Violence, Fantasy and Civilization: Django Unchained

The current issue of reducing gun violence in America has cleaved into two basic premises: that there is a problem of violence, and that there is a problem of technology. Both of these are rich areas of discussion, but in this post I’m going to focus on the role of violence in America.

One of the strangest parts of the Sandy Hook massacre was its growing familiarity. Details were new and horrific – reading the names of 20 tiny children brought President Obama close to tears, and many who saw his speech besides – but the lone gunman killing helpless targets en masse, not for specific reasons but rather out of spite, rage, entitlement or power seems to be a cultural pattern and already stories have followed that confirm that. Yet in looking to history it’s hard to think anything has changed about humanity—the opening of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, for instance, famously describes a man being torn apart by horses. The notion that violence could be specific to the modern American landscape seems laughable to anyone who’s dipped into the archives at all.

So can the enormous disparity of gun deaths be attributed directly to which deadly technologies are available to the consumer in the United States? Before going into this question too far, we have to consider why there would be such an interest in those technologies among a population to begin with, and while there are a number of potential arguments, one of them is certainly aesthetic. This returns us to the question of the American relationship to violence. The issue here is that danger, excitement, risk and power are symbolized by weapons, and associated with an ideal of freedom. In other words, violence of a certain kind is associated with the aesthetic of freedom.

Quentin Tarantino got a little upset the other day at being asked whether he thought the violence in his movies was socially destructive. His reaction is understandable given how often he has been asked to explain himself, although it’s too bad he wasn’t willing to have the discussion about Django Unchained in particular, as the movie is an interesting reflection on the American psyche. The line that sums it up is delivered during a tense moment: “He’s just not as used to Americans,” Django says, referring to his German friend’s discomfort at a brutal scene. Given that Tarantino just made a movie that was explicit about German brutality it’s clear this is not a simple claim that America is full of worse people than other parts of the world. But there is something worth thinking about in this quote.

In general, Tarantino’s movies depict a hero within a corrupt world of some kind, and shows the complications of belonging to a moral subculture (accentuated by connecting the characters to the broad popular culture otherwise—like jewel thieves talking about Madonna or hit men discussing burgers). In Django Unchained, the corrupt world is America. Actually, it’s a hybrid of two Americas, the antebellum South and the Wild West—and each of these plays an important role in the larger concept of America.

Both the South and the Wild West have been romanticized in American cultural history. Looked at from the perspective of the powerless, there is very little to find charming about the South, and in Django Unchained Tarantino puts on display torture methods and practices commonly brushed under the carpet in other depictions—things like neck irons, hot boxes, angry dogs and brandings.

The constant, oppressive violence of the South is systemic, and it can be seen as based on the acceptance of the economy that perpetuates it. Human usury is woven into the market and so into the culture, and post-hoc defenses are easily created and believed by those in charge. Slaves have the choice of seeking a relative level of comfort within the system or risking torture and death, and are labeled by their oppressors as naturally incapable of self-determination when they choose the more prudent if less admirable route. The system does not provide a method by which to change the system.

The Wild West, however, is a storybook form of America—the individual cowboy who can bring about justice on his own. The violence that occurs here is understood differently, as it is not the result of an oppressive system, but of an individual taking a stand. Tarantino divides the two types of violence clearly in the way that they’re presented, and there is a gloss of fantasy over the actions of the cowboys. Nonetheless the complications peek through.

There is a scene in Django Unchained when the surviving plantation owners are returning from a funeral, thinking Django is on his way to a punitive fate, and we see them entering in their finery to a home whose walls are literally stained with blood. It’s humorous somehow, and visually evocative, but it is also deeply tragic and metaphorically apt. Even if we root for Django to bring chaos to the lives of hateful masters, the impotence of this devastation is ultimately evident. The violence of the Wild West is optimistic whereas the Southern violence is repressive, and Tarantino’s presentation of a cowboy as a counterpoint to a slave-master is perfectly intuitive. But revenge is not as simple as some (perhaps even the director, at times) imagine it to be: although the violence is cathartic and exciting, it still brings baggage with it, and the emotional weight of causing death and destruction doesn’t result in a clean slate. The Wild West violence may be a positive when compared with the authoritarian, systemic violence it is reacting to, but in a larger sense it is hardly more than a further part of the structure, the other and more risky option initially provided (quietly enforce a corrupted system, or become a corrupted individual in response to it.) The movie is not just a revenge fantasy; it’s an epic tragedy.

