Monday, June 25, 2012

Without a song

You can see this is a model of happiness and tolerance
Pariah (2012) could be considered a feel-good movie for middle-aged middle-class white guys like me, because it makes clear that we are not responsible for all the bigotry and intolerance in the world.  Hooray for us!

Seriously, writer-director Dee Rees has done a brave thing, dramatizing intolerence within a group that has historically borne discrimination.  I am reminded of the flack Spike Lee got for revealing skin color discrimination among blacks in School Daze
I don't have a lot of original observations to make about this film -- it is remarkable how much was accomplished with color-coding in the cinematography (by Bradford Young) while appearing to be a realistic, documentary-style film.  By color-coding I mean that different environments were given different color temperatures, but in a much more subtle way than in, say, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.  Her

What surprises me as I scan the credits at imdb is that there does seem to have been a music department.  I honestly cannot recall music in the film and that was a problem for me.  The film very honorably steers clear of melodrama and theatrics.  The big confrontation scene with the mother became a revelation of character, not a celebration of conflict.  So the director was not going to call for a big dramatic score that tells the audeince how to feel from moment to moment. 

But I really can't remember any music, other than the diagetic music in the nightclubs and parties.  And this is a film that does not let the viewer in on what the characters are thinking and feeling.  It keeps its distance and relies on the audience's observation of behavior to draw its conclusions.  The result for me was that the film felt closed off and chilly.  Dees was so scrupulous about not overstating her case, that she barely bothered to make any case.  I could not help but feel that a music cue or two would have helped make an emotional connection between the protagonist, Alike, and the audience.

Because dialogue, counter-intuitive as it is, is historically a distancing element in film storytelling.  In the silent era, the character and audience made a direct, pre-verbal connection which made it easier to ignore distances in time and setting and culture.  Silent film inherently brings out the universality between characters and audience and music helps bind that relationship, if it is properly done.  Silent film at its best represents the interiority of the characters as a novelist does, in contrast with the spoken words of the playwright.

To dispense with that interiority is to keep the audience at an arms length.  Perhaps that was Ms. Dees's intention.  Perhaps she did not want sentiment and pity.  But it was also hard to feel identification.  So I felt for Alike's dilemma, but I had no doubt she and her family would work it out and eventually it would all be OK and where should we go for a snack, I could really kill for some ice cream...

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