Sunday, December 30, 2012

Django Unchained: Opinions, Reactions, Critiques and Reflections

If I were a movie reviewer, I'd describe my reaction to Django Unchained as follows: it was an intense movie with a lot of great moments, some funny, some poignant, and some satisfying in the way that a good action movie is satisfying: sudden, climactic, and cathartic. Is there a word for that? Anyway, those strengths are just enough to outweigh the fact that the film is stretched out and paced and plotted in such a way that it wears out its welcome. The theatrical violence and racism are exciting and indulgent for the first hour and a half, and the bloodbath and Candieland really tops it off, but it becomes exhausting by the time Jamie Foxx's genitals make their appearance. By the end, I was numb to the film's strengths, and honestly eager for it to end. It had already spent all its momentum by then.

This might be the rare film that's better in a home-viewing environment, rather than the theater. At home, you can let off steam by yelling at the screen, making remarks to your friends, or getting up and getting food. It would make the film feel less insistent, like it was leading you on through its twists and turns, rather than jabbing spurs into your sides and yelling in your ear. I might like to see it again, once it's out on Blu-Ray. I think it would benefit from a second viewing in a slightly different context.

Despite being overlong and sometimes toilsome, the film doesn't lack for substance, and I did detect an honest consideration of racial issues, rather than frivolous postmodern regurgitation of provocative material. Candieland is a vivid symbol for the collusion of wealth, power, violence, and tradition in the racist fabric of American history. Django himself embodies a racial fury that echoes forward (or back, I guess) through the black panthers, Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son, and a whole succession of hip-hop, jazz, slam poetry, and political discourse. Perhaps it's fitting that at the end of the film, Django has found his identity as a vengeful outlaw, rather than as a law-abiding citizen of the enlightened North.

Christoph Waltz's character is fascinating, as well, forming the third part of the Django/Calvin/Schultz triad. Schultz is the kind of immigrant that has always made the United States what it is, an idealist who's been shaped in equal parts by his native culture and by the American experience. He fights for Django's freedom, but he does so in an idealistic spirit, an enemy of the idea of slavery, as much as he is a friend and mentor to Django. His idealism is encouraging, but as the plot reveals, it is also suicidal: it acts on emotional impulses, turning minor slights and symbolic offenses into massive, bloody conflicts. If Schultz had really seen Django's agenda as his own, and had considered Broomhilda's rescue as a victory, he would have shaken Candie's hand and headed off into the sunset. His final act of defiance revealed that he was a slave to pride, not to necessity.

The discussions about race and discourse that have been occurring subsequent to the film are colorful and volatile, as should be expected. On Razor Horizon, Joel Randall hits pretty much all the beats, claiming that it's part of a long history of hip racism in Tarantino's films, revealing a perverse fascination with black Otherness. Of course, Spike Lee is the most visible opponent of the film's language, as Spike tweeted, not having yet seen the film in question.

I have a gut response to Spike Lee that I have to get out before I go on. Spike is entitled to an opinion, but is anybody entitled to such an uninformed opinion? Simultaneously nursing such a strong reaction, but also refusing to see the film, and then pronouncing a judgement via Tweet... it seems vaguely passive-aggressive and pathologically defensive to me. I would have seriously appreciated a well-reasoned critique from Spike, as provided by Joel Randall, above. It could have been a much more savage take-down than his twitchy Twitter response, had it been backed by some actual insight into the film itself. But for that, he would have to see the film, either by paying to watch it in the theater, or by requesting a promotional copy, from the studio or from Quentin himself. Or by pirating it.

So, in my search for other reactions, I get to read things like Steven Boone's interesting reaction piece in PressPlay, in which he discusses his own feelings about the N-word and his valuation of Spike Lee's career against Tarantino's. And reading the piece, and the comments, stirs up all those doubts and irresolvable confusions that discussions of race and power always seem to entail. For others, especially non-whites and non-Christians and non-cisgendered-males, but even for me, a standard-bearer of the American race/gender hegemony.

