Monday, March 07, 2011

Torture-a-Critic: Vol. 1, PRECIOUS

"I had lived my life one way and I could just as well have lived it another. I had done this and I hadn’t done that. I hadn’t done this thing but I had done another. And so? It was as if I had waited all this time for this moment and for the first light of this dawn to be vindicated. Nothing, nothing mattered, and I knew why…Throughout the whole absurd life I’d lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind leveled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living. What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate…”
-Albert Camus, The Stranger

The deed is done. It took a bit of motivating (from myself, others, and libations), but I have sat through PRECIOUS, and I’m here to give my reaction. One of the reasons I chose to go through this little exercise was to validate my belief that there are good movies that I miss out on because my preconceived notions of those movies stop me from ever watching them. I had planned on never seeing PRECIOUS because I presumed it to be sentimental, ethically and emotionally didactic drivel. But in all honesty, I had a small voice inside me saying that I was going to find more than a couple things that I would actually enjoy. Having sat through this movie, I have to admit that I am surprised. Not only was PRECIOUS worse than I expected, it might as well have reached inside me, grabbed that little voice, and raped it on a bed saturated with grease and sweat. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where to begin? Hmmm. Let’s start with the title of this gem: PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE. Oh wow! It’s based on a novel? I’ve heard of those….like what that guy Shackspare wrote, right? Before you even start watching the movie, you have the title trying to manipulate you. Instead of just going with the title of PUSH, the powers-that-be changed it to that thesis above. Why? Well, because there was another movie out that year called PUSH, and most people can’t tell the difference between a drama about an overweight, abused teenager and an action movie with people shooting air out of their hands (or whatever). I know it’s tricky, but we don’t have to worry about that now. I wonder how many people have been saved from the awkward situation of walking into a bad action movie when they were trying to see a bad melodrama. If they wanted to call their movie PUSH, they should have done it. If they wanted to distinguish it, why not just call it PRECIOUS? What is the point of the rest of the title? WHAT IS IT!?! Okay…calm down. See, it’s not a good sign to already be this worked up over the movie when I haven’t even gotten to any part of the actual plot yet.

Gabourey Sidibe and Oscar-winning actress (!) Monique aside, the real stars of this movie are the screenplay (by Geoffrey S. Fletcher, adapted from Sapphire in case you didn’t know) and the direction (by Lee Daniels). Here is the plot of PRECIOUS. I’ll use bullet points so that everything will be clear:

• Precious is an overweight teenage girl with a plethora of self-esteem issues.
• She lives with her mother Mary who essentially hates her.
• Mary hates Precious because her ex-husband (and Precious’ father) raped Precious multiple times. She is essentially jealous of her own daughter for being raped.
• Precious has one daughter with her own father. This child has Down Syndrome. This girl’s name is Mongo. “Mongo” is a reference to “mongoloid” (!). We don’t actually see Mongo until practically half-way through the movie.
• Precious is also currently pregnant, also due to her father.
• Precious takes care of everything in the house, while her mother smokes and watches TV all day, periodically physically and psychologically abusing Precious.
• Precious is thrown out of school because she is pregnant and starts alternative school, where she starts to learn how to read.
• At some point she steals a bucket of fried chicken.
• After Precious gives birth, she takes her newborn son home. Mary holds her grandson, a symbol of her extreme disdain for her own daughter (rape envy, remember?), and intentionally drops him. Precious and Mary physically fight. Precious grabs her son and escapes down the apartment stairs. Mary drops her television down the stairwell, essentially trying to murder her daughter and grandson.
• Precious seeks help from her teacher at her alternative school, who happens to be a “straight up lesbian.”
• Precious now lives in a halfway house and continues school.
• Mary returns to Precious to inform her that her father has just died from AIDS. Precious is HIV-positive.
• Precious has been seeing a social worker played by Mariah Carey. She arranges one last meeting between Precious and her mother. Mary fesses up as to what happened when Precious was a baby:
• [I’m pretty sure all this is actually said]: Mary let her husband breastfeed from her, while she gave a bottle to Precious. Also, while they had sex, the husband would touch the infant Precious(!).
• All the while, Mary is crying and asking “Who would love her?”
• Precious leaves the office, content to never see her mother or the social worker ever again.
• With both children in tow, Precious walks down the street smiling.

