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25 Points: 12 Years a Slave’s Glaring Flaws Won’t Deny It A Oscar — (Django Unchained Also Discussed)

samuel-l-jackson-django

1) Django Unchained is a “better” movie than 12 Years a Slave.

2) Harold Blood, Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), and Brad Pitt (Bass): these three form the bedrock of the most original part of my argument. Force of character. Force of personality. (I’ll talk more about this later on).

3) The next part of my argument resides in “excitement”. In aesthetic pleasure. Yes, there’s something pleasing and thrilling about Tarantino’s excesses and indulgences, his operatic screams. And there’s something pleasing, immensely pleasing, about his success in creating a Western (a spaghetti Western) within a Slavery landscape because, well, that’s no easy task.

(and, plz, here let me point out that “Best Picture” does not mean “Most Necessary Picture”)

4) And the most important part of my argument is that 12 Years a Slave, though flawed, has become a kind of Sacred Cow and, thus, tends to get a free pass since it is so “necessary” (which it is, since “Americans tend to have amnesia about historical events*” and in the case of Slavery and all its horrors the amnesia is compounded by “deep trauma*”). So, because the movie is a valuable and needed wake-up call we can and need to kind of sweep its problems under the rug:

12 Years a Slave has some of the awkwardness and inauthenticity of a foreign-made film about the United States. The dialogue of the Washington, D.C., slave traders sounds as if it were written for “Lord of the Rings.” White plantation workers speak in standard redneck cliches. And yet the ways in which this film is true are much more important than the ways it’s false. (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)

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Henry Louis Gates Jr

5) The quotes starred (*) above are from a TIME interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. This interview’s a decent quick-bite read, but much more valuable and meaty is Gates’ interview with Tarantino (you can find it here on The Root) which is a wonderful series of insights into Tarantino’s intentions as well as Gates’ opinion of Tarantino’s accomplishments in what Gates calls “the best postmodern take on Slavery*.”

(* this last quote, again, is from the Time interview in which Gates also hails 12 Years a Slave as “the most realistic account of Slavery”).

6) An important and necessary movie, again, of course, isn’t necessarily the best movie, but here are some quotes from Anthony Stokes’ “On How 12 Years a Slave Succeeded where Django Unchained failed”

with a matter as serious as slavery you should have more respect.”

12 years a Slave has emotional weight to spare and will leave you emotionally devastated. Which is what a movie about something as cruel as slavery should do. In no context should you walk out of a movie about slavery and refer to it as ‘fun’ or ‘funny.’ So if you want a goofy movie about slavery written by a guy going through arrested development then Django it is.” (note: emphasis here is mine)

ultimately Django Unchained doesn’t take itself seriously so neither will I.”

7) Henry Louis Gates Jr (also, a consultant for 12 Years A Slave) does take Tarantino quite seriously: “I’m a scholar of slavery, and one of the things I notice in my classes [that I teach] is that we’ve become inured to the suffering and pain of slavery, that we’ve distanced ourselves enough from it, that people can’t experience the terror, the horrible pain, the anxiety, the stress, et cetera, that came with the slave experience. I thought that in Django you really began to reinsert contemporary viewers into that pain, particularly through the scene when the dogs tear Candie’s slave D’Artagnan apart.” (HLG talking to QT in their interview)

And, yes, indeed Django has plenty of horrible sequences. Has plenty of moments that will devastate you. Moments that will reinsert you into the pain. But it’s not just horrible, and it’s not just pain. It’s also a fairy tale. And it’s a revenge fantasy. And it is also fun. Thrilling.

8) When it comes to Art, of course (one would think), nothing’s impossible (much falls flat, but nothing’s impossible) so it freaks me out when people keep going on about what can and can’t be done aesthetically (even though I guess I’ll make my pronouncements too!). But, really, it just seems ridiculous moralizing, prudish and holier-than-thou (really uptight) to say you can’t do certain things in a movie about Slavery. That you have to be completely and only “respectful,” appropriate, serious, somber, etc.

9) The problem with Django, then, for the puritans, is the gore. All the gore of fun, thrills and frivolous gestures. All the actual gore of blood and the gore, also, of bullets. All the gore, guts, disgust and distastefulness of language. (I mean, really, these sorts of things shouldn’t be allowed in a movie about Slavery. I mean it’s in bad taste. I mean it’s just not right.) & how many (far too many!) times did we hear the N word ??

