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12 Years a Slave (Review Part One)

12 Years a Slave (Review Part One)

I've only seen one film this year that kinda gets at how someone could become a person as sadistic as Fassbender's slaveowner is in this film. Insidious 2 got how a little, vulnerable boy, completely owned by an absolutely terrifying mother, was going to have no chance building an independent self apart from her. His life was on the line, and you can imagine how a six or eight or however old a boy he was, would have a brain formed largely on ensuring he does nothing outside of what she wants. The point of life ... is to not be devoured. And the great homo sapiens brain of his would be using all its evolutionary excellence to contrive means to ensure he manages this--even if this means making him into someone who would be to any sane outsider, deviant, insane ... strangely ill-purposed to what life would confront him with. The rest of the world does not realize that this one brain alone negotiated avoiding oblivion! What of if it if it's ill-purposed to manage anything else in life, which after all might be about self-development and adventure, such strange, completely uncountenanceable things, that are firmly known to be, for that matter, completely disavowed for him by mother, when life has clearly showed itself in its definitive first all-important years of being experienced as only about avoiding being killed? It was vital but young Ender in an adult mission against a planet of bugs, and in a fever of genius, it won! it won! it won! The full compass of the universe was revealed, and in one hell of a pitched, ongoing battle, a definitive victory was for all time achieved! What the brain does, though, isn't quite what is shown in this film. It doesn't figure out primarily how best to obey her--here by dressing up as a girl and disavowing himself as a boy so to not remind his mother of her former husband--but rather to be part of her, to be her. As her, he'd never need worry about being devoured by her or, just as importantly, losing her approval and feeling abandoned. In real life, the young boy would have dressed up as a girl on his own initiative--a replica, specifically of his mother, that is; not just any odd female--rather than terrorized into it. And his later development into a "Psycho" adult who dresses evidently as his mother would have synced up. In real life, too, he'd proceed further and be hunting down innocent people, taking huge delight in sawing them up--what fun! cackle! cackle! cackle!--because he'd be his mother, whom his brain would only have let know as fully right to be so devoted to terrorizing his innocent, vulnerable child-self, for fear letting him be even in the smallest sense aware of her true perversion would have lead to his being spotted out. If despite knowing how she doesn't want you to see her limitations, her thorough deviance (and trust me, she doesn't), you actually were allowed by your brain to be cognizant of her game, you'd also know she'd deem the "you" you've revealed to yourself as permanently unworthy of and removed from any further love--an impossible actuality to accept. You've got, that is, to be consciously only allowed to know her as a saint; someone you'd defend against insults to the death ... that much more so if all she does between stuffing herself with amusements is blender babies into milkshakes. Each time he found a young victim, he'd be more fully fused into his mother, and the vulnerable child self that is intolerable to be reminded of, that much more outside. Constant fusion into a sadistic alter, constant victimizing of people representing his "guilty" child-self, would be his life ... just as it is for the perenially sadistic Fassbender.

Fassbender's slaveowner had a mother who did to him what he does to his slaves? Yes, this is absolutely right. Every slaveholder had one such mother, which is why, exactly, slavery became institutionalized. The slaver shown in the film who makes the slave stand for hours in a painful position while he laxy-dazies ... yep, this is something that slaveholder was afflicted with in his own childhood (I knew something of this myself, with my mom lying on her bed, reading fantasy books, eating cookies into a belly contented that it could hold down four or five bagfuls, and luxuriating, while I stood uncomfortably attending to her like a eunech at attention before a Sultan queen). Fassbender making even his prize slave, the one unbelievably gifted at speed-gathering cotton, exist in so much filth she wretches at her own smell ... yep, this is what Fassbender himself endured by his mother during his own childhood. Collectively, all the slaveholders making their slaves into stinking, shit-stained, confined wretches, recalls for me what the Germans did to Jews, Gypsies, and "unsocials," when they re-inflicted their own horrible childhood experiences onto them in the 30s and 40s. To wit: upon a German's "birth, 'the wretched new-born little thing was wound up in ells of bandages, from the feet right, and tight, up to the neck; as if it were intended to be embalmed as a mummy … babies are loathsome, foetid things, offensive to the last degree with their excreta …' Babies simply could not move for their first year of life. A visitor from England described the German baby as 'a piteous object; it is pinioned and bound up like a mummy in yards of bandages … it is never bathed … Its head is never touched with soap and water until it is eight or ten months old.' Their feces and urine was so regularly left on their bodies that they were covered with lice and other vermin attracted to their excreta, and since the swaddling bandages were very tight and covered their arms as well as their bodies, they could not prevent the vermin from drinking their blood. Their parents considered them so disgusting they called them 'filthy lice-covered babies,' and often put them, swaddled, in a bag, which they hung on the wall or on a tree while the mothers did other tasks" (DeMause, "Childhood Origins of World War 2 and the Holocaust").

