04/03/10 – 06/03/10

Mad busy with work just now, and my secondary project which is to put all my music on to my new computer from scratch, sorting out my iTunes library information and cover art as I go. It’s all spectacularly rewarding and has yielded the shocking information that Sade’s Greatest Hits is not the worst album I own. It’s not even close. More on that another time I’m sure.

More another day also on my late conversion to the TV remake of Battlestar Galactica which I have been doggedly watching on DVD. I have much to write on the subject, but it will have to wait because on Saturday night, for the first time in weeks, I went out to the cinema to watch a movie.

Precious, the story of an obese, functionally illiterate girl from the projects who has been abused by her father and grandfather, is an amazing film: it’s involving, punishing and extremely well acted. There is not, I think, a single clunker of a performance in the film when a flight to hysterical overacting would have been an easy response for the actors.

In fact the screen acumen and sophistication of a bunch of what I assume are newcomers to film acting is simply astonishing. Two of the actors are people that I have seen before (Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz), and it is to their credit that I didn’t recognise either of them in their dowdied down, real-as-you-like performances.

It’s a triumph of acting and a triumph of directing then. What Lee Daniels has achieved on limited means is a genuine cinematic miracle and I exhort you to see it.

What it isn’t however is a triumph of writing. It’s unclear whether the lumpen, manipulative structure is a fault with the source material (the novel Push by Sapphire) or whether it has been introduced by the adapting screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher. It is there though and it reminded me of the recent regrettable trade in misery memoirs.

During my period of bookselling the phenomenon of Misery Memoirs evolved out of, seemingly, nothing. Frank McCourt’s memoir ‘Tis and Dave Pelzer’s Child Called It trilogy started it, and in the blink of an eye every bookshop had a bay full of similarly themed books with strikingly similar covers.

I am a firm believer in the power of catharsis and I use sharing myself to externalise anything that threatens my inner stability. Jings, the stuff that seems debilitatingly colossal in your head looks puny and often laughable once you’ve shared it with someone.

I am personally glad that the sufferers of trauma have found a way of dealing with their suffering by writing about it. As a bookseller though I had a couple of misgivings about this public, literary testimony.

Firstly, many of the books were quite quickly shown to have, at best, only a slight pretence to objective truth. There was a lot of flatly contradicted point of view stuff out there masquerading as fact. I remember, for instance, that Dave Pelzer’s siblings didn’t remember his upbringing in anything like the same way that he did. It would be cynical to suggest that there were less pure motives than mental well being at work here, but a lot of the books did seem to lard it on rather, and they never sold more poorly because of it.

The second misgiving I had concerned the kind of person we would sell these books to. Many of the punters were the usual bookshop crowd and the recently curious, but there was a recognisable cadre of damp, haunted looking individuals who seemed pretty much to be getting off on the misery. It appeared to be the more hairbrush beatings administered by sadistic nuns the better for these folk . As long as it was all real.

I’m sure it’s none of my business what people buy and how they react to it, but I don’t want to be complicit in anything that is exulting in real peoples’ pain. Perhaps there is an argument to be made that this form of public catharsis is less healthy than it at first appears, and that it encourages a ghoulish kind of spectator. It’s a thin line isn’t it between jettisoning psychological baggage and providing sadistic pornography for the unbalanced.

I find it very difficult to surrender to autobiographical (or worse semiautobiographical) accounts. It is much easier for me to respond to fiction.

With biography I always have the sense that only one side of the story is getting told and that someone out there in the world is probably taking it personally and going, “But it never happened like that.”

With fiction that’s not an issue.

To back this up with illustrations I saw two very affecting movies that elicited deep emotion in me last year. Frozen River was about an impoverished woman in the US resorting to people trafficking across the Canadian border to be able to clothe her kids and put food on the table. Sin Nombre on the other hand was about the staggeringly dangerous process of illegal immigration to the US from Central America.

