Friday, March 27, 2015

Post-Ironic Cinema: "Still Alice"

I saw "Still Alice" last night. Starring Julianne Moore as a woman living with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, co-directed by Richard Glatzer (who made "Grief," featuring Craig Chester and Jackie Beat), this film stands as an example of a New Queer Cinema that could be called "post-ironic." 
Glatzer, along with Todd Haynes, Bruce LaBruce and Tom Kalin, among others, emerged from the generation of art filmmakers growing up during the AIDS crisis, and were very involved in the political activism that responded to AIDS and the attack on gay rights. They employed pastiche, parody, ironic commentary, shock tactics and horror tropes in order to illustrate their themes. Academics called them representatives of the New Queer Cinema of the Nineties. Right-wing politicians condemned them. 
One could argue that the zenith of this movement was Todd Haynes's 1995 "Safe," featuring Julianne Moore as a woman transformed by her allergy to...? Regarded by critics as one of the defining films of the era, "Safe" adopted the TV movie "disease of the week" form in an ironic, politically-interrogative manner, by casting the plight of Moore's character in terms of horror as well as domestic melodrama. The tone unsettled, and remained relentless, refusing the moviegoer the satisfaction of catharsis. (I teach "Safe" in my film studies class, and I am always surprised by the range of responses from my students. Some hate it. Many thought they would hate it, and end up loving it, because it made them think, not feel.)
It's been twenty years since "Safe," and everyone associated with the New Queer Cinema has, among other things, grown older. As I watched "Still Alice," I kept thinking that the movie brings Julianne Moore full circle, back to "Safe." This time, however, sincerity replaces irony as a filmic approach. Part of me resents that decision. A sincere account of a woman's decline into illness made it no longer a commentary on the Lifetime "for women" TV movie, but a Lifetime TV movie itself, one that ended up with a theatrical release...and not starring Valerie Bertinelli. (Judith Light? Connie Selleca? Marky Post?) Many critics agree. Over and over again I encountered that damning phrase, "TV Movie," in the reviews. 
After a while, however, I reconsidered my position. It's important to remember what John Waters said when critics sneered at "Cry-Baby," because they wanted more of the shocking, "in your face" camp politics of Waters's "Pink Flamingoes." Waters said that he could not make movies like that anymore, because he could not remain so angry at his age. I thought of that John Waters statement when I thought of Richard Glatzer, who was dying from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) while making "Still Alice." As a middle-aged man facing a very short life, Glatzer (with his partner Wash Westmoreland) directs "Still Alice" without sentimentality, but without irony, either. There's an urgency to "Still Alice" that suggests that Glatzer, facing the end of his life, didn't have time for the distance of parody, pastiche, camp or other ironic devices. He portrays the woman's slow descent with gravity, dignity and a political activism that is straightforward. Rage was the appropriate response to AIDS: it was a death that robbed the young of the future. The world needed to be shocked awake, because millions would not get a chance to have a life to be lived. With the medical situation depicted in "Still Alice," one of its tragedies is the waning effort to remember the life lived long, and well. Elegy, not camp, seems an appropriate tactic for the movie that Glatzer made. I believe that this will remain a controversial standpoint, however.
What remains inarguable is the brilliance of Moore's performance. It's not her "best," but it is her cumulative role. She won the Oscar not only for "Still Alice," but for the body of work that includes "Safe," "Far from Heaven," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "The Big Lebowski," "Short Cuts," which is work made by some of the finest directors of the last fifty years. A Julianne Moore Film Festival would be superior in every way to a Meryl Streep Film Festival, because so many of Moore's films are not really star vehicles, like Streep's, but classics in their own right. Moore is like Barbara Stanwyck in this regard. Davis and Crawford are bigger "divas," but most of their films aren't canonical except as diva showcases. 
(Heck...I would even venture to say that Julianne Moore won the Oscar for every movie she ever made, with the possible exception of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2.")
I stayed to watch "Still Alice" until the final credits crawled off the screen, and I was surprised to note that Todd Haynes was given "special thanks" along with four or five other people. I don't know Haynes's contribution to Glatzer's film, but it was very heartening to see his name on the screen.

Monday, July 8, 2013

(Re)Forming Reality: The Dilemma of TV’s “Big Brother 15”

This blog contains analytical writings that focus on the formal properties of a text. I read the texts for their use of traditions within a genre, how the texts might subvert the properties of a genre, and the texts’s contribution to the future of the form. Until this entry, I have confined my analysis to works of theatre and film. However, something is happening on television that raises fundamental questions about the form and function of TV, and it warrants examination. 
I have asked readers to consider questions such as the following: “Why is this a book, or a play, or a film? How is it using the form in which it is presented?” As I discuss the political, social and formal implications of ongoing events within “Big Brother,” CBS-TV’s long-running reality television game show, it’s important that I mention the historical context of television itself.

First, I need to contrast television, an audio-visual medium, with its direct antecedent, film. (Television has much in common with radio, but the latter remains an aural form.) The basic difference is that film is projected on a large screen outside of one’s home, while television airs on a small screen located within one’s home. Until a certain deregulation of the airwaves permitted the mass availability of cable TV at cost, around the early 1980s, television depended upon sponsors who had the license to interrupt broadcasts with advertisements for products, while film depended on consumer ticket sales. At the same time as the deregulation of the airwaves, companies started manufacturing and selling video recordings of film and television programs, which blurred the definitional boundary between television and film as it brought uncensored, full-length movies into the domestic space. The original function of film, as it required leaving the house and spending money, was mostly to provide an extraordinary experience to ordinary lives. As televisions entered every home in the 1950s, film studios released texts that contained at least one of the following elements: spectacle (a disaster, a large-scale battle, a religious story), mature themes such as sexual relationships and the consequences of violence; dialog that could elude the confinements of the television censor by using profanity or explicitly sexual language. An ongoing tension between formal definitions of television and film persists to this day. The intimacy of television encouraged producers to make character-driven, domestic dramas and comedies for the small screen, and the threat of television encouraged studios to transport film audiences to other, more thrilling worlds. While character-driven movies are made today, they are often not given a wide release, and many are shown only on cable television. More and more, the typical “movie” is driven by spectacle, thrilling special effects and “action” (however defined, as violence, mayhem, explosive destruction or the like); such spectacle occurs on television, but it doesn’t make the same impact as the big-screen, theatrical movie experience.

