For the Friday free screening in GFF’s ‘Rebel Heroes’ strand, the selected title was the Steve McQueen ‘action policier‘ Bullitt. I saw this film on release nearly 50 years ago and I’ve watched it a few times since on video. But I was up for another stab at the film on a big screen. All the previous archive films I’d seen at GFF were film prints in reasonable condition but Bullitt turned out to be what I assume to be a poor digital transfer to a DCP from a very dark 35mm original. As I remember the film, it offers a contrast between sunny exteriors and almost noir interiors. What we watched was just ‘dark’. I have a widescreen VHS video copy that would probably have looked better on the screen of GFT1. Since the catalogue listed this as coming from Park Circus (the company with most archive prints available in the UK) this is quite disturbing.
So, instead of settling down to simply enjoy the screening I was pushed into trying to find something new in the narrative to grab my attention. If by any strange chance you don’t know the plot of Bullitt, Steve McQueen is the titular hero who is assigned to protect a witness in San Francisco whose evidence could enable slimy politician Robert Vaughn to gain credibility before an election. Everything goes wrong and Bullitt needs to sort out the situation. The script is adapted from a novel by Robert L. Pike, Mute Witness (1963). What is surprising is that the film feels more like 1963 than 1968. Jacqueline Bisset is cruelly under-used as Bullitt’s girlfriend when an English beauty in mini-dresses driving a Porsche – and working as a designer in a large SF agency – might be considered as a major asset in the cast. The film’s score by Lalo Schifrin is very good and memorable but again it does it reflect the changing times? It’s worth thinking about The Graduate (1967) which I’ve argued is also a film that seems a little ‘out of time’ (apart from its soundtrack). Around the late 1960s Hollywood studios were beginning to think about how to attract and retain younger audiences with films that recognised the growing ‘alternative culture’. Easy Rider, when it arrived in 1969, gave the major studios something of a shock. The film I’ve always wanted to see, also set in San Francisco, is Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) with Julie Christie. This doesn’t seem to get revived. In San Francisco in 1968 you might expect some evidence of the developing Haight Ashbury scene.
Alan Hunter in his introduction emphasised that it was McQueen’s own company Solar Productions who took up the rights and increased McQueen’s role while trying to keep the locations as ‘real’ as possible, enabling shooting in both a hospital and San Francisco airport. In the end, the film stands or falls on McQueen’s performance – and he’s still cool. The car chase at its centre is still exciting. There are also some enjoyable moments when Robert Vaughn finds his imperious commands thwarted by McQueen’s silent insolence and stubbornness. The British director of the film, Peter Yates, had just come from making Robbery (UK 1967) and IMDb informs me that he had been a professional racing driver. McQueen had chosen Yates and he certainly delivered the kind of film McQueen must have wanted. Bullitt is really a testosterone-fuelled police chase movie and though Bullitt gets his man it is at the expense of the collateral death of several others. Audiences have always enjoyed the car chases and McQueen’s star presence. It’s a pity the print didn’t allow us to see them both more clearly.
Here is a film that will take two or three viewings to properly place so I’ll just make some tentative comments here. I went into the screening with the knowledge that some reviewers had said that it was a surprisingly ‘conventional’ film to have come from the Turner prize-winning artist Steve McQueen. I’m not sure that McQueen’s previous two films were that ‘unconventional’ as specialised films and I found 12 Years a Slave to be similar. I think now that some of the critical reviews have taken the narrative to be poorly constructed as a drama – partly because we are told in the opening credits what happened to Solomon. If this was a reference to a ‘conventional’ film narrative that would make sense, but this isn’t a conventional narrative, instead it is an exploration of what slavery means presented in the guise of a biopic/personal journey.
The most recognisable element of McQueen’s style is his patience in allowing scenes to extend with static or slow-moving pans/tracks (one of the reasons I need to see the film again is to focus on the camerawork). The new element here (in what is a longer film than the previous two) is the insertion of several images of landscape and skies. These are generally ‘beautiful’, representative of iconic images of the swamps, forests, fields and rivers of Louisiana. I’m not sure how they work in terms of the narrative but I kept thinking about the famous ‘pillow shots’ of Ozu (here’s one interpretation of what might be meant by a ‘pillow shot’). Apart from these landscape images, Sean Bobbit’s camera captures other compositions that in Barthesian terms are ‘symbolic’ – a musical instrument being smashed or a view across Washington with the Capitol being built as seen from a slaver’s ‘holding pen’. McQueen also represents the journey south from Washington simply by showing the water churned up by the paddles of a steamer – effective as a representation of the captured slave’s restricted view and also perhaps the emotional turbulence of capture.
