Django Revisited

In Amaryah Armstrong’s recent post at Women in Theology she points to a talk by Frank Wilderson that compares the approaches to slavery in Django Unchained and Manderlay. Wilderson argues that “My goal [was] to raise the level of abstraction from discussion of interpersonal guilt and innocence–that is, from a question of morality–to a discussion of institutional violence, structural violence, and the collective responses to that violence by people in revolt. … Manderlay condemns the US and Western Modernity by arguing that a totalitarian despotic regime and democratic socialism are one and the same to and for the slave. Django Unchained seems to believe that America and Western Modernity are imbued with certain evils which can be reformed and indeed transformed, if the right people have the right change of heart.” Read the rest of this entry »

A first pass at Django Unchained

[WARNING: Spoilers!!! I've tried to put enough prefatory material that you can easily skip past it in Google Reader at least.]

From the moment I first saw the preview of Django Unchained, I could predict the criticisms from my general vicinity of the internet: Tarantino’s exploiting black suffering, he’s not giving the appropriate amount of “agency” to the hero, he isn’t using the opportunity to educate the broad public about the true horrors of slavery, etc., etc. After seeing the film, I’m convinced that all those fussy, hand-wringing critiques are bullshit. If he’d taken the advice of liberal critics, he would’ve made the kind of self-congratulatory, “morally nuanced” film that they’d show in schools in February as a token gesture. Maybe he would’ve even won an Oscar!

The one critique that stands is: “Isn’t it kind of weird that it’s a white dude making this movie?” And it is, but that isn’t Tarantino’s fault. An identical film spearheaded by an angry black man simply wouldn’t have been made, for much the same reason that our first black president doesn’t support slave reparations. Until American society stops being so deeply racist — i.e., probably not in our lifetimes — a white artist is going to be stuck in a double-bind when it comes to race. Either you bring the black experience into the conversation the best way you know how and inevitably get accused of some form of racism, or else you leave it to the blacks and ensure that it remains a “ghetto,” special interest topic — rather than the scar that runs down the very center of American history and society.

This double bind is irreducible, an unfixable problem. There’s no “right answer” to the portrayal of race for whites because and as long as our whole society is wrong. Either you remain silent, “just to be safe,” or you take the risk — and maybe create something like The Wire.

So, here begin the spoilers: Read the rest of this entry »

Hot and cold violence

[With his permission, I am posting Bruce Rosenstock's comment on Inglourious Basterds as a fresh post, in the hopes of giving it the attention it deserves.]

It seems to me that when talking about the representation of violence one needs to ask: with what subject position is the viewer being asked to identify with? In Inglorious Bastards, the viewers are being asked to place themselves in the position of the Jewish/Apache squad and they are being asked to cheer (even while being made queesy) the scalpings, the beating, and the machine-gunnings. There is no pity whatever for most of the victims (maybe one exception: the new father). Is there a moral problem with this? Tarantino shows us a Nazi film that shows a sniper, and in the film the audience takes the subject position of the shooter and cheers at the deaths of his victims. Is Tarantino saying his film and the Nazi film are one and the same in their intentions? I think it is significant that Tarantino uses a sniper as the hero of the Nazi film. The sniper is someone who inflicts violence from a distance and precisely does not confront his enemy. Nazi violence is portrayed as hiding its face as it coldly snuffs out victims from afar (in the first instance of it, the victims are not even visible to the perpetrators.) The Jewish/Apache violence is face-to-face and hot. Is this a better way to commit violence? If such face-to-face, hot violence is somehow only possible against an enemy who shoots from a distance and commits cold-blooded murder, if it is revenge against this kind of cold violence, then perhaps it is better. One can argue that Shylock’s violence is of this sort, a protest against the hypocritical violence of the Christians that hides its face behind the mask of justice. When hot violence takes vengeance against cold violence, it arouses our sympathy. But any representation of this vengeance becomes questionable when there is collateral damage, when it becomes blind to whether it is attacking a perpetrator or just someone who looks like a perpetrator. Hot, face-to-face violence must never be blind; it must have the courage to look its enemy in the eye. I think Tarantino is very careful in IB to show us this kind of courageous hot, face-to-face, violence for us to cheer. Are we better off for seeing this movie? I for one think so, precisely because we come to feel what kind of violence is evil and what kind of violence resists evil.

Good and Joyful Hatred, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Killing Nazis: An Attempt at Non-Philosophical Film Criticism

Watching the documentaries of Adam Curtis one gets a sense of the scope in time and across space of movements and the acts of the powerful that lead to certain events like 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq (setting aside if 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq are genuinely an events in the philosophical sense). His most recent film [the film, It Felt Like a Kiss, has now been taken down- APS] drops the didactic element of his previous documentaries, but does not completely emulate Chris Marker’s approach, and so there is some vestige of his previous didacticism in the text that punctuates the endless barrage of images, voices, music, and sounds that flow into vision of the viewer. Yet, the loss of this didactic element means that this film one no longer gives a sense of that scope mentioned above that lead to certain events. We are no longer inscribing these images within some wider meaning through which we may escape these images and the endless boredom and violence they invoke. We no longer see a chain of events, but a single catastrophe. We have the sense of seeing, without any hope of escape, from the viewpoint of the angel of history.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would liked to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

This single disasters, presented with all the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist, is the only image available to us, the only movement we are in, the only power that is in this film. A melange of images captured by news cameras, ad cameras, home cameras, and the like, all of which are only allowed to film, to bear witness to the single catastrophe.

The genre of World War II films, predominately American in style, have always served as a kind of obscuring of this single catastrophe of history. They refuse to bear the same kind of witness to it that the angel of history does, and instead attempt to inscribe it into a circle of meaning. They attempt to make this war, a kind of transcendental form of war, mean something other than what it is as a moment of this single catastrophe. They not only redeem the violence of war and genocide, but they make that violence consumable (to borrow yet again Haneke’s saying).

Inglourious Basterds is a very different kind of World War II film. Brad Pitt, in a moment of typical bravado, has said of it in relation to this genre,

“The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot. With ‘Basterds,’ everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.”

I think he’s right, and the reason why is because Tarantino’s film, autonomous from anything Tarantino might say of it, refuses both the fixed viewpoint of the angel of history and the circle of meaning that obscures the single catastrophe. Read the rest of this entry »

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