Friday, November 06, 2009

Clearly, you just don't care

Pet peeve: when not consuming/liking/taking seriously a particular movie/book/article about a Major Problem of our Age is seen as akin to not caring about that problem, or to having the wrong attitude towards it. The buzz around the new movie, "Precious," suggests this will be one of those phenomena. In her review of the film on Slate, Dana Stevens apologizes for her lack of enthusiasm for it, which gives some sense of the aura around the work. Failure to go see the movie, or if you have seen it, to both take it seriously and admire it for its fundamental truths about the hard life, is to be conflated with either an inability to understand the film on account of your own privilege, or worse yet, with cold-hearted indifference to the questions of race, poverty, obesity, rape, AIDS, child abuse, illiteracy, and... I haven't even seen this movie, perhaps I'm missing a few.

I'm not terribly keen on seeing "Precious", both because after seeing "A Serious Man" - which I liked! - a few weeks ago, I realized that $12.50 is really too much under even the best of circumstances, and because I've already seen "Precious" compared to "An Inconvenient Truth" - another film you are morally obligated to see and love as evidence of your non-indifference to a Major Problem. This sort of hype awakens all my contrarian impulses, and gives me the sense that however well-made the movie may be, I will be inclined not to like it, because I will sense that Society is forcing me to like it as a way of showing that I feel sufficiently guilty about having never for once moment been black, poor (broke, yes, but not poor), abused, etc. What I object to, then, is not being forced to acknowledge privilege, but being coerced into to seeing and liking a particular movie as a way of proving this. Also frustrating: many who go to the movie because It Is Important will no doubt leave thinking they've shown they care in some profound way, leading to horrible horrible Smug.

All of this is perhaps unfair to the movie's makers - it's the hype, not the movie itself, that's putting me off.


PG said...

Hmm -- I refuse to see liberal documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth or Sicko or Fahrenheit 911 precisely because I already basically agree with what the filmmaker has to say and consider myself educated on the subject at a more sophisticated level than the film's information. Maybe as a liberal, I'm already inoculated against people's assuming that I don't care about the issues described in the film?

Precious, on the other hand, is a work of fiction and I've heard that the first-time actress who plays the title character is really quite good. I'm also curious to see a movie that has someone so outside those exact metrics of beauty that were discussed in the post about models as its star. The movie had the decency to hire an actress who looks the way the book described -- obese, and not with features that are likely to present as beauty even if possessed by a thinner woman -- instead of taking the traditional "put 30 lbs and glasses on Beyonce" approach.

Miss Self-Important said...

I read the NYT Mag article about Precious, and it sounded like an oversaturated "realistic" YA novel--the kind where every imaginable social ill is made to serially befall the single main character in order to illustrate just how horrible "real" people's lives truly are to us sheltered, stable bourgeois. Like "She's Come Undone" in film form, w/ a black protagonist. $12.50 could probably buy you a lot of more useful cans of tomatoes.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just read a plot summary of "She's Come Undone." Wow, that might be worse than "The Jungle," which I thought was the Himalaya of terrible books of that type, never to be scaled (and published anyway).

Freddie said...

1. The problem isn't that Dana Stevens should like Precious because it deals with heady issues and doesn't. The problem is that Stevens has written yet another review where the whole gimmick of the piece is that she isn't like other critics. When you write about other reviewers rather than reacting to the movie, you're ensuring you'll write a poor review. And Stevens doesn't need the help.

2. Perhaps Miss Self-Important should, I dunno, watch the movie first, declare its quality second.

Miss Self-Important said...

Perhaps if Freddie, I dunno, volunteered to pay for the tickets, I'd watch all movies before declaring their quality. But as things stand, sometimes I'm reduced to making predictions.

Phoebe said...

I didn't see this post, or any of the comments, as being about the movie itself, so much as the hype. If one were to write a research paper on the response to the movie, seeing it wouldn't hurt, but a bloggy reaction? $12.50 and two hours, give or take, is a high price to pay, if the subject at hand is, again, not the content of the film, but the buzz that surrounds it.

I thought Dana Stevens's review made sense insofar as she sort of had to take into account both the aura around the movie and her impression of it. Some movies are just movies, but others are cultural events, whose relevance extends beyond whatever is actually onscreen.

Phoebe said...

And PG, re: liberal mass-media documentaries... I always assumed they were aimed at liberals, educated on the topic at hand or otherwise, and meant to mobilize the convinced but apathetic. Not, that is, to convert convinced opponents. And I think the presumption that You Don't Care extends to all yuppies/bourgeois, all living in comfort, and that if anything those who already tilt left are, on average, more susceptible to feeling stung by this accusation.

kei said...

The hype isn't much of a surprise, though having followed the links you posted, I can see why it can get in the way of wanting to see the movie. Personally, I am wary of going to see a movie that I know will basically leave me depressed. I might go though just for the Mariah Carey performance that has not been laughed at.

Also, there are no student discounts for theaters in NYC? I think I paid $8.50 to see "A Serious Man" last night. Maybe this is to compensate for the insanely low sales tax in NYC (vs. the 10.25% tax for everything in Chicago). I still remember the feeling of staring at my receipt in awe at Uniqlo last winter, and seriously wondering if there was a mistake at the register.

Phoebe said...

There are occasional student discounts, including at one theater near my office. But for the most part, no luck. But since there's a Netflix for movies and no equivalent for Uniqlo, I suppose this trade-off has its advantages.

