Sunday, October 18, 2009

CIFF 09: Precious

(NOTE: Review has been revised and, if you can believe it, expanded.)

Since I've been away for two days from regular, review-based festival coverage—busy, I don't mind saying, submitting a dossier of 400+ pages of new writing and teaching materials to ensure the security of my job for the next three years—I figured I needed to come back full swing to keep you hooked on this CIFF material. So what better time to reveal the one exception I made to my general rule of avoiding the marquee presentations of imminent commercial releases? Even if I'm at least as excited about the possibilities of Antichrist, playing elsewhere in the festival lineup, and of Where the Wild Things Are, which I'm dutifully skipping till the festival is over, there was no way anyone was keeping me away from Precious. At this point the film needs no introduction, though my review merits the forewarning that it's one of my longer pieces. Possible spoilers along the way, unless you've already been inundated with coverage about the film, which has tended to speak pretty liberally about its structure and key scenarios. I like the film but couldn't quite love it; as engrossed as I was, I had qualms about the terms on which my fascination and even my sympathy were being elicited. I'll hope to be hearing from you in the Comments, even after the movie rolls out for its hugely hyped commercial release.

Precious played two dates at the Festival, including the Centerpiece Gala where Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe won awards for artistic achievement. The film opens commercially in the U.S. on Fri, 11/6.

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15 Comments:

Blogger Catherine said...

Thanks for this review, which arrives, coincidentally, the exact week in which I was reading essays by Hortense Spiller for a class. I'm not going to be able comment on the film until I can see it, which probably won't be for months, but your review has given me a lot to chew over beforehand.

5:26 AM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

And afterwards! [SPOILERS] Briefly, we may be on different pages about the climax: for one thing, I think it's exactly the confessional Precious needs to hear and have witnessed, and as such the right dramatic denouement. More to the point, it doesn't so much condemn an already monstrous mum as open a window onto how sick she is: the scene isn't really about how culpable she is but why. I can see your qualms about the mum-blame but at least it's digging into specific psychology, by which I mean specific mental disorder, really.

6:25 AM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

I (obviously) haven't seen it, but I enjoyed the review, especially the bits with Paris is Burning thrown in (and since Daniels is a gay black man, it seems somewhat doubly appropriate).

Does all of that make Mo'Nique Mary LaBeija?

7:32 AM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Catherine: Incredible! Hortense was one of my Ph.D. advisors and remains one of my favorite people in the world—certainly the most fun dinner companion known to man. I hope you're enjoying whatever you're reading. Imagine the reactions of people who sometimes visit this site and feel that my sentences and word-choices push too hard!

@Tim: I revised the last bit of the review this morning for clarity and context, re: my points about Mo'Nique's character. In some ways, I think we agree more than it may have sounded in the first draft, but I still can't shake the feeling that the scene is finally delivered for the audience more than it is for Precious. As hard and potentially senseless as I can imagine it would be to cut away from everything Mo'Nique gives to that scene, Precious figures in it much less than I think she'd need to for the film to verify it's as interested in what she hears as it is in what Mary says, and how. Mental disorder, we agree on, as fostered by whatever Mary's childhood was like (what is that mama-grandma relation about?). But traces of her rationale have been heard in several rants earlier in the film, so what seems newest to me in the conclusion is the (sort of) admission of wrongdoing, and the (doleful but also furious) tears.

@Glenn: Trust me, Mary is the furthest thing from a House mother, and if she were, you would run screaming from that House.

8:57 AM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

wonderful review. I liked the movie more than you did, though. I agree that the ending is problematic -- though not exactly for the reasons you state... I don't think you can blame the film if the audience embraces the "blame everything on mom" reaction. I think that's more the audience's problems that they need villains as much as they do.

To me that scene, tough as it was to sit through, actually made me weep for both child AND mother... Mo'Nique's performance being too strong and too revealing for any sort of satisfying condemnation (the condemnation part is easy... but it sure as hell is not satisfying if you have tapped into the film's empathy for suffering people. This woman creates hell for her child but it's not as if she herself isn't living in one. She may be stoking the flames but where would she get the help Precious is getting?

i worried too initially about Mo'Nique's ability to pull the cahracter together to be a specific person (that welfare visitor scene plays initially like Mary is a totally different person. Not just Mary acting like a different person) but i think the final scene ties it all up superbly as far as her performance goes... you can see Mo'Nique trying out all the different parts that Mary plays in order to escape blame and/or get her way and you see those gradations of her manipulative identity as well as what I assume is bipolar disorder mixed with other psychological illnesses.

loved the performance. but i'm with Tim here that it flails at the "why" in such intriguing ways.

