Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

(SPOILERS: what follows gives away plot details of Django, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof, Blade Runner, and The 25th Hour.)

A movie about slavery, and business transactions gone awry. It’s a movie I avoided seeing for a while because I expected my reaction to be closest to Roxane Gay’s “Surviving ‘Django'”. I think Quentin Tarantino sometimes plays with images as if they have no context, thinking that they can be placed anywhere. This is both connected with, and apart, from his dealing in history’s tragedies. When Kill Bill opens with the Bride covered in blood, begging for the life of herself and her child, I think it is too potent, too wrenching for a simple revenge film, and this suffering overwhelms it. What might give us emotional distance in a giallo with such a scene – the incompetence of the crew, the poor ability of the actress – are absent here with an excellent actress and a skilled director able to bring out the best of his collaborators. The scene is the opening of a simple tale of vengeance, when it calls for something deeper, along the lines of Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War. This same issue is in effect in Inglourious Basterds where the transformation of an extermination into a winnable fight is, I think, an obscenity.

That this doesn’t take place in Django is due to a difference in approach taken from Basterds and the Kill Bill movies. We are constantly given devices which distance the movie from the real, establishing that we are in a fantastic, constructed place. When the slaves march during the opening, there is a series of quick, attention-calling zooms. But more importantly, the forest they march through, with its icicle thick trees and where the lantern light is the only gleam in the shot, suggest a fairy tale forest – we do not truly feel the cold these men suffer1. When Schultz is killed, his body flies across the room; when Lara Lee is killed, it’s as if she’s yanked from the stage by the old burlesque cane. What reality is let into the shootout scenes, is solely for the movie’s own benefit – such as Django having to move from body to body while under fire to retrieve guns, because these six shooters actually do carry only six bullets. The movie is often shot like a civil war-era ambrotype photo, black and white photos where one color tint was added by hand. Often there seems to be no color at all in the frame, except for the golden light of flame or beer. Before Candieland explodes, Broomhilda (I’m unsure if she gets the cartoon witch’s name or the Norse myth name, so I give her the witch’s name listed in the IMDB) puts her fingers to her ears to keep out the sound, the kind of gesture you associate with cartoons and broad comedies. The movie ends in the fairy tale tone with which it began, Django and Broomhilda lit with moonly light, and the verdant green behind them. Where Basterds is a simple, obvious lie, Django is deliberately a myth, a myth possibly kept hidden by plantation owners and their successors2.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

The approach makes the movie feel like something out of an alternative history, where Reconstruction may have taken place a little differently, a great racial inequality did not persist, and slavery ended up an out in the open topic, finally becoming fodder, just like World War II and everything else, for TV shows, and what we see here are clips from a 1970s show of this alternate universe, “The Bounty Hunters”: two men, one a former slave, encounter various adventures in the pre-Civil War south as they search for the freed man’s captive wife. The final episode culminates in the striking events of such series finales: the death of the german bounty hunter and the rescue of the enchained woman. Abuse of slavery’s most powerful images is avoided by treating them as things that are already out in the open, and do not need explicit reference. The most upsetting sequence, for me, is when D’Artagnan is torn apart by the dogs: though Tarantino has a reputation for dwelling on violence, when the event takes place, we are only given a brief shot, at an overhead distance, and then another from D’Artagnan’s perspective. The rest is entirely the reactions of the trackers, Schultz, and the slaves to this horror, with the explicit moments of the event only seen in the microsecond memories of Schultz at the plantation. We are similarly given only the briefest shots of Broomhilda emerging from the hot box – as if we live in a world where a hot box is as well known as a gas chamber, and only a passing reference is needed. This approach avoids the double quality of such images, where a sequence of a man torn apart by dogs ostensibly has been designed to repel us, when it may also end up sating our appetite for torture. It also avoids a repulsive self-serving piety that takes place when showing such things, explicitly: this movie is good, its makers are good people, because they have shown such horrors unembellished.

This is a deliberate approach, not arbitrary, and it works for much of the movie, but not all. There are some things that are too strong, that the movie cannot contain, and demand a different movie, just as the opening of Kill Bill summons a different slant. Only one of these is an image, and it’s of Broomhilda branded as a runaway. It is brief, and yet it is still too long, and shot too close. The pain is too great, the submission too much, and it requires the movie to somehow explore this, and it does not. The other times when Django dives into too deep waters have nothing to do with explicit horror, but a limiting of life that cannot simply be touched on, then walked away from, but this is what happens: it does walk away. There is Django stumbling over the simple english of the “Wanted” poster, and there is pliant Bettina unable to understand, as if this were magic or anti-gravity, what a free black man is. In this alternate universe, such issues may have been explored in-depth, and a passing reference is sufficient, but that universe is not our own.

The serious flaw of Django has to do with its character approach, and this is both related and unrelated to its dealings with its historical subject. E.M. Forster distinguished between round and flat characters, with round characters demonstrating gradual change throughout the course of a story, while those that are flat appearing entirely unchanged, with the same attitude throughout. Michael Corleone is a round character: he moves steadily and quietly from the cheerful boy, outside his father’s business, to the cold-souled tactician of the first movie’s end and its sequel. Sitcom characters are flat: Homer will always be stupid, Marge practical, Lisa bookish, and Bart a juvie. Deviations from this type are temporary or for comic effect: Homer will have a life-changing experience where he ceases to be so insensitive to others, but by the next episode he has returned to being the same man. The roles of Pulp Fiction – kingpin, moll, boxer, hitmen – stay immutably the same; Jules Winfield may have a crisis of conscience, but his overall character remains indistinguishable from what it was before. It is a change that compels his exit from the movie, just as an abrupt change in a sitcom character compels their exit: the Fonz falls in love and decides to finally get married.

That Tarantino’s characters are flat often goes unnoticed, because their dialogue is so colorful3. Where, however, what is said, and unsaid, by a character in another movie or book might open itself up to a large forking path of possibilities – Tarantino’s writing is usually only a very ornate and intricate expression of a simple idea. This gold watch is of great value to your family, and much was done to preserve it. If you don’t throw the fight, we will kill you. I say you have african ancestry, and this upsets you. This is not unique to Tarantino, and it is not an indictment of him. I quote at length from Orwell describing a similar gift on the part of Dickens (from “Charles Dickens”):

Dickens is a writer who can be imitated, up to a certain point. In genuinely popular literature – for instance, the Elephant and Castle version of Sweeny Todd – he has been plagiarized quite shamelessly. What has been imitated, however, is simply a tradition that Dickens himself took from earlier novelists and developed, the cult of ‘character’, i.e. eccentricity. The thing that cannot be imitated is his fertility of invention, which is invention not so much of characters, still less of ‘situations’, as of turns of phrase and concrete details. The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail. Here is an example of what I mean. The story given below is not particularly funny, but there is one phrase in it that is as individual as a fingerprint. Mr. Jack Hopkins, at Bob Sawyer’s party, is telling the story of the child who swallowed its sister’s necklace:

