by Niles Schwartz
Seeping through an otherwise general consensus of acclaim is how director Steve McQueen had made 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slavery memoir, too “Steve McQueen”: Northup’s fact-based journey as a free black man from Saratoga, New York who is kidnapped and sold to various Louisiana plantations, is too lush and calibrated, showcasing the sensibilities of the art gallery personality behind it. Mark Harris writes that McQueen is a “Kubrickian control freak,” whose “camera never catches anything by accident; he doesn’t leave room for surprise.” Adam Nayman argues that some of the film’s disturbing images are displays of McQueen’s “artistic exhibitionism…[conflating] the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.” Dana Stevens calls McQueen out on “lily gilding” when the story requires “minimal directorial underlying.” And on his podcast, author Bret Easton Ellis sees 12 Years a Slave as “over-calculated as it is powerful,” the “rigorous formalism” resulting in an important film that nevertheless feels “rigged.”
But the overt aestheticism befits a film where artisanship is a motif: with music (instrumentation, dancing, singing), doll-making, writing, and carpentry, McQueen observes how craftsmanship functions in an environment engendering creativity vs. a lifeless, inhumane mass production machine of automatic protocol, where the artisan is denied an identity and applause. When Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) carves the names of his wife and two children on the fiddle his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), has gifted him for his engineering ingenuity, procreative lifelines and artistic livelihoods converge. But with lifelines broken and personal expression muted, what’s the point of creating? Or existing? (The same question is essential to the Coen brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis). At his lowest ebb, when Solomon has nearly surrendered to the given persona of an illiterate slave named “Platt,” he destroys his instrument.
Rigorous formalism scrims Solomon’s world, the impact of McQueen’s images mirroring this world “made new” (as one character portends) and nightmarish for the hero. Instead of warmly suturing us with the familiarity of most period films, 12 Years amplifies history’s extraterrestrial strangeness, from the spoken vernacular to surreal everyday protocol. McQueen said that his initial encounter with Northup’s memoir felt like science fiction or a Grimm fairy tale. Solomon’s rebirth in chains, where a free man wakes to find himself deleted, isn’t set in a familiar movie dungeon, but in the vortex of German Expressionism and gothic horror, and Solomon’s story becomes a frightening, fact-based metamorphosis, his identity reinvented on paper. If he were a fictional character, his circumstances would be no less extraordinary than The Trial‘s Josef K’s.
Consider the early close-ups of a violin in motion, as if narrative was suspended to momentarily encapsulate us within a hypnotic microcosm of sound production; or an important piece of paper, onto which Solomon has written his story to communicate to loved ones back home, slowly burning, the shot holding until the cinders are eaten by darkness. Painterly and sometimes perversely symmetrical compositions play alongside unbroken tracking shots of the most intricate staging and punctuating impact. The opening of 12 Years a Slave sets the dance of intent and instrumentation into motion, an overseer giving instruction to a group of fresh slaves on the slicing of sugar cane: “Make it sing,” he says of the laborious blade wielding. McQueen shows the slicing of cane, but the singing comes from the trapped workers: “My ma – she dead; My pa – he dead.” Misery is mollified, however impermanently, through singing. From the song, we cut to Northup musing at his humble dinner plate, stained by spreading blackberry juice. He has an idea, but at nightfall we see how his plan has failed. Eager to express his state of affairs through writing, he’s whittled a pen but still unable to make the blackberry juice ink stick to paper. The release of creativity, the imaginarium of control, is fleeting in its satisfaction and tangibility, like the mysterious early transaction between Solomon and a slave girl, using his hand for sexual release.
The goal of Solomon’s twelve year imprisonment, to compose a letter from the Louisiana plantation of vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) to his friends in New York, is foreshadowed in his prologue as he opens an envelope of fresh strings, which he tunes on his fiddle before a successful performance. The private sphere of creativity aspires to affect the outside world, and McQueen’s borderline abstract images, taking us from the extreme violin close-ups to a mechanical stern-wheel making ripples while ushering away corpses, underlie an artisan’s message delivery system, whether it’s that of Solomon Northup or Steve McQueen. Within its slave narrative, the film follows an artist’s metamorphosis. Launching from a house engendering creativity (we hear of wife Anne’s culinary talents, and see daughter Margaret wildly play a recorder as son Alonzo dances on his bed), Solomon finds himself trapped in a horrifying restaging of Pinocchio, where Epps is the sadistic Mangiafuoco, arranging dances where the slaves are docile puppets, denied any purpose but the master’s lazy satisfaction.
