Thursday, January 03, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Django Unchained

Enough has already been written about Django at this point that it might seem as if there weren't more that needed to be said. This is my favorite piece of long-form criticism I've read so far. Go read that first, they say a lot of things I would have liked to say better than I could have said them.

But a few more thoughts. Much reaction to the film seems to be split down familiar lines: people who see a great deal in the way of thoughtful and thought-provoking content in what must be one of the most thematically and historically dense and rich movies in recent years, and people who dismiss the film as being another in a long line of facile entertainments produced by a juvenile director. The latter school of thought holds that, yes, Tarantino may have his way with an image or a dialogue here and there, but he remains a stubbornly sophomoric filmmaker who's refusal to grow-up continually stymies his ambition. I should point out, based on the purely informal survey of reviews I've seen, that this last opinion appears to be an opinion held by a revanchist minority, the type of folks like Anthony Lane still waging a fiery rearguard action against the forces of cinematic iniquity.

The problem with Lane is that while his reviews are funny if you agree with his opinions, when you cease to agree they seem simply lazy. And surely in his brief dismissal of the film we see something less than a considered response to the film's myriad aesthetic, thematic, and historical dimensions, and more along the lines of a lazy refusal to engage with the film on any level above that of casual rebuke. The feeling you take away from this school of criticism is that Tarantino is somehow an irresponsible filmmaker for not having already settled down to produce something mature and understated such as Scenes From A Marriage Part Deux, and a movie like Django suffers for its inability to hold itself the standard of being a "well-wrought urn" of exceeding cinematic gravitas. Lane falters because his inability to engage seems simply absurd - borderline incompetent - next to the voluminous discourse that has already sprouted around the film. For better or for worse this is a film that is going to be seen, re-seen, analyzed, criticized, dissected, and lionized for years to come. But, I hasten to add, not dismissed, at least not by anyone who has actually seen the film - that means you, Spike - because I don't think anyone but Lane could see the film and not come away significantly affected. (Incidentally, you should read this for the best specific riposte to Lee's words I have read.)

Don't get me wrong: I've done my time in the anti-Tarantino militia. After producing three near-perfect films in the 90s (as well as a handful of great screenplays that became great movies for other directors), he lost me with Kill Bill. Probably because I don't have any affection for / little interest in the films and genres to which he was paying homage, I found Kill Bill, while pretty, to be almost completely pointless, and about as deep as a puddle of rain. Inglourious Basterds did a lot to redeem him in my eyes. That was a very good film. I think, however, that Django is probably better than Basterds.

I think the best way to measure the importance of Django is the way the film has made so many people so very uncomfortable. I'm not even talking about Spike - take a look at that first article I linked to for clarification on that. I'm talking about white people. Just go back and read Lane's "review":
Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache. That is what Django delivers, and it’s the least that Candie deserves, together with other defenders of the Southern status quo: such, at any rate, will be the claim of Tarantino’s fans, although I was disturbed by their yelps of triumphant laughter, at the screening I attended, as a white woman was blown away by Django’s gun.
These words echo another review I read recently (a terrible review for which I won't even bother tracking down a link) that also referenced this scene, with another bit about how uncomfortable they were with the theater massacre at the end of Basterds, especially in light of the tragedy at Aurora over the summer.

Putting aside the false equivalency that makes the righteous massacre of top Nazi party officials in any way comparable to the senseless murder of civilians during peacetime, you begin to detect the emergence of a strange kind of ethical scrupulousness, the kind of scrupulousness that focuses so intently on slicing delicate compunctions into fine slivers that the entire forest is lost in contemplation of the trees. Why, pray tell, is Lane disturbed by the gleeful reaction to Candie's sister's death? Tarantino isn't trying to set up any kind of subtle dialectical contrast here: he is saying as plainly as possible that the lingering cult of the pristine white Southern belle is a historically duplicitous and dangerous phenomenon that deserves nothing but our utmost contempt. The white women who sat peacefully in the big houses while their husbands, fathers, and brothers carried on the business of slavery, as the beneficiaries of this system, were no less to blame for the enormity of its evil. Do you retain any lingering sentimental connection to Scarlett O'Hara as a figure of romance and feminine perseverance? I certainly hope not. Burn it all. But then, worry not, Lane is clever enough to put these defenses in the mouths of "Tarantino's fans" - meaning, fanboys, uncritical and cultish devotees whose commitment lacks any kind of self-reflexive rigor. God forbid you actually be a fan of something.

