Wednesday, March 30, 2016

To a New World of Gods and Monsters: Betwixt Heaven and Hell with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN


Midway upon the journey of his life, Bruce Wayne finds himself within a forest dark, a liminal state born from his own tortured psyche, a fantastical future inferno of a broken civilization teeming with quasi-Fascist guards and swarming with winged mercenaries. And at the center of it all stands his greatest fear, the Kryptonian god among men driven mad with his own power, the straightforward path long lost.  The matter of how much of this vision exists as a dream and how much as a prophecy from the future (or a Poe-esque dream within a dream) remains of some debate. But the scene itself, bracing and bleak, serves as a microcosm of the film from which it ushers forth. For Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mere fan fic slugfest, but an operatic fever dream. It’s also a fitting expression of where we stand in this era of peak comic book (or maybe peak superhero would be more accurate.) And a perfect sequel to a film that doesn’t exist.

I’ve written before in this electronic hub about the star-crossed career of Zack Snyder. Suffice to say, he remains a fascinating, frustrating figure in the cinematic world. In the pantheon of music video directors gone Hollywood, he’s never had the obsessive focus on detail and procedure that makes David Fincher such a transcendent talent. Fincher’s films are psychological halls of mirrors hidden inside alluring puzzle boxes, Hitchcockian exercises in pop art as Trojan Horse. Snyder’s aspirations have always been more mythological and archetypical, grand and bombastic, sometimes to a fault. The visually stunning world of 300 is a thing of dark beauty, but what he does with that world too often never extends beyond abject male chest-thumping and war porn tendencies. Granted, the same could be said about Frank Miller’s source material. It all becomes serious to the point of self-parody; far more enjoyable was the Snyder-produced prequel 300: Rise of an Empire, which coupled that same visual scheme with a hearty embrace of the pulpy sword and sandal roots from whence it came, ably abetted by a delirious turn by Eva Green as the villainess with golden tongue (“You fight much harder than you fuck” she intones in one memorable scene.) I quite enjoyed his stab at adapting Alan Moore’s Watchmen, even as its stylistic nods to the book’s musings on the power of nostalgia were sometimes undercut by a slavish devotion to replicating beats from the source material. And Sucker Punch remains a wildly misunderstood work, a hallucinatory, pointed critique of the male gaze under the guise of the thrillers that so perpetuate that gaze.

Snyder’s folly in crafting Man of Steel was in confusing the very nature of Superman with his successors in the four-color domain. There’s too much of Spider-Man’s “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” injected into the story; that tack resonated so deeply with Peter Parker because he was an ordinary, maladjusted human being endowed with extraordinary abilities (the Marvel template in a nutshell.) Superman’s dilemma has always been more “Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown,” the crisis of a god descended to Earth to live among us. Even in his more light-hearted, Technicolor adventures, he’s been forced to balance his near-omnipotent nature with his deep connection to we flawed mortals. And where Spider-Man’s public reputation has fluctuated throughout the years, the Big Blue Boy Scout has been the guiding beacon of light for a troubled world. Foregrounding his existential crisis turned Man of Steel into a slog, the sense of wonder so inherent to any portrayal of the character submerged beneath a darkness that was tonally all wrong. The emotionally shattering climax of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman (in which the only person Superman can’t save from Lex Luthor’s plot is Lois Lane) holds such power only because it’s been preceded by two hours of Clark Kent and his flip side striving to be the unironic voice of hope in an increasingly cynical world. Man of Steel goes all brooding Kal-El from the start, which constantly dampens the aspirational mythology at the heart of the character.

Which is what makes Batman V. Superman the perfect sequel to the mythical Man of Steel that could have been. In an increasingly corporatized filmmaking environment, Snyder is one of the dwindling few directors who has been able to inject some sense of personal vision into the now de rigeur world-building imperative that threatens to drown the pure enjoyment of any individual comic book film (and sometimes any tentpole feature, period.) Juggling the dictates of shepherding a $250 million picture for immediate success, while laying the groundwork for multiple spinoffs and a larger team-up project can be daunting for even the most seasoned professional (see Joss Whedon post-Age of Ultron meat grinder.) Post-Avengers, it became readily apparent that Warner Brothers’ Superman reboot displayed their intentions of kicking off a multi-tiered DC heroes initiative, one which would carry a darker, more world-weary tone than the brighter, snappier Marvel Cinematic Universe. So as a stand-alone film, Batman V. Superman works marvelously as the purest expression of that alternative reality, a rejoinder to the lightness that its predecessor should have possessed. It’s an effect that can be disorienting at times, but it also shouldn’t discount the power of this chapter of the story on its own terms.  

