Friday, December 11th, 2009

Flicked Off, with Kia Matthews and Natasha Vargas-Cooper: 'Precious,' or, Can a Movie be a Social Act?

MM HMM'Precious' has been in theaters for a week now, but since it's Mo'Nique's birthday today, we feel it is now time to finally get to it!

Natasha: Girl, how did you feel about going into this movie?

Kia: Well. I didn't even want to see it. The trailer made me cry, so, I wasn't really looking forward to a full length version of that. It looked like that emotional porn? You know, downtrodden person going through trails, tribulations, strife, set to uplifting music and/or a gospel song, etc.

Natasha: I wanted to see it for two reasons 1. Oscars, natch. 2. I wanted to dislike it. BUT GURL I LOVED IT.

Kia: Part of my reluctance to see it was that it looked extremely manipulative. On the one hand you have the story of a poor black fat woman in the ghetto. Which is like, YES WE KNOW IT IS DIFFICULT. On the other hand you can't NOT tell these kinds of stories because it's real and it happens more than anyone not living it could imagine. But it was different than I expected, I can say that.

Natasha: What did you like about it? And what was different?

Kia: Well it sort of bypassed that whole "niggas ain't shit" thing. Like, her father was awful but we never met him. The only man we really meet is someone who cares for her when he really doesn't have to which I also liked.

Natasha: What is the "Niggas ain't shit" gimmick? I mean, I think I know to what you are referring, but please explain!

Kia: Just the idea that all men are dogs, you can't trust a man, men are the cause of all of our (black women) problems, etc, a.k.a. every Madea movie.

Natasha: And in this case all the problems were from….? Poverty?

Kia: So many things. Mostly Monique.

Natasha: Let's talk about MO.

Kia: I'm still torn on her. Was she ACTING? or BEING?

Natasha: Well that's what was so magnificent to watch. I think it was like these incredible performances (from the whole cast) where you do not think for a moment the person is acting. So about Mo's character: she abuses her daughter, allows her to be raped, belittles her, and is essentially evil. BUT what I found surprising…

Kia: Was that you totally felt sorry for her at the end?

Natasha: YES! The movie was actually able to delve, pretty well, into the root of this evilness.

Kia: The thing about child abuse is that its just so… ridiculous. By that I mean, you watch portrayals of it and think HOW COULD ANYONE DO THAT? This person is obviously heinous.

Natasha: Right.

Kia: Or you think "they should know better" or whatever. But you rarely get to see inside the abuser's mind and not that abuse should ever be justified, but it is rarely a simple as we want it to be.

Natasha: What about Mo's acting?

Kia: Ok, here's my thing: Mo'Nique is 100% to the core B-more. Hometown girl. So when I see her playing these ultra ghetto roles, I'm thinking to myself, "uh, that's just her." I don't know that woman but I know Baltimore. So beyond the ease of her execution of "white bitch" and other cussings, I do think she did an great job of just being… nasty, you know?

Natasha: For sure. One of the things that gave me pause, though, for a movie that did not try to patronize, was that all the kind women in Precious' life were light-skinned?

Kia: A lot of what I've been reading about it mentions this. That it's just a step down from "white woman saving colored youths."

Natasha: Did it catch your attention too?

Kia: Not really, because to say that a light-skinned black woman's assistance is less authentic is untrue. It was really irrelevant to me in this particular movie. Also because she wasn't made out to be some beauty queen "high yella" lady.

Kia: High yellow, btw, is black talk for very light skinned :)

Kia: And there were so many different women of color around her.

Natasha: My favorite scenes, btw, were the ones in the classroom with all those other saucy bitches.

Kia: That was so different than I expected! There was a lot of humor. But on the light skinned lady thing, the one that seemed to fail her the most, other than her mother, was the lightest one of them all.

Natasha: Yup. Ms. Mariah Carey, the social worker.

Kia: I thought she did a pretty good job. I mean, that bitch is so crazy though that slightly above average is AMAZING.

Natasha: Now what about her role? When Precious is like "you cannot handle this." I feel like this a moment that so many movies try to do and fail. You know-do-gooder versus reality-but it worked here.

Kia: Yeah, it wasn't like, 'Hey, Whitey. Let me take you to the ghetto and show you REALITY.' It just kind of dropped in her lap. Whatever little help she could provide from the Welfare office desk.

