It happens like clockwork every year. A film comes out of a festival sitting on a cloud boosted by the word of critics that are left speechless post screenings. The filmmakers receive standing ovations, Oscar pundits run off to their hotel rooms to write their four star reviews, and the film itself is placed front and center in movie discussions for weeks. Things look very good for that film, but then a few months later the knives come out.
Glowing reviews from August and September turn into vitriolic pissing contests where anything nice said is redacted or erased. Discussions like this just don’t make sense on an objective level, movies are an art form and deserve to be measured on their own strengths and weaknesses. Oscar backlash is hardly a new trend, yet it seems to have gotten more publicized and nastier in recent years.
Last year two excellent films came out in the form of Lincoln vs. Zero Dark Thirty, both received good word from their respective fans before receptions turned bitter in January. Talking points from Rep. Joe Courtney about historical voting records and Glenn Greenwald’s vendetta against the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty drastically altered the word surrounding both films and film journalists picked up on it. What was once about filmmaking quickly turned into about what should win best picture, and then devolved into film critics offering their own pet theories about history and trashing the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Critics weren’t talking about the polished efforts of Steven Spielberg and Kathryn Bigelow anymore, they were flinging whatever mud they could find.
Surprisingly, the pinata for 2013 appears to be none other than Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It comes with no surprise, however, that the critic leading the charge against 12 Years A Slave is none other than noted contrarian Armond White. White takes particular offense in what he considers to be an exhibit of the grotesque, “for McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sadomasochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame.”
If that weren’t quite enough he goes on to add “brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.”
That White would attempt to tear down such a critically-acclaimed feature shocks no one, but more respected bloggers are starting to turn the tide on a film that seemed invincible coming out of Toronto International Film Festival.
The chief complaint being that McQueen loses sight of his character amidst all the chaos and brutality of his experience as a slave in the Antebellum South.
“[the film] cheapens Solomon’s experience by presenting it as an educational string of episodic horrors” – Slant’s Ed Gonzales
“[12 Years a Slave fails] to convey his main character’s inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave” – The Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt
“the movie for people who think they’re too smart for The Butler” – Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek
There is a lot of condescension in these words, but none of those quoted above go as far as ArtsMeme’s Robert Koehler in personally blasting the director as a man uninterested in story. “He (McQueen) takes narratives that seem incredible on paper and could possibly make for great movies, then he distorts them into treatises on the body in various states of pain.” As a director Steve McQueen has never embraced sentiment in any of his previous works. Not in Hunger and especially not in Shame.
12 Years A Slave was never going to be a warm bath for those watching, rather a moment of self reflection for a country with a bloody past. McQueen has been critiqued in the past for obfuscating his stories by placing favor on artistic imagery that evokes feelings instead of characters, though suggesting that he is incapable of doing more than painting a picture onscreen is laughable.
This isn’t to say that a disagreement about the quality of a film can’t be had (it should always be encouraged) but one wonders if it is all for the dog and pony show that has become the norm when writing about celebrated films post festival coverage. Critics are sometimes reactionary creatures and this push-back looks like it may just be one more announcement that winter is here. If critics cannot see the forest for the trees then the awards they so passionately push for will continue to prove itself irrelevant.