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.

19 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

Jason:

Your last paragraph really gets at the heart of why I dread seeing this movie (my wife really wants to see it -- like Slumdog last year (good comparison by the way about two film being horribly misleading in their add campaigns) I will acquiesce since I rarely see anything she wants to see -- because I have to deal with this kind of stuff at work on a daily basis. You're right...there is rarely a happy ending to these kinds of stories (I try to educate homeless teen parents who have been abused almost every term...only about two out 10 make it through the end of the year...the deck is just too stacked against them), and I really don't want to sit through a film that offers no hope -- because I have to deal with that daily.

I guess I understand why people are heralding this movie as a masterpiece in realism -- but I would suggest to those who are blown away by Precious that they watch a Dardenne Bros. movie...those are movies that lead us through muddy, troubled waters...but allow us a moment of clarity by the film's end.

Your comparison to Dogville intrigues me because I loath von Trier, and I always feel like I'm getting beat up too. His films (and from the sound of it Precious is this too) are a gauntlet of swinging punching bags hitting you from every angle...and I just pray I can make it through in one piece.

I'll have my wife read your review and see if that deters her, hehe.

Great stuff, Jason.

Steven Santos said...

This review gets at why I don't want to subject myself to this film, even with the great reviews. And I was recently able to get through Antichrist despite my serious problems with von Trier.

Although I would refer to Precious as more victimization cinema than tabloid cinema. It looks like a movie designed (or rigged) to feel perpetually sorry for the main character. Even von Trier's recent movies have the supposedly victimized women giving back as hard as they get.

I don't know what I'm supposed to get from watching Precious other than feeling pity towards the main character while being thankful my life doesn't suck as bad. But that's not drama, but Film-As-Guilt-Trip reminding me of recent emotion-rigged films such as "The Passion of the Christ" and "World Trade Center". You might as well abuse kittens on the screen for 2 hours to get the same feeling.

Hokahey said...

I will definitely see this film and tell you how I feel about it, but I was wondering how the main characters sordid life of abuse was going to be portrayed and it sounds like it wasn't presented very effectively. I will keep an open mind, but I don't have high hopes for this one. Oprah Winfrey does, however, and I see this movie heading for the Oscars.

Kelli Marshall said...

As others who have commented here maintain, your post only confirms my decision to avoid PRECIOUS at all costs. I also recently wrote about the apparent abuse, utter sadness, and lack of hopefulness that the film represents--and this was based on the trailer alone: http://kellimarshall.net/unmuzzledthoughts/reviews/trailers. The film as well as those associated with it (e.g., Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey) is obviously campaigning for an Oscar nod, and I imagine that it will receive such. But is this art, the "highest achievement in filmmaking," as the Academy boasts?

Sam Juliano said...

Ha! I love that Will E. Coyote comparison! But it's true - this sledge hammer approach really grates soon enough, and when you say this:

"Do you get it? Do you grasp that Precious leads a terrible, tragedy-ridden life? Of course you do. How could you not?"

....you really have nailed it, methinks. I thought Monique's performance was quite good, but her character was fraudulent (if that can be possible) and the unremitting squalor and rancor was way over-the-top, even taking into account the purported truth of some of the revelations.

Furthermore, it's true when you say that the atrocities must go on as there is nothing else to tell here, and when you assert this:

"Precious is tabloid cinema. It is sensationalism posing as truth. Thematically speaking, the main character is established as an innocent victim and a figure....."

it's hard to disagree...... The small group I saw the film with (my wife, good friend) liked it more than I did, as they bought into the shameless display of emotion, which at times does hit the mark.

Outstanding, insightful essay here.

I'd dare to suggest that PRECIOUS is a serious version of John Waters's HAIRSPRAY, and in this instance that not a very good thing.

ghibli said...

Since no one who has seen this film has weighed in yet, I will. Whoever is comparing this film to Slumdog Millionaire needs to be shot, or at least be subjected to the same treatment Precious got. The two movies should never be compared.
I would like to challenge anyone to come up with 5 "uplifting" or moments of progress in the life of Precious that is worth viewing.

