Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 January 2013

Some Thoughts on Violence and Ethics in the 2012 Awards Season

Even all these years after his first, vicious movie, Quentin Tarantino's brand of violence still has the power to shock. His new film Django Unchained, which is an overly long re-writing of the history of the American South, has an inordinate amount of violence. Tarantino's films are known for their violence, of course, but to my mind, the nuance of Tarantino's representations makes them worth talking about and worth analyzing. Tarantino doesn't make shoot-em-up pictures. He doesn't make action films. The violence in his films does not look like that in the films of Martin McDonagh or Eli Roth or Michael Bay or Martin Scorsese or David Cronenberg. (Each of these directors has his own way of using violence that is interesting in its own right. I only mention them to give us all a little perspective on QT.)

Much of the violence in QT's films is fun to watch and is meant to be fun to watch. It can also be quite satisfying. Django, like Inglourious Basterds before it, is a revenge film: a kind of complex post-Jacobean revenge-comedy where the audience positively glories in the revenge taken by QT's protagonists. (I marveled at this in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, as the body count mounted and mounted, while at no point did I feel as though The Bride should stop killing people.) By the end of Django Unchained, when Jamie Foxx's Django finally has his revenge on all of the people who have wronged him – by which I mean basically any and every white Southerner – I was having a complete and total blast watching him blow all of these slave-owning motherfuckers to smithereens.

This violence at the end of the film is positively cartoony. QT films it like an homage to Sam Peckinpah, but his version of Peckinpah involves bodies exploding and emptying their liquid-filled contents everywhere, walls covered in blood, multiple gunshot wounds to every body part imaginable, and at the end: a crimson, bloody mess. It's funny. It's not to be taken with total seriousness, and there's even a moment when a single gunshot blows a woman six feet in a completely preposterous direction like something out of an episode of Wile E. Coyote. This is violence for the sake of pleasure. Django's revenge on the white slaveowners is simultaneously QT's revenge on the entire institution of American slavery (as Shosanna Dreyfus's revenge on Hans Landa is simultaneously QT's (delicious) revenge against Adolf Hitler). Revenge is sweet, and these acts of vengeance are shared with the audience: we also get to feel as though we have had revenge on Hitler, on American slavery, on the genocide of European Jews.

This is nonsense, of course: a total fantasy that allows audiences to feel really great about all that they've done to combat racism/slavery/oppression/history. Rooting for Jamie Foxx seems like it is the same thing as fighting racism. (I was at a screening populated by about 95% white people and I couldn't help but notice how much all of those white people were loving watching other white people get killed.) Vis-à-vis race I find Django sort of questionable and easy. Still, I loved its unabashed hatred of racism, its powerful black central characters, and most importantly its attention to the violence of slavery itself.

For while the violence committed against white people by Django and Dr. King Shultz (Dr. King?!) is treated in a chiefly cartoon manner, QT treats the violence committed against black people by white people during American slavery as absolutely horrific: like the attempted genocide it truly was. The audience watches, horrified, as dogs rip apart a middle-aged man. Django's wife Broomhilda is brutally whipped and subjected to other tortures. The camera shies away from none of this. Instead, QT asks his audience to sit with this violence, to pay attention to what happened. This is not The Help. Django Unchained presents the racist violence of slavery in an incredibly graphic fashion: the audience at the screening I attended squirmed and covered its eyes; the tension and sorrow in the theatre were palpable.

In other words, all violence onscreen is not created equal, as you probably already knew, but QT's ability to switch back and forth between certain techniques for representing violence strikes me as ethically responsible. For my money, Tarantino approaches screen violence with care, sensitivity, and a very clear political agenda.

Samuel L. Jackson, by the way, steals the entire film. Just let that be known. He has the wittiest, funniest dialogue, and he says motherfucker about ten thousand times. I was delighted.

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Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow's film about the CIA's hunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden over the period of ten years following 11 September 2001 – also involves a good deal of violence. Like her previous film The Hurt Locker (which I loved), this violence is always presented in a realistic, almost banal fashion. It is a part of Bigelow's project to present violence as ubiquitous in the areas where USAmerican soldiers are stationed. These young people's bodies exist in a state of constant risk and ever-present tension; Bigelow's way of representing violence, therefore, tends to bombard the viewer with so much violence, that violence itself begins to feel normal. This is a reality on the ground for both civilians and military personnel in these regions invaded by the United States military.

There are at least three scenes of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, as well. These Bigelow handles expertly. The USAmericans who torture their unarmed prisoners are shown in an evenhanded manner: it is apparent that they feel that what they are doing is justified and necessary. But Bigelow's way of representing the victims of these tortures makes clear that what we are watching are acts of violation: excessive, reprehensible, and totally ineffective as tools for gathering actionable intelligence.

Zero Dark Thirty is a character study, really, a kind of window into the mind of someone who tracks down difficult-to-find enemies of the United States. Jessica Chastain's central performance is marvelous: at once steely and terrified and angrier than Howard Beale in Network. She will be winning the Best Actress Oscar come February. Make no mistake about it.

Still, though I liked it very much, I didn't love Zero Dark Thirty like I loved The Hurt Locker. There are sequences that look lifted directly from HBO's The Wire, and if ZDT is clear about torture as something wrong, the film asks no questions about USAmerican presence in Pakistan or Afghanistan or its black sites in other locations in the world. Not that the film needs to be more philosophical about the reasons for United States war efforts in the Middle East, but I would have liked it better had it taken USAmerican involvement in the Middle East a little less for granted.