Sunday, November 29, 2009


Gabourey Sidibe as Precious

Lee Daniels’ film Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, is by turns an exhausting and exhilarating mix of utter brutality and exemplary compassion. The whole film is marked by such binaries—Gabourey Sidibe, for instance, who plays the title character, sometimes appears so opaque that her features seem like a painting, frozen in a removed, indecipherable mask of a scowl. At other times, as Precious’s journey moves forward into what one can only hope will be a better future, that stolid countenance begins to crack, as Precious starts to trust people enough to let her emotions register more readily.

This indie film has already garnered a wealth of attention, including a New York Times Magazine cover story on the director and his star, and superlative reviews. I wonder if part of this hoopla signals the eternal voyeurism of a dominant culture that in some prurient way revels in the depravations of the marginal and much less privileged. Scenes of Precious’s home life with her mother, Mary (played by the comedienne Mo’Nique, whose role here couldn’t be farther from humor), reveal a viciousness rarely seen on screen, as routine as it most likely is in some people’s lives. Mary survives on welfare checks that let her hole up in her cave-like Harlem apartment like a hibernating bear. She does nothing but smoke, drink, and watch television day in and day out, while her anger about her daughter smolders and too often ignites.

Precious, we quickly learn, is now pregnant with her second child by her own father. Director Daniels quickly intercuts scenes of incestuous rape in flash-backs whose fragmented images communicate the older man’s intensity, strength, and refusal to take no for an answer. He throws his daughter violently onto the bed and mounts her, whispering meaningless assertions of love while he sinks deeper into his own desire. In one scene, Mary passes the bedroom door as her boyfriend rapes her daughter, witnessing but not intervening. She perverts her complicity with Precious’s degradation into jealousy that her own man would want Precious instead.

Mary’s bitterness curdles into a sour, palpable antipathy that emanates from the screen like a foul sulphurous cloud. She scowls at her daughter’s back while Precious cooks their dinner, ordering the young girl to serve her as though Precious were a menial and Mary royalty. On impulse, her anger gathers and she lashes out, throwing heavy objects at Precious’s head and viciously sweeping plates onto the floor.

Her sixteen-year-old daughter, adept at ducking and at self-preservation, absorbs with unemotional resolve the blows and the incessant insults about her weight and her stupidity that Mary metes out. Watching those horrific scenes, it’s clear why the young girl’s dark black moon-shaped face, its features crowded together by flesh, has cultivated a mask of indifference. Underneath what looks like passivity, her determination gathers and her instinct for self-protection strengthens.

A sympathetic, overworked white principal in her public school tells Precious she can no longer be a student because of her pregnancy. But the woman refers her to an “alternative school” that enrolls girls in complicated situations, and Precious doggedly pursues the lead, despite her mother’s withering scorn. She finds the school’s offices and puts her fate in the hands of a world-weary African American receptionist who registers Precious and moves her into the system that will ultimately redeem her.

To Daniels’ credit, the road to Precious’s salvation isn’t a foregone conclusion. The movie doesn’t reassure the spectator with the music cues that usually tell us there’s hope, or with predictable plot turns that allow us to follow the story comfortably, reassured that everything will work out in the end. The narrative, in fact, turns unpredictably, and every new character offers the potential to move Precious onto a different branch of her life’s path. Her new teacher—a beautiful, indeterminately ethnic, light-coffee-colored young woman named Blu Rain (Paula Patton)—offers Precious a version of tough love that she’s never felt before, and it takes Precious time to trust that her teacher’s overtures have no ulterior motive.

The other young women in her class are underprivileged but clearly haven’t experienced Precious’s level of degradation. One is a Jamaican immigrant; another is a Latina recovering drug addict; another is, presumably, an African American soft butch lesbian with a scar on her face; and another is an African American would-be fashion model whose own version of hope is so exaggerated and overblown that she manages to infect the other women with her refusal to be browbeaten into defeat. In this company, Precious feels her way, cautiously coming to believe in the safety and care she begins to feel.

