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Precious | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Precious

We've got a new "Think Again" column called "It's a Bird. It's a Plane.It's...Cable News," and it's here

My Nation column, about Obama and Fox News and the rest of the media is called "Just Don't Call It Journalism," and that's here.

I did another piece on J Street for the IHT. It's called "Voices in the Wilderness" and that's here and then Le Monde Diplomatique asked me to do a podcast and that's here: Living on J Street.

Oh, and I really like the Tom Tomorrow cartoon here but I think it's long past time to lose the full beard. (Petey says: "Funny, you feel bad, but you look good...")

This Week on Moyers:

A damning report from the UN Human Rights Council on the violence in Gaza late last year has put Israel on the defensive. Bill Moyers talks with the man at the center of the storm, Justice Richard Goldstone, who despite working with many pro-Israel groups and Israeli institutions in the past has drawn intense criticism from some of Israel's supporters for his report, which said Israel's Defense Forces, as well as Hamas, may have committed war crimes in Gaza earlier this year. Goldstone is a renowned war-crimes investigator who's looked into human rights abuses in his native South Africa, as well as the former Yugoslavia, Argentina, and Rwanda.

Alter-recommendations:

1) If you go to the Met Museum now, you can see six Vermeers atonce, (and then walk down to the Frick and see three more, which makes nine, which is like, a quarter of all of them in the entire world....How are things in your city?) Seriously, the one they borrowed from Amsterdam to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Hudson's voyage has not been in this country since 1939 and it is a wonder. I will not even try to do it justice. While you're there, also terrific, but on a more earthly level is the great exhibition Robert Frank's "The Americans,"which, if viewed in historical context, is an amazing feat. Trust me, don't let these opportunities pass. Take a trip to the city, it's beautiful right now.

2) I really loved that Nick Hornby film, An Education. I also loved 35 Shots of Rum but that is going to be hard for you see.

3) James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover is also amazing. I am listening to it on audio and the reader is really terrific and the book has a power to it that is unique in my experience. It's the third part of a trilogy and I did not read the first two and someday I suppose, I will, but in the meantime, it is a brilliant meditation on recent American history, told from a left-wing paranoid--even for the Nation--point of view.

4) On the other hand, I hated, hated, hated Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, which could be described similarly. I don't really like Pynchon, but I like a good detective mystery. But God, this book is just gross. And silly. I stopped after about 100 pages.

5) I like this record by Chip Taylor. It's called Yonkers, NY andit's on on Train Wreck Records. Taylor's father was a golf pro who pretended to be an FBI agent. His brother is the right-wing nut actor, Jon Voight and his other brother is a big famous scientist named Barry Voight. Taylor wrote "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning" and "I Never Promised You a Rosegarden." Can you believe the same guy wrote those three songs? Anyway, he is nostalgic about many of the same things about which I am nostalgic. And so this is a winner.

6) The Definitive Vince Guaraldi. (Fantasy) You may know the guy as the fellow from "A Charlie Brown's Christmas," which everybody who knows anything knows is great. Well, that whole album is on the second cd of this collection and the rest of it is really pleasant and occasionally interesting and always tasteful. It'll probably put you in a good mood if you put it on.

7) The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism by Michael Kimmage, (Harvard University Press) The redoubtable Michael Kazin says "Michael Kimmage is an old-fashioned intellectual historian, and I mean that as a compliment. What is more, he is a real writer. His extraordinary book is one of the few studies of the making of Cold War liberalism that is as alive to personality and literary quality as to politics. He provides a fuller and fairer analysis of both men's work, with splendid comparative comments, than I have read anywhere else." Me, I just think it's really great. (Not recommended for people who think Alger is innocent, however.)

8) The Frankfurt School in Exile by Thomas Weatland, More solid, albeit a bit more theoretical intellectual history of the period inwhich America grew up and joined the rest of the world. Worth the effort.

9) The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Fifth Season. The thing I just noticed about this show is that aside from Rhoda, who got her own show, everybody stayed. This was one of the best things about the seventies and it's one of the few shows from then that is not depressing when you try and watch it today. It's three discs and I think about seventeen episodes. Now that all the Odd Couples are out, I's day all we have is Mary and Bob N to which we can look forward...

10) Ok, now here's a review of the new movie, Precious by our young Commie movie reviewer (and recent graduate of Brown University), Alison Fairbrother. If you want to complain about the review, complain to alison.fairbrother@gmail.com:

A father forces himself on top of a daughter with the words: "you're better than your mother." A mother throws a glass at the back of a daughter's skull. A daughter is force-fed plates of greasy food meant to keep her obese and make her feel unlovable.

