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Why We Can't Look Away From Hard-To-Watch Films

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Many film critics have called 12 Years A Slave hard to watch because of its graphic and emotional content. Host Scott Simon talks with Slate's movie expert, Dana Stevens, about why we sit through difficult movies.



Many critics have called "12 Years A Slave" hard to watch. Well, many great films are. So why do people go to a film that's difficult to watch on a night out?

Dana Stevens, who is movie critic for Slate and co-host of the Slate Culture "Gabfest" podcast, joined us. And we asked her if what was shown in the film might make me want to look away?

DANA STEVENS: Well, I don't want to give away any spoilers from the film but, you know, there's some pretty harsh scenes of punishment. I mean essentially, this film's version of the big torture scene is the big whipping scene, and that one's really hard to take. But in addition to having a lot of things that are sort of physically hard to endure and watch, this movie also just has some - what I would call morally difficult to endure scenes of just cruelty and degradation.

SIMON: And, of course, as we noted, some of the greatest films of all times do - "Schindler's List," "The Battle of Algiers," "Saving Private Ryan." So how does a screenwriter put something together that is graphic when it needs to be, vivid when it needs to be and yet, and yet is still art?

STEVENS: I think that's all a question dependent on, you know, each individual work. I don't think there can be any rule about that. And, of course, it's also dependent on what the viewer wants to see. You know, there could be viewers that say well, I thought, you know, "Saw 3" was a work of art, and I'm willing to sit through the gruelingness of those torture sequences. I mean, for myself, there's a limit to things that I will sit through, and for what purpose. And I think my editors already know that if "Saw 5" comes out and they want me to go write about it, for some reason or other, they're probably not going to get me in that seat.

SIMON: Do you have any idea, Dana, what the Hollywood pitch meeting is like for a film like "12 Years A Slave"? I mean, does anybody actually get up and say, "I know, chief! We're going to make a film that's impossible to watch"?


STEVENS: Well, I think in the case of a movie like "12 Years A Slave," there might not have had to be a Hollywood pitch meeting, in the sense that, you know, this is a British director and he comes more from an art background. And I think by the time he got financing for his film, he was probably able to do pretty much anything he wanted. But sure, I'm sure there are lots of Hollywood pitch meetings in which people have to justify - either justify the presence of violence and, you know, graphic things in their movies, or justify the lack of those things if the producer wants them.

SIMON: Sir Ben Kingsley, I believe, said once that one of the things that made "Schindler's List" a watchable Holocaust film is - he said, you know, you can't really make a story about people in the death camps because the actors would have to starve themselves. And he said what made "Schindler's List" watchable was that you were dealing with a small group of people; of course, were part of the Holocaust story, weren't being starved because they were working in factories.

STEVENS: Right. And this, of course, is also a criticism, a reproach that was made toward "Schindler's List," you know, I mean now, it's remembered as a great classic but, you know, there were a lot of very good critics who reviled this movie. And I think it was actually Stanley Kubrick who said, you know, we need to hear the story of the 6 million who died, not the 600 who were saved. I think there were even some problems with the idea that this was a story of the exceptional. And I suppose that the same criticism could be made of "12 Years A Slave," in that it's the narrative of an exceptional slave - an educated, free black man who was kidnapped into slavery that is not at all a typical experience of someone born into slavery.

SIMON: I wonder, do people in the film industry ever worry about a film becoming so instantly - and I've read nothing but acclaim for "12 Years A Slave," so far - that moviegoers begin to confuse it with broccoli?

STEVENS: Yeah, I've actually - I've already seen this morning on my Twitter feed, there were some discussion about whether or not this was a broccoli movie - which seemed like a very unfair question, coming from someone who hadn't yet seen it. I mean, I think it's actually a great piece of popular entertainment, in addition to being an important film about a serious and tough issue to watch. I don't think it's a perfect film. I'm not one of the critics who is regarding it as a masterpiece, with no flaws. But I think it's a thing that people should see and probably, I think, that audiences are going to respond to pretty positively. I mean, it's not a crowd pleaser on the level of "The Butler," which was, you know, an earlier film about race this year that, you know, got lots of popular acclaim and did very well at the box office. But I think it's a more serious movie, and a more important one.

SIMON: Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic and co-host of the Slate Culture "Gabfest" podcast. Thanks so much for being us.

STEVENS: Oh, thanks for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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