Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Vs. Django Unchained

 Zero Dark Thirty(2012)
 directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Django Unchained(2012)
 Directed by Quentin Tarantino

"Zero Dark Thirty" and "Django Unchained" both feature white people torturing brown people, allot.
This will bother some people on a basic visceral level that will automatically switch off all critical engagement. 
Both films distort history, but each does so in different ways. 
QT revenge dramas are about the cinematic representation of whatever subjects he's discussing. 
So "Inglorious Basterds" is not about WW2 its about WW2 movies, and likewise "Django Unchained" is not about slavery or racism but about movies about slavery and racism.
John Wayne's views on white superiority are not far from Dicaprios discussion of phrenology, and Cormac Mcarthy's Blood Meridian (last time I checked still widely considered one of top 5 western novels of the the 19th century) was infinitely more violent than anything in Django.
 QTs attempt to subvert the western with a black cowboy, owes more to Mel Brook's "Blazing Saddles", Ishmael Reeds anarchic novel "Yellow Back Radio Broke Down", and Italian exploitation pseudo-documentary about the Antebellum south "Goodbye Uncle Tom", than his more general blacksploitation and spaghetti western influences on display in all of his films.
All of those films came out in QTs beloved seventies pop-culture prism (as Godard before him appropriated the second hand pop and style of American noir or comic book heroes like Lemmy Caution to his own purposes.)
Like "Inglorious Basterds" before it, Django it challenges liberal sacrosanct victim-hood idols like slavery and the holocaust and their conservative heroic history-smudging counter-parts the lone wolf, tough as nails, heart of gold American cowboy and the over-emphasis on the messianic American WW2 generation, who ended the war all by themselves.
QT is not to every ones taste and he never will be (either too talky, to violent, too snarky etc) but compared to historical status-quo affirmations like the ever more diluted Les Miserables  and the visually attractive but soul-dead "Anna Karennina" which bypass all critical discourse due to their literary pedigree, "Django Unchained" is historically and culturally alive and engaged in ways those films like their authors are long dead.
"Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't have the hysterical soap opera melodrama of something like "Homeland", to make it bearable, and so becomes like "The Social Network" a film of board room meetings and conference calls.
As the emergency state panic of "24", gave way to The Surge uncertainties of "The Hurt Locker" so does the bi-polar romance between liberal self-flagellation and conservative hawkish chest thumping of "Homeland" mirror Obama term part 1,  and the the cold mature semi-autistic emotional and intellectual detachment of "Zero Dark Thirty" reflect the present.
We've just murdered your family, but we are humane...please enjoy this glowstick.
The fact that both men and woman can now participate in military activities like torture is the way we measure progress.
Zero Dark Thirty poses the problem of social realism.
Kathryn Bigelow is technically right when she says that everything in the film is accurate, it depicts the official government record of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
The fact that this reality is in question by the majority of the rest of the world including areas of the US. non-military government, is outside the narrow scope of the films aims or concerns.
The film conforms to a view that will most likely be taken as a give-in in US public school books.
That this narrative does not represent the entirety of reality, the full complexity of its subject, does not mean it does not represent its subjects reality.
A portrait of a face, but a face in profile, a face half turned out of view is not a false face its just half a face. A half-truth.
Both films try to recreate history but Zero Dark Thirty tries to do so by appealing to fact while Django Unchained tries to recreate history by appealing to mythology.
QT's Inglorious Basterds revolved around a plan to infiltrate Nazi France via film theaters, film openings, fake film crews, and propaganda stars likewise Django's plan to infiltrate pre-Confederate Mississippi through the exoticism of black violence as white entertainment in the mandinjo fights directly challenges his critics half-cocked assumptions about racial exploitation.
These same critics focus on Sam Jackson's performance as the Overseer, which is good but also essentially The Boondock's Uncle Ruckus come to life.
The Boondocks share a producer in Django with Reginald Hudlin, and Sam Jackson is also a voice actor on the series as a privileged white wannabe gangsta whose father is the town's resident billionaire capitalist and the series prime antagonist.
Aaron Mcgruder the series creator also co-wrote this years "Red Tails" a WW2 epic about the Tuskegee Airmen produced by George Lucas. "Red Tails" is  the squeaky clean story of African American underdog excellence, historically accurate and by comparison to Django like a History channel special during Black History Month or any film about a primarily black (or to use the post-racial euphemism "urban") team doing anything ever.
"Red Tails" is more concerned with getting the story of the Tuskegee heroes out into the general consciousness than it is with making the best film possible. One of the reasons why historical distance and artistic licence are so necessary, is it allows us to examine the past with fresh eyes, and is exactly why the China government currently censors the kind of alternative history that Django so freely plays with.
