Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Precious and Capitalism: A Love Story

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Precious and Capitalism: A Love Story


[Every week, usually on a Wednesday - sorry for the delay this time - I'll review one or several new DVD releases. And every Sunday, I plan to review a new release hitting or lingering in theaters. Stay tuned.]

Among its other bounties, March 9 brought two disparate, yet somehow overlapping, movies to disc. Both Precious and Capitalism: A Love Story are members of that rare breed, the socially-conscious American film. One is a narrative (based, as the advertising campaign never tired of reminding us, on a work of fiction by the author Sapphire), the other a documentary. One takes place twenty years ago (Precious is set in 1987), the other spans decades with the emphasis on how this history has culminated in the present day. And in the same spirit as these other differences, the films employ divergent approaches to their subjects. Precious zeroes in on the travails of its protagonist - the film touches on issues of race, class, sexuality, welfare politics, and education alternatives, but eschews didactic lectures (if not necessarily didactic characters or devices). Capitalism is, by nature, didactic - it's a Michael Moore film, after all, and even if he's toned down his personal appearances he still likes to tell us what he thinks and what he thinks we should think on the soundtrack.

Putting aside these obvious differences, take a moment to look at those posters. Some would suggest that their iconic, blocky form - employing recognizable silhouettes rather than detailed features - represent their explorations of American society: simplistic, broadly defined, perhaps cartoonish. I wouldn't necessarily go that far but the two movies are linked by a certain bombastic, preening thrust - and also by the very fact that they peek beneath the increasingly tattered surface of the American Dream, and can't help but be self-conscious about doing so.



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The titular character of Precious is a morbidly obese teenager, a young black woman living in Harlem with her abusive single mother, whose activity consists of verbally whiplashing her daughter, watching television, and collecting welfare checks. Precious has already had one child with her (now absent) father, and another rape has result in her current pregnancy. She's illiterate, and despite her mathematical aptitude she languishes quietly in school (a school staffed mostly by out-of-touch whites). An alternative classroom and sympathetic teacher (Paula Patton) provide Precious with a path out of the ghetto, but not before one more brutal revelation crashes down over her head (much like the TV set thrown down several flights of stairs by the girl's angry mother).

Such a plot suggests soap opera, and director Lee Daniels' flamboyant, baroque direction does not exactly make the film any subtler. Yet Gabourey Sidibe's stoic, unsentimental dignity gives the film weight (no pun intended), and Mo'nique is a tour-de-force in her Oscar-winning role as Precious' mom. Though essentially playing a stereotype, she brings the cliche to ferocious life. The mother's final, made-for-Oscar-clip monologue (if the show had actually used full clips this year) is actually rather brilliant in its go-for-broke melodramatics, given that both actor and character are performing. The rest of the ensemble are lively, lending personality to various too-thin and too-broad characterizations, while Daniels, for all his flashiness, imbues many sequences with warmth.

Precious' real title was supposed to be Push. I'm told that the reason for the name change was quite simple: an action thriller beat the producers to the punch by several months. Hence Push became Precious: based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire. The original title may be the more telling, because Precious' message is in fact a classic American credo: work you way up (these words are even imprinted on a poster which hovers behind the heroine's head in a crucial scene). Precious does not employ this hardheaded attitude in the straightforwardly Reaganesque fashion of, say, The Pursuit of Happyness; however, there's no mistaking the film's distrust of welfare, veneration of education, and impatience with self-pity and anger. While set in 1987, the movie firmly hews to the spirit of the Obama years (or at least the president's election-year ideals): it synthesizes both strains of the culture wars.

While focusing exclusively on women (virtually all of them minorities, many impoverished, and at least one gay), Precious avoids casting stones on external enemies - even the abusive father is never actually seen, except in a passing flashback: the damage has been done, and now the question becomes how to move forward. While celebrating certain programs which employ self-empowerment, it presents Precious' mother - the film's one true, and highly memorable villain - as the incarnation of  that old Republican staple, the money-grubbing welfare-queen of legend. And Precious' case worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey, misdirected in a part that seems to have been cut down after the fact) is viewed both sympathetically and skeptically. In the end, it's clear that she can't really help Precious and that handouts can only hold one down.