Freedom in its deeper sense comes with its own burdens. Sartre addressed this on an individual level through the idea of personal anguish, claiming that once you truly understand what it is to make a choice, you recognize the weight you bear. Victor Frankl put it in broader social terms, and suggested that a “Statue of Responsibility” should be built on America’s West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. In Man’s Search for Meaning he wrote “Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibility. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibility.”

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  1. I met Quentin Tarantino once (before he was famous). He said his favorite director was Howard Hawks. He liked the scenario where a bunch of guys get together and get some guns, and have some fun. My impression is that he would like to see his movies inspire violence. Fortunately however, this is not the case.

    For whatever reasons, whether from inuring and inundation or education, fictitious media violence does not seem to encourage violence. Mike LaBossiere wrote a similar article some time ago but it did not fuel much debate:

    Although Tarantino is an entertaining director, his scripts have lacked philosophical substance. I have not seen Django Unchained. However, from the reviews it appears Tarantino may have broken that barrier, and can now produce a script with some amount of depth and plot. How would he respond if his scripts were drawn and quartered in a philosophy blog?

  2. I’m inclined to think that the problem of gun violence owes very little to technology, and quite a lot to the vigilantist political culture that is embedded in the literal contents of the American constitution.

    Anyway, I don’t think Tarentino is contributing to the vigilantist culture in the last two films. The agents in both films were acting on behalf of the state and doing things in a lawful way — mercenaries in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, bounty hunters in Django. That seems like a big difference and I suspect it is something that Tarentino would go out of his way to point out. (Whether or not this makes a moral difference is another question entirely.)

  3. Dennis, I disagree about the philosophical potential in Tarantino, actually – regardless of what he has said himself (I take the Zizekian stance there, which I think is Kant’s too – artists can’t fully control the meaning of their creations). But I think of art as reflective of culture and not a causal force, so then the question isn’t how clear a message is, but how well a world is displayed back to the audience…

    Mike’s post is interesting, but I think it’s getting at a different issue. I’m thinking about the two types of violence, and the ideal of freedom as a cathartic response instead of a reflective choice. To me, that viewpoint does shed light on how Americans can come to think that a good response to a frustrating situation is to lash out…

    BLS, interesting point about the agents of the state. It’s actually hard to parse in Django though, considering there are no bounties on the heads of most of his victims by the end. On the other hand, they will be on the losing side of the war soon enough. Maybe it doesn’t so much matter whether the boundaries are national or cultural; you still end up seeing moral distinctions based on what group you belong to – what’s right by one set of rules is wrong by another, and it gets messy when worlds overlap.

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    It is still not clear where the philosophical potential is with Tarantino. “But I think of art as reflective of culture and not a causal force…” does not refute my position since I never suggested (or would ever consider) causality to be the acid test of philosophy.

    I am not familiar with Slavoj Zizek, so I will refrain from comment on the Zizekian stance. The division of violence into two categories (1) violence in the name of freedom, and (2) violence in the name of responsibility is interesting but too simplifying. The issues are more complex than that.

    It is sometime since I read Man’s Search for Meaning. As I recall, Frankl was describing his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live while interred in Auschwitz. What I discovered was that at his darkest moment, the one surviving force that kept him going was “The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.” Therefore, in spite of the political reflective afterthought on politics and freedom, his motivation may have come from something much different than expected.

  5. Whiting out spoilers…

    When I say ‘vigilantism’, I mean to speak of the use of force which is thought to be legitimate in spite of state opposition. So I suppose the only genuinely vigilante moments in the film were when Schultz decides to kill Candy, and when Django decides to kill the family after Candy’s funeral. Everything in between was self-defence. That’s when you start to see overtly vigilantist overtones reminiscent of “Kill Bill”.

    On the other proposal — I tend towards moral non-relativism, so I wouldn’t want to say that the moral code that bears on the situation is in principle determined by the side you’re on.

  6. Dennis, all I meant re: Zizek was that what Tarantino thinks his art means is not the final point on how it can be understood.

    I think there’s probably a lot to be unearthed about the meaning of violence and moral relativism in Tarantino’s movies. Also, certainly something about the culture of replication (the ironic, exaggerated or renewed version of something) and the place of the surreal or hyperreal… I haven’t spent a huge amount of time thinking about it, but I do think his work as a whole is mentally provocative and not just silly/fun.

