Two slavery-era movies, Django Unchained and Lincoln: a dialogue
BB: Just back from Q Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, which (despite mostly horrendous reviews in the UK media) is actually splendid, but only if you enjoy Tarantino’s unique brand – sprightly horror comics with deliberate anachronisms and numerous jokes and cinema references, some obscure, but with an underlying moral purpose. Always beautifully photographed, accurately and wittily scripted and superbly directed and acted. The buckets of gore in the many shoot-outs are so over the top that they are clearly designed to be seen as symbolic, and the story is a concocted Western that’s also not meant to be taken seriously in itself: it’s simply not presented as a realistic documentary-type movie. The reviews in the Sunday Times Culture magazine and (more surprisingly) in the New Statesman are especially obtuse (one of them even complains that Tarantino’s script talks of people being ‘hung’ instead of ‘hanged’, which is too ludicrous a comment to be believed). The vague Wagnerian/Norse parallel, solemnly discussed (one of the characters is actually called a corruption of Brünnhilde!) is a typical Tarantino tease. Delicious.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea by any means (J wisely didn’t go) and those disturbed by even the most artificially exaggerated depiction of fake violence on the screen clearly need to stay away, but anyone who enjoyed Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill will love this one. Brilliant music too, a reliable pointer to the intended mood throughout, highlighting satire, comedy, narrative, pathos, etc. And a terrific cast, mostly used in uncharacteristic roles. Tarantino has a small but flavoury bit part.
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MH: I’ve not been a great fan of Quentin Tarantino — but then it’s also true that I’ve only seen one of his films, Reservoir Dogs, which I failed to see the point of, despite the critical praise heaped on it. For my taste too much gratuitous revelling in gore and extreme violence for its own sake, not (for me) made more palatable by its being depicted in a highly stylised manner. I agree that he’s a skilful cinematographer. In view of your encomium, and in a spirit of open-mindedness, perhaps it is time to put my anti-QT prejudice to the test. C and I have been to see Quartet, which we much enjoyed despite its somewhat schmaltzy optimism about coming terms with old age (on second thoughts perhaps that’s why we liked it!). What’s known, I think, as a “feel-good” film. Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln looks to be worth seeing.
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BB: Thanks, MH. If that’s how you felt about Reservoir Dogs, I wouldn’t recommend that you visit Django Unchained. The point, to my mind, is that the violence in both films (and some others by Quentin Tarantino, though not all) is not ‘gratuitous’ at all, it’s central to what the films are about; that it’s always deliberately stylised, partly by deliberate exaggeration, so that there’s no danger of it seeming designed to exploit unhealthy appetites or to be disturbing – it’s in the tradition of certain kinds of wham-bang comics and other kinds of film and literature. The films are (among other things) about the reasons why people behave violently (rather a serious issue, especially in the US, where the issue of justified and unjustified violence is of course central to the national legend because it arose in such stark form during the conquest and settlement of the west) and the likely eventual consequences of violence, both criminally and idealistically motivated. The skill with which QT deploys humour, satire, cinematic references and jokes, music especially, discussions of moral and philosophical issues in deliberately anachronistic sophisticated language between unsophisticated characters, outstanding actors usually cast counter-intuitively and out of character, other anachronisms and social inconsistencies to relate the issues in the film to the experience of its audiences (Django when in his gunslinger cowboy role wears sinister sunglasses, for example, despite the antebellum setting), and abrupt, almost shocking, changes of mood and style, all to reinforce the points he’s making, seems to me outstanding, and I relish it.
Incidentally I saw Django Unchained at a downmarket cinema in a shopping centre in the early afternoon when cinemas are generally nine-tenths empty. On this occasion it was 90% full, and the audience watched all 165 minutes in rapt silence, forgetting their huge bags of noisy pop-corn and bags of sweets wrapped in crackling cellophane. It was almost literally stunning.
Before you dismiss Django Unchained as cynical exploitation, please read the review of the movie in the New York Times, here, (including the second page) which I think casts useful light on it especially in the context of American cultural forms on which Tarantino deliberately draws.