Watching Sidibe break Precious open—to love, to literacy, to self-confidence—is one of the most astonishing, moving experiences I’ve ever had during a film. Sidibe handles her implicit empathy with her character’s impossible plight with command and grace, leading us carefully through Precious’s decisions and emotions so that spectators can understand her from the inside out. She privileges us with a view into the soul of a young woman whose size and countenance seems to refuse a common humanity, and lets us see Precious choose to throw in her lot with the rest by choosing to free herself from the hell of her home.

Although Precious knows she’s pregnant, her size masks how far along she is, so her unexpected labor pains make her teachers fearful enough to call an ambulance. At the hospital, where she delivers a healthy baby boy, Lenny Kravitz plays compassionate Nurse John, a man feminized by his profession and by his commitment to organic food, by his warm, level interactions, and by his quiet kind of care. His ministrations affect Precious; when he kisses her good-bye on her forehead, it’s clear she’s rarely experienced simple expressions of kindness or affection. Her school friends crowd her hospital room, flirting with Kravitz and behaving like the teenaged girls they actually are, instead of the jaded women their lives typically force them to perform.

Precious’s first baby by her father has Down syndrome and has been banished, by Mary, to live with Mary’s mother. Mary, who can’t stand the sight of her, calls the baby “Mongo,” short for “Mongoloid.” The sweet girl is friendly and affectionate, cheerful and placid. When Mary’s mother, wary and suspicious of her own daughter, brings the little girl to their Harlem apartment in anticipation of a city social worker’s visit, the three-year-old’s non-discriminating, innocent affect throws into even sharper relief the cruelty in which Precious lives.

Mary wears a wig and dresses up for the occasion, holding the baby on her lap while the clueless social worker spends five minutes in the apartment. When the official leaves, Mary rips off her wig and thrusts the baby out of her arms, her disgust and revulsion for her own family instantly reappearing in her face. But Precious loves her child, and in the simple, occasional narrative voice-overs in which she editorializes on her situation or shares her dreams, the girl admits that she’s determined that Mongo will live with her.

The narration, in fact, is used sparingly, as it provides the only evidence that Precious has a soul determined to survive despite her situation. To Daniels’ credit, he doesn’t rely on his source material for these voice-overs in a heavy-handed way; the film is less literary than it is a stunning visual record of inarticulate fear, longing, and hope, all recorded in the smallest movements of a facial muscle or the sheen of an eye.

[Spoiler alert.]

In one of the film’s most affecting scenes—and there are many—Mariah Carey, as Precious’s sympathetic new case worker, Ms. Weiss, the cruel Mary, and the wary Precious sit together in Ms. Weiss’s small cubicle, as Mary tries to persuade Precious to come home. Mo’Nique’s devastating performance in this scene shows Mary swinging frantically among her conflicting emotions: denial at the damage that’s been wrought on her daughter by Mary’s own boyfriend; anger that Precious has left her to fend for herself, so clearly was Mary dependent on the girl’s labor; fear at being left alone; and fury, still, that her man found her daughter—in her own perverse interpretation of his actions—more sexually desirable than he found her.

All three women sit in the claustrophobic public space, tears running down their cheeks, each crying for their own reasons. Ms. Weiss’s seem to be tears of disbelief, fury, and despair that people like Mary can sink so far into such degradation, and that she can do so little to help. Precious cries because she realizes her mother can never redeem herself, that she’ll never be more than a helpless batterer to whom Precious can never return. And Mary cries because she realizes at some point in her self-serving narrative that she’s not going to win this round; she’s going to walk away empty-handed, because try as she might, she can’t present herself as anything but the monster she is.