The worst part about Django is that it was a movie only Quentin Tarantino could make. Meaning: no black filmmaker could ever have gotten anywhere near the subject matter, let alone produce anything remotely as violent or sickening, and received any money from Hollywood. There aren't very many movies made about slavery, for the obvious reason that it's hard to find and angle on the story that doesn't revolve around white Americans being terrible, unredeemable villains, and who would go see that movie? It's also hard to imagine many movies willing to go as far as necessary to show just how viscerally, unremittingly awful slavery was. If you think about it, there aren't a lot of films made about the Holocaust, either, at least not the very worst parts of the genocide. These things are hard to watch, and people don't like seeing them on movie screens outside the confines of the occasional prestige Oscar-bait documentary. That doesn't mean we don't need to see them, however.

As strange as it seems for such an idiosyncratic filmmaker, Tarantino has basically received a blank check from Hollywood to do whatever he wants. Kill Bill and Basterds made a lot of money. He's an auteur who gets to play on the big canvas without having to kowtow to the Happy Meal guys. And the fact is that he has chosen this specific moment to leverage his singular clout into making the most brutal, upsetting, bloody movie about slavery I've ever seen. Would it have been "better" if a black director had made the film? Few say it directly but that's obviously the undercurrent to much of the extant criticism. If the movie had been exactly the same, frame for frame, just with John Singleton or F. Gary Gray's name in the credits, would Spike Lee have given a damn how many times the movie said "nigger"? (The answer? Maybe. I don't know. I can't even begin to guess.) Or would the conversation have been entirely different, with white conservative pundits from coast to coast bemoaning the scourge of "black racism" and asking why "they" (those poor misguided blacks who have been betrayed by the Democrat party into accepting the status of permanent victims) can't just get over this slavery thing because they (white conservatives) obviously don't see color so there is no longer any such thing as racism . . . etc., etc. Even with a white man behind the camera, that discourse is still popping up.

Who the hell knows? If white people are still too "uncomfortable" with being reminded about slavery, well, tough. This movie rubs your face in the history like a pile of warm dog shit - if you forgot, or never knew, exactly what American history entailed, you deserve every ounce of your unease. There's been a side-narrative to the discussion about the movie, talking about whether Tarantino falsified or enhanced the historical record in reference to "Mandingo fighting" - which seems to me to be so astoundingly besides the point that its amazing anyone asking the question has the wherewithal to tie their shoes. Do we really think that if we can parse the historical record with perfect precision we can calculate the exact degree of moral culpability that white southerners possessed, and not one jot or tittle more or less? Is someone like Candie any less reprehensible if he didn't actually buy and sell men for the express purpose of pitting them against each other to the death, just, you know, having them torn apart by dogs and gelding them and putting them in iron boxes for weeks at a time in the heat of the summer?

Or is the real issue here that Tarantino, in seeking to create an epic catalog of the brutalities of slavery, is secretly just as infatuated with the erotic possibilities of captive black male flesh as the slaveowners themselves, and that his insistence on putting the "N" word in the mouths of so many of his characters reflects a fascination with blackness that borders on the fetishistic? (Besides, that is, the fact that a movie about slavery times that didn't drop the "N" word every other second would be plain silly.) There's the rub. Because Tarantino actually wants to talk about race, and talk about race in explicit terms, suddenly he's just as culpable as the racists he's pillorying. Are we worried that showing slavery in all its lurid detail will somehow rekindle its old romantic aura, as if it could ever once again be made, dare we say, attractive? If we talk about slavery, can we only talk about it in tones of hushed reverence, sepia toned pictures of noble struggle against adversity and mute, holy suffering. You know, like Lincoln, a movie that does a bang-up job of eliding the actual physical existence of black people in a movie ostensibly about the abolition of slavery.

Accusing Tarantino of exaggerating or sensationalizing the practice of slavery seems to me to be almost an illegible complaint: there is no way to accurately portray the actual practice of slavery as it was experienced in the United States without the portrayal being, in the strictest sense of the word, sensational. Look at the historical record. Read the slave narratives - two feet from my desk I have a well-thumbed copy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr's The Classic Slave Narratives anthology. It's $7.95 in paperback and every household in America should own a copy. It has The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which is the best American memoir ever written, period. If you haven't yet you really should read it.