This divide of idle rich and the exploited workers is also a commentary on art, or frustrated creativity, as the film’s slave characters display exemplary craftsmanship. We marvel at Solomon’s music, or the prodigious craft of poor Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), object of Epps’ rapacious desire and cruelty, who sweetly hums while fashioning a family of dolls from grass. The white masters lean back and watch, politely applauding (like the appreciative Ford) or lazily luxuriating (like Epps). The human marketplace run by Freeman (Paul Giamatti), displaying human beings as livestock, features, like many art exhibitions, the euphonic soundtrack of musicians who are to be treated as invisible (one of many commentaries McQueen seems to be making on the nature of film scoring here, in a movie that’s been misinterpreted for its conventional, or as Nayman puts it, “slathering” film score). As if disparities between rich and poor, master and servant, white and black, weren’t enough, McQueen, who’s said that he wants the viewer to be immersed in the images until the frame evaporates, bridges the chasm between the creative sensibilities of artists and the audience, too often protected and relaxed behind a fourth wall.
Initially, Solomon can’t believe that his two circus employers, Hamilton and Brown, sold him into slavery, because they’re “artists, fellow performers,” as if there’s a sacred brotherhood amongst creative sensibilities. But, as the salesman Freeman explains to Ford, sentiment only goes the length of the coins offered. The infrastructure of slavery exemplifies productivity—in carpentry, engineering, cotton—necessarily submitting to a mechanical economic functionality. The freedom exhibited by Solomon’s children in their bedroom, at liberty to giggle after their father hushes them and closes the door, gives way to a dungeon where Solomon is reborn, tentacled to chains, the defining contours of his face eaten by shadow. He’s authored by his captors, stripped of his history and name, and violently reprimanded should he protest.
In this alternate universe, the mere recognition of the written word is forbidden and paid for in lashes, and paper is now a delectable temptation. Solomon’s unexpected opportunity to musically perform for a plantation ball reflects the earlier Saratoga recital, but here the entertained dancers, masked in a dreamlike looking glass perverting the world Solomon once knew, ignore the players. The appreciative bow offered to the free Solomon is replaced by the emotionally removed Platt’s playing drowned by Hans Zimmer’s film score. He’s lost his voice (notice how Ejiofor’s speech pattern and countenance transforms throughout his twelve years). Encountering Native Americans on their bayou hunt, Solomon’s eyes enviously fix on the dancing strangers’ musical instruments. It’s a befuddling encounter between two groups colonized within their own country. But one, though invisible to the white law, at least continues to create. The other, as property, cannot. Solomon’s creative energy is placed into carpentry—but, as a mortgaged human being, it leads merely to favor, never release.
Writing with his camera, McQueen is tracing the vector of a creative dialogue between performers and spectators, pondering language that transcends words (as “freedom” is dictated in the legalities found on paper), in various creative modes (it’s significant that Solomon tells Brad Pitt’s abolitionist, Bass, his story while carving wood)—reminding us, of course, of cinema’s communicative power. Ejiofor studied Valentino in preparation for his role, and when McQueen lingers on Solomon’s face in close-up, we’re trusted to actively read through the countenance of Solomon’s fractured identity, which struggles to make sense of itself before an inchoate backdrop of ageless nature. His eyes pleadingly meet ours. Lies written as Law are found in official documents. But the Truth, elusive and transcendent and ethereal, is written on scarred bodies, sad nature, and desperate glances.
Critics might well complain that McQueen’s formal “rigged” approach, his aestheticism, softens the hardness of slavery, making it trivial. While I suspect some critics and viewers are likely to grant favor to the film because of its memorable and emotional approach to such a terrible historical subject, whatever the filmmaker has done certainly hasn’t resulted in blockbuster success, compared to Schindler’s List or the more recent Lee Daniels’ The Butler (or the catharsis of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody revenge fantasy, Django Unchained). Those films are, when you think about it, success stories, with light at the tunnel’s end. Spielberg’s Holocaust film is about a thousand Jews who lived more than the six million that died. 12 Years a Slave is more akin to Roman Polanski’s highly subjective The Pianist, where the tale of survival is dwarfed by the guilt of survival, the absurdity of survival, across an absurd landscape of bizarre and horrifying human behavior. At the end of these stories, the sense of “triumph of the human spirit” dwindles under the weight of how precarious our existence is, and all existence, and how easily we may fall into the condition of cruelty. The directorial approach brings great urgency to the past while also casting uncertainty over the present. We can see why 12 Years‘ box office receipts are a fraction of 1993’s Schindler’s List‘s, not even when adjusted for inflation.
Not since 1975’s Barry Lyndon has the past felt so strange—so uncanny, vivid, and heavy with the burdensome weight of time. And though McQueen is a very different director from Kubrick–12 Years a Slave was shot in 35 days with one camera in comparison to the almost unlimited means allotted Kubrick–the similarities are worth noting. In McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, Kubrick’s specter hangs over assembled British soldiers banging shields in unison as naked prisoners are ushered out and pummeled; McQueen’s documentary Western Deep (2002) shows exploited miners in a bizarre exercise routine, uniformly moving at a flashing light’s dictation—at the cost of losing their livelihoods if they relent. The ridiculous juxtaposition of formalities with depravity are throughout 12 Years, as slave trader Freeman reminds his rich livestock buyers to grab some “refreshments” as they scrutinize displayed bodies who are quickly separated from their children, or when Solomon hangs by a noose, struggling to catch his breath as the plantation goes about its business, the chief overseer, as if by mechanical necessity, refusing to help him–less out of spite, it seems, than practicality (the sense I got from it was, “I just don’t do that; that’s not my function,” a viewpoint corollary to not seeing the hanging man as a fellow human being).