In a last ditch attempt to win Precious back, Mary disappears into the agency’s anteroom and returns with Mongo, Precious’s little daughter. Her mother thrusts the baby into Precious’s arms, and Precious finds her resolve. She tells Ms. Weiss that much as she appreciates what she’s done for her, and as much as Precious admits she likes Ms. Weiss (an admission of some consequence for such an emotionally guarded young girl), “you can’t handle me.” Standing to go, she tells Mary that she will never ever see her again. With Mongo’s hand in hers and her little boy on her shoulder, Precious leaves the agency, moving into a crowd of New Yorkers with gritty determination and utter faith in her ability, now, to survive.

Relating the plot makes Precious sound like a television-movie-of-the-week, but the film far exceeds that the stereotype. Daniels intercuts scenes of fantasy with Precious’s reality, especially when the brutality gets extreme and she needs to disassociate. In her parallel universe, she’s got a light-skinned boyfriend on her arm, and she swans through a celebrity’s life, enjoying the literal and figurative spotlight. She dances on a pedestal on a stage, watched by a theatre full of admiring fans; she works a line of screaming acolytes, signing autographs and posing for pictures; she wears satiny long dresses and her hair styled, her make-up sophisticated, a far cry from the worn-out t-shirts and jeans that compose her daily wardrobe.

Daniels films these fantasy sequences as though they’re in Technicolor, with a flat, brassy, two-dimensional color scheme and quick edits that keep the scenes fragmented and fantastical. The film never asks the spectator to reconcile these two versions of its central character. Daniels suggests these two different young women exist side-by-side in Precious’s psyche as near mirror images of one another.

In her real life, Precious is invisible; even Oprah Winfrey, who, with Tyler Perry, is one of the film’s producers, admitted that too often, she didn’t “see” girls like Precious, and vows never to make that mistake again. In the girl’s fantasies, she’s the center of adoring attention, fawned on by fans and doted on by her boyfriend, who always stands behind her, nuzzling her ear and respecting her power. Precious doesn’t really want celebrity, Daniels seems to suggest, but it’s the only image she can hang on to that represents to her what it means to be fully seen, heard, and loved.

Precious’s teachers and advocates truly do love her, as do her fellow students and Nurse John, who takes her under his wing at the hospital. When Precious wins an achievement in literacy award, her school throws a party to which all her newfound friends come. A kinship structure has grown up around Precious, and she’s buoyed and surprised by its warmth. Along with Ms. Weiss, her case worker at the agency, her teacher at the alternative school, Ms. Rain, has been quite affected by Precious. After her son is born, when it’s clear the young girl can’t return to her mother, Ms. Rain takes her home until more permanent temporary housing can be found for Precious and the baby. Ms. Rain lives in a Harlem brownstone with sophisticated ethnic appointments, including a prominently displayed poster of Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enough, which graces Precious with its symbolic weight during her visit.

Ms. Rain, as it happens, is a lesbian, and she and her lovely, warm partner regale Precious with stories that fade into a mélange of happy voices as Precious wonders, in her voiceover, at being taken in by “homos.” As the two women drink wine, touch one another lightly and affectionately, and coo over the little baby, Precious looks on in wonderment, as though this is the first time she’s been around people who actually love one another. The moment is moving and revealing, as it’s clear Precious has been influenced by her mother’s prejudices, but finds a grace and generosity of self that quickly helps her reject what she’s learned and embrace the possibility of difference, of kindness, and of love.

The film’s heroes and heroines—like Ms. Rain and her partner and Nurse John—are all light-skinned, complicating the politics of race in the film. In one scene, after Precious has come to trust Ms. Weiss, the case worker (Carey), she asks the woman “what color” she is. She can’t quite read her ethnicity, which, if her name is any indication, is Jewish. Precious is unsophisticated, but she sees something in this woman that reads as “not white” to her, even if it’s just a projection because Mrs. Weiss seems to empathize so strongly with her difference.