Natasha: Right. That's what was interesting about the whole 'safety' net of Precious' life. Not one person could save her; professor, social worker, or otherwise. And there was no intention of 'saving' it was like 'here is the one thing I can give you.' And even that isn't going to be very good or guarantee that your life is NOT AWFUL.

Kia: It wasn't like, say, The Blind Side, where a rich white lady takes in a wayward youth and essentially paves his way to a bright future.

Natasha: Why didn't this devolve into some Lifetime after school special? Or some white guilt tract, a la 'CRASH'? The thing is, I don't know that it ISN'T a white guilt manipulation-a-thon.

Kia: Part of me thinks that's why it's this year's indie darling. Because well-meaning ultra liberal whites are really FEELING THE POWER OF THIS MOVING STORY.

Kia: I viewed the movie totally different than how the average white American would.

Natasha: DO GO ON.

Kia: For one thing, you never EVER see overweight… well really obese black women as the protagonist of anything if you see them at all. And as a "person of color and of size"-or in lay terms, Big Black Bitch-I immediately empathize with her in a way that most people won't. Even if our lives are completely different.

Natasha: How do you think AMERICA sees this movie?

Kia: I was just trying to think about how to articulate that without sounding racist. I can tell you that I felt a little embarrassed watching it, which made me feel like a "bad Black."

Natasha: What made you embarrassed?

Kia: The mis-conjugation of verbs, for one: "what this is?" I also don't want to seem like I'm playing the "oh you can't appreciate this like I can" card.

Natasha: I can tell you that I'm embarrassed for liking the movie because I don't want it to seem that I'm pitying 'ghetto blacks' and giving myself a pat on the back for seeing their stories.

Natasha: AAAAH! This movie!

Natasha: The WSJ said this: "That's not to diminish the fable's value, only to note the near-saintly devotion of an alternative-school teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and a social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey), and to acknowledge the time-lapse pace of the heroine's blossoming under their care. 'Precious' is genuinely and irresistibly inspirational. If the filmmaking weren't so skillful and the acting weren't so consistently brilliant, you might mistake this production for a raw slice of life from a Third World country where movies can still be instruments of moral instruction and social change."

Natasha: It is that last line that makes me uneasy. Can a movie be a social act?

Kia: Oh absolutely! One of my favorite movies, though it isn't a feature film, is Angels in America. What I love about it is that it presents a discussion on "Americaness" through the experiences of gay men in the 80s. A group who then, and now really, are second or even 3rd class citizens. When you think of "what does it mean to be an American", don't nobody care about no gays.

Natasha: But with race, doesn't the problem become that art gets confused with "how the other half lives" kind of bullshit?

Kia: I don't think Precious fell into that trap. I don't think anyone involved in the creative process intended Push/Precious to be an "expose into the unknown lives of the less fortunate."

Natasha: The irony is, that it does. In a much more powerful way. Do you think it will get the nominated for Best Picture?

Kia: Well, white guilt is certainly a factor in what's nominated/who wins. For instance: Crash winning over Brokeback. I could have killed a motherfucker.


Kia: They picked it to seem DOWN WITH THE STRUGGLE. But we can say that we genuinely liked Precious. Struggle aside.

Natasha: I'm glad we could have this discussion. RACE MOVIES ARE COMPLICATED.

Kia: I want to close with something witty and poignant, you know, as an Official Internet Black.

Kia: Somebody's got to speak up.

Kia: And say:

Kia: "Hey, Whitey?"

Kia: "No."

Kia Matthews and Natasha Vargas-Cooper like to stay up late and discuss.

44 Comments / Post A Comment

balsa_wood (#465)

Precious has only been out for a week? Where y'all livin'?

kiamatthews (#2,192)

It's been out for a while here (DC). I think maybe she meant it's been wide for a week? You can't trust anything that Natasha person writes anyway.

Kia is a terrible publicist.

Natan (#1,967)

Precious certainly wasn't what I was expecting. The tone was about as un-Oprah as you could get, and it was very, very good on the level of pure filmmaking technique. Its sense of irony also wasn't what you expect from any American film, particularly a film by and about black Americans. I think this is what threw some highbrow critics. Stylistically, the film has a pretty fatalistic, detached, sardonic attitude–I'm going to risk offense and say that in art, this is basically a European attitude–and they seemed unable to cope with seeing that attitude directed at a group they've for so long considered their personal charity cases. Highbrow film critics also tend to be doctrinaire liberals, and I can't imagine how confused they must have felt when they realized this was the most angrily anti-welfare film ever made.

