I know I haven’t blogged in a (long) while, but I figured instead of coming up with a whole bunch of totally false excuses, I would just jump back in with a post so long that people will forget I have been away. Or maybe wish I would have stayed away. This post has some movie references, and contains spoilers for Django Unchained, The Untouchables, and Zero Dark Thirty.
I thought a lot about whether or not I wanted to go see Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. I have seen everything he’s done, but the truth is I haven’t really liked any of his movies since Jackie Brown. More important (for this decision) was the fact that I really did not like Inglorious Basterds, which seemed to be the closest analogue to Django, a revenge fantasy set in the antebellum South. The violence in Basterds was somewhat off-putting, but the gleeful nature of the vengeance wrought by the Jewish characters on the Nazis was more off-putting still. I guess in the end I prefer my Holocaust stories a bit more straight.
But in the end, I went to see Django. And it is violent. And it is over-the-top is about ten different ways. I am not interested in giving a review of the movie in this space. What was interesting to me was the argument that Tarantino seemed to be making in the course of the movie: some violence needs to be met with more (and overwhelming violence.) In the long and tense dinner scene towards the end of the film, the villainous slave owner (zestfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio) asks, referring to the slaves of plantation who easily outnumber the overseers, “Why don’t they kill us?” His answer is notable for its racist phrenology, but of the course the real answer is: they will. He is shot dead soon after, and so is just about everyone else. Django ends with not one but two bloody shootouts in the front hall of the ‘Big House’ of the plantation, and by the end, everyone associated with slavery has been dispatched and the house itself blown to smithereens. In this, Tarantino is making what seems to me an accurate historical point: slavery in the United States could not be ended by any other means than violence. It took an apocalyptic war and total destructions of many southern cities and towns to end the ‘peculiar institution.’ Lincoln was right: the house divided could not stand; it needed to be blown apart. The movie begins by telling us that the action takes place “two years before the Civil War” and the timing is not accidental. The evocation of the great conflagration that would finally and irrevocably destroy American slavery is the background of the bloody violence that animates Django Unchained. The evil plantation overlord is wrong: there will be much killing, most of it by the freed slave Django. And he is wrong is the larger sense as well: hundreds of thousands of African Americans, many of them former slaves, would join the Union army and kill for the cause of freedom. Violence, even extraordinary violence, is sometimes a means that fits the end.
By coincidence, as I was deciding whether to go see Django, I rewatched Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, a movie I remember liking a lot as a kid. The Untouchables tells the story of Elliot Ness, the Treasury agent who pursued Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago. The movie is vintage De Palma: operatic, violent, and deeply unsubtle. De Palma’s violence is at least as gruesome as Tarantino’s—Al Capone and a baseball bat anyone?—and he seems to be making a similar case: sometimes violence is necessary in the eradication of evil. But what’s fascinating is, whether De Palma knows it or not, he undercuts his message in an early section of the film. Kevin Costner, playing Ness, enters his office to find that he has been sent backup from Washington; he is excited until he realizes that the new agent is an accountant, not a gunslinger. The agent tries to interest Ness in the fact that Capone has failed to pay income taxes, but Ness, uninterested, wanders out of the office. He encounters Jim Malone, the tough old Irish beat cop played by Sean Connery. Malone agrees to join the squad chasing Capone but only if Ness agrees to abide by Chicago rules: he pulls a gun, you pull a knife, he puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue. It’s not police work, Malone tells Ness, it’s a war. Ness agrees, and most of the rest of the movie is Ness and company shooting it out, Chicago style, with Capone and his gang. Except for one thing. The nerdy accountant was right. Capone ends up going to jail for precisely the crime the non-gun-toting agent was trying to explain to a totally uninterested Ness. It turns out that getting Capone was police work after all, not warfare. (I do not know if this juxtaposition of the accountant and Malone, representing two paths to attack Capone, was entirely intended by De Palma.) In the end, the accountant is killed, as it Malone. But Malone’s death scene is interesting in this regard as well: he pulls a gun on a guy who has a knife—he brought a knife to a gun fight!—and then is himself killed when another baddie pulls an even bigger gun. Is De Palma saying that the Chicago Way cannot triumph in the end, since someone always has a bigger gun? Probably not, since he later has Ness throw an unarmed bad guy off the roof and make a quip about it. But still, the historical reality of movie undermines, rather than enforces, the sense that the extreme violence on the part of the authorities was necessary. Capone was a bad guy, but after all the death and killing, one can’t help thinking that it might have been easier and less bloody if Ness had just stayed in the office to talk to the accountant instead of running into Malone and agreeing to approach the fight with Capone as a war. Putting one of his in the morgue sounds good, but putting Capone in jail took brains, not brawn.
All of which brings me to Zero Dark Thirty, another recent film whose violent content—specifically scenes of torture—has been hotly debated. Zero Dark Thirty sits in the uneasy middle between Django and The Untouchables as it pertains to the use of extreme force. That is, of course, because the subject matter sits in that uneasy middle as well. It seems quite clear that the Civil War—with all its death and destruction—was necessary to end the practice of chattel slavery in the American south. Whatever the founders might have thought would happen to slavery (wither away, get smaller, stay the same) is immaterial, by the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become quite clear that slavery in the South was only going to die a violent death. On the other hand, the gangs of Chicago were, when all was said and done, a problem that no amount of authorized violence could solve. Or perhaps we should say: it was generally agreed that the amount of killing that would have solved the crime problem in Chicago was entirely disproportionate to the desired result. It was better to get Al Capone on tax evasion than to engage in all out street war in an American city. Doing it that way meant crime was never fully solved, and it meant that Capone did not get the time in prison he may have deserved, but the accountant way was better than the Chicago way. The problem with what we have been calling the War on Terror is that we, as a society, have not decided what level of violence we are willing to bear to win. More, it is not even clear what winning might mean. Zero Dark Thirty should be a triumphant movie: we get the bad guy in the end. But director Kathryn Bigelow did not make a triumphant movie, and what we are left with at the end does not feel like victory. After all, killing Osama Bin Laden did not end terrorism as a threat, nor did it remove from the world certain strands of radical ideologies that lead to terror. Given that reality, Zero Dark Thirty seems to ask: were all the acts of violence and death worth it? Django answers that question with an unambiguous yes, and the historical circumstances comply. The Untouchables seems to think it is saying yes, but the real answer that comes from the movie—and from the history–is no. But Zero Dark Thirty is tougher: it’s hard to judge the violence America meted out because we don’t really know the end. The movie begins with real and horrifying 911 calls on September 11th, 2001, thus establishing a framework of righteous violence and justified killing for the film to come. But if this is so, then why, at the end of all that violence and killing, does the final shot of movie show us the main character, a woman who has spent every moment of her life for a decade chasing Osama Bin Laden, crying? Why does her decidedly non-triumphant face fill the screen, and invite us to feel not joy, not vindication, but something more akin to uncertainty? Have we done right? Alas, we do not know.