The One Thing I Find Objectionable About Django Unchained – UPDATED

December 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Probably no event in the recent history of film was more predictable than the offensiveness of an American slavery-themed faux-spaghetti Western by Quentin Tarantino. I’m really not sure if that’s at all significant for the criticisms themselves — to what extent does the dullness of a critique invalidate it? — but I thought I’d jot down the one thing about it I did find unsettling that I haven’t yet seen discussed.

But first, a tally. The frequent employment of the most offensive racial epithet in American history doesn’t especially bother me, and I admit I don’t fully understand the politics of its offensiveness in film. The pleasure Tarantino, a white man, evidently takes in using it in interviews notwithstanding, its function in the film is to shock, which it probably should, and to mark certain white characters as clear villains (not sure why Tarantino’s slaver character uses “black” instead other than to protect himself from criticism). It works similarly to how Nazi uniforms worked in Inglourious Basterds, to mark complicity in a social evil, rather than just responsibility for a personal one (the whole issue of collective responsibility being the biggest thematic difference between Tarantino’s “history” films and his earlier work). As far as I could tell, its significance when used by black characters to refer to each other is no more or less ambiguous than in the culture at large.

It’s also hard to care about criticism of the film’s various historical inaccuracies, or at least the fact that they exist. There were, for example, no mandingo deathmatches in the antebellum South. They refer to Mandingo (1975) and other blaxploitation movies dealing with slavery, but even these (as far as I know) hewed closer to the historical reality of slave boxing rings than Tarantino’s all-out bloodsports. The exaggeration is plainly an excuse to screen black bodies in various states of indignity and suffering while keeping the action movie genre focus, with the interesting side effect that we almost never see slaves laboring in the fields — the most spectacular scenes of violence revolve around decadent entertainments or house service. Again, as with IB, Tarantino is not interested in depicting historical atrocities but in manipulating a white audience’s reaction to their representation.

That the film fixates on the “white savior” figure, Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz, at the expense of the nominal black hero, is a little closer to what I consider to be the film’s actual obscenity. Once again, Waltz plays the libidinal center, the one who makes his appeals directly to the audience. He always has one up on everyone he meets, a seductive combination of type A fastidiousness and roguish opportunism. The normally charismatic Jamie Foxx is stuck playing the straight man. Here we have an inversion of what Robert Ray identifies as the standard two-hero structure of the Western — the law-abiding “official hero” and the more libertarian “outlaw hero” who sticks his neck out for no one, superego and ego, an opposition which traditionally resolves in a reconciliation in which the value of both “sides” is acknowledged in an unstable dialectic of social responsibility and desire, one which tends over time (especially in the revisionist Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s) to favor desire and the outlaw. As both a European and a bounty hunter, Schultz takes advantage of official legal codes and the cultural authority of “Western” liberalism to be, at one and the same time, a free agent and an enforcer of abstract “justice” against frontier (in this case Southern) customs. His fall comes when he loses his temper, in part as a result of his all-too-liberal (and mawkishly portrayed) sympathy for the plight of the slaves and in part because of his irritation at big slaveowner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)’s ostentatious attempt to assert Southern civility over legal contract (demanding a handshake in addition to a signature). Though he is technically the mentor figure and not the protagonist, he has a character arc that combines “outlaw” and “official” in a much more interesting way than anything else in the movie is handled, and grants agency to Django, who plays the outlaw hero singlemindedly out to rescue his wife and (later) mete out revenge. In notable contrast to ’70s blaxploitation slavery films, Django expresses no interest whatsoever in liberating other slaves — in one key scene he insists (against Schultz) that a slave be eaten by dogs so as not to compromise their cover, and in a scene that mirrors his own rescue by Schultz, he only frees a small group of slaves as a side effect of freeing himself. Only in the last leg of a very long movie does conflict between white characters (Schultz and Candie) give way to one between two black characters (Django and Candie’s house slave, Stephen), a segment in which the tone shifts all the way into farce, consisting of Django effortlessly killing his enemies in cartoonishly bloody ways, over and over again.

