Archive | January, 2013

Django Unchained, Lincoln, and the Use of History

16 Jan

lincoln-poster-gun-steven-spielbergThis January, it is common to find film critics such as this rather witty one comparing two new and somewhat controversial films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. Along those lines, the comparison between the gun-slinging Django and the politically savvy Lincoln has been humorously and visually made in the Django/Lincoln/James Bond mash-up poster that you see here. Both movies are made by white men about the subject of slavery; both feature heroic white men who over the course of the movie become devoted to the cause of emancipation; both have been nominated for best picture awards this year, and both have been discussed in light of the directors’ earlier films about the Jewish holocaust — Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

So, it’s not surprising that people would compare them, but I’ve got a slightly different take on these movies than what I’ve seen the critics say, and I think the critics have been avoiding both the real question and the troubling implications not only for these two movies, but for most movies. The real question, of course, is the use of history — why? who cares? Or to respond to a sentiment I often hear from students sometimes about watching movies just for “enjoyment” and not for any deeper meaning, why is history enjoyable? And the more troubling implication of this question has to do with the anti-social quality of both films, and I will explain what I mean by that at the end of this blog post by comparing Tarantino’s approach to the blaxploitation genre with the older 1972 film The Legend of Nigger Charley upon which Tarantino’s movie is based. But before that, I will briefly summarize and respond to the things critics are saying.

First, although there are some similarities as I mentioned above, critics and the public in general have all pointed out important differences. Both of Tarantino’s films (Django Unchained and Inglorious Bastards)are violent revenge fantasies that self-consciously play with the genre conventions of blaxploitation films and spaghetti westerns, and both of Spielberg’s are about actual historical figures and purport to teach us something true about history. Django features a black man who engages in trickery and kills a lot of white men in order to free his wife; Lincoln features a white man who engages in political trickery during a war in which millions were killed in order to free slaves. Django is a bromance between a white man and a black man in which both characters develop and change as they get to know each other; Lincoln is a solid rock of righteousness, folk wisdom, and pragmatic virtuosity who never wavers and never changes.

Probably the most controversial aspect of both films is their use and abuse of history. Since Spielberg claims his Lincoln is “true,” he has been criticized for many historical inaccuracies (e.g., here and here, though curiously these inaccuracies are less worrisome to the American Historical Association’s executive director here.) The most troubling inaccuracy of course is the film’s strange occlusion of the abolitionist movement, especially Frederick Douglass’s influence. Many historians and theorists, from Angela Davis to Eric Foner, have demonstrated the importance of these movements on American politics in general and on Lincoln’s own mindset in particular. Along those lines, popular culture has also responded to Spielberg’s movie, and here is a somewhat amusing satire most of which is pretty accurate (until the end, when he starts talking about hats and beards.)

But the exclusion of this historical information is not the only problem. The movie even goes so far as to suggest that such radicals need to be contained when at a key moment in the film Thaddeus Stevens pragmatically shifts to the political center, when in fact it was the radicals who did most of the real work before Lincoln even took office. In what is probably supposed to be a touching scene but for me was a nauseating one, Lincoln’s very difficult and controversial shift from a separatist position (blacks free but separate from whites) to an integrationist position — a shift that was brought about by Douglass and other white and black abolitionists — is contained in a rather sentimental conversation between Lincoln and his wife’s maid. (And I use the word “contained” deliberately — in terms of narrative, quite literally the whole issue is contained in that one conversation and appears nowhere else, and hence in metaphorical terms, the issue is contained and its historical and political implications are prevented from contaminating the heroic image of Lincoln that Spielberg wants to present.) The two black women portrayed in the movie appear to be mere domestics, but in real history they were activists and organizers.

In contrast, Django has been criticized by Spike Lee and others less for its inaccuracies than for its disrespectful attitude towards the seriousness of slavery as well as in his perverse delight in having his characters so cavalierly brandish about the n-word (e.g., here and here.) To put it another way, few people expect historical accuracy from this sort of film, but what’s troubling to Spike Lee is that the movie transforms something horrible and traumatic into something hilarious and enjoyable. It trivializes something that we ought to take seriously.

