Archive for Django Unchained

Marvelous Hairy About the Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Like many filmmakers before me, I have grown a beard. Oh, I denied this at first, claiming it was merely a coincidental gathering of hairs, or insulation for the winter, or a new kind of chin hologram, but there’s no denying it now. Through careful ignoring of my jowl area, I have given rise to a positively Melies-like hair construct.

So to LINCOLN, Spielberg’s hairiest movie ever, hairier even than HOOK, which had Robin Williams in it for God’s sake (“his arm is like an otter” ~ Jiminy Glick). There are all kinds of beards in it. Big beards, small beards, beards as big as your head. Although I note that rather than sporting the full Irish, that strange jaw-fringe, Daniel Day-Lewis looks merely unshaven at the sides, with a tuft on the end of his chinny-chin-chin that’s more like a jazz beard than the half-a-chimney-brush sported by the late president in contemporary portraiture.

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The rest of the fine cast have all kinds of facial appurtenances, from the voluminous side-whisker to the billowing moustachios on perspiring ectomorph James Spader. His appearance excited comment from Fiona ~

“He would still be gorgeous if he’d lose weight. Maybe he doesn’t care.”

“Maybe he’d like to lose weight but likes eating, and doesn’t like exercising, and doesn’t want it all sucked out through pipes.”

“They could make a second James Spader with what they sucked out.”

“A wobblier one.”

“Why would it be wobblier?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have any bones.”

“Maybe they could grow some bones and stick them in and then we’d have two James Spaders.”

But sadly, Fiona’s beautiful dream is as yet unfulfilled. I don’t think they’d grow bones for James Spader. They didn’t do it for Ray Bolger, whose need was clearly greater.

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Oh yes, Tommy Lee Jones — that vast monster — is awfully good, compelling in a way nobody else in the film can manage, entertaining though some are. (For once, Jackie Earle Haley plays a man stranger-looking than himself; Spader is the third actor to be playing a character called Bilbo in today’s cinemas, surely a record; little Gulliver McGrath who stole the show in HUGO is great as Tad Lincoln; David Costabile from Breaking Bad is a delight as always; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Babe-raham Lincoln.)

John Williams pours on the syrup — maybe less than you’d expect, but more than the film needs, since it’s at its best as a dry political procedural. Janusz Kaminski gives Lincoln his Jesus lighting a lot less than I’d expected. More than I’d like, but seriously, far less than I expected. Joanna Johnston puts David Strathairn in an orientalist dressing gown that must by the loveliest thing that fine, stoic stick has ever worn.

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AMISTAD.

This is a return to AMISTAD territory, I guess. I liked AMISTAD, but it suffered an imbalance — it devolves from an exciting mutiny, with Africans filmed like Jurassic Park raptors (a ballsy but justifiable choice) to a courtroom drama with inevitable anticlimax. Richard John Berry’s TAMANGO is better. It stays on the boat.

LINCOLN’s script by, MUNICH writer Tony Kushner, makes a good fist of the politicking, though some of the film’s pleasures — smug, nasty politicians being bested by shrewd, good-hearted ones — are inevitably a touch predictable. But it works when the movie keeps its mind on its plot, but this being later Spielberg it isn’t altogether allowed to — the film ends several times, each more ineffectually than the time before, long after the purpose of the story — the emancipation vote over the 13th Amendment — has been brought to its conclusion. The film devotes a lot of screen time to Mrs Lincoln, and Sally Field is very fine, but as the movie seems determined to prove Mary Todd Lincoln sane, or at any rate to avoid showing her genuinely irrational (all her hysterics and histrionics seem perfectly justifiable, if extreme), the role isn’t everything it might have been.

It is, of course, largely a film about white men deciding the fates of black men, women and children. That’s the part of the story the film has chosen to focus on, and it’s most successful when it does focus on it. The stuff showing the Civil War is oddly ineffectual, and attempts to build a role for Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley feel a little forced at times, though it’s nice that she has more lines than Kerry Washington in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

It’s too tempting to see the Tarantino and the Spielberg films as the two basic choices open to filmmakers: one a gleeful exploitation movie, the other a respectful, dusty hagiography. But this isn’t so. In fact, the dichotomy is false on its own terms, since LINCOLN, though sometimes stodgy, is never as dull as the longeurs in DJANGO, but even if both films enthusiastically did what it said on the tin, there would be a whole wealth of alternatives. One might be to let black filmmakers tell some of these stories. We watched Charles Burnett’s documentary NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY, and despite a meagre budget, its true story was more sensational than anything Tarantino’s imagination has conjured up, and it delved deeper into the issues thrown up by slavery, or any other great evil, than Spielberg’s film. And in less than half the running time of either film.