I should add that J entirely agrees with your comments on R Dogs (and on QT generally), is convinced that the depiction of violence in movies and on TV is sick (she won’t say whether this applies also to the eye-gouging in King Lear or the other violence, incest, etc., in the Oresteia) and that anyone, including especially me, who pretends to enjoy it or who makes excuses for it is sick, too. Another battle in Thurber’s War between the Sexes, I’m afraid.
Yes, Lincoln’s clearly a must-see. You’ll notice, if you read it, that the NY Times review of Django draws attention to the fact that Django U. and Lincoln are about the same issues at the same period (slavery and its cruelties, race relations and the costs of challenging institutional separatism, the effects of slavery on both slave-masters and slaves, the corrupting effect of slavery on some black people who come to identify their interests with those of their white masters, the way these issues remain relevant today, and so on).
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BB submitted the following letter to the Guardian Review (it was not published):
Violence in Tarantino films
Adam Mars-Jones (Roads to Revenge, Guardian Review, 26 January 2013) interprets Schultz’s unconvincing reassurance to Django in Django Unchained (that it’s all right for the latter to shoot a man peacefully ploughing with his son) as Tarantino’s endorsement of the reassurance: “the voice of enlightened common sense”. I read it quite differently. Surely the film’s theme is the moral corruption involved in unnecessary killing and other violence, whatever the motives of the killers and regardless of its nominal legality. Tarantino is suggesting a degree of moral equivalence between the slave-owners who casually kill their slaves on impulse, and the bounty-hunters who kill wanted criminals for money, even though both are acting within the law of the time. This is a theme that seems to me to run through many of his films. Mr Mars-Jones’s comparison with the Oresteia of Aeschylus is very apt. Schultz’s obviously flimsy reassurance, so far from representing “the voice of enlightened common sense”, is designed to remind us of the moral unacceptability of what he and Django are doing, entirely comparable with that of the slave-owners’ treatment of their slaves. The same point is made equally clearly in other conversations between Schultz and Django.
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MH: I enjoyed your letter on Mars-Jones’s review of Django Unchained and agree with its main point. Tarantino also presumably intends us to see some sort of redemption for Schultz when he shoots DiCaprio’s slave-owning plantation-owner in what might be seen as an act of altruistic violence, inspired by an instinctive upsurge of moral revulsion, in which he knowingly sacrifices his own life, thereby (if you like) disregarding the “voice of enlightened common sense”. (I liked QT’s touch in giving DiCaprio horribly stained teeth as the symptom of his inner moral decay. There is, after all, in the American canon no more avoidable or inexcusable defect than bad teeth. Is the generally poor quality of British dentistry, which Americans so often comment upon, one of the reasons why Hollywood so often chooses British actors to play villains, I wonder?) But what is QT saying, if anything, about the avenging violence used by Django, particularly at the end of the film, as a response to slavery? The depiction of violence – throughout the film, but particularly at this point – is so cartoonish (“sanguinary panto”, Mars-Jones nicely calls it) as to deprive it of any power to shock and to trivialise, and even negate, any more serious point either for or against it that QT is trying to make. Similar questions arise in relation to the Monty Pythonesque scene – extremely funny in itself – where the Klu Klux Klan posse fall out among themselves over the poor design of the eye-holes in their hoods. Ridicule is, of course, an excellent way of attacking great evil in men or institutions but more effective when the evil is still rampant (as, for example, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator); less so when it has become a safe and easy target. So, for all the brilliance of the cinematography, the uniform excellence of the performances and the first-rate and often very funny script, I still came out of the cinema asking slightly bemusedly: Why? without being able to come up with any very cogent answer.
I see that Mars-Jones also has reservations about Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I don’t share. I’ll be interested to hear what you and J think.
