A. O. Scott reports in his review yesterday that when he emerged from the theater with his daughter, she asserted that Tarantino’s latest was better than Lincoln. I can imagine one’s teenager daughter asserting such a thing just to rankle her stuffy old film-critic dad, but – I mean to assert (and prove) her proposition in all seriousness. Scott thoughtfully observes that these movies are “two solutions to the same problem,” likening it to a late-night Chris-Rock-like comedian Homer Simpson watches: “white people fix slavery like this [senatorial debate], black people like this [blow up plantation].” Again, Scott presents this as a joke, though again, I think it deserves to be taken seriously (Though – very important qualifier – Quentin Tarantino is white too, and that requires some reflection and does provide an objection that might not be so easily overcome).
Two Kinds of Art
Before I make my full argument, let me back up and develop an important theoretical distinction for such a discussion, and also let me state an important bias I have with respect to that distinction. The distinction is Nietzsche’s – between the Apollonian and Dionysian. If you’re ever met me you probably already know what that bias is. More on that in a minute.
The art of Apollo is finely wrought and crafted, expertly arranged; it does what it tries to do in a unified, disciplined and ultimately predictable way. A few examples will hopefully suffice to illustrate what I have in mind. In classical music – think of a great Mozart symphony or sonata like the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Sonata form is there achieved to perfection. Themes intersect in predictable yet satisfying ways. The satisfaction comes from the professionalism and acuteness of execution with which the melodies are written and performed by the musicians. In literature – think of a great Tolstoy story – maybe Anna Karenina is the best example here. All the book’s inherent themes are expertly laid out in its opening. Even if you didn’t know she was going to kill herself the first time you read the book, look back at the initial train station scene, and you will see everything there waiting for you. In philosophy – Plato’s The Republic. Its ten books exhibit the brilliance of parallel structure; the entrance of interlocutors and their departure, the deployment of myth and analogy – all is timed expertly to make clear the main argument of the book. In popular music – think about “Hard Day’s Night.” Does this song surprise you? Of course not – but is a great song? Of course! We could look at each of these examples of Apollonian art as the perfect execution of an already established archetype.
If the art of Apollo perfectly executes on a given mold, the art of Dionysus breaks that mold. It will often begin within the confines of a genre or archetype, but then break free from it, often in very problematic and confusing ways. I’ll try to give parallel examples. Against Mozart, you might juxtapose Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s got plenty of symmetry, parallel structure and the rest, but it sort of seethes at the margins, unable to be held by the confines of classical structure – and to me, this becomes clear somewhere around the third movement/the transition into the fourth. There are little bursts of inspiration that reveal the inadequacies of an otherwise sealed and well executed system. Again Tolstoy, of course, is Dostoevsky. A good choice might be Demons. This book begins within the confines of the 19th century social novel, its wide cast of characters, petty intrigues, the cross-section of society thing also found in Anna Karenina, but – by the end, we have a hilarious but grotesque literary fete, and burned village and a cluster of suicides. At the heart of all this is the character of Stavrogin – the genre cannot contain him or his contradictory and opaque intentions. Against Plato? Consider Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. This begins as an ordinary early-19th-century work in the theory of knowledge, with 10-15 page chapters on clearly defined themes, but somewhere around chapter 4 (and the master-slave dialectic section) things burst forth from their structure and morph into a project that is very hard to define, must less comprehend its success or failure. Against the Beatles? Consider the Velvet Underground. Listen to a song like “European Son.” That song begins with verses and a chorus, though very quickly, the feedback and noise latent in the opening moments just take over, and the song ends in 8 minutes of almost total cacophony. And it’s not even the sort of controlled cacophony if “Heroin” (which is, in a really great way, analogous to those moments in Beethoven’s 5th). It’s just an absolutely problematic bursting-forth. It’s enough to get otherwise rational and cultured people to get up and turn off their stereo. So if Apollonian art is the perfect execution of an established archetype, the Dionysian is the imperfect (sometimes extremely so) attempt to make a new archetype. It’s a grasping forth for something the creator sometimes doesn’t even know how to describe.
