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.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:
Like ''Inglourious Basterds,'' ''Django Unchained'' is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.
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.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?
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.
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.