Alright, so again, the point of this whole exercise was to give a chance to a movie that I normally would not have seen. I would like to be as open and free from presuppositions as I can be, so here is my attempt to be as generous as I can:

PRECIOUS is possibly the most mainstream movie to present an existential perspective. More specifically, it may be an absurdist masterpiece. As described in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, the “absurd” describes that conflict which arises between ourselves, as beings who desire rationality and justice, and the reality of the universe, which seems to hide those qualities from us – whether or not they even exist. (Camus is perhaps the most well-known absurdist, though basically all existentialists have something to say on these matters.) Put bluntly, life is going to continually throw crap at you, and you will never find out if there is a purpose for it. This is not to say that meaning doesn’t exist in the universe, just that it inherently escapes us.
Precious would seem to be the poster child for the person in an absurdist crisis. Life makes no sense to her. HOW COULD IT?! She seeks answers from family – no help. From friends – no help. From church (hinted) – no help. From social workers – no help. From teachers – close, but no help. Her only respite seems to come from her daydreams, which makes sense since they allow her to escape from reality (and into BET music videos). And it would seem that the only surefire way to beat the absurdity of the universe is to escape it. However, reality is always waiting, ready to drag you back to its level. The whole movie seems to exhibit all of the dead-ends that one will run into by trying to explain things. Happiness cannot and will not come from any attempts to “explain things.”

In the end, though, Precious walks away from the confrontation with her mother with a smile on her face. Is she just delusional? Didn’t she hear all that stuff her mother just said? HER FATHER BREASTFED FROM HER MOTHER!? How can anyone be happy in this absurd universe? Well, happiness is possible, but only if you resolve to accept the elusiveness of meaning. If you are able to reach the point of knowing that there is no way to understand life, then stress will ultimately fade. Sure, you’ll still lapse into the anxiety of everyday situations, but those instances should diminish as your resolution to accept absurdity takes over. If you go with the flow, as it were, then the self-imposed existential pain of life can be overcome – because that’s all it really is: “self-imposed.” Reaching this point is not easy, however. It’s a lifelong struggle. You only really reach it by coming to a point of extreme self-reliance. Precious has had the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at her probably multiple times. And as we leave her at the end of the movie, she’s earned that smile, because she now knows there is nothing she can do to earn meaning. She has let go. She’s seen the worst of the world. What more can she do except give into the seeming meaninglessness. And by doing so, she has actually found peace. She walks off into her new life as a person who knows that whatever happens “good” or “bad,” it is nothing to worry about, since there is nothing she can do about it. Now go and do likewise.

Whew! Now back to the reality of this movie. PRECIOUS is certainly no absurdist masterpiece. If anything I just wrote about this movie has any truth to it, then it’s because of coincidence and is certainly unintentional. If Lee Daniels has created a masterpiece of any kind, it’s a masterpiece of emotionally manipulative drivel. It would seem that at every turn, this film strives to make you feel pity – and for what?! It heaps piles of crap upon this poor girl for what end? To make you pity her. To make you pity anyone who has been abused as a child. To make you pity anyone who lives in a slum. To make you pity anybody who’s experienced anything that Precious has. The by-product of all this pity is pointed guilt. YOU, the audience, should feel guilty for every time you’ve felt bad for yourself. You think you’ve got it bad? Well, get a load of this girl. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with heavy themes of guilt – I mean, I’m a fan of Ingmar Bergman and Lars Von Trier! But unless you anchor such themes to something bigger, then they are worthless. If there is a point to this movie other than to chide anyone who doesn’t lead a pitiful life, then I’m not sure what it is. It could be to display how the strength of the human spirit can overcome all obstacles, but if that’s the point, then there are other serious issues that are ignored.