Next day, child swallowed two beads; the day after that, he treated himself to three, and so on, till in a week’s time he had got through the necklace – five-and-twenty beads in all. The sister, who was an industrious girl and seldom treated herself to a bit of finery, cried her eyes out at the loss of the necklace; looked high and low for it; but I needn’t say, didn’t find it. A few days afterwards, the family were at dinner – baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it – the child, who wasn’t hungry, was playing about the room, when suddenly there was the devil of a noise, like a small hailstorm. ‘Don’t do that, my boy’, says the father. ‘I ain’t a-doin’ nothing’, said the child. ‘Well, don’t do it again’, said the father. There was a short silence, and then the noise began again, worse than ever. ‘If you don’t mind what I say, my boy’, said the father, ‘you’ll find yourself in bed, in something less than a pig’s whisper.’ He gave the child a shake to make him obedient, and such a rattling ensued as nobody ever heard before. ‘Why dam’ me, it’s in the child’, said the father; ‘he’s got the croup in the wrong place!’ ‘No, I haven’t, father’, said the child, beginning to cry, ‘it’s the necklace; I swallowed it, father.’ The father caught the child up, and ran with him to the hospital, the beads in the boy’s stomach rattling all the way with the jolting; and the people looking up in the air, and down in the cellars, to see where the unusual sound came from. ‘He’s in the hospital now’, said Jack Hopkins, ‘and he makes such a devil of a noise when he walks about, that they’re obliged to muffle him in a watchman’s coat, for fear he should wake the patients.’

As a whole, this story might come out of any nineteenth-century comic paper. But the unmistakable Dickens touch, the thing that nobody else would have thought of, is the baked shoulder of mutton and potatoes under it. How does this advance the story? The answer is that it doesn’t. It is something totally unnecessary, a florid little squiggle on the edge of the page; only, it is by just these squiggles that the special Dickens atmosphere is created.

That a character is flat does not suggest a limit in talent or a lower standard of writing. In “Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: A Wax Museum with a Pulse”, I tried to explain why such flat types are necessary for the movie to work, and that the problem with its many imitators is they didn’t note the importance of this detail. Many of the humorous characters of Shakespeare and Dickens are flat. The comedy of “The Simpsons” requires flat types, and this does not take away from it being a fiendishly well-written show. The only qualifier is that such flat types work effectively, but only in certain contexts, and when they are placed in a lengthy scene where they are the focus, where, whatever their witty dialogue, they remain unchanging, they become dull in the same conditions that Hamlet or Michael Corleone are fascinating. There is nothing unknown about flat types, they always act for the same reason, and they give explicit statement for why they act the way they do. It should be noted that a round character does not need to belong to a conventional drama, and it does not require us to know much of them in biographic detail; Blade Runner is a science fiction thriller whose title character is an enigma throughout. Yet when he crushes the origami in his hand at the end and we hear a line from his nemesis, Gaff, we must guess at what this man is thinking.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Tarantino avoided the flaws of flat characters two ways early in his career. The first was by having them share the movie with so many others, that their screen time was shortened. Some of his best writing comes from characters who are on so briefly, we don’t even see their flatness, whether it’s the single monologue scene given over to Captain Koons, or the dialogue between Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) – Worley has two scenes, Coccotti only one. The second solution was to feature characters for which the audience has a distanced attitude, which creates tension over their fate. Different characters could have different ends in Fiction, with Mia dying, or Jules getting killed and Vincent leaving the killing spree life, without the movie becoming a tragedy. The men and women of Fiction could well be the villains in another movie. In Reservoir, there is only one character who is something close to a hero and that’s the undercover cop. That he has this heroic quality is only revealed to us in the middle of the film, and it is almost immediately qualified by his having shot a civilian point blank during the robbery aftermath. Even if Mr. Orange were to survive, he would still have killed that woman and felt as if he betrayed Mr. White – the story’s arc would remain tragic, and life would be little consolation.

All this changes from Jackie Brown on. Jackie is clearly the hero, and Ordell Robie is the villain. If she doesn’t win, the story is a tragedy. It is also Tarantino’s first and only piece of writing where we see round types. Jackie grows in confidence from the beginning of the movie to its end, while Ordell starts out calm and descends into exasperated anger as his failed schemes pile up. It is a movie where a character’s motives remain unknown: we’re given no explicit reason as to why Jackie doesn’t end up with Max Cherry at the end, and are left to our own best guesses. After this, we return to flat types, but with clear heroes as in Jackie. The bride must win against Bill, just as Jackie must win against Ordell; the first set of women can die in Death Proof, but the second set must win; the military unit must succeed in their mission against the Nazis in Basterds and, impossibly, they do; Django must save Broomhilda. If these heroes don’t win, their movies must be told as tragedies, of heroes pursuing a noble cause, and failing. That the characters are flat doesn’t matter as much in Kill Bill, because so much of the movie is devoted to kinetic action – most action movies contain flat types, and must have flat types, and that doesn’t keep them from being memorably written, the best example perhaps being the dialogue of John McClane and Hans Gruber in Die Hard. It’s an issue with Death Proof where the women need to be distinct, individual, with parts unknown – these qualities would give their conversations on sex and relationships a sense of revealed intimacy, rather than banal explicitness. And it’s a problem with Basterds where the heroes are their missions alone, and nothing else. We never feel, for instance, the impact of Aldo Raines’ scar from a hangman’s rope in anything he does or says. This near death mark feels as incidental as the color of the hands of a timepiece he might wear. The shortcomings of flat characters might be an even greater issue in Django, maybe best evidenced by the lengthy Candieland dinner scene.

The conversation between the four men – Django, Schultz, Calvin, Stephen – properly has a slow rhythm, and properly feels endless. Tarantino has compared the quest for Broomhilda to the journey up the river in Apocalypse Now, and this house has the feel of the lost plantation in the Redux version of the film, a place somehow entirely outside of time and civilization itself. There’s the brilliant, paradoxical detail of Lara Lee as a woman beyond a certain age, whose dress and manner are still that of a girl at her first cotillion. The problem is not the setting, but the instruments: the four men are almost entirely static. Django is the angry man who wants his wife back. Schultz the helpful wit. Calvin the evil slave owner. Stephen, his cruel servant. There is nothing these men can expose in themselves, and there is no gradation in their character, whereby they shift from one place to another. When Kareem Abdul-Jabar calls the movie a B picture, rather than an A picture (“Django is wonderful. But it shouldn’t be up for best picture.”), I think it is this that he’s getting at. Though they have more dialogue, they exist only along the same polarities as in Game of Death: Django is on a righteous quest, and the obstacle to his goal is the Fifth floor guardian, Calvin Candie.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

There are many ways in which the dynamic between the four could be made more interesting by using rounder characters, and I give one, not as a solution, but as a contrasting example of available possibilities. We re-make Calvin a little as a man with a demeanor that is only outwardly slow. He defers to the far greater intelligence of Schultz. The doctor, while clever, is a little too self-confident, and thinks Calvin a fool from whom he can get Broomhilda easily, once he buys Eskimo Joe. As the dinner progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Calvin is much smarter than he lets on, that he knows what these two men want, and may even have a trap ready for them. Django picks this up before Schultz does, and he hates Schultz for it: hates the doctor for being so self-confident, and hates that he has to rely on this man for help. Calvin reveals that, thanks to helpful sources, he has known who these men were and what they wanted before they even met. Though no guns are drawn, Schultz and Django realize they are in mortal danger. Calvin then gives an incredibly eloquent speech on enlightenment values and christian charity, a speech that might sound uncannily, and not coincidentally, like something out of the writings of Thomas Jefferson – we expect its conclusion to be his announcement of the emancipation of all his slaves. But, no: he makes chillingly clear that his vision of enlightenment includes only the race of himself and Schultz, and anyone of african descent be damned. At this moment, Schultz himself reveals that he has known before this lengthy, deceptive oratory how to elude Calvin’s trap, and he then explains to the plantation owner how. Django is relieved, grateful for his friend’s resourcefulness, yet angry still, at this man and himself, for his dependence on him, a dependence necessitated entirely by the dangerous condition of an ex-slave setting foot on the Candieland plantation. After this, we might return to the movie’s arc: the purchase of Broomhilda, the bloodbath, and the resolution.