As has been noted by other critics, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the superhero film has occurred in the wake of 9/11, deep in an age in which an act of mass trauma has seemingly evoked a grand desire for Manichean morality plays writ large on the cultural canvas. Those who read this sustained resurgence of super-powered cinema as an inherently infantile turn ignore some of the thornier aspects which have slowly emerged in the genre (Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s rebuke of Big Data and government surveillance, the way in which Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe addresses civil liberties and the anger of the 99%, etc.) And yet, the manner in which the superhero tale has saturated our collective consciousness can’t be discounted. Decades of that influence through the less reputable realm of the comic book (and the occasional successful film adaptation, usually followed by rapidly diminishing returns) now being legitimized as the mass mythology of our times creates a baseline in the psychosphere with often profound implications. As Michael Chabon notes in the A+E documentary Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked, the rich irony of golden age heroes fighting the Axis laid in the inherently Fascist nature of the four-color ubermench: might makes right. It’s easy to sneer at the legacy of the Reagan-era empty action blockbusters, but the modern superhero film isn’t that far away from that genre (which itself was a response to the national trauma of the Vietnam fiasco.)

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns plunged headlong into those Fascist implications when it bowed in 1986, and even though it’s been a heavy influence on the Batman films ever since, this is the fullest realization of the moral and ethical ambiguity of the character that he explored. When you think about it, the casting of Ben Affleck as the Bat is quite the ballsy move. Amidst Hollywood’s obsession with youth, pursuing a middle-aged, broken Dark Knight is far from the easiest sell. Sure, Tony Stark might be a similar middle-aged playboy with a bum ticker, but Robert Downey’s youthful mien obscures the wear and tear on the character. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is allowed to be physically and psychologically beaten down by decades of this Sisyphean struggle, a borderline alcoholic obsessed with constant escalation of his war against the darkness that plagues his city (ably abetted by a terrific, wry Jeremy Irons as Alfred). It’s here, again, that BVS serves as fascinating sequel to the non-existent Man of Steel, as Snyder and company place Metropolis directly across the bay from Gotham City, the shining modern spin on New York just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the old New York, the noir New York. Superman wants to believe that he can serve as ultimate protector against villainy of all stripes, but Batman always advocates that mankind’s worst instincts will continue to metastasize forever, a belief strengthened by the darkness with which Gotham seemingly infects Metropolis in this story. And if the evil of man won’t quit, then what to say of the evil of what lies beyond man, what might descend from the outer reaches of the heavens (as Lex Luthor theorizes in connection with the Paradise Lost-inspired painting that hangs in his mansion.)

Ah yes...the young Mr. Luthor, a brilliant revisionist turn by Jesse Eisenberg. For decades now, the DC Universe Luthor has been the most threatening figure imaginable: an often reputable businessman and politician. Transplanting that concept to 2016, what better interpretation is there than the boy genius tech billionaires that drive so much of the economy and zeitgeist (and the actor who famously portrayed one of them.) That messianic, technovangelist drive which powers the Schmidts and Brins and Zuckerbergs of the world is super-charged here in a Luthor set on channeling some greater understanding of what lies beyond, an imperative that eventually transforms him into a mad prophet of impending galactic doom, the man who has seen the face of God in his exploration of General Zod’s Kryptonian ship. His creation of Doomsday from the dead husk of Zod veers him into the realm of Dr. Frankenstein, and there’s more than a bit of Colin Clive’s mania at knowing what it’s like to be God in Luthor’s psychotic passion. Eisenberg is often criticized for playing variations on the same near-autistic character, but he’s easily the standout performance in this epic film, the crazed genius counterpart to Batman’s hyper-clinical obsession and Superman’s idealism. He also commits the timeless, primal sin which bedeviled Frankenstein and so many other characters of myth: he pisses off the gods. Heroes like Batman might hold the upper hand against humanity, but the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman will always have their ability to guard that thin veil between earthly malfeasance and the ill will of that which is greater than mere mortals. Luthor’s transgression of that veil sets in motion an intergalactic power that threatens to rain down from afar. Apocalypse now is his credo. Some have questioned Luthor’s motivation in all this, but in the genre’s pure metaphorical state he allows us a glimpse back at our own tech and business titans, driven on by the fervent belief that greater knowledge and technological progress will always benefit mankind. Until it doesn’t.