PG said...


I have come to realize that your social milieu in New York is way more politically judgmental than mine. Possibly because I'm married to a Republican, which means anyone we meet socially, who thinks I'm merely apathetic and uncaring about the environment, will then have to contend with the guy next to me who believes that Bjorn Lomborg has actually got the right idea.

The resemblance to "She's Come Undone" seems a bit superficial, except inasmuch as one believes that All Stories About Fat Molestation Victims Are The Same.

And there's a difference between judging the cultural buzz around a movie, and judging the movie itself. I can say that the buzz around "Bowling for Columbine" was simply erroneous because it assumes that the movie is anti-gun (when it actually makes a big deal about how Canadians own tons of guns without having American rates of gun violence), while separately judging the movie as ridiculous in its claims that people who live in Windsor, Canada all feel safe leaving their doors unlocked.

Phoebe said...

Lest the doubt remain...

Some responses to Stevens's review. Or just glance at them all. There's a solid contingent set on the idea that not liking this movie can only result from being a cold-hearted, racist yuppie. ("I feel kind of bad for Dana. It really must have hurt her neck, straining to look down from her privileged white pedestal." Because she didn't like a particular movie.)

PG said...

In your first two links, the folks who are defending Stevens's take by saying that the movie treats Precious as incapable of agency clearly haven't so much as read the Wikipedia summary of the movie. I think the burden of proof in saying "That sucks" is on the person saying it definitely does, rather than on the person saying, "Maybe it doesn't." It's a lot more convincing to say that a movie one hasn't seen might not suck than to say a movie one hasn't seen definitely sucks.

Because she didn't like a particular movie.

No, because of the reasons she gave for not liking the movie. If she had said she didn't like the movie because the cinematography was bad and the dialogue was incomprehensibly mumbled and the editing was so choppy that she got a headache watching it, those would be reasons utterly unrelated to her perspective on race and class. However, her reasons were:

"I don't like when children are used as decoys to lure a movie audience into a trap."

"Daniels and his screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, are so eager to wring uplift from Precious' story that they're willing to manipulate us to get it."

"But in offering up their heroine's misery for the audience's delectation, they've created something uncomfortably close to poverty porn."

In other words, her reasons for not liking the movie seem to boil down to: It made me feel uncomfortable. And while I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that someone is "a cold-hearted, racist yuppie" (though of course no one actually used that phrase in the Fray) based on feeling uncomfortable when confronted with images of poverty, child abuse, incest, obesity, illiteracy, etc., it does make me question Stevens's evaluation of the movie, because I don't consider something that makes me uncomfortable to inherently be bad. It might be bad if the discomfort is generated as it is in a horror film -- in a purely instinctive, OMG IT TOOK OFF HER HEAD AND NOW HER NECK IS SPURTING BLOOD! way. Or the way Borat does, by misleading innocent real people into awkward situations, so that I cringe because of the false, unnecessary scenario created.

But discomfort due to not wanting to see situations whose realistic-ness Stevens does not deny? That does seem likely to be coming from an unwillingness to have those social problems heavily in one's consciousness. Again, if Stevens had said that the movie is unrealistic (as one might have said of "Crash," with its almost Victorian series of coincidences), that would be a critique not based simply in Stevens's emotional discomfort.

Phoebe said...


Clearly many of the Fray comments imply that Stevens's review is racist and classist. I don't see how we could even argue this point - why else is her race and class constantly evoked?

Anyway, what's more important here is that Stevens argues in the review not that it offends her dainty sensibilities that the movie depicts something other than happy white suburban family life, but rather that she finds the way these situations are presented to be exploitative. This was what she's saying made her uncomfortable.

PG said...


Unless you set a very low bar for what you're willing to deem "racist," there's a big difference between saying someone's race plays a role in her perspective that limits her ability to appreciate something, and calling that person a racist. The former is a relatively neutral claim; the latter is an insult (albeit an accurate one in some situations). If I told you that I'm not going to see Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" because I find black women's issues around hair too irrelevant to my life to be worth watching an entire movie about, that's presumably a statement that's informed by my racial perspective as a non-black woman, but that doesn't necessarily make me racist. (Actually, I'm quite interested to see the documentary because my mentor is briefly on-screen.)

Stevens doesn't explain why the presentation of these situations is exploitative. It's not as though the film is using a specific person's life (it's based on a novel). Stevens invokes "poverty porn" and links a critique of "Slumdog Millionaire" -- a film that plays even the slums as Incredible India (so lively and brightly colored!). In contrast, "Precious" appears to be depicting poverty as an unrelenting series of trials with no leavening grace of vitality. And Stevens seems more concerned about how she feels manipulated than about how the film is somehow "exploitative" of the facts of incest, rape, disability, etc.

Phoebe said...

Her race and class are invoked in a hostile, accusatory tone, not just as 'fine, so maybe the movie wasn't for you'. If you don't want to call it an accusation of Racism, call it one of offensive racial ignorance, the sort of accusation any sensitive liberal white person who doesn't consider herself a racist would probably find alarming.

"Stevens doesn't explain why the presentation of these situations is exploitative."

My sense was that she was arguing it was exploitative in its feel-good message, both in (apparently?) a happy-ish ending and in its promise to viewers that they've done their part simply by sitting through it. This might be an overly generous interpretation of the review, but at any rate, I didn't get the sense that she found the film disturbing in its choice to portray the disadvantaged.