Django Unchained is Better than Lincoln

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.

Genre

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]

 

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17 Responses to Django Unchained is Better than Lincoln

  1. Nates says:

    This isn’t central to the point you’re making, but your use of the A/D distinction fits awkwardly with Nietzsche’s, and I think the differences are revealing. For Nietzsche, it might be more helpful to think about the sort of aesthetic effect the artist is trying to produce. Apollinian art aims at a kind of formal elegance, clarity and serenity; Dionysian art aims for an overwhelming emotional frenzy, a dissolving of the self. You seem to have some of this in mind. But there’s no reason at all to think that one kind of art is more formulaic or unoriginal than the other. A Greek sculptor could come up with beautiful forms never imagined before, while still producing an Apollinian effect. Likewise, one could have predictable art that’s aimed at producing a Dionysian frenzy.

    Anyway, my point is: if you start off by defining Apollinian art as formulaic, then it’s hardly surprising that you end up favoring Dionysian. I just don’t think it’s a helpful way of drawing the distinction. Also, Nietzsche is surely right that the best art will achieve a balance between these two aesthetic impulses. Presumably, Beethoven is a wonderful example of this.

    I haven’t seen Django yet, so I can’t comment on the rest of the post. But I’m looking forward to it. I suspect Tarantino will never again reach the heights of the Kill Bills, but there’s always hope.

  2. Josh says:

    Yeah, I mean I was definitely playing fast and loose with the Nietzschean distinction.

    But while we’re talking about it – if it’s about the aesthetic effect someone is trying to achieve, and the Apollonian “aims at a kind of formal elegance,” doesn’t that presuppose the existence of some sort of pre-existing form, whereas aiming for “overwhelming emotional frenzy” doesn’t presuppose such a form, or even imply the dissolution of them?

  3. Nates says:

    Yeah, I suppose the forms might be pre-existing in some sense, so maybe it would be better to say that the Apollinian artist will _discover_ them, rather than “come up” with them. But there’s still plenty of room for novelty there: bringing to light a formal elegance that we’d never conceived of before. (I guess this would be like geometers, who do original work in proving theorems that have always been true–just transposed over to the aesthetic realm.)

    Oh, and I did finally see Django. It was good. I don’t know if there was a single scene that was as thrilling for me as the one in the farmhouse from Inglourious Basterds, but, overall, Django might have been a little better. I liked it a lot. I feel incapable of comparing it to Lincoln.

  4. Juan says:

    I have recently seen Django Unchained. I have to disagree on this one with Josh, as concerns his remarks about the violence in the movie. First, I would say that the movie is really not using the violence in any disturbing way whatsoever. It’s true that it’s not the cartoon violence of Kill Bill, but it’s not far from that either. And the reason, I think, is precisely because the movie,as Josh points out, is a melange of many genres, themes, and so on. There are many moments in the movie where we do indeed laugh out loud at various sorts of jokes and situations. But because the movie is this hodge-podge (don’t read this word as a criticism, I enjoyed the movie) of styles, the scenes of violence toward the slaves do not gather that sort of gravitas that would make them really apalling and consciousness-raising or whatever. The scenes are embedded in a context between Christoph Waltz’s delightful use of English, songs by 2Pac, the wonderful Don Johnson take on 19th century Southern idiocy, and the like.
    Now I’ve seen interviews with Tarantino saying there are two kinds of violence in the movie: the action blood-splashing shootings and stuff, which is the cool violence, and then the nasty violence against the slaves. I think he did not achieve his purpose with the latter. That is why I think this movie teaches us absolutely nothing whatsoever about slavery. All the characters in the movie, and I mean all of them starting with Waltz and ending with the marvelous Samuel Jackson, are cartoons. I’ve read reviews that said that Tarantino is challenging us to think about the ambiguities and such of slavery through Jackson’s character. I think this is false. He is a cartoon, as I’ve said, a type, or an archetype if you wish. By this I do not mean to disparage these characters, they are wonderfully written. There just isn’t any need to pretend there is any more depth to them or to the movie than there really is. Dickens’ characters are also cartoons, and still, what a fantastic writer Dickens is. So, just as Ingloriouos (?) Basterds does not teach us anything about history or World War II, so Django Unchained does not teach us anything about slavery. It is just a really well-executed movie with a very good script and good actors.

    It might be that I’m missing something because I’m not American, so maybe that’s why I’m not feeling the weight of this violence as Tarantino meant it to be felt. But honestly, I think that’s probably not true. The ordinary movie-going public will not feel it either, I think, even if they are American. Maybe if they are more reflective than the average person they will, but I kind of doubt it because of the argument put forth in the first paragraph (again: because the film is such as to make those scenes not too consequential in the overall development, except as sign-posts warning us who the baddies are and that punishment is coming soon, so we can enjoy it better. I think this last is a point Tasha Robinson also made in a conversation with Scott Tobias, which is on the AV Club site).