So much of all this discussion plays out as a series of archetypical impressions…which is fitting for a film that does the same in its fevered dream logic. The reality of corporate dictates overstuffs BVS with a few plot beats too many, and oftentimes the action seems to be moving at such a breakneck speed that the audience doesn’t get the chance to pause and contemplate what has just happened. But in the grand scheme of yet another version of these characters (okay, maybe not as much with the historically underserved Wonder Woman….but still), it’s all very much in keeping with our collective consciousness. This film plays as the product of that superhero-saturated culture, one in which we know these figures so well that they become subliminal flashes against our mental landscape, in which we need little further introduction to their origins but can dive deep into another version of their existence. If cinema is indeed a collective dream in which we participate, then Batman V. Superman nakedly acknowledges that status. Call it disjointed spectacle if you will, but there’s more going on here than a fractured series of scenes. In the end, we’re all Batman, caught up in that hyper-real vision of what could be, beguiled by the possibilities of everything that we know so well flipped on its head, bewildered by what might come forth from Heaven and Hell (and from which direction) now that gods have visited our world.      

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy: THE HATEFUL EIGHT's 70MM Dreams

It all starts with the wind, the ever-present white noise humming behind all that takes place. Or maybe it starts with the ambient rattle of the stagecoach, which, paired with the steady vibrations of the vehicle itself, seem to promise a gradual descent into sleep for at least one of the wayward travelers housed within. Or maybe it really all starts with the pulsating orchestral thrum of Ennio Morricone’s main titles, all horror film menace and military march precision, the perfect doomsday sturm und drang for that lone stagecoach on its way to a rendezvous with bloodshed and slaughter. All of them forming the persistent, haunting aural landscape that allows for no escape from the brutality of the land, of the people, of the country.

That wind raged through the air on the day that my cohorts and I ventured forth across the barren winter landscape of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois on our pilgrimage to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm. Situated, as we were, in Columbus over the long Christmas week, we had the option of visiting a multiplex in suburban Cleveland to see Quentin Tarantino’s newest cinematic brainchild in its original format, our only viable in-state option at the time. But it made sense to venture forth across the frozen tundra for this filmic experience, to brave the elements and the passage of time in order to pay tribute to the communal art of the filmgoing experience, to see a 70mm presentation in a theater which we knew had a track record of flexing its large format screening chops.

Throughout the essays that have gradually, sometime meanderingly weaved their way toward this final literary destination, I’ve focused so much on the vitality that Tarantino’s films bring to a jaded, spectacle-deprived modern audience. How their profane, bombastic, panache can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, preferably with a crowded house of like-minded enthusiasts (or people who just enjoy a good night out at the movies.) The Hateful Eight is the ne plus ultra of this stylistic verve, filmed in a format that hasn’t been used since the ‘60s, ensuring that any theater wishing to screen it in said format would have to shell out the time and scratch to retrofit their 35mm projector for the cause. A dead format being used to revive a dying format. Let the exorcism begin.

Or maybe, as Jim Morrison once invoked, the ceremony is about to begin. In being tailor made for the theatrical setting, Tarantino’s films have served as a stern rebuke to the much-promised democratization of media that modern technology’s siren song has offered forth. The widescreen tv, the tablet, the phone: all information portals that have allowed us to permanently embed cinematic memories and experiences into the immediate fiber of our beings, yet also the vessels that have transported so many of those memories and experiences into the dreaded, debased realm of “content.” Lawrence of Arabia becomes just another distraction from work, or part of a multi-screen experience. Blue Velvet is an oddball story flashing across your palm in broad daylight, not a terrifying experience that you’re forced to give yourself over to in the dark, like Jeffrey Beaumont on Frank Booth’s nocturnal thrill ride. None of the ceremonial imperative that was once an integral part of the moviegoing experience remains.

