Sunday, 10 February 2013

Special Guest Post: Django Unravelled

So you thought we were done with Django Unchained? You thought wrong, dude. It's fair to say that Quentin Tarantino's new film has provoked some mighty debate since its release, and so in a first for the Magnificent Tramp, I've offered the floor to my friend and colleage, Joe Barton, for a special guest post on his response to the film. Enjoy!
Firstly, many thanks to the Magnificent Tramp for giving me this opportunity to clumsily deconstruct a film that he has already succinctly praised on this very blog; I’m aware it’s no way to repay such hospitality. Secondly, this shouldn’t be seen as a counter review to the Tramp’s, but more an exploration of why I found Django Unchained problematic. Actually, ‘problematic’ isn’t quite the word. ‘Unpleasant’ would be more like it. This is odd for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t necessarily disagree with much of what the Tramp has said about the quality of the performances, or Tarantino’s obvious talents as a filmmaker. Secondly, because it shares many narrative parallels with Inglourious Basterds (2009), a film that I didn’t have the same misgivings about, upon first or one of many subsequent viewings. Both are ‘historical’ revenge narratives with many similarities (an individual victim of systemic persecution seeking violent retribution; a psychopath antagonist with a taste for racial theories, be it comparing Jews to rats or phrenology; tense, undercover missions that are scuppered by a sleuth antagonist; a climax in which a significant building is blown with smuggled dynamite; a protagonist miraculously reversing their capture and subjecting the aforementioned sleuth antagonist to a cruel punishment, and so on). While there are also many important differences, the two films share a fundamental similarity in their postmodern filtering of sensitive historical moments through self-congratulatory genre parody.
Of course, I’m not against playing with history. The question is: why is Tarantino playing with history? And why this history? Given that Django is a disturbing watch, surely these are worthwhile questions to ask. Tarantino has claimed, ex post facto, that Django has been responsible for nurturing a more ‘honest’ debate about slavery in the US, and even edged towards suggesting that it’s an allegory of the War on Drugs and racial politics of the US prison system. I don’t find those explanations persuasive. Irreverence is one thing, with its own set of ideological assumptions. Gratuity is something else altogether.

‘I’m doing to make this slave malarkey work for my benefit’
-Dr King Schultz
So Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained share many similarities due to the presence of a revenge narrative. As David Denby suggests, this is troubling. Denby argues that Tarantino’s use of the revenge narrative reveals that the director is ‘indignant over the submissiveness of history’s victims, so he gives them a second shot’, and I agree. In fact, the director as much as admits this when he says his goal is to ‘make the victims the victors, and victimise the victimisers’. There are two points to extrapolate from this. Firstly, that this presents history as an individualist fantasy. Moreover, a romantic individualist fantasy, rendering slavery a ‘compelling’ backdrop to a guy getting his gal - as Samuel L. Jackson mentions in one press package interview, the institution of slavery in the Antebellum South are, ultimately, just ‘the odds that Django had to go up against to get the woman that he loves’. Django may look like Frederick Douglass, as The Tramp points out, but this being a Tarantino revenge flick, the lone ranger/mass murderer Django ironically ends up as far from Douglass’s model of egalitarian collective struggle as you could imagine. As Ishmael Reed puts it, ‘Tarantino, despite the history of black resistance, apparently believes that progress for blacks has been guided by an elite, which doesn’t explain the hundreds of revolts throughout this hemisphere which weren’t guided by German bounty hunters nor Abraham Lincoln, nor a Talented Tenth Negro’. Reed’s evocation of the Talented Tenth, W.E.B. Dubois’s model for nurturing an elite leadership class to guide the civil rights movement, is imperative, I feel. As Reed notes, Django’s exceptional nature is frequently commented on in the film, by Calvin J. Candie and many others (the final scene in the movie, shown after the credits fall, finds another slave asking ‘who was that n---a?’, which tellingly also makes the ‘n-word’ the final word of the film), but it is the anti-realist thrust of the revenge narrative that truly emphasises this – Django ‘the fastest shot in the South’, the ace horse rider, prodigious actor, the man able to skip around in an early scene despite having been marched hundreds of miles in shackles, merrily ride towards the horizon despite being a wanted man, and so on. 
Civil rights leadership is also evoked through Dr King Schultz’s name, the MLK reference revealing the politics of Schultz’s narrative function as secondary protagonist (see schema). Whereas the freedom of Douglass, to perhaps stretch the comparison, was bought via funds raised by a collective of British supporters gained during his lecture travels, nearly a decade after his escape from slavery (itself the result of self-education and help from his lover and free black woman Anna Murray), Django is bought first, benevolently freed second, all as a pawn in Scultz’s bounty hunting scheme. Of all of the parallels between Django and Basterds, the similarities of the narrative function of Schultz and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is perhaps the most revealing. Both are charismatic, homicidal agents of the American state that directly (Django) or indirectly (Basterds) uses their relative privilege in relation to the primary protagonist in order to assist them with their violent revenge mission. Their own background is referenced (‘I am the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger…’/’Every German knows that story’) in order to firmly establish their difference from the persecuted group which they protect, while also distancing themselves from the society of the persecutors (‘Nazis…are the foot soliders of a Jew-hatin’, mass-murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed’/’I detest slavery‘). As such, they function as a kind of surrogate for the present day privileged audience member, with their violent support of the primary protagonist allowing the viewer to cathartically expunge any sense of complicity or culpability. 
Schultz, then, reads like an amalgamation of those rose-tinted Unionist views of Lincoln, plus Spielberg’s precious version of abolitionist Lewis Tappan in Amistad (1997), and the Man with No Name. The ridiculous contrivance of this, of course, is pure Tarantino, indicative of what Armond White calls ‘a white hipster’s voyeuristic pleasure in black vengeance…a form of Liberal porn’. Having Schultz be a German immigrant not only allows Tarantino to cast Basterds-show stealer Christoph Waltz, an Austrian, in a less plausible fairy tale scenario than ‘Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France’, but also send a contemporary ‘progressive’ sensibility back through time into 1858 (which is three years before the Civil War, not two, as the caption oh-so ironically gets wrong).
But there’s something else about Django, beyond its problematic hollowing of collective struggle into one charismatic, photogenic, gun-slinging man. After all, Inglourious Basterds suffers from these same problems, but my experience of these two films wasn’t the same. Is it simply that, as cinema goer, I have one set of expectations for a film that irreverently plays with the Holocaust, and another for those that use slavery? I’d like to think not, although I’m open to that charge of double standards. Anti-Semitism, while referenced to from the start, does not feature particularly heavily in the dialogue or action of Basterds, even if its claims to be a Jewish revenge movie are undermined by the fact that Shoshanna never survives to see the deaths of the Nazi high command, and that WWII and, as a consequence, the Holocaust, are brought to a close by the negotiations between a Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ and an American OSS officer. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic language is hardly ubiquitous. The equivalent cannot be said for Django. Instead, I would argue that is what marks Django as different. Indeed, it is the subject matter of slavery in the Antebellum South that allows Tarantino to luxuriate in a subject that has always lingered in his movies: racism. In Django, despite its superficial ‘get paid for killing white people’ self-deprecating ‘anti-racism’, Tarantino’s preoccupation with prejudice proves toxic.