Okay – now for the revealing of the bias: all other things equal (though that’s a huge qualifier), I’ll take the Dionysian every time. Which is not to say I cannot appreciate Apollonian art. I’ve come a long way in this regard. I’m generally sympathetic to Dostoevsky’s observation that Tolstoy is showing us a world that was already dead by the time the books were written, and does not come much more alive while reading it. However – I’m way less ideological about this now. I’ve come to start to see the pleasure in finely crafted pieces of predictable art. Now, sometimes the pleasure of experiencing something so well done can overcome my suspicions about the fact that that thing has already been done so many times before. I few weeks ago (I’m in the midst of a classical-music-education project) I would have told you that I could not stand Mozart. I would just get so bored. After some careful listening though, especially to the 40th symphony and the 21st piano concerto, I hear something else there. Reading the recent volume of Tolstoy short stories translated by P+V, I get the disconcerting feeling of being in the presence of just such acutely perceptive genius, I do not mind that they’re ultimately just formulaic stories of the aristocracy and clergy. The formula is just deployed so well that I find great pleasure and meaning in that.
It should be obvious by now where I’m going with this. Lincoln is Apollonian; D’Jango Unchained is the opposite. But – and I won’t say too much more about Lincoln, having already noted a lot of my dissatisfaction I will summarize all of those by saying, this is not only Apollonian (A.O. Scott calls it “in the tradition of the ‘old Hollywood A-Movie’”, which is making the same point in different language). This is also bad Apollonian art. It is, at best, the pretty-good execution of a hoary formula: the great-man biopic (though only a few month’s worth of that bio), the “political morality tale,” the “lesson in American history.”
Another way I could sum all this up is – nothing in the entire 2.5 hours of Lincoln surprised me. Not the piles of amputated limbs (whose junior-high history class didn’t include a discussion of those same limbs?) Not Thaddeus Stevens’ black companion (I mean, didn’t you know something like that was going to be revealed for almost the entire 2nd half of the movie?), nothing. The lack of surprise wouldn’t in itself, be a problem, if there were something else to admire here – some aspect of superb execution, a la Tolstoy, but there just isn’t. Or, what there is, just isn’t all that impressive considering the immensity of time, resources and attention given to it.
If you’re left thinking – yeah, this guy just doesn’t ever like things that he can think are “predictable” – he’s just a snob, or a hipster – someone who needs their preferences to be obscure – fair enough, to some extent. But I will just tell you – in the category of Apollonian historical fiction (though from a totally different angle, I suppose) I will confess to holding a deep-seated and unshakable love for JFK. And that movie is, ultimately, pretty similar to Lincoln. Though its story of Kennedy’s assassination is unorthodox, it’s not ultimately too much more than a well-executed formulaic treatise. It’s got the big-name actors of twenty years ago, and like Lincoln, makes a similar embrace of a simple event in the past as some sort of historical turning point (this time, towards evil, not good, but ultimately, the point is the same). And I love that movie – because its crafting is far more compelling, its idealistic speeches far more engaging, and so on. It would be hard exactly to quantify that distinction, and not all that interesting, but the point is, I think it’s there. I don’t think it’s impossible to make a perfect (or even good) “old Hollywood A-Movie.” I just don’t think Lincoln is it.
But all of that is sort of beside the point I want to make now. Even if you spot Lincoln all the things I’m saying it’s missing – political acuity, historical resonance, good acting, a well-executed plot art, moving characterization, and so on, the contrast I’d like to develop between Lincoln and D’Jango Unchained nicely captures, for me anyway, why I have this pro-Dionysian bias. Movies like D’Jango Unchained, and in general, art of this sort, does something the other type just can’t do: it creates new thoughts and new feelings.
I will try to articulate the contrast I’d like to make by considering a few ways wherein these movies differ.
One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is M. M. Bakhtin’s Problems in Dostoevsky’s Poetics. It’s sort of doubly Dionysian – in its argument, it proceeds problematically in directions it seems unsure about, inventing categories that don’t exist, and then also, in its subject-matter, seeing as it’s written about an already admittedly problematic author – Dostoevsky. Bakhtin articulates a category with which to understand Dostoevsky – “the carnivalesque.” This can be roughly defined as the willful and confused mixing of high and low culture, the free embrace of a patchwork of folk tales, bawdy grotesquerie, religious allegory, popular crime fiction, political debate, 3rd person omniscient narration, Socratic dialogue, stream-of-consciousness prose, and whatever else might seem like a good idea at the time. Dostoevsky’s is a kind of kitchen-sink strategy of composition [David Foster Wallace is a great contemporary analogue]. Such a strategy allows Dostoevsky to explore the lived experiences of his characters and their ideas with a much wider variety of tools than a much more stylistically conservative author like Tolstoy. As these different narrative strategies and the content they interact with collide in unpredictable ways, new and striking perspectives on both that content and those strategies emerge, in the same way a mad scientist mixing unidentified chemicals might at times discover new substances (it also might sometimes blow up the lab). I again cite the literary fete at the end of Demons: its climax involves a drunken former army officer and his crippled half-sister carrying on in front of the literati and town bourgeoisie just as mass arson is beginning in another part of town. It is hard to imagine this being something Dostoevsky had originally planned (or – even if he planned to focus the novel on such a fete, which he probably did – it’s hard to imagine he knew beforehand that this is what it would look like). Just like “European Son”, you have an essentially cacophonous disaster unfolding on the page, one that has the sense of its just being discovered as it’s being written. Bakhtin says of Dostoevsky that his work does not depict philosophical-literary dialogue, it is that dialogue.