Of course, I still understand the counterpoint, the ugly scent of absurd unfairness that a film like this gives off, directed by a mass-marketed white man who often presents himself with a shrill, sanctimonious air. One of the liberal parts of me -- the part that twitches and shudders thinking of Daniel Tosh -- wants to write Boone's article off as contrived apologism that misses the emotional core of the controversy. But one of the comments defends the film in simpler terms, and I think, before it can be pronounced as vile and opportunistic, it has to be glimpsed in those terms, at least for a moment. That comment is from Bryan Hill, and the relevant section is as follows:
'The fact is that DJANGO UNCHAINED is the most expensive and most mainstream film depicting the horrors of slavery in the history of American filmmaking. It has a black hero. A black heroine. An unflinching look at violence (psychological and physical) and a bonafide superstar playing a slave owner. As a cultural achievement, it's remarkable. "Django Freeman" is the kind of black hero most black storytellers (me included) wouldn't dare to think they could get Hollywood-land to finance, and Tarantino spent his political-cultural capital to do it. In the theatre, my wife and I constantly looked at each other during the film sharing the silent sentiment: "Wow. They did this." I imagine that has to hurt Lee personally. Even with Denzel by his side, Hollywood would never finance DJANGO from him.'
For me, this is underlined, at the very least, by the fact that Django Unchained is serious and sickening at the right moments. A lot of mook deaths are played for laughs, but the physical and psychological torture of the slaves is always sobering and uncomfortable. If white people are allowed any freedom to take an unflinching look at racism and slavery and at the white cultures and institutions they've seeded -- and I'd be hard to convince otherwise, as long as progressivism still pushes us toward greater awareness of ourselves and our privilege -- then Tarantino's film deserves to be seen as an honest exploration of those issues. Tarantino and I are absolutely, irresolvably outside the black experience of history, but we have to find terms to examine it and even -- am I allowed to say this? -- relate to it. At some point, in some capacity, we have to scour that boundary between the black experience and the white experience. Blindness and disconnection from these issues, this inheritance of violence and these systemic social failures, is not an option.

If I get a chance, I may write another post about Django... specifically, about how Candie, Freeman, and Schultz form a triadic structure with some kind of symbolic or semantic weight. We'll see what I can come up with. I suppose I should watch Blazing Saddles and the original Django, huh? Factor in the most important reference points?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Twitter Movie Reviews, Volume 2: 1 year, 60 movies

Last December, I posted all my Twitter movie reviews from 2011. A couple people seemed to like it, so I did it again this year. Fewer movies, I'm afraid... I missed a couple, but all in all, I think I just didn't pump my Netflix queue so hard. I think I saw more in theaters, though... I didn't officially count, but if you want me to, I'll put in the time. Just raise your many voices in chorus.

For the record, each of these reviews is exactly 140 characters, including the title and date of the movie, and the punctuation. I use the final punctuation mark as a bit of latitude, and I sometimes throw in an "&" symbol to cut down on a couple characters. Those are my liberties. They make this bizarre project a little more feasible.

I think I'm getting better at writing them, all in all.

Also for the record! If you want to follow me, I'm @miksimum on Twitter. If you want to see last year's movies, that can be found here: Twitter movie reviews, volume 1.

Numbers 51 - 60

The Hobbit (2012) - Jackson's latest tries hard & hits the right beats, but its pace and tone are hampered by overwriting and overproduction

Killing Them Softly (2012) - Bad attitude and lustrous photography, another pornographic entry in Hollywood's endless American outlaw legend

Django Unchained (2012) - Tarantino's latest is propulsive & full of great moments, but it's long enough that it eventually becomes toilsome

Reign of Fire (2002) - So damn committed to its core idea - blasted wasteland, tortured heroes - every bad action movie should be this bold.