But all the accoutrements associated with the 70mm Hateful Eight screenings, the programs, the overture and intermission, the limited seating (only one screen per venue), the pure thrill of being told that this was a rarity…these all work to summon once again what lies at the heart of the classic cinematic experience: the shared sense of partaking in something that is literally bigger than ourselves. Godard might have famously noted that cinema is truth 24 frames per second, but it’s also dreaming at that frame rate, a mass hallucination into which we willingly enter. If cinema is a church to some, and religious ecstasy has often been proven to be a temporary fantasy…well, connect the dots. Our voyage on that frigid winter’s day served as the perfect backdrop for The Hateful Eight because it transformed a mere film screening into a two day commitment to eventually sitting with 500 other movie maniacs, communing with the unexpected (I studiously avoided plot details beforehand), encased in a room together in defiance to the elements, much like the titular bandits and lawmen.

If we sought to tap into that dream state that cinema at its best invokes, then the 70mm format held the promise of providing the deepest representation of that state. Digital cinema can serve as a mighty evangelist for those living where film is no longer readily available, but it also remains a simulacrum, a series of 1’s and 0’s being thrown onto a screen playacting the part of the image. In a world where veracity is in question like no time before, 70mm (or even 35mm) is a tactile summoning of the purity of the image, light literally being forced through a physical strip of celluloid, film grain a constant, ever-changing, luminescent dance. I’ve heard stories of stories of Hateful Eight audience members swearing off film screenings afterward due to the inherent mild bob and weave that can crop up in the image. But that’s part and parcel of the aforementioned purity: the knowledge that what we are watching is a living element, re-animated from a dormant state by mechanical gears and electric illumination.

Having seen it twice in 70mm (a local venue eventually screened it in that format) and once in its slightly reduced DCP presentation, I can attest that while the digital version is engaging, the original film version is absorbing, enthralling. In digital, DP Robert Richardson’s lush use of color and his signature hot spotlight effects feel slightly pale, but on film they’re warm, vibrant, hypnotic. Morricone’s score can be cranked up as much as you want in digital, but it doesn’t approximate the full power and majesty it possesses when being read directly off an analog film source. Even the second time, with an audience that was maybe a tenth the size of my maiden voyage, the tactile nature of film being projected was a thrilling sensory experience.

All of this discussion of truth in presentation for a film that is premised on the fine art of lying and performance. For once again, we’re in Tarantinoland, in which the storyteller is king, and in which the tale being spun holds more power than any firearm or axe. What’s new here is how QT portrays this liar’s paradise, or, more accurately, where he chooses to portray it. This is the third straight period piece he’s directed, and it’s not hard to believe that it’s been a conscious choice predicated on allowing his legion of talkers to match wits without the modern equalizers of cell phones and the internet. But even though they’re obsessed with language, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained carry with them the allure of mobility, the movement from one physical space to another. Those two films might feel slightly alien to our contemporary sensibilities, but The Hateful Eight’s daring gambit is to craft an environment that might be even more alien: a single room in which people are essentially trapped and forced to deal with each other. Remove the classic locked room mystery nature of the plot and you have a societal microcosm which can feel completely befuddling to a modern audience trained to annihilate even the hint of boredom by retreating to their devices when things get slow. Minnie’s Haberdashery is a societal microcosm wherein the only escape is interior in nature. It can be a discomfiting viewing proposition: a few friends have felt like the film takes forever to get to its point. I would argue that that is the point, the experience of this motley crew of refugees navigating their way through the minefield of deception an often circuitous, frustrating, comedic, human endeavor.