The changes here are small: the only alteration is to give these men the possibility of mystery, of something hidden that we all possess. I make this example not out of arrogance, but to suggest a possibility of the balance shifting in a way that doesn’t take place in the scene as is. That Calvin should be able to briefly outsmart the bounty hunters, and that he should give his speech of narrow charity, does not exculpate slaveowners, but only brings it closer to our world, where the pro-slavery and pro-segregationist faction has often shown a frightening cleverness, and where the writings of Thomas Jefferson make an eloquent and thorough case for liberty, while side by side his other writings give unwavering support to the manacling of a good portion of humanity. By making these characters round in this way, Calvin Candie becomes more than a simple villain, but that does not necessarily make him any less a villain – however, the primary objective is aesthetic. Where now the dinner conversation is a straight river towards which we move to the shoot-out, it now becomes a more winding, twisty place where the boat comes close to toppling over, before it finally does fall off the edge when guns are drawn.

I make mention of possible changes to three of the quartet, while leaving Stephen out for an obvious reason: though he is as flat a character as the others, there is something of an enigmatic depth to him as well4. That he is easily the most interesting man in the film is not just a tribute to the formidable gifts of the actor playing him, but that this character has a quality the others lack. He is a man who has found a freedom, strength, and dignity as Candie’s lieutenant, the executor of his edicts and the power behind the throne. The very moment Stephen sees Django, his face twists up into a snarl: he hates this man for having attained these same things without needing to kowtow or betray anyone. Though Schultz is intended to be our proxy, an enlightened man of our times with no first-hand knowledge of slavery5, it is this resentment, though expressed by a caricature, that more closely resembles ignoble human feeling than anything in the movie, our anger at those akin to us who have achieved what we fought so hard for, and seemingly without the moral compromises we have had to make. When Stephen goes through the list of similes of how much he missed his master, and reaches “I miss you, like I misses a rock…in my shoe”, there is the uncertainty of whether he likes this man at all, or in fact despises him for being so stupid and so powerful at once. Yet when Calvin dies, Stephen openly wails, though there are no white people alive to appreciate his keening. Perhaps he truly feels grief for this man, or maybe he is an onion of deception, where underneath every lie is another lie. Before his death, he lets his cane fall, and he stands without difficulty – though even when alone in his first scene, unobserved by anyone, he shuffles bent over, as if he effected feints and masks not for others, but because he felt naked without them. These are mysteries without easy explanation, and none of the other characters have anything akin.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

This is why I think it has been a mistake for critics to say that Schultz is simply a re-write of Christoph Schultz’s Hans Landa. It is Stephen who is the proper reprise of the Landa character, and just as Stephen’s ambiguity makes him more interesting than anyone else, such was the same with Landa. Here was a man of substantial intellectual ability, extraordinary charm, and great sympathy for others. His interrogations showed such understanding of the subject that it seemed impossible that they would move towards a malign intent, but so they moved. Just as Stephen has his unknowns, the unknown for Landa was how such a figure, who has all the qualities one expects in the enlightened resistance hero, was an ardent nazi. The partial answer, given at the film’s end, is that he is nothing of the kind: he is a simple opportunist, who will adopt any ideology which is to his benefit. That Schultz lacks this quality of Landa is to the detriment of that character, and the movie. Schultz says his lines with all sorts of zigzags and pauses, but they are fundamentally dull because there is nothing to be revealed. Questions such as how a man might move from dentistry to ace marksmanship go unanswered, and though in a rounder character their answer might be an intriguing revelation, or a haunting riddle, they are of no interest here: this is a flat man, a kindly, well educated gunman from the movie’s beginning to his end.

That Stephen is easily the smartest man on Candieland, a man without whom the whole plantation would fall apart is no doubt part of a larger critique of the entire plantation society. The southern towns are mud filled eyesores, while the estates are degenerate, but lush palaces; the moral decay only makes the plantation soil more fertile. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes was something of an idiot savant, brilliant at airplanes and publicity, inept at everything else. DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie is also an idiot savant, but without the savant part; a good-for-nothing who goes for bunko phrenology scholarship and a francophile who doesn’t speak a word of french. This pre-confederate society is a dysfunctional place where everyone is either slave, poor trash, or one of the fools fortunate to be born to the right place, as Candie’s lawyer testifies: “Calvin’s father and I were about eleven when we went to boarding school together. Calvin’s father’s father put me through law school. One can almost say that I was raised to be Calvin’s lawyer.”

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

The first meet between the bounty hunters and the slave owners is in the Julius Caesar room in the Cleopatra club. Candie’s mistress is named Sheba, after the well-known queen of the extinct kingdom. Corrupt, declining empires shadow this slave empire which will soon end. When one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best themes, “Nicaragua” plays over the approach to Candieland, this is not arbitrary magpying by the director; it was Nicaragua that the southern states hoped to conquer, in order to extend the life of the slave empire by extending its reach6. It is the legacy of the plantation system that is the root cause of the long-term inequality of Latin America, and it is the legacy of the plantation system in the south which is the root cause of its repellent inequality as well. The landowner class of many of these countries, including Nicaragua, backed military juntas who could guarantee their business interests, and the movie Under Fire, the source of Goldsmith’s theme, is about the fall of Antonio Somoza, the man who received substantial U.S. aid as military dictator of the country for which Goldsmith’s theme is named.

As said, that the smartest man on the Candieland estate, whose non-slave elite is made up of idiot rich and street trash, is a black slave, and that the estate is almost entirely run by this man, is intended as scathing satire. I do not think the satire was made with any hidden malign message, but if we treat this satire in analogy fashion to another historical tragedy, I think we see one major problem with it. Imagine, as a thought experiment, Django Unchained re-made and set instead in World War II europe. Two men, one jewish, the other christian, travel through the continent incognito, searching for the jewish man’s wife, who is trapped in one of the many concentration camps. The jew is portrayed as a man indifferent to the condition of all the jews in these camps; his quest begins and ends with his wife, that’s all. When they finally find the death camp in which his wife is located, they discover it staffed by incompetent and stupid germans. The only reason why this camp keeps functioning in any way is through the supervision of a brilliant jew turncoat. It is the christian, and not the jew, who is finally so outraged by the camp conditions that he ends up being killed after shooting the ostensible camp commander. The camp’s destruction is incidental to the rescue of the hero’s wife, and the movie ends with the killing of the chief villain, the jew who was actually running the camp the whole time. The problem, apparently, is not german nationalism, or german ideology, but jews having no sense of community or regard for each other.