12:22 PM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger Guy said...

I can't wait to read this, but I'm going to wait until after I see the film at LFF in a few days' time, so I can engage more completely with the argument at hand. So now I have more to look forward to than just the film itself -- thanks!

I will say, however, that I'm strangely relieved to finally encounter a slightly reserved take on the film -- unanimous adulation always makes me wary, cynical bastard that I am.

Coincidentally enough, I also just had a like-not-love encounter with an Oscar frontrunner today -- all the individual parts of "Up in the Air" are well nigh impeccable, but the sum didn't move me the way it does some.

12:33 PM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger Catherine said...

Nick, that is so cool! Rest assured that my previous leaving-off the last letter in her surname is due to haphazard typing rather than lacksadaisical scholarship.

1:39 PM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: I totally agree that it's scary as well as poignant, watching Mo'Nique's Mary cycle among her various personas and carapaces as she tries to crack her impossible situation. I was struck all through the movie by how hard-as-a-m*****f***** Mary nonetheless calls all the welfare officers and social workers by their formal titles), but watching her bounce around "Ms. Weiss" and "you" and "this bitch" within this one scene was kind of an index to her own fritzed-out desperation. It's quite a kaleidoscope, and I agree that the performance and the film enable a kind of darkly grudging empathy for Mary... but you yourself have made the point that the film can't always decide whether it wants a character or a fathomless villain in this role, so I dispute that it's only the audience who subjectively might receive this ending as a kind of Salem Witch Trial. And I hope no one's thinking that I believe Mary should be exempted from harsh rebuke. I'm just not sure I want her pulling such strong focus in the final moments, either to villainize or to "understand" her. It feels to me like the movie knows Mo'Nique is serving up gold with this performance, and it's worried it won't be able to top her with anything else.

Totally, completely subjective, but I wanted the movie to end with another of those 10-minute homesteads in the Each One classroom, where it's still not clear who is making definitive progress and who's in danger of backsliding, who is getting along today and who isn't, what it does to the class that Precious has got two kids to watch, and is probably needing to bring at least one of them with her... It's the idiom where she comes off best, by which I mean most fully herself, but it's also the locus where the film (for me) attains its clearest, least fussy visions of how far she has to come, and how irregular and uncertain the hard-won successes of all of these girls will probably be for a long time.

@Guy: Trust me, I'll be as eager to hear what you think as you hopefully are to delve into this discussion.

@Catherine: Let's just think about how many typos I repeatedly perpetrate on this site, and let's assume from there that I wasn't at all bothered! :)

4:51 PM, October 18, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I have decided that I am ADAMANTLY against limited withheld releases again. This is a movie that needs to be discussed and they just aren't going to let people see it until November.

it's so annoying!

1:35 PM, October 20, 2009  
Blogger Dame James said...

As if I wasn't excited enough for this film, you had to mention that Precious is an almost hybrid of The Bluest Eye and Chicago. My anticipation is through the roof now.

Hm. What does that say about me?

9:59 PM, October 22, 2009  
Blogger Michael Parsons said...

I loved this review, especially your obvious love and admiration for the performances of every player.

I have read ‘Push’ 5 times now. Not every horror has been transferred to film, but they have been hinted at.
Such horrors can not be easily transferred to screen such as Precious having an orgasm while her father rapes her and loving the feeling her body is giving her, but hating herself at the same time, or her first memory of her mother being the taste and smell of her vagina.
I am glad they were left out (aside from when Mary, while masturbating, called Precious to her room for help) as they would have been too much for the audience.
I myself loved the movie, passionate love.
I have read many reviews where the reviewer has a problem with the ending. Sure you are left with the memory of Mo’Niques’ searing performance, which may distract some from Precious’ story but for me it underlined everything ‘Precious’ was saying.

Precious is of Mary, everything Precious is and has become is a direct result of Mary. She knows her mother is unstable, she calls her crazy in voice over many times. So when Mary pours out her regret, her hate, her justification, Precious doesn’t care – there is no forgiveness, just pushing forward..
This admission is not for Precious, this is for the audience (Miss Weiss).
We need this.
Monsters like Mary do not just happen, they are slowly created over time, neglect and history. Mary has been functioning only in her own dysfunctional view of her life. Bad skin, and armpit hair, dancing to disco while brushing her wig. She is holding on to a version of herself that no longer exists. Precious is a constant reminder of her failings, her loneliness and her neglect. And she is unable to take ownership for herself and Precious is a convenient scapegoat to blame for everything.
As Mary is talking to Miss Weiss you can see the realisation of her actions come pouring out. She realises how pathetic he is as she tries to justify herself. She becomes angry as a reaction to her honesty.
Her truth is out there and she cannot take it back. She is a broken and disturbed creature and now people know.
There is no redemption for Mary, redemption is impossible. What we feel is not forgiveness or sympathy (if you feel sympathy allow yourself). It is something that goes much deeper and is much harder to put a finger on. Guilt.
At one point Mary loved Precious (the photo flash backs show this) but her circumstances caused her weak mind to be twisted along the way.

