Monday, January 7, 2013

America’s Soul Unchained

[By Jerry Ward]

Django Unchained is the most patriotic American film of 2012, because Quentin Tarantino plunged into the system of Dante’s Inferno and brought up the bloody, violent and unchained soul of the myth of the United States of America.  He succeeds in making viewers frustrated, angry, and anxious to debate the merits of reducing Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to a soap opera and ending a fragmented black love story with Broomhilda and Django riding off into the bliss of fugitive darkness.

 We have been trying, without much success, to have a conversation about what it means to be an American since the nineteenth-century publication of Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  Although any revolution of consciousness occasioned by Django Unchained will not be televised, the grounds for a crucial conversation have been “immortalized” as a richly satiric cartoon, a cinematic allegory that divides spectators into pro-Django, anti-Django, and disingenuous neutral camps.  Unfortunately, the crucial conversation will evaporate as soon as the next film of outrage lights the screen.  Nevertheless, Tarantino’s genius deserves all the kudos and barbs, detractions and commendations we shall give it from here to infinity.  Indeed, the National Rifle Association should give Tarantino a special award for the patriotic fervor of Django Unchained in reaffirming the Constitutional entitlement of Americans to bear arms and make havoc among themselves and people on an endangered planet.  An Oscar will not suffice.

If there is credibility in Irving Howe’s famous Hebraic judgment that “[t]he day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever”   [“Black Boys and Native Sons.” Dissent, 10 (Autumn 1963): 353-368], there is equal credibility in the claim that the day Django Unchained was first screened, American cinema culture was altered.  While pure violence is a staple ingredient in our forms of mass entertainment, few films depict how Americans are permanently enslaved by love of violence. Like Richard Wright’s novel, Quentin Tarantino’s film broadcasts a message that the prudent among us will not ignore, a message that puts the agony of interpretation in a harsh, politically incorrect spotlight.

Our interpretation of Django Unchained is largely determined by the angles, prejudices, and ideological bags we bring to the acts of viewing and talking.  If the film is approached as an effort by a white director (although Tarantino is not exactly a “white” surname) to tell a black story, the viewing is shaped by assumed or specified expectations about how a black story of enslavement ought to be written and reconstructed or translated into film.  If it is assumed that Django Unchained attempts to be a multiethnic representation of American history circa 1858-1859, our attention is drawn to the legitimacy of violence in the shaping of the United States from 1619 to 1776 to the present; the presence of the black story is a kind of inner light that illuminates the gross and vulgar surface of American democracy’s saga.  In this instance, the film fails to challenge the exhausted black/white binary conventions of America sufficiently, but it does begin to expose a fantasy of oppositional progress.  It is neither good nor accurate history, nor was it meant to be.  It is mainly an exposure of American entertainment as national pathology. That fantasy undermines or erases fact works against sympathetic reception of the film, but it does not prevent our understanding why violation of the human body and the worship of violence is an innate element in our historical being.  Ultimately, “Django Unchained” is an anatomy of the imperfections of whiteness, the hypocrisy of Euro-American founding dreams, and America’s violent soul.

Ishmael Reed, one of our most astute cultural critics, notes in his review "BlackAudiences, White Stars and ‘Django Unchained’" [“Speakeasy Blog,” The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2012]  that the film is a representation of slavery for mainstream audiences.  Reed concludes Tarantino is not a responsible white historian and “the business people who put this abomination together don’t care what I think or about the opinions of the audience members who gave Tarantino a hard time during that recent q. and a.”  The q. and a. to which Reed refers is briefly described in Hillary Crosley’s “ ‘Django Unchained’: A PostracialEpic?,” The Root, 25 December 2012.

Reed’s conclusion directs attention to the agony of interpretation and the cultural politics that informed the making of Tarantino’s film.  In suggesting that neither Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder nor Margaret Walker’s Jubilee would be a candidate for a film, Reed is silently telling us why his novels Flight to Canada and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down would never fit into a Hollywood scheme of representation. It may be impossible to prove that Reed’s novels or Slaves ( 1969) by John Oliver Killens  inspired Tarantino in the way Sergio Corbucci’s “Django” (1966) and “Mandingo” apparently did, but it is fascinating to speculate that Reed’s defamiliarizing of historical time and space played some role in Tarantino’s defamiliarizing of America’s core values.  Reed’s narrative strategies are neatly matched by Tarantino’s technical strategy of shooting the movie in anamorphic format on 35 mm film. Whether we like or dislike Tarantino, we do have to deal with his art. And we have to deal also with the stellar performances of Jaime Foxx, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Waltz;  Laura Cayouette’s face will be etched in memory as the perfect image of what a Southern belle looked like in 1859 and Samuel Jackson’s palpable discomfort in the role of Stephen, the HNIC, warrants several essays.  Were the acting in the film not so good, the agony of interpretation would be less intense.  It is downright unsettling that even the minor actors do not disappoint us as cartoon figures. It is deeply troubling that what George Kent named “ceremonies of poise in a non-rational universe” can be had at a discount.

Much has been made of the fact that Tarantino retrofits the Italian spaghetti Western into an American noodle narrative of the South. Thus, he achieves, if we must use a culinary metaphor,  a casserole of cinematic genres, a highly valued artistic abomination .In the world of filmmaking, an abomination may not be a failure, particularly if the aesthetic of merde and the mimesis of violence is at issue.  The visual allusions in Django Unchained lead us to suspect that Tarantino is much influenced by the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Bunuel, and Ingmar Bergman.  It is obvious that he is indebted to the accidental or intended comic excesses of blaxploitation film and to the cinema of cruelty exploited in Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade.” As future cultural studies of Django Unchained will demonstrate, Tarantino generously tips his hat to his ethnic and  cinematic ancestry by transposing elements of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo” (1975) into his film.  Pasolini, it must be noted, has the dubious honor of having produced the most reprehensible abomination in the history of film.  

Perhaps  Tarantino’s dwelling in the bowels of exaggeration by way of Django Unchained is  just what Americans needed most to see. They need to look at themselves, at  who they were as they publicly “mourned” for the children and adults murdered in Sandy Hook. They were not mourning for hate crimes, self-hatred, or the condition identified by Carolyn Fowler as “racially motivated random violence.” They needed to see they were not mourning for the 506 victims of homicides in Chicago during 2012 or for the thousands of flesh and blood victims of rampant violence and abuse in America’s cities and suburbs. Americans simply do not grieve for the Zeitgeist that is seducing our nation to consider  social implosion as an option. Django Unchained was perfectly timed to provide 165 minutes of violent entertainment and to cast light on the nature of America’s soul unchained.  That soul, which we all possess, is incapable of authentic grief. It has “normalized” violence.  Violence is salvation.  Our souls have  mastered the art of indifference, and we are post-humanly happy to have a tragic catharsis on the plantation of life and to walk hand in hand with blind fatalities and unqualified love for our country.  Quentin Tarantino is alarmingly intimate with the habits of the American soul, and he serves us slice after slice of synthetic white cake.    

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