Red Rivers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2013 by dcairns

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When Django met Django.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is worth seeing, depending on your tastes — it’s problematic as hell and flawed purely in structural, character and stylistic ways quite apart from its historical, political and ethical problems. I wasn’t as offended by it as I expected to be, but was a lot more bored. But there are a lot of good points — in fairness, I’m going to alternate between plus and minus and we’ll see how they stack up in my take on it by the time I’m finished. Right now I’ve just seen it and I don’t know where I’ll wind up.

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+ The first half has a lot of good western virtues, with scenic vistas, old-timey dialogue and grizzled character thesps.

- The second half feels inert, drawn-out and misshapen, with two climaxes where logically one good one would be better.

+ Christoph Waltz is great fun to watch, and the various baddies are often hissably impressive.

- Jamie Foxx is a kind of supporting player in his own film, and Kerry Washington has the definition of a thankless role — she has literally no scenes where she’s not being tortured or terrorized, or else standing mutely by as a fantasy of the hero. What should be the love scene is cut short when she faints (after being pointlessly terrorized by Waltz, supposedly at Django’s behest).

+ There’s some amusing black comedy violence and satisfying revenge-fantasy mayhem.

- The shoot-out at Candieland struck me as gross. I wasn’t nauseated by the limb-lopping, blood-gouting sword-fights of KILL BILL, but for some reason (greater sadistic focus on suffering victims, maybe, plus more sploshy sound), this was icky.

+ Samuel L. Jackson is great (only in JACKIE BROWN, oddly enough, is he not great). In depicting a “house nigger” character as villain, Tarantino has boldly gone into territory rarely dealt with by movies. The character type is familiar in contemporary African-American discourse but rarely dramatized in Hollywood movies.

- I didn’t see his character as the ultimate villain deserving of the cruelest death at the end. As nasty as Stephen is, he’s a product of his setting and has manipulated his way into the best spot available to him. Though he manipulates his master and has a measure of real power, he’s still vulnerable and disposable, and hasn’t had the opportunities to educate himself that Calvin Candie had. By elevating Stephen above Candie in the film’s structure, QT runs the risk of blurring who was responsible for slavery.

+ The movie has more of a character arc than any other QT movie — both Django and Dr King Schultz change and improve as the film goes on.

- Django’s improvement is shown in his increased self-respect, and his learning to read, and eventually make his own plans. But mainly in his ability to kill without mercy — and this is shown without apparent irony and with no hint of nuance.

+ The proto-Klan scene is wickedly funny in a way that hasn’t been seen since BLAZING SADDLES.

- Everything Anne Billson says.

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+ Tackling race at all, in terms outside those considered safe and respectable (ie Spielberg’s LINCOLN), takes nerve. Tarantino is plunging into a despised sub-genre that’s, if you’ll excuse the expression, beyond the pale, but which has yielded interesting work — Fleischer’s MANDINGO, Meyer’s BLACK SNAKE.

- Yoking together fantasy spaghetti western violence, which is removed from reality by several stages, with the historical iniquities of slavery, using “realism” as justification for portraying monstrous acts of cruelty, seems to me to be attempting the impossible. By its very historical revisionism, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS stood exposed as wish-fulfillment, since hopefully we all know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema at the hands of American advance troops. DJANGO doesn’t have that level of Bokononist undercutting.

- And the problem is exacerbated by having DiCaprio state that black people are inherently submissive, since they have had ample opportunities to kill their masters. The obvious counter-argument is that they didn’t kill their white overlords because they didn’t want to be tortured and lynched. Few death camp inmates mutinied in WWII, because the individual desire to stay alive is too strong. Of course, we’re not meant to take DiCaprio’s arguments at face value, given his loathsome character. But Django echoes the sentiment at the end of the film, saying that Candie was right to call him a one-in-ten-thousand exception.

- A heroic bloodshed spaghetti western revenger’s comedy cannot do justice to the story of slavery — it can’t even pretend to try and fail to do justice to it — if it ends on a triumphal note and suggests that the slaves could have won, or that a single slave could have won. As in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, movie violence meets real historical evil and wins. It’s a fanboy jack-off fantasy constructed on a mound of corpses.

Riding to the Rescue

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Before you ask, yes, I have been as amused and entertained by Quentin Tarantino’s interview meltdown, and his branding of John Ford as a racist, as you have. Maybe even more so.

