Time is rapidly running out. The Oscars are tomorrow night. So I’ve decided to condense my discussions of the nominated films somewhat. And since race is apparently a favorite topic this year – so far as I can tell, only Up and Up in the Air are all about white goys – I opted to go for two radically different films, both of which put issues of race and racism on the forefront. These are Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. Here’s what I wrote about the two of them in the Carl:
“Another cheap, dirty film to be nominated this year, buoyed mostly a slew of fiery performances, is Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. (And if you don’t add the subtitle, you’re not doing it right.) It’s a blistering tale of poverty and abuse, anchored by Gabourey Sidibe’s performance as the spat-upon title character. I could run down her laundry list of suffering, but that would give a false impression of the film, which is more about Precious coping with, and eventually escaping from, an environment where illiteracy and negligence are the norm. Daniels’ storytelling is hypermelodramatic and sometimes nauseating, as the stench of pigs feet permeates the screen. But it’s necessary to handle the story’s excesses, and is only appropriate for filming likely Oscar-winner Mo’Nique playing Precious’s violent, self-obsessed, and manipulative mother. Precious is hard to stomach, but far more satisfying than the sugary pap served up by another Oscar nominee…
That film, naturally, is the barely watchable The Blind Side. Granted, I’m not the audience for this film: I’m bored by football, can’t stand hyperactive little children, and don’t believe the South should rise again. This makes me a poor match for a movie that glorifies – nay, Jesusifies – the Tuohy family, led by brassy matriarch Sandra Bullock. Based on (a highly fictionalized version of) a true story, it follows the Tuohys’ valiant sacrifices as they take in and nurture a homeless 17-year-old black boy named Michael whose previously unexploited athletic prowess eventually makes him a sought-after property amongst college football teams. The Blind Side shamelessly incorporates every cliché from the feel-good sports movie playbook, right down to the giddy preadolescent mascot “S.J.,” whose every high-pitched word cut through my skull like a power drill. So bland and condescending to its protagonist that not even the underused Kathy Bates could save it, The Blind Side is just the kind of treacly, mediocre shite that the Academy loves to vote for, just to show that they’re ordinary folks, too. However, it’s not a good movie.”
On first glance, the movies seem strangely similar: both involve black teenagers (Precious is 16; The Blind Side‘s Michael “Big Mike” Oher is 17) who start out in the midst of poverty, abuse, and illiteracy. Then well-educated non-black folk take interest in their futures, and the receive educations that enable them to pursue their dreams. Yet despite this shared general storyline, the two could hardly be more different, both in how they’re told and what they communicate to the viewer.
Precious, frankly, is hard to talk about. It’s loaded, it’s controversial, and I go back and forth in deciding how to look at it. Is it sleazy ghetto porn, sensationalistic and exploitative, creating a picture of life in Harlem as a violent, disgusting freak show? (See Armond White’s review.) Or is it an original approach to a very real type of tragedy that leads to a satisfactory conclusion without denying its brutal truths? I tend toward the latter. Admittedly, I was at first pretty skeptical about Precious; ads kept mentioning the names Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, neither of whom are really known for putting out quality products. (OK, maybe Oprah can endorse Faulkner and Middlesex after the fact, but she also unleashed Dr. Phil on the world…)
I was also dubious because inner-city dramas like Precious are frequently formulaic and obvious. If its creators had been less talented, I can easily imagine Precious becoming routine and gratuitous. Instead, through the combined expertise of Lee Daniels and his ensemble, including newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and the fiery Mo’Nique, Precious is a firecracker of a movie, mixing volatile music video aesthetics with the gaudy extremes of Douglas Sirk. It’s this coupling of directorial style and volcanic acting that makes the movie so effective, right up to the open-ended catharsis of its final moments. Racial politics aside (although fully setting them aside is impossible), it’s loud and hyperbolic, yet at the same time sincerely emotional. It’s a rare balance of spectacle and personality.