We have all seen the scenario where some guy starts chatting up a pretty girl at a bar/club, pretty girl flirts back then all of a sudden the guys girlfriend shows up. Instead of reprimanding her man who is in the wrong, she attacks the innocent girl. Why?
I have no answer, I have never understood that logic, but the same thing is on display in ‘Precious’, but to a much more horrific effect.

When I say we feel guilt, perhaps it is because of our realisation that as horrific as we know Precious’ life is, we know this happens and we have pretended it hasn’t. There is no sticking our heads in the sand. The emotion we are feeling is in us. For every homeless person we have ignored, or every fat person we have sniggered at, for every mentally, or physically ill person we have crossed the road to avoid, that shame is on us.
The whole film is to get us to this moment. Precious’ journey is a catalyst to audience enlightenment, and Mary’s’ confession brings it all home, to each of us. We are all Precious, but hardly ever see past the ‘I’ to the ‘them’.

6:56 AM, October 26, 2009  
Blogger Arv said...

Interestingly, during the press conference at Toronto, Sherri Shepherd said Lee gave her a copy of Paris is Burning to see in one of their shooting days.

1:16 PM, October 27, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was the most pompous ass, ridiculous and long winded review of a movie i have ever read. A joke

11:23 AM, November 03, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Arv: I figure it would be quite something for a gay, African-American, middle-aged director-producer and movie nut to make a movie set in Harlem in 1987 and not think of Paris Is Burning.

@Anonymous: Why don't anonymous commenters ever understand that lobbing these kinds of harsh criticisms without even having the guts to put your name on them—much less to refute the points of the review with any specific arguments of your own—totally negates the force of whatever you're trying to say? I am the first to admit that my style of reviewing isn't what everyone wants, and that some people really can't stand it. Fair enough. There are reviewers I can't stand to read, either. But, honestly, what is the point of having nothing to say beyond a bunch of bland name-calling and detail-less insults?

12:59 PM, November 03, 2009  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Thanks for this generously thoughtful "review." I do love your -- what is it? -- "pompous ass" way of working through a complicated, challenging film.

To the film:
The movie finally arrived here this past week and I got my chance to see it yesterday (as part of a curious but revealing Thanksgving day double-feature with Fantastic Mr. Fox).

A few random thoughts:

1) I'll need to see it again because the toddler sharing the row with me at my 10am screening was feeling especially chatty right during Mary's speech. An apt incongruity, to be sure.

2) The final moment of "triumph" with Precious walking the streets of NY having finally (?) escaped the pull of her mother's needful expectations reminded me so much of the final note of Real Women Have Curves.

3) I don't know that I expected to "enjoy" the film as much as I did. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would. And the flights of color-saturated fantasy worked so much more effectively than I expected. Equally as evocative of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy as Roxy Hart.

4) And while I didn't find the film's handling of Mary to be entirely effective, I did find in the characterization to suggest an intelligent appreciation of the incongruities of such brutality. (We won't go into the particulars right now, but the social worker farce was among the most "real" of Mary's scenes to me. Largely BECAUSE "the seams" showed.) To me, the movie's thematically about the peripety of the abused child's choice to (not) become an abuser. That's the pivot in the narrative of Mary's final speech AND at the core of Precious's final action/s. (Moreover, this turn is one charted -- unsubtly, perhaps, but I suspect productively -- by the three beats in Precious's treatment of the little girl from her building).

5) The movie is ripe and messy and embarrassing with emotion and I find that I admire this choice. Seeing Mr. Fox immediately after Precious underscored, for me, how risky it was for Daniels to let the emotions be messy, inchoate and incoherent in this film (think of the ways Spielberg & Demme tidied, and ultimately reduced, things). It's a bold choice, and it's what made the film work for me.

I just saw "The Reel Geezers" take on Precious and find myself concurring with Marcia Nasatir's assessment that this will be an iconic film -- not sure how exactly, but I do suspect it will be.

Thanks -- for this review, and for letting me commandeer a month-old comment thread to think some things through.

9:45 AM, November 27, 2009  

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