The Root is Culture: A Defense of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”
The fact that we’re currently engaged in a serious debate over gun control is a very good thing for this country. No one can deny the issue’s urgency, or the stakes involved. But the fact that this debate has emerged as the main response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook last month is telling of another problem. To be sure, political thinking is indispensable for addressing political problems like gun control, and Americans have spent a long time training themselves in the arts, idiocies, and nuances of politics. Yet not all problems are merely political. Not everything can be solved by legislation, and we cannot expect something like the high rate of gun deaths in this country to drop simply as a result of better laws and policies. The root is culture.
Many liberals distrust this line of argument because they think it’s a cover for the main tenet of the NRA: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But my purpose here is not to endorse one side in a debate. I don’t agree with the NRA on gun control; I don’t agree with their interpretation of the Second Amendment; I don’t agree with them on anything, really, except for the obvious sense in which the claim above is true. People die from guns because one person uses a gun to kill another person. If guns possessed the power to wreak havoc outside of human hands altogether, we would be in a lot more trouble than we are. They would indeed be mystical fire sticks, which they are not. The issue, then, is how we should regard the human capacity, desire, and intention to obtain and use guns. Our concern—liberals, conservatives, everyone—should be with the cultural logic and psychology of gun use, not with any misplaced superstition about the demonic character of this quintessentially human tool and artifact.
In what follows I want to propose that the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School is part of a larger cultural dilemma, which dwarfs the present political debate over gun control in both its complexity and stakes. We can begin to grasp this dilemma by asking what precisely was tragic about the event. Was it the death of so many innocent people? The fact that so many of them were small children? Or that any person could be warped enough to commit such a heinous act? All of this is devastating, and I too wanted to cry when I saw the news on TV. But for some reason I couldn’t. I was with my family in Phoenix, Arizona; that afternoon we’d taken my mom to see a lunchtime ballet called “The Snow Queen” for her birthday. We went to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant afterward, and the place was empty except for a few people sitting at one table staring at a television. We sat down at our table and looked at our menus. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the TV was reporting breaking news. It was unclear at first whether the story was local Phoenix news or national, but when I stood up and walked toward the screen I saw the headline: 26 dead at school massacre in Newtown, CT.
Alongside the Ethiopian family at the other table, we all reeled in sadness and disgust. How could someone do this? What possible cause could explain something this atrocious? More details flooded in as we struggled to order our meal. Meanwhile one of the family’s children, probably a four or five year-old, walked between the empty tables smiling at whomever would make eye contact. Of course the gunman killed himself. My step-dad said something about the need for more gun control and I immediately shot back that this has nothing to do with guns, or that it only has something to do with guns in a secondary or third sense. What this incident tells us, I began to argue to my family, is that there are deep lying psycho-pathologies in our society and culture. As Christy Wampole wrote in a New York Times op-ed (“Guns and the Decline of the Young Man”, 12/17/12), which I read some time later, “there is something about life in the United States, it seems, that is conducive to young men planning and executing large-scale massacres. But the reasons elude us.”
When my parents asked if we could isolate the cause, I repeated a refrain I often use to explain my view of history and culture: it’s like a complicated physics equation. The forces are so many and so interrelated that we can’t isolate any particular one as the root cause or agent. I disagree with Wampole that the underlying issue is the decline of “the heroic young man,” or any other easily definable change. An event like Sandy Hook was the product of much larger forces, forces almost as mysterious and complex as the Big Bang. There is no simple explanation or solution; appealing to the modest efforts of legislators to fix this problem is a lot like tossing a coin into a fountain and wishing for world peace.
Since that afternoon in Phoenix I’ve watched the response and ensuing debate unfold with scarcely any attention to the deeper layer of culture. In a front page story five days after the shooting (“Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook…”, 12/19/12), USA Today reported that on average one mass killing occurred somewhere in America every two weeks between 2006 and 2010—and that the number was likely to rise after records for the last two years became available. This finding was based on FBI statistics and the agency’s definition of mass killings. Yet on the whole the article provided little beyond shock value. It ended with a quote from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York and “a leading proponent of tighter gun laws,” then the following disclaimer: “For all the attention they receive, mass killings still accounted for only about 1% of all murders over those five years. More died from migraines and falls from chairs than mass murders, according to death records kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
I didn’t happen to catch the Sunday morning talk shows a few days earlier, but I imagine that by comparison this was in-depth analysis.
I had a more substantive experience when I decided to see Quentin Tarantino’s new film “Django Unchained” on Christmas night. Since its release the film has generated commentary from all manner of critics. But few have noted the unintended symmetry between its form and content and what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. In fact, most reviewers seem to have missed entirely what I take to be the film’s central moral message: that culture is the root of all evil, American and otherwise.
Their collective myopia is perhaps best summed up by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, who wrote in the 1/7/13 issue that “Django” remains caught in its director’s familiar “tangle of morality and style”:
Tarantino is dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool—not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache.
Lane made this tone-deaf accusation about a film that tackles what is perhaps the most morally reprehensible, and ambiguous, fact of American history—slavery—and does so in vivid, grisly, meticulous detail. In another New Yorker article (“Tarantino Unchained”, 1/2/13), historian Jelani Cobb puts his finger on the real issue that seems to irk many of the film’s critics, social and otherwise: “not even an entertaining alternative history can erase our actual conceptions of the past.” Fellow filmmaker Spike Lee agrees with this sentiment so totally that he condemned “Django” for historical inaccuracy and refused to see it. What accounts for the vitriol?
Tarantino has elicited strong reactions from viewers for a long time, not least because the prevalence of violence in his films makes him a poster child for the unending controversy over how disparate media affect society. But the violence in “Django” is far from merely stylized or aesthetic. In nearly every instance, it is attached to a series of historical facts and actors that dramatize the ways in which American slavery, among other institutions, depended upon a perverse system of violence, organized according to its own logic. In rich and distinctive ways, each of Tarantino’s three main characters partake in this rationalized violence, and in the end justice comes only in a bloodbath.
It’s true that this is not a pretty image, especially at Christmas time. But neither was the Civil War. What Tarantino’s critics appear to miss is that he is a modernist artist through and through, intent on transgressing established rules and binaries at the same time he envelopes us in his abstract depictions of the real and the imaginary. As the writer-director himself put it in a recent series of interviews, “I’ve always aligned myself with that hip hop idea of taking things that already exist and riffing on them and creating something new.” He wanted to deal with slavery “in an operatic way,” within a specific genre—the spaghetti Western—but in a way that still “tell[s] the truth.” He admitted that he was troubled by many aspects of “Django” during the writing and filming process; but he also felt that he was serving a higher social purpose: “We still can’t deal with the sin of slavery,” he explained to one interviewer. “That’s why we have to lie about it by omission. I think people need to look at things like this. That would be the beginning of healing.”
Indeed, part of “Django” was shot in old slave quarters, and according to Tarantino “you felt the ghosts, bearing witness.” He reined in the most graphic violence in the final cut, making his “the PG version” of slavery. The film is rife with anachronisms and historical inaccuracy; its opening even announces that it takes place in 1858, “two years before the Civil War” (which started in 1861). But the point is that this is a historical parable, cast at one of the original sites of American identity and at the nexus of all its cultural complexity. The ugly fact of Tarantino’s ultimate moral message—in the end, vengeance rules the day—that’s the American way!—comes close to the truth by virtue of its dexterity and its visceral quality. Whatever the director’s explicit intentions, this is what his film evokes. It is not history per se, but so what?
As Adam Serwer acknowledged in Mother Jones (1/7/13), “perhaps lovers of Westerns may even walk out understanding what some of their most memorable ‘heroes’ were actually fighting for.” Yet many of Tarantino’s critics remain unwilling to recognize his achievement. They decry his aesthetics, his bad history, and his lack of social conscience, all of which may conceal a different sort of politics that operates according to its own logic. Much as it is in the interests of USA Today and CNN to stay within the staid format that promises high sales and ratings no matter how badly this affects the quality of public information, Tarantino’s vested critics must do everything they can to invalidate his claim to cultural resonance. As was the case in earlier modernist epochs, the critics are the most adroit protectors of the status quo, for they are often among its prime beneficiaries.
In Tarantino’s case, it seems to work best to identify him as a “stylist,” clearly not a responsible historian or social critic; to suggest that his rendering of 1858 Mississippi—drenched in equal parts Black Power fantasy and antebellum realism, nothing approaching the humility or homage of Spielberg-like propriety—is ahistorical, and offensive to boot. By this logic, the director and his scurrilous vision of art must be wrong. He couldn’t possibly be telling us anything important about our culture or society, certainly not in the wake of a tragedy like Sandy Hook. After all, shouldn’t we be arguing about gun control?
The vagueness of what Tarantino’s critics think he got wrong is mirrored in the imprecision with which many good liberals are trying to pinpoint the problem Sandy Hook evinces. In “The Talk of the Town” (The New Yorker, 1/7/13), Hendrik Hertzberg writes that “America is alone among the advanced democracies of the world in suffering from an unending epidemic of gun mayhem. Are our politicians so much more cowardly, our legislators so much more corruptible than theirs? Or is our creaking, clanking political and governmental machinery so clogged with perverse incentives and exploitable bottlenecks that getting anything done requires our elected leaders to be more courageous (and our citizens more engaged) than theirs ever have to be?”
If only the question—and its presumed answer—were so simple.
The root is culture. The rest lies atop its enigmatic substratum. If we’re to address our social problems with any chance of understanding them deeply, we need to know our limitations and start thinking more like Quentin Tarantino.