Hollywood's Bondsman

11.22.13

A "Slave" Saved or Sunk by Cliché

Steve McQueen's movie can seem sold-out, but maybe that's what its subject demanded.

This still from Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" captures what I noticed most about it: That it had most of the trappings of a standard Hollywood costume drama, in the fundamentals of wardrobe, decor, cinematography, lighting, dialogue, plotting, cutting and music (which was especially manipulative and full of cliche). Only its tremendously important and compelling subject makes "Slave" stand out.

That's a disappointment to me, since I had the huge pleasure of seeing the full survey of McQueen's earlier work as a video and film artist in Basel's Schaulager art center last year. In those pieces, he  kept his viewers off-kilter with innovative, complex works that happen to present moving images, and sometimes tell a scrap of story, but which begin where Hollywood leaves off. The first thought that came to mind with "Slave" was that McQueen had simply sold out, or caved to Hollywood's blinkered vision of what film can do. Then my artist wife suggested another possibility: That McQueen had the absolutely overriding goal of telling the harrowing, shameful story of Solomon Northup's enslavement to as many people as he possibly could, given that such stories have stayed almost entirely untold in mass-market movies. Only by embracing Hollywood cliches could he attract the widest possible audience, which is now addicted to them.

But there's one other possibility: That if what McQueen cares about is the content, rather than the form, of his work, then he has to aim for a kind of transparency that only cliches can offer, since they are by definition unmarked and content-free. Artists have tended to think that taking a "straightforward", unadorned documentary approach to an image is the way to avoid style and transmit a subject at its most pure. McQueen may have realized that that, too, yields a kind of artiness that distracts. Only by giving viewers precisely what they know already, in terms of form, can you give them new content that they'll take in for itself. 

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