Tuesday, February 19, 2013

ON MASTERS, MONSTERS, AND EMANCIPATORS (PART ONE)




I debated for long with myself how to write up different Jumpcut Junkie pieces about many of the films recognized by the Academy this year as best films of 2013, cataloguing my thoughts in myriad ways about my opinions on the worthy qualities, or lack thereof, behind each choice, the message the Academy would send by choosing certain films and not others, and even whether there was, as there often is somehow, a particular theme of interest the institution was calling attention to. Alas, these different veins of argumentation can lead any cinema aficionado, or even just an Oscar aficionado (they are not the same kind of animal) to stall and wait for others, more experienced analysts to provide context as to the rationale behind this year’s choices. And lo and behold, dear readers, you probably have already heard maybe too much about the politics, message, rationale and context around many of the candidates for best picture of 2013.

There is now a labyrinth of blogs, articles, forums, discussing these films, but no discussion was more surprisingly overwhelming as that behind films such as DJANGO UNCHAINED, LINCOLN, and BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, particularly because of their links to the politics in the foreground of a national conversation on race and culture. Indeed, these films have been treated as cultural objects to be turned inside out, and have been used as springboards for critics to touch on themes as far ranging as the workings of government today, the links between actual violence and movie violence, myopic visions of history, or the turning of it into entertainment, or its romanticizing, or even the self referential ‘linguistics’ of filmic pleasure.

I feel all those themes are fine things to talk about. They are great propellers of erudite, insightful conversation about the cultural signifiers surrounding us. As it turns out, these conversations are sorely needed, for virtually everything I’ve read about these choices by the Academy has been so concerned to place the films into a cultural podium of their own, that the films feel to have become tangential to the conversation. There clearly has been a strong desire to discuss these moral, political, cultural issues, and as it is with desires, they mainly unveil our needs.
There is clearly a need to analyze, for example, Tarantino’s thwarted view of the economic realities of slavery, or Spielberg’s literally childish depiction of a political process by relying on didactics that mainly seem to speak to government and constituents today as if to kids,  or whether Zeitlin’s ahistorical romanticism qualifies as ‘poetic’. But to me those are interesting, valuable conversations that revolve around sociological patterns and the manner in which we consume our culture and history. They are only tangential to film.

After all this valuable conversation, the questions in my mind still remain: Are these films actual works of art? What is their artistic stance? Will they matter, as films, or is mainly the talk surrounding the subject they depict what makes us think of them as ‘important’? Do they point to the future of their medium, to its past, or are they static, relying mainly on the discussion to be had about them as cultural artifacts? What is the machinery behind them? What of their soul?


These are to me the right questions to ask, in view of figuring out why we should care if one or another gets an award acknowledging its artistic stature and importance. This is also the reason why I would like to discuss these films in the context of their artistic vision/structure and their failings or cracks. And in order to discuss these films as artistic works, as if talking about the context surrounding them wasn’t enough meat to chew on, I think the most useful thing to do is to bring in another film not considered as a candidate for best film of the year, but that I believe is a far superior artistic achievement: THE MASTER.


I’d like to start with LINCOLN, because I feel Spielberg’s film is both the most welcoming of tangents, and also the easiest to talk about in terms of its artistic merit. I liked LINCOLN.  I think it’s one of the least Spielberg-like of Spielberg’s films, mainly because I feel he, as a director, finds himself with so many things to say, so many issues to depict and represent, that his presence is barely felt for most of the film.  I think there is a greatly smart, academic spark of creativity in choosing to make a film about the political process behind getting a bill to pass Congress. LINCOLN is a film inspired by the book Team Of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and as such it should not have been called LINCOLN, but rather carry the full name of the book. For it is really, from the director’s perspective, not so much a film about slavery and emancipation, or about the mind of Abraham Lincoln, but rather about his political genius. The film is mainly a set piece for the character of Lincoln to demonstrate political acrobatics.