(Tarantino says all the uproar/fuss about the use of the N word in Django Unchained is “ridiculous,” but according to the movie’s detractors he’s just an adolescent who’s made a childish and inappropriate movie).

10) And when Gates means says that Django Unchained is “postmodern” I guess he means it’s not a straight and entirely realistic narrative. And I’m guessing, too, that if he was pressed, really pressed, to say which movie he preferred he’d be diplomatic, but say (in his heart at least) that he was happier with 12 Years a Slave because it, without distraction and much complications, breaks the dark ice in us. That it “uninures” us.

11) But just because 12 Years a Slave is a better History lesson, a better slap in the face, a better pill to swallow, it doesn’t also follow that it is a better movie. Doesn’t follow that critics should acknowledge some of its flaws (more on this soon) and yet still manage to call it a perfect masterpiece (5 stars out of 5), thereby oiling the Oscar rails for it to ride smoothly in on.

william-shakespeare-07

12) And now I’ll jump back to my point about the “force of character” by drawing on Harold Bloom’s insights on Shakespeare–yeah, I know, Bloom can be so annoying, so drooling in his Bardolatry, but the man knows his stuff. George Orwell, in an essay about Tolstoy’s unfortunate attack on The Bard, claimed that Shakespeare’s hold on people is through language and there’s truth to this, lots of truth to this, but Shakespeare’s biggest hold on us (all of us, black, white, etc) is through his unparalleled creations of personality, of character.

And Bloom points to Hamlet and Falstaff as being the most perfect and widest and most interesting characters ever created. He is probably right.

13) In Django Unchained, four hundred some years away from Shakespeare’s most serious plays )which also contained so much wit, thrill, fun, bawdiness, etc) Tarantino’s most interesting character by far (most compelling, haunting and unforgettable) is Stephen played by Samuel L. Jackson.

And here to illustrate the strong impression that Stephen makes on the viewer’s psyche here are some quotes taken from the Gates/Tarantino interview:

“One of the things that will disturb people much more than the use of the n-word, or much more even than the horrors of slavery, was Samuel L. Jackson’s amazing depiction of Stephen” (Henry Louis Gates Jr)

“Do I have any problem playing the most despicable black motherf–ker in the history of the world?” [Pause.] “No, I ain’t got no problem with that. No, man, I’m already in it.” (Samuel L. Jackson, as quoted by Quentin Tarantino)

“Why was it important for you to set up an opposition between the baddest black cowboy in the West, as Django, and the biggest Uncle Tom in the history of film, as Stephen? Why is that binary opposition important to your narrative structure?” (Henry Louis Gates Jr)

14) The Binary that Gates brings up is important. Binaries, like them or not, are essential for people and of course Tarantino is consciously exaggerating the good guy/bad guy dynamic here. And it is indeed, in Django Unchained, the source of incredible tension. A shrewd play by Tarantino that (almost Shakespeare-like, but still just Marlovian) sets up a compelling binary in contrast to the more recognizable and conventional one involving a system of bad white perpertrators and their oppressed black victims.

And in doing so he touches on a frightening human universality: that a person can be bad, evil, monstrous. And, indeed, the created and stage character, Stephen, is terrifying, horrible, and though exceptional and perhaps somewhat exaggerated he is also quite human (which makes him all the more haunting).

Tarantino here, of course, is cracking the dark ice in us but for many people it just doesn’t seem right. And, to be fair, this binary is touched upon in 12 Years a Slave, but weakly and meekly. (12 Years a Slave does confront us with menacing white characters superbly realized by excellent actors but none of these devastate in the way that Stephen does.)

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15) The character, on the other hand, that stands out most in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is Bass, played by Brad Pitt. I saw somewhere that Brad Pitt suffers some disease where he can’t remember people’s faces and from the way his face looks in 12 Years a Slave (lost, blank, zero) I can totally believe it. Even most of the film’s most glowing reviews set aside a caveat for the “misstep” of casting Brad Pitt (one of the film’s co-producers) as Bass:

“The one flaw with “Slave” comes in the form of Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, and you sense screenwriter John Ridley struggling to further the story along with Pitt’s abolitionist from Canada. While Pitt is fine, his dialogue is stiff, intended to be the bridge for the next development. Fortunately, it doesn’t diminish the film’s overall effect” (Randy Myers in the San Jose Mercury News).

