The don’t-look-away ingredient


Silk’s Post #81 — Two of the 5/5/5 have now written about the controversial film 12 Years a Slave. I said my piece on March 11 in Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits, and Helga chimed in on Friday with Quiet vampires

I found it “glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation … a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.” I had great expectations for 12 Years a Slave and was disappointed to find myself struggling through it. For me, it was a failed movie. But I felt compelled to watch it.

Helga was overwhelmed by the relentless violence, and she summoned up plenty of film critics who agree. “Armond White called it ‘torture porn’, accusing director McQueen of turning slavery into a ‘horror show’, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.”

And yet, this was the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. So somebody liked it. (Or, as Ellen DeGeneres slyly hinted, perhaps they were afraid not to praise it for fear of being labelled racist).

So what is the real power of this film? What is at the heart of it – its purpose and intent? Is it art? Payback? A long-awaited but brutal history lesson? Catharsis? After thinking about it a lot since I saw the film, my memory freshened by Helga’s post, I believe its raison d’être is to create a disturbance, to stimulate controversy.

And the uncomfortable method it uses (some might call it outright audience manipulation) is to compel us to watch, to glue our eyeballs to the luscious, humid scenes where inhumanity moves languidly and remorselessly, stretching out the pain. We are hooked by our own morbid fascination in a kind of temporary addiction, an almost trance-like state exacerbated by the painfully slow pace of the movie. We don’t look away. (Or most of us didn’t).

At the end of the film, I felt like the frog in the pot of cold water, who didn’t jump out when the heat rose by slow degrees. I felt cooked.

But this capacity of human beings to be sucked into a story and become temporarily addicted to it – sometimes against their will, or their better judgement, or their tastes – is a real and powerful phenomenon. To hold us in thrall – isn’t that the effect great literature has on people?

But wait, so do slasher movies. So does porn. So do vampire novels. So does pulp fiction. So do endless breaking news bulletins about the latest weather event, reality drama, mass shooting, video game, plane crash, celebrity downfall. Not for everyone, of course: we all pick our own potions and poisons. But who has never found themselves in the wee hours of the morning, glued to a movie they can’t switch off, or a book they can’t put down – even though the alarm clock is set to go off in just 5 more hours … 4 … 3 … 2 …?

What is the essence of this extraordinary temporary addiction? This obsessive engagement that won’t let us look away? It can’t be subject matter, or style, or genre, or sentiment, or intelligence, or action, or even quality that clinches the deal. The range of material that can have this effect on people runs the full spectrum, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s what 12 Years a Slave, and Harry Potter, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Flight 370, and Holocaust movies, and Casablanca, and The Story of O, and The Voice, and Star Wars, and Alice in Wonderland, and Hitchcock films, and Apocalypse Now all have weirdly in common. Maybe that sounds crazy. But I don’t mind starting a controversy.

Because I believe if, as writers, we can capture enough of that don’t-look-away essence in our books, we stand a real chance of success. If we miss it, we’re on the slush pile.

What is this elusive “it” that draws people in and won’t let them go? Is “it” just a collection of disparate hooks and lures that are different in each work and for each segmented audience? I don’t think so. I believe there really is a common “it” that addicts readers and audiences like crack cocaine.

So what is “it”? I still (stubbornly) think it has to do with story. But you tell me. What’s the essence of that don’t-look-away secret ingredient we all seek to bake into our novels?