Oblivion is a disappointing slice of mainstream science fiction cinema that meanders aimlessly for little over two hours. I haven’t much noteworthy to comment about this underwhelming studio project. Nonetheless, mainstream escapist genres such as science fiction have this innate propensity for allegorical pluralistic reinterpretation that can thankfully on some occasions salvage the cinematic dignity of those involved. Robin Wood was one of those critics that had this capacity to read between the lines of mainstream cinema and although I am weary of applying such a noble approach to a film like Oblivion since it is such a tiresome affair, I could not help but read into the film in terms of a latent socio-political subtext concerning drones, insurgents and Pakistan. What I am saying may at first seem a little far fetched but it was the ending to Oblivion, the one in which two suicide bombers defeat the master controller in the skies, that got me intellectualising the following hypothesis; what if Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and the Scavs (code word for troublesome insurgents) are in fact an allegory for a real and potential insurgency that has appeared in Iraq and which may in fact emerge on the Afghan-Pak border which has claimed the lives of so many innocent civilians in drone attacks orchestrated by Obama and company. If I was to take this allegorical interpretation to its fruition then a source of validation may lie in the film’s anti-drone ideology.
In the film, Harper is told by his superiors that the drones which he spends his days repairing are killing Scavs to protect humanity. In truth, the drones turn out to be machines controlled by an alien life form who have been programmed to kill humans. Drone attacks have become quite common in Pakistan and is an ongoing source of controversy that will inevitably be associated with Obama’s legacy. America’s war by proxy conducted criminally and immorally from the skies by unmanned drone technology is not only a cowardly form of murder but seeks to sanitise death as guilt free for the hegemonic perpetrators. Such a precedence exists in Oblivion with the drones targeting innocent civilians including women and children. However, the film offers a fantasy wish fulfilment in which a sympathetic rag tag band of human survivors come together as a mini insurgency, retaliating against the drones. Is the film covertly advocating the right to self defense as an accepted norm given the war like circumstances? If so, then it is an ideological proposition that would only come about through an oppositional reading of the film situated within a wider geopolitical context. The reading of an insurgent ideology is complicated by race as most of the insurgents are white aside from the tokenism of Morgan Freeman. Had the Scavs been more racially diverse and visibly so then an insurgent reading would have been much more explicit. It is the case that mainstream genres especially science fiction are open to endless allegorical interpretations and perhaps then Oblivion can lay claim to being Hollywood’s first anti drone film. Too bad the film is barely competent.
|Tom Cruise as Vincent in Mann’s Collateral.|
I was going to post an entry on Manhunter, based on my enslavement to chronological film analysis, but since Collateral is a Mann film I saw again recently on Blu-ray, I was compelled to offer a closer look at a key sequence which includes the introduction of Vincent’s character and ends with him taking Max hostage as his collateral. I have selected key shots from a sequence that lasts for around eight minutes and will attempt to weave together the way in which formal elements (also genre and narrative) interact with wider contextual considerations such as authorial traits, stardom, American culture, class and politics. Many regard Collateral as a key work in Mann’s oeuvre and can be situated alongside films like Heat in its topographical mapping of Los Angeles as a transitory urban space that both alienates and displaces asynchronous protagonists like Vincent (Tom Cruise).
|Keys to the castle.|
Vincent is formally introduced to us with a medium close up of his hand punching a code into a keypad of a locked door. He completes this action with an ease that underlines his professionalism and power over technology. His open access to the urban spaces through which he drifts signifies his position as both an outsider and in this case an insider makes him ruthlessly efficient and typical of Mann’s crime protagonist who is a slave to personal integrity. The power of this action is mirrored in the following shot, which frames Vincent in the centre, signposting the star power of Tom Cruise through a noticeable pause in the narrative.