These individual images are memorable partly because the pacing of the narrative and the time spent over scenes allows the whole film to breathe. My viewing companion suggested that the long running time had just flown by. I wouldn’t say that because I was conscious of the time, I did reflect on the slow pace as the scenes unfurled and I realised how effective McQueen’s film was in getting me to understand what slavery actually meant in terms of the psychological as well as physical terror that it created. I was never bored, always engaged. I felt that ‘moment’ of understanding and by the end of the narrative the tears were flowing freely. I should also say that I had to shut my eyes for some of the scenes of flogging, disturbed by the violence, the tearing of flesh and by the mixture of guilt, terror, love and eroticism in the climactic flogging.
The key to the ‘conventionality’ of the film is perhaps the fact that this is a film based on a true story as told to a journalist by the central character Solomon Northup played so well by Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’ve read several interesting pieces on the film including those by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound and Thomas Doherty in Cineaste alongside interviews with Steve McQueen and the film’s historical adviser Henry Louis Gates. I gather from these sources that Northup’s account is very accurate and supported by the historical records even if the voice in the original published story belongs to a journalist. I mention this because the story is a different narrative to those that were popular in the North in the years before the Civil War. Most such stories were about slaves who escaped and made the journey northwards. Northup instead was kidnapped and taken to the South. He experienced slavery as someone who had been free all his life until that point. We should as audiences today be able to identify with Northup at the point of his capture. It’s then McQueen’s task to use what happens to Northup to tell us as much as he can about what slavery meant and how it destroyed the humanity of all those involved.
Perhaps because of the unusual narrative, McQueen ‘makes strange’ the early scenes in which the narrative switches backwards and forwards in time, seemingly arbitrarily. The film opens with Northup as one of a group of slaves being instructed on how to cut cane for what turns out to be the fourth ‘owner’ he is assigned to. My confusion in these early scenes means that I can’t easily remember the transition between flashforwards and flashbacks. There are probably different ways to read this series of time-jumps. Possibly what is being represented is Northup’s memories of how he got into this situation. What the disjointed narrative suggests is that slaves were not people as such but commodities moved between owners like livestock. These time jumps are mostly early in the film before the narrative settles into the longer stretches of routine and they must make the film more difficult for audiences used to more direct Hollywood openings. The ending of the film is much more conventional – but it is a true story and Northup was ‘rescued’ and did return home. However, there are titles at the end which say a little more about what happened in the years that followed his return – don’t miss these!
12 Years a Slave offers something akin to ‘event cinema’ in the sense that it is almost as interesting and important to reflect on what audiences are saying about the film as it is to analyse the film itself. This can only increase with the focus on Awards ceremonies over the next few weeks – whether the film/filmmakers win or not. Much of the discourse focuses on the fact that McQueen is British and so are many of the leading players – Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch. American opinion on this is divided as to whether it is a useful or presumptuous intervention. I think this tends to overshadow the excellent work by (African-American writer) John Ridley who adapted the original book. In the UK the film has prompted calls to have more cultural output covering the British responsibility for the triangular trade that depended on slavery. I’d support those calls, but also point out that there have been some films that deal with the British colonial experience of slavery. Someone might think about releasing a restored version of Pontecorvo’s Queimada (Italy 1969) in the UK – not a film about slavery itself, but a useful discourse about the political and economic importance of slavery in the Caribbean. One of McQueen’s achievements in 12 Years a Slave is to show the routines of the slave plantation and to emphasise its importance in agriculture and the Southern economy in which slaves are commodities, treated like livestock, but also as part of the social hierarchy of the South – something emphasised by the focus on the cruelty of Master Epps’ white wife who abuses Patsey, but whose own status is below that of the men. Much discussion has also focused on the arrogance of the slave-owners and their complete lack of guilt or unease about what they are doing to slaves. Some commentators have suggested that for contemporary audiences this is more shocking than the actual brutality meted out to the slaves. This needs to be explored further. I’m shocked that audiences wouldn’t already know about this lack of guilt. Watching the film, I thought about the ‘banality of evil’ explored in Hannah Arendt. After the screening I discussed with my colleague why there weren’t more slave revolts in the South. In fact there were many small revolts and three major uprisings, but nothing sustained along the lines of the Haitian and Jamaican rebellions. I think that is down to the stronger institutional roots of slavery in North America where the slaveowners identified themselves as ‘Americans’ rather than settlers or colonists with a different relationship to their ownership of land.
There are several scenes in the latter half of 12 Years a Slave which very effectively bring home the process through which Solomon has to go in order to gain some control over his own situation – involving his sense of guilt, frustration, anger, need to survive – and crucially to understand the collective strengths and weaknesses of the slaves in a household. The matching scenes of hangings and floggings in front of the other slaves are the most obvious visual representations but the scene in which Solomon eventually begins to sing with the other slaves is very moving. Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is impressive. I also thought that Alfre Woodard’s role as the freed black woman who has married a slaveowner was important in detailing the complexity of the plantation communities. I can’t complete these notes without mentioning the stunning performance by Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. We are going to hear a lot more from this young woman and I’ve added a link to a long interview with her on YouTube (on the same page there are interviews with other cast and crew from the film). I’m definitely going to watch the film again in the future. I hope it becomes a film that stays in the memory.
