Thursday, February 07, 2013

A tale of two controversies

Public service announcement: this piece isn’t a review. It’s an attempt to address the controversies surrounding ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, and I’m writing it for no other reason than to get it out of my system so I can then write reviews of these two movies that assess them as movies rather than going tit-for-tat with some of their harsher critics.

In other words, if the next few paragraphs don’t seem like a fun night out at The Agitation of the Mind, please feel free to skip this entry and I’ll see you back here next week for the ‘Django Unchained’ review proper.

Spike Lee doesn’t like ‘Django Unchained’. Spike Lee doesn’t much like any Tarantino film, certainly since ‘Jackie Brown’. In fact, it’s pretty fair to say that Spike Lee doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino period. What riled Lee about ‘Jackie Brown’ was Tarantino’s wholesale use of what our PC and touchy-feely society dictates we should only refer to as “the N-word”. Lee felt that the degree to which it was used in a film written and directed by a white man was inappropriate. This argument is not without credence, but unfortunately it opens up a can of words as regards entitlement.

The rational let’s-all-be-grown-up-about-this approach should be that any artist should be able to tackle in subject in any manner which best serves the aesthetic imperative of the work. A film’s aesthetic can range from the utterly unrealistic flight of fantasy of, say, Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ to the unapologetically grim realism of Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird Ladybird’. Both of these films use their aesthetic to make a statement; both succeed. ‘Jackie Brown’ is a crime film whose characters inhabit an economically depressed milieu with a specific ethic demographic. These characters are not going to address each other as if they’d just stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel; they’re going to use the language of the street. 

Tarantino attempted to address this element of his screenplay at the time ‘Jackie Brown’ was released, noting that he had used the n-i-g-g-a spelling and not n-i-g-g-e-r. This was perhaps a tad disingenuous given that the variant in spelling makes not one iota of difference to the pronunciation. This might have been the point at which his name got scratched from Spike Lee’s Christmas card list. It was par for the course, then, that Lee wouldn’t be appreciative of Tarantino making a film with about slavery. And not the kind of hand-wringing film that most white directors would turn in, full of liberal sentiments marinated in several gallons of white man’s guilt, but the kind of film that only Tarantino could make, full of gleefully over the top iconography, swathes of non-PC humour and the unique brand of day-glo anti-realism that has been his stock-in-trade since the comparative subtleties of ‘Jackie Brown’ went unrewarded at the box office. Which is to say, ‘Django Unchained’ is a movie movie.

We’re back to the whole “as long as the aesthetic serves the work” caveat, and I’m throwing open the comments section for that to get debated in. The main question is whether Tarantino, as a white director, had any right making a film about slavery. At which point, the question of logical extremes rears its exaggerated head. Where do you draw the line if you disallow Tarantino that right as an artist? Can only Jewish directors make films about the Holocaust? Do we call time on male novelists creating female protagonists? Should a documentarist making a feature about a musician desist if he or she cannot read music or play an instrument? Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’ – should the dude have gone out and whacked somebody before he sat down to talk to a convicted murderer?

The question leads ultimately to absurdity. Absurd, too, is the idea of Tarantino as a racist. What racist would repeatedly write iconic roles for black actors (Samuel L Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction’, Pam Grier in ‘Jackie Brown’, Jamie Foxx in ‘Django Unchained’)? What racist would, in his choice of subject matter, his choice of soundtrack music and his pop culture references, continually demonstrate such a passion for black culture that, had he been alive during the period that his latest movie is set, he’d no doubt have been lynched as a “nigger lover”.

Naomi Wolf doesn’t like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. In a piece in The Guardian, Wolf castigates Kathryn Bigelow for peddling propaganda in suggesting that “what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee programme’” (i.e. the wholesale torture, post-9/11 of anyone suspected of Al Qaeda involvement) yielded information that led directly to the location – and by extension the execution – of Osama bin Laden.

The most damning paragraph of Wolf’s article is worth quoting in full: “In a time of darkness in America, you are being feted by Hollywood, and hailed by major media. But to me, the path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl's 1935 ‘Triumph of the Will’, which glorified Nazi military power, was a massive hit in Germany. Riefenstahl was the first female film director to be hailed worldwide.”

Up to this point, it’s difficult to argue with Wolf’s article. She pulls apart the “based on eyewitness accounts” tag which opens the film, and draws comparison with Alex Gibney’s ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ and Rory Kennedy’s ‘Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’ – both documentary films with sourced and verifiable content – as well as citing academically sound studies which demonstrate that torture is ineffective as a method of sourcing military/political intelligence, studies which “rebut the very premise of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.”

But it’s with the Riefenstahl comparison that the article loses focus. It paints a picture of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as a film about crusading American intel operatives, God and morality on their side, doing whatever they have to do to get information. I was expecting something akin to Inspector Regan knocking a suspect about in your average episode of ‘The Sweeney’: we know the lairy little nonce has done it, we despise him for giving Jack Regan some lip, and if our favourite hard-boiled Flying Squad ’tec has to give him a slapping to get a confession, well the little bastard deserved it. Instead, the torture scenes in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – which commence almost immediately – are fucking awful to watch: a succession of beatings and humiliations that are squalid and inhuman.

Riefenstahl made Nazism look Wagnerian, depicting the architects of the Third Reich as almost god-like. Bigelow portrays the purveyors of the US response to terrorism as, essentially, a bunch of low-achievers harangued by their boss to “bring me people to kill”. The scene in question, all of them cowering as the bollocking is handed out, is reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s “always be closing” speech in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ – it simultaneously communicates the pointlessness and the banal intensity of a bunch of small people being forced to up their game to secure a worthless result.

Oh, and the film makes no bones about how basically fucking illegal the whole bin Laden thing was. If ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was intended, as Wolf implies, as a work of propaganda, it’s a total failure. Leni Riefenstahl would have laughed it out of the cinema. Goebbels would probably have had somebody shot.


Andrew K. said...

Does it feel that in 2012 more than any other recent year it's been difficult to consider films on their own because almost all of them come with their additional baggage so you can't just get to the meat but have to wade through all the peripheral issues? It's become a bit exhausting.

I have my issues with Django but I like the whole. The criticisms lodged at Tarantino don't worry me on their own but it's what they portend to when the ultimate thing seems to be only X persons can make films about X persons, which is doing nothing to help creators.

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