|Cruise is given…|
|…a star entrance comparable to Hanks and Crowe below.|
This interruption is significant since the gesture of Cruise raising his head and seemingly looking at us reiterates his star status and is comparable to Tom Hanks’ introduction in Saving Private Ryan and Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
|A notable star gesture: slowly raising the head.|
The ray-ban sun-glasses were popularised by Cruise in Risky Business and interestingly given the way a film stars image is predicated on past associations, in this case, the sunglasses remind us of Cruise and his long time relationship with ray-ban. Additionally, the sunglasses are a film noir trope since by concealing his eyes not only makes him look threatening but also frames him as someone who guards his privacy and inner life. The use of space behind Vincent in this particular shot is also significant since the emptiness of such urban spaces echoes his cynical perspective on Los Angeles as sprawled and disconnected. In many ways, his alienation from the spaces around him is underlined with an explicitness maintained in much of the film. The grey hair and beard while the sunken cheekbones extenuated by the fluorescent lighting constructs a ghostly image of a man. Such ghostly imagery is anchored by the choice selection of a grey suit creating a veneer of respectability to what is a ruthlessly amoral profession. We are never explicitly told about the location from which Vincent emerges but Annie’s destination tells us what we need to know, that this is a federal building and we are meant to assume he has been meeting someone. The keypad code is about power and is later reinforced when Vincent uses a swipe card to bypass the security checkpoint.
The next set of shots sees Vincent walking confidently through the federal building. A low angle asymmetrical shot establishes Vincent as a man constantly on the go who assuredly navigates his way through urban spaces. The subsequent asymmetrical shot is one of the first of many in which Vincent’s presence creates disruption within the frame. Vincent’s stealth like movement repeatedly sees him pushing into the frame, making him altogether more threatening. In terms of the doomed male protagonist often associated with the noir genre, Vincent’s ice cool demeanour situates him as a contemporary variation of the femme fatale, the homme fatale. Vincent’s presence in the federal building is momentary since he is a transient figure who finds it impossible to forge attachments, which is yet another popular Mann thematic.
|Vincent is a transient figure…|
|…who drifts through the urban milieu.|
As Vincent exits the building, we cut to a fleeting shot of Annie (Jada Pinkett) who has just exited the taxicab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx). The early crossing of paths between Vincent and Annie establishes themes of fate and chance symptomatic of the noir idiom. In terms of classical Hollywood narrative, Annie’s presence in the periphery of Vincent’s predatory gaze confirms her wider role within the plot and final section of the film. Ideologically, the space in which Vincent and Annie’s paths cross holds potential significance since it is a federal building and a place that symbolises institutional power. The exclusion of Max from such a space at this moment of time in the narrative makes apparent the class and economic divisions that exists between Vincent/Annie and Max. We later discover that Max is somewhat ashamed of his working class aspirations and is reluctant to discuss them with Vincent.
|Passing Annie on the escalator.|
In terms of incongruous shots, as Vincent makes his way down the escalator, we cut to a POV shot of the lobby. Mann seems to hold on this shot briefly but given the subjective nature of the shot, it’s as if Vincent is almost daydreaming for an instance, and by dwelling on such a detail inserts a degree of banality to his character. Simultaneously this shot also foregrounds an authorial preoccupation with filming architectural spaces that interest Mann.
|A rare POV shot.|
As the taxi ride begins, non-diegetic sound is introduced in the form of classical music, which acts as a metaphor for the jarring sophistication associated with Vincent’s character. This is unusual because Vincent is a hit man but ‘Bach’ becomes his way of signifying his cultural status within society; we are clearly supposed to view him as part of the educated, refined elite. We can interpret further that Vincent sees killing other people as comparable to somebody who has composed a piece of music; ultimately he views himself as an artist and this complicates his status as a sociopath with whom we finds ourselves empathising with on occasions. A bird’s eye view of Los Angeles as a vast metropolis is important since by having the taxicab merge into the dense urban space accentuates their inconsequential lives and sets up the theme of aloneness that troubles Vincent.
