Friday, July 29, 2011

Precious, Bleakness, and Happy Endings

Click here for IMDB listing
By some odd circumstance, DISH television has given us access to a few premium movie channels. A day or two ago, I watched Precious.

A wise thing I once heard -- it was someone's comment on pornography -- is that you can never "unsee" a thing. I imagine this in far
magnified form is the root of post-traumatic stress, especially in people who have been to war.

I do not wish I could "unsee" Precious, but it is certainly one of the bleakest, most depressing films I have ever seen, one with a measure
of redemption but even that is tainted by the expectation that things may not change very much, or will change for only one person while hundreds (thousands, millions?) left in the ghetto will live on without opportunity. I cannot remember a film that left me feeling more depressed about a situation (in this case, poverty, poor education, limited opportunities for African-Americans living segregated in cities).

I feel that way more often about films than I do about books. There is only one book I can remember off-hand that sticks in my mind because of the bleakness of its story and the ugly outcome.

I am no Pollyanna. There's a place for bleak stories, yes. And no one likes a contrived "happy" ending. In Precious, the protagonist's resolution is the best it can be, but the bleakness I felt coming away from the film is tinged with hopelessness. 

The girl is 16. She's had one baby by her father; she is pregnant with a second by the man. She is also sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by her mother. Her mother uses her and the first child to live on welfare. The protagonist's appearance leaves her subject to teasing and bullying. She cannot read. She is channeled into an alternative school. She meets a caring teacher. The teacher -- and the system -- help her make one step toward a better future.

That is a happy ending, at least from the point of view of the struggling little girl named Precious.

To me, the bleakness of the film comes from this girl's situation being emblematic of all the ugliness that slavery and discrimination have wrought. Is Precious' situation reality? I think so, in that it illustrates "real life," perhaps in a slightly different way from different "realities" I read about every day. I don't need a story about Harlem. I can find one in the local paper when the police bust a meth lab with children in it.

There's room for every sort of ending, it's true. The film is powerful (in its own bleak, hopeless way). But I won't watch it again. And I have no desire to read the book.

All thinking adults live with a dichotomy of feelings -- the idea that the country is in a financial mess, children in the ghettos are abused and neglected, that we are heading toward some technological future (manipulation of the human genome, etc.) that will be anti-human ultimately. 

At the same time, one rational means of maintaining sanity is to wake up in the morning and seek joy, seek the good, seek some means of grasping control of our own outlook to steer it away from despair.

It's a fragile balance, I fear. And Precious, whatever its art, its power as a story, left me despondent.

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