The rise of the “reality television” program, around the turn of the century, expanded the basic definition of the form and function of television: character-driven conflict, with dialog equal or superior to spectacle, engaging home audiences for the purpose of identification, hero-worship or scorn, or any combination of the three that is possible within the human mind. Reality television remains controversial for many reasons, one of which is the virtual replacement of trained actors and prepared television plays for “average people” and a mediated reality similar to that of the documentary profile film. Reality TV is cheaper because it does not have to hire actors and writers, and it gets cheaper all the time because of their immense popularity among audiences. There are several categories of reality television, and all are descended from previous genres. The “celebrity” kind (such as “Toddlers and Tiaras,” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” in which established celebrities or celebs-in-the-making are filmed at home) is the natural extension of the celebrity profile pioneered by Edward R. Murrow on CBS’s “Person to Person.” The “competition” type (ranging from “The Amazing Race” to “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) comes from the game show. The “situational” program (taking average people and placing them in unusual areas, such as “Survivor”) has roots in several genres, including the “Candid Camera” man-on-the-street telecasting, the travel show, the nature series, the journalistic investigative report and the game show. The word “reality” is conditional, and potentially misleading. While the scenes and dialog remain “unscripted” and performed by non-actors, and the allure of the shows often lies in the magic of the spontaneous fight, encounter or saying, reality television is a “mediated” reality, filtered through the perspective of the makers, particularly the director, the producer and the team of editors. In fact, editing contributes a great deal, if not most, of the appeal of reality TV. Shots can be juxtaposed, shortened, rearranged and mixed up in order to make a particular point about a person or situation, which places reality television closer to narrative film than real life.

Reality television programs, almost without exception, are produced over a set period of time (anywhere from two to six months), and subjects are sequestered and sworn to silence about the plot details until the airing of the season, at a future time. Furthermore, the subjects are recorded, taped or filmed during a portion of a 24-hour day. In the case of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the contestants are filmed while “at work” preparing for the competition; they are not filmed when they are off duty in their hotel rooms (or haven’t been in the last 2 seasons).  After filming, the series is edited and screened months later.

“Big Brother” is different. Adapted from a series made in the Netherlands, and inspiring several versions in several nations, CBS-TV’s reality television show attempts a deceptively-benign interpretation of George Orwell’s concept of an all-seeing, penetrating and totalitarian mechanism of scrutiny, exposure, conformity and slavery. In the case of this TV series, “Big Brother is watching,” but it only observes and records words and behaviors; the camera has not managed to invade and reveal the thoughts of the contestants. “Big Brother” features a collection of adults, representing a variety of ages, genders, races and classes, and places them in a large “house” for several months, sequestering the people and isolating them completely from the outside world. They are filmed every hour of the day, and every word is captured on tape. There are actually two versions of “Big Brother”: one is edited and screened three times a week in one-hour installments on network television at prime time, while the other, the “Live Feed,” is screened “in real time” on cable television, for a fee. (This year, controversy arose when the “Live Feed” appeared to be censored or trimmed.)

The original premise of “Big Brother” would fascinate as sociological experiment, but it also functions as a competition for cash prizes, which encourages a “Lord of the Flies” form of cunning, manipulation and power-games among the contestants. (This increases the drama and audience interest, but it also provides more fodder for studying social skills among rivals, and reveals human behavior at its most unseemly, even immoral, as contestants lie, betray, cheat and con their way through “the game.”) Ultimately, contestants need to negotiate their way through a competition that is completely devoid of privacy, confidentiality or secrecy. Big Brother (the camera eye), is always watching and always recording. Not one word escapes scrutiny, and everyone knew this before crossing the “Big Brother” house’s threshold.

“Big Brother” is aired on the CBS television network, which, ironically, has an icon shaped like an eye. CBS, until 30 years ago or so, was known as the “Tiffany network,” as it had a sterling reputation for groundbreaking journalistic reports, incisive and trustworthy reporters and anchorpeople, original fictional comedies and dramas and, especially, an approach to news, documentary, situation comedy and generic drama that pointed ways to the future as audiences learned a new way of seeing the world around them. In the 1950s, Edward R Murrow managed to interview Joseph McCarthy and expose him for the disturbed man that he was; the episode led to the disempowerment of the Communist witch hunt that had a chilling effect on government and media. On November 22, 1963, news anchorman Walter Kronkite wiped tears from his eyes as he reported the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and managed to bring a torn nation closer together for a while. In the 1970s, Norman Lear made “All in the Family,” which breathed historically relevant life into the situation comedy format, as it took on topics of racial prejudice, sexism, class warfare and sexuality. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, CBS drew the most attention for bringing the Vietnam War, political protesters and the impeachment of a President into the living rooms of Americans, educating them about the cruel reality of war, politics and other realities of life. 

CBS’s luster has diminished, in part because of the impossibility of a basic-television network, one of the Big Three that monopolized airwaves through the 1970s, maintaining dominion. However, the history of CBS could prove to be an asset for the network as it attempts to address what has become a national scandal on “Big Brother.” Thanks to the existence of the Live Feed, however mediated through the limitations of cable television, censorship or public access, television audiences have learned of the racist, sexist, homophobic and generally derogatory words and behaviors of several of the contestants, chiefly the week 2 “Head of Household,” Aaryn. The internet, its own medium that extends the powers and functions of live television to a degree unimaginable forty years ago, has permitted a range of responses for viewers, including petitions to oust Aaryn, heated debates about racism and freedom of speech. The most dramatic result of the airing of the defamatory words and actions: at least two contestants have been fired from their jobs, with a third contestant receiving a harsh warning from his employer. 

In any other context beside this one, it would make sense for CBS to confront the “Big Brother” contestants on the air, giving them a warning or removing them from the program entirely. If it were another reality television program, a special “follow up” or “reunion” episode could be filmed, featuring these gestures. “Big Brother”’s scandal follows the Paula Deen scandal, in which her history of racist words and behaviors were exposed in a workplace discrimination lawsuit, resulting in the loss of Deen’s job on the Food Network, her book deal and several sponsors. Whether or not the Deen scandal heightened sensitivity to the “Big Brother” live feeds is difficult to say. However, this is “hot news,” requiring swift action from producers and alleged accused parties, which poses a dilemma for CBS.

Unlike most reality television shows, “Big Brother” is occurring live, in real time. Moreover, the premise of “Big Brother” demands preservation of the integrity of the sequestration; in other words, the social experiment would be corrupted if “the real world” were to “intrude” upon the hermetically-sealed house. Most of the time, the outside world could wait until the winner is declared in a few months. However, several forces are bringing the topic of race, still the most sensitive subject to discuss, to the forefront of conversation: Paula Deen, the George Zimmerman trial, the right of LGBT consenting adults to marry thanks to the Supreme Court decision, and the  “fresh” potential for honest dialog about race, class, gender and sexuality relations in America. 

At first, CBS would not show the offending “Live Feed” tapes on the edited one-hour network episodes, and would settle for a letter distancing itself from the contestants’s actions that, of course, the house guests would not be able to read until the show ended. Later, the increasing demand for attention, thanks to online and cable TV reports on the controversy, practically required CBS to feature a few minutes of the offending footage on Sunday, July 7th’s episode. It was seamlessly woven into the “plot” of the episode, revealing the character and machinations of newly-anointed HoH Aaryn. While a few house guests groused about the racist comments, only Howard, an African American, was given a chance to be interviewed about his responses. (Many websites contain specific details about the offending slurs. I will not repeat them, here.) Unfortunately, the episode focused exclusively on Aaryn’s words and actions, and left out those of several other, equally offending, house guests. Furthermore, no editorial comment or questioning occurred. Host Julie Chen expressed her feelings, a mixture of anger, frustration, confusion, bewilderment and the vestiges of shame brought on by anti-Asian bullying in the Seventies. Chen did it, however, on “The Talk,” a separate show. She has not been given a forum for those sentiments on “Big Brother,” which she has hosted throughout its 15-year tenure.