|Los Angeles as sprawled out and disconnected.|
The reluctance of Max to engage in conversation with Vincent is partly to do with how Max is represented as somebody lost in self delusion and unable to communicate the essence of his dreams. The taxicab can be viewed as a metaphor that acts as a barrier between Max and the real world. In the cab he is disconnected from reality, unable to reflect on the mundane life he leads. Vincent’s dependency on technology is a continuing theme and it is repeated through the image of the electronic tablet that he carries with him. Also, his dependency on technology is exposed later in the film when Max discards the briefcase, forcing Vincent to put Max to the test of imitation and performance. Vincent’s disillusionment is awkwardly manifested in his allegorical recollection of the dead man on the MTA who nobody seems to notice. Though Vincent desires anonymity it is dying alone that he really fears. So far I have argued against a dominant reading of Vincent as the doomed noir protagonist but once he meets Max his trajectory towards death becomes altogether clearer since it is his mirror image in the shape of Max who will be the one to take his life. Most of this sequence frames both Vincent and Max behind the glass of the car windows and the city passing them by is reflected with a clarity onto the glass producing a tactile submersion of the characters into the city. Neither of them can hide from the way a city like Los Angeles renders people immaterial.
Vincent’s rage or white male angst is familiar to us from films like Taxi Driver and Falling Down and as he continues with his allegory of the dead man on the MTA, we cut to a shot from the front of the cab looking at Vincent behind a plastic/glass barrier that separates the driver from the passenger. This image acts as visual reinforcement of the animalistic qualities inherent in Vincent and momentarily he becomes almost caged behind this plastic/glass barrier. Moreover, such an image of containment reiterates the disruption Vincent brings with him.
The theme of mirror images gains momentum, resonating in the editing which matches the framing of Vincent and Max while creating a more intimate mood by moving closer to their faces. This synchronous pattern of editing is important since Vincent is also gaining the confidence of Max by getting him to ‘open up’ about his aspirations but this never happens in its totality given the way Max is embarrassed by his own shortcomings. In some ways, Vincent acts as an inadvertent force of liberation, awakening Max from his false consciousness and asking him to question his subservient position in the system. Unfortunately, it is not possible to read Vincent as a political entity since he is a sociopath motivated by an innate sense of self-loathing.
Having reached his first of many temporary pauses in his odyssey through a nocturnal Los Angeles, Vincent changes persona again and this time propositions Max. The way Vincent flashes the cash in front of Max momentarily positions him as the slimy capitalist exploiting the hapless proletariat. Max is easily lured by such opportunism, reiterating yet again the submissive nature of his character. Vincent’s seduction of Max with money seems to add weight to the argument of his status as contemporary equivalent of the femme fatale. However, his manipulation of Max is predicated on money not sex typical of the femme fatale in classical noir cinema. In the universe of Michael Mann, male protagonists, especially those shown in conflict with one another, typically seek out a mutual understanding based on professionalism, integrity and self-respect. Male bonding, which in many cases can occur without characters meeting, is another central authorial obsession that has its seeds in this first of many antagonistic conversations between Vincent and Max.
|Vincent seduces Max.|
Now that Vincent has charmed Max, he asks him to park around the back and exits, leaving to meet his first target. Yet again framing is crucial as the city is extenuated, its domineering presence eclipsing their lives and attesting them to be at the mercy of the urban space. Max turns to look at the briefcase whereby its significance as a plot device is underlined and doubly objectified as a symbol of Vincent’s status as a transient figure. While Max waits for Vincent, he eats a sandwich and dreams. The want to acquire the Mercedes Benz, an elitist symbol, is a foolish aspiration since Max is a dreamer. We later discover when Max visits his mother in hospital that he has been fooling her with the notion that ‘Island Limos’ is a business reality when in fact it is an unrealised dream. The shot of the business card is particularly significant when juxtaposed to the Mercedes brochure, as it is a complicated bind of vacillation that hinders Max from elevating himself out of a disempowering social predicament.