Lincoln (2012) - A picturesque, balanced portrayal of Lincoln's struggle, lovingly acted, slightly stunted by a few flat, overwrought scenes

House of Flying Daggers (2004) - A hallucinogenic vortex of vivid colors and plot twists that becomes thick and hypnotic by the final notes.

When the Last Sword is Drawn (2003) - A beautiful, sometimes overwrought film about the contrasts between reality and the fantasy of heroism

Skyfall (2012) - It's striking to see a rugged, stripped-down action film that's been shot so beautifully, with such love for color & space.

Ichi (2008) - An edgy riff on Zatoichi, often hacky, but with some beautiful pensive moments, and blessed with two vivid, compelling heroes.

Swordsman II (1992) - This cultish martial-arts tangle of loyalties and indiscretions is brisk and light, but gets rather tiring by the end.

Numbers 41 - 50

Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - A fun and honest movie, but Wes Anderson is burrowing so deeply into his own preoccupations it might be unhealthy.

Looper (2012) - A tight, brilliant actioner, wrapping up tenderness and brutality into a stylish two-hour pipe bomb. Truly exemplary sci-fi.

Children of the Corn (1984) - Odd and unnerving, but would have been scarier if it had focused on more intimate moments of madness and fear.

Paris, Texas (1984) - A gorgeous, pulsing, elegiac movie whose climax, a nostalgic conversation in a stripper booth, is surprisingly moving.

The Gate (1987) - An edifying, monster-ridden teen horror antique that rapidly tilts between comically juvenile and unexpectedly disturbing.

Seven Psychopaths (2012) - Fun, well-written gonzo crime movie whose only fault is that its self-consciousness distracts from its characters

Pontypool (2009) - Smart, offbeat zombie movie that takes an intriguing premise and spins it into a gratifying truffle of playful creepiness

Jubilee (1978) - A crass, messy film: has a couple great personalities, but seems to let pacing & craft get lost in its penchant for anarchy

The Master (2012) - A claustrophobic, gently turbulent relationship film, elevated by excellent performances and chemistry between the leads

Reds (1981) - A sprawling and beautiful romance, a story of love's fullness and desire for change, troubled by the empty gravity of ideology

Numbers 31 - 40

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) - This engrossing showcase of untreated resentments makes for an almost masochistic viewing experience

Redline (2009) - Frenetic, slapstick anime action, a mindless explosion of nitro science-fiction suspense to keep you distracted for a while

The Painted Veil (2006) - The story and sentimentality are a bit perfunctory, but the breathtaking landscapes and subtle acting are worth it

Attack the Block (2011) - Polished roughness & neon lights make for a smart, effective invasion film that really capitalizes on its premise.

Kill List (2011) - A shrill, unhinged hitman drama that turns into a queasy horror film. Methodically ambiguous, full of venom and nastiness

The Hunter (2011) - Austere action/survival movie w/ a touch of romantic heroism; good suspense, but makes more promises than it can fulfill

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Heavy and rank in atmosphere; whimsical, mythical, and touching in resonance. A rich and beautiful film

Mystery Train (1989) - A romantic film, even in the parts without romance; enigmatic, punctuated by hard knocks, gratifying in its variation

The Savages (2012) - Morally compromised fable of drug dealers at war for the love of a shared woman. Frivolous and full of great chemistry.

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) - Fractured, morbid, strangely beautiful tale(s) of the desolate Midwest in the 1890s, eating itself from within

Numbers 21 - 30

Natural Born Killers (1994) - A dubious study in desensitized insanity & stylistic excess. Imperfect, but has some blunt-trauma poetry to it

Streetcar Named Desire (1951) - Pitch-perfect realization of a complex, brilliant theater piece. Brando and Leigh's chemistry is devastating

Prometheus (2012) - Misses some beats, but has enough epic tones and frightening & sublime moments to qualify it as a cinematic achievement.

Melancholia (2011) - A languid, despondent ballet of multi-dimensional characters, caught up in crises that cut to the bone of who they are.

Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) - Beautiful, overserious, & relentlessly tonally committed; take a grain of salt w/ your bite of this apple

Metropolitan (1990) - A dry, affable comedy in which a young BoBo spends 2 hours trying to be serious about things he realizes are tiresome.

The Catechism Cataclysm (2011) - A bizarro angry prank of a film, a buddy story put through the meat grinder of a cruel, absurdist universe.

Return to Oz (1985) - Like a lower-end Labyrinth, often overwhelming, but interspersed with deliciously surreal and cunningly poetic details

Network (1976) - A brilliant, convoluted film without any strong ethical center of gravity... a prose-poem of soul-sickness and gamesmanship

Meek's Cutoff (2010) - A film about a collision of spontaneous wisdom and calculated foolishness, blunted by a numbness born of deprivation.

Numbers 11 - 20

The Avengers (2012) - Perfectly-crafted & primally compelling, an astonishing construction of character, conflict, celebrity, and spectacle.

Transsiberian (2008) - A twisted thriller, where the characters' true natures emerge sinuously from the closed chambers & barren landscapes.

5 Year Engagement (2012) - Insightful romcom follows a long relationship that goes through such slow, dramatic swings, it feels almost epic.

Cabin in the Woods (2012) - Rube Heisenberg Machine of horror tropes and deconstructions. Short on scares, but fascinating and unpredictable

The Hunger Games (2012) - A bit simplistic at times, but creates such a frigid, unsettling emotional landscape, I can't help but admire it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) - A flawed but endearingly earnest rom-com, smartly written, with sharp natural chemistry between the male leads.

Drive (2011) - A mesmerizing & subversive post-noir fairy tale, casting a meditative trance and then shattering it with ferocious brutality.

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) - A meditative ballet of obsession, submission, and wounded nostalgia, intimate to the point of being unsettling.

Ladyhawk (1985) - No-frills high fantasy romance, full of great characters, beautifully acted. Like Princess Bride without the self-mockery.

Habit (1995) - A meditation on addiction & alienation within a close-knit community; crass, sexy, and true to the spirit of lower Manhattan.

Numbers 1 - 10

28 Weeks Later (2007) - More calculated than the original, and less sympathetic. Still intense, but could have used more intimacy and focus.

The Perfect Host (2010) - A cheeky, offbeat, unpredictable psychological thriller; full of personality, mischievously oblique on plot points

Chronicle (2011) - Not flawless, but bold, earnest, and well-acted. A study in adolescent male bonding, wrapped in a tasty superhero morsel.

There Will Be Blood (2007) - Fearlessly performed. "It's not the oil, or the money, or the religion that are evil. It's the men themselves."

Misery (1990) - Grit-teeth claustrophobia with a small-town Stephen King soul, made scarier by an incredible and unfathomable Annie Wilkes.

Limits of Control (2009) - Call it pretentious, but I thought it was a radically beautiful, archetypal accounting of the artist's inner life

The Nude Vampire (1970) - A paranoid and voyeuristic film, all stalking and dark corridors. Earns points for attempting such a ballsy ending

Secret of the Urn (1966) - Dark samurai clown show where only the common criminal is redeemable. Even the protagonist is mostly contemptible

Game of Death (1978) - Sadly inept & inert. At least I got to see Bruce Lee's yellow track suit. Maybe I should try The Chinese Connection?

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011) - Big set pieces, action tempered with slapstick. Swift, rhythmic cimena that doesnt jerk us around

Friday, December 07, 2012

Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal, and another lesson in jokes about rape

I wanted to touch, again, on one of the little hang-ups in the whole "rape humor" controversy. I know the saturation point for this topic is WAY below the volume of material being churned out, and pretty much everyone who's given it any thought it dug into their point of view and sick of any further discussion. Still, each time I come up with a new angle on it, anything I think might be useful trying to sort out their own ethical position, I'm going to throw it out there where people can get to it.

