What You've Heard is True: <i>12 Years a Slave</i> Is Amazing

09/13/2013 12:32 PM |

12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen

The first press screening of Gravity at the Toronto Film Festival nearly caused a stampede when the vast majority of ink- and pixel-stained wretches were shut out. I was one of the unlucky masses, but I managed to restrain myself from indulging in the rampant line-cutting and elbow-throwing. I was reserving my dirtiest tricks to get into the Wavelengths programs, although thankfully I didn’t have to employ them. The festival’s experimental section, programmed by Andrea Picard, has been expanding year-by-year, and 2013’s edition is overflowing with innovative work.


In her first year, 2006, Picard booked four programs of shorts. This year there are 21 events, with films ranging from five minutes to four hours. The shorts are still the event’s backbone, and this year’s series acts as a celebration of sorts of David Rimmer, the Canadian avant-gardist. His works are being restored by the Academy Film Archive, the initial result of which is a beautiful version of Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper (1970), a kaleidoscopic breakdown of an industrial-footage fragment. A woman flips up a sheaf of cellophane, a look of glazed contentment on her face. Rimmer puts her through the wringer, using the cellophane sheet as a cue to experiment with various visual strategies, abstracting the worker into a mass of color and sound. Set to the grinding synth score of Don Druick, it’s a symphony of materialist grandeur.

Nathaniel Dorsky and Peter Hutton were two more elder statesman with work on display: Dorsky’s Spring and Song, and Hutton’s Three Landscapes. Dorsky wanders his hometown of San Francisco with a 16mm camera, searching for the uncanny in the everyday. His color compositions are uniformly disorienting, close-ups that remove objects from their context, forcing a reassessment of their visual possibilities. The edge of light over a door frame, for example, looks like a portal to another world. Though Dorsky complained of focus issues with the projection, I was still transported. Hutton’s films are more concrete, almost anthropological, but they display a similar sense of patience. For Three Landscapes he captures static 16mm portraits of industrial Detroit, a farm in the Hudson River Valley, and the Dallal Depression in Ethiopia. They are scenes of contemplative stillness that awaken with spurts of movement, from an errant seagull to a tractor burping out a bale of hay.

I was intrigued by Scott Stark’s stereoscopic pop-art fantasia The Realist, in which he jury-rigged two digital cameras together to imitate the 3D process. The result, shot in a Macy’s, is a delirious spectacle of gleaming toasters and leering plastic models. (I chose to interpret it as a sequel to Mannequin: On the Move, sans Meshach Taylor.) Funnier was Bann, by Nina Könnemann, in which she spied on the increasingly isolated smokers in London’s financial district. Forced to skulk in dark corners outside looming skyscrapers, it’s as if the architecture itself is pushing these tobacco partisans into oblivion. The outcasts in Natpwe, the feast of the spirits are the transgendered of Burma, who gather each year in a small village to take part in a trance ritual to purge evil spirits. Shot in degraded B&W, its gyrating penitents use this ancient ceremony as a platform to express their individual freedoms inside of a repressive state.

My favorite in Wavelengths, and the entire festival, is Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a feature-length search for the secular sublime. The directors place musician Robert AA Lowe in three defamiliarizing situations: on a commune in Estonia, the wilds of Finland and a black metal bar in Norway. Lowe for the most part stays silent, a wanderer observing these attempts to transcend reality without the aid of god. The communards (improvising friends of the directors) frolic in the nude and picnic by a rusting industrial site. They are reclaiming the world for themselves. Lowe, a black man with a frizzy beard and head-to-toe tattoos, is ill-at ease in this white hippie-based culture. He plucks his guitar, sticks to himself. The second section is without dialogue, as Lowe sets off in a canoe in Finland to commune with nature alone. The camera is either following or staring head-on at Lowe, his quietude unsettling. Then—the conflagration. The last section is a convulsive catharsis. Lowe applies the white “corpse paint” of black metal bands, and ascends to the stage to perform a blistering set with the super group Queequeg (with Americans Weasel Walter and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix). The devotional faces from the crowd emerge from inky blacks, Russell and Rivers shooting in low-light with Super 16mm cameras. Wavering in and out darkness and focus, they seem liquid, a mass of metal parishioners receiving absolution in the sonic assault, until Lowe removes the paint and dons his human face once again.

Outside of Wavelengths, one of the most buzzed about titles is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, with rumors of standing ovations trailing in its wake. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in Saratoga, New York, who is kidnapped into slavery, separated from his wife and children for those 12 years. McQueen, making his third feature, deploys a fusillade of styles to mirror Northup’s physical and mental state. On his ride on the slave ship, McQueen uses quick cuts and punishing sound design to convey his confusion and despair. The sequence is punctuated by the piercing noises of boots on steps, shovel into coal, and the never-ending churn of the ship’s rotors. Once on the plantation, McQueen utilizes a longer take style, used to devastating effect when Northup is lynched in the middle of the field, left just enough rope to tiptoe in the mud to avoid strangulation. As he toes the ground, the other slaves go about their daily work behind him, heads down to avoid their reality. Ejiofor is a rock of aggrieved injustice, his eyes unbelieving founts of despair. The rest of the cast is equally game, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s faux-sympathetic plantation owner to Michael Fassbender’s decadent, demonic one. The only false step is a distracting cameo by Brad Pitt, who shows up late as a white savior deus ex machina. But by the end, when Ejiofor lets his posture slack and tears flow, nothing else matters.