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Today on Letterboxd: '12 Years a Slave' Criticism and Crazy 'Counselor' Theories

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire October 31, 2013 at 3:19PM

Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich and The Cinephiliacs' Peter Labuza are among the many critics who use the site as a public journal.
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Javier Bardem in 'The Counselor'
Javier Bardem in 'The Counselor'

If you're not following your favorite critics on Letterboxd -- or, like me, you're lazy about checking the site on a regular basis -- you're missing some great writing. The staff of The Dissolve liked using the site so much they integrated it with their own, and just recently Time Out New York's Keith Uhlich and The Cinephiliacs' Peter Labuza have used it to gather provocative thoughts on current films.

If you follow Uhlich on Twitter, you know he has mixed feelings about 12 Years a Slave, but he hasn't committed them to print until now. "I wish I believed a lot of it," he writes. "[M]ost of the time I felt like I was watching performers playing dress-up in a rigorously rehearsed, scrupulously researched simulation."

There's more, of course, but I'm particularly drawn to his closing paragraph:

A final word -- made of semi-straw, I admit -- that I truly dislike the "derelict appendage" of film criticism that seeks to identify and exalt for all time the one movie that gets a given subject "right." I've noticed an especial rush to do this with 12 Years a Slave, and I feel the urge to caution that its existence does not negate any similarly-themed movies that may have come before, or may indeed come after. (I wouldn't even accuse McQueen and his collaborators of chasing after such slam-the-Good-Book-shut superlatives.) The subject is not closed because someone addresses it -- to your mind -- as well as you've ever seen. There is always more to see.

("Derelict appendage," by the way, is a passing reference to a line from critic Manny Farber, the thing almost any editor would snip out on the first pass. I'm glad they couldn't.)

Labuza uses his review of The Counselor to go long on the film's formal aspects, which he contrasts with the haphazard nature of director Ridley Scott's recent movies: "straightforward shots, exacting compositions, layers of depth, very specific backgrounds and uses of mise-en-scene, and camera dollies all on direct straight lines. I’ve never been more excited to see a filmmaker abandon his 'style.'"

And then he gets into what he calls "Peter's Super Weird Theory About the Movie." Which, as it turns out, isn't so weird, especially as it's more of an admittedly idiosyncratic reading than a claim as to Scott and author Cormac McCarthy's intentions. You should really click through and read his distinction between what he calls "open and closed movies," and how the film's narrative skimpiness puts it right on the boundary between them. You don't have to buy it to be intrigued by it; even Labuza isn't quite sure.

Is this really a deconstruction of the open and closed movie? Likely not! But I kind of like this very personal reading -- the first scene says it all, there's your fantasy, your imagination, what you fill in the details of what you want, and then there's the real thing. You can imagine you're somewhere else, you can insert what you want on top, but it's not part of the system and must ultimately be excised or subsumed.

This article is related to: From the Wire, 12 Years a Slave, Ridley Scott


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