Whether or not Invictus—Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming film about South African rugby—manages to sentimentalize apartheid, the 2009 film season has already been defined by gritty, emotional realism. Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic, The Hurt Locker, was the first fictional film on the Iraq War to approximate the conflict psychologically. Save for David Simon’s HBO miniseries Generation Kill, only The Hurt Locker achieves verisimilitude; sitting through the picture in the theater must feel something like serving in country. More recently, Lars von Trier’s harrowing, and ultimately, despicable masterpiece Antichrist, was at least as unwatchable, to those who haven’t suffered such a loss, as losing a child is unimaginable.
Lee Daniels’ second feature, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, (the novel was adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher), does for life in the ghetto what Bigelow did for modern war, and von Trier for filicide. At the start of the film, Precious (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is sixteen, illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her own father’s child—for the second time. She’s a quiet girl in the initial scenes, and when we first hear her speak it’s in voiceover. Though she may be piteous—in fact, there may never have been a character more deserving of sympathy—her tone isn’t pitiable. Precious lives in her imagination, and it is only in her fantasies that she finds sovereignty. At home with her mother, she is a slave in the truest sense: she’s an indentured servant and a source of income for her master. Welfare is the lone industry in the film, and the greater the recipient’s need appears, the larger the monthly check. For Precious’ mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), to survive without working, she must keep Precious—and whatever issues from Precious—under her ward. Before a visit from their social worker, Mary’s mother brings over Precious’ first child, whom Mary, on paper, claims as her own. The girl is a product of incest and afflicted with Down syndrome. She’s called Mongo, short for mongoloid. We’re never given her real name.
Precious is, throughout, a film about perverse subjugation. Mary profits from her control over Precious (the fuller the house, the greater the yield), but the gains themselves are dependent upon stasis. If Precious leaves the house, Mary can’t eat. Precious, therefore, is a resource and a crutch, and as any head of an empire, Mary fights violently to keep her progeny in the commonwealth. In an early scene, after a counselor from Precious’ school stops by the apartment building to conference with Mary, thinking she’ll be reported—for abuse and neglect, ostensibly—Mary attacks her daughter, throwing at her whatever she can find, in this case a shoe. Later, she throws a television.
The film is in many ways unbearable to watch, and because of that all the more necessary to see. But unlike Antichrist, for instance, which was relentlessly horrific to no purpose (and still astounding in spite of that), Precious strives to alleviate misery. Precious moves to an alternative school where she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who commits herself wholeheartedly to Precious’ resurrection. What keeps this plot point from turning saccharine, though, is the fact that Precious herself may be past saving. Even if she were to earn her GED and go to college, by the end of the film, one feels, as an observer, that her psychic wounds are too deep to close. How can she, for instance, tell her son about his father?
Precious is the preeminent victim of her circumstances. But at the same time, excepting a few intense moments of introspection (the grandest one being the final encounter she has with her mother at the welfare office, a scene that may be the most terrifyingly cathartic of the year—surpassing even Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation scene in Antichrist) she doesn’t dwell very long on her plight. And that she remains optimistic in spite of everything is either this film’s greatest flaw, or its triumph. If it’s the latter—and I would argue it is—Precious is much more than an exposé of poverty or an argument against government aid. It earns its optimism, if only because the labors necessary to achieve that hope are so awful.
When Precious leaves the welfare office, carrying her son, and holding her daughter’s hand, I thought of the close of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. After the execution of the innocent deserters in that film, the surviving soldiers sit in a mess hall. A beautiful young woman comes out onto the stage. The men jeer her as she begins to sing. But soon they stop. They’re unable to summon more insults. The beauty of her art, for that moment, eliminates their horrors. Similarly, Precious’ love for her children wipes away, temporarily, the mess of her circumstances.
Lee Daniels, by making this film, trained his eye—subjective as that eye may sometimes seem—on a family whose abhorrent situation, terrifyingly enough, isn’t unique. For many audiences (even those familiar with the fourth season of The Wire), Precious ought to come as a sickening shock. Despite its dream sequences and fantasies, it is overwhelmingly real.