Except for about 15 minutes of the film, scattered in the first half hour, which almost reach in their own subtle way great mythic heights if it wasn’t for the rest of the movie. In the very first minutes we are introduced to battle scenes, tightly held and concentrated on Union and Confederate soldiers fighting in hand to hand combat, to the death. The visuals are striking in their grey palettes, where a Union flag holds sway in majestic color, not really popping out but a bit washed out, as if color struggles to keep itself from being muddied. Many, and if I remember correctly it seems that most, Union soldiers shown in midrange close ups are African American. This is, from the very beginning, a use of color and movement in front of a calm camera that is both realistic and sentimental, far from the pathetic use of these tools in SCHINDLER’S LIST to awaken sentiment and drive a point home. After the battle, we see two black soldiers talking to a commanding figure off-screen, and the speech of one of them, the seasoned soldier, reveals more of a rebellious violence and sense of the violent resolution of the ‘slavery problem’ by the people directly affected than the whole 3 hours of plot in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Here, we learn, there have been black soldiers battling and killing Confederate men, and the pride seen in the reporting of it suggests that this battling spirit did not only awake just one day when the war started but was always there, resisting oppression. When we hear a voice off-screen reacting to the reporting of these news, we are hence introduced to the figure of Lincoln. Many people have had problems with this introduction, since it takes huge factual liberties to the point of being even qualified as misleading history. The other black soldier present, who begins to point out inequalities between black and white ranks in the military, speaks frankly and with no nonsense to his Commander and Chief, in the middle of a Civil War. His existence in this scene is not only a taking of historical liberties, but it is an outright impossibility, just as Lincoln's presence in the scene is. And yet, this soldier is suddenly the most relatable and grounded person besides Lincoln. The scene progresses simply with a shot-reverse shot structure, and by the time this soldier speaks of what the white man may abide of the black man in the future (equal pay, rank, and in a 100 years…the vote) the film is suddenly alive with a curious fractured temporality: it is grounded on historical representation of the past and yet speaks of the future as if with knowledge, directly at us. Its speech is that of a past, which imagines a future that we as a nation have already lived (we are products of such progress). This is the very working of myth, brought bare and simply, without didacticism. It is obviously historically misleading, but in its spirit, it represents the very emotion behind a nation’s memory of the path to a more perfect union, and as such speaks volumes.


The other brief, clear moment held in contrast to the rest of the film, seems fully expository. Here, we see Lincoln first meeting with his cabinet, where he proceeds to have a dialogue, as if with himself, about the legal rationale and very logic behind his insistence in passing the 13th amendment before Congress finishes its session. Daniel Day Lewis’ eerie personification is here matched and strengthened only by Spielberg’s choice to focus on his face and voice. Here there is Lincoln as a political storyteller, giving his audience a distilled version of the great contradictions embedded in his choices as a wartime President. The tale is given a dramatic weight, and even a philosophical edge, in that here we see a person quickly conjure up legal ideas and just as soon as they sink in he brings their contraries. This is the treatment of law as philosophy, and of a commander trapped between contrary binds. The moment could reach the heights of tragedy if it dared discuss the humanity of the issue, the actual effect on mortal lives, but it remains an exercise of the mind. Even so, it’s a moment were we feel a range of ideas gain some physicality, in the face of a great performer. A whole movie could have been made about that phenomenon by a greater director, and indeed, there was another movie that came to mind the first time I saw that scene: THE MASTER, but more on that a little later.
All in all, those few minutes do not make a film, and Spielberg feels the need to, for the rest of the time he needs to tell his story, put the audience down and treat us like children, literally making us see things unfold from an imagined child’s point of view, meaning how an adult thinks a child could see 'adult' and 'serious' matters unfold. The one child in the story, Lincoln’s son, is used as a prop, a mask to hide behind and see the world without wonder, without question, but as didactic lesson. It would feel both too heavy handed and superficial were it not for Daniel Day Lewis’ awesome embodiment of a historical figure, showing physically the weight and torment of ideas brought into fruition.



