Friday, December 25, 2009

PRECIOUS: Turning Points and Moral Premise

Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire.

Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones – Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe
Mary – Mo’Nique
Ms. Rain – Paula Patton
Mrs. Weiss – Mariah Carey
Conrows – Sherri Shepherd


At some point I'll need to write up a comparison of THE BLIND SIDE to PRECIOUS. Both are stories about black teens in need of a second chance. BLIND SIDE is about a boy, and PRECIOUS is about a girl. Both teens are overweight, lost with no parents to love and care of them, nearly illiterate but smart; they are humble, good hearted, and both need to learn to be self-reliant and pursue a goal to change their lives.

As of last weekend (13 Dec 09), PRECIOUS's domestic U.S. B.O. was $38MM off a $10MM budget, and THE BLIND SIDE did $150MM off an undisclosed budget. PRECIOUS looks like the loser in this comparison, except to be successful (by my business calculations) a project only has to do 3.5 times it's budget, and PRECIOUS is a bit beyond that. More importantly, Precious is not family friendly (strong "R"), while THE BLIND SIDE is PG-13 and endearing in many ways. So, it's interesting that PRECIOUS has done as well as it has. More on that later.


Here are some quick observations of PREVIOUS and the film's moral premise. Only a little story stuff here, mostly analysis. To give you a hook to hang my observations on here is what I think the moral premise is. Actually, I think there are three interleaved and interrelated moral premises for this film. That these values, themes, and consequences are all interrelated, and yet stand on their own is one reason the film is so rich. The statements might be stated this way as if leaning the early lessons open the awareness and opportunity to learn the second and third lesson.

Blaming others for our circumstances leads to selfish abuse; but
Empowering ourselves to change our circumstances leads to protection

Accepting ignorance leads to lack of opportunity; but
Pursuing knowledge leads to vision

Relying on the resources and decisions of others (government)
leads to dependency; but
Becoming self-reliant leads to independence.

Please comment and suggest your own moral premise statement(s).

The movie claims to be 110 minutes, but that's with 9 minutes of head and tail credits. My timing in the theater was right at 101 minutes (or 101 pages). So, at approximately pages 15, 30, 50, and 70, I expected to see some turning points, and I was not disappointed.

The turning points I discuss below are those discussed in my book and workshops, as well as those of Michael Hauge. My terms are slightly different than Michael’s but the concepts are the same.

Act 1 TP (1A-TP) 

Act 1 Center TP is bifurcated. There are two halves, at 8 min. and 16 min...

The inciting incident occurs at 8 min when Precious is told she can’t attend high school because she’s pregnant. The NEW OPPORTUNITY that begins Act 2 is now only a possibility, and that is attending Alternative School. When Precious asks what "alternative means" she's told:
PRINCIPAL: Alternative school. It's like a choice an alternative way of doing things.
This meaning of this line reaches into the heart of the movie: "You have a choice of doing things differently." Up until now, Precious' life is determined by her mother (Mary) and father (Carl) who are abusive in the extreme. The father is out of the picture now literally, but not substantively. Mary and Precious have an abusive co-dependency relationship. To break the cycle, one of them is going to have to make a CHOICE and do things differently, or find an alternative way of doing things.

The new opportunity is reinforced when the principal comes to Mary and Precious’ apartment—and although Mary only allows communication via the door pager—it’s enough.

At 16 min. Precious goes to the Alternative School to check out the possibility of going on a new journey. She hasn’t committed to it, but she’ll consider it.

The second half of Act 1 is the protagonist’s rejection of the opportunity, or her lack of making the commitment. We know she has to, but we’re intrigued and want to know how it will happen. (If she were to reject the New Opportunity, the movie would end at the end of Act 1.) Next.

Precious' initial rejection of the alternative school comes in the form of her mother's violent rejection of anything getting in the way of welfare (an education would result in knowledge and literacy so that a job could be obtained) and in some states going to school automatically takes you off the welfare rolls.