|Max settles down for the ride.|
The next series of shots sees Vincent stoically making his way to the first target. As he walks past the apartments, Vincent looks into one of them through the expansive glass window and we someone lying on a bed watching television. This depicts Vincent’s gaze as omnipotent and since this level of transparency is in essence an extension of the theme of power, we also realise Vincent does not care about invading the private space of others. He does so without any sense of shame. An oppositional reading of this particular combination of shots is that Vincent’s aloofness means he regards himself to be intellectually superior to those around him. However, such aloofness merges with arrogance that problematises the morality of Vincent’s unsavoury decisions. The asymmetrical framing is particularly distinct as Vincent yet again pushes into the frame with the city this time bearing down on his resolute figure of Vincent. Next, the composition offset by the indifferent facial expression to the right of the frame is tied to the disorder that Vincent is about to unleash.
|Vincent stalking his prey.|
Cross cutting between Max and Vincent sustains dramatic tension and slowly builds suspense but it is also used to draw attention to the ideological differences that exists between the dynamic and imposing figure of Vincent and the passive and docile figure of Max. To reinforce such differences, Mann cuts to shots of Max munching away on a sandwich and reading his brochure, suggesting Max is duped by the trappings of a capitalist system to ever become what he wants, relegated to taking pleasure in the comforts offered to him by his safe and reassuring routine; he is not only oblivious to Vincent’s sinister character, he is oblivious to reality.
|…of a better life.|
The surprise elliptical cut from Max munching on his homemade sandwich to the subjective point of view of Vincent’s first victim crashing down on the hood of the taxi cab is both startling and disorientating. The use of ellipsis is crucial in terms of withholding key narrative information from us as an audience and sustaining the enigma of Vincent’s character. One of the other motivating factors why we are not shown how Vincent kills his first victim is because Vincent does not care about the who, the how and the why, he is only interested in completing the job. It is civilians like Max who are forced to deal with the consequences of the aftermath. Therefore, Vincent’s vacant and apathetic ideological perspective is supported by the use of elliptical editing.
Max finally comes face to face with the destructive Vincent and his immediate reaction of bemusement soon turns to abject horror. He gets out of the cab, looking at the body then up to the window. Studying the demeanour of Vincent as he approaches, Max realises his predicament. Such a moment contradicts the theme of mirror images since Max and Vincent share very little, if anything, in common. In fact, this stand off between Vincent and Max is familiar to us from various film genres as it serves as a common narrative device. In this case, Vincent uses the threat of violence to coerce Max and it is the first of many times we see him raise his gun. Vincent is a prototypical Mann protagonist since he will allow nothing to come in the way of his professionalism including any sort of compromise. In terms of star image, Vincent is perhaps the one role that Cruise has played in which he refuses to elicit our sympathies yet it is one of Cruise’s fiercest performances. Playing against type for an international star such as Cruise can result in box office poison but it also means associations stars bring with them can be challenged in more openly subversive ways. Vincent is one of Cruise’s most memorable roles and it came at time in his career when he had become open to more problematic unconventional characters while being prepared to subvert his star image as he had proven in Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia and Vanilla Sky.
|Vincent gets serious.|
The only way Vincent can continue on his trajectory unhindered is by acquiring the complicity of Max in his crimes. Max becomes a witness and distant observer to the crimes perpetrated by Vincent and this is the first of many deaths he witnesses, failing to intervene. Max attempts to distance himself from what he has just witnessed but Vincent realises he is a liability. It is only much later when Vincent shots dead the detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) does he finally react, denouncing Vincent as nothing more than a ‘sociopath’ and crashing the cab. The title of the film needs discussing in relation to this first sequence since it could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, after the first hit, Max becomes Vincent’s collateral in case anything should happen. Secondly, and more ideologically, collateral is often seen in the media in relation to the term ‘collateral damage’ which in terms of war and especially those perpetrated by the west means ‘incidental damage’ that occurs from a targeted action. In many ways, it is within the context of contemporary discourse on the notion of collateral damage that we should read the actions of Vincent and the amoral attitudes he espouses.