CBS, at this time, is faced with history. The network used to make history, as it did with Murrow and Kronkite, as well as reporting history. The surfacing of racial tensions, heretofore unseen, buried or denied, on this reality game show has been a catalyst for further dialog about diverse groups “getting along” with one another in the same situation, and whether the unspoken problem is the traditionally accepted boundary between public and private speech that “Big Brother,” by design, completely ruptures. Many people would call this history in the making. Yes, "Big Brother" is just a television reality show. However, the premise (sealing off a group of people from the outside world with no media, no phones, no contact with anyone other than the "Big Brother" staff) gives us a unique perspective when history is made. 

This is not the first time “Big Brother” was confronted with history. For example, "Big Brother 2" was counting down to the Final Three contestants on the day of September 11, 2001. Monica, one of the top 3 finalists, had lost a cousin in the attacks. It has been claimed that Will, Monica and Nicole were the only 3 human beings in America NOT aware of the devastating terrorist attacks. The producers had a dilemma: inform Monica about her missing cousin and risk corrupting the social experiment that was the show, or withhold the news from Monica until the show ended weeks later (and cause untold emotional pain). "Big Brother" decided to inform Monica before the show ended; Monica decided to stay in the house and play out the game. 

I'm glad that Julie Chen ("Big Brother"'s host) spoke out about the harm done by "Big Brother 15"'s house guests, with their racist/sexist/homophobic comments and actions, on another program ("The Talk"). I sincerely hope that Chen, and the producers, find a way to inform the house guests about the reaction to their comments and actions, which has made national news and controversy. However, Chen and the producers walk a very fine line. The house guests, by definition, must be cut off from the outside world in order to maintain the show's premise. At the same time, the world is watching and responding, and it might be unfair to withhold the information from the house guests before the show ends. Furthermore, Chen might appear to be insensitive or even weak if she maintains a pose of benign observation during the episodes and says nothing on the actual program. 

Ironically, the offenders themselves occupy social identities that are vulnerable to stereotyping, derogatory words, and prejudice. Both Aaryn and Spencer are Southern. Spencer is a working class man from the South. Jeremy is a Native American. Two others are women who are professionals in the marketplace. Aaryn is young, blonde, attractive and feminine as well as strong-willed and determined. 

What all this says about the subject or the object of the prejudicial behaviors remains to be seen. At the moment, though, “Big Brother” is watching the world watching it to see what the next move will be. History, even if it’s a footnote in the history books,  awaits.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Race to the Top: Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys

When I started this blog, I wanted readers to consider the following question: "Why is this a movie, and not a play, or a book?" In other words, I would like readers, as they analyze the works they view, to consider form, genre and structure, as I believe that it helps to measure the value of a text. I have been focusing on films in my blog, but I wanted to reprint my Facebook review of the last Kander and Ebb musical because it demonstrates use of the theatrical form in a way that is clear to the beginner. This was designed to be a play presented on stage at a theatre; it's not a movie, or a book.


Just returned from The Scottsboro Boys. It was an excellent production of a musical that might rank with the better Kander and Ebb shows. It's no Chicago, let alone Cabaret, but it is certainly miles above The Act. Like their masterpieces (both of which start with "C"), Boys is staged in a presentational style. It employs the structure of the "minstrel show" for satirical purposes, and uses props and costumes in a manner that calls attention to the act of performance, as opposed to attempting to create "realism" through detailed sets and props. (Chairs, boards and bed sheets are reconfigured to create trains, buses, court rooms and prisons.) Several performers play multiple roles, changing sex and race in order to make an incisively ironic comment on social injustice. I assume that the play remained faithful to the facts of the case; it would be a shame if it had not. All of the actors, with one or two exceptions, were African-American, and their performances were both technically brilliant and emotionally heartbreaking.

As I watched the show, however, a question has haunted me. I trust the political sincerity of the authors, and I understand their rage at the cruelty of Southern white racism. It's clear that writers can choose to write about any subject, and it is not the place of a critic or an audience to dictate what should be written. That said, I cannot deny that race is the most sensitive of themes, and the medium must be examined along with the message. I kept thinking that Spike Lee satirized the legacy of racism, particularly with the trope of the minstrel in America, in Bamboozled, in a definitive manner. I wondered what Lee might have done with the story of the Scottsboro Boys. Is this story a story that can be told by non-black authors? There's the idea of one "speaking for" the other, and the absent voice of the other denied the right of speaking for him/herself.

Kander and Ebb have addressed themes of race and nation in other works, notably Kiss of the Spider Woman. They can be contrasted with, say, the work of Stephen Sondheim, their contemporary among Broadway musical composers. Only once has Sondheim addressed racial and national difference, and that was in Pacific Overtures. (Merrily We Roll Along was his first musical designed to feature an ethnically diverse cast.) Virtually all of his other work can be interpreted as variations on the construction of whiteness. I would be willing to argue that Follies cannot be understood unless one takes into account the social construction of Anglo identity in American popular culture. Sondheim has been criticized for seeming to avoid issues of diversity in his musicals, and yet, in retrospect, he might have made the right decision.

I am not saying that Kander and Ebb are "racist" in writing The Scottsboro Boys, but it begs the question whether they left something important out: their own viewpoint as outsiders, as sympathetic progressive political thinkers who nevertheless did not experience racism in the way that the people of the Scottsboro Boys did. The musical is presentational, yes, and self-reflexive, but it might have gone even further in its self-referential position, by including the drama (indeed, the conflict) of playwrights writing a musical, and bringing that into the show itself, the challenges and limitations of attempting to see "black experience" through the lens of whiteness. (In a way, I'm recalling the criticism faced by documentarian Jennie Livingston when she filmed, in a deliberately "objective" and self-effacing position, the drag queens in Paris is Burning. I don't want to over-rely on rhetorical questions, but I wonder if Kander and Ebb could not help but view The Scottsboro Boys as anthropology, as history, as "the other," despite their anti-racist stance.)

The question I rose is a question that preoccupied me during my dissertation research, and I had a great professor who was interested in issues of "cross-identification" in spectatorship: the idea of, say, a gay man identifying with a woman in a 40s women's picture, or a young woman being more fascinated by boy culture. I definitely think it's possible for white writers to represent people of color in their creative works, but those aforementioned white writers would need to be aware of the delicate nature involved in the history of racism, and how white "cross-identification" often resulted in such cultural texts as the minstrel show and Amos and Andy. Of course, it also resulted in, say, Porgy and Bess. I've never read the book, but I've always meant to read Eric Lott's Love and Theft, which explored the ways that whites appropriated black art forms for their own gain. (The histories of both jazz and rock and roll involve white appropriation of black art, to varying degrees.) There is such a thing as imagination. There is also such a thing as influence. However, it's important that the original group (in this case, African-Americans) be granted a voice to represent their own experience in their own way. 

