Monday, March 10, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


Recently, like so much of the world, I saw and admired the film Twelve Years a Slave. I like the director Steve McQueen’s cool directorial style, including the way he so frequently lets the camera linger – often in long shot – over a scene so that its implications are allowed to sink in. When the slave turns on one white tormentor, who rushes off to get back-up, the camera holds on the image of the slave standing there, breathing heavily, knowing that he is now in for even more physical pain. When the slave is betrayed by a man who said he could deliver a letter for him, to regain his freedom, the camera lingers long over the image of the letter being burnt to embers, giving us time to reflect that this is the death of a long-held hope.

So I could continue enumerating the film’s excellences.

But that’s not my purpose in this week’s comment.

Having seen the film I did what I always do, and rushed to read some commentary on it. Most critics were adulatory but, sure as rain, there were some dissenters. And the chief cause of dissent was the film’s historical perspective. Why, asked the naysayers, should this one man’s atypical experience be taken as representative of the institution of slavery in the United States? After all, Twelve Years a Slave is about an articulate, literate, violin-playing “freeman” who is kidnapped from a Northern state and sold into slavery in the South. Such a man can in no way “stand for” the great mass of slaves, who had no such backstory. He is an exceptional character. So, said the dissenters, far from being a “documentary” depiction of slavery, the film is an artificial construct. Even if based on an historical person (and his memoirs), and even if directed by a black director, its main character has been given many of the characteristics of white “civilization” and therefore he has been made easier for a predominantly white audience to identify with. And having pursued this line of argument, the negative commentaries were soon telling me that Twelve Years a Slave is really pandering to  “white liberal guilt”.

This has not, of course, been the majority reaction to the film, and it isn’t my reaction.

But the whole line of argument reminds me of objections that were raised to an earlier Oscar high-flyer, Steven Spielberg’s film version of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List. How could Schindler’s experiences possibly represent the Holocaust, the argument went, when Schindler was busy saving people from death? The Holocaust was dominantly about people either participating in genocide or looking the other way and not doing anything about it. To make a hero of the exceptional and unusual Schindler was a way of serving the mass audience “Holocaust lite”, letting them identify with this one-of-a-kind person without confronting the moral vacuum in which the Holocaust happened. We could leave the theatre imagining that we too would have acted in such an exemplary fashion, without facing the awkward fact that millions of people just like us did no such thing.

All of which brings me to a much bigger question.

Aren’t heroes in fact ALWAYS exceptional and not representative of the norm? Isn’t that one of the conditions of being a hero? And yet, when we tell stories, isn’t it always necessary to create heroes (okay – “protagonists” if you want to go all precious on me) so that the reader, viewer or general audience can share the experiences of an individual and identify with that individual?

For the hard fact is that, although we can understand and even be moved by stories concerning a general population when they are told in documentary form, once we get to (fictionalised) story telling, we have to relate to individuals.

Let me give an example from yet another genocidal regime.

In the 1920s, experimental Soviet film-makers like Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov and Dovzhenko made films which, in a revolutionary spirit, eschewed having individual heroes and played with the concept of the “collective hero” – the mass of people behaving in a revolutionary way, as opposed to that bourgeois individualist idea of the solitary hero. So there were movies like Strike, October, Earth, and The General Line in which masses of people rushed about and achieved the great Soviet state. (I know that not all Soviet films of the time followed this pattern, but enough did for me to make my case).

There was just one tiny little snag, however.

Even if critics and film historians think these movies were great, the mass Soviet audience was either puzzled or bored by them. In fact (oh horror!) even in the silent 1920s period, they preferred watching Chaplin and Mary Pickford and other products of Hollywood to watching long shots of workers behaving en masse.

They wanted “story” films with individual characters whose lives they could share.

So when Gensec Stalin took over he (being a great vulgarian like Herr Hitler) decreed that “no-story” films could no longer be made. Back the revolutionary Soviet cinema went to producing films in which individual characters did individual heroic things on behalf of the great socialist leader (i.e. Stalin). Of course they were mainly propagandist drivel, but at least the mass audience could relate to the Great Citizen or the Man with the Revolver or the Baltic Deputy or the various films about Maxim that were made in the 1930s. The desire for individuals trumped the will to mass representation.

 It is a natural hunger.

Given this, I will always be a little sceptical when the argument about a film’s or novel’s hero not being “representative” is raised. Of course no hero in a work of fiction (or fictionalised factual story like Twelve Years a Slave) is ever “representative”. They are always individuals. But without these individual characterisations, we would never be able to tell fictionalised versions of historical events at all.

A huge population is an abstraction. To affect us it has to be given a specific human face. This is true even of popular factual representations of great historical processes. We want to ask “Well tell me about one person who died in the Holocaust.
And the answer comes back…….

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