|Max as collateral.|
As the taxicab pulls away down the side street, the soundtrack changes to a more techno-synth beat which we have heard before in films such as Manhunter and Heat and which is often the heartbeat of the obsessive police detective. The trajectory of Vincent is clear now and so is his destination – death. Such a a thematic statement is counterpointed to the introduction of Detective Fanning who we assume will be the one to take down Vincent. In terms of genre coding, this narrative junction re-establishes a familiar conflict characteristic of the crime film; the cop vs the criminal. Another point to mention and which probably needs more exploration is the way Mann’s films over the years especially his most recent films have quickened in terms of editing. It would be interesting to complete some kind of look at the average shot length, comparing his recent films to earlier ones. Both Collateral and Public Enemies were co-edited by Paul Rubell who has also worked on high concept blockbusters such as Transformers which adhere to a hyper-editing rhythm. Nonetheless, given Mann’s discernible authorial stamp, he still succeeds in pausing to survey the urban milieu with such adventurous clarity. Clocking in at just 120 minutes, Collateral also makes for one of Mann’s leanest films.
|Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx|
The exponential critical discourse on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained poses an equally difficult task for anyone who wishes to write comprehensively about the film since it is ongoing, myriad like and most significantly caught up in a tide of reactionary criticism that threatens to obfuscate debates predicated on race and violence. Whatever I am about to say about this film has to be contextualised within a discourse that is both contemporary and immediate. Sometimes, looking back at a film with some critical distance is usually one of the least problematic and most objective ways of trying to determine the cultural worth of a film. Django Unchained is currently being discussed as part of a wider filmic interest in slavery but both this and Spielberg’s Lincoln are films written and directed by white middle class film artists, thus posing important questions to do with representation. Although Tarantino has previously made films with black characters, mainly played by Samuel L Jackson, Spielberg’s experience with slavery in terms of his film career has been more direct and visible; The Colour Purple and Amistad testifies to his interests in dealing with the guilt of America’s past crimes. What follows are observations which are not necessarily debating an existing discourse but instead trying to delineate critical junctures which could prove to be valuable in separating fact from fiction.
1. Film or Mash-Up?
|Jackie Brown – QT’s last film?|
Since Jackie Brown in 1997, the films Tarantino has directed have all been tributes to exploitation cinema and while it may be snobbish to deny Django Unchained the label of a film it seems impossible to do so when the very foundations of Django Unchained are constructed on an intertextual mode of address that shows totality. Intertextuality has been present in the films of Tarantino since his debut with Reservoir Dogs but the difference between his early films including Dogs, Fiction and Brown is that the action is framed against a recognisable and contemporary real world America. Such implicit allusions to reality have gradually disappeared in his most recent films. Kill Bill, Deathproof, Inglorious Basterds and now Django Unchained take place in a ‘re-imagined’ America and Europe of the past. Whereas Dogs, Fiction and Brown uses an urban noir landscape of Los Angeles that recalls the lexicon of American crime cinema, the actions of characters are grounded in a reality associated with traditional assumptions about fictional narrative cinema. Taratino’s last four films including Django Unchained are extended homages to favourite genres and styles of filmmaking that have shaped his perceptions as both a fan and director. If anything Django Unchained is the ultimate fan mash-up made solely to indulge the nostalgic fantasies of its director at the expense of a cine-illiterate audience. If a video mash-up cannibazlises other films, music and pop culture to create a discontinuous narrative then a film like Django Unchained goes one step further, transforming past ideologies by decontextualising them so they become mere interpellative markers of a postmodern aesthetic. Tarantino speedily moves from one cinematic allusion to the next, testing the limits of cultural capital and propagating originality is nothing but another romantic myth. As a fan, Tarantino opens Django Unchained with Corbucci and ends with Leone while the middle is filled out with Ford. Here are some examples of the way Django Unchained plunders and raids film history to create the ultimate western mash-up:
Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)
|The original opening titles to Corbucci’s Italian western.|
|Note the reproduction of the exact same font style.|
The Searchers (1956, Ford)
|Ford’s film deals with racial politics.|
|The narrative of Django Unchained seems more indebted to Ford’s
The Searchers than to obvious Italian Westerns especially in the
epic search Schultz & Django make to find Hildy.
