Saturday, January 26, 2013

Django Chained

When I was seventeen, an old woman was invited to speak to my class about her life as a survivor of the Holocaust. She was sent to Auschwitz when she was a little older than us, she told us; she revealed the tattooed number on her arm. She told us about her escape from the camp - an extraordinary story of determination and outrageous good fortune in evading her captors. What made many people in my class queasy -  I remember a long discussion about it in the playground afterwards - was that this woman told us she had been saved by God; she had prayed to Him over and over as she fled, and He had heard her prayer and rescued her, helped her along as she fled. It seemed astonishing that she might not reflect on the people God chose not to help. She did not explain why her life might be deemed more valuable or worthy of saving than that of 6 million other Jews. Looking back now, I still feel awkward about her testimony, but I understand how this narrative might be comforting, possibly even necessary to her, to help explain how come she survived and provide her with solace as she recalled the terrors she witnessed. I am clear however that no one person deserves to be saved more than any other.

I write this as a preface to this piece on Django Unchained, which I saw and was horrified by yesterday evening, because the danger of fictional narratives slotted into historical horrors - the Holocaust; Slavery - is that they dehumanise the events, and the creator of the fiction is at risk of playing God, of saving one person at the expense of all others. This is what ends up happening in Django Unchained, in which Tarantino/God decides to play with actual historical events - as he did in Inglourious Basterds when he killed Hitler and enacted the revenge of one Jewish woman on her Nazi nemesis - and create a Special man who is able to escape enslavement and visit punishment on his persecutors. What makes Django (Jamie Foxx) so special that he, unlike millions of other black people, is able to escape? Well, Tarantino, since it serves the purposes of the entertainment he has crafted.  We'll come back to this; for now I'll just highlight the moral dubiousness of telling one broadly positive story of retribution, against the current of history, as it minimises the horrors of slavery and tramples on the lives of actual people who died and were brutalised during that chapter of history.

Another problem Tarantino faces, and does not succeed in defusing, also stems from the difficulty of creating a fiction within actual events. Essentially, when you set a story in 'the time of Slavery' - Quentin is a little vague on this - you create a dilemma of moral equivalence. Your baddies already exist: we know this, since they are Baddies of History. You don't need to create your villains at all, or seek to comprehend their motives or give them back-stories or a character: we know from History that they were evil, since Slavery is an evil. Steven Spielberg had Nazi villains in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: they're easy to identify because they wear swastikas, and they make great villains because you can kill as many of them as you like and you'll always be in the right. It is a laziness of fiction to create characters who are completely villainous and not investigate their motives or consider them as people. We know that Nazi people weren't all born evil but, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt had it, were almost functionaries of evil, who did not consider their actions: she called this the banality of evil, because it is capable of infecting all of us. This, Tarantino does not for a moment consider when it comes to taking out members of the Ku Klux Klan in the new entertainment he has devised: how much more fun it is to see them as stupid, senselessly evil people, and take them all out in one go. (In this, Tarantino follows the lead of the Coen Brothers who also created some spectacularly thick Klansmen in O Brother Where Art Thou; how the predominantly white audience laughed in each case as the black person escaped death by lynching and some of the Klan died!)

Moral equivalence rears its ugly head because Tarantino, as he has grown older, is looking for ever more valid stories within which to frame his brutal revenge fantasies. No longer for him the cartoonish violence of his early days in which mindless fighting and gore existed in their own right, as a device or effect to thrill or amuse: we must now be urging someone on whose combat is morally sanctioned by history. This gives Tarantino all the licence he needs to unleash a bloodbath. The problem he confronts in this new Inglourious Basterds/Django Unchained phase, is that there is a psychological imbalance: we have to consider the fictional violence on the same scale as we consider the actual violence - for instance, the torture of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Things that actually did happen - such as the branding of black people for punishment or to signify white ownership - exists in a film where several people die in a funny way. (Which was the funniest death for you? I'd say the death of Cora, the sister of the character played by Leonardo di Caprio, who gets blasted away in one blissful shot. Least funny death: a black man getting torn apart by dogs) There are good deaths and bad deaths. This means that the actual events become lost, and a due consideration of events, which would seem to be a moral obligation here, never happens.

Tarantino never pauses for a minute to consider the moral implications of what he is doing. Why should he? It's an entertainment. But for those of us who aren't entertained by murder, there is a nagging problem of ethical responsibility. In one scene, Django and his companion, the bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), pause before shooting a man who is wanted by a local sheriff. Django cannot bear to kill him, since he is ploughing his land in the company of his son. Schultz explains that the man is bad for a little while, and Django picks up his gun again and shoots the man who, some distance away from the camera, falls down dead; as Tarantino cuts away from the scene, we hear the voice of the man's son, saying 'Dad?'  End of scene. It's a ghastly scene for many reasons: first of all, because of Tarantino's laziness in cutting away from the action after the death. Presumably Django and his partner have to then go and pick up the body of this man in front of his child, and take him away to the sheriff to collect their money; I suppose it wouldn't be entertaining to be shown the grief of a child as his father is murdered and then taken away by strangers. Far simpler to cut the scene. Secondly, the scene is ghastly because of the distance at which Tarantino films the man dying: he is so far away, there is never the slightest pretence of engaging with him as a human: this participates in the same moral dubiousness as the cutting of the scene just after the murder. Thirdly, we know that people with a price on their head are wanted dead or alive: why could Django and Schultz not go to the man, with their guns, overpower him, and collect their fee for a live person rather than a dead one? Because a shooting is always more entertaining, more viscerally and dramatically pleasing, less attached to human complications. Tarantino, over and over, makes a faint case for murder and then just does it, because it pleases him.