As I watched The Scottsboro Boys, the play seemed to me all about Kander and Ebb's exploitation of this story of social injustice, yet they (Kander and Ebb) weren't in the musical per se. It was Kander and Ebb "doing" the black mens' tragedy as if it were Roxy and Velma in minstrel drag. I appreciate a reader's point about the importance of finding similarities between races and cultures, and working toward common ground and understanding. I also think there is still some case to make for "universally resonant truths" displayed in art. At the same time, however, I think it's important that difference be recognized while attempting to depict similarity. In other words, I can't claim to know what it's like to be black or Jewish, and it might be more personal (and, strangely, universal) to write a play about being a gay white man who identifies with the history of black oppression, or the Holocaust in WW2. In other words, instead of me "pretending" to be a Jewish camp survivor, I could explore what fascinates me about that experience, so that I'm not telling someone else's story, but telling my own, and exploring the similarities and differences between homophobia and anti-Semitism. 

World War Z: Stop Before It Kills Again!

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to continue with my blog. I had not expected to be so busy, as I enjoyed writing reviews. Unfortunately, I haven't posted (except for the occasional Facebook entry) for five months. I will resume by re-posting some Facebook comments on films and plays.


I saw World War Z yesterday. With his long hair parted in the middle and his scruffy face, Brad Pitt looks like himself in 1993, but 20 years older. In other words, Brad Pitt has become Baby Jane Hudson. He's still hot, though. He's battling to find the cure for the zombie epidemic that's ruining the planet, and most of the movie features really fast moving, spastic extras in dead makeup doing bad things to everyone else. Because the filmmakers want to make the point that zombies now outnumber the human beings, there are a lot of CGI-fueled long shots of zombies moving around cities like ants. (I love how CGI can make any live-action movie look like a cartoon all of a sudden.) These zombies are like the zombies in 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, the movie and the original 1950s novel, in which Richard Matheson invented the modern-day undead genre: they sprint, leaving the shuffling to the other monsters. Ironically, the flick's "action-packed" moments often take a back seat to the real drama: will Brad Pitt's cell phone battery die before he can talk to his wife? Now, if Ms. Jolie played the spouse, it might be a conflict worth the ticket price, but it's not. It''s some pale blond nothing with two brats who can't stop reminding us, "I'm SCARED!" (You don't say!) 

While I sat through this motion picture, I kept thinking: I've been through two car accidents. I don't need to feel what it's like to be in a third car accident. I really don't care about the zombie vs. human battle. I'm more interested in knowing how people maintain civilization as it crumbles around them. Fortunately, there's AMC-TV's The Walking Dead, and, even better, the DVDs of the brilliant George Romero films Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

It's funny about this zombie phenomenon. In the 1990s the aliens were the monsters, until the immigration reform crisis made us all painfully aware of the danger of referring to human beings as aliens. Now the zombies are the monsters. They're the "all purpose hated minority." Because they're (un) dead, it's okay to dehumanize and loathe them and not be considered racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic. Horror movies are best when the "us" vs. "them" boundary gets blurred, when who's predator and who's prey gets mixed up, when audiences are forced to face their own prejudices and learn something. Matheson and Romero did it best.

I'm sure the book of World War Z is pleasing to its fans; a few of them have informed me that it is much better than the movie. I hope it sells a lot of copies. In the meantime I await Brad Pitt's new, and hopefully improved, haircut.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Deforming the Rom-Com for the Better

People are very surprised when I tell them that David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook was the best movie of 2012. They expect me to say Lincoln, or The Master, or Moonrise Kingdom, but not a flick with an unattractive poster, an indecipherable title, Bradley Cooper and Chris Tucker. Those who did see the film, who weren't as enthusiastic about it as I was, remind me of my skepticism toward Hollywood movies, with their heavily plotted story lines and their mandated happy endings, and wonder why I gave the film not one but two viewings, with a likely third on the way. Only one friend, whose passion for film exceeds my own, really got it. He called Silver Linings Playbook the return of a Billy Wilder-type film, a comedy for grownups. That's what it is, and that's why it's important to give it credit for rescuing the romantic comedy from the chick-flick graveyard.

The romantic comedy demonstrated the best of Studio Era Hollywood, as it depicted highly erotic courtship within tight constraints during the Production Code era. In order to attract an audience that expected sex from the beginning but would not mind if they were denied sex even after the closing credits, directors paired Katharine Hepburn with Cary Grant or James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart with Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper with Barbara Stanwyck, or, in the case of The Apartment (1960), Billy Wilder matched Shirley MacLaine with Jack Lemmon. Neither actor dominated the other, or they took turns bending the other to their wills; the films were vehicles for neither star, or both stars. Of course, many films flopped due to lack of chemistry between a man and a woman. The most memorable of the movies, however, proved how difficult, yet how rewarding, it was to watch two adults sparring with brilliant dialog and charisma as their chief weapons, if not their only tools. What marked classic romantic comedy was its subordination of the romance to a compelling story involving the development of characters, even if it felt to the audience that the plot was just an excuse for love to flourish. Mainstream feminist film critics, such as Molly Haskell, Marjorie Rosen and Jeanine Basinger, have viewed the classic Hollywood romantic comedy as a golden opportunity for featuring equality between the sexes, as women held their own against men. 

The Sixties, and the shift from a universal Production Code to a more permissive, if ultimately confusing and politically motivated ratings system, encouraged the proliferation of many genres, including the Western, the detective story and horror, but it diminished the power of the romantic comedy. Another, possibly more powerful influence, reduced the genre, as women’s roles diminished, and “bankable” women stars virtually disappeared for well over a decade. Starting with the late Seventies, however, with one example being Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (with Diane Keaton opposite Allen), a reversal took place. Unfortunately, as the 20th century came to a close, the romantic comedy appeared to be quite different from the canonical works of the Studio Era. Women were, for the most part, restored to “bankability,” as Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and Melanie Griffith proved that they could draw a sizable audience. 

What never returned, or appeared so rarely as to seem the exception to the rule (Allen’s works, mainly), was the maturity of the better works, the substance of the narratives that reminded audiences that the love story shared the screen with interesting stories and characters. The characters seemed stock, one-dimensional and predictable, and the plots were mere springboards for the insipid roles played by actors who got a chance to demonstrate more charm than talent. As promising as Nora Ephron was as a journalist and budding screenwriter, her films weakened the romantic comedy genre as a whole. Entire productions were constructed around a single star, sometimes male but usually female, and the foil was decidedly inferior. Even when there seemed to be an even match, as in the case of Notting Hill, with the often imposing Hugh Grant falling for Julia Roberts, the plot was threadbare. The genre took on a new nickname, one reflecting its increasingly diminutive status. Just as “the women’s picture” (of Davis, Crawford, Joan Fontaine and Olivia DeHavilland) became, by 1980, the “chick flick” (of Roberts, Bullock and Ryan), the “romantic comedy” earned the prosaic title of “rom com.”

