After writing extensively on Zero Dark Thirty and the literature surrounding it, I'm struck by one other article that ingeniously and even brilliantly squares away its lack of context or characterization, pointing an accusing finger at the film's true antagonist--not UBL or Osama Bin Laden, not the American industrial-military complex and its complementary intelligence organizations, but something much bigger, the forces of history itself.
If we take this essay to have finally solved the riddle of Bigelow's film and its ambivalent (some would say confused) stance towards torture, then Bigelow's persistent apolitical posture turns out to have been a prescient aesthetic choice, one consistent with her film work since she met Susan Sontag back in the '70s. As the article puts it, the film is not postmodern, but post-postmodern, where it puts out a view, a sensibility, a story that competes for legitimacy in the public mind.
The article even puts to rest the suspicion that the film endorses torture--not really according to Rombes; it merely suggests that history itself demands the torture of suspects, with all the attendant consequences to be paid for and endured (the delays, the subsequent fall from moral grace). The film in effect notes that history itself is responsible, not us--I suppose as big a cop-out as any I can think of ("The Devil (history) made me do it!"), unless the film makes this statement in a state of dismay, not mere resignation or relief, and here (again) the film remains stubbornly silent. At this point Bigelow's narrowly focused POV starts to look less willfully ignorant and more heroically honest--when one character in the film profanely demands targets to eliminate, Rombes writes: "his words ring with a hot, burning truth about power rarely spoken in American mainstream films."
Like I said, brilliantly put; it actually made me pause to try rethink my thoughts about the film.
Maybe the biggest problem I have with Rombes' thesis is that looking at Bigelow's other work I don't quite see consistent aesthetic choices: just a lot of stylistic ones that help prop up a usually muddled script, Hurt Locker included (as I pointed out in my earlier article it's excellently made, but the central character doesn't make much sense). Strange Days begins with a fantastic single-shot action setpiece that runs for around ten minutes and says--I don't know what, exactly; the rest of the picture is far less coherent. Blue Steel is full of dread and cool metallic blue imagery that in retrospect feels ridiculous; Near Dark--arguably my favorite of her early work--is compellingly violent vampiric poetry that sometimes contradicts its own rules. Give me a more consciously nihilistic pessimist like late Bresson (Lancelot du Lac and L'Argent comes to mind)--he's every bit as deadpan and ambivalent, but you at least get from him the sense that he knows what he's doing; this stumbling along in the murky waters of political controversy clouds the waters more than clears them, and really doesn't help anyone much, least of all Bigelow.
(Warning: plot of several Tarantino movies discussed in explicit detail)
I'd already talked about how I think Tarantino's Django Unchained was sexist; now I've been asked to explain why I think the movie's racist.
I thought just linking a few perceptive articles would be enough; but just to humor those in question, I'll point out the highlights, and add a few thoughts of my own:
Keli Goff's Huffington Post article questions the violence--why, comparing this to his previous pictures, did he feel the need to amp up the overall suffering of African Americans in his picture? Why, for example, does he show Jews killed in Inglourious Basterds and Uma Thurman suffering in the Kill Bill movies but not in such voyeuristic length and with so much creative detail? Why single out black slaves, hm? As a kind of stinger finale, Goff also points out the telling detail that in his most famous film, Pulp Fiction, the black man is raped, and saved by a white man.
Don't totally agree with Ms. Goff in everything; she professes to be a Tarantino fan, and thinks the violence in Kill Bill "on par with watching ballet"--so speaketh an otherwise thoughtful writer unfamiliar I'm guessing with the works of Liu Chia-Liang and Johnnie To (In my book the first Kill Bill is Tarantino's amateur stab at the martial arts epic, its sequel only marginally better).
More damning I would say is Jelani Cobb's article, which begins by showing the injustice inflicted on the Russians by Tarantino's previous picture (I personally thought it oververbose and less than inventive myself). Cobb goes on to discuss both the use of the "N" word and the depiction of a black hero in the movie, noting that while the word in question was used during the time, here it's used so excessively, unconvincingly often it has practically been raised to "the level of a pronoun;" he goes on to talk about how the slaves offered continued resistance against their white masters to the point that the "slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about
slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to
undermine the institution"--a reality that Tarantino not only ignores, but overturns with the notion that Django is the only non-passive slave out there. In effect, Tarantino reinforces the myth, the stereotype--and, Cobb insists, it is a myth and stereotype--that the slaves never fought back; they mostly shuffled along clad in their leg irons and esoteric metal neckware.
I'd go further on this: with all the suffering endured onscreen and in reality, with the wide variety of experiences and stories to tell, with all the strength and intelligence the enslaved can muster--is bloody payback the only response Tarantino can have them take? I'd like to ask African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett his reaction to the Tarantino flick, only I suspect it isn't necessary; he's already done his take, and a subtler, finer, more nuanced response I doubt can be found.
I'd especially point to a key dialogue that takes place between two slaves, concerning the power and importance of reading and writing and, beyond that, knowledge (a discussion I'd have with my students, many of whom seem unaware of this aspect of history and their ancestors' role in that history). At its lowest level, that of reading words, an educated slave can help his flight by reading maps and street signs. When a slave learns to write words he can forge a day pass (a note authorizing his passage through public roads)--allowing the runaway, oh, at least a day's head start. If said slave could read, write, and compose, why he could actually begin to strike at the heart of the institution itself, which is basically a set of laws printed on paper. So when I say "is that all Tarantino can think for them to do?" I'm serious--the fight against slavery took many forms, and that of blowing a white man's head away with a shotgun is the least imaginative I can think of.