Tag Archives: Movies

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



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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LOTR, Harry Potter, Movies, Monotony






The Life of Fantasy

This is about to get nerdy real quick so prepare yo’ self. Lord of the Rings or, LOTR, is popular for many reasons, perhaps mostly (and maybe sadly) because of their recent cinematic interpretation by Peter Jackson. I myself have no problem with the movies and think they are wonderful, it would just be sad to me if more people had watched the movies than read the books. I like to watch the LOTR series now late at night after too much whiskey or on Sunday afternoons when I’m feeling despondent and want to watch something heroic. The recent Hobbit movies have been something else entirely (mainly a ploy for cash and hours of wasted cinema spent in ever increasing climactic battles that go nowhere) but I will still watch all of them many times, because that’s how much I love Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth.

I’ve never known what it was that drew me to Lord of the Rings until I re-read the introduction by Peter S. Beagle. I knew that I liked the story. I knew that I liked disappearing into another world. I knew that I liked adventure and journey and wanted more of it in my own mundane life. I knew that I liked it better than Chronicles of Narnia because it was less allegorical and therefore, harder to characterize and explain.
It was December. I hadn’t read the books in over five years and wanted a nice shift from heavy reading to simply a good story with a fast plot. The Hobbit (the movie) was coming out and so I had just finished re reading it and decided to go on with the others. I was trying to quit smoking and get my life on track, which meant that I needed an escape outside of my usual escape of whiskey and American Spirits. Reading was always a good escape but it couldn’t be anything too corny and it couldn’t be anything to heavy either, some depressing novel by Kafka would only make me want to drink and smoke all the more.

So this time when I sent out to read the books, I read the introduction. Perhaps I had read the introduction before and it didn’t mean anything to me, or perhaps I read a version where there was no introduction by Peter S. Beagle, either way, it felt new to me. Beagle in it says of Tolkien, “He is a great enough magician to tap into our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.”
“A green alternative to each day’s madness in a poisoned world.” I knew then what it was that I liked about Lord of the Rings. It gave me respite from a poisoned world. It gave me strength. It made me believe that a world was possible where one could walk in a world unhindered by cubicles and freeways. Where caves and mountains replaced strip malls and parking garages. Where one could fight one’s enemies face to face, rather than by drone or through the lens of a computer screen. There were clear demarcations of who was good and who was bad. Sure, there were Men who were fickle and prone, morally confused and at times complex characters, but at the end of the day, we knew who was good and bad and this humanity of men only made their decision to be good all the better.

One afternoon in July my friend Jeremy and I found ourselves sitting on the porch talking about the very same thing, when a thunderstorm rolled in, bringing with it a minor relief from the heat. As the rain picked up my feet started to get wet as the drain on the narrow porch began to overflow. At the time I was living with Jeremy and his family. The household was eerily quiet as Emily and their three spawn had taken a trip to Oregon. Lightning struck a little ways off and the clap of the thunder got louder
We watched the rain. I’ve always liked days when it rains. It feels more honest. Like the outside matches the inside. I always feel bad being all dark and broody on a beautiful summer day.
“I like the weather when it’s like this.” I said. “Reminds me of Oregon.”
Jeremy nodded.
“What are you reading?”
“This.” I said, as I held up the book.
“Oh…nice.” I couldn’t help but notice a slight hint of condescension within those two eye spheres of his.
The book was Harry Potter. What was a twenty-three year old man with a beard doing reading Harry Potter on a summer afternoon? Exactly what he wanted. That’s what he was doing.
Jeremy took a seat on the Winder Farms cooler. My entire body itched from mosquito bites.
“Have I told you my problem with Harry Potter?” I said. “It’s a philosophical one.”
Jeremy tried to look interested, his eyes focused on some image known only to him in the distance. “Hm?”
“My problem is…I’m not really sure if life is supposed to be…I don’t know what the word would be, ‘Epic.’ I’m not sure if life is supposed to be epic or not. Harry Potter, or any fantasy really, Lord of the Rings, paint a picture of life very different from what we experience. They’re obviously fantasy, but what I’m wondering is if these novels, or movies or whatever, are actually pointing to a truth in life that should be more exciting and adventurous, or if we should just merely accept the monotony of life and realize that it has some good parts but a lot of really boring ones. My life is incredibly boring, not bad all the time, just, you know very…ordinary. In movies you have two hour glimpses of the most dramatic parts of a characters life, or maybe not even dramatic, but parts that matter.”
“Yeah, I see that,” said Jeremy.
“So,” I asked. “Is life epic…or normal? I feel like I’ll be less disappointed in life if I accept the grueling monotony of it and think less about how I’m missing out on some supposed greatness. I feel as if I read somewhere that some of the happiest people in life are those with the lowest expectations.”
“That could be,” said Jeremy. “ I think it’s fascinating that people never go to the bathroom in movies.”
I stared.
“You know?” He looked at me. “You never see it. No one ever goes to the bathroom In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that would never make it into a movie.”
“Like going to the bathroom?”
“Like going to the bathroom.”
We both stared off into the rain for a good fifteen minutes. No words.
“It’s like—” Jeremy broke the silence, “we all have these things we never talk about in our lives.”
I nodded.
“I think someone should make a movie about all the boring parts of life,” he said.
“I’ve thought about it.”
“Like what if you wrote a book or made a movie about four years of half hour boring conversations with someone that eventually lead to one interesting sentence of truth or meaning?
“No one would want to buy it.” I said. “Who would want to read a book about people going to work, sleeping, and going to the bathroom?”
“Probably, no one, and yet, these activities take up most of our day.”
“Yes. Who would want to read a book about people let’s say, in Salt Lake City? Maybe they have interesting lives, maybe not. Maybe they’re interesting people. Maybe they live in unconventional ways. Maybe they hang out together, go to BBQ’s, bars, each other birthday’s parties, maybe they talk about very boring things on the front porch, but still, is any of that interesting?” I said.
“I’m not sure it would be.” Jeremy said.
“Who would want to listen to the dialogue of everyday life? The incessant chatter of meaningless conversations?”
“I don’t know. I sure wouldn’t.”
We stared into the fog of July, the steam rising from the pavement.

