Monday, January 21, 2013

Django Freeman, Oskar Schindler, and the Atomic Bomb

There are questions in this world that cannot be answered and many times they are raised by art.  Most of the time it is intentional but sometimes the question comes from the devices of the art itself.  Recently, Django Unchained raised the question, quite unintentionally, about what kind of history can be used as backdrop for story.   Django Unchained has been called a revenge fantasy and a spaghetti western and both of those have a little truth to them though, in the end, it is more a love story told through those genre conventions than anything else.  The problem is, or the problem that some people have with the movie is, comes with the historical reality of slavery used as a propellant for the story.  Some notable commentators on the subject, like director Spike Lee, find the idea offensive on the face of it and refuse to even see the movie. It is difficult to engage in a discussion about a movie one hasn't seen but for Lee, I suppose, the offense is too high to risk seeing it.  Tavis Smiley agrees.  On the other hand, how much harm can come to two grown men watching a two hour and forty five minute movie if the end result means they will be taken more seriously in their arguments?  It seems a no-brainer - see the goddamn movie, it won't kill you.  The two questions at the center of it all are simple:  First, how and when can a movie use history as a backdrop without causing offense?  Second, who gives a damn?

Both questions are as important as they are virtually unanswerable.  Let's say a filmmaker decides to use the horrifying event of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima as a backdrop to a story of a troubled relationship.  And let's further say that the relationship story is treated with utter solemnity and the subject, of both the relationship and the bombing, are treated with respect.   In that case, you probably have Hiroshima, Mon Amour and won't find too many people taking offense at the use of such a disturbing event in the service of a fictional story.  If, on the other hand, the events of Hiroshima were used in a flippant or callous way, in the service of a tawdry sex comedy, things might be viewed differently.  Audiences might ask, "Couldn't you have come up with a different backdrop for your story than that?"

Or sometimes, the backdrop is so incidental that it seems wrong to use something so important for something so unimportant.  For instance, when I watched Shutter Island a couple of years back, I remember thinking, "Dachua, huh?  You had to use Dachau for a minor story backdrop?  Couldn't just turn it into watching a soldier die in a building after a battle?  Why?"  I wasn't hideously offended but, well, it just seemed a bit off.  That is to say, there are certain events in history that are so overwhelmingly awful that we owe it to them, if we use them at all in our stories, to make the story about them, period.  If I'm going to use the Holocaust in my movie then my movie better goddamn well be about the Holocaust.  It can occur inside the camps or years after (The Pawnbroker, Sophie's Choice) but the end result is, it better be about it and not used as some clever way of giving our lead character some deeper back-story.

The same goes for slavery.  Slavery in the Americas encompasses hundreds of years before the United States existence and nearly a hundred years after and it's in that "after" period that it really gets truly, monumentally awful. The number of men, women and children born into or sold into slavery and worked to death or beaten to death or simply brutalized by the knowledge that they were human property is incalculable.  Unlike the Holocaust, we don't have a condensed period of time, with modern records and census numbers, to make the task easier.  We have instead only the dreadful estimate that over hundreds of years (and given the number of slave ancestors living in the United States today) the numbers must have been in the millions.  And that is, by any measure, irreconcilably terrible.

And so, like the Holocaust, it feels as though a story that includes slavery as an important element of the story better goddamn well be about slavery for the whole story.  It's too serious, too horrible, too revolting an event in human history to be used as a plot device.  

But why?

Upon its release, Schindler's List was greeted with both praise and detraction.  Detractors stated that it was insulting that a movie about the Holocaust wasn't really about it at all but instead a tribute to a non-Jewish, German industrialist.   Why didn't Schindler's List tells Schindler's story through the eyes of Jews suffering instead?  At the same time, supporters asked why was it off-limits to celebrate one man's heroic act.  After all, if Schindler indeed risked himself and his business to save his fellow human beings, why is it a problem to celebrate that?  How else are you supposed to celebrate it without focusing on him?

But, it has also been said (by Terry Gilliam, for instance) that the Holocaust represents one of humanity's greatest failures and Schindler's List focuses on a success story.  Is that a problem?  Why?  Yes, it does focus on a success story but it does not imply that the Holocaust itself wasn't a titanic failure of human morality on almost every conceivable level.  It says only, in effect, yes, we know this larger event was awful but here's one tiny corner of it that provided a brief but meaningful cover from the rain of shit that defined almost all of it.