This film is exactly as this review portrays it in paragraph two and it doesn't get better. It gets worse. Nothing good happens to Precious and by the end, all of the visual escapisms she conjures seems so much sadder for it. She has nothing to offer herself or her children. This is not an uplifting film, it's sadness. To compare it to anything uplifting is pure obfuscation. This is just Slumdog Moron being capitalized upon. I don't appreciate any of this type of "art."

And who cares what Oprah thinks...really?

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments so far, everyone. A few replies ...

Kevin: It's not so much that the film doesn't offer hope. It's that what the film offers as hope should be considered nearly as depressing as everything that came before it. Alas, that's not the way it's framed. Keeping it real only goes so far, I guess.

Steven: Your line about abusing kittens is more accurate than you know. Never mind what happens to Precious, when you use an infant as a prop for harm you're really pulling out all the stops. It's shameless manipulation. Interesting that you'd pick The Passion and World Trade Center as similar films. There's plenty more nuance to those films than to this one, believe me.

Hokahey: Speaking of open minds: I can't tell you the number of second chances I gave this movie. I kept thinking, 'OK, they've crossed the line, but now it will come together.' But it doesn't. It's more and more of the same.

Kelli: Though I know that Oprah and Tyler Perry are backing this picture, I need to go in search of their interpretation -- assuming it exists somewhere. I mean, I have no doubt that Oprah considers it some kind of triumph; that's one of her favorite themes. But I'd be fascinated to hear her articulate where there's triumph to be found.

Sam: I agree with you on Monique. Last night I read another review that called her performance over the top, but how could she play it any other way? She's backed into the corner. The fraudulence of the character is in the writing, I think. "Shameless." Yep, that nails it.

Ghibli: Well, I don't think anyone needs to be shot or treated like Precious. Let's keep this debate civil, please. Also, films don't need to be uplifting (not that you're implying such). But positioning this as a redemptive film thwarts the kind of blunt realism that this film is supposedly trying to confront. That I have a problem with.

Anonymous said...

You guys sound like dudes trashing a film that avoids being easily digested by dudes.

Precious is a film with flaws. But that's part of it. You can argue that it's tabloid filmmaking but when else have we see these ideas covered in cinema?When else is someone molested by their father then molested by their mother? Then forced to overeat in order to gain weight so that she is no longer attractive to the father who rapes her?

You may think or write that it's, "too much" but from reading the book or just watching the film it is clear that this story is anchored in truth. These things really happened and happen. So how do you show that to an audience, without completely shutting them down? People will argue you must simple imply it. Imply what? I would never have gotten all that happened to Precious through subtext alone.

Yes, it's ridiculous and trite of Paul Patton's character to breathlessly sound out, "WRITE" when Precious admits to the class that she is HIV+. But that's a forgivable misstep in a what I find to be a groundbreaking film.

If you compare Precious to 'Bright Star’ -- a film that totally avoids emotion, that exists purely in the formal nether world – you’ll find that they inhabit opposite poles of certain personal filmmaking.

Loads of people, especially critics praise Bright Star for its restraint. What does that mean? Why does restraint deserve more praise than its reverse? Excess and overdrive on emotion are also valid.

A European (often heterosexual male lens) of seeing the world or of making movies is not the only game on the silver screen anymore.

Lee Daniels convinced a couple to give him the entire 8 million dollars Precious cost to make. If he hadn't been able to pull that coup off none of us would see a movie like this. The gatekeepers would never allow it. For the same reason you all don’t want the film to receive an Oscar nod.

For that alone, I think Precious is remarkable. It's new. It's subject matter difficult. It's performances, especially Mo’Nique’s are truly astonishing. If she wins the best supporting Oscar, which I am sure she will, then it is an apt award for recognizing high achievements in acting this year.

Things are changing—remember the president that was just elected? That may seem like old news today. But when he started his presidential bid many people thought he didn’t look the part. I have never seen a 350 pound, dark black women be the lead of a film before. As I had never seen a President of the United States named Hussein. Those things may make people feel uncomfortable.
But I think that’s okay.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: Thanks for the comment.