Other obstacles include: (a) the alternative school's entrance written test which Precious observes is prejudice against people in her kind of situation (it requires that you can read), (b) the absence of literal, moment-by-moment directions that tell her what to do (there is an assumption on the school's part that she'd walk into the classroom down the hall, and Ms. Rains' encouragement to come isn't literal enough; and (c) Precious’ bad life style that make her sick and cause her to throw up a bucket of stolen fried chicken (her breakfast). This last scene becomes the climax to Act 1, and a metaphor for the change in direction she needs to take: throw up your past and go in the opposite direction. The wastebasket she uses to regurgitate in is in the opposite direction to the classroom's entrance. She finally turns her back to the basket and wanders down the hall to the classroom.

We’ve made it through Act 1. Go back and look at everyone of the moral premise clauses, and you’ll see them reprised visually in the on-screen events of Act 1. She empowers herself to change something. She pursues knowledge, and it’s SHE that chooses to go to the school, take the test, and walk down the hall to class.

Remember one of the most important rules of all story telling: The PROTAGONIST must make the MORAL DECISIONS that CHANGE their life, and head the story in a NEW DIRECTION. That old direction and the new direction are described by the moral premise statements, and we must see actions on screen that reinforce what the moral premise describes.

Act 2 begins at 27 minutes.

With great reluctance, Precious enters the classroom, already occupied by a few other girls. (There's a resemblance here to The Breakfast Club).

The first half of Act 2 sees the Protagonist pursue the new goal (empowering herself, her education, and her self-reliance) while embracing an old method. In this case that old method is being dependent on her mother, being open to being dependent to welfare, and she’s not convinced that being ignorant is a bad thing.. It's a combination that doesn't help Precious break the cycle of her co-dependency and consequently there is always the threat and challenge to give up school and turn completely to welfare...until the Moment of Grace (MOG) arrives, halfway through the movie.

There should be a MOG for each main character. In this movie there are two main characters: Mary and Precious. Each has a moment of grace.

Act 2 TP - Mary's Moment of Grace at 46-49 min.

A welfare investigator comes to visit Mary in her apartment. The investigator comes a little early, which angers Mary, because she hasn't had time to fully implement her usual fraud with the help of Precious and Aunt Dot, who cares for Precious' first child, Mongoloid (Mongo). The fraud is that there are three mouths to feed, not two, and quickly Mary dons a wig, applies lipstick, and vice grips Mongo to her lap, while putting on a polite sweetness as she lies to the investigator about looking for work, carrying for the baby, et al. As soon as the investigator is gone, Mary tosses the child aside and swears at the inconvenience. The gross assumption is that she is a victim and the government owes her money to maintain her lazy, abusive lifestyle. While the fraud goes down you can see Precious’ emotional revolt at it all. When the investigator asks Precious something, Precious faces a moral dilemma. But Precious goes along with the fraud, as does Aunt Dot. Mary has multiple opportunities to tell the truth verbally and non-verbally, but rejects the truth of the moral premise and chooses the dark side. Her path from this point forward will spiral downward. Mary has rejected her Moment of Grace.

The very next scene is Precious’ MOG.

Act 2 TP - Precious' Moment of Grace at 49-51 min.
(The exact midpoint of the 101 min long film.)

This scene is very similar to the scene before. It takes place at the welfare office, where a welfare agent (Mrs. Weiss convincingly played by a deglittered Mariah Carey) questions Precious as to if she's eligible for welfare. But it's in the welfare office, and it's a different agent. But the questions are similar to those put to Mary. But Mary isn't present, now. Even though Precious was sent to the office by Mary,with the intent of furthering the fraud and extracting more money from the government, Precious isn't as sold on the need for dependency or fraud. Precious' moral sense has not been fully corrupted. When Mrs. Weiss asks about her father, Precious first says nothing and then blurts out: "My father gave me this baby and the one before." By the end of the scene Weiss is horrified at what Precious has been through. In the first line of the voice over in the next scene as Precious walks away from the welfare office we hear, "I couldn't lie no more." She has taken the first steps that will break the dependency. From this point on Precious will make progress that before would present impenetrable obstacles.