    And really, how can you be focusing on these wrongs that were being perpetrated, when all the time Tarantino is cutting back to DiCaprio’s very interesting character and his emphatic pronunciation and elegant turns of phrase? How in the hell am I going to deplore black people fighting (except in the very general mode of watching some catastrophe on the news, as Josh says, and going, ‘Wow, that was bad’, and then moving on to ordinary business) when the scene takes place in a gorgeous and beautifully-lit mansion-room, when there is a beautiful girl in the room, together with freaking Franco Nero (from the original Django) and the fascinating DiCaprio to boot?

  5. Josh says:

    Juan – I get what you’re saying. When I was originally writing what I said, it occurred to me that the invocation of the notion of the “carnivalesque” and the mixing of high and low culture for dramatic effect might be a bit forced. That’s what I was trying to say by saying it’s a “mix of high and low culture (admittedly, mostly low).”

    The mixing isn’t necessarily successful – that strikes me as somewhat of a subjective point (in the true sense of the word – inhering in the subject). It’s hard to say whether a give subject would feel indicted by the violence in the way that I said it had made me feel indicted. I guess I just noticed that I was uncomfortable in a way I’m not usually when watching movies, no matter how graphic, and that there was something to my discomfort. Maybe there wasn’t.

    Also though – one thing I tried to say the first time around is that the one kind of violence (serious kind) is disguised *as* the other kind (cartoon). So it engenders a serious reaction but does so while giving the audience permission to react in a cartoonish way. I’m not sure if that’s coherent or if the underlying idea is either, but there you go.

    I agree with the spirit of the question raised in your last paragraph – but where you meant it rhetorically, I think it’s a good question to consider literally. As in “how can you be focusing on these wrongs [given these odd circumstances]?” If we understand “how…?” to actually mean “how”, and not just a stand in for “obviously you cannot…” I think it’s a great question to consider for further criticism.

  6. Juan says:

    Hi Josh

    I had actually noticed what you said in the paragraph about disguising one kind of violence as another, but I was not sure how to understand that, and I’m still puzzled by this. Maybe it’s the kind of trick that Tarantino intended too, I just can’t see how he could have achieved that effect. It’s possible, I guess, to raise serious issues by using comedy for example. Maybe some of Shakespeare’s comedies are like that (The Taming of the Shrew as a battle of the sexes?). But in Tarantino’s movie, there are only splashes of this ‘serious’ violence here and there amidst a bunch of other stuff that ends up trumping whatever seriousness Tarantino may have intended to imbue the film with. At least it trumped it for me.
    At the same time, I am in no position to question your or anyone else’s reaction to these scenes. If they gave rise to feelings of discomfort, I am not going to deny the existence of these feelings. Whether they constitute also an appropriate response, given the kind of work that Django Unchained is, is a really tricky question that I don’t really know how to answer at this point. Are they like crying at ‘The Hangover’? Surely not. But are they completely appropriate? Maybe appropriateness of emotional reaction is a matter of degree. Or maybe it requires a historical context which, in this case, I am lacking.

    Although, if the work of art is really good, it should win you over no matter your background. For example, because you have read so much Dostoievsky, I’m pretty sure you can empathize with a lot of those characters and can understand the Russian spirit and way of feeling. And that is just because the works are so compelling; it’s all due to Dostoievsky’s genius. Similarly, if I listen to Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, I can feel what a large part of America is about (its historical spirit included, which vibrates through those songs) , better than listening to Lady Gaga for ex. (although she’s representative for our Zeitgeist, I guess). Why hasn’t Tarantino managed to affect me at such a deep level then? My guess, as I’ve said before, is because he is after something else with this movie, not the injustice of slavery.

  7. Josh says:

    Juan –

    I think we are pretty close to agreement then. I was just noting the subjective fact of my own discomfort at laughing at certain parts of the movie (and also of wincing at other parts). Is that like crying at “The Hangover”? What was most effective about this movie, to me anyway, is that it’s hard to tell. When I was crying at _Beasts of the Southern Wild_, that seemed totally appropriate. If I had been crying at _Anchorman_, that would have been an unambiguously inappropriate reaction. But the wincing and awkwardness generated by _Django_, immediately alongside the laughing, made me wonder about what category to place it in. It also made me wonder more generally about the relationship between laughing, wincing, and crying. Not to beat a dead horse again but _Lincoln_ did not do that.

    The issue of cross-cultural truth is an interesting one – I’m not sure if I agree that is a work of art is really good, it should be able to win one over regardless of background. Works of art can be totally restricted to their cultural milieu and still be good, can’t they? But now that you mention it, I’d be surprised if there were very many things I think are so restricted and still seem good. I’m not trying to have a broader conversation about relativism (those are usually boring after about 2 minutes) but it strikes me as wrong to see the ability to transcend one’s own culture as a necessary condition on greatness (though it might be a sufficient condition).

    Also as regards Dostoevsky, I was just reading _A Moveable Feast_, and surprisingly I guess, Dostoevsky is on Hemingway’s mind a lot. He basically is struck by the contradiction between Dostoevsky’s extreme anti-Hemingway-esque prolixity, on the one hand, and the extreme psychological acuity on the other. Maybe that’s evidence for what you’re saying – there is something great in Dostoevsky that even Hemingway can overcome his ideological views about prose to respect.

    • Juan says:

      I think transcending one’s own culture is not sufficient for greatness. Witness the numerous art products that don’t have any specific cultural restriction and which are not great. There are a lot of authors that sell in a lot of countries, and speak about universal human interests such as love for ex., and their works are failures. I am thinking about Barbara Cartland or Sandra Brown. Probably a herd of others. Now, it is true I have not read these works (one cannot be expected to read everything), but I’ve never heard one critic saying they are great. So I conclude they are not great.

      On the question of necessity, I think you are right, and I may have put my point too strongly. A work does not need to be universal in order to be great. There may be works in the literature of Vietnam or Burundi that are so remote from the experience of a Westerner they are hard to comprehend, and still they may be great. There is also the problem of translation, where a lot can be lost (I know fantastic Romanian comic authors whose charm and flavor are completely lost in translation, because they stake a lot on language. Comedy is really the hardest case when it comes to this). But translation was not an issue in the debate about Tarantino.

  8. Nates says:

    Oh, that’s interesting about Hemingway’s take on Dostoevsky. I mean it’s all interesting — apart from the Lincoln-bashing aside 🙂 — but that’s what caught my eye.

    I think Hemingway is the author I’m most embarrassed about never having read. (I’ve maybe read a couple of short stories, many years ago, but that’s it.) I have a few books in my Amazon shopping cart for summer reading. Where do you think is the best place to start: A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises?

  9. Nates says:

    I can’t believe I just blogged an emoticon. Not cool, Nates.

  10. Juan says:

    Something just occurred to me in connection with the Hemingway vs. Dostoevsky thing (I will spell the latter the way Josh does). Here’s the thing about Hemingway: I’ve fairly recently read The Old Man and the Sea. What spoiled it for me was the fact that Hemingway at times uses this grandiloquent metaphoric language, and he puts this in the mind of the old illiterate fisherman too, by using indirect discourse to convey his thoughts about mankind, nature, destiny, whatever. I think this is too out of place. A character like that could never think those thoughts. Hemingway should have used some more impersonal device, like a narrator-voice, to say those sentences. But I guess that would not have been in keeping with rendering the immediate experience of the old man that Hemingway was after. Anyway, I don’t remember if Hemingway uses this kind of language in his other works, but the point is you will never find this stuff in Dostoevsky anywhere.

    So, no matter how much Hemingway is complaining about Dostoevsky’s prolixity, in Dostoevsky you will never find the grandiloquence of The Old Man and the Sea shoved right into the reader’s eye, as if the reader could not understand for himself what is going on (no, Hemingway has to go ahead and compare the old man to Jesus Christ on at least 2 occasions, if not 3, and that very transparently too –what the hell for, anyway? Why is the fisherman compared to Jesus? Is he taking on the sins of humanity by fighting sharks or what?). On the contrary, in Dostoevsky all these grand ideas are not just stuck in there explicitly in some paragraph, but develop from the interaction among the characters over hundreds of pages (usually) or from the dialogues they have. Of course, in a dialogue it makes sense to have more or less educated Russians debating God, the problem of evil, and so on. It’s in their character. Dostoevsky, as I see him, is fundamentally a theatrical writer, the characters are everything. It’s all drama. So, in conclusion, Dostoevsky may be wandering off a lot, but for the kind of literature he was doing that is excusable. Whereas for Hemingway, who wanted to be very direct, no flourishes and so on, to find that kind of language in The Old Man and the Sea was “not cool”, to quote Nates.

    Also, if my advice is worth anything, I would say A Farewell to Arms is a better starting point than The Sun Also Rises. I liked it more anyway. There’s a lot of raining going on in A Farewell to Arms, and I like rain. It’s a really good book otherwise. As is The Old Man and the Sea, if you take out the metaphysical trash.

  11. Josh says:

    Juan – Am I misspelling Dostoevsky? Should there be another “Y” as in Dostoyevky?

    Re: Hemingway, I have to say, _The Sun Also Rises_ was my favorite, though it’s been some time. I liked _A Farewell to Arms_ but it felt a little formulaic after a while maybe? There is also _For Whom the Bell Tolls_, Again, I liked it but it felt somewhat constricted by the genre. _The Sun Also Rises_ seemed to re-imagine storytelling, and heroism, in ways I didn’t expect, and “fit right in there” with the other classics of modernism (Portrait of the Artist, Mrs. Dalloway, In Search of Lost Time).