DJANGO UNCHAINED, on the other hand, guises itself as a popular, entertaining revenge fantasy, willing to throw history out the window in order to tell us how we should feel about that history. I do not agree fully with fellow junkie Gabe, who objects to a political and moral reading of Tarantino’s film, arguing that an understanding of the real world needs to be left behind in order to understand this film and take it for what it really is: an exercise in remixing, recontextualization by Tarantino our cultural DJ. In a sense, Gabe is right to think this, given that DJANGO UNCHAINED is about other exploitation films as much as it is about the violence of slavery and the fantasizing of the past. Any Tarantino film is first and foremost a film about other films, yes, and it takes a very skilled and knowledgeable filmmaker to entertain and more, even to pleasure an audience with relentless cinematic geekiness. What I don’t yet know is whether one can call a film like this an actual work of art, mainly because it does not care to make an audience sink itself into another’s vision and go back to the real world with it. With Tarantino, there is no journey to transcendence and back into the mortal world. All which exists is the text and the enjoyment of its textures. It’s morbid and on the edge of masturbatory.

And yet, it is the most fun I’ve had watching a Tarantino film since PULP FICTION. I actually like it more than I like that film, or even JACKIE BROWN. There are specific reasons for this enjoyment, chief of them being that DJANGO UNCHAINED in its formal structure is air tight and yet remarkably playful, something his other films I mentioned don’t have. There is relish in every scene, color and transformation of moral conundrums into aesthetic coolness. Even with all its allusions and recontextualizations, the film enjoys enough self-reliance and bravado. There is a lot of lingering, yes, and the world created by the film is richer for it, but one never feels the tangents to stray off, to not have a thematic center. This is also why the film is extra problematic: it represents a fully enclosed imagined economics of slavery, and in doing so within such a dreamt up and unrealistic fantasy (yes,there can be fantasies grounded into reality—they are called myth and folklore) it can not help but negate the actual history from which its ‘cool’ anger feeds. That is the reason why writers of every sort, not only film critics, have found it necessary to balance the representations in the film with historical context. In clearer terms,  DJANGO UNCHAINED is an entertainment fantasy and not a creation of movie myth, despite its uses of so many other mythical and folkloric signifiers. It does not edify.


Nevertheless, there is a clarity of thought this time in Tarantino that is not as prevalent in his other films, and it happens to be of a deconstructive nature. His famous knack to pair image and sound into an elegant, hip whole is, in DJANGO, also a path to awaken emotion and even identification with the characters in front of us. There is a particular scene, when Django finds the three brothers he is set out to hunt and upon seeing one of them in the fields remembers his own time under their tyrannical violent gauntlet, where he is forced to plead with them for the safety of his beloved, Brumhilda. The scene is quick, but it stays with you because in it Django is completely powerless, and very talkative. In contrast to his new cool self, stoic and silent, bent on just saying enough to get the job done: revenge, the Django under the threat of the whip is saddened, pathetic, and pleading, with great knowledge of his weakness. When his pleading inevitably fails and his beloved is whipped, all to the soundtrack of a soulful Elayna Boynton singing “Freedom”, the emotional weight of image and song bear down with full strength upon our shoulders too. The humiliating effect of violence is shown at a close range, not from a safe distance. Its magnitude relies on our emotional attachment to this scene: watching it is enough to get us mad and wish for the retribution about to fall upon the slavers. This type of flashback is classic Tarantino. He used it to exhaustion in KILL BILL VOLs. 1 and 2. As a matter of fact, those films could be seen as a mosaic of those moments of recognition before revenge. What’s more, KILL BILL is a type of deconstruction of that motif. And yet, given the gravitas of revenge in those past projects, there is not a drop of real sentiment shown there. Here, in DJANGO, we get a straight forward version of this motif that is emotionally powerful too. Why is that? I lean to think that here Tarantino, in order to give his revenge tale a backbone, and in choosing to go into the obvious sentiment that leads to revenge, ends up affecting us with something akin to moral awakening.