Last time this came into my purview, it was the Daniel Tosh incident and the subsequent commentary by Louis CK. I've learned since then, largely via this article: it's also come up for Rainn Wilson, who is a very conscientious and self-aware entertainer; and that Two Broke Girls, which I've never seen and don't have that much interest in, apparently has a hat in the ring of this controversy, as well. And even as I was writing this, there was a little burst of controversy about FHM making a casual joke about rape victims in the middle of a tongue-in-cheek fashion advice piece. Clearly this is a raw, red, touchy, twitching, swollen nerve center on the butt-cheek of public discourse.

The big vortex of controversy today comes courtesy Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, who found himself swamped in a ton of shit for a throw-away line in one of his recent comics. The final panel – the one that's no longer there – said something to the effect of, "The F5 key = The rape victim: 'The Internet is not behaving as expected! I must now violate you over and over and over again!'" As of this writing, it can be found here:

Now, upon getting broadsided by a barrage of criticism, Inman made a typical move that we should recognize from other similar cases: he lashed out in self-defense, replacing that offending panel with a bratty editorial snark, found here: Just for the record, he has since taken this down and issued a more thoughtful response, so read all this with the understanding that I'm still a fan and I appreciate his mindfulness.

As I've said before, this is the first, biggest mistake when facing a battlefront of critics. You don't give voice to your first self-righteous reaction. It will only amplify the anger, escalate the conflict, and thereby fully trivialize the larger issue. Penny Arcade, Michael Richards, Daniel Tosh... all of these major "offensive comedian" controversies happened because the comedians saw their provocative material as some kind of territory that should be defended against critics, and they ended up losing any diplomatic perspective whatsoever. In contrast, consider Rainn Wilson's simple response, which allowed him to get out from under the hate almost immediately. Rainn is not, and will not become, an icon of anti-feminism to anyone out there in the activist community.

But there's another tangent I want to follow before I shrug my shoulders and say, "There goes another one." In his faux-apology, Inman seems to think he's being criticized simply because he used the word Rape, and that every use of the word is now policed and shut down. If he was paying any attention, he would know that this isn't true. Even in comedy, some people mention rape and it goes unpunished, and even appreciated. The question is, what was it in Inman's particular case? What unique lesson might he learn here?

It's not that complicated, honestly, and it holds consistently across all the cited examples: Penny Arcade, Rainn Wilson, Daniel Tosh. And it contrasts mightily with other cases, like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman, who can get away with joking about rape without being shouted down for it. What triggers the outrage is that Inman (and PA and Tosh) seemed to use "rape" as a punchline because it's the first damn thing they thought of, and they just blurted it out. It was a simple "so provocative!" verbal cue that made whatever they were talking about funny by default.


Rape is an actual thing, with very serious cultural and psychological implications for a ton of people. It is not a good thing, ethically or pragmatically, that it's a de facto punchline, funny just because it makes people gasp and giggle. It's especially dangerous that, in a certain way (and I know this is debatable), it's a little winking reminder to violent, abusive people that their power is feared, accepted, and trivialized by our culture... i.e. by everybody around them, who are content to laugh at rape jokes without actually considering their content. Look, I'm not a sociologist. But I know a sociological issue when I see one.

The point is, don't throw rape around as a punchline because it's easy, and it's the first thing you think of, and it's easy shorthand for "abuse, but funnier!" That's what all those outraged, screaming PC police are trying to tell you. Talk about rape, and make jokes while you're doing it, but when "rape" is some kind of punctuation mark that makes people laugh reflexively, that's a problem. Don't be the asshole comedian who makes it worse.

To his credit, Inman has issued a much more solemn apology later, indicating that he had actually thought about the issue and didn't want to lock himself into being a dismissive douche about it. For a while, he retweeted the criticisms of his comic... at first in defiance, I think (I could be wrong), but eventually it seemed to become a form of penance. Personally, I think Inman has paid his dues, and has settled upon a wise and well-considered response to all that controversy, and deserves to continue his gross, hilarious, extensive comic production unmolested.

Self-awareness: it's the new S-M-R-T.