Going Nowhere Fast: Degradation and Progress in Lee Daniels' THE PAPERBOY

           In Lee Daniels' The Paperboy, Zac Efron’s character Jack Jansen jumps into the ocean after an argument with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Bless is an pretty older woman, who wears clothes that are loose and tight in all the right places. Her sexual energy is ever-present and volatile, the perfect concoction to ensnare the teenage boy. Jack was a star swimmer in high school, so the water is a natural place for him to escape, but once he’s in the water he’s stung by jellyfish. He makes it back on the shore, where three young women find him and decide they might need to urinate on him to neutralize the poison. Charlotte gets wind of this and runs them off because, if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be her. When Jack comes to sometime  later, he finds out that his father, who runs the town paper, published the story of him getting saved by Charlotte and her heroic bladder. Jack is upset - degraded because the woman he wants has saved his life by pissing on him, and the father he wants respect from tells the whole town about it.

           Degradation is always related to perception in The Paperboy, and often related to sexuality. Jack perceiving his experience as humiliating, though it was necessary to save his life, is directly tied to his sexual frustration towards Charlotte. Later in the film we’re given an alternate perception of being urinated on through the eyes of Jack’s brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey). Ward is found naked and nearly beaten to death on a plastic tarp by two men that he’d asked up to his room. After Jack kicks them out he keeps asking what the plastic is for, drawing attention to its presence to the viewer. It’s common practice for people who enjoy getting urinated on to use plastic to safeguard the carpet, and it’s because of Jack’s earlier humiliation and the film’s references to “watersports” that it wouldn’t be out of the question to assume this is what was going on in the room. It’s not wrong that he’s homosexual or enjoys urolagnia, but it is sad that he can’t find a way to experience both activities in a safe environment. The humiliation gives him pleasure and the two men severely beating him in disgust makes Ward pitiful because his trust in them in regards to a very personal matter has been violated.

           Ward’s desire to keep his pleasures secret is contrasted by Charlotte who is incapable of hiding her sexuality. She’s been writing letters to Hillary Van Wetter (who’s name is in line with the rest of the water themes in the film) and believes he’s been wrongly convicted of murder. She enlists Ward and Yardley (David Oyelowo), his black British writing partner, to help investigate the matter and gladly hands the letters between her and Hillary over to them for their perusal. There’s nothing of any real value in these letters, and at one point Yardley reads them aloud revealing them to be lurid and sexually explicit. Charlotte clearly doesn’t care who knows what goes on in her private life. Later on, when Jack asks her if she had sex with Yardley, she tells him fucking is just a part of human nature and that she used her sex to get him on her side, nothing more. Her sex isn’t just her personality but a tool she uses to get what she wants.

          When Charlotte, Yardley, Jack, and Ward all meet Van Wetter for the first time, Charlotte gives her most outward display of sexuality and exhibitionism.The two pen-pals seemingly have sex while sitting several feet apart in front of relative strangers. She sits with her mouth agape while Van Wetter(John Cusack) brings himself to climax, thinking of her performing fellatio on him and calling her a bitch. Even telepathically she has to pleasure herself and him at the same time - their simulated sex reveals everything about their character and relationship. He is dominant and selfish, while she is submissive and pleasing. After it’s over a guard kicks them all out, and Yardley laughs at the absurdity of what he just saw, but for Charlotte this moment is tragic. Her man is being taken from her and she’s not embarrassed by her actions. In Charlotte’s mind this is all just part of being human, the concept of decency is a foreign construct used to restrain us from being ourselves - sexual animals.

           In contrast to Charlotte, Yardley creates a false identity of who he is. Late in the film we learn that he's an American who pretends to be British so as to be accepted by racists in the South, taking advantage of this American perception that having a British accent makes you more learned or of a higher status. Yardley’s deception is degrading because he can’t be himself and get a good job at the same time. Ironically, he didn’t get the job he has because of an accent and fancy clothes, but through sexual favors he gave to Ward. Even his harmless deception as a means for social advancement is a lie. His truth is that he degraded himself by exploiting another’s sexuality, and the mask he wears publicly allows him to both hide that truth and openly judge others for their truths.

          Anita, the Jansen family maid and narrator of the story, shares Yardley’s frustration with how her race is treated but responds differently. Her employer doesn’t even know she has kids, her sex is indifferent to him, as he and his wife clearly view Anita as property - not as a human employee. Anita silently does her work, even cleaning up broken glass after her day is done and she’s already gotten dressed up for a baby shower. But there are moments, at dinner specifically, where she seems quietly get her revenge. She fills Mrs. Guthrie’s tea so that it spills on her and she apologizes for her clumsiness while also telling Guthrie it’s not really a big deal. In another moment, Anita collects the dirty plates of everyone at the table, each one with piles of uneaten food. She then brings this stack to Mrs. Guthrie’s face, waiting for Guthrie to pick her own plate up and put it on the pile. These small instances clearly get to Mrs. Guthrie and Anita knows it; her disdain for the ugly, vile woman, is justified, but she doesn’t waste her time hating her and being equally vile in response. It’s that restraint that empowers her.