There are reasons to believe more strongly on that reading, reasons given by other aspects of this film that are a bit unlike his other movies. It is precisely because here Tarantino is so adept at using his own filmic vocabulary, so much that he seems to have become a sort of linguist, that he also tends to examine the power in the simplicity of this vocabulary.  The most salient example of this process is towards the very end of the film, right before the full blown blaze of revenge falls upon all culpable parties. Django and his bounty hunter partner, Dr. Schultz, have conned their way into Calvin Candie’s plantation, under the ruse of being there to buy a Mandingo fighter. On their way to the main house, they find a runaway slave, trapped on top of a tree and at its feet, feral dogs barking and ready to tear him to pieces. This man ends up, after all, torn to pieces by dogs in a very violent, raw manner. And yet when it first happens, we do not see it but just hear it happen. Later on, when Dr. Schultz and Django have been found out and have had to actually go through a transaction to buy Brumhilda’s freedom, a transaction they wanted to avoid, and which Calvin Candie uses as an opportunity to humiliate them, they are sitting on the luxurious drawing room. Dr. Schultz sits with his back to Calvin in his library, while everyone eats white cake, surrounded by plush old world luxury. There is also a woman playing Beethoven’s Fur Elise on a harp. Now, we have by this point come to know Calvin Candie as a man who surrounds himself by his idea of high culture, a European, high class white culture. Schultz and Django are told, before meeting Monsieur Candie, that he is a devotee of French culture, to which Schultz responds amicably by speaking French. He then is warned, in an alarmed manner, never to speak French in front of Monsieur Candie, who does not know the language and is shaken in a negative manner when confronted with his ignorance. In other words, Calvin Candie is a connoisseur of surfaces. His idea of erudition is to surround himself with culture, to wear it like a costume. Of course, this definition could be a line of attack that I’ve heard people use to describe Tarantino. In such a view, Tarantino is only a cinephile in the sense that he can only relate film reality to film reality on its surface, and never gain or offer any real insight into the human condition. His path to knowledge is rigidly through style. It is an approach to filmmaking anathema to that of Jean Luc Godard, for example, who was in many ways the first director to create films that place themselves in historical, aesthetic and political context to other films, specially those coming from classical Hollywood. Godard’s early style of filmmaking was a form of working through quotations, through surfaces turned inside out in order to reveal the power of moving images to mythicize, to even sanctify different existential systems. With Tarantino, the process of quotation becomes commonplace and a path towards the stylization of ideas. In DJANGO, however, there is a critical analysis of this process, a deconstruction of it. When Dr. Schultz sits on a chair in the drawing room while Calvin Candie draws up the necessary papers to give Brumhilda to them, Dr. Schultz’s face betrays distress. He cannot get out of his head an image witnessed: the runaway slave being torn apart by dogs.  He closes his eyes, tired, and the image pops into his mind in full force, only this time we are to see it too. It is indeed violent, cruel raw scene, with no elegance to it. Thankfully it is very short, but the annoying repetition of the first notes from Fur Elise exacerbate Dr. Schultz distress and ours. He derails, loses his cool, and asks the woman playing the harp to stop playing Beethoven. He has become aware of the deep rift between the cultural surfaces surrounding him and their foundation, the violent institution of slavery. The appropriation of cultural icons by people who in other respects resort to the barbarity of slavery disgusts Dr. Schultz.


As far as I know, such a straight forward criticism of cultural appropriation is not found in other Tarantino films. Of course, the moment passes on too quickly, all clarity is lost over a handshake and the entertainment of violence, a bloody revenge, ensues. Violence, style, and the texture of text are not transcended: they are again put on a pedestal. 

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