I don’t necessarily expect logic or coherence from Tarantino, though it strikes me that he has done a better job of explaining his work in the past — it’s kind of disappointing to see him sink to this level of petulance rather than actually engage in a discussion of interesting issues. The question of screen violence, I guess, maybe does get old if you’ve been asked about it over and over again for a couple of decades, and you can see how someone like Kathryn Bigelow will impatiently jump forward three questions when it’s raised, doing that politician’s trick of answering the question you wish had been asked, and politely shutting down the debate,  but the topic still seems to me kind of evergreen and inexhaustible.

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When I wrote my essay for Criterion’s edition of STAGECOACH, I seized on the idea of the film’s climax borrowing from BIRTH OF A NATION, mainly because not many commentators had remarked on the resemblance: specifically we have tension created by John Carradine being about to kill Louise Platt to save her from falling into the rapacious hands of the marauding Indians, which directly echoes a similar moment at the climax of BOAN. My ace editor, Liz Helfgott, reminded me to mention the fact that Ford’s use of this gimmick is somewhat different from, and more nuanced, than Griffith’s.

Which is true: specifically because Carradine’s character is not an out-and-out sympathetic guy like Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) in BOAN, whose proposed murder of his own daughter is thus depicted in salutary terms. Carradine is ambiguous and flawed, and also a Southerner in a film containing more viewpoints than his own, so we aren’t invited to approve wholeheartedly of his action. And in fact Platt is saved by two things (spoiler alert), an Indian arrow which takes Carradine off before he can save her from a Fate Worse than Death, and then the cavalry, who drive off the Indians. Had it just been the cavalry who saved her, as the klan do in BOAN, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would have probably been guilty of endorsing Carradine’s thinking.

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(By the time of the 70s, writer Alan Sharp could have a cavalry soldier actually shooting a white woman in the punchy Robert Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID, to save her from abduction and rape and maybe worse, and the meaning is different again, because it IS the 1970s and there’s a shared understanding that a shocking act can be show because it’s arguably truthful, without implying a judgement from the filmmakers about whether the act is justifiable or unjustifiable.)

The fact that Ford clearly saw nothing wrong in borrowing from BOAN, that he saw it as a cinematic mainspring that wasn’t so irrevocably tainted that you mustn’t go anywhere near it, speaks to the same impulse that made him if not proud at least quite happy to talk about having appeared in it as a klansman. In other words, he didn’t share our modern sensibility and didn’t judge the film as rigorously as we do, as a virulently racist piece of hate speech. I would find it hard to call Ford “a racist son-of-a-bitch” on that basis. I would call him racist only in the sense that everybody’s racist because nobody’e perfect, and everybody is  influenced by the discourse about race which surrounds us, despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, race is an illusion. But, as Einstein observed of time, it may be an illusion but it’s an extremely persistent one.

The subconscious effects of this illusion can perhaps be seen in the way QT segues from “I’m not your slave” to “I’m not your monkey” in that notorious interview.

Griffith, of course, is something else. I’m prepared to accept Lillian Gish at her word that he didn’t hate black people per se — I guess he quite liked them, in their place. As we all know from everyday life, our response to anything can be very different depending on where we find it: to take an example we’ve all probably encountered recently, a delicious juicy steak will provoke a different reaction on a dinner plate than it will draped over the pillow we lay our head on in bed. Griffith’s reaction to see black people anywhere outside of the zones to which he had been raised to think of them belonging, was one of violent instinctive revulsion, and he wasn’t in the least bit inclined to question this knee-jerk response. He was, as a result, a particularly violent and dangerous racist, and he allowed himself to put his feelings on film in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result is hateful, neurotic, and fortunately unique in all of cinema in its virulence, wrongheadedness and savagery. I do regard it as a valuable insight into the psychological processes of race hatred and of pathological hatred generally, whereby criminal acts everybody knows to have been perpetrated by white against blacks — rape, lynching, intimidation — are attributed to blacks in order to justify repression.

It certainly seems absurd to compare it to anything in Ford in terms of its attitude. Is there a bit of that going on with Ford’s depiction of the American Indian? Maybe, a bit, but not consistently, wholeheartedly, or viciously — and Ford is part of a whole problematic tradition here which predates cinema itself. It need hardly be argued that Ford’s portrayal of Indians is more nuanced and sympathetic than Griffith’s portrayal of black people — if one finds oneself arguing that, one might as well stop and say instead, “Just look at the films.”

Inspired somewhat by Glenn Kenny’s post on this subject, and David Ehrenstein’s.

The Birth of a Nation – Special Edition [Blu-ray]

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

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