He is so hottest, right now! The stupendously talented Quentin Tarantino is the genius glitter in the Italian-American mob in Hollywood — Minelli, Scorcese, the Coppolas, De Niro, Pacino, er, Sinatra — and his career has shot from cult auteur to certified blockbuster with his last two movies.
His previous revenge fantasy, Inglorious Basterds, had a crack team of American Jewish soldiers parachute into France to assassinate Hitler. The new Django Unchained has a freed slave (1858) return to the plantation to rescue his wife, kill the cruel owner and burn down the house. The good news: Revenge movies always have happy endings!
As Tarantino has proved adeptly multiplex at crossing time, place and peoples to provide us with “cathartic” (his word) scenarios, wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could provide air-punching, historic anger-liberating revenge fantasies for any of the following, to be “Based on actual events”:
Idea 1: BLACK WIDOW REVENGE
Setting: India, murderous misogyny. Situation: Headline from Hindustan Times: “New-born girl found in dustbin, second in a week.” A Lancetstudy chillingly suggests “selective abortions of girls rose from 0—2·0 million in the 1980s, to 1·2—4·1 million in the 1990s, and to 3·1—6·0 million in the 2000s.” Historical injustice: Suttee, the ritual ‘voluntary’ immolation of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, practiced since 400CE and last banned in 1829.
Actual events: The infamous Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi: the young Devi was the girlfriend of a bandit leader. Her lover was killed and then she was gang-raped. She remade herself into a bandit leader and “authorised” a massacre of “22 upper-caste villagers” in 1981. In 2001 Devi was shot dead by three gunmen in what was claimed as a revenge killing.
Scenario: Riffing off the 1994 film The Bandit Queen by Shekhar Kapur to cleverly construct an alternate history/feminist-matriarchal revenge fantasy set in the 19th century. The British scampered off; the Partition never took place. Mahatma, Nehru and Indira never happened. Bollywood rap music soundtrack.
ALT 1:CHINA GIRL PUSSY RIOT: Transpose above as a Chinese rebellion epic. The One-Child Policy is likely to have resulted in high rates of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. A Chinese government Commission suggests “there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020.” A tragedy-struck village woman rises up and leads via long march an exponentially increasing crowd of women. Army cadres refuse to shoot their mothers/sisters/wives. It all ends in Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese leaders are brought to their literal knees. The female vs male kung fu scenes will be unpraralleled. Set in the present day.
Idea 2: THE DALAI LAMA REBELLION OF 2032
Scenario: After the “death” of the current Dalai Lama, his reincarnation grows up to be a superbly trained Shaolin-style kung fu fighter. As climate change creates terrible coastal floods around the world, forcing inland tens of millions of China’s population, the new, 15th Dalai Lama is smuggled into Tibet by private stealth jet hired by Hollywood sympathisers. DL15 leads a hi-tech army of his peeps into ejecting the occupying Chinese forces triggering a showdown with the Chinese Communist Party as it tries to reclaim the now crucial Tibetan territory. AMAZING kung fu scenes ensue. Vast crowds of faceless upper-echelon bureaucrats are slaughtered. (A Buddhist-violence problem here, to be solved by scripting ju-jitsu.)
Idea 3: SILENCE = DEATH SQUAD
The injustice: In the Reagan years of 1981–89, nearly 116,ooo Americans were diagnosed with AIDS, of whom more than 70,ooo died (over 60%). AIDS was first reported in the press in 1981; Reagan never spoke the word in public until 1987. (‘Silence = Death’ is the anti-AIDS slogan.)
Scenario: The AIDS action group ACT UP, formed in ’87, plan a revenge attack on the White House. The President’s son “Jr,” then 29 years old (an atheist, ballet dancer and liberal) in a moment of ambivalent sympathy finagles the ACT UP troop into the White House. The seven member troop, some in drag, all diagnosed with AIDS, perform “forcible anal sex” and kissing. Wild escape scenes as mayhem ensues. Entire teams of security staff shoot each other. All targets are infected; several of the WH staff confess to enjoying it; the troop escapes to France. AIDS research is superaccelerated and cures are found within a year. The soundtrack: post-house disco, massive.
Idea 4: WHO YOU CALLING BOAT PEOPLE?