‘Racist Anti-Racist’
-David Denby
Even though Spike Lee has publically refused to watch Django, his oft-cited criticism of Tarantino’s use of the ‘n-word’ would be just as appropriate here, given that the word is reputedly uttered 110 times in the film. At the risk of revisiting a rather hoary debate, Tarantino’s continuing use of the word does indeed epitomise his perennial, disturbing preoccupation with race and racism. Publically, Tarantino is keen to stress his love for black American popular culture (evinced in this instance by Django’s indebtedness to Blaxploitation-go-Southern shoot ‘em ups Boss N----r and Brotherhood of Death, and the casting of Django and Broomhilda von Shaft as the ancestors of John Shaft) making such comments like ‘I always thought it would be the coolest thing to be the white person on Soul Train’ (an odd admission in itself, again telling in its preoccupation with race, rather than the pop culture artefact itself). On the other hand, as Amy Taubin notes, his films suggest an individual ‘deeply disturbed by barely repressed, ambivalent feelings about race in general, black masculinity in particular…black male delinquents, while hip and alluring in Tarantino screenplays, wind up eliminated, raped, or murdered, with black male-white female miscegenation always punished. Conversely, black women are the exotic trophies of white male desire’. (‘Men’s Room, Tarantino: the Film Geek Files) Django and Jules maybe cool, but they’re also killers. What makes them cool, what makes them killers, and how these two qualities are meant to relate to their race, is left revealingly ambiguous.
As for representations of racists, think of the anal rape–by a white supremacist police officer- of the black Marsellus Wallace (subject to an unconvincing, Lacanian theory-laden defence by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson in Tarantinian Ethics) in Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino’s own ‘dead n----r storage’ routine; the invisible blackface of Gary Oldman’s Drexl, and Dennis Hopper’s ‘Sicilians were spawned by n-----s’ monologue in True Romance. Even when his films feature few or no black characters, discussions of race and racist dialogue abounds. Shoshanna’s boyfriend in Basterds is black, allowing Tarantino’s Goebbels to engage in some white supremacism, while another Nazi officer compares the fate of King Kong to African slaves that crossed the Middle Passage. Even in Reservoir Dogs, as Amy Taubin notes, people of colour get zero [screen time], yet not a minute goes by without a reference to coons and jungle bunnies’.
Beyond the ubiquitous racism depicted as part of its supposed representation of the Antebellum South, Tarantino’s historic unhealthy relationship with notions of blackness reaches its grotesque conclusion in the form of Stephen, the uber-Uncle Tom portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, in a performance that White calls ‘prototypical–even atavistic’ in its deliverance of shuck ‘n’ jive caricature. Comparing it with Jackson’s previous roles in Tarantino films, White argues that, ‘in Django Unchained Jackson…personifies his director’s sense of the Other…roles like Jules in Pulp Fiction, Ordell in Jackie Brown and now Stephen the ultimate Uncle Tom display Jackson’s patented shamelessness–his N----r Jim flair. Jackson reverses the anger that 70s black militants felt toward the Uncle Tom figure into an actorly endorsement.’ I would argue that Stephen’s characterisation goes beyond this. Not only is he presented as pathetic, but animalistic; as it was pointed out to me by a fellow cinema goer, Jackson, with his black waistcoat, tufts of white hair, flaring nostrils, bent over gait and slow limp, is framed by Tarantino’s direction to look like a silverback gorilla. As with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), referenced via Schultz’ Bicklesque quick-draw sleeve gun (‘you talkin’ to me?’/’are you pointing that weapon at me with lethal intention?’), Django exhibits an uncomfortable ambiguity between representing racists and racism, and recycling their own grotesquery for a cheap, [assumed to be] knowing laugh. Tarantino’s oeuvre, then, has always been marked by an unsettling preoccupation with racism. In Django it proves overwhelming, inescapable, and exhausting.