There’s a scene early on in the mini-series version of Generation Kill in which Lee Tergesen, the actor who plays Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, wins over the Marines from 1st Recon Battalion with whom he is embedded. Recon is the eyes and ears of Operation Iraqi Freedom and one of the forwardmost units to push deep into Iraq in the first days of the war. The jarheads address Wright simply as “Reporter,” and treat him with a cool saltiness – until he lets slip that he used to write for Hustler. The soldiers, their raunchy humor already established, instantly warm to him. As the mission unfolds, Wright becomes the eyes and ears of the folks back home, evoking for his readers the cultish fraternity of American warriors on the front line of a strange war. HBO’s Generation Kill was based on a New York Times bestseller by Evan Wright, and it was adapted for HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, the architects of The Wire. For his new collection of reported pieces, Hella Nation, Evan Wright breaks the ice in much the same way. In the introduction, he discusses his early years, a slow metamorphosis from shiftless slacker to crack reporter, starting with the unlikely gig as Hustler’s entertainment editor. “My career at Hustler began with an overdose of Xanax,” he writes, and we’re off and stumbling. Wright’s back-assward path into serious journalism makes for entertaining reading, and there’s an important point to it. In the early 1990s, his life was a parade of blurry tableaus: blackouts, bar fights, stealing cars, and “waking up in vacant lots or hospital emergency rooms not knowing how I had gotten there, or sometimes what my name was.” In journalism, Wright found a way to cope with his demons and overcome his youthful conviction that “failure was a sort of philosophy to live by.” He accomplished this turnaround by focusing on the lives of other people who lived at the margins of American society. In these remote places on the cultural map, the rivers run deep, the currents are swift and unpredictable, and people need a skillful guide if they wish to know what it’s like to ride the whitewater. His background as something of a misfit has enabled Wright to gain amazing access to the lives of other misfits. More than once, almost by chance, he has crossed paths with characters who live in parallel universes where values are warped and decorum non-existent. In “Portrait of a Con Artist,” which first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000, Wright wrote about Seth Warshavsky, a dot-com whiz kid in Seattle who founded an online porn company, Internet Entertainment Group. By the late nineties, IEG was being touted by Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal as the porn industry’s version of Microsoft, supposedly earning revenue of $100 million in 1999. Following his departure from Larry Flynt’s Hustler, Wright moved from LA to Seattle and went to work for Warshavsky, a tourettic, human growth hormone-addicted porno-nerd-cum-Internet mogul. As chief Web editor, Wright soon learned that IEG was a sham, built around little more than smoke, mirrors, and Warshavsky’s pathological relationship with the truth in all of his business dealings. One thread that runs through all of the pieces in Hella Nation is Wright’s straightforward, almost deadpan descriptions of scenes that are perfectly absurd. During his ill-fated tenure at IEG, such scenes were common. One unfolded when Warshavsky had Wright meet with a group of analysts from an investment bank that had agreed to underwrite IEG’s initial public stock offering. Taking the men inside IEG’s video porn production warehouse, Wright was surprised to find that just one of the dozen or so booths that were supposed to be broadcasting live nude girls 24/7 contained an actual live nude girl. Far from being dismayed by the inactivity at the warehouse, the analysts gathered around the single booth, enthralled by a nude woman’s desultory masturbation before a webcam in a faux bedroom. “The one with the MBA from Harvard,” writes Wright, “suggested I had better insist on receiving stock options from my boss – Warshavsky – ahead of the IPO. He shot me a jocular smile.” This is a deeper subtext that runs through much of Wright’s work. As seemingly insane as many of his subjects are, their ridiculousness is often dwarfed by the ridiculousness of an American culture that is fascinated with, and eager to be taken in by, those risky characters who operate at society’s margins. The credulous businessmen in “Portrait of a Con Artist” are in this way not unlike Wright’s readership: ready, willing to be taken in. These are the stories that magazines like Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair live for. I, for one, was astounded and mesmerized by several of the stories