Django not bound by historical accuracy, (though as of yet I have not heard any specific instances of anything in the film being historically inaccurate) if anything the violence of slavery was much more brutal (like after Django's capture he would have certainly been castrated, mutilated, and THEN sent to the mine).
There are different types of violence from the slapstick of people hurting themselves to the disturbing limits of people hurting each other, and what divides people on Tarantino is that he employs so many different strategies of violence together in the same film.
There are scenes of intense horror and dramatic tension, scenes of surprise and shock, scenes of visceral kinetic action bordering on dance, and scenes of intense of orgiastic carnage.
Most people can tolerate the lighter forms of slapstick, action, and tension, but draw the line at shock, gore, and degradation.
 QT moves freely between extremes, in service to maximizing his mythological deconstructions of the Westerns preoccupation with the historical highlights white supremacy (now on Display this summer with Johnny Depp in full Indian Head Dress as the lovable Tonto in Disney's The Longer Ranger) while ignoring the unpleasant ramifications.
 The same manifest destiny that lead to wagon trails, the goldrush, and the wild wild west also lead to the indigenous genocide of the continent and the horrors of slavery.
Katheryn Bigelow could have made a version of "Django Unchained" that breezed past all scenes involving slaves being treated poorly or referred to with harsh language (what word besides the n-word would have been historically accurate?)
 The most hilarious reviews of "Django Unchained" have included critics complaining about the use of the word "nigger" (only emphasising their disconnection from modern as well as antebellum African American experience).
Christoph Waltz feeling of being obliged to help a real-life Siegfried also emphasizes some of the better nature of the cross cultural traditions of pop heroes, the same that lead QT to appear in Takashi Miike's Japanese set "Sukiyaki Western Django".
  Django unchained slave-turned hero is also not without precedent from Moses to Spartacus to Conan The Barbarian to African American sci-fi and fantasy author Samuel R. Delany's Tales Of Neveryon series, the latter combines the homoerotic elements of Spartacus with the mythology of Conan The Barbarian's sword and sorcery universe, into a dense and florid series of stories about a black hero on a crusade to end slavery while confronting his own fetish for sexual bondage, that explores the notion of fetish from its earliest African root, to its psycho-sexual reinterpretation by Freud, and then again into the commodity fetishism of Marx.
"Django Unchained" is not as complex as all that it barely scratches a very deep surface, but its willingness to at least wade out into these complex waters, even if only to dip the feet of audiences who usually remain far from such shores controversial shores is commendable.
"Django Unchained" is the better film for taking a stance contrary to reality but informed by a deeper commitment to beliefs concerning real-life than "Zero Dark Thirty's" attempt at avoiding confrontation by parroting official facts which leaves us with an at best hollow and at worst misinformed view of history.
Django doesn't make us reassess slavery but re-asses white dominance especially in central heroic representations.
In an age where Vin Diesel, The Rock, and Ice Cube can be looked toward equally as action heroes and wacky dads in Disney family comedies some might argue that Django Unchained's anger at a world without black heroes, is second-hand for QT especially in the post-racial Obama-verse.
I would argue that though there are certainly more African Americans and non-whites in general in triumphant roles, for every Will Smith there are dozen cases of films like "Avatar: "The Last Air Bender" and "The Prince Of Persia", only recently did "Cloud Atlas" actually confounds the white supremacist notion of race-face by universalizing it across the races an genders of its cast.
Django's impossibility also reminds us of the totality of the slave system that was more likely to produce men like Sam Jackson than anything else.
"Zero Dark Thirty's" avoidance of any discussion of race, religion, gender, or ideology makes it feel like a police procedural without likable characters.
"Zero Dark Thirty" I have already read described as the mature and adult examination of the outcomes of the juvenile violence of Django, and as should be obvious if you have read this far, I believe the reverse is true.
Django exposes the white supremacist attitudes that by the time of "Zero Dark Thirty" have re-clothed themselves in different language that avoids discussion, through euphemisms like "clash of civilizations".
 Though as those of us who were stunned by trailers for "The Impossible" have recently noted even Asian natural disasters must be viewed through the perspective of pale vacationing westerners.
 So yes there was allot of violence in the movies this winter, and yes there was allot of torture but the different types of violence and the different types of torture reveal vastly different things about themselves and about American History from the distant to the very recent.
Django uses fantasy to clarify our language of representation and build new mythologies out of previously antithetical binaries like blacksploitation and the western into something uniquely vulgarly American, while "Zero Dark Thirty" misses the forest through the trees and narrowly keeps us on a path where from which perspective it would seem impossible to do anything but repeat history.

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