Challenges of Discernment: Django Unchained
Snow falls infrequently in the land of Hungry Ghosts. Every day I wake up from fitful bouts of dreaming to see slate curtains of grey clouds roll by without a single ounce of rain or snow falling. It’s more likely that a dust storm will brew out on the horizon, though our little town has been spared a rather nasty bath so far. Ever wary, I have chosen to stay inside, welcoming in only the occasional visitors from the outside, including Charlie. It seems that some of Charlie’s family members have started offering pirated movies to the dead, the first offerings he’s received from what he estimates to be thirty-four generations of offspring. One film we were able to see legitimately, however, was Django Unchained, the first Quentin Tarantino film to get a release so wide that hell itself got a sprinkling of screenings at local theatres. Most of the ghosts in our town are relative newcomers and unable to move very quickly, so Charlie and I found ourselves sitting more or less alone smack in the middle of the theatre. There might have been a couple making out in the back, but the less I know of that, the better.
Coming out of the theatre around two hours and forty-five minutes later, Charlie looked at me and asked me: “So, what benefits did you get out of watching the film?” Normally, when someone asks that question, it has to do with a film that they find morally questionable and they’re asking to make sure that you learned enough to pay penance for indulging in such sinful activity.
I don’t think Charlie meant it this way, since the ghosts of hell are by nature hesitant to be too judgmental of others, but it brought to mind the early years of my culture-stalking the years when I still approached violent or sexually explicit films with trepidation. I remember getting that question from well-intentioned relatives and other close acquaintances who were the type to walk out of a film if they heard snapping tendons or saw a stray nipple on screen–and it’s strange to equate those two, if I do say so.
Nonetheless, the question found a nick in my armor, and I’ve been struggling over it for many years now. Not actively struggling, since the answer for me has never been in much doubt. What claws, what gnaws at me in the back of my mind is how to explain and interpret my responses into language that will be intelligible and sensitive to those who ask. First, I’ll give my answer in general terms and then in relationship to Django Unchained, the film that prompted the question in the first place.
To me, the question “what benefit did you get from watching (experiencing) this piece of art,” can, and in this post will, mean that the inquirer is concerned that you are polluting your poor sensory organs with unclean subject matter or something that ought not to be seen. To me, the question sounds like a transaction–OK, you got to have your fun but what edification or moral reinforcement did you get in exchange? Any response to the question I would give has to begin with a refutation of that viewpoint. Going to a film is not normally an educational exercise first and foremost. It is something done for enjoyment.
I see a film, Django included, for the enjoyment of seeing an artist working playfully and intelligently with the materials of his or her medium, not necessarily to receive good moral teaching. Did I learn positive morals from watching Dogtooth or listening to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? At this stage in the conversation, I would answer “No.” On the first listen or watch, and maybe on subsequent ones, the morality of a work of art is not what draws me but its mastery of material and its ability to provoke and evoke.
Of course, there are lessons in Dogtooth about the abuse of parental power, the absurdities inherent in traditional family structures, and the fragility of social norms. The same general principle applies to the Kanye album. I would wager that every work of art, no matter how destitute of intelligence or morally repugnant, can teach something to its audience. Again, however, I would emphasize that that is not the main reason I am looking at a piece of art. The power of a piece of art is generally how it skillfully wrestles with questions and limitations, how its various emphases and themes are brought out through manipulation of the relationship between the audience and a given object. Morality is not generally something that floats on the surface of a work of art, to be easily clutched and comprehended without serious thought. And when it is, I’d often rather be in another theatre, another gallery.
What did I say to Charlie on the vacant sidewalks? What benefits did I get from watching Django Unchained? I started out by giving an abbreviated version of the answer above. I then briefly reviewed my early thoughts about the film. Here they are.
Quentin Tarantino is, as Richard Brody wrote, a puzzle:
Tarantino is possessed by two emotions—love and revenge—and the over-all subject of the movie is essentially a counterfactual historical warning: that the South got off easily with the Civil War when, in a proper balance of justice, it would have faced the avenging violence of freed slaves whose exaction would have far exceeded military conquest and brought about total destruction and left few alive. His vision of slavery’s monstrosity is historically accurate; his anger, aptly placed—yet the world that he imagines and admires, one without reconciliation, is essentially and crudely adolescent, a version of history as blood feuds in which anger begets anger and revenge breeds revenge as he watches from the superior position of the cinematic referee, at a safe historical distance.
Brody captures the conjoined virtues and vices of Tarantino. Those who win in his films always deserve to win. They are the wronged, the aggrieved, and, in his two most recent films, the systematically exploited and degraded. When watching the film, I took pleasure in the deaths of those who deserved it and quailed at the injustices committed against those I was meant to admire. Cinematically, mechanically, the film is expertly scripted and executed, scored and filmed. Moment by moment I was enraptured in the rhythms of Tarantino’s scenes. Slow, verbose build-ups culminate in purgative explosions of violence.
The actors let the script’s dialogue do most of the work, delivering their lines with relish and characteristic panache. I was especially impressed by Jamie Foxx, whose work has not always brightened a film as it does here. His character is the axis around which the film revolves. For him, as Brody later writes, this is personal. Vengeance is his, and no one else’s. Tarantino manages to work in some conversations about “characters” and “roles” as Django assumes various false personae to infiltrate Southern plantations. Foxx embodies this character well, playing a quieter, more serious companion to Christoph Waltz, whose German dentist-turned righteous bounty hunter King Schultz has more than enough eloquence to talk them out of a multitude of scrapes. Other cast members also work well within their roles. Leonardo DiCaprio has no trouble projecting cavalier and sophisticated menace as Calvin Candie, owner of the fourth-largest plantation in Mississippi, though I thought his performance was relatively weak compared to Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as his aging head slave. It’s striking to see Jackson in a role that is so apparently static but actually a dynamic and smart counterpoint to Django. Loyal and cunning, he plays a key role in the second half of the film and ends up being the most memorable supporting character/performance of the lot.
While I struggle with the implications of Tarantino’s take-no-prisoners view of historic justice and find many of the more violent moments exploitative, I have to ask myself why he is bringing these to the table in the first place. Brody connects this obsession with purgative revenge to Tarantino’s obsession with B-movies and other popular culture ephemera. I think I can empathize with his films more than I can agree with his worldview as presented here. Escapist fantasies are always simplifications, usually problematic ones. I think Tarantino’s treatment of slavery here in the context of an often witty and dramatically taut film deals with the right problems. Slavery was a horrific, barbaric evil inflicted by those in power on millions of people for far too long (and it hasn’t disappeared either). When I search myself, I find the same desire for dramatic devastation, the annihilation of all the violence and exploitation in hellfire. For almost three hours of Django Unchained I was a paying cheerleader for retributive just desserts, dealt at the point of a gun (and by dynamite, lest I forget). Nevertheless, I find the craft so compelling, and the fantasy complicated enough–yes, cartoonish and hedonistic but no, not sanitized–to enjoy Django relatively guilt-free.
By the way. Could someone please keep Tarantino from appearing as an actor in his own films. His appearance here has a hilarious kinetic punchline I won’t spoil, but his lumbering awkwardness is enough to stop his own fluid filmmaking dead in its tracks. Someone work on that.