in Hella Nation. I marveled at the access Wright was able to get and the thoroughness of his reporting. Only rarely did what he wrote strain my own credulity. Those moments were for the most part born of the skepticism of admiration. The stories include a dispatch from Afghanistan (Rolling Stone, ’02), where infantry soldiers from the Army’s 3-187th Battalion, Fifth Platoon Delta, are ostensibly battling the Taliban. In fact, they spend most of their days laboring in 125-degree heat, discussing the rumored existence of a McDonald’s in Kandahar, debating techniques for wiping your ass without toilet paper, and marveling at the disturbing proclivity of their Pashtun allies in the Anti-Taliban Forces to fraternize with young boys in their camp. There are profiles of an alcoholic skateboard punk from West Haven, Connecticut (Rolling Stone ’01), who won fame and corporate sponsorship in Hollywood by being featured doing never-before-seen tricks in underground skating videos, and a flamboyant Ultimate Fighting Challenge champ on whom the upstart blood sport had, at one time, hopes to pin (Men’s Journal ’02). In a breezy essay entitled “Scenes from My Life in Porn” (LA Weekly ’00) Wright sketches some mostly humorous memories from his days working at Larry Flynt Productions. One of the oldest stories, first published in Hustler in late ’97, is a profile of the rock group Motley Crue. At one point, the band’s drummer, Tommy Lee, explains how he had once managed to run himself over with his own car: “‘I pulled over to pee after drinking tons of beers,’ Tommy relates. “‘I left my Corvette in neutral, and it ran over both my legs. And dude, my leather pants fucking exploded.'” A lengthy piece that first appeared in Rolling Stone in 2000 follows the activities of a group of young anarchists, starting with the infamous Battle of Seattle during the World Trade Organization’s conference there: “As Wingnut inevitably says, when asked by police who his leader is, ‘I work for Mother Earth, arrest her.'” Wingnut’s other hero, we learn, is Ted Kaczynski. Wright travels with Wingnut from Seattle to a tree-sit high above the ground in the old-growth Douglas firs of the forest outside Eugene, Oregon, then down to LA. Wright covers a lot of ground, and he seems to prefer to treat every story as an embed. There are two stories in Hella Nation that I found particularly engrossing. The first is an investigative piece about a young San Francisco gym teacher who was attacked by her neighbor’s dogs in the hallway outside her apartment and killed. I remembered this gruesome story from when it happened in late 2001. Wright fills in astounding details. The dogs, rare Presa Canarios, were procured by a white supremacist while he served a life sentence in California state prison, and were being cared for by his lawyers, a married couple who had also legally adopted him. The couple exchanged pornographic letters with their “son,” and, it was rumored, photographs of the wife engaged in sexual acts with the dogs. The final story in the collection is a 25,000+ word profile of Pat Dollard that appeared in Vanity Fair in March ’07. Dollard was a Hollywood agent and producer until he dropped out of sight around Thanksgiving of 2004, only to resurface in Iraq, embedded with Marines in Baghdad. He returned to LA with a self-shot documentary film about his experiences and a desire to become a “conservative icon, the Michael Moore of the right.” Dollard’s late sister, Ann, was a prominent liberal activist, well-known in elite Hollywood circles, but this is not the only thing about him that made his new direction surprising. As Wright writes, “When you consider that just eighteen months earlier Dollard was a confessed whore-loving, alcoholic, coked-out Hollywood agent, his transformation into the great hope of conservative America is nothing short of astonishing.” Wright was first introduced to Dollard by a friend who believed Dollard could help him get Generation Kill made into a movie. The back of Hella Nation has a quote from Newsday: “[Evan Wright’s] style owes more to Hunter S. Thompson than to any sort of political correctness.” I sort of disagree, and so does Wright. “Gonzo journalism was born and died with Hunter S. Thompson, and lives on only in his writing,” he writes in the introduction. There’s no gonzo to Wright’s straightforward narrative approach – no madcap prose fraught with the writer’s own drug-fueled lunacy, a staple of Thompson’s work. Wright got that mostly out of his system before he became a serious journalist. Where Wright’s writing is reminiscent of Thompson’s is in certain conclusions about American culture that he leads the reader to. Wright’s subjects are outsiders, but an Evan Wright story is itself a subversion. The mainstream magazine reader is the one on the outside looking in.