What can we say about the genres of Lincoln and Django Unchained? Let’s start with Lincoln, since that’s easier. It’s equal parts political thriller, historical fiction and family melodrama. It does draw on some other elements (there are hints of Mark Twain in the politicos brought in from Albany, hints of the Bronte-esque gothic novel in Mary Todd’s depression) but those other elements are always carefully constrained and delimited. They exist in their time and place within the movie, provide very obviously bracketed comic relief, and that sort of thing. To repeat A.O. Scott’s categorization, it’s the “old Hollywood A-movie.” But Lincoln does nothing even to advance the political thriller, historical fiction or family melodrama. It adds no new elements to any of those already existing genres. It just relives them in an eminently digestible, audience-friendly format, not that much different from the way the cheeseburger and fries you might order at Chili’s next to the multiplex after you see Lincoln would not add anything to your appreciation of the cheeseburger-and-fries genre. It’s not even an “interesting twist” on a genre film, which so many sub-par movies get away with being labeled. I defy you to find me an interesting twist in the architecture of this film. Just something that gets treated differently than you might have expected. I could not find it – and I was looking!
What about genre and Django Unchained? I almost can’t think of a better paradigm case of what Bakhtin must have meant by “the carnivalesque.” It’s a pretty common cliché in Tarantino reviews to talk about how he un-ironically draws on the “B movie tradition.” I mean – his big breakthrough movie was named after a genre after all. Django Unchained is nothing less than the riotous and uncontrolled intersection between a dizzying array of genres, to wit: the western, ante-bellum south historical fiction, German folk tale, contemporary action movie, Monty-Python-esque anachronism (consider the scene with the clamsman in that light), love story, an Odysseian homecoming, black-guy-white-guy unlikely buddy comedy: I’m sure I could go on. This willful intersection of high and low culture (admittedly, more low than high) produces a whole cost of unexpected sensations in its audience, not least of which, but perhaps the most significant aspect of the movie: the audience laughs out loud at racist jokes.
Which brings me to another shortcoming in Lincoln – not a joke to be found anywhere! There’s some sort of mildly allusive moment about his son’s academic studies, that’s supposed to provide a learned chuckle, that sort of obvious pseudo-high-brow-ism designed to make relatively ignorant members of the bourgeoisie feel good about things they remember from junior high US History class, but that’s really about it. Its subject matter is held in such esteem that it’s beyond joking. This is dreadful, and in that very seriousness it actually prevents the sort of incisive inquiry that the regularly squirm-inducing humor of Django Unchained can bring about.
To continue the food analogy – Lincoln is about as adventurous, from a genre perspective, as making Country Time lemonade out of powder and tap water, except that you put in too little powder and are left with a dissatisfyingly watery swill. Django Unchained, on the other hand, is a little like the plate of food the other kids at your junior-high lunch table dared you to eat for $5.00.
“Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”
So Monty Python’s memorably doctrinaire leftist peasant berates King Arthur. That scene draws its humor from the grandiosity of the peasant’s theorizing. After watching D’Jango Unchained, in a way I would never have thought possible, the peasant’s words become understatement.
It’s probably a critical failure on my part that I’ve gotten 5 pages in without mentioning the two most horrifying scenes in my recent movie-going experience: the gruesome wrestling-to-the-death in Candie’s parlor, and a bit later, the slave whom Candie orders to be fed to the dogs outside his plantation. Upon emerging from this movie, I asked a question I had never asked before: “what would you have to do to earn an NC-17 rating for violence, if not that?” The first time I saw Pulp Fiction, I do remember wincing and shielding my face on a couple of occasions. But Django Unchained made the attempt to recover Mia Wallace from heroin overdose via hypodermic adrenalin injection, or Marvin getting shot in the face seem like child’s play. And there will be those among the viewing public that will insist it’s just “too violent” for them, and that they “don’t like violent movies.”
To reach such a conclusion about this violence, though, would be the sort of ridiculous bourgeois oversimplification that this movie is, in a very strange way, designed (I think anyway) to contest. I mean, what do you think slavery was like for the slaves? Gone with the Wind? I left thinking that watching one man kill another for the entertainment of their white masters was grotesque, but also like realistic, even understated. These scenes didn’t look that much different than Frederick Douglass made the whipping of his aunt sound in his Autobiography.
My high school’s copy of Roots has one of that miniseries’ most celebrated scenes – the beating and renaming of Kunta Kente into Toby – edited out of it. A student watching my school’s version of Roots will see an even more disturbing image: Kunta Kente willingly and smilingly changing his name to Toby. Which is the worse scene – with the whipping or without it? The one horrifies your senses; the other anesthetizes them. And so with violence in Lincoln – it all happens off-stage. We see heaps of amputated limbs; we see battle scenes, but with almost pantomime choreographed fighting; we hear a serving woman of the Lincolns’ report that she was beaten when she was very young. But we do not see any of it. This will sound obvious but, the actual depiction of the violence of slavery is nowhere to be found. It’s made to sound like an economic arrangement, maybe an immoral and illogical one yes, and maybe one that makes people’s lives worse, but how? We are left to imagine that ourselves. And, I submit, for most Americans watching the movie (me included) though we know, intellectually, that it was worse than Gone with the Wind would have us believe, have we ever seen it so? Have we ever actually felt the viscerally disgusting actions that slavery produced?
And so, in the very important emotional space we reserve for understanding human history, we have an anesthetized understanding. Lincoln does nothing to change that. Django Unchained does. Sure, we all know that slavery was an “unjust and dehumanizing institution” – but have we ever felt that before? The reason this violence feels uncomfortable is not just its extreme nature, but our knowledge that such things actually happened, AND, to take things one step further – WE, as 21st century Americans, owe our position in the world LARGELY to the fact that such an institution existed. We see the barbarity, and, if we are even half-intelligent, recognize our complicity and benefit from it. Institutional racism gains an emotional component that, for white audiences at least, it doesn’t generally have.
The taboo nature of this violence is interesting because though we live in a violence-saturated culture, we also have some very strongly held taboos about real violence. Though we can see any number of serial killers kill any number of fictional victims any day of the week on our crime dramas, our media is totally devoid of depictions of civilian casualties in the armed conflicts that we wage. The opposite is true on European television: they have far less gruesome serial-killer obsessed fiction, but a much greater willingness to depict the actual consequences of war.
I submit that the violence of Django Unchained is actually much more similar to the suppressed violence that does not appear on our news coverage of war, than to the gratuitous illustration of it we will see on, say Criminal Minds. The real cleverness in Tarantino’s use of it is, he’s disguised the former as the latter. He has revealed something to audiences that would otherwise refuse to encounter the reality of slavery, hiding behind formulaic “my family never owned slaves.” He has forced them to confront on an emotional level something they have, by and large, refused to accept as having happened, much less to accept their share of responsibility in it and their continued benefit they take in the economic system that was heir to it. Hence the nervous laughter in the theater, a laughter you probably did not encounter or experience when you saw Seven.
So is this “too violent”? I don’t think that question can be answered in the abstract. Just like when Malcolm X responded, when asked whether he “preached hate” – “history is not hate.” Given the public’s general unwillingness to do anything like confront our country’s legacy of slavery, its almost total amnesia about slavery’s consequences that has persisted for almost 150 years – if this violence is a way to get otherwise stubborn people to confront that (even if only on an unconscious level) I say, that’s progress.
The cliché response will be – but Lincoln could tell a story of the moral wrongness of slavery and its overcoming “without needing to show that.” Just like the annoying Christian rappers who say they can “present their message without needing to use all that language.” I think the presumption should be the other way around – why do we need not to show this violence? Why do we need not to look at it? Why do we experience a preference for movies that do not show it, and act like there is something high-minded in that? Lincoln (tepidly) engages in a debate about the politics and morality of slavery without considering it from an aesthetic point of view. Django Unchained does no such thing. If you cannot take its violence, perhaps you should consider surrendering the wealth you have been allowed to accumulate because such violence happened. My guess is that your wealth doesn’t make you skittish… though it should.
The Agency of Black Characters
As A.O. Scott’s review backhandedly notes, Lincoln is a story about the abolition of slavery told by and for white audiences (much like To Kill a Mockingbird is a movie about overcoming of racism, told by and for white audiences). It is a story about slavery that backgrounds almost every important aspect of it. As we have seen, its depictions of violence are muted and indirect, almost avoidant. We can also note something similar about the black characters in Lincoln – their presence is backgrounded, almost avoidant. At best, they provide moral sanction for the white characters and their actions. They rarely if ever speak for themselves, much less communicate with each other.
[more on that later]