Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"12 Years a Slave"

Yesterday, I watched a movie called "12 Years a Slave," the tale of a real-life free black man living in New York state who was shanghaied to the pre-Civil-War south and lived for 12 years as a slave before being rescued and returned to his free life with his wife and two children. The movie generated both money and applause.

The implicit nightmare scenario was not realized for me. The horror I both hoped and feared to feel before seeing the movie went unmet. I wanted to be moved and mostly was not, largely because there was little or no character development. It was like watching a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional horror. To say that the movie was like John Wayne doing World War II is too extreme, but it was in that play book for me... sort of like imagining a McDonald's bagel is really a bagel.

Aside from some wonderful photography and a couple of flashes of human credibility from supporting actors and actresses, I did not feel drawn-in and thereby truly horrified. It was as if the movie relied on some high school premise that "slavery was bad," which of course it was ... but how can anyone know horror without depicting the ordinary-mindedness of those who felt it was good? And how many anguished looks on the protagonist's face can anyone see without wondering who this man actually was in any deeper sense.

I felt gypped and manipulated by the movie, as if it relied on the viewer's sense of injustice to make up for an inability or unwillingness to create a three-dimensional, gut-wrenching tale.

This is obviously just my take, but it put me in mind of a BBC story stating the Los Angeles Times had first reported a recent earthquake with a robot writer -- an algorithm template into which geological facts were inserted. The story was all there, factual as table salt, but of course the story was missing. (Outlets making use of robo-reports point out that the idea is not to replace news writers, but rather to create a matrix on which further reporting (if warranted) can be done.)

Oh well ... the movie won Academy Awards, so it must be good, right?

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