My biggest problems with it were the performances of Monique, who I didn't find at all convincing, and Patton, who never got that damn "I am a SAINT" look off her face. The dynamic of the students at Precious's second school also seemed fudged–we see them centering around Precious, socially, without much of anything having led to that. Some of those scenes made me feel I was watching Head of the Class.

balsa_wood (#465)

"it was very, very good on the level of pure filmmaking technique."

I would strongly disagree with this. Tonally, it's scattered, visually it's scattered, and certain elements that should really disturb the viewer are basically executed with cheap horror technique. (That monster father who's only suggested in Joel Schumacher flashbacks…groan…talk about a missed opportunity…)

And the fantasy sequences, which were Lee Daniels's idea, are generic and useless. Why on earth it helps us to know that Precious dreams of being a fashion model (or whateverthefuck) is beyond me. Overplayed and obvious.

I'm left with lots of questions after the above discussion. They bring up whether or not a film can be a "social act," but then never really attempt to answer that question. What they seem to be asking is whether a film can have a "social conscience." 'Social act" implies that a movie can bring about change, which is a much steeper hill.

On the fantasy sequences : I found them to be generic stand ins for what young girls dream of. Which is true. Young girls want to be covered in lights and adored and photographed. These are naive and silly dreams, sure. But I think they were meant to reflect what a kid Precious still was. And a girl! Girly-ness was a crucial element to the movie.

balsa_wood (#465)

That's a good read on them, I think, one I hadn't thought of exactly. I guess I just never found them believable as fantasy. They seemed more like fantasies of fantasies…does that make sense? Caricatures of fantasies? Lots of mugging and laughing and sparkly lights? When girls fantasize, don't they think about the realities of being famous, and having power? There was something so general (generic) about the sequences, and forgettable. As with the portrayal of rape, I feel like it was a missed opportunity.

Still, the movie's very worth seeing!

balsa_wood (#465)

Also, you're saying the film's sense of irony and detachment threw off "highbrow" film critics? Because it's too European?


You're spending a lot of time thinking for other people, chief.

But then, for you Brokeback Mountain was "boring and pointless." Woof, we need a visit from the Coherence Fairy.

Natan (#1,967)

I said that its harsh attitude threw them because they don't want to see the film's subject treated (stylistically) harshly. Not a complicated thought. That its tone would have otherwise appealed to exactly the people who've panned Precious is an irony against them.

The Reading Comprehension Fairy will be with you shortly.

Natan (#1,967)

Those fantasy sequences, by the way, seemed to me to be overtly critical of Precious, and of the garbage culture that was killing her, which was partly why I liked them, and why I think certain critics didn't. The transitions into the sequences were gimmicky, but portraying a character's inner life is always going to depend upon some kind of gimmick.

balsa_wood (#465)

So, "highbrow" critics want to see something more Oprah-fied. Wouldn't that make them "lowbrow"? Won't "highbrow" critics be familiar with European modes of storytelling?

Also, what critics are you talking about specifically? The movie's gotten generally very good reviews, and most of the complaints have more to do with the excesses of villainy in the film–that all the frying pan throwing and baby throwing and incest rape lead to a portrait that's not, well, terribly subtle. Which critics have issues with the film's (arguably) detached scheme?

balsa_wood (#465)

"Portraying a character’s inner life is always going to depend upon some kind of gimmick."

Not really. Not at all, actually.

I also don't think most grizzled film critics would have problems with critiques of "garbage culture." I'd wager most film critics fall asleep at night madly muttering to themselves about the death of intelligent civilization.

Natan (#1,967)

You say: "So, “highbrow” critics want to see something more Oprah-fied."

I said: No such thing. I don't know what they want. Neither do they.

You say: "Won’t “highbrow” critics be familiar with European modes of storytelling?"

I said: "That its tone would have otherwise appealed to exactly the people who’ve panned Precious is an irony against them."

Which precluded your question.

You ask: "Also, what critics are you talking about specifically?"

Dana Stevens of Slate and David Edelstein of New York. Not highbrow for 20 years ago, but the closest thing to it now, basically. As someone likely familiar with Gawker Media, you might be aware of a big fight on Jezebel about the latter's review.