One of those dramatic beats occurs a few pages later when Precious acknowledges to us, during one of the classroom journaling sessions:
PRECIOUS (thinking): My mom says I can't learn from no book. But I am learning from a book.
Around her are signs that speak of "self determination." The journal is a huge step toward "self expression." Journaling helps US define our identity with few outside influences.

Moments later her body goes into labor contractions, and she screams all the way to the delivery room. Finally, a nurse, John, yells at her to “STOP!” Momentarily she does. It's a poignant moment. The screaming is the plaintive sound of a dependent person who has no control over her own life, or the pain in that life. But John, a successful nurse, knows differently. There is pain in life, but we have a choice to scream (as if we are the victim) or not to scream and put up with the pain (taking control of ourselves.)

John later establishes a good and healthy relationship with Precious and the other girls in the class. He becomes a role model for them. Part of that relationship is a wonderful scene where John is visiting Precious in her hospital room, while her fellow students are visiting. It's his lunch hour and he's eating fresh fruit purchased from an organic food store. The girls all talk about how much they love McDonalds, and John says that McDonalds is bad for you, and that Precious will not be allowed to eat anything except what is good for her as long as she’s at the hospital. It's a discussion about breaking old, harmful, dependent habits, and establishing healthy ones. By the end of the discussion Precious is smiling (John's attention to these girls is healing... he's good looking and respectful) and she says she wants some of that organic food.

Even the word "organic" is insightful. It's the opposite of "artificial" which is what dependency on others is. Organic reflects taking charge of our life. It's a choice. It's an alternative. It's something that is better for you. Being in charge and taking personal responsibility.

Act 2 Climax - 65-67 min

Our protagonist now enters the devils lair, where she is sure to be defeated, in a way. Precious leaves the hospital with Abdul and trudges back to her apartment and climbs the many flights of stairs to her apartment. Entering her apartment, Mary (still stuck to the TV watching the $100,000 Pyramid quiz show that presents only thin white successful people) takes no immediate notice of her daughter, or grandson. Instead, Mary demands:
MARY: Where you been all this time?
When Mary asks to see the baby and commands Precious to get her something to drink, Precious gives the baby reluctantly to her mom, and walks to the kitchen. Moments later, just about the time we think Mary may have changed, Mary throws the baby on the floor and then heaves the nearest heavy object at Precious. This time Precious doesn't take the abuse, but comes quickly back to battle her mother throwing her aside, turning over the TV breaking it, picking up her baby and purse, and leaving the apartment quickly. No sooner does mother and child get to the bottom of the staircase than Mary hurls the broken TV down the multiple flights and tries to kill Precious and the baby. But the TV misses, as Precious moves out of the way just in time. Throughout this scene there is a church choir singing a Christmas hymn.

This is a dramatic turning point where Precious clearly turns from dependency to independency, for her own sake but also a basic necessity for the baby's survival. Precious catches a glimpse of the church choir singing as she escapes from her mother, but I can’t catch the lyrics. Sounded like a Christmas hymn.

Lyrics to songs are important at revealing the filmmakers’ mindset about where the story and characters are going. But I have no list of the music at the present, else I’d look up the lyrics. Ah just found one of the songs: HAPPY by Leona Lewis. Lyrics HERE.

Act 3 begins at 67 minutes.

Precious enters the unknown world of self-determination.

At first she stands outside a church watching the choir practice that we’ve been hearing. She sees herself singing in the choir in a robe, with the baby. It’s a beautiful scene. But she doesn’t go in.  Back in the apartment, an out of control Mary destroys everything in P’s room.

Precious navigates the challenges of taking personal responsibility. At this point she only has Abdul yet she also wants Mongo. But her mentor, Ms. Rains, and others, try to persuade her to give the child up for adoption so she can concentrate on her studies, AND to provide the children with the opportunities she didn't have, thus helping to break the cycle of poverty that alone she may not be able to do for her kids.

Act 3 Mid point Turning Point at 79 minutes

Mary is clearly the antagonist and keeps trying to bring Precious back under her rule of dependency, for that is how Mary gets money for doing nothing. Her next push to break Precious down, defeat her independent spirit, and get her to come home so the welfare payments might have a chance of starting up again, is to visit Precious in her halfway house apartment and lower the final blow. Precious is not happy to see her mom.
MARY: Your daddy's dead.