Movies after all, are two-three hour compressions of life. Even boring indie movies have a sort of narrative trajectory that stretches through the screen. Life has no narrative trajectory. At least, not all the time. By movies I mean typical Hollywood stories with narrative arcs that include rising action, climax, and resolution, within which most stories stay. The formula is there for a reason—all I’m saying is that life often times does not resolve, and often times it is not epic or grandiose. I used to think that this was a bad thing, when my life was not caught up in some dangerous romance or high-speed car chase, but now I realize life is rarely, if ever, like this. Profound insight I know.

When I was in eighth grade I read a book called Wild At Heart. In this book the author told me I was the William Wallace of my own life. I thought this was very exciting news because I had always loved Scottish accents and kilts. However, soon I realized that my life resembled little to nothing to that of William Wallace’s. Mostly, I was in high school trying to pass physics and getting boners in math class.
What often happens is that these stories and movies masquerade as honest representations of life, when in fact they are not. In reality, the most honest cinema comes in forms of T.V. shows like Seinfeld and Louie, shows that do not necessarily evolve or end but simply are.

Undoubtedly, with most stories you need some sort of narrative structure so that your story will not become like some gargled John Cage composition, however, to assume that your life can and should follow a certain narrative structure wherein you hike Machu Picchu and marry someone like Tom Hanks? That to me, seems misleading. And yet, with the present generation, my generation, generation why? or whatever they’re calling it, it would appear we are all simultaneously sucked into this myth that we are born to be rock stars and movie stars. We’ve been told relentlessly how “special” we are, educated by talk shows and books on making your best life now, living the dream, taking the world by storm, how much we deserve it, etc. This is the reality I grew up in. A cruel reality once the curtain is torn down.

This is also why it is awful for me to imbibe any sort of fantasy. Because, reality, all of a sudden, is not enough. Reality is boring. It’s filled with trips to the grocery store and putting pants on. I find myself daydreaming about a greener world, a world in the past or future, where you can fly on a broom or ask an elf out on a date. Or I become bitter about the world I live in now, fantasizing about a world where cars do not exist and computers were never invented.

I have also recently picked up the Harry Potter books. As far as fantasy books go, I thought Harry Potter was ridiculous until about two months ago. But I grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and then moved onto Lord of the Rings and now, Harry Potter, though it’s always slightly embarrassing to find yourself reading something they sell explicitly in the “Children’s” section of Barnes and Nobles. I’m not sure If I’m in a healthy place in life to move onto Game of Thrones as I’m positive I’d become a recluse with long fingernails until I finished them. Right now I’m almost finished now with book seven of Harry Potter and I’m beginning to get very sad.

In comes that feeling of when you finish a really good book. Where it leaves you feeling empty after you finish it. When you turn the last page of that book, and the back cover shutting makes a soft sound, subtle and sad. An act forcing you to sit in your chair for a while, as if contemplating 80-year-old scotch, because you didn’t want it to end, and it just has. You tried to read slower but it didn’t matter. When the black screen hits and the credits start rolling. When you realize that your last two weeks, months, years even, of following these characters through the gale and hiss, the triumph and the sickness, through misty mountains, dark caves, death’s cold mouth, love’s first hints, and love’s culmination—when you realize that it’s over—reality knocks, soft at first, but soon with fist.