You again: "…most of the complaints have more to do with the excesses of villainy in the filmâ€"that all the frying pan throwing and baby throwing and incest rape lead to a portrait that’s not, well, terribly subtle."

Most of the complaints do indeed imply that there's no acceptable way of portraying these completely plausible events. (Poverty, abuse, etc–sorry they're not more subtle!) Which is no doubt in part why some people have found said reviews offensive.

What interests me is, as I've already said two or three different ways, I think this film's attitudes and style place it in a pretty advanced filmmaking tradition, and I wasn't expecting that. As for its politics, they're actually a bit to the right of my own, at least insofar as I found the film's demonization of welfare pretty rather harsh–but, maybe, impressive.

"I’d wager most film critics fall asleep at night madly muttering to themselves about the death of intelligent civilization."

David Denby thanks you.

balsa_wood (#465)

Well, the page refreshed and ate up my reply, but your litigious laundry list left me wondering a few things:

Poverty and abuse and incest, crushing forces that they are, can indeed be portrayed subtly, through characters that do more than simply represent good or evil. Monique's character, until the (arguably rug-pulling) final scene is evil. Fine. But that doesn't make her interesting, or terribly believable. Is her character plausible? Well, sure, I guess…serial killers are plausible, right? But that doesn't make her compelling necessarily, or challenging. She's easy to hate, easy to root against.

The portrayal of incest and rape here struck me as "plausible," I guess, but effective? Instead of some attempt at verisimilitude, we get chopped-up inserts, saturation, heavily expressive sound effects, and no faces. Valid, fine, but not good filmmaking. There's a lot of effort to horrify here, and not all that much effort to understand. (Some effort, of course, but not much.) Read a book like RANDOM FAMILY, then watch this movie. Which leaves you with a greater understanding, greater empathy?

And how does the film demonize welfare? The arc of the story is someone being helped by a government schooling program, and the most humane characters are a teacher and a social worker. Monique's character games welfare, that's true–but then that just means her CHARACTER is demonizing welfare, no?

Natan (#1,967)

I think Precious verbally dismisses welfare several times. Public schooling, which is all her second school is, isn't welfare.

Precious rejects everything the social worker attempts.

balsa_wood (#465)

"Precious rejects everything the social worker attempts."

She does, because she's afraid and abused, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers are rejecting social workers or government aid. In any case, it's definitely pro-community.

Natan (#1,967)

Precious doesn't demonstrate fear in either of the encounters with the social worker that are shown. The point of the first meeting, instigated by her mother, is to get a welfare check. Precious sabotages this and seems happy enough about that when reflecting on it immediately after. The purpose of the second meeting, again instigated by her mother, is to suck Precious back into her mother's household. Precious shows no interest.

The social worker is depressed by the whole situation, but she's forced by her job to basically do the bidding of the mother in both situations. Precious totally rejects what the social worker begrudgingly attempts in both cases.

I think you have as much trouble accepting this film's hostility to the welfare state as certain critics have had.

iplaudius (#1,066)


josh_speed (#97)

N & K: Insightful chat. I am _dying_ to see this movie, but I'm afraid it'll wreck me emtionally for days.

And as for the gays/Brokeback Mountain thing: PREACH.

berthamason (#740)

I've never known what to think about how homophobia factored into Crash winning the Oscar. Maybe Crash won because the Academy is more interested in seeming not-racist than not-homophobic, but (mostly) because it was an ADD-friendly, super-starry L.A. movie made by L.A. people rather than a slow sleepy arty western made by a Taiwanese dude. Home court advantage etc.

josh_speed (#97)

If you read the Nikki Finke article (still online?) from 1-2 weeks before the Oscars, this is what happened:
–Some straight male Academy members expressed that they wouldn't screen it;
–BBM was a Canada-shot, small cast piece made during the writers' strike;
Crash was a large cast, LA-shot piece that, as N & K seem to say above, kowtowed to white liberal guilt;
…and so yes, you are exactly right.

kiamatthews (#2,192)

I think it was a little from column A, a little from column B. But really, Crash shouldn't have even been nominated. Paul Haggis can eat a bag of dicks, especially for being responsible for that bastardized American version of The Last Kiss.

Complete non sequitur but "eat a bag of dicks"? LOVE IT! And even more when in reference to Paul Haggis' L'Ultimo Bacio.