And just as Scherazade prolonged her life with a tale well told, lying proves to be a survival mechanism for these characters. What might be less obvious is the larger world in which Tarantino situates them. Much of The Hateful Eight feels like a spiritual cousin to Django Unchained, which served as a hopeful alternate historical stab at the destruction of slavery. This film surveys a post-Civil War society in which unity and brotherhood compose the grand communal mythos, but in which the hard reality is composed of back-stabbing and naked self-interest. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) might not have physical enslavement to worry about, but he’s a slave nonetheless to society’s rampant racism and the legacy of supposed cowardice that earned him exile from the military. Fellow bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is about as close to traditional moral authority as the film gets, but he’s so hardened by the nature of his work as to be more hollowed out mercenary than heroic figure. Daisy Domergue (a show-stealing Jennifer Jason Leigh) seems for quite a bit to be the victim of a deeply ingrained misogyny before revealing herself to be the most devious character in the whole film. Among the lead eight characters, only Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) ultimately proves to be exactly who he presents himself as. The fact that he’s a dumbass good ol’ boy still in thrall to the philosophy of the renegade Confederate army that his father led tells you a lot about the moral landscape of the film. To be a liar is to be suave, intelligent, urbane, cunning. The chessboard at the center of the Haberdashery (a lie in and of itself) is the most apt metaphor: to paraphrase that old axiom about gender relations, all of these characters are playing chess while Chris is stuck in a checkers world.

But it’s his checkers mentality that ultimately serves as what comes closest to passing for redemption in this story. Goggins really commits to the relative unlikeability of the role, playing Mannix in such broad fashion as to seem almost cartoonish at times. It proves to be a canny choice, throwing the audience’s admiration toward the more restrained, scheming charisma of the other characters, only for their self-interest to backfire as they’re systematically murdered in a daisy chain of violence. Ultimately, it’s Mannix’s basic morality that ends the cycle of bloodshed. The chess player would take Daisy’s offer of easy bounty money for her escape and Marquis’s murder, but Chris decides to live up to his new role as Red Rock sheriff at least once by doing the right thing.

Maybe, even above the omnipresent wind, and Morricone score, and rampant lying, it all comes back to that infamous Lincoln letter that Marquis Warren uses to disarm so many white folk. In a desolate moral landscape defined by the hyper-libertarian code, the ghost of Lincoln still hangs over the proceedings as the one possible unifying force, so much so that when Warren reveals the letter’s false nature, John Ruth is (for probably the only time in the film) genuinely hurt (just as he was genuinely touched to read it.) In one sense, that letter is representative of the big lie that society has bought into, the one that says we can actually live together and transcend matters of race and class. In another, it’s a symbol of the myths that we need to believe to continue on. Take the final shot of the film, in which a dying Chris reads it aloud for the first time. Even though he knows of its falsity, those inspiring, forged words serve as a temporary balm for his pain, mirrored in the visual of his passing away in tandem with the black man that he was raised to hate. After finishing it, he tosses it to the side, and the audience is left to wonder how much power he takes from it and how much he’s dismissing it as a temporary salve.

It’s such a powerful tableau that it can be easy to ignore the other figure in the shot: the now-hanged Daisy, dangling from the rafters on the left side of the frame. Her presence recalls the film’s extended opening credits shot, in which a wooden statue of a crucified Christ is also prominently featured on the left side of the frame. From the beginning, the audience is being told of the agony and suffering that are to come, while also being given a visual hint of the secret martyr at the center of the story, the slavery-battling president shot down before his time. It can be tempting to read that final scene as confirmation that, yeah, maybe we can all just get along. But nobody gets out of this tale alive, and the enduring bracketing images of the narrative are of two of the most agonizing forms of death. Hope might be society’s necessary illusion, but it’s a much more nihilistic philosophy that dominates this tale. Which, perhaps, makes it even more of a contemporary story than it would appear to be, a fitting parable for an era in which, at times, we seem to have made negligible progress toward the unity that Lincoln strove for. Just like that wind that persistently howls outside the Haberdashery, there’s ultimately no escape from the inhumanity that has dominated mankind’s existence from the beginning.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

When the Whip Comes Down: The Painful Truths of DJANGO UNCHAINED

What does it say about the role of Quentin Tarantino in the modern American psychosphere that his highest grossing film (not counting inflation) to date is an often hyper-violent action saga featuring a loquacious bounty hunter and his ex-slave partner in crime mowing down vigilantes, a man being ripped to shreds by attack dogs, one of the most beloved stars of the era portraying one of the most vile characters of the era, and some of the wettest gore set pieces since the Evil Dead films? And that it also happens to be a brutal indictment of the institutionalization of slavery in this country, rubbing the audience’s faces in just how normalized this dehumanization once was? Indeed, even though Django Unchained was a major box office hit (with a Christmas Day opening, no less!), its lasting legacy centers on the cultural conversations that sprung up around it. And what those conversations say about so many levels of the modern social stratum.