There is no more rushing home from work to read another chapter. No more late nights where you know you should go to bed but just can’t because the story is so good.
And when you wake up the next morning and realize that there is no Sauron, or Voldemort to fight, when you realize that your broom can’t fly, that Rivendell is not a place on earth, a pale sadness creeps in. Perhaps I should say “me.”
Because when I wake up and realize that life is filled with school and work, taking the trash out, doing dishes, feeding myself somehow, etc. I want nothing to do with it.
And I really don’t know what to do with this, the realization, that life is very…ordinary.
That it is profoundly normal, filled with some good and exciting things every now and then, but honestly it’s just very…plain.
It’s not bad, but it’s not really good either. Our friendships are messier. Our battles vague, ambiguous, non-existent. Or at least boring. I have battles. My battles are to not be depressed, and to not look at porn, and not drink too much, to not do other things and really they are just boring as hell.
Some battles are tangible. As tangible as dragons and evil lords. But others are not fun. There is no adventure. We have battles to keep our marriages together. Battles to stay sober, to not get addicted, to fight our selfishness.
There is no dark lord to defeat. There are horrible things happening around the world: poverty, sex-trafficking, corruption, greed, addiction, and so on, but really fighting these things just seems like it involves a lot of paperwork.
I’m not sure how much life changes, as in, we can change the world. For a while, I went to political protests. I got tired of them.
As that cliché saying goes, it really is harder to live for something than die for it. Dying is easy. Living is hard. It’s hard because it’s messy. It’s vague, and ambiguous, and a lot of the time you’re not really sure what the hell is happening,

Tomorrow I have to do homework and laundry, and make at least enough money to feed myself and pay someone to live in their house, and perhaps I will try and help someone or have a good conversation or listen to a good song, or do something artistic, or actually make a difference, but really I’ll just be tired from daily obligations and will go home tired, exhausted, passing out to re-runs of The Office.
Perhaps this whole idea of living “life to the fullest,” is a privileged, bourgeoisie ideology. Perhaps we say such things because in the Western, postmodern, technological age, we are so distanced from life that we think going in kayaking in Costa Rica or biking across the U.S. is going to help us really experience life. And yet others, all around the world, are not worried about such things. Maybe commercials, advertisements, and movies have us all confused.

Andy Warhol made a movie called Sleep. It shows a man sleeping for six hours. Perhaps this was the most accurate movie ever made about humanity.

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Life Without Filter Part II

I had one simple goal in mind when taking these pictures: to present life as ordinary as possible. To take pictures of all the things that consume our day but are not particularly interesting. To look at computer screens, office spaces, roads, cooking, T.V. screens etc. When I took the first picture my photographer friends Mike and Cole told me that the picture was crooked, saying something about “horizons.” I told them that I didn’t care. But they told me, out of either injury to their particular field of work or to simply give me advice, that you could still take bland pictures that weren’t crooked. So after the first one I tried harder to hold the camera upright. However, I did not manipulate the lighting, filter, or placement of such photos. I wanted them to exist in stark representation to the manipulation of appearance, because the manipulation of appearance was the essential point, i.e. how we manipulate and alter our appearance and image through technology.

The photo’s you’ll see are awful and not interesting in the least bit, or at the very least not very interesting.  My friends Mike and Cole could have done a photo project where they take pictures of bland or ordinary or mundane things, but since they’re awesome photographers they could still make them look “cool” in the gritty and low-fi sort of way. I wanted to represent life in its most ordinary and uninteresting state.


A couple thoughts: my house looks very yellow in all the pictures. It might have something to do with the yellow walls or the poor lighting, who knows. I debated about whether or not to take pictures of colorful trees wondering if they were too “pretty.” But then I decided that it would be dishonest to not take a picture of them since they were a part of my day while going for a run and I wasn’t going out of my way per say to try and find beautiful images of fall. The one time I took a picture of myself I immediately noticed a reflex in which my hands jumped up to straighten my hair. I had to forcefully shake off the desire to comb my hair and I also had to consciously think about how my face would look as it does throughout most of the day, not particularly sad, but not particularly happy either.

Part of me wishes the images were grittier or more low-fi but that would have required a certain amount of manipulation. In fact, another thing I noticed while scrolling through the images is that as much as they are ordinary and uninteresting I still feel a particular since of gratitude while viewing the photos. My life, I found myself thinking, is pretty good. But then it caused me to question whether the act of taking photo’s itself isn’t manipulation. Because photo’s (even mundane ones) like movies or ad’s still present a “compression” of life that is not accurate in a time/experience sort of way. Although all the photo’s were literally things I was either doing or noticed throughout the day with no going out of my way to capture certain images, I wondered if the recording of life itself causes one to view life unrealistically. In the best possible sense photo’s capture memories. Memories than can give us nostalgia or feelings of warmth and happiness. Some of the photo’s I took did this—such as pictures of nature or my wife or dog—but others warranted no emotional reaction at all—such as images of computer screens. Which cause me to think that technology can exist in the best possible way—such as to provide us with memories of past or meaningful events—or, in the case of movies, to present us with an inspiring or challenging narrative that cause us to engage with life. And yet, technology can also exist in the worst possible way providing unrealistic images and worldviews that damage our souls. Much of this thought process was based on a troubling Vanity Fair article entitled “Friends With Benefits,” where Nancy Jo Sales explores how social media and sex are influencing young women. Check out the article here: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2013/09/social-media-internet-porn-teenage-girls.


Once again, the point is not the pictures, they’re remarkably bland. But rather questioning in what ways we live a life with filter. 

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