Sunday, January 06, 2013

What Remains of an Emancipation: Lincoln and Django Unchained

If the predictions of the handicappers and insiders are correct, then 2012 will prove to be a strange year at the Oscars. It will include two films that deal with slavery. This breaks not only a long trend which has kept slavery out of American cinema, at least in the post-civil rights era, but with the general trend of comfortable distance that defines the pictures that win awards, films of safely bygone atrocities with heroes one can "identify with." Slavery featured more prominently in the age of apology and justification, forming the basis for the two canonical films, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, than it has in the decades in which racial hierarchy has been openly contested.

These two films, Lincoln and Django Unchained, could not be more different, at least at the level of genre and form. One is a historical epic complete with wigs and hoop skirts, the other is a genre bending mashup complete with references to obscure films and cameos wrested straight from the mind of an ex-video clerk. Much of the debate about these films has returned to these formal distinctions: if you like historical accuracy, or its semblance, you like Lincoln, if you like your movies "off the chain," and have a taste for the more exploitative genres, and their subversive pleasures, you like Django. 

I would like to propose something different. I was actually struck by the strange similarity of these two films, a similarity not of genre nor tone, but of their specific historical imagination. Which is to say, how they imagine and represent change, radical change. In this case the political or individual contestation of an institution that lasted for hundred years, itself grounded on entrenched ideologies of hierarchy--slavery. Of all of the various reasons that one might be interested in slavery's representation in film, not the least of which is that any such representation would force us to confront the fact that such radical change has taken place, that something could go from accepted, natural, and necessary to being seen as intolerable. The overcoming of chattel slavery and institutionalized racism was a revolution, albeit, one that is still taking place and is still contested. How it is represented says a great deal about our capacity to imagine revolutionary change.

My thoughts about this were framed by reading Jacobin Magazine's piece on Lincoln. That piece, which is well worth reading (and Jacobin is worth supporting) argues that Kushner and Spielberg's film (and most of the damning quotes come from Kushner) have gone out of their way to tell a story of law, contract, and most importantly compromise. To summarize, it does so by focusing on the 13th Amendment and staging a drama in which Lincoln's arguments against the abolitionists are as important as his arguments against slavery. True to the age of Obama it extols compromise not just as means but as an end in its own right.  Historical change is the work of the compromisers, not the extremists. What could Django  have to do with this?

From the opening frame of the film, Dr. King Schulz is a man obsessed with legal formality. He lectures his first victims on the rules of self defense, and, when he is first introduced, he does not so much free a group of slaves as explain easy it would be for them to free themselves now that he has killed the slave traders in self defense. As a bounty hunter his preferred method is to shoot first, present legal credentials later. Shocking the entire town by killing the sheriff one minute, presenting the requisite wanted poster the next. The passage from violence to law is as integral to the Western as a six gun, but in this film it is condensed in a single person, in a single act. The passage from lawless violence to law is not a narrative of loss and transformation, as it is in so many westerns, but an everyday occurrence. Schulz is less judge, jury, and executioner than he is a walking preemptive strike, always able to offer legal rational for his supposed violent excess.

If you have seen the trailer (and you definitely should) you know that it offers a shorthand of the plot, a contract between Schulz, the bounty hunter, and Django, the ex-slave. The contract in the actual film is more complex, Schulz does not offer to find Django's wife in exchange for the information regarding the Brittle Brothers, only his freedom. Schulz's ability to use slavery while hating it is not included in the trailer. (I have no criticisms of this as far as trailers go. If trailers are going present, or even hint at, a narrative, it should never be the actual narrative of the film). How the two end up conspiring to free Django's wife is more complicated. Part of this complication has to do her name, Broomhilda, a reference to the Völsunga saga, and not, presumably Wagner's Opera, which the film's setting predates. (Although if your taste is for historical accuracy this is not the film for you, as my father put it in is one line review: "dynamite was patented in 1867," nine years after the film was set. Of course this film has dynamite because so many spagetti westerns do. Genre history matters more than history for Tarantino. His film about slavery has "mandingo fighting," and has to, because of the film Mandingo.)

The story of Broomhilda functions as the film's internal cultural reference, it is what draws Schulz, a german, to Django's quest. He feels morally obligated to assist an actual Siegfried when he meets one. As something of an aside, in a paragraph of asides, it seems to me that all of Tarantino films have both internal and external popculture references. The latter structure the film even while being displaced or mashed-up, spagetti western, war movie, car movie, etc, while the former functions as a point of reference for the characters in the film, sometimes in the form of an excessive soliloquy (Reservoir Dog's Madonna scene) and sometimes as a point of tension with formal structure (Death Proof's slasher film versus car movie). Tarantino's cultural references are both form and content, and it is the tension between these two things that drives the narrative. Tarantino's point in this film seems to be something of the power of narrative, of culture itself. Stories as as important as facts. The motivation of Schulz by myth is (a somewhat paltry) justification for the film's own attempt at mythmaking. 

Anyway, back to my main point, the actual arrangement between Schulz and Django is more complicated, their plan to rescue Broomhilda even more so. The complications, however, only reinforce the film's unstated focus on contracts and compromise. The plan is not to bust into the plantation and rescue Broomhilda, a plan Schulz rejects because it would leave her as property, not a person. (Tarantino's film has a great deal of confidence in the legal status of a freed slave in 1858, something not demonstrated by the historical record.) Nor is the plan to offer to buy her straight out. They can only get what they want, the liberation of Broomhilda, if they first and foremost compromise and curtail their demands. This compromise is of a moral rather than a political sort, as both Shulz and Django must appear as slavers interested in the mandingo trade in order to enter the plantation. The purchase (and liberation) of Broomhilda will be an aside, an added bonus to the primary deal. The only way to get what you truly desire is to compromise your desire. 

Of course things do not go so smoothly, and it is the failure of the compromise that leads the film's righteous violence. It is this violence which sharply divides the two films, Lincoln and Django Unchained, and their audiences. At the same time, and this has been my little bloggish point here, the two films are oddly similar in their insistence on the necessity of contract and compromise as the necessary, and only, conditions for historical change. One could call this a kind of "capitalist realism", any inability to imagine any past (or any future) than one underwritten by self-interest, contract, and compromise, but the point would be that this "realism"is not an aesthetic category--it functions beneath or alongside different aesthetics. In this case it comes in middlebrow and exploitative flavors. 

I realize that I may have bent the stick too far to make my case. I actually even liked the film. I just wish it was less "chained," freed from the twenty-first century shackles of individualism, contract, and compromise as much as it was free from the iron shackles of the nineteenth (and the twentieth centuries shackles of genre). 


steppling said...

actually Lincoln is no more accurate than the Tarrentino mess. The opening kitsch bit of revisionism between Lincoln and his fawning black step kids is hardly plausible....but beyond that its the meta-realism that one might ask about. Realism as a defining bit of enclosure for western narrative is worth discussing, but truth is that Lincoln is just tedious and infected "prestige effects" as it is with "reality effects". Django is just junk. Racist and reactionary and historically, sadly, beyond revisionist The KKK came as a response to emancipation, and to dehistoricize it, as if it fell from the sky, is the first of many offenses in this film.

unemployed negativity said...

I definitely agree about prestige effects. Although I would add that a certain kind of realism, attention to costume, candlelight, etc. is itself a kind of prestige effect.

The KKK thing only makes sense in terms of Tarantino's own ideas about movies in which any film about slavery and the south must reference Birth of the Nation. It is not only ahistorical but it falls flat.

Dynamite was invented in 1867.