Precious‘s racial politics are tricky to fully figure out. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t use as many clever dodges and fake resolutions to questions of racial identity as Tarantino or Cameron do; they tell their story and stick to it. But there’s still a lot going on this movie, some of it subtly manipulative. Precious envisions herself in her fantasies as thin and light-skinned and has to be taught to love her appearance, while the only people who support her are thin and light-skinned. Sidibe as Precious is described by Armond White as an “animal-like stereotype,” while Sam Wasson at Forced Perspective says that “[h]er size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that.”
These criticisms may have some credence to them, but I disagree with their overall judgments of Precious. This is decidedly larger-than-life filmmaking, with Sidibe and Mo’Nique giving performances to match. I read a fascinating article by Jim Emerson about how Daniels takes cues from the drag queens and camp cinema of John Waters (also Robert Aldrich, Pasolini, and a little Gus Van Sant), and I think that taking queer sensibilities into account is important when evaluating Precious. You can’t possibly accuse Daniels of stark realism; his film, his style, and his leading ladies are all enormous, yet open to moments of frightening intimacy.
On paper, Precious looks like a catalog of Dickensian traumas made flesh. On screen, however, you see just Sidibe’s numbed, swollen visage, surviving through indifference, her head full of competing memories and daydreams. And it’s the voiceover that, for me, confirms Precious not as the Other, but as an objectified victim fighting for her own self-determined identity. This is the war she has to win, on her own, and the ending makes it unclear whether she has, but hopes that she will. Being HIV-positive is only another lost battle. Compare this to the incredibly superficial level on which every conflict in The Blind Side functions. Precious, however gross it becomes (in every sense of the word), however questionable its little details may be, is at least the story of an marginalized, animalized human being pushing for her own subjectivity.
In The Blind Side, there is only one point of view, and that belongs to miracle-working do-gooder Leigh Anne Tuohy, played effervescently by Sandra Bullock. As opposed to Precious, there’s not a whole lot to talk about with The Blind Side. It’s an oppressively boring movie. It starts out with Michael, lost and homeless, being enrolled in school; before long, he’s noticed by the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne sharply insists that he stay with them.
The Tuohy clan, as the film sees them, are one big, self-sufficient, endlessly generous family unit. The father, played by good-ol’-boy country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t do much other than own the Taco Bells that provide his family with a stream of income, watch football, and agree with his wife. Their children are Collins, a dead-eyed cheerleader, and S.J., the beloved child who never shuts up. Together, they can do no wrong, and if you don’t totally agree, this movie wants nothing to do with you.
What follows is a series of predictable training montages and “tough” personal decisions, as Leigh Anne stands up for Michael against his football coach, against her own bourgeois friends, and against the gang members in his old neighborhood. Because what else is she going to do? Have a single shade of nuance to her behavior? If Bullock wins that Oscar in a couple hours, I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed; her emotional range goes from high-strung enthusiasm to high-strung indignance. Either she’s yelling at someone for mistreating Michael, or she’s congratulating herself for protecting Michael. This is a 2+-hour-long celebration of the kindness of rednecks, a mundanely shot exercise in self-approval.
I’ll be shortly off for work, and then off to watch the Oscars. It’s been fun to blog about, even if as Armond White points out, the red carpet drama often supersedes any appreciation of actual art. (Granted, that article also praises ET and This Is It, but it’s Armond White, what do you expect?) The Academy Awards are an institution shallow and pandering enough to give The Blind Side two nominations, yet one which sometimes recognizes and encourages greatness. (As when they gave the Coen Bros. enough raw Oscar power back in 2007 that they could go on to make the sublime A Serious Man.) They’re not quite meaningless, but not all that meaningful. They’re also something we as film lovers and writers have to deal with.
So let’s go watch the Oscars tonight, and see what happens. Roger Ebert, who’s awards-obsessed, tweets that “something about the Oscars this year gives me the eerie feeling there will be big surprises.” Hey, what can you do? Awards ceremonies are an obligatory part of having show business in the first place. And maybe The White Ribbon will get Best Foreign Language Film, and we’ll get to see Michael Haneke disapprovingly stare down the entire crowd.