Sunday, February 03, 2013

Zero Illuminated, Django Unzipped

Zero Illuminated

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.

Django Unzipped

(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.



JC said...

Just noticed your post about Walter Hill's Bullet To The Head on the AbleMinds forum. You know, I realize directors like Chris Nolan and Quentin Tarantino get a lot of attention from the media and critics, but snidely dropping their names in a negative fashion practically every time you see an action film you like is borderline sad at this point. It's really no different than what many teenagers do on the imdb forums every day, and it'd be nice if you were above such petty nonsense. Anyone who's read your work knows full well you don't, in general, like their films, and that's just fine. But here's an option: write, or don't write, about their films during their week of release, and then move on. You can be a thoughtful, incisive film critic, who serves to enlighten his readers (as you often are on this blog), or you can be what is commonly referred to as a "troll" (which is what you sometimes come across as on AbleMinds).

And re: Bullet To The Head, perhaps it's full of technical virtuosity, but I've yet to see a single clip from it that reads as anything other than "generic action film". Gotta draw the line somewhere. Personally, I'll wait until Hill finds a better subject for his material than Stallone, who is of zero interest to this viewer (and apparently many others, as it pretty much bombed last weekend).

JC said...

To clarify "and then move on", I just mean perhaps find other frames of reference than the most obvious (or populist), when talking about other action films.

Articles like the one above, following up on thematic elements of Django, through detailed analysis, are perfectly reasonable/understandable.

Noel Vera said...

Uh--it's facebook. If I'm doing a thought piece or something I want to put effort into, it's on this blog. If I'm just shooting the breeze and kvetching--and I kvetch a lot, it's on facebook.

You're welcome to block my posts on facebook and just stick to this blog.
But life's too short to censor myself every moment every day, and at the moment--which might change at any time--I'm annoyed at Nolan and Tarantino. If they make better movies, maybe I'll stop.

Noel Vera said...

single clip is a lot like trailers, which I'd say reveals as much about a movie's true nature the way a cover does about its book. I'd watch the film.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, Ableminds. Yeah--it's a step above facebook. I wonder if I'm going to bother renewing my membership next year.

JC said...

Well, I've read enough from numerous critics whom I find reliable to suggest that Bullet To The Head isn't really worth my time and/or should flat-out be avoided. Hey, it's nice to support filmmakers you like, but I feel like sometimes, certain critics' obsession with auteurism can get in the way of common sense. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I'll sleep fine knowing I've passed on Bullet To The Head, particularly when I've got five seasons of Breaking Bad to work through in the next month.

Re: action films, I consider most of Nolan's films to be "suspense thrillers/dramas" that contain some action, but are not defined by it. So whether they are as technically proficient or impressive in their action choreography or coverage as something that's a more pure "action film" (and that's always a subjective thing), it doesn't really matter to me, because they have other qualities that are of greater interest.

And though Django may have more action than is commonly seen in a Tarantino film (outside of Kill Bill Vol. 1), I'd reckon most folks go to his films for the colourful, exaggerated personalities and dialogue, and the arch, lively soundtracks.

So all I really meant to say was that boiling it down to "action" seems more than a little reductive.

Re: your "annoyance" with the filmmakers...

Well, QT's dealing in some touchy subject matter, and DU is fairly recent, so if you want to have a go at it for supposed racism or historical inaccuracies (heh, at the latter), okey-dokey.

Nolan, on the other hand, made a mainstream blockbuster film SEVEN MONTHS AGO. It was generally well-received (87% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 78 on Metacritic), but it's not like it's without its detractors. And folks with negative opinions of things certainly tend to be the most vocal. I mean, if it was getting 99% positive reviews, and you were the lone individual trying to convince everyone why they're "wrong", I might understand the continued annoyance. But by now, one would think you'd have moved on to other things that are of greater interest to you.

It's just weird, man.

Anyways, I enjoy much of your writing here, regardless of whether I agree with it or not.


Anonymous said...

You must be a newbie. Anyone familiar with Vera's writing knows that his biases for and against filmmakers can border on grating. But when the man is on top of his game he shows a dazzling command of the language that has few peers (and probably none in the Philippines). Some would say that he deserves a grander platform to ventilate his "biases," and they would probably be right. But that might explain a bit of the cantankerous tone of his posts. Small price to pay, I say, for the privilege to read his gems of reviews such as the one of the last Bond film made by Mendes. I still don't get his staunch, bullheaded devotion to O'Hara, though-- an original filmmaker for sure, but a sloppy craftsman in my book. Nevertheless, I will keep on reading the exceedingly readable blog of Mr. Vera.

JC said...

Actually, I've known Noel, in print and on message boards, for a number of years now.

Anyways, moving on.

Noel Vera said...

To watch or not to watch--you make the call, of course; I can't do it for you. Personally speaking, I wouldn't always trust the opinions of people I read--sometimes I actually go and watch the durn thing.

Sloppy craftsmanship--Dostoevsky was a sloppy craftsman; he told more than demonstrated, he was repetitive, he was endlessly melodramatic and sentimental. Is he a great writer? Despite all this, yes, because there's more to great art than craftsmanship.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, and personally speaking, I wouldn't trust metacritic, or rottentomatoes. Review aggregates, that average a film's 'score' across a series of arbitrarily scored reviews (which to pick? how much to assign?) are almost as bad as movie awards.

JC said...

The only reason I brought up RT and MC is to point out that you weren't the "lone voice of dissent", not to suggest that if someone is in the, say, 13% of critics that don't like a film, that they're necessarily "wrong". That said, WERE you the lone voice of dissent, I'd probably better understand your continuing obsession with dropping those filmmakers' names.

But nonetheless, those sites can be useful, in drawing attention to titles that might otherwise get overlooked. I mean, if you're really determined to see something, based on a fondness for a director's past work or some clips that piqued your interest, OF COURSE you shouldn't let mixed reviews sway you from seeing it. But there are a lot of films released in any given year, and most people don't have the resources to see everything (nor would they want to), so it helps to have some filters in place.

" I wouldn't always trust the opinions of people I read..."

I suppose we could mistrust everything we read, but over time, we tend to find a handful of critics whose taste in film generally aligns with our own, and it can sometimes be useful to consult them when one is on the fence about seeing something.

" Despite all this, yes, because there's more to great art than craftsmanship."

I find this interesting coming from you, when many of your reviews tend to place more emphasis on technique over narrative content and/or plot. Would you disagree with the following statement?: the artistic quality of a film is not defined by what it is about, but rather HOW it is about it.

Anonymous said...

So much for moving on. :)

Dude, if you're going to argue with a writer of Noel Vera's caliber by citing Rotten Tomatoes and whatnot, that's like friggin going to war in Afghanistan carrying a popgun. I'm surprised he even bothers replying to you.

Dude, Stallone wrote classic stuff like the first Rocky, broke Ted Kotcheff's rib with a single punch, was awesome in Copland and in his senior years, still has the energy to do friggin The Expendables. That takes real talent and cojones to do even if you're not prepared to acknowledge it.

And here you are dissing him by citing fanboy excrement like RT or MC or whatever. Dude, who's the troll now?