It is this lack of any sense of community or common plight which is Django‘s other important flaw. Tarantino is often labeled, pejoratively or not, as a hipster director, with little thought given to the definition and tradition of the word “hipster”. John Leland’s flawed but valuable Hip: The History 7 makes a strong attempt at finding such defining traits, some of which we can find in Tarantino’s movies. One central idea is ambiguity: that something said might be both one thing and another, or neither. He cites the old school use of “bad”, where the word might carry its traditional connotation, or be a compliment, all based on how it’s said. The lyrics of Bob Dylan carry this same mystery. So does the music of Kind of Blue, where the feeling is keen, yet difficult to define: certainly not happy, but not quite melancholy either.

There is also another kind of ambiguity, though I think Leland misunderstands it, where music or clothing may or may not be a put-on: are you wearing this with sincerity, irony, or both? The moment such fashion loses this quality, it ceases to be fashionable. When Leland writes of the benighted era of the trucker hat – an era I don’t remember except for the fact that, as always, Ashton Kutchner was somehow to blame – he tries to find some anthropological basis for this trend, when it’s entirely unnecessary. Such fashion, in the proper context, asks the question, am I putting you on? This is similar to the pose where stylish gear surrounds a t-shirt of an out-of-fashion icon, Michael Jackson a few years before his death, Madonna a few years from now. Is your t-shirt sincere or ironic? If the answer is obviously and immediately one or the other, then the effect doesn’t work.

The ambiguity of Tarantino’s work begins in one place and ends in another, with Jackie Brown the dividing line. Reservoir and Fiction are ambiguous the way detective fiction and hard-boiled stories (Fiction‘s very title a hat-tip to this ancestry) are ambiguous: what should our attitude be towards characters who are kept at a distance, outside the range of traditional sympathy?

This section from Hip, on detective fiction, captures the disconnect well:

The books served up a masculine swinger in action. Equally comfortable with lowlifes or swells, he was detached from both. In the high art of the period, modernism cracked the continuity of narrative. Pulp writers applied this disjunction to sex and violence, rendering them as discontinuous facts, without foreplay or afterglow. The action assumed a slapstick illogic:

I giggled and socked him. I laid the coil spring on the side of his head and he stumbled forward. I followed him down to his knees. I hit him twice more. He made a moaning sound. I took the sap out of his limp hand. He whined. I used my knee on his face. It hurt my knee. He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face. While he was still groaning I knocked him cold with the sap.

In this passage, from Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940), the violence is all in the syllables, short and fast, but the rub lies in Chandler’s small wisecrack: He didn’t tell me whether it hurt his face. Even in the midst of this pounding, the narrator distances himself from the violence by converting it to attitude and performance. Violence, then, becomes a kind of language, with its own humor and point of view. Through this device action becomes consciousness.

Tarantino’s later movies lose this ambiguity when they have clearly defined heroes and villains. We might find Stephen and Hans the most fascinating, most quotable characters of their respective movies, but if they win, those same movies are now tragedies. Our attitudes towards them are fixed because of the complicity of these men in unquestionable suffering. The ambiguity in Tarantino’s later work instead becomes that of someone wearing an outré piece of clothing: am I putting you on, or aren’t I? Should I treat the violence in Kill Bill as sickeningly real, or comic exaggeration? Are Basterds and Django serious attempts to grapple with historic tragedies, or are they callous jokes? There is evidence for both sides, and again, if there weren’t both such possibilities, the ambiguity wouldn’t be there.

Django‘s seeming indifference to a greater good lies with another quality of hip which Leland pinpoints. If the thesis of the good citizen is “to subordinate the self to the doctrine of the community, to conform to the values of the charter”, the hip are its anti-thesis. Those who Leland cites as belonging to this antithetical group – jazz musicians and Beat writers, among others – were frequently in this position of exile because of their race and sexual orientation. Their work did not concern the larger community, because they had been excluded from the larger community. Their explorations are often inward, rather than outward, though not without larger purpose – by simply establishing these depths, by creating work that contained qualities undefined and unknown, they made clear that, however they were seen, they were men and women as substantial as those who had exiled them. This is the crux of Django‘s problem, because this is a movie where its lead carries no such ambiguities, and more importantly, he has seemingly no interest in his own community, the exile community of which he is one of the exiles.

Neither problem is tied to the race of the man, both traits are inherent in Tarantino’s work, and only problematic in the context of this historical story. His characters, as said before, are often flat. The Nelson George critique of the quality of roles for top name black actors, “Still Too Good, Too Bad or Invisible”, misses this point; George writes, “Mr. Foxx’s Django is undeterred and implacable in search of his lost wife. But he is not a true human being. Like most action movie heroes he is more an idea of a character, one with no detectable flaws who’s enjoyable to root for.” This accurately describes the flatness of Django, without noting that this flatness exists in the rest of the cast, and the casts of most of Tarantino’s other movies – though these characters might be different, more loquacious than Django, they are ultimately as static, as unreal as he is.

That there is a lack of kindred feeling among people is to be expected in Fiction and Reservoir, which deal almost entirely with criminal society. That Kill Bill involves a woman fighting almost entirely alone, without any allies, is traditional to the revenge genre. Basterds, despite the subject matter, is one where the larger society of jews is irrelevant; if Raines’ unit were made up of people, whatever their race, who had lost family members to the Hitler war machine and were trying to extract vengeance, it’s the same movie. If Shoshanna is a christian woman who wishes to avenge parents killed by the Reich because of their opposition to the regime, we have the same movie. The end of the holocaust as a result of Hitler’s death is never brought up, and none of the apaches ever mention it. Both sets of warriors, Shoshanna and Raines’ unit, are devoted to their deadly missions, rather than the plight of any larger community. Jackie, Tarantino’s only movie with round characters, breaks this trend: Max and Jackie shouldn’t trust and help each other out, but they do. This indifference to any larger community only becomes starkly obvious, and a problem, when we reach Django: this is a hero who wants to rescue his wife, and doesn’t seem to care about any other slave – barely even speaks to other slaves. That Candieland slaves are ultimately freed through his actions is incidental to his quest.

This aversion to fellow feeling provides the movie one of its most provocative moments. Schultz and Django go in character to meet with Candie, as a fight fan and a black slaver. The difficulties of these men playing these roles is not equal, because the true feelings that Django has to submerge in order to play his role are far greater than what Schultz has to hide. Django gives himself away almost immediately during the mandingo fight, when he sits at the bar, looking away from the violence, burning with anger. The barman sees him, and knows right away the man’s front is false: no black slaver would be so upset by this spectacle. Taking on this role for Django means being hated in a way Schultz isn’t, not just by the estate hands, but by the marching slaves as well. “100 Black Coffins” sounds in Django’s head as he looks at the Candieland elite, but it sounds in the slaves’ heads as well, as they look on this one eyed charlie. The disturbing apex of this is when Schultz offers to buy D’Artagnan, so that he isn’t torn apart by dogs, and Django stops him from doing so. There is a practical reason to do so, but I also read an anger, which, if it was allowed to play out between the two men, would have made for a more interesting relationship. When Django stops Schultz, one can imagine him thinking: if I have to put up with looking at these atrocities, and doing nothing, I’m going to force you to do the same. I won’t allow you any self-serving sentimentality that in saving this man’s life, others like him won’t die every day. The movie avoids any cheap schmaltz in this moment, but also implies that such a moment could only be cheap schmaltz. It avoids life-saving benevolence as well.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

That this problem is not specific to its historical context – if the military unit of Basterds came across jews on the verge of deportation and did nothing for them, it’s the same problem – doesn’t make it any less problematic. That this lack of selflessness is wholly false makes the issue even worse: former slaves who had only briefly held freedom gave their lives as soldiers in order that the slave empire be defeated. This might be an apt place to note that the point at the opposite end of hipster ambiguities is the pious, the sincere, the message movie. These are always explicit in their statement, always asking for a better world, and always of noble intent. Tarantino’s films are antithetical to this: that they never show any larger community feeling isn’t simply skepticism of false pieties, but skepticism of all pieties. The closest we get to earnest, benevolent people in his movies are in their inverse: Lance and Jody, the hippie dealers, who are an evil mirror of the achingly sincere, well meaning archetype. They do not want to help Vincent when Mia is dying; Lance sells heroin to Vincent – not the gentler ecstasies of weed or hallucinogens – and when questioned on his quality, he asks, “do I look like a nigger?” The conflict between Tarantino and Spike Lee is often presented in racial terms, when these are its actual polarities. Do the Right Thing is about the righteous thing to be done, with the characters in disagreement over what that thing is. The protagonist of The 25th Hour is given the possibility of salvation, and the possibilities of this saved life are an explicit reference to The Last Temptation of Christ: if he makes a break for it, this man must lead a benevolent life and help others. The respective critiques of the work of both men reflects this divide: the knock against Tarantino is that his movies devolve towards nihilism, that his characters don’t care about anything except themselves and their immediates. The knock against Lee is that his films have become didactic sermons.

Any sense of greater fellowship in Django is on the part of Schultz, and it always strikes me as false. This man, who has gone from dentistry to assassination for financial reasons, is moved to help Django because his quest resembles that of Siegried’s. He is suddenly so upset over the condition of slaves as to lose his life over it – this man who travels throughout the south has somehow never before come across the reapings of its bloody institution. The arbitrariness of both moments, both in the service of the larger necessity of the plot, are what we might associate with the writing of an old school TV series. We might again imagine “The Bounty Hunters” where episode by episode, this pair have adventures throughout the pre-Civil War south. That their pairing up is hokey and forced is irrelevant, because the start of the relationship in episode one is never referred to again, and has no bearing on the later episodes. The state of these characters is the same in episode two, as it is for episode seventeen, and they make no mention to the conditions that brought about their initial pairing. That the doctor, in the series finale, suddenly gets upset about slavery is arbitrary as well, but to be expected in a drama where what takes place in one episode seems to have nothing to do with what happens before or after.

The most obvious motivation for the bonding of these two men is not myth, not benevolence, but economics. Django is first necessary to get the bounties for the Brittle brothers, and he then becomes extraordinarily helpful in obtaining other bounties through his expert marksmanship. We never see acceptance of Django as a citizen; we see acceptance of him as a businessman, when he is treated as any other man, without reference to his race, in the scene where they bring in the corpses of the Wilson-Lao gang. Django and Schultz are not outlaws, but lawful capitalists. The slave traders deal in life, this pair deals in death. That there is something vile in the trade they engage in is something the movie acknowledges, but critics seem to have ignored. If you are declared a criminal, by anyone or any company whatsoever, these men are given license to kill you without trial or evidence. The squalor of their trade is brought up by Django, and Scultz’s argument is two parts. The weakest is tautological: if the handbill says you are guilty of the crime, then you are guilty of the crime and we can kill you. The second, and strongest part is financial: this will get us the money to buy your wife.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Let’s take out Smitty Bacall’s handbill.

SCHULTZ does just that, unfolds it, and gives it over to DJANGO.

Read it aloud. Consider that today’s lesson.

Wanted. Dead. Or alive. Smitty Bacall and the Smitty Bacall…gang. For murder and stagecoach…robbery. Seven zero zero zero…

Seven thousand.

Seven thousand dollars. For Smitty Bacall…one thousand dollars for each of his gang…members. Known members of the Smitty Bacall gang are as follows: Dandy Michaels, Gerald Nash, and…

Crazy Craig Koons.

SCHULTZ emphatically stabs the handbill with his finger.

That is who Smitty Bacall is. If Smitty Bacall had wanted to start a farm at twenty two, they never would have printed that. But Smitty Bacall wanted to rob stagecoaches, and he didn’t mind killing people to do it. You want to save your wife, doing what I do…this is what I do. I kill people and sell their corpses for cash. This corpse is worth seven thousand dollars. Now quit being a pussy, and shoot him.

DJANGO aims at the man steering a plow over fields, and his shot is dead solid perfect. The farmer, no larger than an ant, falls to the ground. His son, at the foot of the plow, rushes over to the dead man, and we can hear him cry “Pa!” even from this great distance.

This trade might be murderous, but it is protected under the law. Just as slavery is legal, and runaway slaves must be returned to their masters, Schultz and Django have full immunity in what they do. This is what allows them to kill a town sheriff in broad daylight, and to kill the whip hands on Big Daddy’s estate. We have one set of capitalists, the death dealers, versus another set, the life dealers, and the movie’s thesis appears to be that slavery hasn’t simply destroyed millions of african lives, but this reliance on human labor has held the south in a premodern stasis, over which the technological skill and vitality of these two men have infinite advantage. The bounty hunters are not simply more moral men because of their opposition to slavery, they are better capitalists.

The businessmen of the movie who preserve slavery do so not just because they hold business sacred, but because slave ownership enhances their sense of self. Slavery is sale of human property, a business practice that is protected because business is sacrosanct. Yet when the death dealers show up on Big Daddy’s property, engaging in their legal business, they are not protected – because a black man killing whip hands threatens this very sense of self. Though this has been a simple business transaction, just as slavery is such a transaction, Big Daddy tries to stop them, not through economic means, but as leader of a mystic force8, a crowd of torch carrying horsemen, an image that evokes nothing less than the quasi-mystic rituals of the Nuremberg rallies. We cut behind the scenes, and find the men who compose this crowd to be petty, stupid wretches, the show of horror they’re about to put on giving grandeur to their lives. This here is the cause for the continuance of slavery, not any economic reason. These men have status if others, simply because of their race, live in mortal fear of them. The killings at Big Daddy’s are the first business transaction that goes awry, and the second, of course, is when Broomhilda is sold. The transaction is completed, the papers have been signed, but: Candie insists his hand be shaken. The ownership of men and women is not simply owning of property, it is power over human life. Candie requires deference to this power, and this Schultz cannot show. However, by the very failure of this business transaction, this movie can get made and we get to see it; a movie about slavery, even one directed by Tarantino, would have a deuce of a time getting funds. A Tarantino revenge movie, on the other hand, with a massive shoot-out at its end, is a slightly easier sell. The commercial transaction inside the movie must fail in order that the commercial transaction outside the movie can go ahead.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

That these capitalist heroes, Django and Schultz, are a break from the traditional concept of hipsterism, of celebrating people outside society’s structure, outside its economic structures, also seems to have gone unnoticed. Tom Carson, a talented writer whose work I sometimes find astonishing and funny, and sometimes repellent, misses this in his review, “Tarantino, Chained”. He focuses on the movie as one more in a series of racial games that Tarantino plays, then brings up as reference point, though he never mentions it again, a keystone work: “Despite my teenage fascination with Norman Mailer’s tellingly bonkers midcentury essay, ‘The White Negro,’ I hardly thought I’d end up citing it as a relevant text in connection with any filmmaker’s work in 2012.” Mailer was a man disgusted with the banalities of advertising, capitalism, and contemporary society, so he attempted to find refuge from such things in the primitive, the mystic, the magical, the violent. Such questing did not begin or end with Mailer, and the only problem with an essay like “The White Negro” is that he found such qualities entirely in one race of men and women. He hated the sterile, prepackaged adventure in such things as the Apollo mission, and so he tried to find salvation in african americans, who he thought would counter the rise of the engineer class through, as he saw them, their mystic powers and utter inability in mathematics9.

I raise this not to debate Mailer, but to make clear that Django and Schultz contain none of these elements. They are not mystics. They are not rebels. They are very successful businessmen. The death at a distance, whether by drone or carpet bombing, which Mailer hated, these men deal out. The mystic is the province of Big Daddy’s Klansmen. The religious feeling that animated Nat Turner10, which animated the abolitionists, is entirely absent from this movie, except for Big John, who sermons while he whips. Carson bring up Mailer to give support to his claim that Django is part of Tarantino’s continued fetishization of black americans, then taunts the director for lacking the sand to depict the sexual assault of slave women – as if the miseries of slavery revolved entirely around that. This was not, I believe, cowardice on Tarantino’s part; I think you can discern two obvious reasons for his approach, an approach that goes directly against Carson’s primary claim. Though black americans may have been first valued, then fetishized, for their physical qualities, this movie takes pains to have Django’s victories be connected entirely to skill, and his mastery of the technology of the pistol. Django pulls a man down from his horse, whips Little Raj, but never engages in a fistfight. When he walks about the Big Daddy estate, we are shown the disparity between this modern capitalist, and the primitive men of the plantation, in obvious symbols: he is able to see at great distance with a telescope, while Ellis Brittle has an eyepatch. Little Raj is barely able to pull out his gun, while Django is lightning fast. He kills Big Daddy at great distance through the use of a rifle scope. Whatever Django’s innate ability, this is a skill, something obtained through the practice sessions we observe. That it is not some extension of “primitive” virility, is proved by the example of the man who is probably, after Django, the best marksman in the movie: the middle-aged fussy merchant, Schultz.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

The second reason involves the movie’s ending: if the sexual ill treatment of Broomhilda is made explicit, or even brought up, then it makes the movie’s ending impossible, because such abuse would overwhelm the lovers’ kiss. Again, rather than focus on their physical essence, and the physicality of the kiss, we are conveyed the ephemeral float after an eternity apart through silhouette. This image also properly evokes myth: one is sure, without having seen them, that such a shot is there in Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, and these lovers are now placed on the hallowed Olympus too. This consecration into legend is in the movie’s final moment as well. Jesse James, a confederate partisan and indifferent gunman, was somehow promoted into the best gunslinger of the southern states. But there was in fact, another man, unknown up to this time, who could easily outdraw him. “You know what they’re going to call you?” asked his mentor, “The fastest gun in the south.” Django Freeman, who started out as a german myth, has become an american one.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained


1 A contrasting example in which the true physical aspect of the world is conveyed, and a man truly feels this cold, can be found in William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, as Turner waits in his cell.

Over Jerusalem hung a misty nightfall, over the brown and stagnant river and the woods beyond, where the water oak and cypress merged and faded one into the other, partaking like shadows of the somber wintry dusk. In the houses nearby, lamps and lanterns flickered on in yellow flame and far off there was a sound of clattering china and pots and pans and back doors slamming as people went about fixing supper. Way in the distance in some kitchen I could hear a Negro woman singing-a weary sound full of toil and drudgery yet the voice rich, strong, soaring: I knows moon-rise, I knows star-rise, lay dis body down … Already the dusty fall of snow had disappeared; a rime of frost lay in its place, coating the earth with icy wet pinpricks of dew, crisscrossed by the tracks of squirrels. In chilly promenade two guards with muskets paced round the jail in greatcoats, stamping their feet against the brittle ground. A gust of wind swept through the cell, whistling. I shivered in a spasm of cold and I closed my eyes, listening to the lament of the woman far off, leaning up against the window ledge, half dreaming in a half slumber of mad weariness and longing: As the heart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me …

2 It is this unreality which, I think, prevents the frequently used racial epithet from having anything like its full impact. I quote, in contrast, an excerpt from Hemingway’s “The Killers”, where each use of the word is like a hard, painful tap. The story also serves as a helpful comparison in the establishment of tension through characters who, though their intents are simple – kill or be killed – are rounded enough that there is tension in what might happen next in this short story. George is the owner of the business which two hitmen have taken over while looking for their quarry, a man named Ole Anderson. Al is one of the hitmen, Nick Adams is one of the customers, and Sam is the cook.

“What’s the idea?” George asked.

“None of your damn business,” Al said. “Who’s out in the kitchen?”

“The nigger.”

“What do you mean the nigger?”

“The nigger that cooks.”

“Tell him to come in”

“What’s the idea?”

“Tell him to come in.”

“Where do you think you are?”

“We know damn well where we are,” the man called Max said. “Do we look silly?”

“You talk silly,” Al said to him. “What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen,” he said to George, “tell the nigger to come out here.”

“What are you going to do to him?”

“Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?”

George opened the slit that opened back into the kitchen. “Sam,” he called. “Come in here a minute.”

The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in. “What was it?” he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.

“All right, nigger. You stand right there,” Al said.

We see the greatest fullness in Sam, after the hitmen leave. He might be dismissed as nothing by these men, but he knows more of the world than any of them, and thinks they are ridiculous naifs for trying to help out any of the hitmen’s targets.

“Listen,” George said to Nick. “You better go see Ole Anderson.”

“All right.”

“You better not have anything to do with it at all,” Sam, the cook, said. “You better stay way out of it.”

“Don’t go if you don’t want to,” George said.

“Mixing up in this ain’t going to get you anywhere,” the cook said. “You stay out of it.”

“I’ll go see him,” Nick said to George. “Where does he live?”

The cook turned away.

“Little boys always know what they want to do,” he said.

3 That Tarantino’s characters are flat is why they seem so referential. Anna Karenina does not signify, or refer to anything else other than Anna Karenina, she is so full and vivid a character. The flatter a character, the more it seems to point to something else, just as a simple graphic of an eye or a skirted figure suggests a symbol representing something else, and a large scale oil painting does not.

Stephen, for instance, may or may not call to mind the title figure of Uncle Ben’s rice:

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Big Daddy might be just an antebellum plantation owner archetype, and he might also be a wink at the Ole Miss mascot, Colonel Reb (mascot picture originally from CNN story “Legislator pushes bill to restore Colonel Reb as Ole Miss mascot”):

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

When Django puts on tinted glasses, he may simply be hiding the anger in his eyes from the Candieland staff, and he also amy be a reference to the photo of civil rights figure Elizabeth Eckford:

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

The historical context of the photo by Johnny Jenkins can be found here (archive link):

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

4 The only other character who has anything like this is the tracker played by Zoe Bell. Her riddlesome nature is due to a good chunk of the scripted part being cut, so we are left with a mess of contradictary details that make her more mysterious than anyone else on-screen. She has been disfigured in some way, either by wound or disease, so that she must cover up her face; she is the only woman in a crew of rough housing men, suggesting that she is a very tough piece of work; the only close glimpse we’re given shows her going over old photos, which imply that she and Django knew each other as children. The expression on her face after looking at this photo is cryptic, one of the rare times in the film where we can only guess at what is felt by a character.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

We are also left to infer the character of another silent role, Sheba, Calvin’s escort, though given the way this role has been constructed as a woman who is a consort, only a consort, and finds value in this relatively elevated position, her expressions and gestures, though always mute, have, I think, a single meaning. When Django arrives at the bar, she moves away from him, and towards the fight: this man is beneath her. After Calvin’s funeral, she is dispatched to prepare coffee, and she gives a poisoned look to the maid she accompanies: again, such a lowly service as making coffee is below her station.

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

5 Tarantino himself makes this point in an interview on Elvis Mitchell’s radio show / podcast, “The Treatment”.

6 From James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, about William Walker, a former journalist, who maanged to take over the country of Nicaragua, briefly, giving hope that it might serve as a bulwark against attempts to end the slave empire:

In 1854 Walker signed a contract with the rebels in Nicaragua’s current civil war and in May 1855 sailed from San Francisco with the first contingent of fifty-seven men to support this cause. Because Britain was backing the other side and American-British tensions had escalated in recent years, U. S. officials looked the other way when Walker departed. With financial support from [Cornelius Vanderbilt]’s transit company, Walker’s filibusters and their rebel allies defeated the “Legitimists” and gained control of the government. Walker appointed himself commander in chief of the Nicaraguan army as Americans continued to pour into the country-two thousand by the spring of 1856. President Pierce granted diplomatic recognition to Walker’s government in May.

Although Walker himself and half of his filibusters were southerners, the enterprise thus far did not have a particularly pro-southern flavor. By mid-18 56, however, that was changing. While much of the northern press condemned Walker as a pirate, southern newspapers praised him as engaged in a “noble cause. . . . It is our cause at bottom.” In 1856 the Democratic national convention adopted a plank written by none other than Pierre Soulé [a member of then-President Samuel Pierce’s administration] endorsing U. S. “ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico.” Proponents of slavery expansion recognized the opportunities there for plantation agriculture. Indeed, Central America offered even more intriguing possibilities than Cuba, for its sparse mixed-blood population and weak, unstable governments seemed to make it an easy prey. Of course the Central American republics had abolished slavery a generation earlier. But this was all the better, for it would allow southerners to establish slave plantations without competition from local planters. “A barbarous people can never become civilized without the salutary apprenticeship which slavery secured,” declared a New Orleans newspaper that urged southern emigration to Walker’s Nicaragua. “It is the duty and decreed prerogative of the wise to guide and govern the ignorant . . . through slavery, and the sooner civilized men learn their duty and their right the sooner will the real progress of civilization be rescued.”

During 1856 hundreds of would-be planters took up land grants in Nicaragua. In August, Pierre Soulé himself arrived in Walker’s capital and negotiated a loan for him from New Orleans bankers. The “greyeyed man of destiny,” as the press now described Walker, needed this kind of help. His revolution was in trouble. The other Central American countries had formed an alliance to overthrow him. They were backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, whom Walker had angered by siding with an anti-Vanderbilt faction in the Accessory Transit Company. The president of Nicaragua defected to the enemy, whereupon Walker installed himself as president in July 1856. The Pierce administration withdrew its diplomatic recognition. Realizing that southern backing now represented his only hope, Walker decided “to bind the Southern States to Nicaragua as if she were one of themselves,” as he later put it. On September 22, 1856, he revoked Nicaragua’s 1824 emancipation edict and legalized slavery again.

This bold gamble succeeded in winning southern support. “No movement on the earth” was as important to the South as Walker’s, proclaimed one newspaper. “In the name of the white race,” said another, he “now offers Nicaragua to you and your slaves, at a time when you have not a friend on the face of the earth.” The commercial convention meeting at Savannah expressed enthusiasm for the “efforts being made to introduce civilization in the States of Central America, and to develop these rich and productive regions by the introduction of slave labor.” Several shiploads of new recruits arrived from New Orleans and San Francisco during the winter of 1856-57 to fight for Walker. But they were not enough. Some of them reached Nicaragua just in time to succumb to a cholera epidemic that ravaged Walker’s army even as the Central American alliance overwhelmed it in battle. On May 1, 1857, Walker surrendered his survivors to a United States naval commander whose ship carried them back to New Orleans. They left behind a thousand Americans dead of disease and combat.

Ed Harris, who played a mercenary in Under Fire, would play the title role in a bio-pic of this man, Walker. It is a surreal movie, somehow taking place both during Walker’s time and the 1980s, when the U.S. made attempts to prop up the contra rebel movement in that country.

7 I am thankful to Leland’s work for his many insights, as well details on Jesse James and Elizabeth Eckford that I have used in this post; I do, however, think one major flaw in Hip is his attempt to find some moral striving in those who have belonged to hip communities and made hip works, when there is no necessity of any such thing, and a moral earnestness may even be an obstacle to the quality deemed hip. I try and imagine someone who fully embodies all the qualities which are contained in Leland’s amorphous concept of hip, and I think of a hypothetical Actress X. She is a figure of the past, because in the present where any information can be found instantaneously, there are no tribes of fringe fashion, or obscure musics – everything is known and available, and nothing is in the shadows. This Actress X is hauntingly beautiful, and this already connotes the amorality of hip, because there is nothing inherently moral or good in beauty. There is always a hint of mischief, and sometimes bored malice, in her face. She is not stupid, and she does not suffer fools. Her most well-known photo is one of her giving a cold look to the camera for interrupting her while halfway through Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Some, uncharmed by this figure, point out that she appears in a number of photos, months and years apart, with the same half-read Dostoevsky, but these claims are in turn questioned – the issue always remains unresolved.

She is without industry or ambition, someone bored with acting but casually great at it, someone outside of the traditional demands of work and money earning. Again, there is nothing moral in this, simply the fortunate circumstance of the elite actor, and this lack of any link to traditional work or work ethic only adds to her pose. A good part of her appeal is that she acts as she will, giving no explanation or justification, and feeling no such need to do so. She acts not simply in a manner that is anti-authourity, but as if authourity doesn’t exist. Again, this places her in the past, when there was such thing as a strong moral scolding center, taken semi-seriously when it lectured public individuals about their private behaviour. She has probably slept with many men, and a few women – but she doesn’t give much mention of it, and it is beneath her to be “naughty” in such an ostentatious manner. Who she has slept with exactly remains unknown – she is always very discrete about this, and other men and women are always bragging about things they haven’t done.

The albums of Prince, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and Nine Simone are among her favorites, of course; but so too are The Carpenters’ Greatest Hits. She does very good acting in some good to great movies, and she is on the verge of something greater, that exciting, well hyped moment when someone will produce their breakthrough work, when she dies at a tragically youthful age, a few years shy of thirty. Again, there is nothing moral or just in this young death, but it helps her be even closer to hip: she is always on the edge of eclipsing what she once was, of developing into someone else, without ever becoming so. Whether she would actually produce anything like this great work is doubtful, given her bored indifference with anything to do with her career. Any compromises she would have to make with relationships, with work, surrendering to the responsibilities of children, all those are never reached. She is always amorphous, about to form into something new, something unknown. She dies, and forever there is speculation on who she was, and these questions are answered, the answers refuted, and the questions asked again. Though many companies attempt to bid on her image for commercial use, with the top grab the photo of her with the open Dostoevsky, they are all refused, even Apple and their “Think Different” campaign. Actress X remains unknown, Actress X remains untouchable, Actress X remains hip eternal.

8 I refer to this pre-Klan as a “mystic force” as their imagery is a deliberate attempt to evoke the supernatural; the lengthy and ridiculous preparations of the men are intended not for material effect – their hoods, hilariously, make it more difficult to see, reducing this material effect – but to invoke an image that might be associated with the powers of an almost supernatural entity. There is a good deal of evidence for this as a reason for the Klan’s outfits, but I pick the nearest at hand, an interview with David Cunningham, author of Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan, on “Fresh Air”, hosted by Terry Gross, (“‘Klansville, U.S.A.’ Chronicles The Rise And Fall Of The KKK”):

And how did the white sheet, and the white hood get created as both a symbol and as a costume of the Klan, and the covering of the Klan to protect their identity?

Well, again there are a lot of stories about where the particular aspects of these symbols came from. The general story, I think, is that the white hood, the masks over the face, were designed to create the sense of a spectre or ghost. In some ways, it was designed to both hide people’s identity, and create these ghastly personas where they could go out at night, under the cover of darkness, often on horseback, and sortof combine these pranks that would sortof move back to then resonant folklore tales, and things like that, ghosts who would drink enormous quantities of water, and all these kinds of supernatural things, but turn it in a way that also be terrorizing. So, the people that they would target with these quote unquote “pranks” were not random certainly, and they were people they really wanted to scare and send a message to.

9 Norman Mailer’s blind devotion to his instincts leads him to places that are sometimes sublime, sometimes ridiculous. He ends up in the latter place, with the strange racial theories of his account of the Apollo lunar landing, Of a Fire on the Moon:

Aquarius [the nickname Mailer gives himself in this book] had never been invited to enter this Black man’s vision, but it was no great mystery the Black believed his people were possessed of a potential genius which was greater than the Whites. Kept in incubation for two millennia, they would be all the more powerful when they prevailed. It was nothing less than a great civilization they were prepared to create. Aquarius could not picture the details of that civilization in the Black professor’s mind, but they had talked enough to know they agreed that this potential greatness of the Black people was not to be found in technology. Whites might need the radio to become tribal but Blacks would have another communion. From the depth of one consciousness they could be ready to speak to the depth of another; by telepathy might they send their word. That was the logic implicit in CPT. If CPT was one of the jokes by which Blacks admitted Whites to the threshold of their view, it was a relief to learn that CPT stood for Colored Peoples Time. When a Black friend said he would arrive at 8 P.M. and came after midnight, there was still logic in his move. He was traveling on CPT. The vibrations he received at 8 P.M. were not sufficiently interesting to make him travel toward you – all that was hurt were the host’s undue expectations. The real logic of CPT was that when there was trouble or happiness the brothers would come on the wave.

Well, White technology was not built on telepathy, it was built on electromagnetic circuits of transmission and reception, it was built on factory workers pressing their button or monitoring their function according to firm and bound stations of the clock. The time of a rocket mission was Ground Elapsed Time, GET. Every sequence of the flight was tied into the pure numbers of the time line. So the flight to the moon was a victory for GET, and the first heats of the triumph suggested that the fundamental notion of Black superiority might be incorrect: in this hour, it would no longer be as easy for a militant Black to say that Whitey had built a palace on numbers, and numbers killed a man, and numbers would kill Whitey’s civilization before all was through. Yesterday, Whitey with his numbers had taken a first step to the stars, taken it ahead of Black men. How that had to burn in the ducts of this Black man’s stomach, in the vats of his liver. Aquaris thought again of the lunar air of technologists. Like the moon, they traveled without a personal atmosphere. No wonder Blacks had distaste for numbers, and found trouble studying. It was not because they came – as liberals necessarily would have it – from wrecked homes and slum conditions, from drug-pushing streets, no, that kind of violence and disruption could be the pain of a people so rich in awareness they could not bear the deadening jolts of civilization on their senses. Blacks distaste for numbers not because they were stupid or deprived, but because numbers were abstracted from the senses, numbers made you ignore the taste of the apple for the amount in the box, and so the use of numbers shrunk the protective envelope of human atmosphere, eroded that extrasensory aura which gave awareness, grace, the ability to move one’s body and excel at sports and dance and war, or be able to travel on an inner space of sound. Blacks were not the only ones who hated numbers – how many attractive women could not bear to add a column or calculate a cost? Numbers were a pestilence to beauty.

If the Blacks yet built a civilization, magic would be at its heart. For they lived with the wonders of magic as the Whites lived with technology.

10 From The Confessions of Nat Turner, a transcribed testimony of the leader of the most successful slave revolt in the United States, a description of the mystic vision that he said inspired him to action:

About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ran away-and after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the negroes on the plantation, who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before. But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master-“For he who knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus have I chastened you.” And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision-and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened-the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams-and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.” I now withdrew myself as much as my situation would permit, from the intercourse of my fellow servants, for the avowed purpose of serving the Spirit more fully-and it appeared to me, and reminded me of the things it had already shown me, and that it would then reveal to me the knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of tides, and changes of the seasons.

After this revelation in the year 1825, and the knowledge of the elements being made known to me, I sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the great day of judgment should appear, and then I began to receive the true knowledge of faith. And from the first steps of righteousness until the last, was I made perfect; and the Holy Ghost was with me, and said, “Behold me as I stand in the Heavens”-and I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes-and there were lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were-for they were the lights of the Saviour’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners. And I wondered greatly at these miracles, and prayed to be informed of a certainty of the meaning thereof-and shortly afterwards, while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven-and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood-and I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens. And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me-For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew-and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.

(Some edits and additions have been made, unaffecting the overall themes, since the original posting. The footnotes dealing with Of a Fire on the Moon and Hemingway’s “The Killers” was added March 9th.)

(Django Unchained images copyright The Weinstein Company; Blade Runner image copyright Warner Brothers.)

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