Indeed, Mrs. Weiss' ambiguous race seems to be a signifier of her uncertain status - helper? patronizer? - a questionable tactic, but not an isolated one in this film. Other than Precious and her classmates, all the good-natured black people in the movie are light-skinned, with soft features, for which the film has been criticized. Yet, racial politics aside, it would be going too far to suggest that Precious' advancement is entirely contingent on the good will of others. The best they can do is show her the way and let her walk it; and the film is ultimately uncondescending towards its heroine. If the broad contours of the story and initially offputting stylization of the picture suggest that faceless icon we see on the poster, Precious ultimately fills in the details and allows its characters and their milieu to breathe - when it succeeds, it's due not so much to the social issues it tackles as the way it moves beyond them to seek the human element.

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The human element in Michael Moore's films is usually not very hard to find. A great believer in demonstrating his points via "human interest" angles and easily digestible (and entertainingly conveyed) narratives, Moore's approach is similar to that of the mother bird: he chews up the prey and then regurgitates it in softer form so the babies can gobble it up. With Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore may have bitten off more than he could chew. This documentary culminates several trends in the filmmaker's work, and it's hard to see where the director goes from here. Following his breakthrough Roger & Me, his simplest and probably best movie, Moore has grown increasingly ambitious: from the closing of a GE plant to a broader look at corporate culture in the 90s to the entire gun control issue to the war on terror to the decades-long health care crisis, and now, finally, the economic system which has been his real target all along.

Meanwhile, since at least Bowling for Columbine, Moore has tried to temper his talent for agitprop with a more nuanced approach, asking questions that can't necessarily be answered and moving outward to tie issues together rather than condensing multiple topics under a single approach. And since Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore has been effacing himself from the screen; no longer is the man with a microphone the central piece on his chessboard - it's just one more tactic in a battery of techniques. These growing tendencies have mixed results; on the one hand, the ambiguity and subtlety are refreshing - Sicko was a much more thoughtful film than Fahrenheit 9/11, which in turn was less shrill than Bowling for Columbine. Yet they also highlight Moore's weaknesses as a traditional documentary filmmaker and remind us that his greatest strength might be making Michael Moore movies, for all their flaws.

Capitalism, which never delivers on its intriguingly ironic subtitle (here's an area where Moore's personal angle would have been more welcome), tries to cover so many bases that it overextends itself. It alternately misses opportunities to craft a throughline narrative - Moore's films, for all their digressions, usually have a firm structure - and tries too hard to stuff complicated events into easily-digestible bits (the stimulus, which has some support on the left, is presented purely as a Wall Street "coup d'etat"). The result is a very messy dish: tasty in bits but lacking in texture, with an indistinguishable mush resulting from the cacophony of ingredients. For a helpful contrast, revisit the 2007 documentary Maxed Out. Though released a year and a half before the meltdown, which it essentially predicted, the film does a much better job of summarizing how we finally got to the spot we're in. It does not eschew specific anecdotes nor goofy found footage  - indeed, its one Reagan movie clip trumps the whole half-dozen of Moore's, both for shock effect and relevance. Yet it manages to build towards its conclusion with drive and clarity, chugging along on an engine of moral outrage and fascinated horror. (I reviewed the doc in 2008, as part of my countdown to the election.)

Speaking of that election, Moore includes footage from Obama's victory in the film, which results in Capitalism's most powerful, if largely irrelevant, passage. Even given the disappointments of the president's first year in office, this transformative historical moment still resonates. It also indicates one of the problems with the movie: timing. Earlier sequences, going for Timothy Geithner's jugular, suggest a disillusionment with Obama, yet when we get to the Election Night images, they are presented without irony. Moore even suggests that the president-elect facilitated an uprising of the disenfranchised, resulting in sit-ins and reseizures of foreclosed homes - if the film has any particular "message" it's that we could finally be headed on the path to socialist revolution. Of course, this notion rings hollow in the year since Moore rushed Capitalism to its premature finish. Tea parties, Scott Brown, the bogged-down health care bill, all suggest that the country, whose irritability has undoubtedly been stoked, is moving not in one specific direction but several, including ones which Moore might not like. Obama himself has become identified with the institutional problems he was elected to fix; meanwhile under the regime of stagnant unemployment, the mood is less one of revolutionary discontent than impotent malaise.