In The Heat of The Night (1967, Jewison)
|Mr. Tibbs drive up to see Endicott, a wealthy plantation owner…|
|…is mirrored in the sequence which sees Django in his newly transformed
persona of the Bounty Hunter rides past the field slaves of a plantation
owned by Big Daddy.
Once Upon a Time In The West (1968, Leone)
|This is a flashback device revealed later to be Frank (Henry Fonda).|
|Tarantino pays homage by using it as POV shot for Stephen’s character.|
The Big Silence (1968, Corbucci)
|Arguably Corbucci’s greatest western and the wintry backdrop finds its way…|
|…into the journey of Django who trains to be an ace gun slinger.|
Taxi Driver (1977, Scorsese)
|Bickle’s sliding gun contraption which he makes for the final bloodbath…|
|…is used by Schultz in the slaying of Candie.|
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966, Leone)
|Tuco’s final contempt for Blondie is muted by Morricone’s blistering score…|
|…and Stephen’s outrage is interrupted by Django’s dynamiting of the mansion.|
The western triptych of Leone, Corbucci and Ford is very much a personal admiration of three distinctive auteurs who helped to define the genre and the overarching narrative trajectory of his own film. It would be wrong to simply extrapolate and isolate western allusions since representations of slavery in the film are also predicated on blaxploitation cinema. Whereas the western intertextual discourse may be easier to decipher the obscurity of the references to blaxploitation cinema points to the privileging of populist, hegemonic genres over those such as blaxploitation defined more closely on grounds of ethnic identity and racial politics. The dearth of research and studies completed on blaxploitation compared to the western makes Django Unchained even more problematic to read since the intertextuality becomes locked in a wider debate concerning Eurocentric mainstream film academia. Such critical disparity between the western and blaxploitation is underlined by the mainstream critical reception to the film which has failed to fully acknowledge and discuss the more racialised intertextual referencing made by QT in his film. Such a view certainly supports the argument that black American cinema is rarely discussed in the mainstream and that when it does appear on the cultural radar no one quite knows how to write or respond about it adequately.
2. Black and White Heroism
|Schultz frees Django from his shackles of bondage.|
|Entering the saloon as equals.|
In regards to the blaxploitation era of the 1970s, Donald Bogle argues the stereotype of the buck became predominant, ‘The early years of the era might best be described as age of the buck, a period when a band of aggressive, pistol-packing, sexually-charged urban cowboys set off on a heady rampage, out to topple the system and to right past wrongs’ (Bogle, 2001: 232). Tarantino’s empowered black cowboy in the shape of the freed slave Django has its origins in such an era of the buck. However, I want to return later to the point about the political radicalism of such cinematic reconstructions and Bogle’s comments about toppling ‘the system’ needs arguing in relation to the film’s ending. In the film, black and white heroism is constructed outside of white hegemonic America since it is a white European who sets free Django. At first, the white man civilizing, cultivating and educating the illiterate oppressed black man smacks of a familiar racial rhetoric in which self determination is a near impossibility for black America but given King Schultz is a European German posits an outsider status that finds parallels in Django’s marginalised position. Both are united by their status as outsiders, articulating a visible solidarity that views white America as the real problem and social evil. Nevertheless, such European enlightenment is never complete as King Schultz’s profession as a bounty hunter complicates his status as an outsider since the unethical profit he makes from death is later questioned by Django. The relationship between Schultz and Django recalls the western genre tradition of the wise, noble gunfighter shaping the young rookie into a lethal killing machine. It is a relationship based on mutual respect and by eliminating the issue of race makes them equal.