The whipping and lashes too, Fassbender and the rest of his slaveholder ilk would have suffered? Once again--yup. Very much--yup. Germans did this to Jews as well, as it had been done to them by their parents: "It was brutal beating, beginning in infancy, that visitors to Germany most commented upon at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the mother far more often the main beater than the father. Luther’s statement that 'I would rather have a dead son than a disobedient one' is misleading, since it implies disobedience only was the occasion for beatings, whereas mere crying or even just needing something usually resulted in being punished. ' Dr. Schreber said the earlier one begins beatings the better … One must look at the moods of the little ones which are announced by screaming without reason and crying [inflicting] bodily admonishments consistently repeated until the child calms down or falls asleep … one is master of the child forever. From now on a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture, is sufficient to rule the child.' Havernick found 89 percent of parents admitted beating little children at the beginning of the twentieth century, over half with canes, whips, or sticks. The motto of German parents for centuries was 'Children can never get enough beatings.' They were not just spankings; they were beatings with instruments or whippings like Hitler’s daily whippings with a dog whip, which often put him into a coma. (As Fuehrer, Hitler used to carry a dog whip with him as he gave orders to be carried out.) It is not surprising that German childhood suicides were three to five times higher than other Western European nations at the end of the nineteenth century, fears of beatings by parents being the reason cited by children for their suicides. No one spoke up for the children; newspapers wrote: 'boy who commits suicide because of a box on the ears has earned his fate.' The beatings continued at school, where 'we were beaten until our skin smoked.' Children could be heard screaming on the streets each morning as they were being dragged to school by their mothers. The schoolmaster who boasted he had given '911,527 strokes with the stick and 124,000 lashes with the whip' to students was not that unusual for the time. Comparisons of German and French childhoods in the late nineteenth century found 'no bright moment, no sunbeam, no hint of a comfortable home [with] mother love and care' in the German ones, with 'sexual molestation and beatings at home and at school consistently worse in the German accounts.' Ende’s massive study of German autobiographies of the time found 'infant mortality, corporal punishment, and cruelties against children' were so brutal he had to apologize 'for not dealing with the 'brighter side' of German childhood because it turns out that there is no 'bright side.' Other studies found most Germans remembered 'no tender word, no caresses, only fear' with childhood 'so joyless, so immeasurably sad that you could not fathom it.' When Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that 'the German people today lies broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world' both he and his reading audience read this not as political metaphor but as the real kicks of their parents and teachers and real memories of lying broken and defenseless. The tortures of childhood were far more traumatic and constant than the later studies of 'authoritarianism' ever imagined. There was a good reason that Germans and Austrians spoke so often about their Kinderfeindlichkeit (rage toward children), and it is this rage that is embedded in the early violent amygdalan alters which is inflicted upon others in World War II and the Holocaust. The child-hitting hand was even the symbol of Nazi obedience, since the Nazi salute endlessly displayed the open palm of their beating parents as they fused with them, flush with opioids. 'Ghosts from the nursery' embedded by extremely insecurely attached children were displayed everywhere in Nazi Germany. To imagine tens of millions of people 'just obeying Hitler' as though there were no inner compulsion to inflict their nightmarish earlier childhood tortures on others is simply absurd (DeMause, "Childhood Origins").

12 Years a Slave does worse than Carrie did to nudge us closer to understanding how someone could become a thorough sadist, but, like that film, it does at least show some truth: here, that slavers are less respectful and loving people--not, that is, just people under some spell of a collusion of adult preaching inflicted on them when they were young; victims of ideology, that is. Fassbender and his wife are colossal assholes, full of hate, full of desiring other people--their slaves--to be subjugated for the wretched crimes they committed. Benedict Cumberland, the nicest of all possible slavers, knows at very near, at very, very, very near a conscious level, that the clearly educated slave he's purchased had to have once been free, to be someone he himself would recognize as free if he met him while touring the north, but won't let him go. The capacity of this man to love, which is some, pales in comparison to the attorney who arrives to free Northup, or more notably, Brad Pitt, who movingly risks his own life to do so. But still, the link to parenting isn't there, and we might just as well assume that the institution itself poisoned them, stunted them, than ever consider that each one of them might have had a mother as terrifying as Fassbender's wife. If the film had done that, shown that mother force her children to know filth and whippings and abandonment for being deemed willfully disobedient brats that needed to be broken--even if as expected they were still groomed into betters--what a wonderful and useful connection would have been made: that is how a child could grow into an adult who would find such righteousness in getting disobedient underlings into line, not at all blanching when whip stroke after whip stroke actually spooned chunks of flesh out of people, and more likely being aroused by it (as the Germans were, as they masturbated during their own floggings of Jews). The approval from mom that every small child needs, could only ever be found in whole-heartedly joining her cause.