So, not only is it the case that Schultz is the center of the film for the majority of its running time, the film can’t even keep an ironically straight face for the climax, when Django finally takes over. All of this could — maybe — be written off as so much well-meaning cluelessness, superseded by the subversive value (probably almost as effective now as in the ’70s) of a black slave hero and a German slaughtering giant swathes of white America, if that last stretch weren’t set up by Candie’s biological racist theories about the submissiveness of African slaves. With his ruthlessness and intelligence (his apparent willingness to treat other slaves as brutally as their overseers), Django proves to Candie that he is the “one in 10,000” capable of matching whites. Though he later takes this back, and his interest in phrenology is presented as kooky/creepy, it’s as if the last part of the film exists to prove Candie’s initial point — that Django really is a black superman in relation to an essentially servile race. The only reference to slave revolts is Candie wondering why they never happen. So while Schultz is the film’s primary libidinal center, Candie is its sole interpretive center — under a veil of irony (19th century biological racism is so goofy!) he’s basically telling it like it is, or like it turns out to be, without anything else in the film to contradict it.

By pointedly refusing any sense of popular solidarity on the part of Django, and by keeping him a minor character until the all-the-way-over-the-top finale, the film works hard to undermine its own premise. Its an “anti-racist” action movie in which only the racists are allowed substantial commentary, and in which the one expression of sympathy with the enslaved that goes beyond the personal is a) given to a white man and b) leads to his pointless death. If Django is a comment on American post-racism or on the history of representations of slavery in American film, its one that is at best remedial and at worst regressive on both counts, all the while extracting maximum value from the spectacle of black suffering, with only superior irony, that of the carnival showman waiting for the right moment to raise the curtain, to reassure its audience that they stand on the right side of history.

UPDATE

On twitter immediately after seeing this, I wondered why DU is so weak in comparison to Tarantino’s other work, pretty much all of which has more than its fair share of repulsive and/or incoherent moments. It’s even more linear and narrowly focused than Jackie Brown, with the ensemble work Tarantino is rightly praised for at a minimum. Now I lean toward thinking he lost his nerve — this is the first time I’ve seen him lose control or stumble through his chosen material. The big “mistakes” can be expressed strictly in genre terms — by importing a spaghetti Western conception of heroism, where the gunfighter is independent, uninterested in political or social struggles even if sometimes drawn into them against his will, etc., into the milieu of American slavery, he undercuts any statement of racial equality or critique of white supremacy many of the individual scenes (somewhat hamfistedly) try to make. I’m not sure Tarantino has ever let a genre speak for him in quite this way. A corollary I didn’t touch on above is that the one female protagonist is a nonentity, following authentic Western tradition, but this takes on truly horrendous significance when both members of the romantic dyad are slaves: the most important female character (one of maybe four or five total) is a black slave who has virtually no dialogue and is routinely stripped, tortured, and put on display. Shortchanging female characters is really not a critique you could make of him before DU, let alone something this crudely exploitative. A revenge Western about slavery is an ingenious conceit, addressing one of America’s deepest historical traumas while sidestepping the inevitabilities of the liberal “message picture.” It’s also probably something only a director with Tarantino’s clout and experience playing around with film history could have pulled off. Too bad then that the actual result is not only the writer/director talking out of both sides of his mouth, but also his least entertaining film to date.

Fantastic Fest

October 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Austin’s Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in North America, apotheosis of the mainstream clout “geek” or “fan culture” has been building since the ’90s. It shares the sense of cinematic utopia with other international film festivals, a genuinely diverse collection of movies populated by adventurous audiences, the comforting (and misleading) sense of an alternative to Hollywood instead of a supplement. But its difference is obvious, and not just in the programming, which draws on a pretty liberal definition of ‘fantastic’ and ‘genre,’ even as film culture itself moves ever closer to ‘nobrow’: it is not all that shocking when established auteur Lars von Trier, whose reputation is based in part on a gothic TV miniseries (Kingdom Hospital), does horror (Antichrist) or now science fiction (Melancholia). No, the difference is clearest in the ‘extras,’ the celebrity boxing matches and superhero costume parties, and the flavor of interaction between attendees — fans — and filmmakers and fans and each other. These interactions are structured by the assumption that film is primarily entertainment, and everyone is there to satisfy shared fetishes, often perverse or trivial ones, not to achieve mainstream cultural relevance. If elitism is prideful participation in some elevated thing that others should share but are too dumb, then geek/fan culture is about pride in the terminally marginal. The boundary between the two has been disintegrating for some time (in my generation producing mutants like the post-bloggers at zero books), but it’s stable enough to be recognizable, for people to still think and speak as if they were one or the other. The international filmmakers not accustomed to encountering fans instead of cinephiles, i.e. Michael Roskam of Bullhead, were taken off guard at first but seemed hooked by the end (by the third screening he was savvy enough to compare his film’s protagonist to Batman – “You’ve spoiled me for the art-house circuit,” he said, “and that’s a good thing”). There’s probably little more gratfying for a filmmaker than meeting an audience that not only passionately loves you just for being there but today is a serious tastemaker.