    But the ‘causal force’ comment wasn’t about that! sorry to be confusing. I meant that in response to your interest in the question of whether “fictitious media encourage violence” – I was just saying I start from the presumption that art is not the starting point but the reflection of our values. So I’m not arguing over whether we should allow these sorts of movies, but trying to understand what we can learn about ourselves from thinking about them.

    Regarding Frankl, I don’t think you can separate his thoughts about freedom from his thoughts about love. The key issue in existentialism is the component of commitment to existence. To be truly free, one has to take responsibility for it. But really, to truly love, one has to take responsibility in a way, too – a person who simply tells everyone they love them and then runs off and forgets about them isn’t getting the point. Meaning is found in true commitment (which for Frankl was forced upon him by suffering).

  7. Miranda Nell,

    No. Tarantino does not like to discuss the violence in his films, or the meaning of it, not because he has some democratic wish to allow each member of the audience to draw their own meaning from his art. It’s because he is a magician who doesn’t want to explain how he does his trick. If you can keep a secret, I will tell you what it is and how it’s done.

    But where to start; Zizek or a history of violence in cinema. Zizek on 1970s pornography film. I’ve seen Zizek try to explain this a few times – it usually looks like he feels he’s failed to make his point. The producers of pornographic films, both in the 70s and now in more “realistic” pornography, attempt to regulate trauma experienced by the viewer. 70s porn had deliberately bad acting, ludicrous plots, comical sound effects – the film makers would not have been precisely aware of the reasons for their choices but they too would be traumatised by excessive reality (even excessive pleasure) – they have to edit these films; if it’s too much, it’s too much – the inappropriate comedy (no one watches porn for laughs) and bad acting is there to remove just enough reality as to bring the level of trauma to within a range where it is bearable. The same is done for violence in film.

    The regulation, generally, for both the audience and the film maker is unconscious. It’s not the sheer quantity of violence – Bruce Willis in the Diehard movies commits a far greater volume of murder and mayhem than he did in Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction, but parents and censors feel no anxiety in letting children watch Diehard – just as they would have no anxiety in allowing children to watch an old western, where John Wayne shoots hundreds of Indians.

    The reason violence in Diehard and those old westerns, or wholesome John Wayne war films, causes us such little anxiety as to have us as at the point of boredom, is not because we have become desensitized to violence – it’s not that these films were made to some naive gentler standard of the past; violence and death occurs in films made today that are considered uncontroversial for children to see. It’s that film makers have been careful (though not necessarily conscious) to make sure the violence is de-traumatised (as in decaffeinated coffee – Zizek’s alcohol free beer) – they edit until the anxiety is removed. It’s violence free violence – which is ultimately safe and boring enough to let children have as alcohol free beer.

    This is Tarrantino’s cleverness – the leger demain. He consciously understands violence free violence. Bruce Willis has been tied up and tortured in several of his family orientated star vehicles – it’s a yawn each time – you see him being punched and electrocuted. When Michael Madsen tortures the police officer in Reservoir Dogs – the violence is less gratuitous, you don’t see him cut the officer’s ear off. What people believe they have experienced as “violence” is actually the anxiety created by Madsen singing along to ‘Stuck in the Middle with you’.

    There is no meaning in Tarrantino’s violence – there is no meaning anxiety. There’s lots of ideology elsewhere in Tarrantino; race, gender, class, all kinds of interesting and conscious social commentary. But the violence is meaningless.

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  9. Basically a very good essay which points out that violence is endemic to human activity at least since the beginning of “civilization” and the commodification of human beings as slaves, soldiers or workers pitted against each other in ” a race to the bottom”. Tarantino sets this particular violence at a particular time and place – he doesn’t claim it is unique.
    A system that stresses individuality to an extreme, even when the 1%/99% is the outcome, invites individual violent acts. Guns and paranoia are facilitators.
    Tarantino’s films are entertaining, always have memorable characters, but the violence isn’t gratuitous: they say, this is who we are, and how do we like it?

  10. I liked “Django Unchained”. I thought it was a great movie:

    a) But it doesn’t make me go out and shoot people.
    b) If there was a situation of slavery and I could help free some slaves by killing their owners, I actually hope I would have the courage to do that.
    c) I don’t see how a movie with some gun fights in 8158 could be misconstrued as advocating gun violence in 2013. I also like World War 2 movies, but don’t use tanks or air assaults to solve my problems.

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