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by Nigel M Smith
November 19, 2013 5:55 PM
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Steve McQueen to His '12 Years' Critics Who Find It Too Beautiful: 'I'm not making a horror film'

Since world premiering at the Telluride Film Festival, Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" has gone on to draw rapturous praise from audiences and critics, with the majority of pundits agreeing it's the one to beat come Oscar time. Still, as with any film, there are dissenters, and in the case of "12 Years," the bulk of critics who aren't hailing it as an outright masterpiece all seem to have the same beef to pick with the film: it's just too beautiful.

That sentiment is best expressed by The Village Voice's head critic Stephanie Zacharek, who in her response to "12 Years" (a film she dubbed as "a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery") wrote, "McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in '12 Years a Slave,' Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeon-like room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction."

"I'm not making a horror film." -- McQueen

Both Indiewire contributor R. Kurt Osenlund and Reel Talk's Donald Levit echoed her sentiments in their reviews with the former writing in his review for South Philly Review, that "the trouble with the movie is McQueen is such a self-consciously artsy director that he lets his formal approach obstruct the message he’s trying to send," and Levit arguing "the cinematography itself is over-prettified and distracting."

At a luncheon hosted by Fox Searchlight Pictures in honor of their potential Oscar contender, McQueen explained his reasons for the composed look of the film during a short Q&A in front of a room of Academy members and the like.

"These plantations are quite astoundingly beautiful," he said. "And then you realize the most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places. It is quite odd in a way. But at the same time it's life. I'm not making a horror film. I'm not thinking to tell Sean Bobbitt [the cinematographer] to put a dark lens of everything. I can't put my filter onto this reality.

"I have to in some ways show the perversity in life. This is how it is. One has to show that as it is. I have to embrace the horror of it, just as much as the beauty of things."

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11 Comments

  • Hill William | March 17, 2014 1:42 AMReply

    I found the cinematography flat and distracting...almost like an old BBC drama shot on video. It constantly reminded me of the camera. Gimmicks like the over-the-top close-up sequences of the violin tuning, the obvious handheld moves during Patsy's whipping, etc, prevented me from simply being immersed in the story. Storywise, the movie was powerful, but it broke no new ground. In my opinion, it didn't deserve all the Oscar attention.

  • Ankh Entertainment | November 20, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    We were able to get some footage on McQueen when he was here in LA. Being a British born director, we found him to he eloquent in speaking, commanding in conversation and with an entirely different perspective than African Americans here in the states. In short he was brilliantly refreshing .

  • anon | November 20, 2013 2:51 PMReply

    Intresting that he is too arty now? Reminds me of the "you're too over qualified for the job shtick when they are intimidated by talent" is lars von trier to "arty" is terrence malick to "arty" is roman polanski too arty? These people are consided as genius directors me thinks there's something fishy going on!

  • Michael | November 20, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    I feel like certain critics are looking for reasons to dislike this film. The visual beauty of the film didn't distract me once from the horrors I was seeing.
    I can already smell the white guilt backlash coming.

  • Shoot the Critic | November 20, 2013 10:41 AMReply

    McQueen truly understands how to set his great aesthetic skill to telling truly moving stories that highlight not only human suffering, pain, and injustice, but also the individual and communal power to combat them. "And then you realize the most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places." That is a great way to describe his films and many other great ones, including Haneke's "The White Ribbon." I wrote a full-length defense of the beauty of McQueen's films here:
    http://shootthecritic.com/recommendations/in_theaters_12_years_a_slave

  • Daniel Delago | November 20, 2013 6:07 AMReply

    The scenes are visually stunning (such has on the plantations) to contrast the ugly brutality of how the slaves were mistreated. It is a masterpiece and deserves to be recognized by the Academy.

  • Milo | November 19, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    Sarah Lean on David Lean: "Photography to enhance a story, to provide the setting and often to contrast with the obvious. Contrast with theme, for example. Instead of harsh, violent light for a bloodbath, David wanted soft, beautiful lighting to contrast the violence. He wanted the audience to react with horror that such a bloody act coulf be fought in a beautiful field of poppies."

  • dl | November 20, 2013 2:53 PM

    Yes I do see Mcqueen as the potential heir to Lean one of our greatest directors - he's THAT good!

  • No | November 19, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    So, we have a set of critics who are fixated that the film is "too pretty" --too cinematic? Don't see tension, contradiction in how a beautiful landscape could be the site of unrelenting torture?

  • jerome | November 19, 2013 6:11 PMReply

    Dumb criticism that borders on hair-splitting. Did the critic think that the brutal steadicam/whipping sequence at the end of the film was "too pretty?" Is it wrong to juxtapose the beautiful aesthetics of the southern plantations with the horrors of slavery? How should he have shot the film, 16mm and handheld?

  • Mustang55 | November 19, 2013 6:07 PMReply

    Um... okay. Those beautiful art directed shots didn't get in the way for me. I left that theater exhausted. They can say that about their own experience with the film, but not for everyone.