Toronto: The Debate Over Greatness

"12 Years a Slave"

'12 Years,' 'Gravity,' 'August' encapsulate diversity

The search for objective genius in a subjective medium continues at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Subtitle: Why didn’t “12 Years a Slave” blow me away at TIFF the way it should have?

The films at this year’s festival have fodderized the great debate on greatness, ignoring how it’s a debate that can never be resolved. You can argue for right and wrong answers all you want, but there aren’t any.

Undeniably, different filmgoers have different objectives when they go to the movies, and different films fulfill those objectives in different ways. A film that succeeds is a film that speaks to you. That we debate what’s great reflects the differences among ourselves much more than the relative achievements of the movies.

The phrase “popularity contest” is demeaning, but really, what else could it be? We want quality films to stand out, but “quality” itself is a subjective term. Film scholarship would have us believe otherwise, but film scholarship itself is a voluntary activity (not to mention one overflowing with its own internal debates). Film academics have their say, but so will amateurs.

If there’s been a film at TIFF that transcends the jagged edges of audiences, it might be “Gravity.” Alfonso Cuaron’s picture provided the sensation of something entirely new in its visuals, its style and its setting. Yet it also had the emotional heft for an audience that wants to feel things deeply. And it’s just plain thrilling. Though some may object, of all the films at Toronto, “Gravity” arguably has the most something for everyone.

Another film that mostly delighted in Toronto was “Dallas Buyers Club,” a compelling story entertainingly told, though for some is a disappointment because the hero in the fight to treat HIV and AIDS is a straight man and, for most of the movie, a homophobe. Should that matter? It didn’t to me, but there are arguments for the other side.

There are films galvanize you before leaving you flat. Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves,” starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, spends its first hour in building up intrigue with a specific kind of story in a specific kind of universe, before shifting into something much more conventional – and to me, disappointing – for the remainder. Conversely, Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” takes a certain amount of contrivance to launch, but once it does, it is genuinely affecting.

Ron Howard’s “Rush” was a visually arresting but otherwise relatively simple showdown tale, and it has surprised me that it has received inclusion among the year’s supremes.

But in my view, no film exemplifies the greatness dilemma I’m describing than “Twelve Years a Slave.” It’s a film that I can find almost no fault with, save a score that is occasionally too much when plenty less would do. The story is incredible in the most important sense, an indispensable reminder of the evil both present and latent in this country, an evil that has not entirely disappeared even if its most overt strains have.

The power of scenes of outright physical violence and torture, viscerally horrifying and hopelessly immoral, can’t be denied – pushing me during the movie into thinking of the ways our society has been complicit in such atrocities since the era of slavery, all the way through the present. It all leads to a climax that it would have been impossible for me not to be moved by.

That doesn’t change the fact that for most of “12 Years,” the material put me at a distance that other films bridged. Is it that I could not put myself in the shoes of Solomon Northrup, that I’m ultimately insensitive to his plight? That’s a logical conclusion, but I don’t know that it’s the right one.

I have a wife and three children and nightmares over what it would mean to lose any of them – much less having my rights stripped away and being beaten for good measure. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the horror of Solomon Northrup and the millions who suffered like him or worse. It’s that other movies, though they might have smaller ambitions, make me feel the intensity of their emotions more. They worked their way inside me in a way that “12 Years” did not.

Aside, frankly, from the color of my skin, I don’t know if I have anything in common with the characters in “August: Osage County,” a film that has polarized viewers in Toronto but one that had me from start to finish — because it articulated its characters’ agony with a unique kind of electricity. While “12 Years,” for the most part, didn’t break much new ground that “Roots” hadn’t carved out on ABC 36 years ago, “August” felt new and exciting to me. (No, I hadn’t seen the play, but then again, I hadn’t read Northrup’s writings either.)

In the line for “Labor Day” this morning, a friendly industryite next to me ripped into “August,” not only for its lack of cinematic breadth and its talkiness but for making its female characters into ugly caricatures. My listing the many ways the women were different (thus putting into relief the crucial way two of them weren’t) and offered redeeming value didn’t make much difference in her eyes.

Is “August” a better movie than “12 Years?” Probably not. Is it more important? Certainly not, even if it does make its own nod to characters suffering in unspeakable ways and our struggle to overcome.

So where does that leave us when evaluating movies? If I value “August” more than “12 Years,” I’m little different in some people’s eyes than those who would take “Getaway” over either of ’em. Does my reaction to these films betray an inadequacy of my own, one that should disqualify me from the conversation on greatness?

Let’s put the reverse on display: There have been plenty of times that I’ve heard others value movies that I feel are clearly inferior. What of it?

Film greatness, like it or not, is a popularity contest, though it’s one that can be decided a number of ways. Box office is one. A sampling of your friends, family or favorite critics is another. And a third way is to just know your opinions, enjoy those who share your company, engage with those who disagree, respect or write off the Oscars at will, but never, never assume that you have the right answer no one else has.

No matter what awards or platitudes are denied, they can’t change what a film meant to you. They can’t change a film’s greatness in the one place it counts.

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  1. paulo says:

    Donella. Thank you very much.

  2. Donella says:

    Three words.

    Racial empathy gap.

    The same racial empathy gap that explains why Trayvon Martin’s death didn’t “move” the jury of his murderer’s White and Latino demographic peers.

    The same racial empathy gap that condemns Black men to mandatory minimums and White men to “warnings.”

    The racial empathy gap that leaves you unmoved to see a Black man whipped, beaten, kidnapped, and forced to hard labor and feel nothing more than watching a drunk White woman berate her family.

    The racial empathy gap that leaves you unmoved to see a Black woman struck in the face by a White woman and then serially raped by the White woman’s husband.

    That emptiness inside you, that soullessness, that hardening of your heart is the racial empathy gap.

  3. Oh Dear says:

    Some consistency would be nice. You get the title right (12 Years…) at the top of the article, but further down revert to the working title (Twelve Years…)

  4. Kowalski says:

    Argo, some racist movie about a girl and her alcoholic dying father who don’t want the government to help them battle a catastrophe, and that movie about killing Osama were considered “great” last year by critics.

    Me and a whole lot of other people can barely remember their mediocrity now.

    Argue amongst yourselves for yourselves, but it doesn’t really go further than that. Time is the only measure of greatness.

  5. Arnie Tracey says:

    Sometimes being a self-consciously deliberate contrarian, helps a critic, a writer define him/herself in opposition to the ruck. See?

    Yelling : Look at me. I’m oh so very very above the fray. I’m brilliant. I’m too smart by half.

    Get it? I, me, I can’t be had. Aren’t I grand.

    I’m no Al Cappian Schmoo.

    Look, people ! Over here !

    I’ve staked out my little parcel of land. I am a rock. I am an island.

    Help! I’m a rock!

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