Mendacious Mandingos

Mandingo: Expect the truth?
This is not the same to call Tarantino a racist, however, or any other such libellous label. As White argues, to dismiss or condemn Tarantino or Django as racist is far too simplistic and unconstructive. To dismiss criticism of Django as taking the film ‘too seriously’, on the other hand, is complacent. To draw this post to a close, I want to discuss one final scene in order to reiterate this point. It has been pointed out, by Tarantino as well as others, that there are two codes of cinematic violence operating within the film. One of these is the standard Tarantino spectacle of choreographed bloodletting (compare the final Candie Land shootout with the barroom massacre in Inglourious Basterds, or indeed the black and white scene from Kill Bill, Vol. 1). The other is something new to Tarantino’s oeuvre- a noticeably more ‘reverent’ form of violence, which appears to unsettle, rather than titillate, implying a greater degree of respect for the political status of the fictional construct being subjected to abuse. In Django, the former form of violence is mostly (but not entirely) done to white characters. The latter, mostly to black characters. This suggests a degree of self-awareness of how screen violence continues is never simply spectacle. Indeed, in an ostensibly throwaway scene in which one of Candie’s overseers looks at a stereoscopic photograph (see below) –a precursor to contemporary stereoscopic entertainment like 3D cinema- suggests that Tarantino is acutely aware of the voyeurism and spectacle at work in his cinema, which, as much as it defers to a postmodern, intextual fantasy world of other movies, can be never truly politically unproblematic. Is Tarantino implying that, in indulging ourselves in his film, we too are playing the role of a modern day overseer? Are we just like Candie, watching violence done to black bodies for our own entertainment? If so, then the apparent gratuity of violence in Django is particularly problematic. That is to say, as much as he likes to present himself as a na├»ve Fangoria reader, it remains that Tarantino is a very intelligent man- he has written a subtextual criticism of Spaghetti Westerns. He knows Sergio Leone is not just surface level cool, and yet he feels comfortable exploiting historical violence in order to exude a similar tone. The Mandingo scene is pivotal in this regard. Fighting mandingos have been another preoccupation of Tarantino for some time. In Jackie Brown, Ordell asks Max ‘Who's that big, Mandingo-looking n----r you got up there on that picture with you?’. In print, Tarantino has acknowledged the influence of Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975), itself based on Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel of the same name, itself based on…well, legend and conjecture. Intrigued by the film, some bloggers have even contacted expert academics on the period to enquire as to the plausibility of such arrangements, whereby plantation owner demand for fatal bloodletting is met by the supply of gladiator slaves. There are compelling arguments for both sides (slavers gambling away their property because they can, versus an inefficient use of capital), but the point is that the existence of Mandingo fighting has not been proven. Again, this is something of which we have to assume that Tarantino is aware.

Who is the overseer?: Stereoscopy, voyeurism, spectacle.
So, in the scene in which Candie watches a slave smash in the skull of another with a hammer, this is potentially, as Denby notes, an ‘Old South cruelt[y] Tarantino invented for himself’. This isn’t just a knowing parody of exploitation cinema – it is exploitation cinema. Thus, my problem with Django isn’t simply that it mangles history for revenge kicks, the product being an insensitive farce that isn’t really about slavery at all (and the problems that this in itself entails). And it’s not just that Tarantino’s unhealthy preoccupation with, and regurgitation of, ‘blackness’ and black masculinity, as defined via long-standing racist tropes, reach new levels of toxicity. It’s a combination of these two things, but it’s also a question of gratuity and irreverence, of how this relates to public demand, and what this says about the history [and future] of racism and representation. It’s a question of why such an end product is deemed acceptable, let alone endearing or ‘brave’. What’s clear is that Tarantino is fully aware of the implications of the way in which he deals with historical subject matter, and yet seemingly doesn’t care. As a consequence, Django Unchained¸ to borrow a pseudo-scientific analogy from the film, feels like a 165 minute reading of the dimples on Tarantino’s skull. As a result, Django may be stylish, slick, and at points hilarious. But it’s also the most involved mapping of the director’s pathologies to date. 

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