|Schultz teaches Django about the ethics of bounty hunting…|
|…which results in Django’s first ‘cold blooded’ killing.|
It is Schultz who teaches Django to kill. Such teaching is clarified in the sequence in which Django under the tutelage of Schultz kills a father in front of his son. While this is necessary in terms of transforming Django into a brutal, remorseless bounty hunter, it is a position that holds very little revolutionary political power. Django’s empowerment is through his guns but such violent retribution is personal and not universal. Towards the end of the film Django dupes the mercenaries who are taking him to a mine into setting him free. After Django kills the white mercenaries, he turns to the three black slaves in a cage and asks for the bag of dynamite. For a moment, I thought Django was going to ask them to join him but he doesn’t. He had done so, his lone vigilante status as the lover on a romantic quest would have transformed into something much more revolutionary. The longing for a posse of black men exacting revenge may have been a symbol of political radicalism that would have transgressed the limitations of the western genre but as Django rides away from the black slaves in the cage, Tarantino takes a moment to pause on the reaction of one of the slaves smiling and celebrating the empowering image of a black man with a shotgun riding on a horse determined to get revenge. This is one of the most ideologically prescient moments in the film since such a reaction from the anonymous slave hints at the way in which metonymic imagery can lead to wider revolt.
|The three slaves also being transported to the mine are inadvertently set free…|
|…and they watch as a mythic black hero is created before their very eyes…|
|…inspiring one of the slaves to perhaps contemplate his own freedom.|
3. Historical Engineering
Tarantino is certainly right to oppose accusations of racism by stating Django is a heroic and empowered black character who uses his newfound freedom to exact revenge on white Southern America. The slaying of the brittle brothers by Django recalls and ascertains a historical anger characteristic of the buck. Yet if Django does eventually become the main narrative interest and thereby a hero for the audience, his empowerment is compromised by the final moments in which Tarantino resorts to racial buffoonery. It’s almost as though the film cannot resist from having the black man descend back into farce by entertaining us with the dancing horse and Django’s clown like antics. One could easily interpret this final spectacle as nothing other than a victory parade and celebration but Django seems completely satisfied and closure occurs as though slavery has come to an end. Therefore, it is hard not to read this ending as mere fantasy that sadly obscures the reality of slavery which remains unchanged. In many ways, genre preoccupations of the cowboy riding into the sunset with his girl limits the possibility of a politically radical ending that would have been preferable for such a daring black male representation.
While Django does not quite transgress many of the dominant black representations, the film can also be accused of historically engineering America’s past by normalising Mandingo fighting as fact, when in reality, no historical record exists that such brutal black on black fighting took place. If Mandingo fighting is a fictitious invention inspired by Tarantino’s love of Mandingo films which offer such outlandish fantasies why has he gone on record to defend the use of the word nigger as historically accurate? To say the repeated use of the word nigger has a historical precedence and to then incorporate something fictitious as Mandingo brawling into the narrative makes a mockery out of Tarantino’s defensive position. In truth, the film is pure cathartic fantasy with tenuous authorial claims to reality. One of the fiercest reactions to the film has come about because of the controversial use of the word nigger which Tarantino uses over 100 times. Is it justified and is it necessary? Making a film about slavery inevitably means having to deal with a language that is largely racist and Tarantino is justified in doing so. Nonetheless, since the film makes such a prolific use of the term, it trivialises racist discourse and history by rendering the word devoid of its actual power and so it becomes merely incorporated into a normal way of speaking between many of the people in the South. I feel Tarantino should have been more strategic in his deployment of the word nigger, using it at key moments in the narrative. Instead it’s overuse renders it obsolete when in fact it should be a source of revulsion. The use of the word nigger is much more troubling for me in films such as Reservoir Dogs than Django Unchained since it smacks of a casual racism masked by Tarantino’s apparent hipness as an auteur of dialogue.
