Monday, December 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Steve McQeen and the Avant Garde

Aristotle in his Poetics proposes that the goal of tragedy is to arouse feelings of fear and pity within the audience an then through a process of catharsis purge these emotions. I can think of no better exemplar of catharsis than Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years a Slave. It is not the dense and compelling narrative that purges fear and pity, a narrative that remains strikingly close to Solomon Northup's original 1853 autobiography; rather, McQueen's direction and cinematography fasten and rivet our emotions. A steamboat paddle wheel spins, churning a wake of eddies along a river; embers from a burning letter disappear into the night. Images of light and darkness, water and wood, long close-ups of anguished faces sustaining brutal rapes and floggings. McQueen in his post-minimalist cinematography creates a visual catharsis instead of the more typical purging of emotions through word.

Steve McQueen is an artist. Winner of the British Turner Prize in 1999, he is known for his experimental films. I had the pleasure of seeing a retrospective of his work last year at the Art Institute of Chicago and his short, highly abstract films were a feast for viewing. I do wonder, at the risk of oversimplification, whether McQueen arouses in us the emotion centers from the right hemisphere of the brain--the regions that process the vague, the fuzzy, the sustained emotional, facial and visual content of our perceptions. Perhaps empathy is necessary for Aristotelian catharsis. If so, McQueen is an aesthetic genius of empathy, having discovered a direct non-verbal route for all of us to feel the horrific incongruities of American slavery.

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