But what’s historical fiction for, anyway? Accuracy? Perspective? Patriotism? Honoring the past? Hating the past? In discussing Lincoln with a friend, we both agreed that what Lincoln did well was focus very intently on a single month of time and bring to light the sort of hard and dirty political maneuvers that might lay behind any piece of legislation that came to define the very soul of the United States and our political system. This is a movie we could imagine a high school teacher showing in a U.S. history or civics class. And indeed, the movie begins almost like a high school class, with some minor characters attempting like schoolboys to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. But of course, what’s missing from all the political maneuvers is any sense of why any of the political figures feel or think the way they do. We don’t get a rich sense of what motivates any of the political positions. The issue of race that other critics have brought up is part of this problem. We don’t see the years of hard work that the abolitionists put in to make that happen. We don’t get any sense of black people as politically organized. But this is just part it. In fact, we don’t see any social organization of any kind or any aspect of American culture. We only see the epiphenomenal political superstructure on top of the much more complex cultural base, and what’s insidious about that is that it isolates politics and political action from the very stakes that political representation is supposed to be for in the first place.

Of course, Lincoln would be a very boring movie if it were only about the politics. Spielberg has to humanize the characters and give them a semblance of depth, and this is especially important and hard to accomplish for the character of Lincoln considering that this is a character who does not develop because his heroic image is based on his rock-like consistency. Spielberg achieves this semblance of depth by shifting the focus of the story back and forth between the political intrigue and his family. The camera technique that Spielberg uses to achieve this is the deep focus shots pioneered by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, where what is happening in the foreground relates to or contrasts with what’s happening in the background. But for Welles, this deep focus technique was used to create ironic juxtapositions that revealed a deep ideological and psychological conflict. In contrast, for Spielberg, the family man foreground functions to humanize and justify Lincoln’s politically unconstitutional maneuvers in the background. What if, instead of all the family imagery, we were given a broader view of the culture in which Lincoln lived? This might diminish his agency and his heroic image, and more to the point, it would undermine Spielberg’s hagiographic use of history to celebrate heroic, individualist pragmatism at the expense of radical social organization.

For me, for all its differences, Django has the same problems as Lincoln, even though its abuse of history is for entirely different ends. First, what I think is politically effective and amazing about Django can be summed up by telling my experience watching it in a movie theater in downtown Brooklyn. The audience was a mix of white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., but seemed mostly white. What I saw as Tarantino’s achievement is that every time the black character killed a white character, everyone in the audience cheered. But of course what’s missing from Django is precisely the politically and socially organized black community that is also missing from Lincoln. Just as in Lincoln, we see no positive culture in this film. Instead, in both films (and also in the new James Bond films that I just wrote about recently) we see individual heroism against a vague backdrop of a negative culture, and specifically in the case of Django, this heroism is mostly manifest in Django’s talent with a gun and with his partner’s ability to twist the law towards his own ends. (To qualify this, I would say that what’s actually really great about Django is that unlike Lincoln we do have character development as the two men become friends; by the end of the film, what Tarantino has carefully and brilliantly plotted is a very clever role reversal as the white man and black man gradually switch positions.)

It might serve us well to compare Django to its predecessor from three decades ago, The Legend of Nigger Charley and its sequels The Soul of Nigger Charley  and Boss Nigger which were also box-office hits. How does Tarantino’s new movie differ from the older blaxploitation film that inspired him?

Obviously, in the early 1970s, it was a new and astonishing thing to have heroic black men brandishing guns, beating up whites, and getting the girl at the end of the film. And these movies were not intended only for black audiences. White audiences liked them too. Of course, at the time, as the excellent documentary BaadAsssss Cinema showed, the black community was deeply divided over these films, some celebrating them for giving the same sorts of roles to black characters that whites had always enjoyed in the movies, and others condemning them for emphasizing crime, sex, violence, and derogatory language (i.e., the n-word) — things for which the black community had been stigmatized. What’s different about the debate in the 1970s and the debate over Django that people are having now is that in the 70s, these films really were doing something new and enacting a cultural transformation. One can’t say that about Django.

But there is a deeper and more profound difference. In movies such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Nigger Charley, we frequently see scenes of groups of black men having serious conversations about what to do and how to improve their lives and overcome racism. Nigger Charley even concludes with a multi-ethnic alliance between whites, Native Americans, and blacks against corruption. This important dimension of the plot was totally missed by the critic Roger Ebert in his review. The plots of these movies are not especially complex, but they allude to the ways that racism is complex and sometimes functions in ways that are not obvious. In contrast, in movies like Django, racism is simply the ideology that evil men have, and in Lincoln, racism is simply a back story that we’re already supposed to know about but is left unexplored. Additionally, in Tarantino’s homages to blaxploitation Django and Jackie Brown (and in my view Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best movie by far and is more attentive than Django to culture and society), the n-word is simply tossed around because Tarantino says “that’s how people talk,” but in The Legend of Nigger Charley, it is always a word that is spoken by white characters who clearly use it as a term of oppression until the end, when Charley appropriates it as a term of revenge in order to inspire terror in the very people that once terrorized him. That complexity which was central to the older blaxploitation films is absent from Tarantino’s.