There is much more that is disturbing in the film: the passive female character Broomhilda who exists for her beauty and whom we only ever see being tortured or saved; the use of the N-word, which never seeks to defend or question itself but is supposed to dull an audience into submission; the toadying Uncle Tom character played by Samuel L. Jackson for laughs as a sort of servile, racist Uriah Heep. (I'm mostly considering the disturbing politics of the film here, but I will add as an aside that it is also often extremely boring, with Tarantino giving in to his perverse propensity for  long scenes of fancy-but-witless dialogue. The film's qualities, such as they are, lie in the technical mastery in the first half-hour of the film, some great shots and editing, and terrific lighting and costumes. Tarantino has also given his actors licence to grandstand as much as they like, and there is a lot of playing to the gallery from Samuel L. Jackson and from Di Caprio and Waltz, both liberally twirling their moustaches and enunciating their scenes of verbal sparring as if they were am-dram actors doing Wilde. Only Jamie Foxx seems to be attempting to inhabit an actual character.)

If Tarantino is seeking to gain narrative revenge for slavery, why does he not free a fuckload more slaves in his story than he actually does? Django is freed, because he is our hero; likewise his passive wife Broomhilda, whom he rescues because the fairytale narrative demands it. But other slaves we see during Django's quest are constantly left in their positions of subjugation. Towards the end of the movie, as Django cleverly outwits and escapes his captors (played by three men plus Tarantino in a winking, wouldn't-it-be-cool-if cameo), three other black men are shown gazing at him in wonder. They are notionally free since Django has killed the white men and opened their cage, so in terms of plot they are able to escape; instead they remain in their cage, staring bog-eyed at Django's prowess as he rides away on his horse. Their place is inside the cage; his is outside. At the start of the film, Schultz saves Django and leaves five other black men to fend for themselves and certainly be recaptured instantly by white men with weapons and money. We don't care about these men. Their story is not interesting.

Django is interesting, though, because he is a black superman. Why? Because he has been created so by two white men: one is Tarantino, who wrote the story so as to give Django his redemptive arc. The other is Schultz, the white fairy godmother who gives Django the magic powers (On you I bestow literacy! And cool clothes! And guns! And this piece of paper that means nothing now but which will save your life after I have died!) to save himself and rescue his sleeping beauty, his Brunnhilde, from her fairytale ring of fire. This is obviously disgusting. I seriously doubt that a German bounty hunter in the deep south in 'the time of slavery' (late 1860s, I suppose? Alexandre Dumas is supposed to be still alive), would be so racially enlightened in the first place as to help out a black man. But the problem of a good white man giving a black man his powers to escape other, bad, white men, does not seem to occur to Tarantino. Essentially he is enslaving Django, his own character, all over again, imprisoning him as a passive white-enabled product within the confines of the entertainment he has concocted. Before Schultz appears, Django does not exist as a character. Waltz names him - by calling out his name, which distinguishes him from the other black characters with whom he is silently chained up - and then pays for him (but in a good way). He then asks Django to act as his slave for the time being. Crucially, Django seemed to have no plan to rescue his wife before he met Schultz; he certainly didn't have the determination or wherewithal we see at the end of the film. With the white man's help, having heard the story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde from the erudite white man, he is able to devise a plan to rescue his girl. Sorry, I mean, the white man devises the plan. This forms the narrative of the film. Towards the end, the white man will sacrifice himself - as Jiminy Cricket does for his poor illiterate Pinocchio when he jumps with him into the sea - and grant him the power to become a super-man. At this point of the film, Django, who has been getting cooler and more powerful throughout, fully assumes his super-man character: he is Neo from the Matrix after he has realised he is The One. The piece of paper in Django's pocket which saves his life, after Schultz has died, is one last magic flicker from the fairy godmother, helping our hero to reverse his own story, totally against the pattern of Slavery, and exact revenge on the bad guys. The kindly white man is an aberration in itself in the context of this story and this chapter of History, but it is even more offensive as a trope in the film.

But Tarantino will not leave it. Django is a super-man more deserving of being saved. He says it himself towards the end of the film when he says to the bad white guys as he kills them, "I'm that one nigger in ten thousand". No he isn't. He's that one black man in 12 million.