“Cruelty is formal,” McQueen says of such moments, reflecting the aesthetic perfection during violent confrontations in Kubrick: the execution in Paths of Glory (“The men died wonderfully!”); A Clockwork Orange’s balletic fights; Barry Lyndon’s duels and floggings; Full Metal Jacket’s rights of marine passage; and Eyes Wide Shut‘s hilarious and haunting elite orgy. Kubrick’s formalism directly plays into his themes of human folly. The scenarios, like the exacting aesthetic, appear tightly sealed, “fail-safe,” but whether it’s a nuclear attack, artificial intelligence, or a happy marriage, ageless and insatiable instincts breach security. Harris is wrong to equate “Kubrickian control” to a camera that never catches anything by accident (the craft is impeccable, but Kubrick, like McQueen, laid out his shots on set, often rejecting storyboarding). The actors are writing with their expressions, however obliquely, drawing us more fully into the inarticulate motions of the breathing world, which in 12 Years’s weeping willows and twilight-rippled swamps, is as benevolent as it is indifferent. The lucidity and linearity of Northup’s narrative of freedom to slavery to freedom is troubled by unanswerable glances, omnipresent nature, and impersonal machinery. There’s mystery in the film’s design, and that’s where 12 Years a Slave‘s legacy as a film will rest, much more than its true-life narrative.
Form is content. Barry Lyndon, itself accused of posturing (Pauline Kael called it a three-hour slide show for art majors), keeps its 18th century players circumscribed like the paintings Barry collects: the promise of growth, reflected in slow zooms which initially seem to open up the world, halts and the players find themselves trapped in the frame. Upward mobility falters. Barry Lyndon’s downfall–the horseback death of his son and his social standing taken in a duel–was forecasted 170 minutes ago in Kubrick’s opening shot, where Barry’s father is killed in a duel “that arose over the purchase of some horses.”
In 12 Years, as Solomon is nailed into the Platt role, existence becomes an absurdist pantomime. Constructing distinct images alongside a play of diegetic with non-diegetic sounds (violin music, Zimmer’s score, Tibeats’ “Run Nigger Run” song, the vociferous mourning of the kidnapped Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, who’s been separated from her children, and slave hymns), the film’s design echoes its characters’ desperate need for creativity and communication. Without that, there is the death-wish of Patsey, raped (and adored) by Epps and abused by Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who insists that her life is not worth living. In contact with Solomon’s—and the camera’s–sympathetic gaze, Patsey is a creative individual restlessly hoping her impressive work will afford her some control: in addition to her incredible cotton-picking talent, she skillfully makes her grass family, is the most striking presence during Epps’ late night dances, and, most simplistically if movingly, aspires to keep a bar of soap to clean herself. But when Solomon’s carriage departs this state-sanctioned hell, his strained face turns from the dwindling shape of forlorn Patsey, McQueen’s creative means, cinema, leaves her too, and when the camera frame abandons her, she collapses. Visually resurrecting history, cinema gives life, but takes it away when the frame moves on. Solomon’s story ends with the Northups encircling his infant grandson and namesake, a new creation. His pleas for forgiveness extend beyond his twelve year absence, and fix on what’s forsaken in the infertile plantation of stunted creativity, where the property is consigned to walking death in servitude, denied expression in little else but communal spirituals that long for the next world. A complaint about the film may be how it fails to portray black resistance to injustice (the Deus Ex Machina being the Canadian white savior, Brad Pitt). But every act of creativity is an act of resistance, is a defiance. And that is how McQueen has designed his film. It has to be formal and aestheticized. It has to be authored. History and life aren’t trivialized through the artist’s creative endeavors; on the contrary, 12 Years a Slave shows how life demands the freedom of an aesthetic prism, regenerating and illuminating through darkness.
Nabokov asserted that good art appealed to the imagination, inventing a world through the senses of a unique individual, the artist defined by the science of his precision. 12 Years a Slave’s formalism lures us deeper into the strangeness of the past, and so colors the context of the present. The soul doesn’t reside in plot or dialogue, but in its mysterious silences flowing around incident. McQueen ends his film with titles informing us that no one knows the circumstances of Solomon’s death, a haunting postscript reminiscent of Barry Lyndon’s “they are all equal now” intimation of the inevitable grave. The cut from a reunited family to black is a maddening shudder alluding to what’s left unseen in Louisiana: the inscrutable face of Patsey, the whereabouts of tormented Eliza and her children, the alienation of Ford, and the destructive self-loathing of Epps: all of McQueen’s characters register deeply, but they remain ungraspable. They lurk like ghosts following us outside of the theater, infecting our memory.
The quotes I have from McQueen are from a dialogue, between McQueen and Stuart Comer, I attended at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, November 9, 2013: http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2013/dialogue-steve-mcqueen