Scenario: The Tampa “boat people” affair 2001. A band of boat people come ashore one night and kidnap the three highest-ranking government members from a Kirribilli party and vanish. The three politicians are incarcerated on an unnamed Pacific island and suffer indignities, lovingly filmed in close up and then released to the ABC. The ABC is accused of being blatantly left-leaning. The three never return, and are forgotten. A huge fleet of boat people, coordinated by Aboriginal agents (elders played by Tommy Lewis and Jack Charles), invade Australia and ruthlessly evict untold numbers of suburban mostly Anglo-Celtic dwellers. It is like 1788, but in negative. Indigerock (just neologised!) soundtrack with Coloured Stone, Black Arm Band, No Fixed Address, Warumpi, YY et al. Treaty, YEAH!
WHY I WON’T BE SEEING DJANGO UNCHAINED
The short version: The violence: call me squeamish. But this is not S,V,L violence. This is Tarantino violence. Like Spinal Tap volume. It would be like inviting a pescatarian friend to the Peter Luger Steakhouse and saying the chef uses just a bit of beef stock. (And then adding: But, it’s good for you, steak. As in, you know, this is morally presented violence; it shows you graphically what extremely extreme extremities the African slaves suffered. You need to see this, as knowledge and penitence.)
And, I don’t buy his righteousness, but you’ll have to read on for that.
The long version:
My sadomasochistic relationship with Quentin began with Pulp Fiction (’94). It left me on the floor of the cinema — searching for where it had knocked my socks off. Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Jackie Brown (’97), only his third feature and released when QT was just 34, is a marvel of sensual maturity, delicate of feeling and gorgeous of appearance.
But then I was slapped down by Kill Bill Vol.1 (’03). Followed by Kill Bill Vol.2 (’04). Never have I seen such inventive use of violence or such intentionally seductive sadism (KB1 begins with the heroine “The Bride,” fully pregnant at her wedding, being shot in the head by the father of her child in utero). My socks were safe, but my fuses were blown — my quota for screen violence immediately maxed out for years, and sadly I had to separate from Quentin — the relationship had turned sour, cynical and abusive. It wasn’t you, it was me! (Nah, actually it was you.)
The basterd, sucked me in one last time
But then I heard about Inglorious Basterds (’09), a story of such delightful ambition — Jewish soldiers’ revenge on the Nazis — that I had to go back to him, to Q.
There were several outstanding passages of sadistic voyeurism — the long, cruel opening; the nightclub scene; the projector room killing — but it was the final revenge killing scene that finished Q and me, when the Jewish soldiers and their good ol’ Southern boy leader lay waste to the Nazi crowd in a cinema. (Plus, the celluloid stock goes up in flames: it’s revenge for cineastes, too!) But, but, critical raves couldn’t allay the queasiness I felt watching that final fantasy. Wildly over the top, it made plain the moral corruption of the idea of revenge.
As a child I watched plenty of revenge flicks — under their other name: Kung Fu movies. Q would have watched many more of them, and more closely. Some were directed by Yuen Woo Ping, who eventually choreographed the fight scenes in the Kill Bills. But the thing is this: when it became apparent that Growing Up could not be avoided, I stopped watching them. Otherwise it’s like maintaining a child’s instinct for junk food and drink into adulthood. You can keep junking, but hello Diabetes, hello, Cardiac!
That revenge killing scene in Basterds left me alternately constipated and diarrheic with moral indigestion. It licenced killing thrills, sanctioned fist-pumping slaughter, and did it better than all the kung fu movies. Damn you Q. I fell for your smart mouth, your flashing looks, and yes, your killer splatter. But where’s the love gone? Where has Jackie gone?
The N-word: reggiN, reggiN, reggiN!
Tarantino says he doesn’t want anyone to be comfortable with Django Unchained. (Apart from the catharsis payoff.) It’s Serious, mum — Q says “I’ve always wanted to explore slavery in a film … to give black American males a Western hero, a cool folkloric hero.” Anyway, there is a good deal of explicit violence and language — the foul N-word “reggiN” is used 110 times, in your face Muthafckr! (But, no sex to speak of — or rape — Q is not good with sex, interesting no? — “squeamish about sex“)
Snippets about the sadism and violence from other reviews:
New Yorker: He is happy to film whippings, in unstinting detail…
Time: Django dislodges a rider from his mount by blowing holes in the heads of the man and his horse.
New York magazine: Connoisseurs of “wet” gore will be especially delighted … The only violence that’s not a kick is done unto slaves, who are whipped, torn to pieces by dogs, and, in a particularly ugly moment, driven to slaughter one another for sport. (My itals, we will return to that.)
