Monday, December 9, 2013

A Tale of Two Kidnappings

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013) has just ended its first month in wide release. Much has been written on this film, with more writing to come, I am sure. The same might be said of its viewership, which will only accelerate once the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences releases its 2014 award nominations.

I am relatively late to this film and had not read much about it prior to seeing it on Saturday. That said, I am familiar with McQueen's work, though less as a feature film director than as a visual artist who places his film-based works in museums. For those who have seen McQueen's feature films and are curious about his museum works, consider the scene where "Solomon" is left on his tip-toes with a noose around his neck as the kind of looping film-based installation you might find under McQueen's name in a museum.

Another example of what a visual artist like McQueen is capable of, as opposed to a feature film director like, say, Martin Scorsese, takes place in the cotton fields, where we see the hands of slave pickers and the cotton they have been ordered to pick. For it is here that the hands of "Patsy" reveal her to be not necessarily a harder worker than "Solomon" (whose hands have been trained to play the violin), but someone in possession of a greater skill than the men and women she picks with.

This detail functions as a seasoning in 12 Years a Slave, particularly when we step back from the close-ups to see "Patsy" standing with the other slaves at the end of the working day, where her totals are always the highest (and growing higher), with the lowest taken outside for a whipping. This same motivational method is employed by our province's wealthiest businessman, Jimmy Pattison, who, as a used car dealer, would fire his lowest-selling salesperson at the end of each month -- and boast about it.

When it comes to cotton-picking production, "Patsy" never receives a whipping -- her skill protects her from that. But could it be said that it is this skill that transforms her from a rather plain-looking woman into an object of desire by a slave-owner whose reputation is based on his ability to get the most from his slaves? This is something I wrestled with upon leaving the theatre, something that kept me dumb while others in the lobby were attempting to verbally trace the complexities of this most extraordinary film.

In order to answer the question of the slave-owner's obsession with "Patsy", I returned to the question of the slave-owner -- who he is and what he wants. If it is not "Patsy"'s skill, is it her skill's negation of his prowess as an accelerator of slave productivity that has him not only sexually penetrating her every night but strangling her within an inch of her life as well (to say nothing of the whipping she receives later for telling the truth, where "Solomon", on the other hand, has avoided his by lying)? Is this man's motivation based on sexual gratification or protecting his reputation as a slave labour innovator, or are the two conflated to the point where they are one in the same? 

What drives men of industry? What do they want?

Tonight I will be responding to visual artist Dan Starling's The Kidnapper's Opera (2013), a feature-length video that will be screened at the Pacific Cinematheque at 7PM. Like McQueen's film, The Kidnapper's Opera is structured more like a book of lyric poetry than a narrative fiction novel. Both are based on a kidnapping: in 12 Years a Slave, "Solomon" is kidnapped in the (free) North and sold in the South, while in The Kidnapper's Tale, it is the 1990 kidnapping of Pattison's daughter that provides Starling's title its singular possessive noun.

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