Saturday, December 19, 2009


Yeah, I know, I can't believe I watched it either. Especially after I've been saying that since the brain surgery I don't want to watch heavy, melodramatic, take-themselves-too-seriously kind of movies. But they sent it to me and I was alone and had watched everything else I've gotten to date so...

But afterwards I had to see something else to sort of clean the palate of my post-brain-surgery mind, and luckily FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL was just starting on TCM (how brilliant of Turner Classic Movies to see that FOUR WEDDINGS is already a "classic"). I remember decades ago when the movie CHINATOWN first opened, I was living in DC and went to see it with a bunch of friends. Afterwards I talked them into following it up with another new movie that had just opened, the Hollywood musical classics compilation THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! I don't know how my friends felt about it, but it helped me avoid some nightmares that night.

Same with FOUR WEDDINGS after seeing PRECIOUS, the full title of which they kept using at the recent Golden Globes announcement ceremony—PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE. Maybe one of the reasons I could take PRECIOUS was that I had read PUSH when it first appeared in excerpt form in THE NEW YORKER, I also knew Sapphire as a poet and read last Spring with her at that Bowery Poetry Club Hollywood-themed benefit. When Sapphire reads from PUSH, she really pushes the words and dialect and accent so they're more pronounced than in the film, as are the rhythms and the graphic scenes, which makes it an unforgettable experience.

Knowing what to expect, the film was less graphic than I'd anticipated, which helped me watch it, though there were a few moments when I was tempted to turn it off. It's not like I, or any of us (maybe I should say many of us) don't know about the kinds of horrific realities PRECIOUS addresses. But what's the point of bringing horrible stuff up in a movie or any work of art? If it's sensationalism, well, sometimes that can work in a way that adds more to our understanding despite the manipulative and exploitative aspects, especially if we approach the work of art with the expectation of sensationalism.

But if it's presented as an attempt to create a unique work of art, and it's about pain and misery and hardship and oppression and brutality and ignorance and prejudice and etc.—all things most of us know pretty well from at least the news if not our own lives—it has to be done in a way that brings something new to the mix.

PRECIOUS does that, at times. And the attempt to do that, to create a unique work of art, is obvious. Director Lee Daniels tries hard to make this horrendous but ultimately affirmative story work in a way we haven't quite seen before. There are moments in the film that are brilliantly original, but there are also moments that are totally cliched, obviously borrowed from older films that dealt with some of these issues like brutality and sexual and physical violence, or classroom situations or angel-of-mercy types, etc.

But Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher give everything enough of a twist to make the overall experience of the film unique. The circumstances of the protagonist alone does that—i.e. Gabourey Sidibe, the "unknown" actress who plays the obese, very dark-skinned, teen aged initially functionally illiterate girl. Obviously we haven't seen a Hollywood movie starring anyone quite like her, though we've seen aspects of this character in recent decades.

I must admit I can't stop replaying scenes from it in my mind which is a sign, for me, of having had a really intense movie experience. I loved Sidibe and only hope Hollywood finds more roles for her and she doesn't become a one movie phenomenon. And I can see why Mo'Nique is getting nominated (my typing has improved enormously over the past few days but as an example of my post-op brain having it's own intentions I first typed "nominationed") and Oscar buzz and making critics' "best-of-the-year" lists. Though Daniels lets her down I think in the last few moments of her last scene in the movie, making it a little too obvious and melodramatic. But up until then, she gives one of the most amazingly intense performances in movie history. Frightening and repulsive, yet compelling.

There are other surprising performances as well, including one by Mariah Carey, an uneven attempt but I blame the director for that, and despite the sometimes wrong choices there are enough perfectly acted moments in her characterization of what looks like a completely make-up free social worker to deserve accolades. Lenny Kravitz does a good job in a small role as well, and lots of others.

But the entire film is uneven, with some things working and some not. And that uneveness is not to be taken lightly. But in the end I have to say I'm glad I saw it, and I applaud the effort the director and everyone else made to bring such an unlikely work to the screen pretty plausibly and in many ways originally.

PS: And, I might add, I'm grateful that I was able to watch it and understand it, even getting a lot of the more nuanced bits (though it's not a very nuanced movie for the most part) and not feel overwhelmed by it in the ways I have been post brain surgery. Either another sign of my rapid recovery, or an indication that the the way the film was made kept it accessible and obvious enough for me to take it all in.

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