Saturday, February 9, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Finally saw this.  Before I say more about it, I should probably do what I didn't with Inglourious Basterds and make my (as they used to say in Academiaville) subject position clear.  Middle-aged straight Gentile white guy.  Born in the Southwest;  have some Southern roots, some non-Southern.  Not particularly close to any of them.

All of which means, for example, that I want to be a little circumspect as to what I say about certain aspects of this movie.  I'll own that I loved it, enjoyed every minute of it, and think it an important work by Mr. Tarantino.  But I'll recognize that, as with most of his work, it's not in every particular strictly defensible;  that he's the master of the guilty pleasure, the problematically aestheticized, and a craftsman to beat all, only goes so far in excusing whatever there is of the indefensible about him.  And (I'll recognize that) what's what will vary viewer to viewer.

For example, his use of the N-word.  I will say that anyone who's surprised by it probably hasn't familiarized themselves with Tarantino's work, which may (or may not) speak to their credibility in assessing that work.  I'll also suggest that Tarantino's deployment of the word in this film is not careless, even if it is perhaps reckless.  Note, for example, how he has Django deploy the language of racial oppression to and about white men:  Django understands that the master-slave relationship is well-nigh universal, and that inasmuch as the N-word and its cronies mean what they do because of their implication in that relationship, they may (under certain circumstances, and in the right light) accurately describe certain white men.  Coming from this character, that usage doesn't seem to me to devalue or belittle the specific horrors of African enslavement in America;  but they do connect those horrors to the human condition in general, and suggest that Django has learned some hard truths about human nature.  But I'll also note that it's possible for this aspect of the movie to be all that and still be offensive.  Sure.

Allow me now a couple of moments of fanboy appreciation of Tarantino's crafty art and artistic craftsmanship.  Every Tarantino joint plays with the trappings of old movie genres:  the fonts of the intertitles, the credits styles, theme music, all that.  Sometimes this stuff is just candy for us babies, but in this film it makes for one of the deepest moments in the whole movie.  When we cut to Mississippi he gives us a caption that tells us "Mississippi."  It's in all caps, tall narrow letters almost the whole height of the screen, scrolling across from right to left, and of course that's funny because it reminds you of what you discovered in first grade, which is that spelling "Mississippi" is fun and silly - you're remembering the old joke, "I know how to spell Mississippi, I just don't know how to stop spelling it."  You can't help but smile.  But this caption is superimposed over a shot of slaves for sale being paraded through the muddy streets of a town - in chains, walking in a futile circle, and we're looking down on them from above, and they're arranged in an oval that perfectly fills the screen.  It's a bravura composition, and then the horror hits you of how the endless circular trek of slavery is being mirrored to the endless repetitive spelling of the word.  It's funny and ingenious and horrifying and meaningful all at once.

And how about the fact that we're never shown the moment of Django's freeing - his titular unchaining - ?  That is, Dr. Schultz unchains him in the first scene, but makes it clear that he's going to keep Django in slavery until Django fulfills his end of a bargain - and of course what bargain can a slave make that a master must keep?  But we see that bargain fulfilled, and later we know Django has been freed, so we know that Schultz must have kept the bargain.  But we don't see the moment, the signing and exchange of papers, even though we spend a lot of time, and ink, and blood on the moment when Broomhilda is freed.  This can't be an oversight.  It forces us to ask the question:  when was Django unchained?  When did he become free?  When Schultz first unchains him - i.e., does Schultz's honorable intention to keep up his end of the bargain mean that Django is already free, because he's being treated like a man?  Does he become free once he accepts the bargain - note that Schultz calls him a freedman before the bargain is technically fulfilled - ?  Does he only really become free much later, after Schultz's death, when he outwits his Aussie jailers and engineers his own unchaining?  Or has he been free from the start, before the film ever found him, because he's free in his mind?

Like its predecessor, and the one before that (Death Proof, remember?), this film is the cinematic revenge of an oppressed people on their oppressors.  It's an act of transcendence through art.  But, like its predecessors, it was made by a filmmaker who has no right to that revenge himself.  So what does it mean that he made it? 

I don't know.

Monday, February 4, 2013

To Kill A Mockingbird (film, 1962)

Took a weekend sabbatical in Portland and caught To Kill A Mockingbird at the Northwest Film Center.  Actually at the Portland Art Museum, but organized by the NWFC.  And can I just say, one of the things I miss about living in a big city is repertory cinema?  We have art cinema in the 'Gene, but it's first-run, and I'm a premodernist in just about everything. 

I'm not sure I've ever quite understood what Boo Radley means.  The main part of the story, the Robinson case, is a perfectly economical and rational piece of social realism, neatly dissecting the class and race divisions in this small Alabama town.  We understand why Mayella does what she does, why her father does what he does, and more than that we know what they represent:  the grinding misery of poverty, ignorance, and self-delusion.  They're everything that's holding the South back, in the movie's analysis. 

What about Boo?  I've always thought he was an elaboration of the persecuted-outsider theme - the Finch kids needed to learn to be human not only toward people ostracized because of their race, but toward people ostracized because of mental difference.  And there is that.  In fact I was seeing that more clearly this time.  There's an interesting parallel suggested between Mayella, beaten, and beaten down, by exploitative and vindictive family, and Boo, who seems to be treated pretty much the same.  And so perhaps the fact that, against all evidence of rumor, Boo turns out to be good at heart, not like Mayella, represents the movie's hope for the South.  Maybe violence and hatred won't always beget violence and hatred;  maybe some of us can rise above. 

But it also strikes me that there's something less realistic, less rational, about the character of Boo Radley.  Partly that's because he's a deus ex machina, of course.  But note also how we first see him:  hiding behind the door in Jem's room, shrunk into a corner.  That's spooky enough, but also in the frame, very obviously, is a photo of Scout and Jem's late mother, on the mantelpiece.  We've never seen this or any photo of her yet in the film, but there she is, right next to Boo.  And it is Halloween.  Is Boo Radley the ghost of the kids' mother, hanging around to protect them?  Is this a Southern Gothic strain - well, of course it is, but is it a more Gothic strain of Southern Gothic than I knew?  If so, it's an interesting and effective balance for the slight heavyhandedness of the social realism in the rest of the movie.