I can’t recall a film that’s illustrated such brutality and such compassion in nearly the same breadth. Nor can I recall a film in which the central character has been as complex and compelling as Precious. Watching Precious feels like witnessing a creative virtuosity—the director’s and each of the actors’—that’s tuned into something so real and somehow true, so horrible and somehow redemptive, that you can’t look away. And that, it seems, is the film’s plea: that we see girls like Precious, instead of seeing through them or refusing to look at all.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Annie Baker’s play, in a wonderful production directed by Sam Gold at Playwrights Horizons, takes place in the familiar, anonymous sterility of an all-purpose room at a community center, the kind of room that so often doubles as a crucible for community theatre and other arts. Exercise equipment clutters the floor, alongside the detritus of other objects useful for other kinds of groups. All become extraneous to the do-it-yourself creativity and faux self-help spiritualism-cum-acting lessons offered by the well-meant but self-involved would-be theatre guru, Marty.

As the oblivious leader of the four-member class, the middle-aged woman (played with a perfect balance of empathy and tone-deaf self-involvement by Deirdre O’Connell) tries to inspire her tiny band of followers to explore their inner psychology as a prerequisite to emotionally honest acting. But as Lauren (Tracee Chimo), the socially maladroit but emotionally acute teenager who’s the youngest person in the mismatched group of players notes plaintively, it’s not at all clear how any of this is going to help anyone learn how to be an actor.

Still, for Marty, the self-exploration and pseudo-psychologizing that are her stock in trade provide their own reward. It’s not at all clear that Marty has ever acted professionally; she’s one of those so-called artists who hang out a shingle on the basis of a happy fantasy rather than real life experience. Clearly, she’s cajoled her husband, James (Peter Friedman), to be part of the group, and he tries his best to go with the flow until the psychobabble gets the better of him and he takes the trust exercises a bit too far.

Schultz, Marty’s other male student, is a hapless divorcee with pent-up anger issues. Schultz is still not over the fact that his wife has left him, but he falls hard for Theresa, the supposedly “real” actor who’s moved to this remote hamlet of Shirley, Vermont, to escape her own relationship issues, as well as her own failed career. She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, an older man who controlled her jealously, a rather masochistic involvement that Theresa seems to have enjoyed more than she’s willing to admit.

Marty hurls herself into grooming this ragtag group, putting them through the ridiculous emotional recall, storytelling, and trust exercises familiar to any one who’s taken a community acting class at their local high school or playhouse. She asks the students to interview one another and then perform the narratives they collect, stories that Baker uses to structure the play’s cumulative revelations. Telling personal stories borrowed from their partners in a first-person form provides a rather sweet, halting demonstration of how the students get to know one another.

Since it’s impossible for them to perform one another without the barest hint of editorializing, we come to know the characters through how they describe and observe one another’s flaws and discrepancies during their interviews. As the six weeks of the class tick by, announced by slides projected between each scene, the characters’ back-stories are filled in a bit more, in tales that the students eventually use against one another as the trust exercises back-fire.

Each of the characters becomes likable in their own slightly askew way, as Baker gradually reveals their humor, their pain, and their sorrow. Several times, they lie on their backs on the studio floor trying to count collectively but consecutively to ten without stepping on one another’s numbers. The exercise is meant to foster trust and good listening skills. That the small ensemble can’t actually get to ten until near the play’s end marks both their failure and, at last, the ways in which they have indeed grown closer, more attune to one another’s presences and habits, their desires and frustrations.

O’Connell, as Marty, does an excellent job creating the pseudo-sincere care and attention of the not very talented acting teacher. She carefully watches each improvised moment she sets up among her pupils, positioning herself for optimal observation in a contrived, “artistic” pose, never explaining why she’s putting them through these emotional paces and never articulating what exactly they’ve done well or poorly. That each of the students simply follows her lead, rarely questioning her motives or their acting education, rings too true. I could hear who among my fellow spectators had taken such a class by the knowing laughter we shared at those familiar moments.

Marty’s husband, James, tries hard to be supportive of his flaky artistic wife. Marty shares the story of their meeting, a romantic moment at a friend’s wedding that depends on the kind of kismet in which only an aging hippy bohemian could continue to invest. But it becomes clear over the course of the play that their happiness is frayed, the romance fading. Their daughter, Erin, has stopped speaking to her father because Marty revealed to her a meaningless indiscretion James committed during his first marriage. James is devastated by his daughter’s silence and her sudden allegiance with Marty against him.