Both Frozen River and Sin Nombre take their characters pretty far down and both films do not flinch from showing the carnality, savagery and meanness that desperate circumstances can bring out in people. They both have almost heartbreakingly optimistic denouements though.

The weird thing is that these films feel more authentic because they are fiction. I was quite comfortable that they portrayed reality without literally representing it.

As far as I know Precious makes no claims towards biographical or (deep breath) semiautobiographical truth. It’s a made up thing, and I feel as though I should have been able to enjoy its social resonance on the same level as Frozen River or Sin Nombre, but instead I constantly felt that situations were being artificially amped up, or occasionally that punches were being pulled.

I began to suspect its motives, and though I had an emotional response to it I had the slightly weird, cheated feeling that the response had been goaded out of me by someone who wanted nothing other than to see me cry.

I like a good cry, but it’s got to be about something I really feel, not something that has been pointlessly provoked in me. And this film does seem to lack a point. What’s the underlying truth here? What does it tell us about anything other than the grim life of its fictional heroine? If I found any kind of message in it at all it was a pretty lame starry-eyed one about triumphing over adversity.

Shame on me for bringing anything negative to Precious. I think the actors and director were seriously intentioned when they did their work and their work is exceptionally good.

I still feel like I got played though.

2 comments on “04/03/10 – 06/03/10

  1. Hi John!
    I saw Precious a while ago, and I just wrote a bit about my experience of it on The Other John’s blog. (See my comment there) To those of us that live relatively abuse-free lives, the truth of Precious may seem almost too horrific to believe, and so we feel like we are being shown one horror after another to shamelessly pull the emotion out of us. At the end, (spoiler alert) when she gets the test results back, I thought, “Oh, come on! This is just too much!” And I did feel as you did, too – that if the point was the triumph over adversity then that’s pretty feeble.

    I’ve had some time to reflect on the movie, and to talk with my friend Gloria whose young life was a lot closer to Precious’s than mine. And to Gloria it all felt true. She didn’t feel played because she has a frame of reference I don’t have. (Thankfully!) So maybe just being witness to the small triumphs amid the dreadful cycle of abuse is the point. I think it’s enough for me now.

    Watching Precious and talking with Gloria brought back some experiences I hadn’t thought about in years. My mother was a reading specialist for dyslexics, and in addition to private students, taught at an inner city women’s center. Her students there were all adult Black women. Sounds like something the community would support, right? I thought so. Yet the place had rocks thrown through the window so often they finally just boarded them up. Death threats were called in, and spray painted on the building. They were even fire-bombed. All because educating these women was a huge threat to a way of life. This wasn’t Afghanistan; it was the good ol’ US of A!

    Anyway, I’m newly out of grad school, and my mom and the director ask me to do some self-esteem building workshops at Dorcus Place. I’ll spare you the more embarrassing clueless-white-girl fiascos – like asking them all to close their eyes to do a guided imagery session. You know you can imagine the scene. All these women yelling at me, and laughing at my inexperienced white ass.”N’uh uh! I ain’t closin my eyes.” “Are you crazy, bitch?!” “Say what?!” Of course they couldn’t trust enough to close their eyes in a group! Oh, the assumptions I had challenged! They never let me forget it either.

    The thing is, as the workshops progressed, I heard stories so awful that at the time I thought they were being invented. I don’t think that anymore.

  2. Thanks as always Michelle for your well considered, compassionate and broadminded comments.

    I think you’re right on all counts and that my reservations say more about me than they do about the film.

    I was absolutely won over by the movie’s incredibly subtle understanding of race issues in the society it represents. The scene in which Precious is trying to work out what “colour” Ms. Weiss is and Ms. Weiss’ retort is “Well what colour do you think I am?” says more in a brief exchange than most films can manage in their entire length about how entrenched and futile the whole thing is.

    To take some encouragement from Precious I think it’s great that you and I both come from countries which have previously made a virtue of immigration and miscegenation and that we can still have open debates about where we might be going wrong..

    As I seem to keep saying, there is hope for the species yet. And vive la difference!

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