the dog would jump on you and bark at you and nag you until you pet it’s stupid head.

 However, I had been preparing myself for the inevitable. When Cat mentioned one day that we should go to the humane society after work I knew that we’d be coming back home with a dog.

On the way down we set some ground rules.

“We don’t have to get a dog tonight,” Cat says. “I just want to look.”

            “That’s fine,” I say. “But in case we do, we don’t have time to train a puppy,” I said.

            “Oh, yeah, obviously. And we both need to take care of it equally.”

“Agreed. And no dog that’s crazy. Something mellow.”

“Yes. And nothing too big. We live in a small apartment.”

“And no small yippy dogs.”

“Yes.” (I’m of the opinion that all small yippy dogs should be rounded up and shot).

On the way back home from the humane society:

“We’ll totally have time to train a puppy,” as the new dog we just bought bounds in and out of our backseat.

We ended up with an eight month old black lab-pit mix. We just couldn’t help ourselves. She was very medium sized with a cute puppy face and kept licking our faces. On the way home we stopped by Pets Mart and bought all the necessary items for our new housemate.

Growing up, my family had always had dogs. My first dog was a neurotic Border Collie named Panda we eventually had to get rid of.  I thought my parents gave her away because I wasn’t mature enough at the age of five years old to take care of her. My mom would always say to me, “Levi, if you don’t take care of Panda we’re going to give her away.” I thought when that day came it was my fault. But turns out, I learned twenty years later, it had nothing to do with me, but because Panda would get anxious around little kids and snap at them. Thanks for all those years of pet guilt mom.

My next dog was a husky-malamute mix named Denali. She was a wonderful dog besides being a master escape artist and killing our neighbor’s chickens. Eventually she got bad arthritis and hobbled around our house like a cripple. My dad called me when I was a freshman in college to let me know that they’d soon be putting her down. I don’t know why a pet’s death is so sad, but it really is.

Everyone who has a dog has a story. Some sad, some happy. My wife told me a story about her coworker who had a dog when he was still a kid. One day the dog broke its ankle and it had to have pins and needles inserted. But the dog picked at the sore and was in so much pain that it whined the entire night. The dad got so annoyed that he took the dog outside and cut it’s head off with a shovel. That was a sad story. 

So it goes.

This co-worker said that was the catalyst for his mom divorcing his dad.

My friend Nick once told me that he had the worst dog death story. His dad had backed up over their family dog as he was leaving their house. But it was the day Nick’s dad was leaving their house after him and his wife had divorced and he came back to pack up the rest of his things. 

We named our new dog Amelie, after the French movie. She turned out to be a little more high energy than we wanted as well as a professional chewer/destroyer of shoes, but we just couldn’t help but love her as she laid her head down on our lap or snuggled next to us in bed. She turned out to be one of the cuddliest dogs in the history of the world.

At first it added quite a bit of stress to our already stressful lives. This was the first year of our marriage and the infamous year of bed bugs, parents dying, business endeavors, and buying a house. Cat was an emotional wreck, I was depressed, we were both riddled with stress and anxiety. I guess somewhere along the way we just decided to compress as many life changing events as possible into twelve months. Get it all out of the way early.

But eventually Amelie did wonders for our household. It was pretty remarkable how much Cat cheered up with a dog in the house. If I would have known this I would have bought her a dog months ago, as soon as her mom died. Amelie also gave us something to focus on and turn our attention to rather than the inward petty fights we’d inevitably have. Sure, it would be annoying to come home and find your favorite pair of shoes and half the couch torn up, but we could now direct our frustration at some third party rather than at each other.

“Stupid dog” we’d say. Then she’d do something cute like nuzzle her nose on our shoulders and we’d let go of all our rage.

It also helped us get out. I was at this point, like most other points in my life, drinking and smoking heavily. It was a stressful year. But Amelie made me start going on these things called “walks” and I eventually started running. It was a good thing because recently because my heart had begun to “flutter” every now and then. I’d have moments of dizziness and lapses of breath, sometimes having to sit down before I might pass out. Cat told me it was probably due to all the coffee and tobacco and liquor and cheeseburgers, but I don’t see a medical degree in her name hanging on the wall. But the way I was going I might have a heart attack before I was thirty. Not that it made me stop. If life wanted me to stick around it could at least slow the fuck down for a few seconds.

That year I used to sit and day dream of the day when our puppy might grow up and chill out and people would stop dying and we’d have a house and maybe I’d quit all my vices and Cat and I would stop fighting so much.

Eventually a few of these things happened. We found a house, though it was quite the laborious process. We started to handle conflict with each other better and life did slow down a bit. I remember when we finally got the house though thinking that maybe it was a bad idea. I am almost obsessive when it comes to making sure I get things that need to be done, done. I can’t relax and watch a movie until all the dishes are done or the leaves raked or my laundry folded. I like to stack my days up heavy in the mornings. I won’t take a lunch until two or three in the afternoon when I’ve gotten most of my work out of the way. I’d rather just work hard and get everything done. That way I can go home an hour or two early and get stuff done around the house so I can truly relax for the evening.

 It’s very satisfying to me to cross all the items of my to-do list, to look at my inbox and see that I have zero un-read emails. But having a house is like having a never-ending to-do list. There is always something to do. It really freaked me out. I’ll never be able to relax, I thought. Even if I get all my work and writing done and take the dog out and spend time with the wife and clean the house, I’ll still have things like painting or yard work staring me in the face. Sometimes I’d break out the ole’ carrots and start rewarding myself with every little thing done.