Friedman conveys James’s perplexed confusion over these sudden turns in his life, finding emotional candor in a character without a whole lot to say. James’s vulnerability makes him prey to the sultry charms of Theresa, the failed New York actress who’s here in the middle of nowhere to heal her own emotional wounds, and winds up seducing both men (and the teenaged Lauren) with her comfort in her body and her apparently open, if facile, vulnerability.

The versatile Reed Birney (whose raw performance in Blasted at Soho Rep was one of last season’s best) is excellent here as the wounded Schultz, who quickly falls in love with Theresa and is just as quickly and violently devastated when their brief affair doesn’t last. His need is palpable, even before clueless Marty makes the unsuccessful couple act out a scene in which his need becomes his only dialogue. Birney plays Schultz’s mercurial mood swings convincingly; even his sudden, menacing aggression seems justified when his rage boils up out of nowhere in the midst of his “objective” exercise with Theresa.

The play’s humor keeps it entertaining and holds at bay what could be more maudlin moments. As the baleful Lauren, Chimo is superb at physical humor; her expressions, as she reacts to the sometimes peculiar interactions of the adults, are priceless. Chimo can raise an eyebrow, widen her eyes, clench her fists, or raise her shoulders and communicate an entire paragraph of response to the absurdities of what she sees. When in the penultimate scene Marty asks her students to write down, distribute anonymously, and then read out loud something about themselves that they’ve never told another soul, it’s obviously Lauren’s slip of paper that says she secretly believes she’s smarter than everybody else in the world.

Even though she’s been an awkward, comically withdrawn presence through much of the play, that personal secret is clearly true. Lauren knows that her parents aren’t happy; knows that Marty and James’s marriage is headed for its end; sees through Theresa’s seductions while she’s also attracted to them; and is the only character in the play who expresses well-founded doubt that Marty’s ministrations are really going to make them better actors.

The shared secrets—meant to open the students emotionally and bind them psychologically—also reveal (if the characters are telling the truth) that Schultz has a secret addiction to internet porn; that James is in love with Theresa; and that Marty thinks she was molested by her father. These carefully held truths, when shared, seem at once virtuous and pathetic, and set in motion the play’s final bittersweet revelations.

As the orchestrator of what become emotionally acute confessions, Marty is as devastated as the others at what she hears. But she persists, like the soulful artist she believes herself to be, and ends the six-week class by asking Lauren and Schultz to act out one final improvisation, in which they meet one another 10 years later and share news of their lives.

The scene is both hilarious and poignant, as Schultz takes the opportunity to say out loud how Theresa “messed with my mind,” and for Lauren to predict that Marty and James will divorce, along with her parents. While Schultz asks the probing questions, playwright Baker clarifies that it’s Lauren who’s been prescient and wise all along, as she sees clearly into their collective futures.

Lauren enrolled in the class because she wants to be an actress, but realizes as she improvises her view of the future that she’ll be better off as a veterinarian, and sees herself 10 years out happily mated with a boyfriend in the same field. She’s kept in touch with Marty, who it turns out really does care for the odd young woman, predicting that at least one of the relationships so cavalierly dissected by the acting class has been established “for real” and will last. That final moment is both sad and hopeful, as Lauren’s improvised vision brings each character to a rueful but useful understanding of who they really are.

Circle Mirror Transformation is a lovely evening of theatre: fun and funny, smart and knowing, and hugely generous about the imperfect characters Baker portrays so simply and clearly. The play might not change your life, but like the acting class Marty wants so much to offer, it does offer insights into what our lives are and might be about, and demonstrates that the artistic impulse to see something about the human condition really can be felt, even in those tired, empty, all purpose rooms.

The production's run has been extended to November 21.

The Feminist Spectator