Natan (#1,967)

I think Brokeback also suffered for having been boring and pointless. Both fellows got most of what they wanted, presuming the one wanted to be raped at the beginning. Was it an advocacy film for neglected wives?

I've never subjected myself to Crash. Mark Lisanti's public campaign against it convinced me.

josh_speed (#97)

"Boring and pointless"? That's just wrong. Did you miss the part about how the Love was going to be the only Love those characters had in their entire lives, and how it got screwed up for them?

Natan (#1,967)

For a moment I thought you were quoting a Celine Dion lyric.

josh_speed (#97)

Natan: You are a troll. Welcome to your hairy-palmed life.

HAAAAH! Natan is right, I think it was more convincing of the latter. I was not a big Brokeback fan. I was a VIOLENT ANTI-CRASH HATER. HATE.


Natan (#1,967)

Josh, a pathetic film by a mediocre hack touched your heart. I'm happy for you. You capitalize "love." I'm happy for you.

It's so worth it though! Plus, crying in the dark! UNDERRATED!

Legs Battaglia (#2,484)

My issue with the movie was that the good people were 100% angelic and the bad people were 100% evil and there seemed to be no in-between. unsubtle.

Matt Langer (#2,467)

Jesus, I've never seen anyone demonstrate as much coherence while in the throes of an Ambien blackout as NVC.

More like this, plz.

balsa_wood (#465)

I'm envious that this registered so coherently for you.

It might be a lady movie? What's your middle part?

balsa_wood (#465)

Hm? I don't understand…I was just saying, I wish I could say the dialogue here cleared up some issues I had with the movie, but alas, no.

It's a tricky, borderline schizophrenic movie.

@balsa wood.

I meant, like, I'm not sure men would like this movie? There's a REALLY unquiely feminine quality to it. So I was asking you if you're a lady or man?

balsa_wood (#465)

Oh, men ("the thicker sex") can handle a wider spectrum of cinema than you're allowing…

Oh and, HELL YES I'M A MAN!!!

iplaudius (#1,066)

I found this dialogue very helpful. Thank you.

Not to plunge into bathos, but I would like to know what Kia thinks of the character Mercedes on Glee? For me, the evolution of that character and her status in the group has been surprising in some ways, but …

I enjoy this term 'bathos'. 'splain it, plz.

iplaudius (#1,066)

Bathos literally means "depth," in Greek. But in literary criticism it is used to refer to a mixture high and low styles, or serious and comedic subject matter, particularly when such a mix turns out to be unintentionally funny or just plain bad.

As a piece of terminology, it was first used by Alexander Pope (at least that's what I learned) — the master of sarcasm and satire in the age that most excelled at that kind of writing. (What would their blogs have been like? Or their commenters, for that matter? Funnier and meaner than we, probably.) I don't think there is anything untrue or misleading in the Wikipedia articles on Bathos and Pope's essay that introduced the term, Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry.

I like the "plunge into bathos" (or bathetic plunge), because it's like saying literally that we're plunging into the depths when what we mean is we're plunging into shallowness. Which makes no literal sense! (Unless you imagine diving into the shallow end and hitting your head?) But the cognitive dissonance of "plunge into bathos" somehow fits the dissonance of bathetic expression.

I also like that bathos sounds like bath, and baths are shallow, and baths are fun, and kind of funny sometimes too, and you could say the someone "plunged into a bath," but that would be kind of a silly and perhaps bathetic thing to say. As far as I know, there is no etymological relationship between bathos (Gr., depth) and bath (which is a genuine old English word).

iplaudius (#1,066)

Oh, the other thing, not to belabor the obvious, is that bathos sounds a lot like pathos. B is basically the same consonant as P, only voiced, and pathos is generally the only other Greek word ending in -athos that anyone remembers anymore. So, when you utter "bathos," you can't help but evoke the binary pair pathos/bathos and the contrast between the representation of, say, psychologically realistic human emotion in writing ("real depth") and an unbelievable or poorly executed attempt at depth.

lempha (#581)

I think part of the problem is that white guilt is gonna happen — especially with a movie that grapples with race in the way that Precious does — regardless of whether the movie is simultaneously trying manipulate that effect for cash and/or Oscar nods.

slinkimalinki (#182)

i can't get past the fact that the book this was based on was absolutely fucking terrible.

What's the novel like?
I was thinking that during the movie. Like if I were reading this it would be too OUTRAGEOUS. Mo and Gabby brought the pathos.

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