Reflections on Tarantino and Django Unchained
While I certainly would not consider myself a fan of Quentin Tarantino–he’s a narcissist and somewhat mentally unbalanced–, I cannot deny his effectiveness as a filmmaker. He emerged onto the independent movie scene in the mid-1990s with an impressive blend of avant-garde flare and mainstream ambitions. Digging up forgotten actors (Harvey Keitel, John Travolta, and Pam Grier, to name a few), the man wrote clever dialogue and utilized witty editing tricks to make gangster pictures for the Seinfeld-era. Hit men were depicted shooting the breeze on the way to a kill, characters debated pop songs whilst readying themselves for a heist, and the minutiae of human sexuality were pondered with the philosophical sophistication of beach bums who may have attended a freshman survey course at the local community college, but definitely didn’t stick around long enough to figure out whether their desks were real. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction spoke to an America utterly content with itself, delighting in its excesses and believing the good times would never end.
I readily admit that I am among those who enjoy the Tarantino films of the 1990s, though there is one common accolade that the man received in those days that never once crossed my lips: originality. Yes, everybody got in a stupor over the non-linear storytelling and mash-up of different genres, but these traits are hardly the brainchild of the video-store-clerk-who-got-lucky (France’s nouvelle vague had perfected this science thirty years prior–and the director’s of this movement were deeply indebted to the considerable work of Robert Bresson and Louis Malle before them). If there is anything original to Tarantino, it’s the mere fact that he was the first filmmaker to find success in openly and joyously shoplifting from all of his favorite movies and directors. Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Samuel Fuller, and the grindhouse exploitation of the 1970s were mined to no end, but critics and cinephiles were having such a grand time (and mainstream audiences didn’t know of the man’s grand larceny), that nobody bothered to care and Tarantino was praised for doing the exact same thing for which Brian De Palma was panned. In the process of receiving his Get Out of Jail Free card, Tarantino was named Hollywood’s next wunderkind and became one of those “geniuses” to whom we all must bow.
Yet, amid all the guilty pleasures that arise as everyone awaits the latest self-congratulatory product from the irascible auteur, I happened to find a sane, sole voice crying in the wilderness–not in the deserts of ancient Palestine, but the far more formidable terrain of DVD blogs–as Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was about to hit the theaters. Crassly and accurately, the gentlemen signed every post with the following epigram: “Hey Tarantino, show us what ya got, not what ya watched, ya unoriginal bitch!” Here was a man who loathed Tarantino before loathing Tarantino was cool–a real trend-setter born in the fires of postmodernity’s refined film school known as the Internet’s Institute of Rhetorical Skills. Of course, this particular gentleman has the distinct advantage of actually being correct and all the works from Sir Quentin since the 1990s have ratified the anonymous poster’s sentiments.
Each time the American public is bestowed with “the new film by Quentin Tarantino,” the usual talking heads emerge on TV programs to debate his excessive use of violence and racial epithets. Much is made of Tarantino’s repeated statements that he thinks violence in movies is cool and it’s fun to show graphic, over-the-top disembowelment. I wish there could be at least one critic of the man who concedes his point on cinematic violence, because the fact is that most of his interlocutors do think violence in movies is cool (they maintain a lie to both themselves and to others that this does not entail an endorsement of real world violence–a lie I told myself for a great many years until I realized that violence is violence and the actions depicted on the screen are the product of very real thoughts and desires). People flock in droves to see violent movies because they enjoy the action set pieces, people watch NASCAR in the hopes of seeing terrible car crashes, and so forth. Americans are violent people (in potentiality when not in actuality) and enjoy seeing their violent tendencies played out in media, until it finally hits upon someone or something they hold dear (n.b. the American public and media are torn up over the death of 26 people in the events at Newtown, despite the fact that 28 people were murdered that day–I guess the killer and his mom aren’t dear to us, so their violent demise isn’t cause for soul-searching). I long for the days of serious filmmakers producing movies like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, brutally violent films that approach the subject with taste in a quest to say something productive about the origins, impact, and solutions to mankind’s violent nature. Instead, we are now in an era where the prestige filmmakers show violence for its own sake and having nothing to say about it.
