I don’t go to the movies much anymore, alas, because the nearest mall cineplex — owned by a company named Regal that runs the place like a self-storage facility — is a dump with broken seats and teenage employees who forget to turn out the lights when the movie starts. But the weekend weather here was sloppy, and this is the movie awards season, and I wanted to get an idea of what Hollywood thinks America is about these days, so I hauled my carcass over to see Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, in that order.
Years ago I rather admired Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for its rococo storytelling method and comic expansiveness. The sheer volume of gore and mayhem strained my suspension of disbelief, but I was charmed by the audacity — for instance the scene where a character played by Quentin himself repeats to the two hit men with a dead body that he’s not in the business of “dead nigger storage,” which was in there, I’m sure, just to rub a lot of sanctimonious minds the wrong way.
Django Unchained is something else: perhaps the most incoherent movie ever made, but in a way that nicely represents the culture that it comes out of. For the uninitiated, the movie tells the tale of a slave named Django (“the D is silent,” actor Jamie Foxx informs another character) rescued from a slave coffle by a German bounty hunter named Schultz posing as an itinerant dentist. Together they ride forth to slaughter white people involved in the slavery business to 1) make a lot of money off bounties, 2) free Django’s captive wife Broomhilda, and 3) enjoy many acts of bloody revenge.
What you notice right away is that the filmmaker has no sense of American history or geography. One moment you’re in the Sonoran Desert, the next moment the Montana Rockies. Huh? Of course the line on Tarantino by film savants is that his weltanschauung is a gleeful composition of movie history pastiche. That is, his ideas come only from other movies (or television), not from the so-called real world and the record of goings-on there. So in this case they are derived from previous movies made by earlier auteurs who got the details wrong about mid-19th century life. That may be so, but the difference is that the earlier movie directors, however mis-educated or befuddled by convention, might have cared about the milieu they attempted to represent. Tarantino is content to be wildly wrong about just about everything. Or rather, the details don’t matter as long as the fantasy satisfies portions of the brain where ideas are not processed.
What interests me about all this is how perfectly Tarantino’s mental universe reflects the current situation in our nation, in particular the infantile disregard for the facts of life, the self-referential inanity of our culture, and the complete absence of authenticity in anything. What disturbed me about the movie was the sense that Tarantino has set the table for race war, like a jolly arsonist playing with matches and gasoline in a foreclosed house. He won a Golden Globe award for directing last night.
Zero Dark Thirty tells the tale of a CIA unit based in Pakistan and its laborious efforts to track down Osama bin Laden, perpetrator of the 9/11 airplane attacks on the USA and other misdeeds. It focuses on the doings of a female American agent, uncelebrated in the annals of this long, strange “War on Terror,” who pored over the minutiae of cell phone records for a decade before locating the messenger who led CIA watchers to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, where Navy SEALs finally sent him to his eternal reward of feasts and virgins.
The movie, directed by Kathryn Bigalow, is a bloodless recounting of some very grim and bloody business from recent history. The controversy around it comes from the extensive scenes of “extreme interrogation” carried out by American officials against captured jihadists in “dark” locations. Critics have objected to the movie’s lack of a moral position about these brutal activities. Was it right? Was it wrong? The movie simply asserts that it happened that way. Some politicians have objected as to whether the depiction of all these matters is correct in the first place. Nor is the killing of bin Laden treated as an occasion for fist-pumping histrionics. If anything, the event leaves you with a hollow feeling and a bad taste for the time we live in. I admired especially – for the first time in many a movie – the absence of techno-triumphalism involving computers.
The contrast between the two movies is extremely interesting to me: Tarantino the populist, shall we say, reveling in a splatter-film Americana with barely a tenuous connection to reality, either historical, cultural, or emotional; and the assiduous Bigalow laying out the very serious business of capable adults engaging with a world that consistently terrifies and disappoints. Kathryn Bigalow didn’t win an award for directing at the Golden Globes.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, CLICK HERE.