Well, I woke up this morning, flipped on my laptop, and had this image waiting there to greet me.
For ****’s sake, people.
Alright, lets get to it. Continue reading
GORDON: You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?
GORDON: A poor attempt at distracting our readers from the fact that we ain’t gonna be talking about drugs like we said we would.
EVAN: I have seen very few Tarantino films, and only barely recognize the references.
GORDON: You make me sad.
EVAN: I know.
That aside, what we’re going to be talking about today is Django Unchained, a movie I finished watching less than an hour ago and the subject of this Monday’s post [written by Gordon].
GORDON: So what did you think?
EVAN: Initial thoughts are: Very long. Not what I expected. Apparently in Django’s world everyone is a skinbag filled to bursting with blood.
GORDON: Speaking as someone who’s fired black-powder guns, I can actually kinda see something like that happening.
EVAN: That is ridiculous, but interesting to know.
Now if you don’t have anything in particular you wanted to talk about, did you want to maybe address Spike Lee’s reaction to this film really quick?
GORDON: The Lee-Tarantino feud has been going on for a long time now, so I really wasn’t surprised that Lee reacted the way he did. I naturally wish he had at least seen the movie, but I don’t think it would’ve made a difference in his mind.
EVAN: To give readers a little context, director Spike Lee tweeted:
GORDON: I get where he’s coming from, but (1) I don’t think the movie dishonors the slaves and (2) I don’t think that there should be any time period off-limits for telling stories.
EVAN: I definitely agree with both points. Tarantino does not disrespect the plight of slaves during the time period, and there are really no eras of history that we shouldn’t be allowed to explore through various media. How it’s done is what matters.
GORDON: It’s Tarantino; you either love him or you hate him. He does a spastic, scatterbrained style of movie which is two parts tense dialogue and three parts references to obscure exploitation flicks. It is what it is.
EVAN: So did you like it?
GORDON: I did, but not as much as his other movies. And not for the subject matter, simply for the storytelling. I felt it was anticlimatic. Especially compared to his second latest, Inglourious Basterds.
EVAN: Very much agreed. You expect [SPOILER ALERT YOU’VE BEEN WARNED] Monsieur Candy to be killed by Django, or at least in a big way, but instead he’s just shot by Dr. Schultz with his sleeve-Deringer.
GORDON: And there’s still plenty left in the film, we just kinda trudge through it. I simply wasn’t impressed. I mean- I ain’t asking for a John Wu fightscene, but something more than [SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS, SPOILERS] Django shooting unarmed people from the top of the plantation stairs.
But as far as the whole thing goes, relatively amusing and a major stepping stone in addressing the subject of slavery.
EVAN: I mean, sort of going back to where Lee was coming from, it’s not a very realistic depiction by any means, a revenge story of this fashion can’t be. That being said, isn’t it the same sort of concept as Inglourious Basterds? Revenge enacted by the persecuted?
GORDON: That’s exactly what it is. A revenge fantasy. Bad guys being killed by the people who they oppressed. It gives us a feeling of divine judgment upon the wicked. Which is a theme a lot of westerns have.
EVAN: I have seen at least one, and you are not wrong.
GORDON: I think what Lee needs to get is this:
This was not a movie about slavery, this was a movie about revenge set in the world of slavery. This wasn’t- and shouldn’t be- taken as a commentary of any kind about African-Americans anymore than Kill Bill should be taken as a commentary on women.
You wanna pick a fight with Tarantino, do it over something that’s actually there. (And just so everyone knows, I really like Spike Lee’s work and admire the guy as an individual)
EVAN: So you’re saying that slavery must be viewed as a backdrop, and not the subject matter? I know that you wrote your Monday post on this, but we can go over it just a little.
GORDON: That’s exactly it. It’s not a history film, it’s a Tarantino film. Don’t look for realism there, and don’t look for buoyancy in a nightstand; it’s not what either of them are for.
EVAN: I agree with you to a point, in that the exploration of slavery was in no means Tarantino’s intent. It’s just difficult to look past that as subject matter when it permeates the film [what with it opening up on a slave’s scarred back, etc].
