Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Some people shouldn't make history movies


As friends who know us IRL can attest, my wife and I are rather different. One area where this comes out is in our movie preferences. I tend to like movies that are more story or character driven, whereas my better-looking half enjoys what she calls "stylish world-building" through costumes, sets, what have you. I like Braveheart, she likes Eraserhead, that sort of thing.

Since I read a lot of history, I am particularly engaged by movies that tell historical stories well. Everything doesn't have to be at a college thesis level of accuracy, but it is nice to see directors, writers and producers taking their source material seriously, especially when it's a heavier subject or one that continues to have a lot of modern-day implications/ramifications.

And then there are... the other guys. The guys that don't seem to feel any obligation to the history behind their stories, who become so wrapped up in the story they've made up or decided to tell that the real history is forced to take a back seat. A way back seat.

One of the directors whose approach to history I absolutely can't stand is Tarantino. Firstly, because I just don't like his work. I dislike his aesthetics, I dislike his writing, he and I have vastly different ideas of what makes something funny, and so on. But more than that, he just seems to take such a low-brow approach to telling history that it's like you're punished for knowing anything about his subjects. When I saw Inglorious Basterds, it didn't fill me with Jewish pride, and it didn't make me sit back and chuckle at the "clever" inversion of Jewish power tropes. It made me angry that Tarantino thought the best Holocaust story worth telling was some crap about fake Jewish commandos beating up Nazis with baseball bats. There are countless real stories of real people he could have used, at least for a starting-point, dealing with real emotions, real consequences and real history, and instead the Holocaust became a set piece for him to talk about... scalping? About how it's fun to kill Nazis? Feature Brad Pitt in a bad mustache and worse accent? Make Hitler jokes?

I found Basterds frustrating, but at least it wasn't as fundamentally upsetting Benigni's Life is Beautiful was. I found that movie offensive on just about every level, and have continued to struggle to understand how people saw anything to like in that movie. I'm sorry, but I have a really hard time letting myself drift into fantasy when WE'RE AT AUSCHWITZ. It just kind of kills the fantasy for me, and causes me to wonder about the mental health or empathy levels of the people that can. I don't like set piece movies as a general rule, but there's some history, especially tragic history, that seems really inappropriate to use for these purposes. I don't need to see the Sucker Punch take on Hiroshima or the Irish Potato Famine.

So too, I am very skeptical of Tarantino's latest poject, Django Unchained (I will admit upfront I have not seen the movie and am going on the comments of others). From what I've read it sounds like Tarantino has again decided to take a major topic in world history and use it as a background to insert irritating and context-less characters whose primary motivation is to be awful to each other. Color me unimpressed.

There are two big reasons why I find Tarantino so distasteful on these kinds of movies. First of all, he seems to be almost proud about swooping in from the wings to tell someone else's story without any background of what the real history was or what its ongoing impacts are on the people it happened to. Tarantino's blase approach puts very little effort into understanding how Jews understand or process the Holocaust, or blacks understand or process slavery. History is treated as infinitely malleable and apparently you can have your characters do anything, no matter how unfactual, and because it's "alternative history," we're supposed to buy it. For Tarantino there's apparently no difference between doing a movie about the Holocaust and adapting Twilight or Roald Dahl.

But then at the same time, he likes to get on his high horse and lecture the communities he's writing about, telling them that somehow his brilliant take on their history has some redeeming, high-art quality that not only everyone should appreciate and acknowledge, but that may even be able to help those communities move on from those tragic events. Black teenagers should watch Django to understand slavery was bad, and Jews should watch Basterds to understand that Nazis are bad. And once you understand slave owners and Nazis are bad, you are supposed to understand that killing them in excruciating detail is awesome. And then you have a movie. Tarantino wants it both ways: on the one hand, his work isn't supposed to be serious history, so it can't be challenged for being fictional or just plain wrong, but on the other hand, it's ground-breakingly deep and can heal generations-old wounds. Tarantino's history has no substance but still wants to be treated as important commentary. It doesn't work, and if history matters to you-- be it yours or someone else's-- it comes across as lazy and dismissive. "Your real stories aren't important or interesting, Jews or black people-- let me tell you why my made up crap is so much better." It's basically one step away from what Mel Gibson tried to do with the Hanukkah story (though then again, being a fundamentalist, at least Gibson might have stuck to the text a little more). To me at least, it reads as incredibly arrogant.