(long pause)

PRECIOUS: Is that all you came to say?

MARY: He had the AIDS virus.
Then Mary goes on to say that she (Mary) doesn't have it, but Precious probably does... and that means Abdul probably does. Precious visits a clinic and is tested. She's HIV+. This devastates Precious, and once again she has to make the decision to take control of her life, and the curse of being HIV+, which greatly add to her burden and ability to stay on her own. It is a daunting challenge. In her next journaling class all she can write on the paper is "WHY ME?"

What is her answer? Does she make a moral decision or let fate take over. Her answer is true to the moral premise's good side. She says to Ms. Rains:
PRECIOUS: Let's say I am HIV positive. I stopped breast feeding (Abdul).
Then she cries, her staid constitution broken down by the realization that her life and Abdul's life are on her shoulders. No one else's. It's almost too much to carry. Beforehand, she didn't cry because she could be callow, blaming others for her circumstances. But now, taking responsibility to change her future demands honesty and with that vulnerability. What is Ms. Rain's response?
PRECIOUS: [Crying hysterically] Nobody loves me! 

MS. RAIN: People do love you, Precious. 

PRECIOUS: Don't lie to me! Love ain't done nothing for me! Love beat me down! Love rape me. Made me feel worthless! Called me an animal. 

MS. RAIN: [Tears begin falling from her eyes] But that's not love. Your baby loves you. *I* love you! Now, WRITE!
That is: Take control. Love yourself.

The Act 3 Climax is from 92 - 100 minutes.

Mrs. Weiss has Mary and Precious in her office, and tries to get Mary to talk about the abuse to Precious. This is the scene that seals Mo’Nique Academy Award nomination and perhaps a win. Mary slowly, with a great deal of prompting begins to tell when the sexual abuse of Precious began, at age 3 by Precious’ dad. Mary is afraid of Carl, but allows the abuse, and does nothing to stop it.  Mrs. Weiss is horrified. Precious listens intently. But Mary, as every good villain has an excuse:
MRS. WEISS: [Angrily] You just sat there, shut up, and let him abuse your daughter.

MARY: [Hysterically in tears] I did not want him to abuse my daughter! I did not want him to hurt her! I didn't want him to do nothing to her!

MRS. WEISS: [Overlapping with Mary's voice] But you ALLOWED him to hurt her! You did!

MARY: But, those... those things she told you I did to her? Who... who... who else was going to love me? WHO else was going to touch me? WHO else was going to make me feel good about myself?
Looking at the negative side of the moral premise statements earlier, here we see the depths to which Mary has descended. She’s been there the whole time of the story, but it is at 92 minutes that the au
dience sees the full tragedy of rejecting the truth and accepting the falsity of the moral premise’s dark side. She blames others for her circumstances (who is going to touch me?).  She reveals her ignorance that she could change her circumstances (she’s revealed as having not knowledge or vision of what could be). She demonstrates that she has relied totally on the resources and decisions of others for everything in her life (“I did not want….”) but she did nothing because she did not know how.

As if the monster that Mary has become has any redeeming value left in her, she leaves the office and returns momentarily with Mongo, giving him to Precious—a nod by the filmmakers that we need to feel sorry for Mary, and realize that there is good and bad in all of us.

Contrast Mary’s state with what Precious’ then says and does. Remember her visits to Mrs. Weiss were in order to get on welfare and receive public assistance. All the time we see Precious in Mrs. Weiss’ office Precious is holding on to the possibility of following in Mary’s dependent path.

At 100-min.  Precious, having said very little before, stands with Mongo in her arms:
PRECIOUS: I like you too, but you can't handle this.
(to her mom) I didn’t know what you were really like until now.
And with Mongo in tow she says to the both of them:
 PRECIOUS: You’ won’t see me again.
And she walks out.