GORDON: That is true, and you can question whether or not it’s right for Tarantino to use the subject matter to shock and horrify people and draw in crowds, but from what I saw and understood of the film the scenes of horror inflicted upon the slaves were, what’s the word for this, “respectful?” enough to indicate that even blood-and-guts Quentin wasn’t unaware of what he was dealing with.
EVAN: I can accept that. Two more thoughts as we wrap up this talk: the soundtrack and Samuel L. Jackson as a real life Uncle Ruckus.
GORDON: The soundtrack sucked. We can all agree on this. Usually he can make it work- this time he didn’t.
EVAN: My cousin and I actually really liked it.
GORDON: Really? I couldn’t disagree more. I felt it lacked cohesion, which the soundtracks in his other works normally have. Heck, more often than not it’s the commonalities in the soundtracks trying the whole thing together.
EVAN: I felt like the more contemporary hip-hop rap tracks were a little bit jarring, but thought the other songs overall were good picks.
GORDON: We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. Let’s move on.
EVAN: Samuel L. Jackson’s character.
GORDON: I thought he knocked it out of the park. Didn’t have any problem with him whatsoever.
EVAN: 1) Did not know Samuel L. Jackson could play such a convincing old man. 2) Sycophants in films are normally played up for comedic value, and that is no less the case here.
GORDON: Let’s not forget that Jackson was not only an active member of the civil rights movement, but even associated with some of its more radical leaders.
EVAN: That is something that I, and presumably our readers, did not know.
To end this off, did you have a favourite moment in the film? [I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO WARN ABOUT SPOILERS, BUT I AM ANYWAY]
GORDON: For me, it would have to be the scene where Christoph Waltz (who really stole the show) was explaining bounty-hunting the Django in the bar. The dude is awesome to watch.
EVAN: Christoph Waltz’s accent was amazing. I could listen to him talk all day.
My personal favourite was the posse getting ready to go kill Django and Schultz and arguing about the masks. The dialogue was hilarious, and Jonah Hill was a nice surprise, too.
GORDON: That was awesome. And speaking of awesome stuff, our discussion topic for next week:
EVAN: Ah man, I kind of just want to talk about movies. Could we somehow generally address the trend towards big budget sci-fi flicks that’s coming about in Hollywood?
GORDON: No. No more movies. We do ’em too much already.
EVAN: Fine, fine. Suggestions?
GORDON: College: what should its purpose be? Careers or Well-Rounded Individuals?
EVAN: Or just in general, I’m not sure it has to go one of two ways. But that’s a good one. I’m on board.
Thanks everyone for reading, and for continuing to unwittingly stumble upon our blog in 2013! Evan and Gordon out.
Let me begin by explaining that this is not a review of the simultaneously acclaimed and decried 2012 Tarantino blood-fest. You want to hear one of those, I’d recommend clicking over to Spill or The Escapist’s “Escape to the Movies.” No, what I want to talk about are some specific elements and segments of the film which have become points of contention, controversy, and debate in the past weeks.
Let’s start with the most obvious:
I. Saying “Nigger” Every Other Word
I won’t claim to know your stance on the word “Nigger”- heck, I’m not even sure of my own stance. Perhaps you view the term as so degrading and reprehensible as to merit burning it from spoken language. Perhaps you believe that appropriating and using the word strips it of its power to even be used as an insult. Maybe you see it as being purely contextual- a term of address with audience and a terrible insult with another.
There are probably strong points to be made on all sides, but perhaps the stance you cannot take is that the use of the word “nigger” was inappropriate for the movie.
Now before you take up the battle-cry of “Tarantino is just trying to shock us!” or “Tarantino uses the word excessively in his other movies!” I have to say this.
It’s Tarantino; that’s not an excuse, that’s a fact. You wanna take up his use of the word in other films, then that’s part of the whole debate mentioned above. Simple truth of the matter is that this use of the word “nigger” would still be controversial if the film had been made by anyone else. So let’s talk about it.