But I'm going at this film as if we might be interested in using it as an opportunity to test, refine, revise, or--rather better--completely re-understand how an institution like slavery could come into existence--letting the idiotic economic rationale dissolve for good. But this would mark progress, growth, and so this isn't something we're apt to be doing. Rather, we're using this film as a reward to show that we've refit our society that so innocuously we can watch a film about a strictly two-tiered society--master, and slave--something ostensibly 150 years and a civil war behind us, and be surprised by how much we involved ourselves in the position of the slave. We increasingly see our own society as two-tiered, with avenues of plausible climbing closed off--the one percent vs. the ninety-nine. And this isn't because reality has forced us off our preferred conception of living in something multi-tiered, involving the essential middle class. Instead, we knew a long while ago that we wanted something stratified, with the upper-echelon a class apart, and set things in motion so that even when massive bank-loan leveraging was keeping us housed and up with every electronic trick, our outer reality would soon rather better reflect the "Kantian" schema we were game to force onto it. We're in a period of penance, where because previous collective growth was making us feel terrifyingly abandoned, as it recalled how in our youth our own emerging self-attendance eventually drew anger from our immature mothers for it meaning a permanent turn away from having up to that point mostly focused our existence around her, we feel compelled to shut it down so to know her back with us. We kill the growth we've accrued; we kill the potential to grow; and familiarize ourselves with "stuckness"; and life more and more becomes us as children not yet old enough to leave the hearth--the fragile ninety-nine percent--in the perpetual company of entitled parents--the obstinately set, one. She's there, our mom's there; and even if she's aloof and removed, she's not mad, not angry: even if we're not all acting like good children, we do the essential part and communicate that owned children "is" who we are, and that we won't be doing any shifting of structure for a good long while (like the last Depression, about twelve years?). Her enemies--emissaries of real growth--will, unless they're mostly going to be incorporated into making our "parents" lives easier or more luxuriant, become our own, as we either chase any one with any notable new ideas out of public view or somehow make it possible that even if they were a glorious new dawn visited upon us ... we're just not seeing it, sorry. So we have a culture where James Wolcott appropriately writes: "Although we live in a culture of uncircumcised snark, it actually seems a more deferential time to me, the pieties and approved brand names--Cindy Sherman, Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino, Junot Diaz, Mark Morris, Judd Apatow, John Currin (feel free to throw other names into the pot)--more securely clamped down over our ears." Where "today's social media making even the meanest rattlesnakes mend their ways in the hope of being liked, friended, and followed in numbers sufficient enough not to be mortifying." If you're "in," you stay in. If you're out, you should know the part you're assigned--and it's to be as if marked by something intangible and intransigent that you're always a step down. You can be like Northrup and play your fiddle like a genius, or instruct on how to engineer a way through a stuck problem that'd only fail to impress the most trenchantly set against you, but not if it's to prove the point that as much as anyone, you don't really belong where you're stationed. "Parents," the one percent, are playing a role as well, something collectively assigned to them, only they just don't know it. I think it is this unconscious knowing that they've masochistically, unselfishly, surrendered themselves to playing a part--which remains, even if hard to see, still very much a demeaning surrender of human potential--that is buoying some of the pleasure they're taking in living these days ... opiates flowing from felt parental approval. I admit I'm mostly thinking of those like the ones Walcott mentions here, those of the liberal literate elite, who are evidently not perturbed that they all share the same habits and assumptions to the degree that the dullest gentry-clot did in centuries past. They're not about moving us ahead, but about station--manners have become the point itself, something which really is just a lubricant when gentry's on one of its roles and Byronesque genius gets to come out of them as much as from any ambitious Shakespeare merchant' son. You listen to their discourse, and you know they're no trolls. The Gandalf who rows up the pleasant-offered cheerful "good morning!" with contestation and complication ... in today's climate, he's but another of the trolls who's descended down from the mountains. He'd quickly learn to stifle it, and next time by master Baggins' he'd be, "yes, yes, it is a good morning! Indeed so! Sorry to disturb you, and thanks again for your kind remembrances about my fireworks .. though remember if you can to like my "Good Old Grandpa Gandalf" fireworks Facebook page; every bit helps, you know!" and he'd shuffle off as quick as a fox, as tamed as the pathetic car-buffing Biff, to chance disturbing the morning no further. Society would be one further up on propriety, and shorn one possible mega disturbance; and even if they were made aware that in subscribing him into the role of a door-to-door salesman it cost them one potentially world-saving wizard, it'd still be felt as completely worth it.  