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BB: I may be seeing Tarantino through rose tinted spectacle lenses, but I do think that there’s an often subtle purpose in everything he does, including the most unexpected and unconventional things. For example, I’m pretty sure that the violence in several of his films (which is what they are mainly about) is deliberately stylised (a) so that there’s no danger of it being pornographic, and (b) so that it will make a powerful impact but won’t be disturbing or overwhelming, and (c) to signal that the film doesn’t seek or pretend to be ‘realistic’, a sort of Brechtian message. I think that (c) also explains the startling and unexpected changes of mood (e.g. the pre-Ku Klux Klan gang whingeing about not being able to see through their hoods, which I thought was marvellously funny as well as making the rather humane point that some of the most brutal killers may actually be moral idiots or buffoons rather than deliberately evil malefactors); and (c) also explains the conscious anachronisms in some of the dialogue and also on the screen (Django’s shades being the most obvious example). The anachronisms serve to remind us that the action has sharp contemporary relevance (contrary to your own complaint – we haven’t exactly succeeded in eliminating non-state violence from our modern world!) even though set in a very different past: we’re not allowed to dismiss it all smugly as down to now discredited moral codes and the ignorance of the ancients. Some of the professional film critics have made themselves look obtuse by complaining about the anachronisms, as if they were careless mistakes.
A lot of the critics also seem to have missed the point I tried to make in my letter to the Guardian Review about the killings by the bounty hunters being very clearly depicted as almost as morally objectionable as the slave-owners’ killings and mistreatment of their slaves, despite both having been ‘legal’ at the time. This is fully consistent with your interesting suggestion that Schultz’s killing of the Leonardo DiCaprio character, which will obviously result in Schulz’s own death, is a kind of act of expiation and redemption. The fact that these are the commonest themes of traditional Westerns (Shane, High Noon, etc. etc.) simply explains why Tarantino chooses to portray the action as a Western, including some breathtaking sequences of riders silhouetted against the skyline, the Western costumes almost verging on parody, all saved by his obvious love of the tradition.
As for the revenge killings carried out by Django, they are surely part of the thesis about the (im)moral correspondence of bounty-hunter killings with slave-owners’ killing of slaves (aka “blacks” or “n*****s” in the film), but also about the philosophical ethics of all acts of revenge, a theme of drama going back to the Oresteia of Aeschylus (mentioned by Mars-Jones in his Guardian Review article but without Mars-Jones apparently recognising the implications of that acute observation as applied to Tarantino movies). As in the Oresteia, Tarantino discusses killings to avenge other killings, and certain kinds of private killings apparently in the public interest and within the law where the law is rudimentary, in a situation where there are effectively no state organs (police, courts, systematic law-based justice on behalf of society) to substitute for private action; action which by its nature leads to a never-ending cycle of violence and more violence, a kind of Omertà but where no systematic social alternative is available. Tarantino demonstrates the inevitable consequence of semi-licensed private killing (in revenge or “in the public interest”) by mounting the almost comically stylised scene of Götterdämmerung towards the end in which not only the main characters on both sides eliminate each other in a final murderous shoot-out, but also the whole building in which much of the action has taken place is blown sky-high, not a bad metaphor for total social breakdown in the absence of the rule of law.
I hope I’m not inventing these interpretations of what Tarantino is up to (J is unshakeably convinced that I am). I think it’s all there if you’re willing to see it – unlike those critics who complain that the characters are all (literally as well as metaphorically) black-and-white heroes or villains, that the violence is “gratuitous”, that the film glorifies it and never recognises its immorality, that it’s full of ridiculous anachronisms, that the symbolisms are simply down to incompetence, that it pronounces no moral judgement, even by inference, other than the insultingly obvious condemnation of slavery and racial prejudice (duh!), and that much of it is “unrealistic”! The last point at least is correct, but then so are Cézanne landscapes and Picasso still life paintings, plays by Oscar Wilde and Michael Frayn, musicals, pantomimes, operas and ballet. And Greek tragedy and comedy, come to that.
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VB: I loved it.
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MH: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained. There’s no dispute between us, I think, that he’s a supremely skilful film-maker, I just remain to be convinced that the subtleties and multiple levels of meaning that you find in this film are really there. Film buff friends tell me that I cannot form a proper judgement of QT’s work until I’ve seen Pulp Fiction – something of a cult movie for QT fans, it seems. I must try and repair that gap in my cinematographic knowledge at some point.