In sum, the older blaxploitation films were attentive to the complexities of culture and the difficult labor of social organization in ways that Django and Lincoln are not.

But I am still begging the question I raised at the beginning of this post, what is the use of all this history? To say that historical movies educate — or even more complexly to say that we learn a lesson from the past about what we ought to do in the present — doesn’t explain why we enjoy them and doesn’t explain the necessary functions of simplification, anachronism, sentimentality, and fantasy. This should be obvious to anyone, and it should be especially obvious to those of us versed in the theories of Jacques Derrrida, Gilles Deleuze, Stuart Hall, Jacqueline Rose, etc. but most of the negative criticism has focused on the question of accuracy and representation, while the positive reviewers have responded that accuracy doesn’t matter. In fact, accuracy does matter, but neither simply for the sake of being accurate nor simply for the sake of fair representation to identifiable groups (blacks, whites, etc.) Rather, it is a question of our psychic relation to the past and how the past continues to function in our shared culture as a marker for who we are and who we want to be. The past is a screen that we project ourselves upon, where we imagine political agency and power, and in this sense, what is disturbing about Lincoln and Django is that the directors are projecting a profoundly anti-social vision of human agency that is both ruthless and divorced from broad-based cultural work.

Skyfall, Globalization, and the Ghost of History

14 Jan

A few years ago, I wrote a post in my other blog, Theory Teacher’s Blog, about how the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace was symptomatic of globalization, and I later expanded that post into a scholarly article entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory, Inside and Out,” for the journal CineAction that was published in the fall of 2009. The text has been put on the internet without my permission by the Free Library [here]. In it, I discussed many of the theorists of twenty-first century globalization who have argued that the old international order of nation states has been superseded by a new global order in which nation states are merely part of a larger network of transnational and local relations that include multinational corporations, finance capital, criminal organizations, non-governmental organizations, social and environmental movements, etc. Whether or not that is actually true, it is a way of thinking about the world that, I argue, is reflected in recent cinema. In my view, Bond was not unique, but rather typical of this paradigm shift within the movie industry in general and spy thrillers in particular, and I later blogged about the movies The International and Duplicity to expand my argument. So, when the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was released this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond movie, I had to see it. And considering that this is the most profitable Bond film of all time,  scoring huge at the box office, I was very curious whether the new movie would confirm my theory about Bond films, and several of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I thought so.

In some ways yes, in some ways, no.

For sure, the actor Daniel Craig continues to play the constantly brooding, angry version of Bond, instead of the pithy, urbane version of Bond performed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and others. But my point is that the new Bond style is not just Craig’s acting — it’s the whole thing, and it’s a “whole thing” that relates to the history of globalization.

The question that the characters of Skyfall ask over and over again is whether the fictional Bond character, as well as the real British intelligence service MI6, is irrelevant in our globalized, postmodern world. The movie brilliantly layers this idea, as Bond appears to die, but returns, and at various moments in the movie, Britain’s Parliament debates the relevance of MI6 and the double-O agents. In one scene, Bond and Q sit in front of a painting of a “grand old war ship inevitably being hauled off to scrap,” and Eve Moneypenny jokes about Bond being an old dog with new tricks. As the gorgeous theme song by Adele begins, “This is the end,” and later Bond jokes that he specializes in resurrection. (By the way, Bond’s resurrection is not a new theme; consider You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye.) Amusingly, and not so coincidentally, critics have been asking the same question that the movie itself asks. Is the Bond film a dead genre, or does it have to reinvent itself or resurrect itself to stay current and hip… and… uh… not suck. And there appears to be a general consensus that Skyfall represents something new, some critics celebrating the movie for its innovative new take, and others trashing the film for failing in the attempt. However, I have a slightly different view than the critics. For all the obsessive worry about relevance and newness, the film actually asserts a troubling and ridiculously nostalgic return to the old Bond.