This is the stuff of Precious, the devastating Lee Daniels film based on the novel Push by Sapphire, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and scheduled to open November 6.

Set in Harlem in 1987, the film begins with the tinkling of a music box, a child's eye view of the world from the back of a math class. Clareece "Precious" Jones (played brilliantly by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is an overweight, illiterate African American sixteen-year-old whose face holds both youthful promise and also flickers of deep despair.

Precious's math class induced daydreams are quickly intercut with her mother's assault at home, physical abuse that triggers vivid recollections of her father's sexual abuse, signified by pop-art-esque crackling of eggs in a frying pan, the murky bubbling of a thick soup, and the ominous grasping of a male hand for a jar of Vaseline. These hyper-real details are mixed with fantasy sequences: pounding R&B diva dance numbers, Precious surrounded by flashing bulbs in a sleek modeling studio, a handsome "light-skinned" man on a motorcycle beckoning to Precious from a sea of twinkling stars.

The fantasies are misleading, as what is remarkable about Precious is not her capacity to escape through make-believe, but her diligent and concrete efforts to construct an alternative reality based on her unwavering belief in herself.

Precious' talents are recognized by a principal who sends her to an "alternative" school, Each One Teach One, where the lovely "Miz Rain," (Paula Patton) instructs a small group of troubled teens in the ABCs. The girls at Each One Teach One provide comic relief, context, and seem genuinely moved by Precious' strength.

Daniels' camera weaves expertly in and out of Precious' consciousness, watching her through the Venetian blinds of her classroomor a rain-streaked window, and as she plods carefully along broad city avenues, navigating the hazards of idle men and rusted barbed wire fences. Other times we see the world through her eyes. In one particularly affecting moment, the camera moves deftly from Precious' mother's livid face down to a plate of oily pigs' feet that Precious is being forced to consume in the amber ill-light of their apartment in the projects. At other moments the city juts out at odd angles, as though Precious were cocking her head, wrought with emotion and fear. Most profoundly, the camera occasionally settles too closely upon Precious' face, judging her with the minute detail with which she must see herself.

Precious comes in a long line of contemporary American cinema that triumphs the value of a good teacher in empowering the disadvantaged. The act of storytelling, for the powerless, becomes a dramatic feat of empowerment that is nurtured by a passionate teacher who recognizes the value of creative expression and autobiography. Here too, Miz Rain--rendered nearly speechless by tears--tells Precious to write her story for the world. Still, the film doesn't follow the ordinary mold: we get the sense that it is not storytelling or teaching that saves Precious, it is her nearly super-human strength, tenderness, and capacity to love herself and her children despite every indication from her family that she is worthless.

Precious's strong sense of self is manifested in an interior monologue that obscures the voices of the other characters as she editorializes her experiences in real time. Her internal discourse can even rearrange the harsh and abusive ministerings of her mother into positive and uplifting messages. Early in the film, Precious's mother says, in heartbreakingly cruel tones, "don't nobody want you, don't nobody need you, you stupid bitch." Later, Precious will say to her own child, "Listen baby. Mother not dumb. Mother love you. Listen." Precious never fights to be heard, and this is perhaps an indication of the social vision of the filmmakers.

There are a few brief moments when wider social implications of Precious's situation sneak to the surface: Precious peers into the mirror hard enough to manufacture a thin white woman with blond ringlets; a social worker (Mariah Carey) attempts to reunite Precious with her mother and begins to cry when the mother says, "You sit there and judge me. You write these notes on your fucking pad about who you think I am." (At that moment this writer closed her notebook and capped her pen).

While it is clear that social work and welfare have failed families like the Jones', the film doesn't link the singularity of Precious's parents' abuse to failed systems and structural injustices. In fact, in the absence of the abusive father, the central evil figure is understood to be Precious' mother. The film does nothing to explain why her mother, played with incredible talent by Mo'Nique, is part of a long heritage of injustices that have left her angry, embittered, and violent.

Although film has no obligation to instruct, generate action, or dismantle ideology, I wondered whether this film might have been uniquely positioned to explain the role of American culture and history in creating abusive families dependent on welfare, and powerless to the point of seeking control through violence and rape. Through systematized racism and sexism we have allowed Precious' mother to heave a television set at her child; we have put the jar of Vaseline in Precious' father's hands. Precious makes it seem as though the familial abuse chronicled is merely the outcome of two malicious personalities who happen to have joined together to make a baby.

Daniels has done a good thing by finding a heroine in are markable African American youth, and I emerged from the film inspired and with a palpable respect for the singular story. Still, the beauty and affectiveness of Precious makes me wonder whether this film might have been able to move beyond the obvious question, "how could a mother abuse her child?" and dare to ask "how has America failed the Jones family?"

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