Search This Blog

Monday, March 03, 2014

An Exhaustion Of Icons

12 Years A Slave won the Academy Award for best picture. I had gone to see the film just a week ago, and I have been struggling with my response to it since then.

I found it a very well done film, perfect in all its many facets, those areas of expertise that are connected with that long list of credits that rolls by at the end of a movie. Wonderfully done. I remembered Django Unchained, which had a number of grotesque turns, not the least of which was a story that seemed to go nowhere... or if it had a goal, it did not seem to care one way or the other.
Everything worked together in 12 Years A Slave. 

However, I found myself uninterested in the story. I found that the film did not compel my interest. The fact that it was a true depiction of the horror that was slavery did not deliver me to that realm of enchantment in which time flies without the viewer being aware of its passing.
I refused to go the film The Book Thief for the same feeling that I had: I had seen too much of the Holocaust already. There are only so many stories to be told... and the stories in their infinite detail are not exhausted, but what then is exhausted?

I find it hard to believe that Django Unchained could have destroyed my interest in an entire historical era. What happened is - I think - is that the genre has exhausted its creativeness, its ability to keep our attention as the stories unfolds, taking the usual routes that we have grown accustomed to in the telling of such stories.

There was a buzz for the film, It's Time! I do not know if this was supposed to mean an Oscar for a film by a black director about slavery or what it referred to, but I now suspect that it really means that it is time to do something else.

Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday's historic Best Picture win for "12 Years a Slave" was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. "12 Years" was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September's Toronto International Film Festival 
A fine accomplishment, but I am not so sure that it is what this country really needs.
Indeed, what are all these artistic creations but an amusement? An entertainment?
How many times have I heard that perhaps at last the dialogue on race that this country needs will begin at such-and-such a time, inspired by some wonderful art - or by some ghastly crime?
We keep seeking some Great Act or some Great Genius who will inspire us, and neglect to bear the constant burden of virtue ourselves. We do not believe that Virtue is its own reward. We would like some coupons or frequent flier miles to go with each and every good act we commit.

I think it is time to do a different art, a different politics, a different vision.

In Yahoo News this morning:
Malcolm X and rap music have always fit together like a needle in the groove, connected by struggle, strength and defiance. But three recent episodes involving the use or misuse of Malcolm and other black icons have raised the question: Has rap lost touch with black history?
Chart-topping rapstress Nicki Minaj provoked widespread outrage with an Instagram post featuring one of black history's most poignant images: Malcolm X peering out the window of his home, rifle in hand, trying to defend his wife and children from firebombs while under surveillance by federal agents. Superimposed on the photo: the title of Minaj's new song, which denigrates certain black men and repeats the N-word 42 times.
That came after Minaj's mentor Lil Wayne recorded a verse last year using the civil rights martyr Emmett Till in a sexual metaphor, and the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons posted a Harriet Tubman "sex tape" video on his comedy channel...
This is not the new art, but it is a sign that the old icons and the way we relate to them are salt that has lost its savor, and there is no "new and improved salt" in that exhausted pantry with which to restore saltiness to the old salt.

Perhaps it is time to move on beyond the area of icons and narratives and set up the stage in real life.

Connected to this idea of starting to do things in real life, I read a number of reviews of 12 Years A Slave whose authors  considered Brad Pitt to be miscast as a Canadian abolitionist, or who considered the character to be wooden and poorly rendered.
Of course, I disagree entirely with such comments, for I found his character to be well drawn (if brief) and well played. The character is a man who lives virtuously, not one who stage acts on virtuous beliefs.

In this age of Media and Entertainment, we all act. We all act too much and we all talk too much. We are like players in a production put on at Charenton Asylum, a Marat/Sade of multi-tasking that has little to show as the fruit of our labors.


No comments: