Django Unchained, Fiction, Film, History, Movies, Quentin Tarantino, Race, Sex, Slavery
Just what is the relationship between the events occurring inside a film and those occurring the world in which we live? I will not say the ‘real world’, because of course part of the problem here is that the ‘worlds’ in which we live are saturated by myriad narratives, preconceptions, and cultural artifacts which shape our understanding of events in ways few of us can fully understand. So, when we see something happening in a movie, it is important to grasp that this too is one more of those narratives, one more thing that shapes the meaning of events in own own lives. Just how it does that, well now that is a tricky question.
It’s a difficult question with a number of plausible answers, but I think we can rule out one answer at least, the one that says; ‘nothing’. Quentin Tarantino would seem to disagree, at least he does when he’s angry and dodging interesting interview questions. In a now infamous rant, Tarantino took the position that there was no relationship between on-screen violence and real world violence, refusing even to elaborate on this position or to explain his reasons for taking it.
(Oh yeah, SPOILERS!)
To be fair, it was the interviewer, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, that fielded the stance in a sort of complex question (at 4:30 in the clip below), but for all his belligerence Tarantino does not disavow the position attributed to him. Guru-Murthy claims that his own research has produced little in the way of an explanation from Tarantino, just a consistent repetition of this stance. It’s a common enough claim in any event, often serving as a defense mechanism, both for those that create guilty pleasures and those of us who enjoy them (and yes, I do count myself among the guilty). So long as there is no relationship between fantasy violence and real-world violence, one is free to explore the one while taking no responsibility for the other.
But of course the world isn’t that simple, and as Guru-Murthy also points out, Tarantino was happy to link his latest film to the serious issues of slavery, even taking taking credit for starting a dialogue about that subject. He also takes credit for the cathartic violence he puts on screen, but has little to say about the ‘real’ violence perpetrated by the villains against their slaves on that very same screen. But are we really to believe Tarantino means us to feel emotional investment for Django’s acts of revenge while sitting guiltless through the torture and slaughter of innocents throughout the film? Does the elaborate detail of ‘Mandingo fighting’, the ‘hot box’, and the vicious execution of a slave torn apart by dogs leave the viewer without any sense of complicity for the “brutality of the violence of the day?”
Tarantino’s own writing belies this approach. His villains are too clever, their speeches too fascinating, their point of view far too prominent in these moments to dismiss. The victims of this violence remain largely silent. We know that the Mandingo fighters suffer and regret what they are forced to do, we know that Django’s love interest is defiant, and that she suffered greatly for it, and we know that the man torn apart by dogs could not bear to fight again; none of these characters really say much in the movie. They do not introduce interesting plot twists; they do not dazzle us with fascinating speeches. They suffer just as we would expect them to, providing us with no insights at all into the world in which they live.
Those that inform us about this movie are the killers. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie explains quite clearly what he expects of his slaves before setting the dogs loose. Dr. King Schultz (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) introduces us to the fascinating world of bounty hunter, one who would see a man shot in front of his child but who balks at seeing another torn apart by dogs. And of course we understand Django’s motives; his goals are the driving force of the movie; it is his killings which provide us with the final pay-off, the glorious conclusion of the film.
It is consistently the logic of those enacting violence which Tarantino fleshes out for us in this film, and as always, he does it ever so well. The victims are there to suffer, and to provide a pretext for the ‘cathartic’ violence that is to come. In short, Django consistently draws us into the viewpoint of the killer; the movie does this when the killer is a villain, and it does it again when he is a hero. This is the myth of redemptive violence presented in a special way that allows us to have our cake and eat it too. We can enjoy Dicaprio’s sadism just as we will enjoy his downfall. If there is a moment of regret in a scene, or a brief period in which we might wish for the suffering to simply stop, well that moment passes in due time, transformed as it were into the rationale for yet another killing. In Django, we understand the killers, the victims are simply silent.
But villains gotta be villainous, don’t they?
Of course they do, but what is lacking in Django is a genuine counter-balance, any real sense of what is at stake in this story for anyone who is not a killer. When our principal reward at the end of the story is the death of the bad guy (DiCaprio or Jackson, …or so many others), we are never far from the mindset of the killer. In the end, Django leaves a wanted man, accepting this fate without so much as the blink of an eye, his wife drawing a rifle as they ride off from the scene. Two lives now wholly engulfed in violence. If this is a victory, it is at least partially a victory for the world of villainy.