The final denouement is less than a minute long. Precious is walking down the street with her two kids in tow. We hear her thoughts, as we have throughout the picture, something to this effect:
PRECIOUS: They say I can read now at a 7th grade level. Next year it’ll be high school, and then college.
And with that we have all the confidence in the world that Precious, unlike her mom, has embraced the good side of the moral premise. She will succeed because she has learned to empower herself, to pursue knowledge, and become self-reliant. The result of all that, which we don’t see in its completed form, but we do see immediately and not subliminally is this: -- Precious (as she walks away from the welfare office holding her two kids) is protecting her family, she following her vision, and she is determined to become independent. It’s a new and frightening journey. But she seems up to the fight. We have hope for her. (I look forward to the sequel.)


Matheus F. Ticiani said...

Thanks for the analysis, Dr. Williams, but what do you make of the review from Big Hollywood?

Stan Williams said...

Matheus, Thanks very much for alerting me to John Nolte's review. Insofar as he is the editor of a well-read conservative blog, his take on the movie was surprising. I thought for sure political conservatives would have caught the clear messages in the movie. So, I wrote John this note:

Dear John,

I'm a Hollywood story consultant although I live in Michigan and am politically conservative. It makes for some interesting meetings in L.A.. But I'm called on now and then and have spent days with notables like Will Smith beating out stories.

I recently saw both THE BLIND SIDE and PRECIOUS days apart. They have similar messages that conservatives laud. I found PRECIOUS particularly a story with a gut punching conservative message that surprised me, coming from filmmakers and backers (Daniels and Winfrey... don't know about Perry's political bent) that I would have normally classified as liberal.

A reader of one of my movie book blog where I extensively reviewed PRECIOUS, sent me a link to your review. I was surprised by your take. As a conservative please read (or at least scan) my analysis, based on my book THE MORAL PREMISE: HARNESSING VIRTUE AND VICE FOR BOX OFFICE SUCCESS.

The three messages behind precious that are copiously reinforced in every scene and every character arc are these (and please note the politically conservative bent to each):

Blaming others for our circumstances leads to selfish abuse; but empowering ourselves to change our circumstances leads to protection

Accepting ignorance leads to lack of opportunity; but pursuing knowledge leads to vision

Relying on the resources and decisions of others (government) leads to dependency; but becoming self-reliant leads to independence.

I"m not taking the space here to explain it all, but PRECIOUS is a politically conservative movie that we can only hope many will watch and understand.

Friends have suggested that I offer up some of my writing for your website. Obviously, the analysis I reference for PRECIOUS is too long. But I do write a lot and get published a lot. If I can contribute I'd like to. There are shorter, already published, essays accessible on home page of my book website.

Stan Williams, Ph.D.
Northville, MI

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

Thanks for the reply, Dr. Williams. As your friends, I think you could be a great contributor to that site.

Matheus F. Ticiani said...

And by the way, although I feel more inclined to agree with Nolte's take on the movie than with your's, I realize that conservatives, like liberals, are also prone to cloud their judgment when it comes to movies according to their respective political persuasion/worldview. Some other Big Hollywood contributor's "top 10 overrated movies of the decade" post featured Crash, a movie I liked a lot when I saw it that has some prominent politically incorrect content.

Stan Williams said...

Matheus: Yes, we are human and tend to see what we want because we want to be encouraged that we are least about some things. But we need to be open to the opposite arguments to check our own perspective. Although I enjoyed AVATAR (and may write on it from the extensive notes I took) I was disappointed by the politically correct perspective that generally Marines are bad guys (when they willingly sacrifice themselves in battles against tyranny); and that wars are waged out of greed and disrespect for other races (although there are exceptional examples of that even here in the U.S.). In AVATAR the parallel to the U.S. political liberal rant that the Iraq war was all about oil and lining the pockets of oil barons, was disheartening. Such arguments always fail to consider the counter evidence and fall into over generalizations.

What surprised me about PRECIOUS was that I approached the film knowing it was produced by liberals and thus I was expecting the liberal punch, jab and run. It took me a while (during the film) to realize that our preconceptions of the "other side" should not be as extreme as we imagine them. Truly not all welfare or public assistance leads to abuse, but it can, and that is what PRECIOUS tries to tell us.