Sunday, January 6, 2013

Quentin Off-Leash! Part II

Historical fact - or Tarantino fetish?  Or both?
(Part I of this series is available here.)

Whippings, and the welts they left on the backs of slaves, are a constant motif of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (above, one of the first shots of the film).  Django himself has been whipped repeatedly; his wife "Broomhilda" has been similarly abused; and we see scar after scar on back after back throughout the entire movie.  The whipping of slaves has been portrayed in film before, but never with the same level of intensity or repetition.

Horrifying as it is, Tarantino's imagery is hardly exaggerated.  At left is a photograph from 1863, of a slave in Louisiana (who some claim eventually fought for the Union).  Records from the era report that 39 lashes was a common punishment for even minor offenses, and escaped slaves who were recaptured (essentially Django's position in the film) endured far worse; one slave, Moses Roper, withstood 200 lashes upon recapture, and was only spared from death by the pleadings of his master's wife.  There are even newspaper reports from 1844 regarding an eight-year-old slave girl who was whipped to death (her master was tried but acquitted - the murder of slaves by owners was actually not permitted throughout the South, but as slaves could not testify against whites in court, only one or two cases of white-on-black crime ever reached trial).

And violence against black men and women hardly ended with the Civil War.  Below is an image from some seventy years later of Southern whites gathered to see, and be seen with, the bodies of two lynching victims - to them, murder and torture (note the bloodstains on the broken corpses) was a form of entertainment.  Indeed, such images were known to be sold and traded by whites as postcards - and the crowds depicted often included happy children, there with their parents.

Are we that different from the crowd in this photo? Is Quentin?

So one cannot fault Quentin Tarantino for lurid depictions of violence that are actually outdone by the historical record. Yet many observers of his latest film have nevertheless been disturbed by theatre audiences' reactions to the cruelties it depicts.  Critics have noted the knowing chuckles that greet its many scenes of torment from Tarantino's hardcore fans, who seem to view the movie almost as they might . . . a gruesome postcard.

And therein lies the rub regarding Django Unchained.  The film goes where few American movies have dared to tread in terms of the abuse of slaves; but in the end, it goes there for a thrill, and even a laugh.  Perhaps the more things change . . . the more in some horrifying way they remain pretty much the same.  For it's quite easy to imagine that many of the people in those postcards had their excuses; perhaps some were even there "ironically," to garner a grim chuckle at the moral horror of their neighbors - much like the audiences packing the cinemas for Django.

Or perhaps they simply liked violence - although it would be hard to imagine they enjoyed it more than Tarantino himself.  I wonder, has anyone done a tally of just how much mayhem his films have included (and how little they've included of anything else)?  He struck his template at the very beginning, in Reservoir Dogs, and has stuck to it ever since - hip conversational longeurs floated around heists or capers, spacing out torture sequences that were obviously the main event.  Tarantino borrowed this odd opposition from Godard - specifically from Le Petit Soldat; although to be fair, Tarantino has always acknowledged the plagiarism at the bottom of his sense of cool, and even named his production company after Bande à part, another Godard opus from which he borrowed much. (The French auteur was less than impressed by this homage, however - perhaps because his sense of cool was never designed to power a frathouse thriller, much less a grindhouse fantasy.)

Tarantino's great theme in a nutshell.
At any rate, from the bloody Mexican stand-offs of Dogs to the gallons of hemoglobin spattering Django, the beheadings, castrations, burnings, dismemberments, disembowelings, etc., etc. in the Tarantino oeuvre are surely now beyond count.  But I think it's worth remembering that it's not actually the amount of violence in Tarantino's pictures that make them, well, a band apart.  It's the style of that violence.

Consider the photo at left, from Quentin's previous opus, Inglourious Basterds; it's of Diane Kruger's broken foot, after her character has been tortured by Brad Pitt.  The shot struck me as the most interesting thing in the picture, as it seemed to fuse in a single image almost everything that motivates Tarantino at the deepest level.  Of course the shot is absurd on its face - a cast in the shape of a nose-bleed heel?!?  (A broken bone cannot heal in that position.)  But the image limns a certain kind of fantasy that Tarantino obsessively pursues.

Artist and subject.
For as most movie fans know, Quentin has a foot fetish (it's by now a Hollywood in-joke; one photo that made the rounds, at right).  So it's no surprise that Kruger's lower digits are made up, and their nails polished; what's even more important is that they're encased, held stiff in a painful pose - and we get the odd sense that this restraint is actually, to Tarantino, the most sexually charged aspect of the shot.

For it's hard to miss the parallel between this encasement and the central scene of almost every Tarantino film ever, from the bound cop in Reservoir Dogs to the rubber ball stuffed in Bruce Willis' mouth in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman paralyzed (and then buried alive) in Kill Bill, to Zoe Bell tied to the hood of a car in Death Proof.  In fact, Tarantino is never really drawn to "action" (as some have claimed), he's drawn to inaction, to powerlessness - to helplessness, really, to the position of the torture victim, encased like Diane Kruger's foot and held immobile through unbearable pain - for someone else's pleasure.