16) Okay, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear, now, that I’m joking about Brad Pitt (Bass) being the most memorable character in a movie made of such an ensemble of skillfully-realized characters who either inflict or endure such horrors and evils. (This is a movie, after all, about Slavery). I mean, c’mon, I must be joking. Well, I am not joking. Up to the Pitt debacle 12 Years a Slave had built up quite a bit of gravitas (a kind of dark ice itself) which then gets smashed to pieces by the awkward and laughable Brad Pitt character.

(Pitt is listed as one of the film’s co-producers and how ironic to see the star of the movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, quoted as follows: ”I think the truth is we wouldn’t have been able to make this film without Brad Pitt, because of what he brings.”)

17) Yes, the Brad Pitt/Bass deal is a complete fiasco. As the movie looks to wrap itself up, looks to move Solomon back to his family up North, any continuity of immersion within the narrative (strained at times anyways) is wrecked by Pitt, like a teddy-bear landmine. And most critics are aware of the Pitt disaster (aware also of the movie’s problems as a “movie”) but in an amazing trick of double think (a strange binary) they don’t allow any of this to dull the movie’s Oscar glow at all. (on the contrary, the community of critics as a whole are actively buffing up its Oscar glow).

(and here, again, let me point out that “Best Picture” does not mean “Most Necessary Picture”)

18) For me 12 Years a Slave, all in all, rings a bit hollow. And I left the theater impressed, moved, pleased but a little skeptical. A little unsatisfied about the movie as a movie. But critics know (and in a way they’re right) that 12 Years a Slave should get as much attention and praise (awards, too) as it can it can because then more people will end up watching the movie. And more dark ice will be broken. And Hollywood can feel good about itself.

And if the Oscar comes (inevitable, it seems) well then we can all feel better about ourselves. Feel better about everything.

12 Years a Slavelays out an institution so twisted and wrong that its honest portrayal has been avoided for centuries. Yes, it’s dark and brutal. It needs to be.” (Tom Long, Detroit News).

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Steve McQueen

19) But, but, but. But,  the movie-making in 12 Years a Slave also crosses sometimes into the self-conscious, voluptuous and indulgent. Too intent on devastating and educating the viewer. And some critics have picked up on this:

“The film is not a flawless masterpiece. McQueen doesn’t communicate the cadence of time passing, and he triple-underlines his points (an intercepted letter to Northup’s family can’t be burned without its dying embers being squeezed for every drop of blatant pathos). Still, it is a bold, important provocation.” (Colin Covert, in The Star Tribune)

20) Okay, so let’s take stock here. There are major problems with dialogue. Problems with the “cadence of time passing” (no small problem!), indulgence and melodrama. But, again, in a neat display of double think so many critics acknowledge these problems but quickly dismiss them as being unimportant because well more “important” things are at play here. (this actually creeps me out a bit).

21) (And here I’ll triple underline my point too). . .The unfortunate reality that 12 Years a Slave can indeed be melodramatic and over-voluptuously rendered hasn’t stopped critics from focusing on their gushing, many of them without any reservations:

“Slavery is revealed for the unrelenting horror that it was. About time.” (Bill Goodykoontz in the Arizona Republic).

(and this just seems irresponsible, really. seems like a cheap sort of propaganda.)

22) Both Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave are good movies. Neither are perfect. Both reinsert us into pain. Neither are perfect, or Oscar worthy even. But whereas 12 Years a Slave is handled, mostly, with kid gloves (nurturing and protecting its Oscar Hopes) Django, on the other hand, has been treated by some as a whipping boy.

23) When it comes to movies I believe in aesthetics more than the real world (ie, what’s important or necessary, socially). If I didn’t then I’d be lobbying for less big budget movies like Transformers and The Hunger Games and replacing them with ones about proper diet, dental care, safe sex, etc.

And I’d suggest, also, that all nominees for important awards be subjected to a thorough vetting process to ensure they’re important and necessary enough for such consideration.

24) Nothing is a sacred cow. Nothing.

25) Samuel L. Jackson’s realization of Stephen will haunt me forever. Brad Pitt’s Bass will too.

 ***

Quentin Tarantino

 

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