gall and gumption

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Write When You Find Work!

Saw the movie “Precious” on one of my days off.

The acting was wonderful; the young actress who plays the role of Precious, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, is one of those talents that seems to have riches in reserve, and you realize that a lot of it has to do with her physicality. She’s large, but that isn’t it. She inhabits her body with intelligence, sensitivity, and authority that are physical. And the vignettes from Precious’s daydreams show that she’s got comedy too.

The things I liked, I really liked. Like Sidibe’s performance. Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, was also wonderful to watch. I also liked the atmosphere of the horrible dark little apartment where the two of them live. It’s as thick with damnation as those rooms in Bad Lieutenant, except without the hipster irony and portentousness. This is a real hell on earth, it’s a trap where the spirit and fight would get worn out of you, a little bit every day, imperceptibly. I found myself peering into the gloom trying to figure out just what it is about this particular combination of objects and furnishings that is so depressing. But you couldn’t linger long over the furniture or the wallpaper (was it wallpaper?) because the mother was always there in all her menace and rage, the center of this ghastly little universe. Mo’Nique’s performance is so full of energy and conviction that I was quite a ways into the story before I realized that I was supposed to regard her as pure evil. I took her as a person wracked and angry with needs that never would be filled: for attention, for power, for experience, for some object worthy of sustained attention, for a life, basically. Of course I noticed that she was physically abusive and a bad person, but she wasn't like a horror-movie monster. And I think it was the acting that made it possible for me to see her this way.

What a shame, then, that the story is so, so bad. It’s a monstrosity, that’s the kindest word for it, and bad enough that the very quality that makes it so is its message of moral uplift. That lots of otherwise sane and reasonable people take this message at its face value is worst of all.

I reached this conclusion in sort of a roundabout way, again, because I went in so favorably disposed. But after I watched it the thought occurred to me that what was missing from this story was any vision of sexuality as anything other than a curse attended by brutality and exploitation. The only exception was that the light-skinned, straight-haired, pretty, heroic writing teacher has a light-skinned, straight-haired, pretty female live-in lover. This fact has no bearing what so ever on the plot, except that Precious notices that although these women are lesbians they are nicer than her parents and this is enough to make her tolerant of their differentness. So that's that little issue taken care of.

Early in the film we learn that Precious is pregnant with her second child. From Precious's flashbacks and things that come out in angry exchanges with her mother we learn that the father in both cases is Precious's father, who regularly raped her. Her flashbacks of these rapes are harrowing, made even more repulsive by their association with the sound and the image of frying eggs and meat. Ugly meat. Part of the mother's anger, we also understand, is her belief that Precious stole her man from her before he abandoned them both. Her abusiveness, her desire to humiliate Precious and break her spirit, therefore, has this dimension of sexual jealousy.

So Precious is not your typical wayward teenage girl. The central figures in her life are the father who appears, literally, as a grunting, sweating, humping, bestial sexual appetite and nothing else; and a sadistic, oversexed, jealous, feckless, self-pitying narcissistic mother whose only life skill--such as it is--is playing the welfare system. You know--black people.

There is a certain kind of narrative that Marvin Mudrick used to refer to as a "sensibility story." Students who took his course regularly learned to identify these stories. The "sensibility story" inevitably featured a protagonist who was the only moral sensibility in the story. Every other character was something (usually unpleasant) that happened to him or her. These stories were written in the expectation that the reader would identify and sympathize with this much put-upon protagonist. Stories like this could be executed with great proficiency, but their failure was not a problem of execution; it was a failure of imagination, a failure to be able to imagine other people's lives as they themselves experienced them. The solution was not to try to write it better, but to understand why you should not bother to write them at all. "Don't write about people you don't respect," Marvin would tell us. Often, after a discussion of one of these, he'd add, to encourage us, "Just remember: nobody gives a shit about you."

Writers who have been unable to profit from this advice keep producing such stories. The more sophisticated examples turn up in literary magazines; they used to turn up in the New Yorker--in fact another Mudrick nickname for them was "New Yorker story." They were a feature of the Shawn years, where they appeared regularly, decorous, dull, and endless. There are really only a couple of things you can do with this kind of one-sided storytelling; add sensationalism of language or add sensationalism of action. Sensationalism of language appears as the sort of mannered, hyperactive pyrotechnics of style that critics announce are a "new voice." Sensationalism of action means that the protagonist becomes a victim of ever more extreme persecutions: she's bulimic with uncaring parents, she's a religious/poetic/intellectual girl whose mother, a floozy, makes fun of her. Precious fits the formula; she's plain, she's fat, she's got an abusive mother, she's been raped by her father, she's black, she lives in the ghetto; she is HIV-positive. All these circumstances increase the payoff for the viewer. The more extreme Precious's sufferings, the more compassionate we are in our identification with her. If only they could also have had her get stuck at the bottom of an abandoned well!

And so we enter the well-trodden territory of The Color Purple: a black person who is, again, the victim of black people. In fact the only reference to race in the film is the mother's ludicrous indignation when the principal from Precious's school tries to visit. The principal gets no further than the door of the building, and has to shout her message into the intercom. This is enough to make the mother feel that her home has been invaded by a white person and it's of course all Precious's fault. There's no indication that there might be any reason why a black woman of no education, completely dependent on welfare, living in a claustrophobic apartment in Harlem in 1987, might fear the visit of a white person in any official capacity, which is really the only capacity she can imagine. In the absence of the history, the cultural patterns, the experiences that would explain the mother's attitude, her reaction to this visit is easily interpreted: Well, now, who's the real racist?