    Though Nates, I don’t think you’re altogether missing that much. Hemingway is enjoyable (_A Moveable Feast_ was definitely that), but I’ve rarely found it as deeply satisfying as the books (and the other books by the authors of the books) I just listed. _The Sun Also Rises_ was close to an exception to that. Hemingway’s sort of like American “modernism”-lite (kind of the same with Fitzgerald too), to me anyway. I’m sure that’s unfair but there you have it.

    Speaking of Hemingway and Fitzgerald – the 3rd and 2nd to last chapters of _A Moveable Feast_ are a very funny retelling of a road-trip the two of them took, from Hemingway’s point of view of course.

    I wonder if David still reads? If he does, I’d be interested to hear from him about this stuff.

  12. Nates says:

    I think dropping the Y in Fyodor’s last name is a recent trend, but is becoming accepted practice. (The Cyrillic is: Достое́вский, if that helps.)

    I recall David being a great defender of Hemingway. He needs to step up to the plate!

  13. David says:

    Ask and ye shall receive. 🙂 And if anyone criticizes the use of the emoticon–Nates, especially–I have a Companions in Guilt argument at the ready.

    Ok, first things first. What a great thread!!! OP is showing signs of recapturing its old, legendary vigor. Juan, I hope you keep reading and keep posting. You alone offer perspective like this (which I absolutely love, by the way): “I would say A Farewell to Arms is a better starting point than The Sun Also Rises. I liked it more anyway. There’s a lot of raining going on in A Farewell to Arms, and I like rain.” Classic.

    Yeah, _A Moveable Feast_ is really good. Great bits about Hemingway’s early years as a poor writer in Paris, and the material on Fitzgerald is kind of sad and funny. I recall in particular–never mind why–the ‘scene’ where Hemingway recounts Fitzgerald calling him into the bathroom and asking him (H) to inspect his (F) penis and determine whether it is a ‘normal size.’ Hard to recall this without thinking of that road trip Nates and I took several years back.

    So that’s a joke. Anyway, this won’t be a defense of Hemingway but rather a list of assertions about Hemingway–maybe I’ll try to post something more thoughtful later.

    1. To me, it’s important to distinguish between Hemingway the Short Story Writer and Hemingway the Novelist. This way, we don’t have to make ambivalent appraisals about his status among 20th century American writers. He’s simply far and away the best as the former and simply ‘really good’ or ‘important’ or some other lukewarm tip of the cap as the latter.

    2. The only novel he wrote which in my estimation reflects the genius on display in his short stories is _The Sun Also Rises_, and that’s coming from a guy who loves rain.

    3. Hemingway got progressively worse as a writer as he aged. Actually, from what I understand he got progressively worse as a human being as he aged.

    4. I think Juan comes really close to putting his finger on what bothers me about late(r) Hemingway–there is, on the one hand, a sense that he’s perilously close to parodying himself, and, on the other hand, he seems almost maudlin to me in a lot of the late(r) work I read. _The Old Man and the Sea_ is a good example of this, I think. And this isn’t just an inevitably by-product of familiarity with his distinctive staccato style. I can still read the stories pre WWII and feel very deeply moved and mystified by his ability to capture intense energy and depth of feeling in very sparse, minimal language.

    Oh well, that will have to do for now. I hope at least to have said something that warrants your interest in hearing from me!

  14. Josh says:

    David – I definitely agree about the short stories vs. the novels (and The Sun Also Rises). You had told me about A Moveable Feast years ago but finally reading it was great. The bathroom story is good – but I think the road-trip story is better. I didn’t see the sadness in it, but that’s because I figured he was making Fitzgerald cartoonish for my amusement. I suppose if someone actually was like that it would be sad though. I wondered how you felt about the illustration of hypochondria?

  15. David says:

    Hi Josh–I think other things I’ve read about Fitzgerald led me to suspect it might have actually happened. Could you refresh my memory w/r/t to the ‘hypochondria’ story?

    No sooner had I crowned Hemingway as far and away the best American short story writer of the 20th century than I remembered Flannery O’Connor! Have you read her stories? Absolutely phenomenal.

  16. Josh says:

    The hypochondria involves Fitzgerald thinking that he’s dying of some sort of flu during the whole road trip they’re on. Hemingway refuses to take him seriously, and so continually feeds him ridiculous pseudo-scientific and medical sounding advice in a vain attempt to calm him down.

    I have read Flannery O’Connor but only one story – “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Which more or less traumatizes the high school students I have read it (at least the ending).

    My pick for best short stories of the 20th century is still the pre-avant-garde Joyce of _Dubliners_.

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