It seems to me that you are evaluating the film as an episode in social politics and not as art. What I mean is that, except for Monique's performance, you haven't argued that Precious is a good film but that it's good that Precious was made. To use your Obama reference, it's the equivalent of saying that it's good we have a black president with the middle name Hussein, regardless of whether or not he's a good president. (I happen to think he is, for the mart part, and he was certainly the best choice of the past election, but that's beside the point.) I'm trying to look deeper than that, to not award points to Precious simply for refusing to restrain itself in its efforts to shock us.

See, I agree with you in part: We should have more films that are brutally honest, that tell African-American stories, that feature characters who don't have six-pack abs. We should have more films that ask tough questions and that are unsettling.

But that's not Precious. Precious is simply manipulative. Suggesting that this film (a) reflects reality or (b) breaks new ground in semi-mainstream cinema does not mean that by rule this is a well-made, engaging or otherwise worthwhile piece of art. Instead it just means that it reflects reality (and that's only somewhat true) and breaks new ground in semi-mainstream cinema. That's it.

Sam Juliano said...

"If you compare Precious to 'Bright Star’ -- a film that totally avoids emotion, that exists purely in the formal nether world – you’ll find that they inhabit opposite poles of certain personal filmmaking."

I can't agree with you at all on that statement Anonymous, i found BRIGHT STAR (which may well be my #1 film of the year with only six weeks to go) as one of the emotional films of the year.

Anonymous said...

Jason

Thanks man for your thoughtful response. Leaving a comment on your site was my first such foray in Web letter-writing.

Look forward to more discussions about Precious and other films.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: And thank you for jumping into the discussion. Whether you use your real name or not, create a handle for yourself. This blog is fortunate to have some very thoughtful commenters. Glad to have you become a regular.

Similarly, I'd love to jump in on the Bright Star debate but I missed that one, which didn't seem a big deal at the time, but now people keep bringing it up -- for better or worse. Alas.

Daniel Getahun said...

Appreciate your honest and impossibly well-reasoned writing as always, Jason. Really great stuff and always leads to interesting discussion, particularly with Anonymous here. I fall somewhere between you and him, and am continuing to process my own thoughts on the film as a whole. But on balance I left with a bad feeling in my stomach as well. There are so many lens through which Precious can be seen, and I have yet to reconcile them - as art, as social indictment, as entertainment (could it be?), as catharsis, as none or all of these. If I come up with any better thoughts I'll let you know, but you've again articulated my thinking really well here.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Daniel. I'll be curious to read your review or hear more comments when you've digested the movie a bit.

Jake said...

I'm sure I will see this (if I can justify myself paying to see New Moon because I need to "stay current with the zeitgeist" I can sure as hell manage this), but, cynic that I am, I really find little pleasure in the sort of story that you've described. I also find it a bit disheartening that the few positive reviews I've read -- obviously I don't want to read too many to influence me before I go -- seem to paint the exact same picture as the detractors, albeit with a couple more exclamation marks worth of emphasis. The fact that you mention Lars Von Trier -- you bring up Dogville, but I never made it past Dancer in the Dark -- is only more disconcerting.

I just hate the idea that, if I do end up not liking the movie, at least a few people will say, "It's not meant to have a Hollywood ending, moron!" which I suppose is some sort of comeuppance for my love of the Coen brothers. I could care less if it ends on a happy note, but the idea of sitting through two hours of small-scale atrocity and then simply dumped out into the streets leaves a nasty taste in my mouth

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: If you see it I'll be curious to get your reaction, particularly to the final scene. I see the ending as intended to be uplifting but ambiguous enough that someone could see it for what it is: tragic. Either way, I'm a little confused as to how some people are walking out of the film actually feeling uplifted.

Jake said...

Well, I finally saw this and The Blind Side and just got done writing about them. I don't know that I'm entirely happy with the prose and I could have found more connections between them and looked up more images proving my points about how they're both in their own way fairy tales, but that's a lot of effort for one film I want to just forget and one that will no doubt slip from my mind before we even roll around to the new year.

Man, I really borderline fucking hated Precious, but I have to admit that the acting was fantastic.

Jake said...

Jason, have you seen the new Funny or Die video about Precious? Jim Emerson linked to it.

http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/635e8e0e5b/precious-moments?rel=player

It's just so wonderful.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: I did see that video. The "write" portion really nails the absurdity of that scene.