The movie is set years before the passage of the 1996 welfare reform Act., and can't quite get itself past the idea that welfare is a social evil because poor people try to get as much out of it as they can for themselves. But this attitude seems unjust to me; it would be more reasonable to blame the parsimony, kackhandedness and cynicism with which welfare was administered and in which it was conceived. Was doing it well ever even on the table? But we don't need to trouble our beautiful minds with that far larger and far more harmful moral failure; instead, we can relish our horror at the mother and the humping beast father and feel all the delights of virtuous indignation at these two losers. Surely the money spent to keep these two human horrors in their hideous little apartment is thrown away. Or thrown at them, I suppose. Remember when people used to say "You can't solve problems by throwing money at them"? As though given only the choice between the incontinent throwing of money at the problem (poor people) and not letting the problem (poor people) have any, it was better to keep the money away from the problem (poor people) while wiser heads figured out what they needed instead. Every single person I ever heard say this fancied himself or herself as liberal-minded and reasonable, making an observation rich with profundity and judicious, worldly seriousness. And then, if you ever consented to the apparent commonsense of this proposition you found later that you had taken all sorts of just weird shit on board along with it.

Precious would be due for a small share of the moral repugnance her parents draw if she had gotten herself knocked up in the usual way. But she is a victim, not an "out-of-control" teen, and the specific crime of which she is a victim completely desexualizes her in the viewer's eyes. Which, as it happens, makes us able to identify with her without compromising ourselves. She is intent on pulling herself up out of this mess somehow. She's going to defy her mother and not follow the family trade of welfare-scamming. We can cheer her on because the movie has gone to such extreme lengths to establish that nothing in her life history is her fault, presumably because if she were found to be at fault we could comfortably damn her to hell along with her awful parents.

My whole trouble, you see, is that I feel for the undeserving poor, too. The movie caters to certain beliefs and expectations about them--that they're irredeemably horrible and dangerous, parasites. I expect that horribleness is probably equally distributed among all social classes. But for this, as for so many other things, we seem to expect the poor to pay more. The effort involved in making this unjust and unhuman attitude flattering to the people who possess it just seems monstrous to me.

Further thought: I read a statistic years ago that said that there were more Jamaicans living in the United States than in Jamaica. That means there are more than three million of them. And yet the woman who plays Precious's Jamaican classmate is apparently an American who studied Jamaican with Miss Cleo. Why? This is such a common occurrence that I am beginning to draw dark inferences from it (haha I made a funny): that a Caribbean person on film must sound not like a Caribbean person in real life, but like what Americans think a Caribbean person should sound like because that is somehow more real to them. I'd really like to be wrong about this. Soon.


At 10:27 PM, Anonymous ghost said...

Wow, thanks. I almost watched it tonight, have been going back and forth since it came out. Yours is far and away the most insightful review I've read. My first reaction is to tilt back over to the "not want to see it" side, but now I kinda wanna see it just see what you saw.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger The Promiscuous Reader said...

"Remember when people used to say 'You can't solve problems by throwing money at them'?"

Did they stop saying that while I wasn't paying attention? Though no one seemed to say it of the Bush/Obama/McCain bank bailouts, it's true.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Kia said...

I confess I don't get out as much as I used to. And also I've learned to avoid places where I'm likely to run into such people.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous ghost of chuckling said...

Hi Kia, I finally got around to watching Precious. I agree that your teacher Mudrick pegged the basic nature of the story. There must be a reason that story is told over and over and over again. The collective unconscious, perhaps? In this case, for a popular movie, I thought it was very well done. And it's not like she went on to live happily ever after. Pretty much anyone who had AIDS in 1987 was dead by 1991.

The whole thing came off as very realistic to me, at least with the caveats associated with the limitations of the form. The author was raped and abused by her father. She taught adult literacy in Harlem for five or six years in the late eighties/early nineties. She is a lesbian. It's not as if it had been written by a Bennington grad from the upper east side. And I (should say "we" because I watched it with my wife and we were mostly in agreement about it) had a totally different reading of the "what's that white bitch want" part. The "who's the real racist" angle didn't even occur to us. We saw it as a great example of how those two worlds are so far apart that communication is incredibly difficult, most often impossible. We thought it was very well-done for that type of movie in that it didn't explicitly make that point about communication, about how from their ghetto perspective they couldn't even fathom the possibility that the white bitch was going way out of her way to help them. All they could imagine, all their experience had ever taught them, was that the white bitch wanted to somehow punish them. Take away the welfare, kick them out of school. Whatever. In the really crappy movies, there's usually a magic character to explain all that.

We did question the well-trodden territory of The Color Purple. It is unfortunate that so many prominent African-American writers feature incest in their novels. Invisible Man is another famous example. Is incest an ethnic trait among African-Americans? Everything I've read suggests it's a class thing, not an ethnic thing. Being from south Podunk, all the examples I know of personally occurred in poor white families. But I think it is valid to argue that the inclusion of these scenes in so many prominent works does give the impression that it's an ethnic (racial for the really ignorant) thing. But should an artist consider that kind of political calculation, particularly when writing about things she personally experienced? I can't bring myself to say no, not when it's truly an honest and integral part of the story.

Regarding the issue of parodying the poor and propagating a message that they are undeserving, irredeemably horrible, dangerous parasites; we got pretty much the opposite message from the movie. And to be fair, that pretty much is the movie's message, that the poorest of the poor are not irredeemable. For us, that was where the Mudrick take was so painful. It might be believable that Precious could progress with the help of a wonderful teacher, but the liklihood of that whole class turning into happy, well-adjusted young women is pretty much nil.

Anyway, I don't mean to attack your take on it. We just saw those same issues a bit differently.

On another note, I'm currently doing a photo project with kids from one of the worst performing high schools in the South Bronx. As yet, I haven't been able to get much below the surface, but I can sense some of the same issues at work. Precious is a composite. How many real life characters is it made of?

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