This is where I feel Tarantino actually starts hurting the history he supposedly wants to talk about: he can claim that his alternative history is clever or satirical, but that only works when the audience knows the real history to start with, and I'm not convinced most of them do. And because he isn't invested in understanding his subject matter through the eyes of the people it happened to, he doesn't really have a whole lot of standing to comment on it, so his POV comes across as very skewed. For example, Tarantino doesn't understand why Jews might have a problem with violently killing or gratuitously torturing Nazis because he's never bothered to find out how real Jews reacted to the real life atrocities and traumas of losing their families. He can't relate to it, therefore he dismisses those feelings and representations in film (hand-wringing, as he calls it) as unrealistic. He's decided he knows how people would "realistically" react to that situation, and that's all there is to it. Never mind that there's a lot of documentation showing that most Jews didn't react to the war with revenge, and that the ones who did weren't doing it for fun or thrills but as a deeply pained response to intense trauma at having their entire society annihilated. Tarantino complained about there being no Holocaust stories that talked about fighting back, but the truth is that he's never bothered to look. He could find any number of real stories about real people and examine what they did and why they did it. Those would be stories with context, depth, and integrity, because they could examine and present real moral dilemmas and conflicts. But Tarantino doesn't do those kinds of stories, because he feels that moral dilemmas seem "like a movie, not real life." Which I personally find hilarious because when I look at Tarantino characters, all I see are caricatures and cartoons. Spielberg and Edward Zwick are far from perfect directors, but I'd take Munich, Defiance and even Schindler's List over Basterds any day. Tarantino likes to present himself as a genius director, but he really just comes across as a gore-obsessed lunkhead.

Tarantino's approach to story and characters would frustrate me no matter what his topics were, but it's especially problematic when he decides to apply his low-brow, high-blood method to the Holocaust and slavery. He can claim he's just trying to entertain people, but a lot of people who see his history movies are coming in ignorant and leaving even more ignorant, but now thinking they now know more than when they came in. Black people don't need to see Django to understand their history, they need to be able to get as much of a national platform as Tarantino and get to tell their own stories through their own eyes. I don't buy the claim that people who care about history should be happy that Django (or Lincoln, which I haven't followed as closely) are "at least making people think about the Civil War." No. We can do better, and should want film-makers to do better. I don't accept that my only choices are Ken Burns' coma-juice or Tarantino's genocide-poitation.

When alternative history is done for the purposes of comedy or obvious fantasy, then I suppose it can be successful (or at least stands more of a chance). Cowboys vs. Aliens and Robin Hood: Men in Tights both come to mind. But movies that present alternative history in a realistic or plausible manner, by directors that claim they're actually honoring their subject matter by throwing in tons of crap that never happened, risk doing more harm than good. If you want to make a silly action, romance or horror movie, then go ahead. You can even use slavery or Nazis in it. But be explicit that that's what you're doing, and don't pretend like you're helping whoever's history you decided to rip off for your back-story.

3 comments:

SJ said...

I made some changes to my masthead. XD

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Whew! I get the feeling you don't like Tarantino but I also get the feeling you're thinking about this way too hard.
Tarantino makes a living off violence. If he ever did a film version of the Merchant of Venice, Antonio and Bassanio would be packing large rifles a la Pulp Fiction and Portia would be a brothel owner with toxic lipstick, the better to kill her victims with.
"Inglourious Basterds" and "Django" are revenge fantasies. Nothing more high brow than that. They are the answer to "Wouldn't it have been awesome if some armed Jews would have kicked Nazi ass during the war a little?" You go to see that happen, not to wonder about real history. However, your statement:
but that only works when the "audience knows the real history to start with"
is the most important line in your post. No one intelligent should mistake a Tarantino film for real history but there are historical films out there (a couple on Nixon and Spielberg's Munich come to mind) in which history is subtly changed in order to fulfill an agenda, either to villify a person who might not deserve it or to remove the "hero" label from someone who has fallen afoul of today's standards of political correctness. I'd argue those are far more dangerous.

Friar Yid said...

Garnel,

You're right that Tarantino's films are revenge fantasies, but I still have two problems with that:

1- I don't "get" revenge fantasies, and I'm troubled by the suggestion he's made in quite a few interviews over the years that his take on "how people should feel" is the most accurate or realistic one-- particularly when he is neither Jewish nor black.

2- Tarantino keeps showing pretensions towards legitimacy. Most obviously, "In the future, black teens will see Django as a rite of passage." The directors of Avengers or Dark Knight or Titanic or Star Wars wouldn't say that. Not because they're necessarily better directors than Tarantino, but they aren't aspiring towards being deep or respectable. He can't have it both ways and suggest his "history" is particularly meaningful or insightful, especially when, as you said, it's nothing more than a basic revenge fantasy story, and a particularly overblown one at that.

Lastly, the "how educated is your audience" question is very important here. When I think about your average college or high school student seeing this movie (or Inglorious Basterds), I cringe at what they might come away with thinking "really" happened. That's not to say Tarantino shouldn't be able to make his silly movies. But it's definitely concerning.

What's your major critique with Munich? I read a few books on the events it depicted and it didn't seem to go terribly far off the mark, though obviously Spielberg is not coming at the story from the same perspective an Israeli director might, much less someone with a military/intelligence background.

It's funny, I have a friend who doesn't know about my blog who asked me about Django the other night and so I had to recap this (rather long) post into some bullet points without quoting myself too precisely on the very off chance he might look up some of my one-liners.

(I'm sure I needn't have worried.)