Roger Ebert: … after-dinner entertainment is having two slaves fight each other to the death. It’s a brutal fight … The losing slave screams without stopping, and I reflected that throughout the film there is much more screaming in a violent scene than you usually hear. (4 stars from Ebert)
Black torture, white cartoon
But those printed reviews skirt only briefly around the quality of violence, the exquisite detail of the sadism. You hear rather more of it in podcast discussions. From the excellent Slate Spoiler podcast (around 8 min). Remember there are no spoilers, revenge movies always have happy endings:
Tanner Colby: “…Sitting with snifters of cognac watching a mandingo fight … these two black men … They fight them like cockfighting, like dogs … It’s a great sort of illustration of what Southern society was like, this genteel refinement that has this dehumanising violence at its core … These two slaves are literally beating the shit out of each other in one of the most viscerally violent things I have ever seen on screen … Or, did you and I have that reaction because we are white people in America?”
Dana Stevens: “Essentially beating each other to death. As you know I watched it through a lattice work of fingers. I barely saw any of that scene … I’m on the fence about that scene: … it was undeniably effective and powerful. It turned your stomach, it was incredibly hard to watch … At the same time I’m not sure that that scene didn’t turn us essentially into … the character played by Leonardo di Carpio … who is getting off on watching these two men beat each other to death. I just think that there is a moment when Tarantino’s pleasure in blood, gore and violence … in making us experience the extreme really does turn into this voyeurism, it’s really distatseful.”
And then Colby makes this brilliant observation (around 10:1o):
TC: As the movie turns and Django gets the upper hand on the plantation owners at the end, the violence is more cartoonish and less visceral, like the violence that is done to the slaves in the film. (DS: You’re right! You’re right!) It’s more like blood-spurting … spaghetti-western kind of way. And he cartoonises that violence but he makes this [“Mandingo” scene] very real.
DS: It’s very close up, it’s one on one. I don’t know what point about racial violence is being made by having so many closeups of guys bashing each others’ heads into the floor. And then the dog tearing apart is the next one …
TC: … And so he sets these rabid dogs onto his runaway slave … in front of Jamie Foxx [Django], and in front of us, and the dogs just tear the guy to pieces. Again, in an incredibly graphic way.
DS: It really is one of those things where you know it when you see it … I’m not trying to lay down some prudish line of saying you can show this much gore in the interest of making your point about racial violence but not that much gore. I just have this feeling that Tarantino is digging it in a way that’s really distasteful.
TC: I think it’s both maybe … the way he contrasted the violence with this sort of foppish image of the Southern aristoicracy, I think he was making a deliberate point, and he also got his jollies in a weird way by making that point.
They go on to talk about the third horrific (almost) castration scene when Django is “graphically” strung upside down to have his “balls cut off.” They wind up by recommending people see the movie.
Tarantino on why he likes making violent movies …
In a recent notorious interview with UK’s Channel 4 news, Q lost it at the dark-skinned interviewer over a timely question about the link if any between film and real violence: “I refuse your question. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master.” Q, the great manipulator himself, creator of cathartic moments, declined to play nice with the “serious” media.
But before that outburst, in response to the question, Why do you like making violent movies, he answers (at 3 min): “It’s like asking Judd Apatow why you like making comedies … I think it’s good cinema. I consider it good cinema … You sit there in a theatre when these cathartic violent scenes happen … There are two types of violence in this movie — there is the brutality of the violence … put upon the slaves … then there is the cathartic violence of Django paying back blood for blood.”
And why “cathartic” violence can’t be realistic
What Tarantino doesn’t arrive at, and what the Slate Spoiler pair fail to drill down to is this:
If you, ie if Tarantino, showed the “cathartic,” justified, violence meted out to the plantation owners in the same closeup exquisite detail as used in the slave-violence scenes, and lingered over in the same manner, the audience might actually be turned off.
Because then we might notice that realistic/real violence is horrific, full stop. (Unless maybe when we are caught up in the passion of enacting an actual moment of revenge or defence.) A closely, realistically photographed scene of that violence cannot be watched as entertainment, however morally justified it may be. Realistic violence cannot be applied to a villain for any length of time in case the audience should start to empathise with the suffering of the villain, who then becomes a victim, a person. And the revenger becomes the torturer.
And that’s it — I don’t believe Tarantino’s righteous violence is any such thing, and I sure ain’t hot for those jollies. So, despite the critical raves, I won’t be going to Django Unchained. You see: “I’m not biting. I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey.” Oh, Q, baby! Maybe we agree, after all!
W. H. Chong is a book designer and artist. He is Design Director at Text Publishing, and a founding member of ABDA (Australian Book Designers Association) where he currently serves as Secretary. His work can be seen at whchong.com.