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BB: I agree that you need to see Pulp Fiction (especially), both ‘volumes’ of Kill Bill (of which I bought both volumes on DVD today for £5 from poor bankrupt HMV) and Jackie Brown before reaching any final conclusions about Tarantino. Everything he does has at least one purpose, often more than one, and it’s sometimes only afterwards that you realise what he was up to.
We saw Lincoln this afternoon. We thought Day-Lewis’s performance obviously masterly and the film had the gravitas that comes from dealing with events of huge significance and resonance, but without Day-Lewis (with whose half-brother I was at school, incidentally) it would really have been a pretty run-of-the-mill historical costume drama which had quite long periods that were frankly dull. I found myself yearning for some Tarantino fireworks, some technical dazzle and some intellectual challenge. Of course talking of Lincoln without Day-Lewis is like discussing Hamlet without the prince, but it’s perhaps fair to note that “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln”, there wasn’t a lot to it. It adequately explored the moral quandary – was Abe right to prolong the bloody civil war in order to get his abolition of slavery amendment through before permitting a peace settlement? – and Spielberg can’t be blamed for failing to suggest an answer (because there obviously isn’t one, which is why it’s not a terribly interesting moral problem). Lincoln discussed the relative merits of two obviously good but (arguably although not necessarily) incompatible causes, while Django Unchained discussed, much more subtly and far more entertainingly, the counter-intuitive moral equivalence of two bad types of violence, one of which laid unconvincing claims to virtue. All the other actors in Lincoln were perfectly competent – Tommy Lee Jones terrific as Thaddeus Stevens, I thought – but the whole thing came to life only when D D-L was on the screen and speaking. I thought it was a great mistake to include the assassination, which was dealt with so perfunctorily and which needs a film to itself to be done at all satisfactorily. In short, I agree this time with Adam Mars-Jones’s serious reservations about Lincoln despite recalling that you didn’t. In particular I agreed with A M-J about the unnecessarily portentous music of Lincoln. But it’s clearly a must-see movie mainly because of D D-L’s fantastic performance (surely a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar?) but also because it’s by Spielberg, whatever its shortcomings. Django was much the better and more interesting film, IMFFHO. We must just agree to disagree, at any rate until you’ve seen some more movies of QT.
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MH: Thanks for the feedback on Lincoln. I’m glad that you shared my admiration for Day-Lewis’s mesmerising performance, as well as that of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, but sorry that the rest of the film left you underwhelmed. I agree that it was a tad too long, but I found it gripping none the less and certainly far from being a “a run-of-the-mill historical costume drama”. It was courageous of Spielberg to eschew (except in the powerful opening battle sequence) the action-packed fireworks that are his usual stock-in-trade and focus instead on the nitty-gritty of the political infighting in the months leading up to the passage of the 13th amendment. (In this respect it reminded me a little of Borgen).
It is true that appreciation of the film is enhanced by some detailed knowledge of the historical background, and of the contemporary party-political forces at play, and this may be a drawback for British audiences. I wish that I myself had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book before seeing the film. It is true that we cannot know what would have happened if Abe L had listened to those of his advisers who wanted him to give priority to ending the civil war, rather than to securing the abolition of slavery first, but this doesn’t seem to me to diminish the potency of the moral trade-off confronting him: the certainty of more deaths on the battlefield against the early ending of the vast injustice of slavery. Intuitively, I feel that Lincoln was right to think that abolition would have taken far longer to achieve had he chosen the alternative course some wished upon him, but of course that can only be speculation.
It would have been difficult to have made no reference to the assassination as that is probably the best-known fact about Lincoln’s life. Actually, the assassination itself is not depicted. Instead, we see Lincoln’s son at a theatre where the performance is interrupted when the curtain is brought down and a flustered manager comes on to announce that the president has been shot at another theatre elsewhere in town. I thought this was a rather subtle and economically oblique way of covering the assassination in a way that did not divert attention from what I took to be the main theme of the film: that in a democracy the political pursuit of even the noblest of causes – and there could hardly be a more unimpeachably moral crusade than the abolition of slavery – sometimes, perhaps more often than not, requires a great deal of less than edifying wheeler-dealing, cajoling, bribing, arm-twisting, threats, subterfuge and deceit plus a degree of ruthlessness to ensure success.
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