I didn’t want a house to occupy my every waking moment. I remember growing up my dad would spend every Saturday and sometimes Sunday working on our house. Sometimes he’d try and wrangle me away to help him work on a fence or teach me how to use a saw. I’d oblige and looking back on it now I wish I would have taken the time to learn more from him, but I was in high school and who cares about those sorts of skills. I would ask my dad,

 “Doesn’t it bother you to work so much? Can’t you ever take a day off? Don’t you ever get tired?”

“It feels good” he’d say. “Better than sitting around an office.”

To my dad it was relaxing to work on the house on Saturday. To me it just seemed like more work.

I don’t want to spend my Saturdays “working.” I need a day where I can not put on pants and make a big breakfast.

Having a house and a dog sort of reminds you that there will always be something to do. Always another walk to take and another wall to paint. Probably another funeral to go to. A never ending to-do list of obstacles and tasks. Some days I like to sit back and day dream about a time in life when there are no longer tasks to accomplish and words to cross off. A time when life becomes more like a movie you can just sit back and enjoy. A stroll through leaves. Useless days and endless forays through unnecessary activities. A time when time itself no longer exists and we drift like wispy clouds across a tundra landscape, with less rocks to scale and more evergreens to smell. 

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Christmas Blues

 

He had to work the day after Christmas. It was cruel. Grotesque. Unfair. Gone were the college and school days of two weeks off for Christmas. Unmet too was the normal adult vacation days you would receive as you got older. He was now in limbo.

He woke up with the darkness. He lied in bed. Tried to shake the heaviness off. The world awaited him far away. He was still holed up in a cave, a womb of blankets and post-sleep weariness and possibly post-partum depression caused by the baby Jesus. Was he in a coma? Was he in a world far away? Was he in a cabin in the tundra, where snowdrifts piled up on the outside log walls creating an insulated sound? Was there a fireplace? He hoped so. But he could not hear it.

His wife had to work too. She was already gone. Left at 8:30 this morning. He was going to work from home. But as he lay there he knew that if he worked from home he would only feel the darkness more, probably end up spending the majority of his day looking at boobs on a computer screen. So he left for work. Put his pants on.

It wasn’t too bad. He had his dog and his cigarettes to keep him company. He had after all been expecting this. The post-Christmastime darkness. It was inevitable. All the build up and shiny lights and sparkly presents. The joyful nature in the air. The sense of peace and joy and being with loved ones. The days following were no match. After December there was quite the lull in days to look forward to. In the fall there was Thanksgiving and then Christmas and then New Years. But in January, what was there in the future? Easter? Columbus day? Valentines Day? Those were all pretty shitty holidays compared to Christmas. Not much time off either.

Even New Years wasn’t that good. In fact, he thought of New Years as the most anti-climactic night in history. Nothing happened. You drank champagne. Watched a ball drop from the sky. It was always disappointing. One night in high school he had snuck out to go to a party on New Years Eve. He never went to parties but he decided that he needed to go to at least one raging high school party before he graduated. He didn’t drink much. I mean, he knew how to drink, he just didn’t do it much. The guilt of lying to his parents and telling them he was spending the night at Adams almost made the party unbearable. He would have to get drunk. So that night he got drunk and wandered around and realized he didn’t know people as well as he thought he was. He tried to fit in. Who knows if he did a good job. It was pretty boring actually. Movies and T.V. have a way of making high school and college parties look epic. He had never been to one of these. Mostly it was just crowded. Sure, there were drunk people and the random girl who would kiss you but that was about it. Maybe he lived in the wrong places. The girl he liked, who had invited him to this party, kept ignoring him and everyone else said the same thing to him, “I didn’t know you drank!” Eventually he met some snowboarders and they offered to get him high, which he did, in the back of a green jeep. He had never been drunk and high. He felt like he was walking on the moon. He even tried to jump down the gravel road like there was no gravity. Then he got sick and stared at a wall for an indiscernible amount of time while everyone gathered to watch some “ball” drop. And this was one of the more memorable New Years Eves. He couldn’t even remember what he did last year.

He knew that the days after Christmas would simply feel empty. Not too much more than usual. But slightly. He couldn’t take time off. Not just because he was American and addicted to work, but because he was the owner of a small business. As the owner of a small business you don’t get days off. Very rarely. His only comfort was that, as the owner of a small business, perhaps one day he would receive the accolades of fame, glory, and hundred dollar bills, or an early retirement that might await him at the end of this venture. Otherwise what was it all for?

He didn’t know if he wanted to sleep or drink or watch movies or what. He should probably exercise. Work might actually feel good. Make him feel as if he was doing something.

His chemical pill was in his black jean coin pocket. He knew if he swallowed it with a glass of water it would make him feel dizzy. But if he didn’t take it he would go down a dark rabbit hole.

 He had to make this decision every day. Whether or not he wanted to feel the dizziness or the darkness. Some days he chose dizzy. Some days darkness.

He felt empty. Dizzy. Probably had to do with his relationship with The Father. Or The Mother. Or The Son. Or lack thereof.

He counted the days left. He was twenty-five. If he lived to be eighty that would be fifty-five years of life. 55 X 365=20,075 days left on this earth. Twenty-thousand and seventy-five days left.

Oh god, working the day after Christmas is so depressing. 

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