Flora (Jan Švankmajer, 1989)

Svankmajer’s shortest film is one of his most disturbing. The most appropriate response might be a similarly concise and abrupt blog post, you may be relieved (and shocked) to know. From the opening shot, we are greeted with the site of decomposing vegetables. Cabbage leaves are eaten in circles, tomatoes turn themselves inside out. It is revealed that we are seeing a woman made of vegetables, like an Archimboldo painting, tied hand-and-foot to a bed frame. Pieces of her body are rotting at an accelerated rate. Police sirens can be heard outside amidst a cacophony of scraping, rustling, churning and traffic noise. Maggots begin to squirm, swarm and rave in her gut. In helpless horror, she turns to the bedside table. A single glass of water stands out of reach. It’s all over quickly, 16 shots in 32 seconds, more of a vignette than a story.

Most of Svankmajer’s other shorts build up a tight, repetitive structure that builds to a final statement (I refer to examples of these kinds of films in other posts, including The Last Trick, Jabberwocky and Punch and Judy). Flora instead leaves its central image excruciatingly suspended, unresolved. It is in impasse between nourishment and decay – the water Flora needs is inaccessible. We have to suspect she is threatened with death, but the sirens might hint at approaching salvation, if only the situation didn’t look so bleakly urgent.

What does is mean? Its elusive, inconclusive effects point towards a strong symbolism, but can we definitively decode it? Ah, the rhetorical questions. Of course we can’t. It’s a fleeting glimpse at an ongoing, perhaps perpetual stalemate, the body continually desirous of but denied what it needs. Beyond that agonising set-up, there’s space for you to parallel park whatever interpretation you want. But more than any other film-maker I can think of, Svankmajer gives prominence to the textures, the haptic eccentricities of the materials he’s using. He brings us uncomfortably close to things from which we would usually recoil. That they are turned into the raw materials of animation is an unsettling transgression of their preferred state of inert, disposable matter. In this case, the medium is food. Food has preoccupied Svankmajer at various points in his career, but in this, Meat LoveFood and the meat puppets of his feature-length Lunacy the stuff twitches into life, putrefies or enacts a servile existence. Food is the stuff of abjection – it enjoys a peculiar relationship with our bodies. We let it in, absorb what we need and turn the rest into excrement and privately expel it, concealing the messy business. It is both necessarily of us and also ickily separate. It can be delicious in its ripe and ready forms, but quickly becomes an embarrassment to our innards deserving of rejection. Here is a deeply personal horror rendered universal by a lack of specificity or restrictive form. Here is a permanent nightmare of sleepless terror, a vision of those moments where you wake up to a reminder of mortality, the most obvious fact in the world that we usually try to absorb and digest without upset. It’s about vegetables, it’s half a minute long, and all human death is here.



I don’t have a lot to say about Precious. I thought it might be a good topic for a “Build Your Own Review” post, since I had expected it to be far more contentious than I ultimately found it. There are some aspects of it which are unquestionably fine. Gabourey Sidibesculpts a compelling portrait of an inarticulate, obese teenager out of terse dialogue, stolid passivity (initially at least) and bursts of radiance that are so fleeting and far between that you long for the next one to come along. I very rarely cry at movies, but I don’t mind admitting that a shed a hard-won tear during one of Precious’s despairing moments. But don’t tell anyone – I think I managed to blame it on the air-conditioning. [Next week, if you behave yourself, I’ll tell you about the only other film that made me cry this month. Watch this space…] Mo’Nique is not quite the saviour of acting that some reviews might have you believe, since her role as Precious’s maniacal, abusive mother is rather too irredeemably nasty to allow for much modulation of tone; the mechanics of the performance are clearly visible, but later that becomes the point: performing for a visiting social worker, she softens her voice, covers her hair and all but bows in her determination to keep the welfare coming, and even in her monumental confessional scene she hints that it’s still for show. Credit where it’s due – I couldn’t tell whether it was a great performance of flaking resolve, or just a forced, flaking performance. The other plus is that, although the empowerment-through-education plot was exasperatingly hackneyed and the inspirational teacher forgettably virtuous, the camaraderie between classmates is infectious, natural and at times genuinely funny without ever being mawkish. The history of this genre would suggest that this is not an easy thing to pull off. But let’s not pretend that this is an unproblematic, air-kissing, redemptive triumph.

According to your taste, you’ll either find the extreme close ups of Precious’s face, and the way her body is made to occupy most of the frame in some shots, a cruel objectification, or a challenging reminder that you never see protagonists like Precious given the time of day – lacking the sass or the smart mouth to endear through pluck, she magnetises audience sympathy by the sheer catalogue of abuses she is made to endure. Now, that’s a pretty easy way to get the viewer onside – you’d have to be some kind of monster not to want Precious to break the cycle of violence and intimidation that slows, cows and weighs her down: less has been made of Precious’s weight than her race (of which more shortly), but the film uses obesity as a metaphor for the vicious control her mother exerts. Cooking and caring for her mother, Precious reverses the expected parent/child relationship, but the supply of food is central to the power imbalance in the household – its what keeps Precious housebound, tied to the stove like the whipped wife of the abusive husband her mother resents her for “stealing” (the incest runs deep around here), and the surfeit of greasy food that is shown in nauseating close-ups approach the grotesqueries of Svankmajer‘s food films at times. I was reminded of the importance of food by the fact that It’s Complicated was playing next door. Surely one of the whitest films ever made, It’s Complicated is the kind of romantic comedy that builds a dilemma out of a woman’s agonising decision over whether to shag the lawyer or the architect, whether to extend her home or her social life. It also plays out corporeal anxieties, with pudgening late middle-age folks embarrassed about their sagging midriffs, but it still portrays the blissed-out over-consumption of food as a joy not a scourge, a world of croissants and red wine against Precious‘s buckets of chicken and pig’s feet. Here, in the space (as thick as the walls in a multiplex) between these two films, is staked out the turf of a class war.