Let’s assume that this movie, with selfish or noble intent, is trying to demonstrate a glimpse of the world in question; the use of that word is almost bound to come up. I might throw out the example of Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn, and while by sheer volume Django probably has Huck beat for use of the word, by percentage I’d posit the two are pretty evenly matched. The escaped slave Jim is repeatedly and almost exclusively referred to as “Nigger Jim,” as are the other black characters in the book. Now Twain was anti-slavery and used that word to demonstrate the dehumanization of African Americans (which is why taking the word out of versions of the book is so dumb), as well as reflect the general use of the word. Now I’m admittedly no historian, but if the writings of Twain and other authors are any indication of the times, I wouldn’t say the film is quite so far off as some critics might suggest.
And speaking of historical accuracy…
II. The KKK, or Lack Thereof
There is a scene in the film during which a group of men wearing white sacks over their heads attempt to stage an attack on Django and Schultz. New Yorker contributor Jelani Cobb writes “Tarantino depicts the K.K.K. a decade prior to its actual formation in order to thoroughly ridicule its members’ (literally) veiled racism.” While that scene was (in my own opinion) side-splittingly hilarious, Jelani, and many others, are dead wrong in assuming that this scene depicted historical inaccuracy.
Take this section from Huckleberry Finn:
Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark — and it’s just what they WOULD do.
“So they always acquit; and then a MAN goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back and lynches the rascal. Your mistake is, that you didn’t bring a man with you; that’s one mistake, and the other is that you didn’t come in the dark and fetch your masks.
Again, this is a Tarantino movie set in a Tarantino universe. That’s not a defense, simply, as I’ve already stated, a fact. If you’re looking for a historical account of the pre-war South, a spaghetti-western revenge flick probably ain’t the best place to look for it. There are going to be certain inaccuracies, and there are going to be things the filmmaker has to get right- but all of that is beside the point (which we’ll get to in a minute). All of that’s to say if you’re gonna try to criticize (or praise) the movie’s deviation from historical truth, make sure you’re (1) doing it for the right reason and (2) that you’re critique is actually right.
III. Samuel L. Jackson as Uncle Tom
In Django, Samuel L. Jackson plays the role of the villain’s head-slave Stephen, who isn’t so much a character as a caricature of the most groveling, snivelling Uncle Tom you will ever see or even imagine. This guy makes Uncle Ruckus look like Eldridge Cleaver.
I’ve heard people call this portrayal offensive, bordering on “black-face” in its depiction of stereotypical “black” mannerisms. It’s exactly for that reason that I didn’t have a problem with the character.
See, the entire point is to make fun of the guy- and not just him, but the quisling slaves that did indeed exist. I don’t think that this portrayal robbed the film of the gravity of slavery anymore than Bugs Bunny foiling a cartoonized Hitler robbed WWII of it’s gravity.
Now let’s get right to it-
IV. The Horror, The Horror
LA Times journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan said this of Django’s depiction of slavery: “It is an institution whose horrors need no exaggerating, yet Django does exactly that…”
This is a flat-out falsehood.
If Django Unchained exaggerated the horrors of the slavery, if the film depicted one one-hundredth of the horrors of slavery, I will never write again. Despite the allegations of this critic, the truth of the matter is that we could depict the institution of slavery for a century and be no closer to depicting an ounce the inhumanity of it all than when we first started. Does the film exaggerate slavery? Absolutely not. Does it make light of it? Certainly this was a concern of mine going into the movie, but having seen it, I really don’t think it can be faulted there either. The film does, I believe, make a distinct effort to show slavery as brutish and ugly as possible. Or, at the very least, the slavery scenes; this is, after all, a revenge movie first and foremost.
V. The Point
That’s the thing I feel most people are missing here. This ins’t a movie about slavery, this is a movie with slavery in it. It’s a revenge film in which one sorely persecuted character dispenses well-deserved justice upon his persecutors and we all nod our heads in approval and feel a sense of pride and joy well up as we look into this fantasy where the bad guy does get what’s coming to him. Slavery is the backdrop, not the subject, of the movie, but it’s just such a major issue that most of us are getting hung up on it. The equivalent might be bashing a western on the basis that the actual “wild west” was pretty peaceful- factually true, but still missing the goal of the story.