A conceptual parallel to slavery itself is almost too obvious.  For what is slavery but a kind of torture (spiritual as well as physical), in which the victim is held powerless by political forces?  Hence Django Unchained equals Quentin unchained - he doesn't have to dream up any absurdly unlikely situations or characters (gay "hillbillies" in L.A., etc.) for this movie; his basic setting offers him limitless opportunities for the kind of scene he likes best.  

Hence the almost-self-parodic parade of atrocities on display in Django - although it's worth noting that Tarantino exercises some restraint in his treatment of these horrors; he knows exactly how much he can show and still hold onto the comic twist in his tone, and only once (in a scene in which hounds tear one victim limb from limb) does he arguably cross the black-comedy line.

A sly portrait of Tarantino himself?

Still, the violence does grind (they were called "grind houses" for a reason) and grows numbing; the sadism quickly loses its edge, and becomes a kind of background hum.  So the comedy dominates, goosed on by moves like the zoom above, which first presents the sadistic Calvin Candie, owner of the plantation "Candie Land" (where Broomhilda is enslaved) - a 70's gesture so clumsy and faux-naive that it all but begs for a laugh.  It's at such moments that A.O. Scott's claims for the movie's moral purpose ring most hollow; it's hard to understand how moral purpose could survive this kind of crudely comic technique.  (And indeed, the opposition of earnest feeling with klutzy presentation is a staple of sketch comedy today.)

So it's no surprise that audience members giggle at Django; they're constantly being cued to (by both the camera and the spaghetti-rock soundtrack). But of course that happy laughter prevents and precludes any sense of outrage regarding the context of the movie.  It also helps Tarantino deflect and dodge the demands of actual art - perhaps because that would put his own taste directly in the cross-hairs of his camera.

Indeed, in a canny performance, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to hint that he knows Calvin Candie is not very far from Tarantino himself (several gestures mimic the director's) and that the cinema we're all watching is rather like the gladiatorial entertainment at Candie Land (we have, after all, come to watch slaves gouge out each others' eyes, haven't we?).

But he seems alone in that perception. Jamie Foxx plays Django as almost a block - but then as a character (rather than a type), he barely exists - and the lovely Kerry Washington is likewise hamstrung by the limits of Broomhilda. And while DiCaprio is sick fun, he is never given the chance to explore the psyche of his sadistic character (for obvious reasons).  As for Christoph Waltz, I suppose he's about as hammily enjoyable as he was in Inglourious Basterds, but his dialogue operates at a sitcom level; this is how fans of Square Pegs might imagine a European. Which may be why Tarantino patiently has to explain such tropes as Broomhilda's Wagner-esque name; without cue cards, his audience would be lost.

Of course, I suppose I could argue in A.O. Scott's defense that Django Unchained does wrap with a vast Caucasian bloodbath, and the literal explosion of Candie Land. The tables are turned, justice is done, and the oppressed ride off into the night triumphant (how Django and Broomhilda escape Mississippi, though, I've no idea).  

But it's odd how un-cathartic this sequence feels; the slaughter (being filmed, at left) feels labored, like a weary ritual, and also utterly pre-determined; there's no suspense because we know Tarantino wouldn't have the balls to kill off Django at the finish.  For that would inevitably beg questions of lingering injustice; it would hint that racism wasn't entirely in the past, and flourishes in Tarantino's own audience.  In short, it would demand that we engage with the accuracy of what we've seen.

And that's anathema to this particular director.  He wants to enjoy slavery, and that enjoyment per force demands that the violence in question not be taken seriously; if it is, then his fans really are just like the people in those lynching postcards.  Which in turn means that in the end, Django Unchained is a most unusual form of propaganda - a kind of propaganda of disengagement.  It's for people who look at life, and history, from the other side of a screen.  And is art possible on the other side of a screen?

Samuel Jackson in Django Unchained.
There's really no way out of that conundrum, I'm afraid. As it is stands now, Django contradicts itself, and so is utterly un-serious.  Yet what does it mean for movies to not take American slavery seriously? Few fans of Django seem willing to ponder that question.  Even the Nazis never made ironic comedies about Auschwitz; so why are we making them about our own crimes? Given our current political battles, and the fact that our president was often depicted as a lynching victim down South, Tarantino's stance seems even harder to defend.  (And perhaps it's worth remembering that Inglourious Basterds likewise glorified "enhanced interrogation" while that debate raged a few years back.  It's hard to think, in fact, of any time Tarantino's movies have had a progressive political valence.)

Another, even more disturbing, way of looking at Django Unchained does come to mind. Tarantino, of course, is white, not black (and a Southerner, too).  Yet he seems to reserve his deepest contempt not for Calvin Candie and his ilk, but rather for Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a vicious "Uncle Tom" at Candie Land who - in the film's one cleverly subversive stroke - is a dead ringer for Uncle Ben, a long-time corporate mascot of Mars, Inc. (at right).  Tarantino seems to want to rip off the benign veneer of all such figures, from Aunt Jemima to Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

But the gambit lacks any real sting, because in Django Unchained, we can tell that the rules of this particular game have shifted. Isn't Tarantino himself really in charge of this plantation? And so we're not sure who truly counts as an Uncle Tom any more.

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