|Mandingo fighting involves fighting to the death…|
|…however history says no such fighting existed…|
|…yet films have been made specifically about the myth of Mandingo fighting.|
4. Candyland: The House Slave, Phrenology & White Villainy
The final part of the film takes place in a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo De Caprio) and develops three significant points of interest. The first and most frightening is that of Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) as an ageing house slave who has been conditioned to accept his inferiority and act solely in the interests of his white master. In terms of racial representations, Stephen is Tarantino’s most radical construction and recalls the troubling stereotype of the Mammy who usually acted as a surrogate mother to the children of the white family that she was serving. The most frightening aspect of Stephen’s character is not that he plots against his ‘brothers and sisters’ (Django & Hildy) but his unconditional loyalty to his white master openly shows the practise of a white hegemonic power structure in subjugating an entire race of people. Stephen’s inability and refusal to recognise his own black identity means he misconstrues someone like Django as the enemy but more importantly as a threat to his own empowered position within the Candie family. Stephen’s desire to humiliate and ultimately disempower Django comes from a deep sense of inferiority and self hate since he only privileges white power as a way of keeping intact the status quo. Django’s decision to exact revenge for the death of Schultz and the humiliation of Hildy may seem straightforward enough in terms of logical narrative linearity but the choice to leave Stephen ‘the last man standing’ is ideologically significant as his symbolic status as the conditioned house slave represents the greatest obstacle in Django’s metaphorical path to emancipation. In many ways, the dynamiting of the mansion and also of Stephen is a hyperbolic spectacle. Such reflexive hyperbolic destructiveness is ubiquitous in fantasising about an end to slavery by eradicating slaves like Stephen. In other words, the road to tolerance and liberalism can only come about from the absolute reconstruction of self identity as is the case with Django’s transformation from slave to hero.
|Stephen is the loyal house slave who…|
|…exists solely for his white master.|
Unlike the complicated representation of Stephen, white villainy in the form of Calvin Candie is delineated along more unequivocal traditional lines. Candie is the most cartoonish of the characters. This is problematic since by removing any sense of realness from the most potent figure, namely the plantation slave owner, from the racist landscape and having him ‘perform’ the role of the perfect villain works to disavow guilt. Villainy is outlined explicitly when Candie demonstrates his power by making an example of a Mandingo fighter caught trying to escape the plantation. Attack dogs ripping apart the black slave is a disturbing image that becomes ingrained on the psyche of Schultz and is later justified by Candie with his phrenological musings on black submissiveness. Unlike the other white racist constructs which are ruthless, brutal and ugly, Candie’s eloquent banter and relationship with Stephen does not make him altogether unsympathetic. In fact, Candie is charismatic, a professional and a good host but what makes him totally unappealing as a human being is an ancestral arrogance that Schultz is unable to fathom. This leads to Schultz shooting Candie and finally declaring his European political liberalism as the genuine article.
|A Mandingo fighter is ripped apart by attack dogs on Candie’s order.|
|Candie is represented as a petulant young ruler.|
Aside from Schultz, Tarantino ridicules and critiques nearly all of the other white characters and it is a film predicated on the symbolic racial centrality of Django as a largely mythical figure, which is important in terms of the western genre, since Django’s singularity reiterates the romanticism of the cowboy as loner. It would be wrong to attempt to associate any kind of critique of this film with the terms historical accuracy since this is staged as a pure fantasy of violence. Tarantino cites Mandingo (1975) as a key influence on the film and interestingly Jonathan Rosenbaum (who in turns cites Robin Wood’s reclaiming of the film Mandingo) refers to Fleischer’s film as, ‘one of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era‘ yet he is none to enthusiastic about Django Unchained, ‘at best it’s Another True Life Adventure for ten-year old boys‘. I’m not so sure about Tarantino arguing that his film has triggered a wider and honest debate about slavery in the mainstream media since it is a debate narrowly contested on the use of the word nigger. Perhaps in the end it’s simply not enough to give audiences a black hero especially one who is without any real overarching ideological sentiments that would pose a real threat to the white establishment in which the era the film is set. Tarantino’s re-imagining of slavery is his best film since Kill Bill Vol. 1 but that’s not much of a complement considering how average his career has been over the last decade. However, this is also one of his most complicated works as the representations of race in particular are site of struggle and contest that echo wider hegemonic attitudes.
|Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.|
Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media.
Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians.
Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?