Steve McQueen’s debut feature has rightly been described as brutal, visceral filmmaking. It’s an incredible experience in the cinema, visually and aurally, that does leave you shaken with the power of the images it has shown you, and the ideas that underpin them. The film blends a broad narrative arc, with more experimental styles that make it recognisable as an art, or avant-garde, film. It begins with a wordless montage of the life of one of the prison guards. Without giving away the details, there is an emotive juxtaposition of the banal and the extreme in this daily routine – and the sense of a man barely containing his emotions and the stress under the brutality he is part of, is powerfully conveyed. I want to say that here, as elsewhere, the emotions assault you such that you begin to experience that fear and tension, despite a recognition that this is at odds with the controlled, fluent sequence and its attention to cinematographic detail and controlled compositions. You are never in doubt that there is a guiding artist behind the scenes presented to you; an artist who knows how to create visual beauty, which you feel and respond to, at the same time as you are repelled or horrified by what is actually happening in the filmed sequence.
As we are taken into the cells with Davey, the new arrival, the expressionistic camerawork allows us the sensation of the degradation and horror of those living conditions – the rotting food, occupied by tiny grubs, the swirls of excrement on the walls. Time and again, McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, create a focal point using a vivid colour within the frame – arresting and attracting your eye, and engaging you with the dialectical argument, simply through the aesthetic affect. The moment where the prisoners are given ‘joke’ Irish clothing to wear as civilian clothes (accompanied by the sniggers of their guards), its bright, jaunty patterns are a visual explanation for the fury of the inmates. With all the brutal violence that is, unflinchingly, shown on screen, it is these daily, petty inhumanities that are, convincingly, as inhumane. The film makes you experience the inhumanity generated person to person by an inanimate political system. Without any particular narrative or dialogue to emphasise it, McQueen (and his collaborators including writer Enda Walsh) demonstrate the futility of violence and opposition on both sides, which only serves to degrade those involved.
I don’t believe it is a film that seeks to impose a viewpoint or an ideology on its viewer. I don’t think it is a film that would, or tries to, change your viewpoint of those times. Terrorists, freedom fighters, political prisoners or murdering criminals? These terms are not (apparently) much debated and extended. The central meeting between Sands and Father Moran lays out the arguments for and against the self-sacrifice of a hunger protest for a belief, not the beliefs themselves. The balance of representation is only adjusted (I felt) by what I took to be the import of their use of Thatcher’s speech on pity – attacking the hunger strikers for being willing to use pity to advance their agenda. This acts as an introduction to Sands’ slow and horrific death – and through this section of the film, the intense focus on the wasting of his body and terrible sores and lesions that afflict gives us nothing but pity as a way out. All we can do is relate on a human level to this one man. Even where we might be antipathetic to his beliefs, his extremism, we do not have to sacrifice our human pity. That is still within our choice. Now, here, McQueen does seem to lean towards a sympathetic portrait – in a flashback, we see the intensity of the young Sands on an outing he has previously described. Running through the cornfields, the beautiful image is invested with portent; we know (from his tale to the priest) that even at eight, Sands is being taught a political lesson in this moment of freedom, which will end in a political act of knowing self-sacrifice.
The fact that we understand this, as we watch the young boy lean against the bus window, is intensely powerful. His life has been invested with a certain knowledge far earlier than others, that will inevitably, almost without his own will, shape it forever. This seems a tragedy – never to have known what freedom is, to experience knowledge that this is not your path.
The images used here – the point of view from Sands’ hospital bed, the shots of the Donegal countryside drive us to experience these feelings for ourselves. The film’s tour-de-force, however, is a single take (apparently 16 minutes long), which dominates the scene between Sands and Father Dom (Liam Cunningham). The balanced debate moves from lively, intellectually nimble banter to emotional expressions of different ideologies. The camera keeps a fixed distance, not too close or favouring either side in its composition. Again, you can find your own access points and sympathies between these two illuminated figures. Emotionally strong, conventions of filmmaking are broken again by creating a theatrical performance at the centre of a cinematic experience, which we experience as if we are in a theatre. The intensity of the static camera translates to an intensity of focus for us.
The film knows how to use dialogue and debate here, but it also uses silence very effectively. Silence seems to allow you to watch and understand. The movement between over-exposure to sound (in some of the violence) and to silence added to the emotional impact.
The rustling of sweet wrappers (unbelievable!) stopped, anyway, very quickly. People did leave the cinema. I honestly wasn’t sure why they went, as it felt it could have been just as much the emotional intensity as the violence. Whatever your feelings about the subject matter, it’s filmmaking that demands to be seen.