Before I discuss Silver Linings Playbook in detail, in order to emphasize the practical miracle performed by David O. Russell on this moribund genre, I would like to mention the first time I became aware of Bradley Cooper. It was in a chick flick/rom com entitled Failure to Launch, a name which said more than was intended, I think. I can’t even remember the name of the female lead, and, while I could look it up on, it might not be worth the effort. The male lead, however, I remember, because the flick was yet another job for Matthew McConaughey, who had been banished to the rom-com purgatory after eccentric behavior, including a drug bust, derailed his upward climb toward stardom as the new next Paul Newman. (To be fair, I must mention that 2012 was a redemptive year for the actor, as he shone in Magic Mike and Bernie, and gave audiences a chance to see once more what Richard Linklater saw in him during the making of Dazed and Confused.) In Failure to Launch, Matthew McC played a charming womanizer who refused to grow up, living with his parents (played by the unlikely but winning couple of Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw), and going to yoga class with his buddies, one of whom was Bradley Cooper, who functioned as a sort of Eve Arden to McConaughey’s Barbara Stanwyck. With a pretty face that registered charming bemusement as well as goofy abandon, and a dazzling white smile that almost upstaged his captivating stare, Cooper showed great promise for...something. He spent years in rom-coms and gross-out teen boy comedies, particularly The Hangover series, in which he registered aging frat boy charm more than the compelling vulnerability required of a true movie star. Limitless started out as a cautionary tale about the dangers of over-reliance on medicine to cure social ills but ended up another capitalist tycoon superhero fantasy, and it seemed to doom Cooper to a career of generic forgettables. In a risky but glorious move, the actor became executive producer of David O. Russell’s latest picture, as well as its male lead.

Based on a novel, Silver Linings Playbook could have been a J.D. Salinger imitation, the self-absorbed, sarcastic tale of a mentally ill young man and his battles with the world around him. It could also have been a domestic drama, similar to the returning soldier narrative, showing the awkward adjustment of a disturbed son returning to the family home. Possibly it could have been the indictment of modern medicine that Limitless set out to be, without the science fiction undertones and the action flick carnage. Instead, Russell decided to take elements from all three of those approaches and combined them with the chief characteristics of the classic romantic comedy, with man and woman evenly matched, battling each other as well as their own internal conflicts, against a backdrop of interesting, human, funny and substantial supporting characters. 

While it is undeniable that this film is Bradley Cooper’s showcase, proving to the world his facility at conveying the complex undercurrents of the golden boy without defaulting into the narcissism of Seventies Robert Redford or pre-AARP aged Paul Newman, the film would not have worked without the force of nature that is Jennifer Lawrence. Her previous successes, Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games, displayed alpha-female power in a woman barely old enough to vote. However crass Lawrence has appeared on awards shows and on interviews, seemingly too baldly ambitious and arrogant to be tolerated by a fickle audience. no one cannot acknowledge her prodigious talent and amazing star quality. The thrill of Silver Linings Playbook lies in the discovery of her flair for comic timing, and her willingness to show the fragility of her character’s outlook on life as often as she sports her bravado. As Cooper’s parents, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are sweet, humble, appropriately worried and eccentric without being grating or, for even one second, false.

The film has been released for months now, rendering a plot summary not only less necessary but possibly in danger of spoiling the mysterious appeal of Silver Linings Playbook. This can be said: Pat (Cooper) leaves a mental institution, where he was held and medicated following a violent attack that ruined his marriage, and he struggles to find his place in a town that won’t let him forget the past while refusing to let him face the past, and he wonders whether to return, Gatsby-like, to his old love or to sort the problem out for himself. He stops his medication, only to resume it when he inflicts his violent energy upon his parents. His desire to reconcile with his wife, who has a restraining order against him, is a single-minded pursuit that both gives him a reason to live and keeps him from having a life. Not until he is forced to meet Tiffany (Lawrence), the sister of the wife of his old friend, does he have an alternative to his monomaniacal focus on the past. Their courtship is rocky, and the film alludes to a variety of texts, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Simply Ballroom, as it shows how Pat and Tiffany become friends, despite or because of their mutual emotional instability. (Tiffany, a young widow, turned to promiscuity and pills in order to medicate her grief. Her story functions as a sobering counterpoint to Pat’s often self-inflicted psychological struggles, as well as his own self-obsessiveness.) 

What reminds the viewer that this is, in the last analysis, a romantic comedy, and not a Paddy Chayevsky kitchen-sink drama or a Snake Pit investigation of mental illness, is the ensured presence of the happy ending. That there will be a happy ending is safe to mention in this review. What matters is HOW the film journeys toward that ending, and how happy, indeed, it will turn out.

I confess that I fell in love with Silver Linings Playbook in a way that made me uncomfortable as a film studies major. As I detect the mechanisms of the various genres referenced in a film, and as I evaluate how successfully a film upholds or subverts the conventions of a genre, I try to maintain a lack of “suspension of disbelief.” I concentrate on design, and note the skill with which characters, plots and twists are arranged, as if pieces on a chess board. While I managed to maintain such attention while watching Russell’s film, I also found myself disappearing into the diegesis (the world of the film), vanishing into the plights of Pat, Tiffany and their respective families, arriving to the point of talking back to the screen: “Don’t walk out now!” “You shouldn’t have said that.” “Don’t look there!” as if the characters could hear my comments. I cared about these people as if I knew them. I wanted to know them. I rooted for their triumph, as opposed to their failure, because I wanted the best for them. That really, really surprised me, and left me with no small sense of delight. (I also cried. Tears choked my throat after Les Miz, but the eyes remained scrupulously, mercilessly dry.)

I don’t think I would have enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook as much as I did, had tragedy not cast a shadow over the comedy and vice versa. In a way, tragedy and comedy were the equally-matched lovers in this film, as strong as Hepburn and Tracy, carrying on as if clearly aware that two conjoined is better than one left single. If the characters find happiness, not only did they earn it, but they appreciate it because sadness is just around the corner. 

The film has won a lot of awards already, and is up for eight Oscars. Honors are pleasant, but they are best seen as marketing boosts. If a prize or two gets people to watch Russell’s film, then the ceremony serves its purpose. It’s also too soon to tell whether the movie will stand the test of time. I hope it does, as it reveals the sham that was Failure to Launch and all of those chick-flick/rom coms that audiences over 35 have been forced to endure for decades. It is my wish that Silver Linings Playbook leads the way toward a truly adult cinema.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Waves of Nausea: Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Impossible" (2012)

I wasn't going to review "The Impossible," Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona's fictionalized account of one of the worst tsunami disasters in history and the rich white people with accents who take up most of the screen time. While I was curious to see the film, largely because I wanted to see Ewan McGregor run around half-naked, dirty, streaked with blood and sporting a posh haircut, I kept putting it off until I was too depressed to stay at home any longer, and drove to Pasadena and saw the Sunday, 10:20pm showing, alone, with three other people scattered throughout the theatre. That part was awesome. Then I had to watch the movie.

