ANNE MARIE FOX
When a filmmaker chooses to title his movie Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, you know what qualities not to expect from him: concision, reticence, subtlety, allusiveness. You may also anticipate, correctly, a lack of excessive self-regard. Before you’ve even bought your ticket, producer-director Lee Daniels has disavowed any claim to have thought up his project’s sensational premise. I will soon get around to praising him for this modesty, and for his film as a whole. First, though, I need to deal with the question he’s raised about the relationship between the movie and its source.
Like Push before it, Precious purports to give voice to someone who is midway in status between a fictional character and a worst-case scenario: an illiterate, battered, obese, welfare-dependent 16-year-old girl in 1980s Harlem who at the start of the story is pregnant for the second time by her now-missing father. This is someone who can defiantly describe herself (in both the novel and the film’s voiceover narration) as a loud-talking, gluttonous offense to middle-class white society: “Ugly black grease to be wipe away.” The principal difference between the novel and the movie lies in the contrasting modes of irony they use to undo this hellish stereotype (which they themselves have called up) and affirm the character’s humanity. The novel does this work by drawing attention to the gap between Claireece Precious Jones’s inner world and her painfully limited powers of expression. (She is “in the ninfe grade” and has a daughter who “got Down Sinder.”) The movie draws your attention to the gap between Precious’s painfully limited circumstances and the extravagant means of expression at Daniels’s command.
He does not merely suggest Precious’s inner world. He makes it explode in full movie color against a jumpin’ soundtrack. The dimly lit box of daily suffering splinters apart, and Precious, suddenly draped in leopard skin and blessed with good hair, will sweep ecstatically onto a red carpet. Or she will receive encouraging nods and winks from the animated pictures in her photo album; or look in the mirror and see that she’s slim, pretty and blond; or literally become absorbed in the movie playing on TV–De Sica’s Two Women, if I’m not mistaken–and begin speaking Italian in a black-and-white world.
In the novel, Precious describes such imaginative longings in her own words. This isn’t to say that the author’s voice and the narrator’s are perfectly merged–the disguise is sometimes thin or inconsistent–but the match is close enough for novelistic convention. More important, language eventually becomes the medium for Precious’s growing sense of self-worth–Push is the story of an education–so that circumstance, fantasy and aspiration are all made of one malleable substance. In the film, though, Daniels’s set pieces split author from character, imagination from reality, in a way that cinematic convention does not entirely cover. Yes, these directorial flights wring pathos from Precious’s pop-culture dreams, which abase her heart even while lifting it. But as parodies, they elicit, perhaps unavoidably, a slight condescension toward the entertainments of the recent past and the people who were suckers for them. As amusements for the audience, they remove the viewer temporarily (blessedly) from the overall oppressiveness of the character’s life. Not least, as vehicles for performance, they give the remarkable young actress who plays Precious, Gabourey Sidibe, a few much-needed opportunities to show that she is not really this character.
Sidibe is a big woman–perhaps even bigger than the figure you might picture to yourself when reading Push–and comes onto the screen with the sort of shock effect that can be faked but in this case is not. You know the flesh is hers; and given the way she inhabits it in the early scenes, you can’t help wondering whether she also might own the glare, the scowl, the rolling gait and the purposeful mumble. (It swallows both rage and shame.) Even if Sidibe’s behavior is an act, it exposes something vulnerable in a real woman. Even if the woman signed on willingly for the exposure, she did so with almost as little power over her director as Precious has over the world. So the suspicion arises: in helping Daniels dramatize the humiliation of Precious, did Sidibe participate in her own?
The answer, delivered in the first fantasy sequence, comes with a mile-wide smile, a rolling wave of chin-to-toe dance moves and a note-perfect imitation of a starlet chirping into the microphones. Sidibe is rescued from the doom of first impressions–and given the way movies work, the character is rescued with her, even before the plot gets properly started and Precious begins her course of enlightenment in an alternative school.
This isn’t to say that the film’s pedagogical narrative could have been skipped. (If anything, it’s almost too important to the movie, which takes care to instruct Precious in everything a well-intentioned audience would want her to learn, from the alphabet to tolerance toward lesbians.) Nor does the revelation of Sidibe’s many-sidedness relieve the character from having to endure a singularly constricted life. (Although I’ve said a lot about the imaginative breaks in the film, your strongest memory might be of a gloomy, uterine apartment, lit solely by the TV set, where Precious is always within her mother’s striking distance.) Reality grinds on, and grinds down, in Precious; and yet there’s always a degree of play–in the sense of slack, as well as make-believe–in the way Sidibe both inhabits the character and escapes from her.
I think everything that’s most admirable about Precious can be summed up in Daniels’s treatment of Sidibe: how he keeps her safe and intact within a fully committed performance. This is more than kindness toward a novice who took on a risky role. It’s part of a pattern in Daniels’s approach, and evidence of his paradoxical modesty.