But before I explain what I mean about this nostalgic return to the old Bond, rather than a further elaboration of the new Bond, let’s review how Skyfall repeats some of the stuff I mentioned in my article about Quantum of Solace. Most of the “globalist” ideas appear in a speech that the villain Silva gives when he and Bond first meet. Silva pontificates about all of Bond’s outdated attachments to the nation-state and the old order: “England… empire… MI6… you’re living in a ruin and just don’t know it yet.” (Ironically, they are having this conversation literally within a ruin that Silva himself created.) He goes on to explain how easy it is to destabilize nation states by rigging the stock market and elections. In a sense, Silva’s speech is somewhat similar to the argument I made about globalization and the withering of the nation-state in my article, but with one key and unsurprising difference. What was good about the previous Bond movie Quantum of Solace is its recognition that in the real globalized world of today, it is the U.S. and British governments who are doing all that “rigging” and often collaborating with clandestine and criminal organizations in order to do so. This was the first time in Bond history that the British government was not unequivocally on the side of good. The plot was complicated enough to map out a somewhat complex network of relations, which moved beyond the simplistic good-guys versus bad-guys story that was so typical of the older Bond movies. What’s stupid about Skyfall is the world’s geopolitical complexity is reduced to the character of Silva, whose insanity represents pure evil, and who would be a totally absurd character if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Javier Barden. What is even more troubling is Bond’s response to Silva, that Bond represents a “resurrection.” But a resurrection of what? Silva has just trashed the British empire, and who would want to resurrect that?

In a sense, the new Bond film reduces the complexity of history to an Oedipal drama. (I’m not the only person to notice the excessively Freudian structure of the plot; for instance, see David Denby’s review in The New Yorker and another in the Atlantic.) Whereas Quantum of Solace traces the return of history in terms of American geopolitical strategies coming back to bite America in the ass, Skyfall is strictly a Freudian fantasy where the injured MI6 agent with mommy issues and a bruised adolescent ego returns to attack his former boss, who is represented as a mother figure. The film is brilliant on this point, especially when Silva shows what the cyanide capsule did to his face when he tried to kill himself in order to protect Great Britain; in that scene, he is both figuratively and literally the monster that MI6 unintentionally created. We might pose an analogy between this monstrosity and the monstrosity of so many militant groups created by the United States and Europe in other countries that backfired — Ronald Reagan’s al Qaeda being the worst. But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead we have two ghosts (or, “the last two rats,” as the movie repeatedly jokes) — the ghost of Bond returning from the dead in order to fight the ghost of Bond’s evil twin. Both of them feel wronged by MI6, and for Silva, M clearly represents the “phallic mother” figure whose love he seeks but whom he also wants to master or destroy. However, unlike Silva who returns from the dead to wage a personal war against M and MI6, Bond returns from “enjoying death” to protect M and MI6 because, he says, “we are under attack.” In this way, the movie projects international politics onto the personalities of individuals, and any geopolitical context that could have been explored or even just alluded to in the background has almost entirely disappeared from view. The movie even attempts to justify its own narrative blindness by means of an odd version of globalization theory’s thesis about the reduced role of the modern nation-state when M tells Parliament that “our enemies are  no longer known to us, they are no longer nation states; they are now individuals…. and the shadows is where we do battle.” (Ironically, of course, their enemies are very much “known” to MI6, because apparently the “individuals” are former MI6 agents.)

Three quarters of the way through a very long movie, it appears that Silva’s postmodern, globalized insanity has got Bond and MI6 beat, so how is Bond to fight back? The answer is by going back in time, where, as Bond says, “we have the advantage.” And so we travel to Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, a mansion in Scotland. To complete this nostalgic image, the old home appears to come with its own endearing old caretaker, Mr. Kincaid, who appears with a shotgun on his arm as if just back from a pheasant hunt. Here, a number of things are completely unique and new about this Bond film. First, this is the only time in Bond history that Bond’s childhood is a major part of the plot. In all other Bond movies, Bond’s life before he became an agent is totally absent, and it’s hard to imagine him anything but, as if he sprang like Minerva, a fully formed agent with tuxedo, martini, and Walther PPK pistol from the brain of Zeus (or, in this case, from the motherly brain of M.) Second, this is the first time that most of the explosions happen inside of Britain. Usually, Bond goes to other countries where he and the villain callously destroy much of that nation’s cultural heritage, but in Skyfall, both MI6 headquarters and Bond’s childhood home are destroyed (and please note the Freudian connection between his childhood home where his parents died and his adult home at MI6 where the life of his new “mum” — his boss M — is threatened.) Lastly, and most importantly, this is the first Bond movie where Bond cries, and over what does he weep so many tears? Yes, the death of his surrogate Oedipal mommy, M.