(Okay. I give my mea culpas regarding the glib opening paragraph, riddled as it is with cheap shots. Let's get serious.)

"The Impossible," written by Sergio G Sanchez from a story by Maria Belon, is a conventional film, but it is an excellent Exhibit A for discussing cinema and its relationship to realism, narrative and audience expectation. While viewing "The Impossible," I know for a fact that this is the product of a photographic age; its camera takes me to places never travelled, enables me to see from different vantage points, and permits me to move from one person's experience to another's in a completely different setting.

A text about a disaster provides a superb opportunity to compare and contrast different forms, and what may be represented about the disaster in those different forms. For example, the Broadway musical Titanic enabled an audience to watch a proscenium stage lift to a dangerously raked level, but that was about it. The musical depended upon story, character, song and libretto to bring the disaster to "life." In other words, verbal imagery carried the responsibility of conveying the magnitude of the loss, and, for many theatregoers and Tony award voters, it was a success. However, as an opportunity for vicarious experience, James Cameron's 1997 film (also called Titanic) trumped the play. The cinematography lead viewers on to the ship, hanging from the stern rail, jumping into lifeboats, sinking down, down, down into the icy Atlantic, even below the surface. Of course, Cameron's movie featured, and required, plot, character and dialog (if not show tunes), but it could have been a silent movie and been as compelling a record of life during disaster. (I will not make the obvious joke that it should have been a silent movie, sparing us all Celine Dion. The joke makes itself.) A play maintains a distance between audience and action; a movie can dissolve the "feeling" of distance, if not the actual distance itself. Due to the psychological trick called "suspension of disbelief," a text can create a sense of "You Are There" for a viewer, provided that the quality of the cinematic elements-mise en scene, photography, editing and narrative-work together to sustain the illusion of lived, as opposed to witnessed, experience.

As realism, "The Impossible" triumphs at virtually every turn. (I will confess to a slight skepticism, if not outright disbelief, during the high angle, overhead shots as the tsunami swept over an area of several miles. It did look like a miniature, model town, perfect for Smurfs if not Barbies.)

Had Bayona's film remained a recreation of a tragic disaster, it would have remained pure cinema, a testament to the artistry possible within realism. For better or worse, however, "The Impossible" is an example of narrative cinema, and it accepts the conventions of narrative in order to achieve an expected outcome in capitalist film fictions: the audience must leave the theatre with a happy ending, some resolution of a conflict in order to feel satisfied, and the resolution should be congruent with the expectations built into their daily lives. Family may fight, but family remains strong. Vacations may be problematic, but it's good to go on vacation, preferably someplace cheap but far away. In narrative cinema, a world may end, but the world does not end, as the status quo continues without serious challenge. Without such a reassuring conclusion, a film guarantees its financial failure in the capitalist market. (Of course, one could argue that Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) violated that expectation by killing off its heroine, played by Janet Leigh, within the first hour of the film. The rebuttal to that argument consists of the survival of the heroine's lover and older sister, and, more importantly, the containment of the conflict through the incarceration of the murderer; law and order prevails, preventing a disruption of the status quo threatened by the film's first hour.)

In the case of "The Impossible," a family, one family, is the center of the film, not the tsunami itself. The movie asks us never to consider the meteorological origin of the natural disaster: it simply exists, and is either survived or not. What qualifies Bayona's film as "movie," that is, narrative cinema, is its focus on the unity of a family. Therefore, the film begins with the family in crisis. The father worries that the house alarm was not turned on, therefore laying his home to the threat of invasion by outsiders. He also worries that he might lose his job, threatening his family's financial security. His wife's willingness to return to her old job (as a doctor, no less) does not ease the conflict embedded in the drama. Furthermore, the oldest of their three sons is acting out as adolescents do, asserting his independence from the others, distancing himself from his younger brothers, to the concern of the parents. Their plane touches down, and they arrive on Fantasy Island, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. As they did on the plane, the family occupies center stage, with the Thai hotel clerks and anonymous and mostly Anglo tourists as the dance ensemble. At this point, the film could be a play with no problem. The family frolics around the hotel pool in their bathing suits, kicking a ball, writing in a journal, basking in the sun, and we watch this tableau from a safe distance.

Then...out of NOWHERE...comes this big, fat, enormous, scary WAVE! and, for the next ten minutes, we are literally swept away. Those ten or so minutes, reprised if re-imagined much later on in the film, are film moments par excellence. As we watch Naomi Watts and Tom Holland (as mother and oldest son, respectively) whirl around automobiles, buildings, dead bodies and sewage (raw or otherwise), we are as close as we ever would want to be to a natural disaster of that proportion. The tight close ups and fluid (pun intended) tracking bring us up against Watts as she speeds into broken tree branches that stab and impale her, and we are breathless with anticipation: will this end? will this end well? will she survive? (Thanks to Janet Leigh, no one can be certain of a star's lifespan in a full-length movie.) There is a built-in moment of suspense when Watts and Holland grab on to a mattress, reach out a hand, almost touch the other's hand, then are yanked away by the currents of nature, and the violence continues for another few minutes. As breathtaking this sequence might be, it is not the entire film, and soon, it must end, and the "real movie" must begin.

As I have established, the family is in conflict from the opening frames of the film; their status as nuclear family is threatened. Suddenly, what seems to be a "real" conflict, the tsunami, has invaded their plot, but it soon becomes clear that the tsunami, as real a conflict as it was to the hundreds of thousands of casualties and their loved ones, is but a trope. The wave "stands for" the economic and hormonal threat to the McGregor-Watts brood, and, instead of a home break-in or a job layoff, the tsunami has split the family apart. The rest of the film dwells on one question: will they reunite or not?

Granted, the filmmakers and actors perform theatrical magic as they take the viewers through the often heartbreaking and sickening journeys of the characters. Pathos haunts the atmosphere as the oldest son is abandoned by his bedridden mother; despair hovers as father gets lost after he sends the two younger boys off to a rescue camp. I hesitate to go into much detail, as audience suspense, and the element of surprise, inform the conventions of narrative cinema, particularly those of the genre of domestic melodrama. One thing is clear, though. In order to succeed, someone must survive the tidal wave, but, preferably, everybody survives.