The problem with Tarantino’s films, especially the revenge-fantasy Django Unchained set amidst the backdrop of America’s enslavement of black people, is not that they show too much violence, or even that they show the violence in such excruciating detail (be it comically over-the-top or hauntingly realistic). Instead, the real fault lies in the fact that the violence is being used to reinforce the artist’s own self-supporting nihilism and encourage the growing nihilism of the American public. An adult filmmaker could have done great things with the story and characters presented in Django Unchained, but Tarantino is the Peter Pan of movie mavericks. In fairness, Tarantino does present some interesting ideas in his latest gorefest, such as the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (played well by Christoph Waltz) stating that bounty hunting and slavery are basically the same thing–one deals in the trading of dead human flesh, the other in living–, but he never advances them. Instead, we are treated to one over-written scene after another documenting the exploits of Dr. King and his associate, the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) whom he frees in the opening scene, as they seek to snatch Django’s wife from the villainous slaver, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), while raking in the dough by killing men wanted dead or alive (the movie never bothers to question the morality of the duo’s decision to always kill wanted men rather than at least attempting to detain them).
Django Unchained has attracted a great many admirers and as many articles are being written to justify its gleeful portrayal of violence as harmless fun as there are attempts to claim the film’s violence is being used to make a substantive statement about the nature of evil. I will not dispute that Tarantino’s antics are making a substantive statement about violence, but it is not the one he intends to make (in fact, I have no doubt Tarantino isn’t capable of formulating an intelligent thought on the nature of violence) or that his supporters pretend he makes. The lofty-minded fans of Django will have us believe that the retribution visited upon the slave owners and their kin is Tarantino’s way of saying a culture of sadism is doomed to reap what it sows. They might even be so bold as to claim that the film demonstrates that the victims of oppression and violence are trapped by their environs and that American slavery’s real scourge is found in the propensity of violence found among the dead bodies of young black men over a century after the Civil War.
Yet, these are the non-sequiturs of a ruling class that has lost its own grip on reality. Tarantino is not making an epic statement about the horrors of violence or slavery and, quite frankly, how could he? Does the man grasp the concept of human beings existing imago Dei? Does he affirm, apart from verbal consent, the innate dignity of the human person? Judging by his pictures, especially Django Unchained, these inquiries are to be met with resounding negatives. Unlike in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs, two fine examples of graphically violent films that depict violence as cruel and utterly unenjoyable, the protagonist does not find himself either dead or isolated on account of his recourse to violence. Instead, Django emerges from the plantation as a conquering hero, the dispenser of justice for an entire people (not least of whom is his approving bride). And, in that final sentiment that accurately captures Tarantino’s (im)morality–namely, that the best way to get even with a brutal slave master is to be an even more brutal, dehumanizing force–, at last the informed viewer can actually find an ironic assent to the moral order. Cicero famously wrote, “summum ius, summa iniuria” (the phrase has been translated into English in a variety of ways, my favorite of which reads, “great justice is the greatest injustice”), a phrase he used to illustrate the need for prudence in executing the order of law. Tarantino’s films are testaments to imprudence and in Django Unchained, the man’s childish enjoyment in revenge fantasies not only satisfies his infantile sensibilities, but does so by unknowingly affirming one of the great classic minds of human existence.
Tarantino fancies himself a trend-setter, a man who is advancing the cinematic medium by drudging up its exploitative past and polishing it with braggadocio. Instead–and, don’t worry QT, I’ll keep this on the QT–he continues to demonstrate his unoriginality with unwavering force. He might be a sicko catering to the demented love of violence for a ruined American public, but at least postmodernity’s poster boy is getting owned by antiquity’s Latin statesman and scholar. It was a non-linear journey to such a conclusion, but–being the traditionalist that I am–I’ll gladly take this happy ending.