Sunday, November 15, 2009
Sisyphus Had It Easy: Precious
After watching Lars von Trier’s Dogville, I thought I’d never come across another movie that so exhaustively abuses its female character – so long as I avoided Lars von Trier movies, that is. I was wrong. In outline, at least, though not in effect, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire makes Dogville seem tame. Directed by Lee Daniels, it is the story of a young black woman who is abused in every conceivable way, over and over again, for 110 mostly bleak minutes. Though the film is being marketed as a harrowing but ultimately triumphant experience – this year’s Slumdog Millionaire – only the first part is true. To find redemption here is to find redemption at the end of a dogfight when one of the victims leaves the arena bloody and violated but somehow alive. To journey through Precious and end up at triumph is to arrive not where the film takes you but where you desperately need it to go.
To get an idea of how many tragedies befall the central character, imagine a gritty ghetto version of Wile E. Coyote. If that sounds flip, it isn’t. I’ll prove it. For the most part I try to avoid plot recap in my reviews, but sometimes the recap is the criticism. This is one of those times. How is 16-year-old Precious (Gabby Sidibe) wronged? Let us count the ways (spoilers ahead, obviously): She is raped by her own father resulting in the birth of two children; one of them has Down syndrome and is delivered on the kitchen floor while Precious is being kicked in the head. She is verbally abused by her mother (played by Mo’Nique in a memorably forceful performance that I will try my best to forget) who lives off welfare, smokes and insults Precious unceasingly. She is physically abused by her mother – a book to the back of the head, a frying pan to the skull that just misses, slaps, shoves and even a television set thrown over a railing that thankfully doesn’t hit anyone but could have. Precious is shoved to the ground, while pregnant, by a total stranger on the street. She is made to eat pigs’ feet and to steal a bucket of fried chicken, which she eats crudely, leaving grease marks on her face, before vomiting in a trash can. She contracts HIV – from her father, of course, who began sexually violating her when she was only 3-years-old. She endures her newborn son being thrown to the floor – by her mother, of course, who thinks the child symbolizes a violation of her relationship with Precious’ father, rather than a violation of Precious. She lives in squalor. She is fat. She is illiterate. She is expelled from school. She is dark skinned. That last one shouldn’t be considered a tragedy, I realize, but Precious thinks it is; she likes to imagine herself as a skinny white woman.
Do you get it? Do you grasp that Precious leads a terrible, tragedy-ridden life? Of course you do. How could you not? That much is clear by the 30-minute mark, and yet Precious extends its horrors to the very end. The HIV revelation comes in the final 30 minutes. The graphic description of the first time Precious is molested at 3 is saved for the penultimate scene. At some point it’s only fair to ask: What is the purpose of all this suffering? Some might say that it depicts a grisly reality that most of us don’t want to face, but that’s not quite right. Are there women in the real world who suffer so constantly and so completely? Alas, yes. But telling a story inspired by realism and achieving reality are two entirely different things. Furthermore, defending Precious as true doesn’t say much of anything about Precious as art. Daniels’ film doesn’t feel like a blunt observation of the real world. It feels like what it is: an exhibition and exploitation of gasp-inducing atrocities. There’s nothing artful about garnering our sympathy and moral outrage by treating a character like a human punching bag. Any hack can do that. Audiences may gasp and groan at the numerous ways that Precious is abused by her mother, and yet Daniels is just as unrelenting, just as dehumanizing. By watching we become enablers of Precious’ objectification. If Precious were indeed a harsh truth we didn’t want to face, we wouldn’t. We’d walk out. I wish I had.
Precious is tabloid cinema. It is sensationalism posing as truth. Thematically speaking, the main character is established as an innocent victim and a figure for sympathy halfway through the first act, and yet the atrocities must go on because, dramatically speaking, that’s all that Daniels has to offer. If this film were about triumph, Daniels would dedicate more time to Precious' struggles learning to read and less time on her quickly redundant struggles at home. If this film were about triumph, the quasi-counseling sessions between Precious and a social worker played by a makeup-less Mariah Carey would actually show Precious gaining some self worth. Instead their conversations are a sly way for the film, adapted from the Sapphire book by Geoffrey Fletcher, to get Precious to detail more tragedy, like the fact that her child with Down syndrome is nicknamed Mongo, short for mongoloid. Audiences recoil at that revelation, but Precious is too ignorant to spot the slur. If this film were really about triumph, perhaps Precious’ ever-compassionate teacher at the alternate learning program, Paula Patton’s Ms. Rain, would respond to the news that Precious is HIV positive by actually consoling Precious as she would a peer. Instead, in the tritest moment of a film that has a few, Ms. Rain urges Precious to scribble her feelings out in a journal. “Write!” she commands, as if that’s what the barely literate Precious needs. If Precious had actually gained an ounce of self respect by that point, she’d have punched Ms. Rain in the mouth.
I can understand why people would want to thrust a happy ending on to this story. Anything less is almost unbearable. But if this film is to be praised for its tragic realism, then it’s on us to keep it real. The final shot of Precious walking down the sidewalk with an infant in one hand and a Down syndrome afflicted child in the other is more ominous than the final shot of A Serious Man. Precious is still overweight and undereducated. She has no job, and given that it’s the late 1980s and she is HIV positive, she might not have much of a future. Yes, she has stood up to her mother, who was intentionally abusive in so many ways. But Precious isn’t just in control of her own life, she’s in control of the lives of her children. And save for one moment when Precious is seen breastfeeding her newborn, something she can no longer do now that she’s HIV positive, we’re given no evidence, none, that she can be a competent mother. Precious may mean well, but – if we keep it real – a new cycle of destruction is about to begin. There’s no triumph in that.