           Degradation, by definition, is the is the opposite of progress, and Lee Daniels uses degradation of these characters to show lack of progress not just in the film, but in our own time. The film takes place in 1969, after desegregation and the height of the Civil Right’s Movement, and yet racial discrimination is still prevalent. Passing those laws didn’t suddenly make us “post-racial” any more than electing a black President did. The same can be noted in characters being unable to express their sexuality. Charlotte is a sexual being and unafraid to admit it, but because of that fearlessness the male characters around her only view her as a sexual object. Even Jack, who thinks he loves her, looks at her sexuality as a possession to be obtained and he shows child-like giddy when Charlotte finally gives him an apathetic and pitying green light. Women today haven’t moved far beyond this role. If they exhibit too much sexuality they’re labeled whores, and if they don’t exhibit enough they’re looked at as prudes or uncool. Their identity and place in their community is dictated by only one aspect of their personality. Ward Jansen wants to hide his homosexuality and keep it discreet out of fear for his livelihood, and only just now, 44 years later in 2013, did the first active professional basketball player admit to being gay. Is that progress? Maybe it is, but it’s slow moving and suffocating like the swamps the characters of the film have to wade through.

           At the end of the film Van Wetter, who was freed by the foursome, is arrested and executed for the murder of Charlotte and Ward. This will of course ruin Yardley, who had a book deal lined up about his role in releasing the now twice convicted murderer. All their work had been in vain and ultimately lead to their downfall. The only character to come out seemingly no worse off than before is Anita, who, despite her degradation, kept respect for herself. It’s fitting then that she’s the one to tell the story of these people who were damned from the beginning, perverted by their inability to properly deal with their inner truths. Anita is the survivor because she understands the ugly and has found a way to live with it without letting it dictate who she is inside.

Blind Shaft(Li, 2003)

Humanity in the way of industry.

The first act of violence in Blind Shaft is abrupt and unsettling. Three miners are on a break, sitting in a secluded area of the mine to have a drink. They refer to one another as “bro” and one man talks about what it’s like back home and the lonely women there. Suddenly one of the men, Song, thumps this man in the head with a pick, killing him. At first you’re not even sure it happened; there’s no warning and the camera doesn’t stylize the violence. Its not just the act itself, it’s the banality of it that gets to you. Song and the third man in the conversation, his partner Tang, are con-men of the nastiest sort, and this is just another day at the office for them. They pretend their victim was family, killed by a cave-in, and get paid off by the boss of the mines to keep it quiet. Once paid, they move on to the next illegally run mine, picking up another rube who will pretend to be a family member with the intention of killing him and getting paid off again.

Their next mark is a young 18-year-old kid, whose father abandoned him to find work six months previous. He has left school to earn money and find his father a sad but noble quest. His naive and trusting nature stirs sympathy in Song, making him apprehensive to go through with the murder. Of course this uncharacteristic compassion doesn’t go unnoticed by Tang, who spends the movie reminding Song that the kid is nothing - just like them. This rift between the two con-men is not only the source of drama but also raises questions as to whether a man who has been so horrible can actually be redeemable.

Blind Shaft is a film that transcends the culture and boundaries of China. It’s at once a story about capitalism and about humanity’s lack of respect towards itself. The first mine Boss doesn’t really care about the dead miner, he wants him the hell out of there and forgot, but his lack of compassion doesn’t stop with others, it even applies to himself. When his payoff is 2,000 yuan short, he offers to cut off two fingers to make up the difference. You don’t doubt that he’d do it, either, the fatalism among all the characters is clear. The second boss, when asked why he can treat the workers unfairly boils it down to a fairly simple line “China has a shortage of everything but people”. You could just as well remove China and replace it with “the world”. That line actually fuels Tang and Song’s personal philosophy that they use to justify their vile scams: “Why care for them if no one cares for us?” It’s a pretty tragic viewpoint, but the clarity in which this world is illustrated makes you understand it and even sympathize.

Don’t confuse sympathy with approval though. The two get paid pretty well from their schemes but the money doesn’t better their situation. They go whoring, sing karaoke, and eat pretty well,  and yet they’re continually covered in dirt, wearing the same clothes, and surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Tang and Song may be working the system that created them but it’s clearly not paying off.

Li Yang, who directed the film and adapted it from the Liu Qingbang novel “Sheimu”, gets the most out of untrained actors and his low budget production. Shooting with a 16mm hand-held camera in a cinema verite style, the film is filled with the kinetic energy you find in French New Wave films, but the whimsy and romance of France is replaced with the desolate and downtrodden locales in the poorer areas of China’s vast landscape. The minimalism and intimacy of the production effectively illustrate the hopelessness of being deep in the mines, a place that posed legitimate dangers to the actors and crew during shooting. There are some great images found here, my favorite being the bright light coming down the shaft that gets eclipsed as people try to make their way out.

Recently I watched a documentary called Side by Side, in which many very important people in the film industry debated digital formats vs. film. While incredibly fascinating, I find the digital vs. film debate to be frivolous, an attempt to dictate the right way to make a movie. 16mm, the film format used for Blind Shaft, was considered to be the amateur’s film stock reserved for experimenting or, gasp, lowly television programs. This obsession with the tools used to make the art is detrimental to the artist, using the newest advances in technology to cover up how shallow the product is. At the same time it creates a false identity as to what constitutes a “real film”, making would-be filmmakers scared to create using what they have for fear that their work will be looked at as “amateurish”. Was it shot in digital or film? Is it high-def? Who cares?  I mention this because Blind Shaft is a strong example of how an engaging story that challenges the viewer rises above the limitations and biases imposed by “the pros” against a low budgets and “inferior” film formats. It’s not the tool it’s the hand that guides them, and Li Yang proves that with Blind Shaft.