Precious walks away at the end, confident that she doesn’t need the help of the social worker, even though it’s obvious that she’s going to need welfare if she has any hope of caring for her two children while alone and going to school full-time. There is also this weird faith put into education. I no doubt take my own education for granted all the time, but it does not exactly solve all my problems. It certainly does solve a number of issues, but in order to have fulfillment there needs to be something more. If this movie believes there is something more, then it doesn’t adequately even hint at it. Even Precious’ teacher is given the esteem of everything Precious should want for her own life, all centered on education it would seem. Precious by all means should continue with her education and get her GED. That is definitely a good thing, but only inasmuch as it is an avenue to other things. I wish the movie would suggest this idea a bit more. Ultimately, if you couldn’t tell, my main issue with PRECIOUS, is an unsatisfying answer to one question: what’s the point? Why drag us through this movie, only to give us what feels like an unearned “happy ending” of sorts? Of course we want Precious to find happiness, but I don’t understand how she just has it at the end. If it’s only because she has totally cut off her abusive mother from her life, I can’t help but feel like that is a small (though beneficial) victory in the grand scheme of things. OK, the real victory is probably that Precious is starting to take ownership of her life. She has finally stepped out of the passenger seat. I’ll assume this moment is the point of the movie. Taken on its own, it’s a good thing. But taken in the context of the whole movie, why oh why do we need all that other ugliness? It’s almost as if the movie suffers from the same issues as its titular character – instead of taking ownership of its storytelling, it passively relies on this series of horrendous events to tell its story. Daniels uses Aronofsky-esque “flash-cuts” in the rape scenes to push its ugliness in our faces – as though to say if he didn’t do that, the audience would react, “Hey, that rape didn’t seem so bad.” Then there is the scene where Precious and Mary are fighting each other. Edited into it are photographs of Mary’s joy of holding Precious when she was a baby. Why?! What’s the point of this – to make the fight seem all the worse? Thank you! I had previously assumed mothers throwing televisions at their children was normal behavior in lower socio-economic communities. Don’t rely on this trash – just tell the story, please.

Overall the acting was fine, if melodramatic – but hey, that’s what often wins Oscars. Ahem…. I never thought I would say this, but Mariah Carey was the best part of the movie. She’s got a small role, but it seems like the most normal character. And it’s straightforwardly acted by her. Huh. Weird. Monique did win an Oscar for her role. My main problem with her character is that I never reach the point of feeling sorry for her. In that final emotional scene, when she breaks down and helplessly cries for love, we’re obviously meant to feel sorry for her, which would bring an “interesting” twist to the character – I guess. However, by this point in the movie, the character has been written and acted into an almost cartoony level of evil, that I have basically no measure of sadness for her. And that essentially holds me back from saying it’s a good performance. It’s flashy and intense -I’ll give her that. Sidibe does a decent enough job. However, again, all the work is done for her by the director. All of our feelings for Precious have been decided by the slew of events that happen to her. As I put it earlier, this feels like “passive” storytelling.

Obviously, I had a lot of thoughts about PRECIOUS. I respect the movie enough for causing such thoughts. But it goes without saying that I didn’t like the movie at all. I’d certainly be happy to hear responses from people who did like the movie. I maybe missed some important things and misunderstood others. As it is, my thoughts stand. The initial exercise of our Torture-a-Critic series is now complete. Thanks for participating. Jerks.


cbaker said...

Nice writing Reido. Maybe a bit of overkill, but the passion works. Have no strong disagreements. Concur the ending felt pretty empty. So . . . my authentic curiosity and question is: How would you have ended the movie to give it meaning?

Given that there are unfortunately too many young people in Precious-like-circumstances . . . what is the answer for them?

Vincent said...

So when does she shoot air out of her ham fists?

And yeah Reid, like cbaker, I wanna know how you'd solve the social economic crises of our age. Huh? Mr. Bigshot critic?

agust symeon said...

Dear Lord, this film sounds like an absolute blast. I believe a drinking game is in order!

KateM said...

Heheh, I can't help but look forward to a review similar in tone to this one when Agust finally watches Passion...

Reido Bandito said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

CBaker, for that 2nd question I don't have a good answer. I could say "find Jesus" or "things will get better" or any number of platitudes that I'm sure they're told all the time. Does that make things better? Well, I guess it depends on the circumstance.

I do think how Precious eventually takes charge of her life, so to speak, is important. In that sense, the ending of the movie wasn't horrible per se. Yet, the movie stacked up all those obstacles against her, that most any ending would seem rather "slight." I didn't like the ending, but I'm not sure what a good ending would have been. I haven't seen many movies that I thought were terrible except for the ending.

The only thing I can think of would be if at the end it had all been a dream, or some other twist ending like with finales DALLAS or NEWHART.