Regarding 12 Years a Slave, I have mixed feelings. I do think it is a very viscerally powerful film, and in some sense the historical trauma of American slavery can always use further cinematic exploration given the relative dearth of films that make this a central topic. (Playing to "white liberal guilt" can sometimes be a dreadful thing. In cases where it prompts people to try to think - really - about the lives of those in situations much more dire and dangerous than their own, however, then please, bring on the guilt.) That said, I also think that Steve McQueen is actually a fairly conventional prestige filmmaker. (I have only also seen Hunger; not Shame.) It's not unheard of for art world people to come into cinema and actually have a more or less pedestrian approach the medium. Perhaps "pedestrian" is harsh. McQueen actually strikes me as a pretty good conventional filmmaker. I'd rather there were more Oscarbait films like Hunger or 12 Years a Slave than some of the treacly junk that have invaded multiplexes in recent holiday seasons.
But while I'm sympathetic, in many ways, to denunciations of 12 Years a Slave as a form of (very respectable) torture porn, I still wonder ... why is it that the prism of pornography has become the only way we ever read images and narratives that depict blood and broken skin anymore? Jonathan Rosenbaum has recently posed a question:
What 12 Years a Slave, The Act of Killing, Bastards, and A Touch of Sin
(the latter, for me, the best of a dubious lot) all seem to be
proposing, in different ways, is that the shocks and jolts of
exploitation filmmaking are the most expressive tools we have in order
to arrive at the truth about the world we live in. But what is this
truth, finally, but that venerable chestnut, “It’s only a movie”?
I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Rosenbaum's question. And while I only really like two of the four movies he mentions above, I probably like all of them as individual films more than he does. What I wonder, however, is why it has also come to be that any "explicit" or "graphic" content now comes to stand in as the route of exploitation? This strikes me as akin to saying that any film that employs nonlinear narrative structure or a few jump cuts is automatically taking the art cinema route to narration, and from there assuming that there is a monolithic opinion to be had about (all) art cinema and (the entirety of) its effects on narration.
I don't want to dismiss the very real connections that exist between exploitation film and other, more respectable genres and modes of production. In general these things need to be parsed out even more explicitly. But all the same. Could there be a different vocabulary for us to use to discuss films that might push the limits of violence, sex, and sordid behavior and yet not be "exploitative"? On some level, otherwise, I feel like this threatens to be an unsophisticated blanket condemnation of the films' audience.