Sunday, January 27, 2013

“The Fastest Gun in the South”


Thanks to the benevolence of a cine-friend (who paid for my ticket), I finally managed to see Django Unchained, a movie I promised not to post a personal opinion about until I had actually seen. I have read (and posted) the words of others, so I was already primed for what to expect; I’ve seen most of Tarantino’s oeuvre, and have always had mixed feelings about the talents he has and what scripts he chooses or writes in order to use them.

I’m not film critic (though I was for a few months for gayradio.com), so this assessment is simply personal, in the context of my own personal tastes in cinema, politics, entertainment, and the mix of all three.

In short, Tarantino’s latest is not as great as many have said, was not as awful as I worried it might, but was about as reprehensible as I expected. But Tarantino would probably appreciate that last part: he loves to remake schlock and loves to shock. And I knew that going in.

Those who have chosen to view--or criticize--the film in terms of history or historical accuracy have embarked on a fool’s errand, just like anyone who would expect the real world to be portrayed accurately by “reality television." Non-documentary cinema, which I will refer to here as “movies,” isn't history, even when filmmakers often choose periods and people from the past. Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln isn’t history, either, nor was Amistad nor Glory nor Gone With The Wind nor Birth of a Nation. With the exclusion of documentaries such as the fantastic, factual Fog of War or oral-history-marathon of Shoah, movies are entertainments, not documents. Tarantino isn’t an historian (the last half of his Inglourious Basterds should have made that clear), and it is foolish to expect his films to transport us back in time with anything close to detailed accuracy or even political agenda. Cinema is required by form and time to compress events into a five-act structure and a few hours; it must condense and simplify characters into Bad Guys and Good Guys (and often creates “composite characters” of supporting players), and it nearly always must present people and events in ways that “aren’t a downer” so as to turn a profit; it's a business, not charity, of show.

I don’t go to the movies to learn about the past; no, for that I consult a variety of experts, who often have differing points of view, levels experience or even contradictory agendas, to get the many nuanced details and troubling inconsistencies. And that's a lot of homework for the average moviegoer. It takes time to learn how evolving, racist presidents such as Lincoln or Johnson can manage—with the help of many other men and women not likely to make it into a movie—to emancipate slaves or sign Civil Rights milestones. I’ll leave it to authors such as Doris Kearns Goodwin or Eric Foner or the epic cycle by Robert Caro to study, dissect and reveal subjects as troubling, complex, and long-lived as slavery or civil rights struggles, rather than the work of Tarantino or Spielberg. If either of those filmmakers, however, inspire viewers to look deeper into the subjects or periods of their films, then bravo; but I don’t expect Quentin fans to rush out of the theaters and off to the libraries (though it's far more likely the audiences might seek to go beyond the back-story of Tony Kushner’s screenplay after seeing Spielberg’s film of it).

So I hardly watched Django Unchained expecting to learn Civil War history any more than I would seek a tutorial in Catholicism by watching The Exorcist.

But filmmakers do have choices. As entertainers, they can aim for the better angels of our nature or the basest blood-lust for vengeance (righteous or otherwise). Those choices paint very different moving pictures: a pageant-presenter like Spielberg, our modern-day DeMille, might strive to use a fine brush and as many different shades of gray as Kushner can squeeze into three hours; but with Django Unchained, a carnival-barker like Tarantino plunges a mighty wide brush into his buckets and buckets of blood not in any desire for realism but with a palplable, melodramatic prurience.

And as in his past films, Tarantino won’t disappoint his fans who line up for another pulpy fiction, regardless of politics or lack of any political intent. I wasn’t surprised by anything I saw on screen—it was pretty much what I expected from a devotee of 1960s/70s-grindhouse, a sub-genre of movies that has the word "exploitation" right in the definition.

I didn’t laugh with the movie once, but I did a few times laugh at it. Most of the time I was simply depressed by the mess of it all, as well as the isolation of being nearly the only person in the theater not applauding and hooting at the meticulously choreographed carnage. I mean no snobbery by that statement—but simply confess it as what happened. I do understand many have and will revel in the simplified vengeance of Django and guffaw at the bombastic bloodbath--but please don’t ask me to laugh or clap along as I hand you a towel to wipe off afterwards.

As I left the theater, I did wonder now that Quentin in his two most recent films has cinematically slaughtered two of the most sacred-cows-of-evil, Hitler and Slavery, what shock-subject will he take on next. Tarantino, like Spielberg, has a very respectable knowledge of cinema and skills at movie-making. It just saddens me that Quentin squanders that skill—and actors as talented as Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Waltz and Kerry Washington—to make a spaghetti-style Western about the 1850s South (with the predicable de-rigueur-Tarantino-touch of 1970s tunes and contemporary rap). It was a whole lot of bloody recycling going on.

Sure, Spielberg may be getting too much credit for his honorable and respectful intentions of the mighty-white-cast of Lincoln even as a few critics and filmmakers lambaste Tarantino for his baser aims at entertaining . But in the case of Django, unlike the blue-state audience around me, I personally was not entertained; I was simply repelled.


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