No, this is not a historically accurate film. No, it doesn’t capture the horror of slavery. No, it doesn’t even try to wrestle with it. No, it’s not a discussion of our checkered heritage. No, it’s not the film to drag that dark, bloody history out into the light of day.
But damn it, it’s a start.
I recently had a chance to see The Man with the Iron Fists, a gritty Kung-Fu-Spaghetti-Western-70s-Exploitation mash-up film presented (of course) by Quentin Tarantino. I say presented by Tarantino; the creation of the film itself is owed largely to The RZA of the former (and still awesome) Wu-Tang Clan. In addition to co-writing and directing the film, the RZA stars in the epic slug-fest itself, serving as the narrator and titular character.
Now I went into this film simply suspending my disbelief. I assumed all the nonsensical elements in the film would simply be loving jabs at the old-school kung-fu and action movies that Tarantino and Roth grew up on. That’s why Russel Crowe’s character has a gun-scissor-knife weapon, or why (and here’s the big thing) the blacksmith in this fictional Chinese village is black. Much to my surprise however, the movie began offering explanations (though not to the gun-scissor-knife). The blacksmith is, in a flashback, shown having grown up on a plantation and receiving his freedom from his dying master. Despite having papers declaring him a free man, he is continually treated as a slave- in one scene he is told by a couple of dandies that there’s no way he can read, and therefore understand what’s written on his documents. The two men crumple up his paper and proceed to slur and shove him until he fights back, inadvertently killing one of them. He flees west, and after his ship is wrecked, finds himself in China.
Now obviously that whole last bit about him running so far he winds up in the far east is obviously just the movie shifting back into fantasy, but what really got me was the depiction of slavery. Not prejudice, not segregation- slavery. When’s the last time you can actually say you saw a film deal with that? Glory in 1989? Some Little House on the Prairie episode sometime in the 70s? It simply isn’t done (and that one episode of The Boondocks doesn’t count).
And that’s what I want to talk about. Our depiction, or lack of depiction, of slavery. For all our grand talk of freedom, liberty, and American “exceptionalism,” we do tend to gloss over the uglier elements of our history, such as Manzanar, Wounded Knee, and perhaps most notably, slavery. It brings up all sorts of uncomfortable, and frankly unresolved conflicts. It throws a dark shadow over all of our self-reported greatness. Nevertheless, we really can’t shove it under the carpet, and it looks like, at long last, it’s starting to all come out.
AMC’s Hell on Wheels takes place during the years following the close of the Civil War, and like The Man with the Iron Fists is one of the few depictions of slavery I’ve ever seen on film or TV. In addition to its frank depiction of slavery, I want to take a moment to give the show some applause for the historical accuracy it had in general, depicting Northern racism towards the ex-slaves, as well as the racism inflicted to (and by) the Irish immigrants- another nasty little thread in American heritage you won’t find in most history books.
Of course, beyond that, there’s the highly anticipated Tarantino film Django Unchained, which we’re all expecting to be jaw-dropping in how good or bad it turns out to be. Unlike the previous two examples, which depicted slavery only briefly, this is a movie set completely in the antebellum South. That’s another hefty jump, though again, how well this is going to be executed is still very much up in air.
Now I’ve been struggling all night to come up with a conclusion for all of this, but I’m really not sure what to say. I can’t say why we’re suddenly interested in a subject we’ve been ignoring for the past century and a half. I can’t quite figure out if this is some little trend or the awakening of some part of our culture that’s been dormant so long we’ve forgotten it. I can’t pinpoint what’s causing this. I can’t tell you where it’s all going. I can tell you, however, where I hope it goes.
I hope this is the beginning of something that might pass for maturity in our culture or our generation. I hope that movies depicting the reality of slavery become a thing. I hope that they open up the doors for the rest of our small-pox-infected, witch-burning, Japanese-interning, waterboarding history. I hope we can actually learn something from all of this once it’s out there, and hey, maybe we can actually get some racial diversity in our movies for a change.
P.S. I haven’t seen Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or Lincoln yet, so I can’t say how they deal with it in there.