…which brings us back to the initial question, just how does this story relate to the realities of violence in everyday life? I honestly enjoyed much of this movie, as I did with Inglorious Bastards. (Yeah, I know about the spelling, take that Quentin!) But I always feel a little uncomfortable with Tarantino films, precisely because I can’t escape the feeling that I am witnessing something a little creepy; it’s a bit like watching a teenager doing something truly inappropriate in public. Whether it is sheer joy with which Tarantino employs the n-word just a little more than his faux-realism rationale would warrant, or the raw celebration of violence which is present in every film he makes, I cannot help but to think the limitations of Tarantino’s stories are the limitations of the world in which he lives, the world of narratives informing his sense of sense of the world off-screen. And I cannot help but think he is inviting us to normalize those limitations and accept a world of cartoonish violence as a moral standard of sorts.
It is not as though the world lacks for people who think this way off-screen.
One can see it in that interview above as well, when Tarantino tells us that Django deals with the ‘Auschwitzian’ characteristics of slavery. (I guess it’s a word now, …why not?) Honestly, I don’t know what he meant by saying that Americans have dealt with the Native American holocaust, but he clearly seems to think this movie is saying something about the realities of slavery, so much so that when people talk about the film, Tarantino takes that in itself to be a meaningful dialogue about slavery. And yet there is little about this film that could shed light on the nature of slavery as an historical institution.
Tarantino’s choice of comparison is telling, because the story of Auschwitz is largely the story of cruelty for the sake of cruelty, and this is Tarantino’s vision of slavery itself. In one of the most interesting (and insightful) speeches of the film, Dr. Shultz tells us quite frankly that he deals in dead bodies while slavers deal in live bodies; bother are economic institutions. So, why then do slaves first make an appearance in this film walking a great distance barefoot in the cold? Sure, one could probably come up with a plausible explanation based on historical possibilities. But the more plausible answer is that Tarantino wanted to show us the raw cruelty of the institution. More to the point, he did not wish so much to tel us something about slavery as to use slavery as a pretext for telling us something about cruelty. Tarantino presents this story of raw cruelty for us again in the sadistic foremen whom Django will kill part way through the movie, and again in the institution of Mandingo fighting. He presents it in virtually everything that DiCaprio’s character and Samuel Jackson’s character say and do. In this film slavery is not an economic enterprise, it is the conspicuous consumption of sadists, an extravagance of cruelty for the sake of cruelty.
One should add that it is a highly sexualized cruelty that one sees in this film. While Tarantino denies that rape appears in the film, its presence in the narrative is prominent. Django is quick to tell us that his wife will be used as a comfort woman, a prospect apparently confirmed by the words of another villain later in the film. Throughout the plantations in this film, black women appear in full southern dress, lounging about, the clear implication being that they are there for the pleasure of the owners. And of course when Django is captured, it is his genitalia which first get the attention of his would-be tormenters. The slaves portrayed in this film exist largely for the purpose of providing the villains with cheap thrills. And while this sort of thing was certainly not absent in the real history, its significance has completely eclipsed those of plantation agriculture in Tarantino’s narrative.
Slavery insofar as it appears in this movie, is little other than a sadistic fantasy. It is a source of pleasure for the villains, and fleeting moments of pain for the victims about whom we learn so very little. And perhaps we could sweep all of this under the rug and just call it entertainment were it not for one thing; Tarantino himself wants to tell us this movie is about slavery.
A part of me wants to say that it simply isn’t.
But of course that too would be inaccurate. The movie is about a vision of slavery bearing little resemblance to the actual institution, but perhaps one with a disturbing resemblance to Tarantino’s own thoughts about race, violence and sexuality. More disturbing still is the very real possibility that this film tells us still more about the general public’s understanding of the relationship between these features of American society.
I suppose all of this brings us full circle to the cathartic violence that Tarantino is talking about. On one level, that would be cathartic violence against the perpetrators of slavery as Tarantino envisions it. On another level, if I am right that Tarantino is getting off on the sadistic possibilities available in a world of slavery, that he is inviting his audience to enjoy the same possibilities, then the catharsis is perhaps a bit more personal. It is the moment in which one erases his or her investment in the sadistic themes presented here through the actions and words of the villains. It is a moment in which one finally rejects the villain despite his cleverness, and perhaps it is a moment in which one rejects one of the ills of history (at least insofar as it is almost dealt with in the form of that villain). The destruction of the villain thus becomes our own ritual purification.
I have my doubts as to where that leaves us in the end.