Friday, January 4, 2013

Title Cards and Historical Agency: Thoughts on 'Django'


An opening title card in Django Unchained alerts us we are in "1858 - Two years before the Civil War."

It inspires a double take. The Civil War officially "began" on April 12, 1861, despite the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of states beginning in late 1860. One can't imagine Tarantino has allowed such a silly mistake to make it all the way to the final print.

From the very beginning, Django prods our own engagement with what we have learned (and what we have not) about Southern society and its structures on the eve of the country's most horrific bloodbath (fitting, perhaps, that Tarantino's film sinks to deeply disturbing bloody cacophany in its climax). My first thought: Tarantino is in an alternate world. Just like Inglourious Basterds, he will change something about history. He will give us not only cinematic wish fulfillment (the racial role reversals blaxploitation and its brethren encourage), but will challenge cinema-as-history once again. Except, whoops, that doesn't really happen. The Civil War is never mentioned again, nor are the political tensions across the country's various regions.

But the Civil War doesn't need to be mentioned. We know it exists. We know, to crib from No Country for Old Men, you can't stop what's coming. So even when Django returns to burn Candieland to the ground, Stephen's grueling proclamation--"They'll hunt you down!"--rings true. Tarantino may grace us with a romantic ending, complete with dressage, but isn't it such a false ending? Doesn't it seem so tragically out of place: whites and blacks alike have been shot through and burned, a whole other group of freed slaves can only sit and gawk at Django without gaining their own agency, and he retreats into the distance, mission accomplished.

The bizarreness of Tarantino's third act is that he turns Django into a fully mythological creature -- aided by his mythology-loving German compatriot -- but what does Django's blood toll really accomplish, on a social, political, ideological level? Yeah, it creates pleasure for us watching it, to revel in the takedown of Southern society in such a flagrantly exploitative way. But Candieland is one plantation among many. Django is not amassing an army. He has no message. He is not taking revenge on a system, but on individuals.

When I saw Django Unchained, this deeply troubled me. Why couldn't any of those black men sitting in the cage (in the scene with the Australians) get up? If you stay until after the credits, you'll get a nice little tag scene with the men in a tight close-up, still looking out, wondering who "that n---a" was. Sure, it's a joke, but the effect is still there: Even after watching this carnage, this revenge fantasy, these black men feel powerless to literally move. But let's take that another step further: We, the spectators, sit in our chairs watching this massacre play out. We may find it repellant, or we may celebrate it, but it's almost impossible not to feel something. But will it spur us to any sort of action? Of consideration of our own ideological regard to American history? Will we remain passive spectators, or active participants?

This question seems at the core of Tarantino's film, and is actually the reason it continues to make me think so deeply about it, to read so many wonderful perspectives. It is a study in passivity: Django and Schulz watch a man get torn apart by dogs, an entire town watches Schulz kill a sheriff without really doing anything, and so on and so on. One only has to look at Stephen, a character at once wholly passive (the "Yes Massa" house slave on steroids) and active (manipulating Calvin and detecting Schulz's ruse, even if it does blow up in his face). He is a caricature and a deeply poignant portrait of the costs of passivity, and what passivity means on a racial and cultural level.

I do think there is more to Django than its trash aesthetics, its movie-movie pastiches, and its eloquent monologues. I've only seen it once, so I can only recall flashes, bits that stick in my mind. But any film that uses music like Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name" so sublimely clearly has something deeper driving it.

The South never existed. We invented it. Through novels, through movies, through rhetoric, and through distorted histories, this world exists as a mythologization. What Tarantino does is to try and counter that mythology with his own world of subversive violence and anachronisms, of popular culture intruding into "history." I think there's something to be said in the knowing, psychologized Calvin Candie, but alas it feels out of my reach at the moment. This is an angry and troubled film that is absolutely difficult to watch even as it is incredibly clever in its visuals and its word play.

Does Tarantino need to show the violence in such detail for us to understand slavery's circumstance? In this instance, yes, because the film is about violence. It builds to contrasts between Django being beaten and Django shooting overseers, to a slave being forced to kill another man and the Candieland overseers accidentally shooting each other to pieces during the final bloodbath. Violence exists in many forms and for many reasons, but it is pervasive. As pervasive and nasty as the use of the N-dash-dash-dash-dash-dash word.

And while I came out of Django complaining about Tarantino's juvenile side detracting from the horrors of the film, the more it sits with me the more I see it as a profoundly angry movie that is deeply upset with the violent and disgraceful chapters of America's history. That he channels this rage through a fusion of blaxploitation and Spaghetti Western may be questionable, but that's a conversation for another time, another viewing.

The blood coating Candieland's walls gets purged in a fire. The literal structures of Calvin Candie's ideology are burned and eroded. So if we're two years -- wait, three years, wait, does it matter? -- away from the Civil War, the most haunting parts of Django Unchained may be what Tarantino doesn't confront, what he leaves for his viewers to consider via that first obnoxiously incorrect title card: Does violence like this actually do anything? Does revenge have broader socio-political ramifications that can drastically change history (the Inglourious Basterds viewpoint), or is revenge wholly self-gratifying, a means to a personal end that has no lasting ramifications on social structures (the Django viewpoint)?

Beyond the pop facades and uber-cool attitudes Tarantino postures, these are deep questions -- not just morally, of course, but for considering the history of violence and suppression and ideological domination in America. After one viewing, I've no idea how to answer them. But I sure am glad I am thinking about them.

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