The following are my notes on the films I saw that had something worth noticing, good or bad.

Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués, Cuba)

Thankfully Alejandro Brugués second feature isn’t limited to its novelty value as the “first Cuban horror/zombie movie.” Nor is it the cheap knockoff of Shaun of the Dead its title suggests, though they start from a similar place – zombies who allegorize the worst tendencies of their societies (basically conformity) take over, prompting a small group of slackers to find themselves by killing them. There’s an amusing running gag where the zombies keep getting mistaken for C.I.A.-sponsored dissidents. References to Cuban history are littered throughout, the biggest being the image of hundreds of Cubans attempting another great exodus from the island (presumably to the U.S.), some dragged to their deaths by underwater zombies. Here we have a different angle on the post-Soviet ‘end of history’ — a nation doomed to re-experience its war with the U.S. in increasingly absurd ways (in the Q&A Brugués revealed that a scene where ninja stars are used to dispatch zombies is based on an actual public lecture on preparing for Yankee invasion), stumbling through an uninspiring, futureless life (“It looks normal” is all one character can say upon seeing her neighborhood post-zombification). Brugués talked about the effects of the Special Period on Cuban society as an influence on the film, but it seemed odd to me, in 2011, to hold the U.S. up as every Cuban’s (slightly taboo) dream of escape — isn’t the American unemployment and poverty rate many times greater than Cuba’s? Though that dream is sympathized with throughout (and meekly affirmed at the end), it is never treated as realistic, nor as authentic. The only thing that really mars the film is its constant, vicious homophobia. I thought Michael Bay was bad.

Bullhead (Michel Roskam, Belgium)

This one beat the Dardenne brothers (snubbed again – the judges must know they’ll never win) for Belgium’s official entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Aside from being a first film that puts anyone else’s first film to shame, its treatment of masculinity is interestingly literal. Nominally a gangster noir (the justification for including it, I guess), Bullhead is a character study of cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, who was castrated with a rock as a child and became addicted to testosterone supplements. He is also part of Belgium’s locally infamous “hormone mafia,” a criminal network that traffics in the kinds of chemical enhancements that we take for granted in US livestock but happen to be illegal in the EU. Jacky’s troubled relation to his own masculinity is a bit Cronenbergian (before he went all conceptual in the ’00s) in the way it is reduced to a physico-chemical substance addiction, a hot commodity. His physical castration and physical juicing make a Freudian analysis irrelevant; Freud’s ‘unconscious’ themes are Jacky’s daily thoughts. Roskam described Matthias Schoenaerts’s performance as guided by breaking down rather than building up a psychology, a character of barely-concealed animalistic urges and instincts.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, Canada)

I count this one along with House of the Devil and Drive as a recent subclass of ’80s nostalgia film. House poses as an artifact, a trompe l’oeil early ’80s babysitter movie; Drive is all arch irony, unmotivated stylistic and musical borrowings for a story set in the present. BtBR tries to do what you’re not supposed to and explicitly historicizes its own fetish — 1983 is the date that opens the film and 1966 marks the flashback (Christian Thorne has an interesting take on Body Double as a pomo historicist film). Drawing on a nonspecific, half-remembered mélange of ’80s sci-fi TV and VHS cover paintings, BtBR recreates the ’80s as a gothicized remnant of ’60s utopianism. The Arboria Institute was devoted to the improvement of human life; now it is just a shell, Dr. Arborea near-mummified in the basement, his former protégé wiling away the hours tormenting their most promising subject, a preteen with psychic powers (?). ’80s futurism was indeed mostly dystopian, which at first glance makes it an odd object for nostalgia. But I don’t pick up any longing for happier times from most of these odd throwbacks (pop music is different). Instead it seems to be a way to represent contemporary feelings of dread and alienation, which has so far proved close to impossible to achieve with contemporary materials. The content of commodity culture hasn’t advanced much since then, so the complexes of today are easily projected onto that decade’s objects. And more usefully: in the networked 21st century, everyone could be consuming anything, everyone shares and borrows from everything, but nothing is held in common; an underground ’80s is the closest thing artists of a certain age have to a set of shared cultural references outside of infantilizing interface menus (the ’90s are coming back in as Gen Y grows up, but I have no idea how anyone is going to reconstruct the 100% recycled ’00s into anything coherent). And indeed, one thing all three films share is a fixation on ‘atmosphere’ that trumps narrative momentum. BtBR is the most extreme in this regard: the production design and the analog synth soundtrack are the real stars, plot is put off until the perfunctory and farcical final act. It’s a pure fetishist’s movie, with almost no concession to anyone else. I got off on it, but the whole thing bears an (unintentional?) resemblance to an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Carré Blanc (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, France)