This isn't "just" African-American history, this is American history, and if that makes anyone too uncomfortable, well, I have no pity for you. It should make you uncomfortable. But we have to own it. If this movie puts this conversation back on people's lips, it's done the job. For whatever inaccuracies and exaggerations the film may or may not commit, it's an important film because it wants us to see something that has been invisible for a very long time.

I sincerely hope that Django isn't the last word in this conversation - it would be awesome if the film led to a greater awareness of the types of stories that could find a receptive audience onscreen. It would be completely fantastic if Danny Glover didn't have to scramble for spare change to film his Toussaint Louvrture biopic - that is one of the greatest stories in modern history, and I'm sure it would make one hell of a movie. Unfortunately, I'm not holding my breath - as popular as Django is proving to be, it's still successful primarily because it's a Quentin Tarantino film, not because it's a film about race relations in American history. But by being everything that it is - loud, violent, unrepentantly nasty in places and downright strange in others - it opened the door to a bunch of people having precisely this conversation. That is why even though it's not a perfect film, I am still convinced that it is a great film.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The best compliment I can give this movie is that I didn't begrudge it a second of it's Brobdingnagian run-time. Sure, some have complained that the opening sequence in Bilbo's house run on too long, but they're not unnecessary minutes - we're setting off on a nine-hour adventure, so it's a good idea to know what we're actually doing and what people's motivations actually are.

I saw the film on 3D, which isn't my preferred format, but that was the time available for the afternoon I had open. I would have preferred to see it in regular 2D, because 3D has been known to give me a headache, but it was not to be. The 3D was pretty good. Before you ask, I did not see the film at the super frame rate, because I am not completely insane.

The coolest moments of the film, for me, were the handful of conscious homages to the original 1977 Rankin / Bass cartoon. There were a couple bits - really brief, blink-and-you-miss-it - where Jackson called back to the cartoon. In particular, during the first scene of Gollum paddling his little boat across the water in his cave, there was a split second where the image was framed and composed exactly like the same moment from the earlier film. One of those things obviously intended for people who spent too many hours watching that cartoon on TV during Thanksgiving afternoon Middle-Earth marathons (the three cartoons played back-to-back on local TV - we were never a big football household).

The cinematic Middle-Earth is a different place than Tolkien's Middle-Earth. I did enjoy the new film, however, for the chance to linger in the former world for another three hours of my life. These aren't films I revisit often - despite the extended run-time of the DVD special editions they really aren't made for small TV watching, full of big scenes and big, broad emotions - but I do look forward to seeing them on the big screen when I can.

I came home and picked up The Silmarillion again - still my favorite Tolkien, and one which I am delighted to add will probably never be filmed. OK, there's parts that could be taken for movies - lots of individual stories of the wars against Morgoth and the fall of NĂºmenor that could probably be quite cinematic if given the opportunity - but the best part of that book is more amorphous. I'm consistently transported by the sheer scale of mythic deep time and alien melancholy with which Tolkien invests his ancient tales. These are the strongest emotions I take from him, and for the most part, these peculiar emotions remain stubbornly resistant to adaptation.


Troy Wilson said...

If there was little left to say about Django before you typed up this post, there's certainly much less to say about it now. I will note, though, that I am in full agreement with not only your well-considered thoughts about Django, but also with your assessment of the Kill Bill movies. I did find the second installment to be marginally stronger than the first (better dialogue, better villains), but even at that, it still demanded much more affection for certain films and genres than I could muster. That's not to say that I have a whole lot of affection for westerns, either, but Django stands on its own two feet regardless. Its mix of discomfort and entertainment is potent indeed.

Lightning Lord said...

Isn't your criticism towards Lane also applicable to much of the indie comics blogosphere, especially those corners that seem hostile to anything that even resembles a mainstream comic and look favorably on anything that's not, no matter the actual quality?

Timothy O'Neil said...

I don't know if there are any people who really fit that description anymore. Most of the better writers about comics, leaving aside a few people like Domingos Isabelinho (who came by his disinterest in superhero comics the honest way, by not being born in the United States), are more catholic in their tastes. I supposed there may be a few of the old guard indie-or-die boosters left, but I don't see many of them around. Maybe I'm not looking.