Since the death of M (mum) is the climax of the movie, we might think back to when Judi Dench was first introduced as the new M — not surprisingly in the last movie to also question Bond’s relevance in a post-soviet era, Golden Eye, when Judi Dench calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In the history of Bond films, GoldenEye represented a major turning point for three reasons. First, because it was produced after the longest gap in time between Bond films, as studios really did believe the genre had died with Timothy Dalton. Second, it was the first Bond movie to be produced after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, so it very directly raised the question of whether MI6 and Bond were still relevant.  Third, GoldenEye replaced the sexist, old-boys-club feel of the earlier Bond movies with more progressive roles for women, including Judi Dench as M, a more outspoken and capable “Bond-Girl” (e.g., Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye). By the time we get the new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the pathetic, Bond-worshipping Moneypenny character has also been dropped from the story. Curiously, while in her first movie, Dench as M criticizes the old agents like Bond, in her last movie she defends them, and she defends them just in time to signal a return to the arrangement of the older Cold-War-era Bond movies with a new male M and a doting Moneypenny. What excessively Freudian Skyfall stages is the death of the “phallic mother” (M).

I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize the paradox and the curious contradiction. On the one hand, critics are saying this is a “new” Bond movie (which of course annoys me, because I argued that it was Quantum of Solace that was the “new Bond.”) But on the other hand, it is a movie that nostalgically gestures back to the older films and performs a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a return to an older world order.

But of course we can’t go back, and what really makes this movie “new” and interesting is the troubling Freudian discovery that it can’t go back. Bond blows up his childhood home, which he says he has always hated, and its image burns like the ghost of history, an uncanny and very un-Bond-like image that haunts the movie’s end. This is wonderful cinema. For a full minute of screen time, everything is dark except for this burning house. In addition, even more important than the destruction of Bond’s two homes (his childhood home and MI6 headquarters), I’d like to suggest that one other aspect of this movie also undermines the desire to return to a simpler time. As some critics have noticed, the “Bond girl” Severine was the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking when she was just a child. Bond’s discovery of this, and Severine’s self-betrayal, is perhaps, the most interesting moment in the film — the only moment of a troubling Real of globalization in the entire movie which is otherwise little more than a Freudian fantasy. Actress Berenice Marlohe is brilliant here, her whole body trembling with fear, rage, and hate towards the world order that the movie represents. And for both Lacanian and Foucaultian theorists of the Real and of the body, it is important that it is the actress’s body that communicates this. I assume that the horror of this scene is meant to dramatise what a horrible villain Silva is, but the horror is so great it almost overwhelms the whole movie. As dozens of scholarly articles on James Bond have noticed, Bond’s relationship to women is, of course, symptomatic of the fallen British empire’s relationship to the world. We may recall that what was totally unique and unprecedented in Quantum of Solace was the chaste relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl, Camille Montes, with whom he does not even try to have sex, but instead gives a brotherly peck on the cheek. Instead, in Skyfall, what is unprecedented is that the history of Severine’s exploitation is admitted, and the tragedy of her situation more painfully understood. In a way, both the excessively chaste Bond and politically radical Bond-girl in Quantum of Solace and the realization of Severine’s history in Skyfall are two sides of the same coin — the horrible Real of globalization that can no longer be properly sexualized and neutralized by a debonair hero. In truth, it is Severine who is the tragic heroine of globalization in this movie. Bond is not.

Let me explain why not. Traditionally, most Bond films end with both Bond and the Bond-girl together in each other’s arms, but at the end of the new Bond, Severine has died, Moneypenny has been transformed from a badass agent to a cheerful secretary, and the woman in Bond’s arms is his mommy, M. If I may make a joke on Newsweek‘s infamous cover story in 2009 after the government bailed out the auto industry, “We’re all Socialist Now,” we might speculate that if the popularity of the latest Bond movie says anything about our culture today, as it anxiously looks ahead to a troubled brave new world, it says that “We’re all Children Now.” At the beginning of this essay, I promised that I’d say something about why Craig’s brooding style is more appropriate for the new Bond than the adolescent humor of the old Bond — Craig is a lovable, angry child.