Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sight (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2000)
From "Tarantino's Traveling Players," an unfinished piece on Django Unchained. (January 2013)

A sort of “plantation Western,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest revenge fantasy follows a pair of antebellum bounty hunters—one a former dentist (Christoph Waltz), the other a former slave (Jamie Foxx)—as they track down badmen and discuss 19th century popular culture. Phrenology, the Nibelungenlied, and Alexandre Dumas all figure prominently.

Containing less plot than any Tarantino flick this side of Death Proof, Django Unchained unfolds as a series of prolonged dialogues punctuated by bursts of cartoony violence. It’s talky and self-consciously artificial. Blood—bright red, like nail polish—spurts out in gallons. Everything suggests theater: the long sit-down conversations, the emphasis on drawn-out interior scenes, the use of props (including a skull—the most iconic prop in English-language drama) and costumes as rhetorical visual aids.

The plantation where much of the film's second half takes place comes to resemble a stage—or, rather, a series of interconnected stages, with a different type of play being performed in each room. As the characters move from the bedroom to the dining room, from the study to the foyer, they traverse genres—and change roles.

This is where things start to get tricky, because every time one of the film's four major characters—the two bounty hunters and their near-doubles, a slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his favorite slave (Samuel L. Jackson)—takes on a new role, the other characters adjust accordingly. The plantation, it seems, plays by improv rules. Power dynamics shift constantly, suggesting a cycle of pretend-masters and pretend-servants.

The film—which opened in the US and Canada a month ago and began playing in Europe last week—is Tarantino’s most mature work. For the first time since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s style, dialogue, and subject are all of a piece. They make up a cohesive worldview—albeit one that’s both more complicated and less conflicted than Pulp Fiction’s.  

In the past, Tarantino has been accused—sometimes rightly—of shallowness. His characters are chiefly defined by what they talk about, not by what they do (the one exception to this are the characters of Death Proof); this makes them fun to watch, but also can result in an ideological muddle. The characters extrapolate on and dissect pop culture, but the underlying themes of the films—which, for the last decade, have largely amounted to variations on "righteous revenge!"—are left undigested.


Pulp Fiction's much-imitated dialogue pivots around one word—"fuck," which is used a staggering 265 times in the film. Django Unchained, in turn, seems to hold a record for instances of "nigger"; during certain stretches, it appears several times per sentence. It's indicative of the tone and ambitions of the earlier film that it should be so inextricably linked with the most flexible word in the English language—and of the new one that it should align itself with the most complicated and controversial noun in American culture.  

Of course, Pulp Fiction had its own instances of "nigger," which got Tarantino a fair amount of condemnation. But in Django Unchained, it's everywhere. The word—its history, its connotations—is part of the verbal texture and rhythm of the film. And unlike Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained never tries to pass it off as a neutralized or affectionate term—as "nigga" with an "r."

From "Transaction Symphony," an unfinished essay on Life Without Principle. (November, 2012)

One transaction leads to another then to another then to another in Johnnie To's Life Without Principle—a film of intersecting economies, some of them very small, some very big. Savings are invested in a risky fund, illicit money is laundered, a loan shark's bag trades hands, gangsters exchange favors and courtesies within the mob system's social economy, bail money secures a hood's release, a scrap-cardboard picker trades trash for cash, and so on and so on and so on...

It's not money that makes the modern world go round; it's the circulation of money—from hand to hand, cash to account balance, stock to stock and then back to repeat the cycle. (Significantly, though they're always moving some kind of money around, the characters of Life Without Principle are almost never shown spending it; money exists to be transformed and transferred.) Transactions become plot pivots; characters get swept up in the current.

From "Absurd Nuns," an entry in the abandoned series Robert Bresson: The Over-Plenty of Life. (January, 2012)

Robert Bresson's first feature, Les Anges du Péché (literally Angels of Sin, but usually translated as Angels of the Streets), is, in many ways, the closest Bresson ever got to the visual and narrative conventions of filmmaking; its style is essentially syncretic, repurposing "mainstream" (or "mainstream at the time") ideas about how a camera should move, how a film should be edited, how actors should perform, and how a story should be told toward its own ends. But what, exactly, might those ends be?

Like his early short Public Affairs, Les Anges du Péché was bankrolled by a man who had traveled heavily in Surrealist circles—in this case, Roland Tual. Tual knew Bresson (once again proving himself to be everything but an outsider) through the flying ace, future politician, and occasional film producer Edouard Corniglion-Molinier, who has produced a Bresson script, Les jumeaux de Brighton, in 1936 (the film was directed by another Surrealist associate, Claude Heymann, who had been Buñuel's assistant director on L'âge d'or; Heymann also worked extensively with Jean Renoir during the period). While Bresson's Surrealist connections were neither well-known nor widely discussed during most of his lifetime, they weren't something he ever forgot or actively hid; for instance, Cahiers du Cinema co-founder and Nouvelle Vague also-ran Jacques Doniol-Valcroze noted seeing two Max Ernst paintings hanging on Bresson's wall when he visited the director's house for an interview.


The usual answer is that Les Anges du Péché demonstrates Bresson's career-long "preoccupation with religious themes;" the movie is, after all, set in a convent, and almost all of its characters are nuns. But that answers assumes—contrary to Bresson's body of work, and to much of the film—that Bresson takes the setting at face value.

Nuns scurrying about at night, hiding in shadows, arguing with each other, their hoods constantly, comically flapping—much of the imagery in Les Anges du Péché is frankly absurd. It betrays a certain Surrealist strain and an ironic stance toward order and human behavior that is more than a little at odds with the movie's Anglophone reputation.