Django Unchained, of course, has a different set of problems than Schindler's List.  Django Unchained is not based on a true story and is only about slavery to the extent that it works to give our hero, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), a risk and a challenge in getting his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), back.   But, really, plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) could be a James Bond villain, the plantation a fortress and Django and Schultz (Christoph Waltz) two agents working to free their partner from inside (and Stephen, played by Samuel Jackson, could easily sub as the Bond villain's henchman).

Now it's not that Django Unchained doesn't show the brutalities of slavery in an unflinching way, it does.  It shows it in disturbing and uncomfortable detail.  But, in the end, it's all in the service of the "not without my wife" story and, honestly, I can see how taking hundreds of years of brutality and pure, unadulterated moral filth and making it a backdrop for a spaghetti western love tale might piss more than a few people off.  Just as I can with Schindler's List and even Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  I can imagine, though I have no evidence, that there were a few survivors of Hiroshima who felt fourteen years was a little too soon to start using their personal nightmare to tell a love story.  Survivors of the Titanic might have felt the same way about the countless movies made about the doomed ship but I don't really know.

But, of course, the second questions remains: Who gives a damn?  When I watched The House on Telegraph Hill a couple of months back and wrote it up for a blog post at TCM, I noted that it starts out in Bergen-Belsen and then said no more on the subject.  Here was a movie that was specifically using the Holocaust to set up a goddamn mystery-thriller.  That seems pretty damn offensive and, yet, it wasn't.  Why?  I don't know.   Maybe because it was made so soon after the actual events that I knew everyone involved understood the gravity of the event.  Maybe it was because the Bergen-Belsen scenes were so obviously stage-bound that it seemed harmless.  Maybe I just forgive older movies too much.

The problem here is that I can only assume that everyone involved in Django Unchained also understands the gravity of slavery just as the makers of The House on Telegraph Hill understood the gravity of the Holocaust.   And since Django does an excellent job of showing the horrors of slavery and the horrifyingly callous indifference of the slave owners, I imagine they felt it important enough that flinching away from it would be the bigger insult.

So where does that leave us?  In the case of Django Unchained, it leaves us in the same place that Schindler's List leaves us, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour and, yes, even The House on Telegraph Hill.  It leaves us in a place where it's up to each person who sees it to decide what level of offense they take from it.   I was not personally offended by Django Unchained because it was at least blunt and straightforward on the horrors of slavery.   Something like Gone with the Wind, so cavalier in its disregard for that very thing, so sugarcoating of the true horror of that very nasty, not peculiar, institution, is much more offensive.  No one is beaten or set upon by vicious dogs and everyone leads a happy, peaceful existence until those damn Yankees get all hostile.   Something like Birth of a Nation, coming up on its hundredth year anniversary, is such a nightmare of racial animosity and moral turpitude and so far removed from anything that is betrayed now that it probably belongs in its own discussion.

Those who would argue against Django Unchained or Schindler's List do so on the basis that films are not history but films do teach history to a great many people.  As we get further away from the horrors of slavery and the Holocaust, it's important to remember that plantation owners weren't given their comeuppance by freed slaves and German industrialists didn't work together to end the Holocaust.  Sounds obvious but give it another hundred years and a few more "inspirational" movies and let me know what the consensus is.  Think I'm crazy?  Check out any poll on how much people in this country know about history.  Christ, over a quarter of all Americans don't know we gained our independence from Britain and you're going to tell me we don't have to worry about movies teaching history?  The hell we don't.  Or maybe we can take solace in the fact that 74 percent do know.

Django Unchained, in the end, feels like a cartoon adventure, like that Bond movie scenario I alluded to up top.   I also found it rather dull for long stretches and easily the least of all of Tarantino's works (although I've never seen Death Proof so maybe that's worse, although I can't imagine anything worse than Parker Lewis Can't Lose sound effects being employed every time there's a smash close-up).  But does that preclude it from using slavery as a backdrop?  Is history something to be recited with unfaltering reverence or something to be riffed on and used for commentary?  I don't know.  I don't have a single, concrete answer to one of these questions.  I just hope art keeps forcing us to ask them.  If it does that, surely we can't go too wrong.