Paul Krugman recently recounted the damages that have been afflicted by our current austerity-maintained Depression: "These dry numbers [he, writes,] translate into millions of human tragedies--homes lost, careers destroyed, young people who can't get their lives started. And many people have pleaded all along for policies that put job creation front and center. Their pleas have, however, been drowned out by the voices of conventional prudence. We can't spend more money on jobs, say these voices, because that would mean more debt. We can't even hire unemployed workers and put idle savings to work building roads, tunnels, schools. Never mind the short run, we have to think about the future! The bitter irony, then, is that it turns out that by failing to address unemployment, we have, in fact, been sacrificing the future" (NYT, Nov. 7 2013). We're inflicting a lot of damages to ourselves, a lot of anxiety. This is important, because when you take into consideration how even when jobs were leaving us and our incomes were wilting away, banks were still enabling us all the stuff we wanted for a further twenty years, it undoes all the accruing we had been doing pretty much without pause since World War 2. Further, it's adding "revenue" of despair into a pot that will eventually fill so that we sense that enough joy has now finally been sacrificed to our mothers--she's mollified, and satiated--that we kinda now feel safe to begin to tip toe away from her and embark outside on real, undetermined adventure, while she goes on a several-decade-long snooze. But it's a mistake to say these figures delineate only misery. When we know we've succeeded in making deep sacrifices happen, Mother is with us, not going to leave us, and we know a kind of contentment--one that even liberates, and enables some fun ... if we go about things properly. The recent Thor movie tries a wee bit to explain why the Norse aristocracy--an empowered King and Queen--is just, but it barely bothers. We feel watching this movie that those creating it and those watching it will just accept the aristocracy as normal, not because we're dealing with old gods but because it's how we're attending to our own society as well (note the recent hopeless Salon effort reminding people not to focus so much on the "Queen" battle of Hillary vs. Elizabeth Warren as it's the "little people" congressional battles that'll matter most), and would have as the new normal, rather than anything queerly demos. And there's no wishing in the movie from the "little people" for any mollification. The intern Ian who is throughout the movie referred to as "intern" rather than by name, objects, but mostly shows that ... whatever, it's out of his power. For his shrugging, for his acceptance and mostly non-complaint, for his willingness to let himself be used and mildly abused and for showing that if he spent the rest of his life as he just might in a role perennially servile to an actual scientist with multiple degrees, that, well, that's just what life's allotted him, the movie grants him a boon: at the finish he gets to do something heroic and strong, and thereafter receives admiration and a kiss from the senior intern--even if it means once more being the passive. Ian's the Northrop in 12 Years, who for doing remarkable things ... who for showing that even doing something really accomplished need not press on being a class challenge, he gets rewarded. Just like in the Great Depression, we're going to see a lot of people in servile roles in movies, and take note that when you hear them complain, about "what a lady has got to do to get a buck or a bit of respect in this here depression," or whatever, what you'll be hearing is less tearing down the walls and more their being resigned to them. It needn't be done so loud that you're cognizant that the cages somehow seem surer after "your" complaint; just loud enough that it registers with your masters. 

As a side note, if you're incapable of actually drilling yourself to want to live in a dream-inhibiting age, if you're one of those genuinely good liberals, birthed of truly loving parents, who believed that Occupy's facilitation of society's understanding of itself as of master and servants was something other than our conceding that we've roomed our house as we would like it, and instead as a sure prelude to insurrection and thereafter an equal society, these could be real tough times for you in particular. I'm thinking specifically now of Robert Frost's sister, a liberal, whom his brother had committed into an insane asylum during WW2. Morris Dickstein writes that "with a history of violent outbursts, Frost's sister had grown increasingly hysterical about the war, yet Frost [...] paints her as the paradigm of a liberal gone berserk, a bleeding heart who really bled. 'I really think she thought in her heart that nothing would do justice to the war but going insane over it.' He, on the other hand, was fatalistic and self-protective, the kind of conservative for whom there's very little anyone can do to alter the basic conditions of life, which include going crazy and dying. For his sister, he says, 'one half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. She included me in the unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad.' 'It was designed to be a sad world,' he later wrote to Untermeyer" ("Dancing in the Dark").


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