Maybe it’s because I’ve just journeyed through the funhouse of Brietbart.com where suggesting that the Constitution and the original intent of its authors might not always yield moral perfection is quickly labeled a trashing of the document and all that is American, but I’m beginning to look upon the internet as a place where any thought so conceived as even a paragraph can not long endure. It certainly can’t be tweeted.
I awoke this morning and chased the coffee with this:
David Simon, the creator of The Wire and the author of two of the best pieces of book-length journalism ever written (Homicide and The Corner), really liked 12 Years a Slave. I mean, he really liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he thinks it’s literally beyond criticism. Wrote Simon:
[O]nly two kinds of folk will emerge from theaters [after seeing 12 Years a Slave].
The first will be at last awakened to the actual and grevious horror in which the black experience in America begins. Efforts to achieve this in the past — The “Roots” miniseries on television, or a few halting and veiled attempts in feature films to imply the desperation of terrorized human chattel — came down the road a piece, but none dared the entire emotional journey. For ordinary Americans willing to confront our history without equivocation and vague allusion, this film will prove a humanizing and liberating journey. This much truth can grow an honest soul.
And for those still desperate to mitigate our national reality at every possible cost, this film will be an affront. It is not intelligently assailable by anyone. [Emphasis mine]
He then goes on to talk, at some length, about the intellectually dishonest people who would criticize this film because dead white men and the Constitution, or some such.
Allow me to be blunt: Simon’s attitude here is anti-art and anti-discourse-of-art. When one says that a work of art “is not intelligently assailable by anyone,” he is not considering the work of art as a work of art but as a means to an end. Because he views 12 Years a Slave as useful to his political agenda, David Simon has labeled dissenting discourse verboeten. In doing so he has stripped 12 Years a Slave of its status as art and rendered it little more than a bloody shirt to be waved in promotion of a cause.
Look, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful movie. I think very few would deny that. (I certainly didn’t.) But it is equally undeniable a flawed film, perhaps fatally so. I’m byno means alone in this assessment. The whole point of arts criticism is to hash out what works and what doesn’t, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a given work. Simply declaring criticism of a work off limits because it advances your political program is, well, fascist.
“Utility is a treacherous standard in art,” Stanley Kauffmann wrote about On the Beach in 1959.”The film must stand or fall by its effect on the viewer, whether he is American or Russian or Tasmanian; and that effect, as detailed above, is seriously qualified by mediocrities of writing, acting, and direction.”
It’s probably my favorite quote from Kauffmann (as you may have guessed, since I’ve quoted it previously). When one judges art solely by its usefulness to the cause—be it averting nuclear war or scoring cheap points against your ideological enemies—you are effectively rejecting aesthetic standards in favor of some gauzy notion of political import. It is a standard that substitutes usefulness for artfulness. It is, at heart, philistinic.
I imagine that Simon disagrees with Kauffmann’s line, and not just because of his essay on 12 Years a Slave. Anyone who doubts that he favors utility above artistry need only watch the fifth season of The Wire, which was more interested in angry score-settling than interesting plot developments. It is distressing to see someone as good as Simon devolve into little more than a politically motivated hack. But, perhaps, not surprising.
It is distressing indeed. I don’t want to be a fascist. Or a philistine. Not before I’ve had breakfast at any rate.
So for starters, why don’t I easily and handily agree with Mr. Kauffman’s insight in its entirety. And why don’t we we go back to the original statement and leave it in its original context, following as it does a discussion not about film-making or aesthetics, but exactly this: What does this film make Americans confront about Southern slavery, as per the actuality of Southern slavery. That, and that alone, was truly the sum and topic of my essay.
I work in the entertainment industry and I am indeed political. And knowing what I know about how that industry operates and what it values, and knowing how little of American slavery has been addressed by that industry, I am indeed elated — and a little bit astonished — that this film exists, that Americans will walk into a theater and see so much of our undiscovered and unexamined social history depicted. And what I find unassailable is not the film as film — and eschewing the palate of a film critic is not being anti-art or fascistic, I don’t think, but merely a tacit reply. No, what I argue is unassailable is the context and accuracy of what Americans, if they view the film, will see for the first time in a depiction of slavery. I confess that can’t I muster enough interest in film criticism, at least not to the point of reviewing the art of film. But I am very interested in narrative, history, and the issue of race in America. And, again, I am astonished and proud that this film exists. Utility is indeed a poor standard in art, but it’s certainly germaine to politics or sociology, and even to the journalistic aspects of non-fiction narrative. The “why” of a story might not be any defense of the story’s execution, but it’s certainly worth discussing or even admiring. Hence, my essay.
Following directly as it does all of my language about this specific achievement — and directly following a sentence that spoke of those Americans “still desperate to mitigate our national reality” or, in other words, avoid films made that address the true nature of slavery — I naively assumed the “unassailable” adjective would be applied to that text. It never occurred to me that the phrase would rise beyond its paragraph to be championed as an argument against all debate or art criticism. Yet, I now see that it has been bolded, with (emphasis added), to suggest that I actually believe that no one can critique this film, or that because the film suits my politics I have prohibited any such critique, and that I am an enemy of art. Oh dear.
Well, I can readily agree that as film criticism, a claim that an opinion is not intelligently assailable is indeed obnoxious and, well, silly. But as political discourse — and the paragraph of origin was about how Americans are willing to view slavery in any context — the claim is simply red meat, and it baits the hook nicely, I think. And yet the sentence now travels on its own, apparently, through the wilds of the internet — a standing threat to any living friend of art.
As remedy, let me suggest that we de-bold the remark and leave it in the singular context of its defense of the filmic depiction of human bondage in 12 Years A Slave being the most honest, historically credible and disturbing that the entertainment industry has yet managed. I stand by that entirely. I mean that entirely. And to that end, let me offer the following clause, to be appended to my original phrase in the event it is to travel further beyond its paragraph: “As a depiction of American slavery in all of its dehumanizing reality, it is not intelligently assailable by anyone…”
Prefaced by that phrase, I’m willing to let that sentence gambol freely, independent of the context in which it was originally launched. And I’m further willing to stand on my declaration that as a rare, honest and powerful depiction of slavery, the film is unassailable, knowing full well that the declaration is of course an intended invitation for others to attempt to assail it, if they can. In fact, this has been going on in the comments section below the blogpost for weeks now, with my encouragement. Yes, I am very much interested in why it has taken Americans so long to achieve a fundamental and graphic film account of slavery, and how Americans will now respond to such a dynamic. And yes, I think there are two kinds of viewers: Those who will become more honest about what slavery was and why it matters in American political discourse, and those who will want to mitigate the reality. Such a division of viewers is of course irrelevant to any other parsing of those who think the film great, or good, or poor. But indeed, the division I spoke of is evident in the blog comments, where, honestly, I am still waiting for someone to intelligently assail the historical depictions in the film.
As to its execution or its art, I am entirely aware that the film is open to all debate — as all art is. No one agrees on anything when it comes to art, ever. For example, I thought the fifth season of The Wire was just fine and took the tale where it had to go in its theme. All that said — and acknowledging it to be off-point from my essay and certainly from the “unassailable” remark — I did think 12 Years was fine storytelling, too. But, yes, your mileage can certainly vary.