Another debut film, this future dystopian take on corporate life presents that world as a series of sadistic psychology experiments. A man is ordered to give himself an electric shock for as long as he can endure it; a woman is ordered to remain within a small ring on the floor while her interviewer hits her over the head with a bamboo stick. Their purpose is to separate the strong from the weak, so that the weak can be processed as food for the strong. The funniest part of the film is how everyone maintains the enforced attitude of corporate civility even in the most abject and humiliating situations (the closest thing to ‘villains’ – a pack of testosterone-laden, ultraviolence-dispensing suits – don’t last long). All the mind games are ostensibly are to demonstrate the fairness of this post-resource population control scheme. Philippe, the Obama lookalike protagonist (almost everyone else in the film is white), is repeatedly told that his high rank is “proof the system works.” He and his boss cluck over the ‘obvious’ solutions to the games that no one else picks up on — the small ring on the floor can itself be moved, for example, and the bamboo stick avoided. But we see how the demand to constantly prove loyalty to the regime destroys creative thought, making selection for the games a virtual death sentence, albeit a self-justifying one (to the administrators, the players ‘choose’ to destroy themselves). This is a world where the unfit are invisible because they are consumed, everything has been consumed, where there is nothing but Brutalist concrete and white people in suits. We see the population numbers slip into decline, and a big part of the plot is Philippe’s passive refusal to reproduce out of despair and self-loathing — the ‘sustainability’ plan is not sustainable. Léonetti imagines what would be left of capitalist society after the market runs out of resources and comes up with something between George Orwell and Michel Foucault.*

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

I hated Antichrist, heard this was similar, and so only went because nothing else in its time slot seemed worth it. One common criticism of both films I don’t agree with though is that the genre elements are gimmicks or ‘stunts.’ That’s just realist snobbery, a depressing thing to find in the most spectacular visual medium ever but there it is. The problem with Antichrist wasn’t that it was a horror movie (with over-the-top gore, talking animals, etc.), but that it was a bad horror movie; its allegorical premise was stupid and wasn’t carried off in an inventive or even competent way. Melancholia is almost as thin in terms of character and just as thematically extravagant — it juxtaposes a rich white woman’s clinical depression to Earth’s apocalyptic collision with a larger planet named ‘Melancholia’ — but is much better executed. It’s actually a good companion piece to Tree of Life, both lavishly photographed, elliptically edited, epic-length films linking a realist drama about ‘white people problems’ — and Americans, no less — to the movements of the cosmos. Von Trier takes the added step (whether forward or backward I leave to the reader) of putting both events on the same diegetic plane: it’s a science fiction film in a way Tree of Life was not. The film is split into two halves, each focusing on one of two sisters. The first half, on the depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst), shows her ruining her expensive wedding to her boss’s son, a powerful ad executive, and in style hearkens back to Von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart’ melodramas. The second half focuses on family woman Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who helps Justine pick up the pieces as Melancholia barrels toward them. The parallelisms are pretty obvious: two parts, two sisters, two planets. Life vs. death. That death gets the stronger case should be no surprise, though I found the end much more satisfying than Tree of Life‘s hokey walk on the beach, and really not that cynical. The relation to more conventional science fiction apocalypses is interesting — SF usually uses the moment of The End to expand its scope to society as a whole (it’s only afterward that stories in this genre return to the personal), while Melancholia rather cheekily uses it as an opportunity to heighten an already heightened melodrama. It sometimes seems anti-science fiction, as in the way it shamelessly indulges the cliché of the male rational optimist who turns out to be totally wrong (take that, climate change). But I think a better way of putting it would be to say it embraces what in most SF figures as weak responses to crisis that have to be overcome in the name of action: emotional withdrawal, cynicism about the value of ‘life’ in the abstract, putting the family unit and social convention over broader social agency, etc., and genders them female. Thematically similar to Antichrist, yes, but with a better integrated, less emotionally distancing use of kitsch. Despite the overall more careful construction, Melancholia feels rawer, less defensive.

One day I want to write something on the proximity Malick’s and Von Trier’s films share with advertising, but that will have to wait.

*the whole film could be read as a parody of Foucault, come to think of it — the end of capitalism due to resource depletion provides the only conditions under which his analysis of biopower could be universally accurate: totalitarian liberalism.

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