12 Years a Slave: Bridging the Worlds of Narrative and Image
Steve McQueen, like David Lynch, leaves the stamp of a former art school student on all of his films, including 12 Years A Slave. Each of McQueen’s films reminds us that he, like Lynch, lived his pre-filmmaking years in a very different world of images. During art school, McQueen immersed himself in images, studying them to their core in an attempt to understand what they are and how they work. It seems, at times, that he’s inhaled and exhaled images for so long that he now feels more comfortable speaking with images than with words.
But, unlike painters or photographers, filmmakers deal in two worlds—one of narrative and one of image. A good filmmaker deftly walks the tightrope between these worlds. Such a balance is often difficult to strike, and McQueen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame, falter because he struggles to do so.
Although I very much enjoy both films, it’s fair to criticize them for being overly imagistic. They sometimes felt like art projects in motion instead of films with full narrative thrust, and as a result, one can’t help but feel that they contain flashes of brilliance but never reach their full potential. It’s as though you’re watching a genius on the verge of a break through.
With 12 Years, McQueen comes closer to recalibrating the scales by striking the balance between image and story (perhaps because it is the first film for which he did not write the screenplay). From a technical standpoint, the film is masterful. Each shot is beautifully composed, and Hans Zimmer’s score combines with breathtaking cinematography to create a unique and stunning aesthetic. For those who want dramatic performances, the acting is equally remarkable. Chiwetel Ejiofor, present in almost every scene, anchors the film with a powerhouse, Oscar-worthy performance in the role of Solomon Northrup. The emotion he evokes through his eyes alone is ridiculously impressive, even haunting at times.
For these reasons, I expect history to view 12 Years as McQueen’s breakthrough film. Some of its scenes are profoundly visceral and devastatingly affecting. At times, I found myself physically unsettled, actually squirming in my seat out of discomfort. The film’s final scene, which shows Solomon reuniting with his family, is deeply moving and managed to leave me in tears. To be sure, McQueen shines at capturing individual moments. He has an uncanny ability to almost freeze time, a talent that allows him to pack an explosion of emotion into a matter of seconds.
On the flip side, though, McQueen has difficulty switching gears to convey long swaths of time. Solomon is gone for twelve years, a period that must have, and should have, felt like a lifetime. Yet, despite clocking in at over two hours and containing tons of scenes, the film never really feels like a lifetime has passed. The pacing makes the film itself feel long, but it fails to do so in a way that makes it feel like Solomon himself has felt the full twelve years. It’s a minor flaw, but it’s an easy one to overlook because the film’s individual scenes hit so hard.
A second minor flaw is that the film’s aesthetic ambition sometimes detracts from the viewing experience. Because the film is such a technical achievement, its resulting aesthetic is always present, so pervasive that it sometimes feels like its own character. But, because slavery is such a primal and raw topic, the film’s polished and beautiful aesthetic sometimes creates distance between the viewer and the material. As a result, the film sometimes feels like a collection of scenes strung together. Some scenes excel masterfully, wedding the aesthetic and the material in a way that tears on the heartstrings in a way that few directors can. In those scenes, the viewer is lost, immersed in the individual moments McQueen creates. Other scenes, however, show off the film’s beauty at the expense of furthering the narrative.
Despite these two minor flaws, 12 Years is a striking work that marks a revolution in McQueen’s filmmaking. He comes significantly closer to striking the perfect but elusive balance between image and story. In some scenes, he displays a talent that can be matched only by the industry’s very best.
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