As for Moore, what's next? Perhaps an environmental doc, as its global scope might be the one thing to trump his scale here. Should he return to more intimate filmmaking, perhaps in the vein of his 90s TV show "The Big Lie" (cancelled when he was not yet a wealthy, er, capitalist and household name)? Or is the scruffy subversive of Roger & Me no longer compatible with Micheal Moore Inc.? Perhaps Capitalism is Moore's own "End of Cinema" - his ne plus ultra and closing statement, in which the bird finally chokes on his own prey. The doc's worth seeing, as most Moore movies are, but after being alternately provoked, disgusted, and impressed by the likes of Columbine and Fahrenheit, it's somehow disappointing to see what should have been his most inflammatory, ambitious manifesto turn out so underwhelming. Perhaps the volume and inscrutability of our current collapse has rendered even Michael Moore unable to land his punches; if so, we should all be worried.

4 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Well, you have informed both films here Joel, with some excellent discussion, and I can't say I disagree with you at all all the way through, though perhaps I like PRECIOUS a bit less. Still, I think you zeroed in on the issues here that the nay-sayers would rally around, especially this simple assertion:

"Such a plot suggests soap opera, and director Lee Daniels' flamboyant, baroque direction does not exactly make the film any subtler."

That you go on to acknowledge the work of Sididbe ("stoical, unsentimental dignity") and Mo'Nique ("tour de force" performance) is a rightful assessment of the film's most noteworthy accomplishment. As I stated at another blog back when the film was released, I never objected to the performances, but to the rather exploitative nature of the characters being portrayed here, for whatever truths are unveiled. There's a tabloid fabric here, and not in a good sense.

As far as Mr. Moore, who have alternately celebrated and cast aside over the years, there's some good stuff here (like the poignant discussion with the farmers, and those insignificant but glorious election bits) but my favorite sentence in your entire piece here is the one that renders the right verdict:

"The result is a very messy dish: tasty in bits but lacking in texture, with an indistinguishable mush resulting from the cacophony of ingredients."

The end scene, when Moore encircles the corporate builsing with crime scene yellow tape is a shameless display of showmanship, and a final embarrassment to this rather forgettable offering.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thank, Sam. I wasn't nuts about Precious or anything but it seemed like a decent movie if you can get past the melodrama; a film carried largely by the performances. The subtexts were intriguing.

Above all, that final Moore moment was one of irrelevance. It seemed a gesture of futility whether he realized it or not - during the Bush era he got under the opposition's skin in a big way, but now he seemed to merely be shouting on the sidelines, his voice drowned out by a different tune. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here - unlike Fahrenheit, which dropped into the political pool like a cannonball (like it or loathe it) this one was more like a drop in the bucket. I only mention that because publicity is a big part of Moore's modus operandi - a little film is bound to seem anticlimactic, and ultimately Capitalism, despite it's big subject, is rather little.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Movie Man,

Fantastic review here. I haven't seen Precious yet. I found Moore's film to be average. He should have hit the ball out of the park, but instead all he does is a touch and go. I get the feeling that Moore wanted to charge up people to do something rather than analyze a situation and deriving what's wrong. What else can explain his safe play with respect to Religion? The result is his weakest film (I love Fahrenheit and Columbine).

MovieMan0283 said...

JAFB, my take on Moore is that he's always simplifying and villifying to "charge people up" rather than fully analyze the situation, but that he usually does so in a more entertaining, provocative way than he did here.

The safe play with respect to religion is partly, I suspect, do to the fact that he's a genuine Catholic sentimentalist (whether or not he practices is almost beside the point, though I think he does). Also it's just common-sense politics for the left to associate themselves not just with religion but with the military as both are being taken for granted and somewhat shunted aside by a conservative movement focused almost entirely on small/no government and unfettered markets. (Look at the outcry when McCain said he "led men for patriotism not for profit" when his executive experience was questioned in the '08 election - the National Review - correctly - took this as an attack on Romney's corporate experience and bellowed that it was just as patriotic to make money as anything else...)