For a filmmaker with an excellent Rolodex and a taste for lurid subject matter–think of his producing Monster’s Ball and recruiting Halle Berry for the lead–Daniels has a way of undoing his own flashiness by casting against the grain. In Precious, he chose a comedian, Mo’Nique, to play the vile, violent, horrendously damaged mother; a rock star, Lenny Kravitz, to be a sweetly patient maternity nurse (the only decent man in the film, and the only one with a real speaking part); and an international sex symbol, Mariah Carey (the shining tresses hidden beneath a shaggy dark wig, the renowned bosom dowdily concealed), to be the crusty welfare caseworker whose ethnicity is a puzzle to Precious. All of them are implicitly more than the roles they portray; but none of them venture even a single wink at the audience. So the celebrities are rendered unobtrusive, while the newcomer (the only one who gets to break character) is elevated to the level of the stars.
It takes humility for a director to stand back and let the endless possibilities of human character assert themselves; just as it takes humility to locate the heart of a novel and translate it from twisted, uncertain words into gestures, expressions and tones of voice. That’s why, however much of Lee Daniels I see in this movie, I see more of the cast, the city, the period, the conditions. That’s why, despite my chronic suspicion of social-realist freak shows and tales to inspire moral uplift, I recognize something I can trust in Precious.
Besides, it’s devastating.
The first third of Oren Moverman’s new drama, The Messenger, is so cadenced and automotive that it might almost be Iranian. Two US soldiers–an experienced, older captain (Woody Harrelson) and a young sergeant who is uncomfortably new to his assignment (Ben Foster)–drive around an unnamed area, where they visit a variety of buildings, introduce themselves to a variety of characters and at each stop officially inform someone that a child or spouse has been killed in Iraq. That’s about it. There’s little for you to think about beyond the streets glimpsed through the windshield, the recitation of the prepared script (“The secretary of defense regrets to inform you…”) and the reaction that has to be endured. This part of the film is structured to reduce you to tears at ten-minute intervals, and it succeeds.
Maybe you think America needs a movie like this–in which case, Harrelson’s character will agree with you. While training Foster in the performance of his duty, which requires a lot of nerving up before the task and a lot of simmering down afterward, he adds a political tirade to his unfiltered stream of instruction, invective, self-dramatization and lewd opinionating, to the effect that citizens who endorse a war ought to know its cost. Harrelson needn’t have said it; the events you’ve seen have already made the point. But the soldier he’s playing is the expansive type–Foster is the one who’s quiet and tightly wound–so the speech gets by as a character’s outpouring, as much as a filmmaker’s statement.
The other line of dialogue that serves such a dual purpose is spoken in anger by Foster when he can no longer bear to deliver the blow and then retreat, in soldierly discipline, from its result: “We walk into these people’s lives. We don’t know shit.” The sergeant will therefore learn. He needs to connect with another human being (Harrelson at this point doesn’t count); while Moverman, for his part, needs to get the audience involved in the character’s emotions. Granted, America needs to grieve; but it won’t pay at the box office for 105 minutes of pure mourning. So we get the rest of The Messenger, which develops the little hints of backstory about Foster that were planted in the first third, while moving him into an awkward courtship with a freshly widowed military wife (Samantha Morton).
The adrenaline level drops, the whiff of political bile dissipates and The Messenger becomes a lesser film than it was at the beginning–but not at all a bad one. For one thing, it continues to be about the survivors, those people the sergeant said he wanted to know, without yet being able to admit that he was one of them. For another thing, it justifiably puts its faith in Foster, an actor with a bladelike body and edgy light baritone, who in previous roles has earned something of a reputation for psychopathic menace. If you’ve seen him in Alpha Dog or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, you know him by his thin, sardonic smile and quickness of attack. Here, all that nervous power is turned inward. Foster watches, and holds himself in check. You sense the strain; but this time, the character you fear for is him.
I admire The Messenger, some of it enormously. I just wish that the healing didn’t have to start so fast. We’ve waited a long time for a Moverman to make us feel the wound. Couldn’t we have borne it for one more hour?
* * *
The flying fish have turned into airplanes in an upside-down world, dropping fish-bombs into a rising sea of flames. It is August 1945, and Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) is dreaming in his marine biology laboratory. Sometime after he awakens, he will be informed that the Americans are waiting to take him away. He will emerge alone from the little white villa, dressed in a swallowtail suit, and allow the soldiers to conduct him to the headquarters of General MacArthur, where for the first time in his life he will turn a doorknob by himself. Despite the pain it causes MacArthur’s interpreter, Hirohito will also lower himself by speaking English to the American general. He is continually busy forming silent words, his lips gulping like a fish.
Scenes from Alexander Sokurov’s 2005 film The Sun: the third work in his twentieth-century dictators series, after Moloch (Hitler) and Taurus (Lenin), and the one that’s melancholy and a little hopeful. After a long delay, it is at last being distributed theatrically in the United States, starting with a run in New York at Film Forum (opening November 18). Nobody who cares about film will need a second hint.