"The Impossible," obviously, operates on two levels of realism: the realism of the tsunami re-created in all of its turgid splendor, and the realism of the bourgeois domestic narrative. The latter's realism is one part wish fulfillment and one part affirmation of an ideology perpetuated by a capitalist society. It is no coincidence that this film is "based on a true story" of one family's experience with the tsunami, that the "true" family in question was actually of Spanish origin and therefore had more in common with the islander population that was largely devastated by the tsunami, but, in order for the film to be made for a commercial market, the family had to be cast as vaguely English language speaking but firmly anti-Third World. (I say "vaguely" because McGregor is Scottish, Watts is British-Australian and their fictional family resides in Japan. When Watts, before the disaster, expresses a desire to move back "home," one is never sure where that might be: Sydney? Edinburgh? London? Hollywood?) Many critics have complained about the dearth of non-white characters in "The Impossible," and that the natives remain largely set decoration for the pandemonium disrupting Anglo lives and limbs. I would prefer not to repeat that criticism, as it has been said before, and well, by others. What needs to be said, though, is that audience sympathy depends upon familiarity, not just the suspension of disbelief. With familiarity comes identification, and therefore sympathy. This is what film has in common with theatre, and, to a certain extent, fiction: there are leads, and there are supporting players. The audience gets a chance at familiarity with the leads, because they get to journey along with them. The others remain strangers, however kind hearted they are. The Bennett family (aka the McGregor-Watts family) happens to be affluent and pale skinned, as well as the occupants of 92.9% of the screen time. By default, everyone else is reduced to a walk on, and by "everyone" I refer specifically to the non-white population. (Even the choice cameos are given to the pasty-faced: Geraldine Chaplin makes a splendid comeback to the screen in a lovely scene with the two little boys, and a decidedly hot French guy with a cell phone and a bad leg limps his way to our hearts.)

How the tsunami-ravaged island survived its own economic disaster remains unspoken in the film, but it is obvious that a reunion of the family virtually guarantees their financial security if they manage to fly away from trouble and back to the paradise of homeland.

Here are a few observations. Watts and Holland give powerful performances, and awards might be possible, if not hoped for. McGregor does well with his role and his lack of clothing, and is brilliant in one scene while talking to a cell phone. (McGregor, who hit big with Trainspotting, has a "beta" personality, and has established a decent career opposite strong women such as Jane Horrocks in Little Voice and Watts in this film, not to mention those latter-day Star Wars sequels.) The script, editing and music are clearly manipulating the viewers's emotions, with an occasional payoff for the sentimentally inclined. The director demonstrates firm control of mood and mise en scene.

"The Impossible," like the better docu-dramas, might serve as incentive for further historical research, and viewers might learn more about the people who didn't get a chance to board a plane away from the wave-ravaged land.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Deforming History for the Purpose of Reform: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

I have admired the work of writer-director Quentin Tarantino for nearly 20 years, largely because I identify with him. Both of us were born in 1963, spent a childhood in the South Bay area of Los Angeles which is also called the Beach Cities, lived with a single mother, and escaped reality by watching as many movies as possible. Tarantino gathered an encyclopedic knowledge of international cinema while I went off to college, where I learned that some texts are "art" and others were "trash." Tarantino, who didn't go to college, came of age without that discriminatory perspective, and ended up writing movies that reflected influences as low as the drive-in sexploitation flick and as high as Wagnerian grand opera. I imagine Tarantino, as a young teenager, watching LA television's channels 5, 9, 11 and 13, which screened formula gangster films, Japanese monster movies, gladiator films, westerns (especially Italian "spaghetti" ones) and cautionary melodramas, mostly from the Fifties and Sixties, typically B-fare from American International Studios or Roger Corman. (Perhaps, like me, he watched network television, with its florid but popular miniseries such as Roots, with its emphasis on civil rights, as well as its plethora of cameos from has-beens and never-weres of TV and film.) With access to revival houses and art theaters, and later the VCR, he could learn about the international auteurs of cinema, the "Ten Best" films and, most of all, the elements of film form.

Through an instinctive understanding of genre, and an appreciation of the possibilities within the critically-dismissed "popular" genres, Tarantino set out to deform film. I say "deform" in order to stress the positive and negative reputation of the filmmaker: he re-shaped genres, even blending them as he made a point, but he also (as critics claim) undid traditional genres to the point of ruining their simple pleasures. Tarantino also brought a natural talent for narrative structure and dialog that would have made him an innovative playwright, had he been exposed to legitimate theatre as a child, an unlikely prospect growing up in the working-class South Bay. With a formal education, whether through a private prep-school experience or a University adolescence, Tarantino might have grown to dismiss the B-genres of Hollywood cinema, and embraced canonical cinema, theatre, literature and the fine arts, but he did not. He grew up as a self-made, self-taught man, distilling the textual influences of his childhood with his natural gifts, and made friends in high places who opened doors for him.

As a result, Quentin Tarantino has produced a filmic body of work that eludes categorization. With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he combined the film noir with the buddy film, the slapstick comedy and the romance, with Biblical and classical allusions coming out of the most unlikely characters. With Jackie Brown, he wove the blaxploitation detective film with the mob-gangster picture and, of all things, the melodrama of growing old. With Kill Bill, he took on the Eastern tradition of martial arts, as well as the post-Alien concept of a female gun-toting heroine. With Death Proof, one half of the underrated but masterful Grindhouse, he took on the Russ Meyer sexploitation film as well as the biker-gang and rape-revenge horror pictures. Through it all, he gave jobs to lots and lots of people who had been big (John Travolta, Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis), were kinda big (Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel), should have been bigger had they not been dismissed as cult figures (Pam Grier, David Carradine) and those who barely escaped a footnote in a Whatever Happened to... book, many recognizable from bad Sixties formula television, B-pictures from the 50s to the 90s, popular mainstream pictures and tabloid scandals. A Tarantino picture was as much comedy as drama, as much philosophical treatise as gunfight, as much trip down memory lane as it was a star-maker. One could be guaranteed a high level of dialog, clever editing technique, convoluted storytelling and buckets and buckets of blood. As the years went by, however, a growing number of critics had an increasingly legitimate complaint: why won't the great auteur make a "mature" film, the way that Stephen Spielberg, the barnstorming director of Jaws, could make a dignified film about the Holocaust, Schindler's List? 

Django Unchained, Tarantino's latest film, is an answer to that question. The movie is his most political yet, taking on America's most shameful legacy, its history of African slavery at its ugliest and most brutal. A childhood spent in the Seventies watching television revealed years of exposure to dramatic anti-racist shows such as Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, not to mention often-insightful but just-as-often offensive sitcoms such as Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening! Later on, such as child would have some way of seeing filmic representations of anti-slavery, albeit in a sensational, luridly sexual text such as Mandingo or Drum. That period, however, also showcased independent filmmakers inspired by the Black Arts movement and the civil rights movement, who received funding from the same B-producers who funded knockoffs like Bloody Mama. Fred Williamson, Godfrey Cambridge and Gordon Parks made powerful anti-racist films that were also popular with audiences looking for entertainment. As violent as they were, the blaxploitation films of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson provided a catharsis for racial minorities and feminists. In an early 70s Ms. magazine article, the author quotes a black woman coming out of a Pam Grier film: "Damn, that movie felt GOOD." Tarantino synthesized all of these influences, and combined them with a narrative influenced by the spaghetti westerns that also began airing on TV in the Seventies, as well as those that screened at drive-ins.