Or is it a racial conflict? Note my provocative use of “white” to describe It’s Complicated (hey, anyone would believe I was thinking ahead whenever I started writing! I assure you it’s not the case…), a film which constructs the temporary pretence that romantic selection is enough of a social problem to make a film about. Sure, it also takes one of Hollywood’s abject bodies (the fifty-something woman) and gives her some self-respect back (by letting her eat, screw and do drugs without fear of social consequence), but it’s all protected by a buffer zone of wealth and influence that is never posited as the privilege of whiteness. Precious on the other hand, has to bear the brunt of being seen in some quarters as a poverty-porn enactment of African-America’s incestuous (and therefore self-annihilating and circular) degradation, a teaching tool that shows the need for black youth to be taken in hand by professionals with lighter skin than their own. Is this fair? Does Precious make a spectacular problem out of a stereotypical image of nested cycles of black-on-black stagnation? Am I inadvertently voicing the naive view of a middle-class white guy if I say I don’t think so? Actually, I’m undecided. On the plus side, Precious’s classmates are a fabulous group of unsanctified role-models without pretension or condescension. Precious herself never conforms. Unlike the likes of Dangerous Minds, her redemption is not about the inspiration of the white literary canon, and is unleavened by improved health or release from the hard life that undoubtedly lies ahead for her. The final image is not one of levity. She still has to carry her children, but she realises that counselling and the opportunity to hear her mother’s confessions are no substitutes for voicing her own feelings. For once, the testy contrarianism of critic Armond White encapsulates a valid critique, instead of merely taking up a provocative opinion for the sake of standing out from the journalistic herd:

Not since The Birth of a Nation has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as Precious. Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show. Offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity, it’s been acclaimed on the international festival circuit that usually disdains movies about black Americans as somehow inartistic and unworthy. […] Worse than Precious itself was the ordeal of watching it with an audience full of patronizing white folk at the New York Film Festival, then enduring its media hoodwink as a credible depiction of black American life. A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theater. Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority—and relief—it allows them to feel.

I don’t necessarily agree, and White’s celebration of Norbit is a barking mad contradiction if he means to condemn ethnic stereotypes across the board, but it certainly drops a payload of problem on the critical circle-jerk: this is definitely a film that people can congratulate themselves for loving as they patrol the red carpets hoovering up the plaudits for going there without permanently “going there” (director Lee Daniels admits he cast Sidibe instead of a “real” child of the ghetto because they would simply have been unprepared for the rigours of acting in a movie to a strict schedule). Armond White, with his eye for the outrageous main chance, is easy to dismiss, but how about Ishmael Reed’s excoriation of the film in the New York Times:

The blacks who are enraged by “Precious” have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is about 40 years behind Mississippi. In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more “middle-class white Americans” to his film. […] Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans. Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility.

And what about Jill Nelson’s skewering of the self-promotion of those attaching themselves to the film’s bandwagon?:

I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority, or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant Black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest, and black people hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths. Ditto efforts by director Lee Daniels, executive producers Oprah and Tyler Perry, and Mo’Nique to legitimize the movie “Precious”  – and deflect criticism – by  attesting to their own sexual abuse. Can you imagine Meryl Streep revealing she used to be a bushy tailed, carnivorous mammal or editor-in-chief of Vogue to market the authenticity of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “The Devil Wears Prada”? I ain’t Precious, and I’m proud of it.

I feel more comforted (and acknowledge my own run for cover) by Teresa Wiltz’s conclusion that Precious should not be seen as a universal tale, but an invitation to witness the experiences of a character whose story is seldom told, whose race, class, gender and lack of self-belief exclude her from the zone of cultural interest:

She’s fat, female and black, and for many, she doesn’t exist, except as an object of pity or scorn. And the genius of this movie is that it makes you feel with her, through her. […] Oprah, who serves as executive producer along with Tyler Perry, has pushed the film hard, and she is to be commended for throwing her weight behind a little film. It deserves every bit of attention that it gets. But there’s something discomfiting about her declarations that “We are all Precious.” In short, she Oprah-fies Precious, rendering Precious’ fierce individuality the stuff of platitudes and Stuart Smalley moments on SNL. No, we are not all Precious. We all get our power from the individuality of our stories. Precious stands alone.

Is it a cop-out to conclude that Precious‘s racial politics might be neither here nor there, but instead necessarily ambiguous, contentious and up for debate. If a social problem film (an old-fashioned concept, but undoubtedly, melodramatically what we have here) is not something to argue about, in terms of its causes and solutions, it must surely have missed its own point.