Discussions about Tarantino’s handling of race were going to spring up no matter the actual content of Django. It can be argued that those QT-centric race conversations have assumed the level of a constant low industrial hum, especially in an Internet-driven culture that gives voice to so many different factions. His battles with Spike Lee are legendary, especially in the wake of Jackie Brown, when Lee called him out for his supposed appropriation of black culture and free use of racial epithets in his screenplays. Tarantino didn’t always necessarily help his case in the public sphere. That long-standing love of playing up to a larger than life public persona has sometimes given him the air of starring in a performance art remake of Revenge of the Nerds (see his reputed assault of Natural Born Killers producer Don Murphy, payback for some smack talk that Murphy delivered in the press). Confronting Lee in a New York theater and bragging about how he grew up in a predominantly black culture (the complete extent of that claim is still a matter of debate) did him no favors either.

But the cultural critique of QT as poacher of the minority experience is a gross oversimplification as well. The roles that he’s written for Samuel L. Jackson, Pam Grier, and Django’s Jamie Foxx are some of the strongest, most nuanced minority characters in modern mainstream cinema, even if the exploitation trappings of the filmic universes in which these characters live can make it easy to overlook such complexity. From all indications, Tarantino’s love of black culture is just one part of a much larger cultural voracity that he enjoys, and if anything, he’s always been more than deferential to the great minority stars, directors, and technicians of the past. Even moreso than a being a director, his main drive in life still seems to be as evangelist for cinematic history, and you could argue that a public figure with this level of power using his fame for such means has done more those reputations than Hollywood as a whole. That doesn’t excuse his occasional missteps or forays into tone deafness; it just makes him a fairly complex person, a trait that can often be drowned out in a meme-obsessed, social justice warrior environment in which Manichean simplicity too often rules the day.

Even setting aside Tarantino’s controversial racial past, Django Unchained was destined to be the subject of some level of heated debate based on its concurrent release with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which went on to win that year’s Best Picture Academy Award. And it’s here that how we as a society view race and, by proxy, the greater cultural conversation today come into sharp focus. The standard line of thought that I read and heard in the winter of 2013-2014  was that McQueen’s film was the noble, wrenching history lesson that this country needed, whereas Django was deeply problematic in attempting to handle such a sensitive topic in the form of an action/road/revenge film. Which, in and of itself, is a deeply problematic concept endemic of that dreaded mindset that I saw used as a cudgel during my years in the education field, and which was always summed up in one word: appropriateness.

I’ve referenced him several times in the past, but Bret Easton Ellis has recently had his moment in the media spotlight with Tarantino, summoning a minor social media firestorm in the wake of his New York Times interview with QT, in which the director expressed his tepid enthusiasm for Selma and asserted that Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Best Director Oscar (for The Hurt Locker) win was primarily motivated by the utter lack of attention that the Academy (and Hollywood) has historically given to women directors. As Ellis expounds upon in an essay he wrote shortly after the incident, the whole matter comes down to the difference between aesthetics and ideology. After all, a film can be praised for its base philosophy, yet still critiqued for its aesthetic values (and vice versa; see Triumph of the Will.) Yet the controversy around he and Tarantino’s aesthetic opinions on these and other films was met with a wave of derision, as blanket dismissals of both the art and the artist.

It’s this same philosophy of aesthetics and ideology that seemed (and, perhaps, still seem) to lie at the heart the perceived 12 Years/Django dichotomy. Steve McQueen’s films have always been intriguing formalist exercises, rigorous in their style and approach. In Hunger and Shame, he leads Michael Fassbender through mirror versions of the gauntlet of physical and spiritual self-abasement. Amidst these tortured wrangling, a profound sense of visual and sonic poetry still exists. The snowbound opening moments of Hunger offer a portrait of quotidian peace and beauty that stand in high contrast to the squalor and cold brutality of the Maze Prison. And the perverse sexual indulgences of Shame are framed by passages of neon noir beauty, such as Fassbender’s long night run through the streets of New York. Moreover, the harshest moments of each film can still hold the pained, profane allure of a Bosch painting.