America's slave history has been called a "Holocaust" on the scale (or, arguably on a larger scale) of the Nazi murder of the Jewish people in Europe during World War II. In the late Seventies, when the NBC-TV miniseries Holocaust aired, famous author and camp survivor Elie Wiesel condemned such fictional representations as reducing mass murder to "kitsch," and began a heated and ongoing discussion about the ethics of representing such histories through any form of art. By the time Jonathan Demme released the film version of Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, images of the horrors of slavery were kept fleeting and were referenced obliquely, as a past that should not be repressed, but should not be exposed, either. The emphasis was on living with the effects, rather than dramatizing the event itself.

Tarantino responds to this discussion by employing "kitsch," or, worse, "schlock," as the medium through which he explores the Holocaust of American slavery; rather than reducing history to kitsch, he elevates kitsch through his treatment of history. Django Unchained combines the spaghetti western with the plantation melodrama and the rape-revenge/vigilante thriller, and his synthesis of genre  contains a narrative that alludes to a German tale dramatized by Wagner. Doing so, Tarantino produces what must be acknowledged as a work of art.

I don't support a criticism that involves too much plot summary, as it is so readily available online and elsewhere. However, a brief synopsis will provide detail. A former dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, purchases a slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx, and enlists Django in the pursuit of wanted criminals. Django was separated from his wife, Broomhilda, also a slave, and he aims to find her and rescue her, even bring her freedom. The film takes Dr. Schultz and Django through two plantations, site of a few of the most graphic depictions of cruelty shown in any "slave-genre" film, as they find Broomhilda. Django, called "fastest gun in the South" by Dr. Schultz at one point, rages over the injustice he experiences and sees, and slowly builds a strong case for the revenge he plans to seek.

The faces of racism belong to several recognizable but forgotten faces, including Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away, Stephen King's "It"), Franco Nero (whose spaghetti western series Django is referenced here) and Michael Parks, as well as current stars such as Leonardo DeCaprio. They are not merely employed for camp comedy; they revive their careers and redeem their names as they give legitimately powerful performances. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, DeCaprio tries but fails. DeCaprio long has had Edward Norton's film career; watching The Aviator, J Edgar and this film would have been much better had Norton played those roles. As someone best called "Uncle Tom from Hell," Samuel L. Jackson gives a ferocious portrayal of monstrously misdirected rage.

The heart of the film belongs to the triad of Waltz, Foxx and Kerry Washington (as Broomhilda). As Dr. Schultz, Waltz brings a charm, charisma and compassion that perfectly complements his bravura, award-winning turn as the Nazi of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Foxx has the highly difficult job of reacting, mostly without words, or with words very carefully chosen, while projecting great reserves of strength through enduring pain. He emerges as a powerful hero, with a quiet vulnerability in the presence of Waltz and Washington.

Kerry Washington might have the most challenging role of all. Throughout Tarantino's career, he has objectified women through a fetishized heterosexual lens. Grier, Thurman and Rosario Dawson (in Death Proof) were not necessarily exceptions to that rule, as they showed strength through a decidedly erotic angle. The character of Broomhilda, a slave taught German from a German mistress, is used sexually on the plantation, and her nudity is displayed for gut-wrenching torture scenes (including a bullwhipping, a branding and imprisonment in a "hot box"), but Tarantino, for reasons not entirely clear, does not present her as the object of a heterosexualized male gaze. Instead, she is filmed as a strong woman who endures the abuse of history; being dressed is depicted as violation, too. Much has been made of the decision to present an African-American woman as "damsel in distress," rescued by the African-American hero at the end of his quest. To her great credit, Washington radiates dignity, intelligence and guts despite being made a spectacle of abuse that is not necessarily (sadistically-) sexual. Of course, her natural beauty shines through, in order to show the moviegoer her appeal to Django.

(As a kind of aside, it is worth noting that Tarantino, known for displaying the female foot as a sex object in his films, refrains from doing so in this film. The foot is a cinematic image in Django Unchained, but he shows the foot as a symbol of the monstrous cruelty of slavery in America, as the slaves are forced to trudge barefoot through a prickly desert in the film's title sequence. It is a torture almost as uncomfortable to watch as the snapping of a bullwhip just before it hits the body.)

Aside from the motley crew of "has beens" and allusions to genre cinema, other, more subtle qualities mark this as a Tarantino film. Broomhilda's name embraces both high and low art. While there is the reference to Siegfried and Brunhilde in German art and folklore, there is also a sly reference, in the spelling of her name, to the "Broom-hilda" comic strip. The musical score remains eclectic but perfectly appropriate to the scene; Ennio Morricone's music is predictable if delightful, but Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name" befits the assertion of Django as freed man as well as alluding to Croce's ubiquitous presence in early Seventies pop culture. Don Johnson, more portly than he was during TV's "Miami Vice," wears another white suit, but it is that of a plantation owner, and he is given the name of a Tennessee Williams iconic figure, "Big Daddy." Other examples are included, and they all remind the viewer of the postmodern force that has been Quentin Tarantino, as he continues to deconstruct both genre and hierarchies of cultural capital in his films.

Many Tarantino's films end in a festival of gunfire and attendant blood, and Django Unchained is no exception. This one opens the filmmaker to the charges of historical revisionism as well as immaturity (the audience cheers for the bloody revenge enacted by Django), but it is dramatically effective and satisfying to watch. To his credit, the use of sound accentuates the lethal power of the gun, and its explosions, resulting in mutilations as well as splashes of blood, show the danger of treating guns as kid toys.

To sum it up, Django Unchained is a step forward, a surprisingly relevant, ethical and necessary social comment on America's racism, and a confirmation of his intellectual depth as well as visual cleverness. To translate into plain English: Yes, I liked it! Thumbs up! Go see it! (Happy now?)

A postscript: I forgot to mention the influence of the 19th century slave narrative, particularly Frederick Douglass' and Harriet Jacobs' accounts. The torture of Broomhilda, witnessed by Django (as shown in flashback) seems to allude Douglass's witnessing of a woman being whipped by her white owner. Furthermore, as I re-read this blog entry, I realized that my choice of the word "deform," and the ways in which I defined the term, was influenced by the African-American scholar Houston Baker. He invented the opposing concepts of "mastery of form" versus "deformation of mastery." The former reflected the work of black writers whose work affirmed the influence and status of dominant culture. On the other hand, "deformation of mastery" indicated the texts by black authors that attempted to destabilize dominant culture through expression of minority voices at the level of form as well as content. If I applied these terms to Quentin Tarantino's film, I might think that Django Unchained posited a more revolutionary anti-racist stance through his deconstruction of critically maligned genres, as opposed to a stately, reverent "mirror of reality" film along the lines of a Spielberg history film.

Here's a link to an extended definition of Houston Baker's oppositions: