Django reviewers in chains: Can A. O. Scott possibly mean that?

TUESDAY, JANUARY 1, 2013

The press corps’ relation to power: The wonderful thing about certain movies is you get home so early.

Yesterday, that’s the way it was when we went to see Django Unchained. We were back in the car by 3 o’clock, not the expected 5.

“Free at last,” we appreciatively murmured as we hurried from the multiplex. While inside, we had endured a very long string of numbingly dim-witted trailers, then a 40-minute dose of Tarantino’s latest.

Were we driven from the theater by the much-heralded blood and violence? By the use of the N-word? Actually, no—in the end, we were driven away by the overpowering dumbness of the film, especially its relentless attempts at humor.

In part, this was our fault. Somehow, in reading the major reviews, we had failed to understand that this is largely a campy comedy. At perhaps the 40-minute mark, we were finally overpowered by the sheer dumbness of one piss-pitiful scene.

Was this piss-pitiful sequence “hilarious?” Oddly, that’s the way Ann Hornaday limned it in the Washington Post:
HORNADAY (12/25/12): [I]n spite of his own tendency to put everything in quotation marks, Tarantino creates images of real power and beauty, such as when a spray of blood stains the lily-white bolls of a cotton field. (He also knows that ridicule sometimes has more throw-weight than rage, such as in a hilarious sequence featuring the Ku Klux Klan that hoists the terrorist organization on its own pathetic petard.)
Can Hornaday possibly mean that? Did she really see “power and beauty” in that silly scene with the blood on the cotton?

More amazingly, did she really find that Ku Klux Klan sequence “hilarious?” We happen to know and like Hornaday! Is there any chance she actually means that?

Can we talk? That “hilarious sequence” was so numbingly dumb that we felt obliged to sit no longer. So go ahead—take the hilarity challenge! Go to this film and see if you can tolerate the blinding dumbness of that “hilarious sequence”—a sequence whose conclusion we admittedly didn’t see.

Good God, this movie is dumb—but its director is powerful. Presumably for that reason, the major reviewers will all proclaim that he is unspooling great racial themes in this low-IQ mess. The dumbness of yesterday’s string of trailers was overpowered by the feature film’s dumbness. But Tarantino is powerful—and reviewers are often quite servile.

When we returned to our sprawling campus, thanking God for the hours we’d stolen, we reread A. O. Scott’s review in the New York Times. That led to our question for today:

Can A. O. Scott possibly mean this?
SCOTT (12/25/12): Among Mr. Tarantino's achievements has been his successful argument that the maligned and neglected B movies of the past should be viewed with fresh eyes and unironic respect. His own tributes to the outlaw, outsider film tradition—flamboyant in their scholarly care and in their bold originality—have suggested new ways of taking movies seriously. ''Django Unchained'' is unabashedly and self-consciously pulpy, with camera moves and musical cues that evoke both the cornfed westerns of the 1950s and their pastafied progeny of the next decade. (The title comes from a series of Italian action movies whose first star, Franco Nero, shows up here in a cameo.) It is digressive, jokey, giddily brutal and ferociously profane. But it is also a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism.

[...]

Like ''Inglourious Basterds,'' ''Django Unchained'' is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.
Django Unchained is “a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism?” Can A. O. Scott possibly mean that? In fairness, even Scott couldn’t bring himself to praise the groaning nonsense involving the Klan, a massively dumber variation on a scene from Dragnet. But in the course of citing the scene, he went on to pose an intriguing idea:

Tarantino’s ethically serious film may owe a great deal to Bugs Bunny!
SCOTT: The plot is, by Mr. Tarantino's standards, fairly linear, without the baroque chronology of ''Pulp Fiction'' or the parallel story lines of ''Inglourious Basterds.'' But the movie does take its time, and it wanders over a wide expanse of geographic and thematic territory.

In addition to Mr. Tarantino's trademark dialogue-heavy, suspense-filled set pieces, there are moments of pure silliness, like a gathering of hooded night riders (led by Don Johnson), and a late escapade (featuring Mr. Tarantino speaking in an Australian accent) that perhaps owes more to Bugs Bunny than to any other cultural archetype.
We’ll grant you, we didn’t see that late escapade; by the time that escapade ran, we were safely back on campus, puzzling over Scott’s review. But for ourselves, we thought Bugs Bunny was dumb in real time—and in real time, we were 9 nine years old! Should an ethically serious film about slavery and racism owe a lot to Bugs Bunny?

Are you willing to take the Django Challenge? Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

First, you must agree to attend this film, staying to the end if possible. Then, when you return to your home, you must read Scott's review.

To Hornaday’s credit, she ends up largely rejecting the film, although she lavishes praise on Tarantino before she finally does so. By way of contrast, Scott plays the game all the way to the end. Even at the end of his review, he offers this view of this low-IQ nonsense: “When you wipe away the blood and the anarchic humor, what you see in Django Unchained is moral disgust with slavery, instinctive sympathy for the underdog and an affirmation (in the relationship between Django and Schultz) of what used to be called brotherhood.”

Can Tony Scott possibly mean that? Here’s our observation, gleaned through the years:

Again and again, the modern reviewer will break his back and sell his soul to fawn and pander to power. If the director is sufficiently powerful, the reviewer will strain to repeat the types of self-praise found in film’s press release.

(One other point: "Dumb" isn't a category of thought within the modern press corps. In politics and in the arts, the subject of a review can be biased, racist or even wrong. But he simply can't be dumb. Such judgments are not allowed.)

Can A. O. Scott possibly mean what he says? Or does his review represent the fawning to power which typifies so much of the work of the modern press?

We were forced to scold the analysts: In fairness, is Scott really “an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity?”

We scolded the analysts when they put it that way—but the phrase is taken from Scott’s review. Having said that, we’ll make an admission:

The question flitted through our mind when we reread this review! “Look who's talking,” we masterfully said.

31 comments:

  1. You really should have sat through the whole thing if you were going to comment, Bob. Although far from being a great movie, I think it's fair to describe it as an entertaining movie with a strong anti-racist, anti-slavery, underpinning. Of course the concept of "entertaining" is entirely subjective and a lot of people won't find it so, but with the nature of the today's general audience, many more will. And Samuel L. Jackson's performance was truly phenomenal.

    And although I typically agree with, or better to say am enlightened by your press critiques, seems to me that film critics are more often than not entirely different animals. By your reasoning, they would be fawning over directors of movies such as Transformers and other brainless blockbusters, which they most pointedly do not.

    But back to Django, this review from Glenn Kenney best reflected my take.

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  2. I thought it was painful and pointless up to that point, I could understand leaving. Leo and Sam Jackson saved the experience for me, but I could have done without buffoonery.

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  3. The heroic refrigerator repairman improvising on the situation of the lonely housewife goes beyond the regular thematic territory of Romeo and Juliet, and empowers sympathy for the every-man.

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  4. Sigh, I guess we can't agree all the time, Bob

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  5. Lewis we are discussing Django Unchained, not Logjammin'.

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  6. Love you Bob, but almost everyone in the theatre with me thought that scene was funny (if their out-loud laughter is any guide); they laughed and applauded and hollered at different points through-out the film and from the very start, and applauded at the end. This was in Oakland, California and the folks hooting at the funny parts and howling at the ugly parts, were black. Is Scott brown-nosing, or does he simply *agree* with 89% of critics and 91% of viewers, who rated the film a good one at Rotten Tomatoes? Is Scott a brown-noser? Or does he just think Tarantino makes good movies? A lot of people apparently think that.

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  7. There is obviously something to what Bob says, but the truth is a lot of people who go to Tarantino movies think he makes good movies; the rest of us have long since been burned/wised up. How could you go in not knowing what to expect?
    A few years back, after suffering through the tedious home movie that was "Funny People'" -the hero's tragic flaw was that he didn't find the directors real life kids cute enough- it did cross my mind that there were no Pauline Kaels or John Simons to rip this guy a new one. Apparently the new one is even worse, but the mush mouthed critics continue to dissemble.
    Yes, they worship power, but they also have no moral sense beyond anything that holds their attention, like babies looking at a shinny object. The absurd lengths Salon's Andrew O'Heir has gone in defending "Zero Dark Thirty" are a good example, he informs his readers that "all art is inherently ruthless and amoral." What he means is
    "if it gives me a kinetic thrill, I don't CARE if it's ruthless or amoral."
    Movie critics are media people basically shills for Da Biz. The notion they could do better if they were free to is dubious.

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  8. Brilliant analysis, just brilliant. I am so deeply grateful.

    LTR

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  9. Well, you should be paying me like Andrew Sullivan.

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  10. Tarrentino has great taste in movies. However, the movies/homage/parodies he makes in tribute, to me, are unwatchable. I thoroughly enjoy many so-called "genre" films, however an exploitation film with a supposed do-good "message" in spite of itself totally misses the point.

    Revenge, rebellion, paranoia, and a crumbling society were common themes during the 70's drive-in/grindhouse heyday. Trailers from two of the all-time greats- "Rolling Thunder" featuring a blood chilling performance by a young Tommy Lee Jones and a Juarez whorehouse shootout, and 1980's Ms.45. perhaps the end of the exploitation era, just as "Touch of Evil" is considered by some the end of genuine American Film Noir.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg8dACXYhAs
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GObRvQexOmI

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  11. AO Scott liked a movie that Bob loathed, therefore AO is in thrall to Tarantino. Makes sense to me.

    For me $13.50, it was a superb picture that, in its own way, confronted the psychosis of racism and slavery. And I have no relationship whatsoever with the movie industry, other than spending my hard-earned money on tickets and popcorn.

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  12. I say it's a satire on Princess Bride. I'm not going to admit watching it ...

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  13. I sent this to The New York Times back onDecember 23:

    A week after Sandy Hook, I find your piece on Quentin Tarantino ("The Visionaries: Quentin's World") frankly revolting. Tarantino has done more than anyone I can think of to glamorize violence under a transparent veneer of pseudo-sophistication and social commentary. The blood in his movies will never be washed from his hands. Way to go, New York Times, for helping to promote his latest violence-is-cool simulated snuff film.

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    Replies
    1. Nonsense. I haven't seen "Django Unchained", but I have watched all of his other films. To paraphrase Mark Twain: persons attempting to find a moral in Tarantino's work will be banished.

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  14. It was garbage, though Christoph Walz played his role to a T. But it's clear that Tarantino, like many a white liberal Hollywood director, has no concept of collective black agency, real US history, or how offensive his liberal pieties really are.

    If one were expecting to see either from Lincoln or this piece of garbage what the struggle for black freedom in the antebellum and Civil War era truly looked like, one would leave the theaters misinformed and disinformed, but charmed by the Great White Man theory of the world in Spielberg's much better made film, and riled up by the Great White Man + Solo Black Hero Buddy Scenario in Tarantino's tripe.

    So has it been, so will it be, unfortunately, for at least some time to come.

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  15. There's a scene at the dinner table at the Candie plantation where Candie makes an awful joke about how a slave called Eskimo Joe got his name. It isn't funny but much laughter ensues. All the toadies know to fawn when Candie tries to be funny. He's the man.

    Tarantino seems to get the same treatment. For the life of me, I can't understand why else people would laugh at the proto-KKK scene. Or why some critics wrote glowing reviews of the movie.

    I'm with Bob on this one. The scene was dumb, and lots more in the movie was too.

    - john farmer

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  16. I'm willing to take your word for it Bob. With the exception of Jackie Brown and maybe the second half of Kill Bill (which did not to be two movies, BTW - more indulgence of Tarantino's ego) Tarantino's work has become progressively less interesting as time goes on and I was really underwhelmed by Inglourious Basterds - what a stupid ending. Thanks for saving me $13 bucks.

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