When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I recognized some of these similar traits in it. And yet, the formal audacity that I so enjoyed about those previous films seemed to have been tamed for this slavery tale. Sure, parts of it are beautiful, as any decently shot film set in such a landscape will be. But much of McQueen’s stylistic approach just felt that much flatter than what came before. And for a director whose art world background lent so much transcendent power to his film work, this was a mildly disappointing development. Not that 12 Years is a bad film. Its depictions of just how vile institutionalized slavery could be serve as a stern rebuke to a long Hollywood history that has too often been a bastion of whitewashing the subject. And the intensity of the performances by Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor is often bracing. But purely as a cinematic project, it just felt a bit lacking in the context of what came before.

Those art world trappings around McQueen are what have led to much of his acclaim, and in many ways they made him the perfect candidate for directing a film like 12 Years (that and his racial makeup.) Released at the height of awards season mania, 12 Years bore the all-important patina of what is considered to be honorable and, yes, appropriate about films like this: it was an “important” movie by an “important” director, one which would deal with a controversial subject in an almost solemn and ultimately uplifting manner. It’s a cycle that is repeated every year around this time, and it’s produced many films that make an audience (especially an upscale, white audience) feel good about their tastes and social mores in a most non-confrontational manner. And it almost guarantees an impenetrable armor of respectability around such projects.
Tarantino, of course, is a populist and a sensationalist through and through which, in the current cultural climate, made him improperly suited to tackle such a serious cultural stain as slavery. But in many ways, his distinct sensibilities made him the perfect director to do so. The episodes of brutal violence and degradation in 12 Years are, indeed, gut-wrenching and deeply uncomfortable. They’re also completely expected in a film that was essentially presold as a deeply uncomfortable history lesson, almost a safe zone for reinforcement of a noble and admirable ideal. And even in those more extreme moments, there’s a certain distancing that the tone and setting provide. The slave sales and plantation scenes carry a certain power, but they’re also presented as being of such a past moment as to seem almost alien in their ugliness. Django takes place in much similar venues, but its dark humor and hyperbolic violence hook the audience in deep before throwing them into the darker and more disturbing elements of the story.

Take the twin characters that Michael Fassbender and Leonardo DiCaprio portray in these films. Edwin Epps is a galvanizing presence, but he’s also a monster through and through from the outset. His psychotic abuse is terrifying, but after establishing such a demeanor, the film has almost nowhere to go with him. And for the most part, he’s easy to hate from the moment he first appears on screen. Calvin Candie, on the other hand, is a paragon of suave amiability, which provides much of the shock of his introduction against the background of two men beating each other to death in a cruel Mandingo fight. Knowing that Candie is the film’s heavy and big bad doesn’t immediately weaken the pleasure of enjoying the slimy charm that DiCaprio brings to playing him. It’s not until his hideous use of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) to interrogate Django and King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) that the full extent of his monstrous nature comes to the forefront.

And it’s this dichotomy that reveals Django’s true value as commentary on the racism inherent in modern culture. Despite being a portrait of a bygone time, Tarantino’s film feels so immediate because the world it portrays is one in which polite culture effectively hides the moral repugnance of this institutionalized discrimination. The world that Solomon Northup travels through in McQueen’s film is akin to a walking nightmare, one which must be endure if it is to ever be escaped. There’s deep aesthetic pleasure in the buddy cop riffs of King Schultz and Django, an enjoyment that (much like life in that era) almost makes it easy to forget the vile backbone of the American culture. Schultz lives by an extension of such a mindset, freeing Django only because he needs him to identify one of his bounties (although his freeing of Django’s fellow slaves shows a much more progressive streak as well), and generally viewing the murders he commits and the deals he strikes through a purely pragmatic and transactional lens. One of the most telling scenes is then vein shows him encouraging Django in making his first kill of a man who, though a murderer, also has a young son who, it’s implied, doesn’t know about his father’s criminality. Django’s hesitance to pull the trigger (and the son’s distant grief at his father’s death) tells the audience that there’s more than empty action and revenge at stake here (much as Kill Bill also posited.)

The payoff for this scene is one of most powerful in all of Tarantino’s filmography, and one that offers a biting commentary on modern racism and a meta-commentary on racism in cinema. After reluctantly striking the deal to free Broomhilda, Schultz sits in the background of Candie’s parlor reflecting on the slave who he saw torn apart by dogs earlier in the day. Playing the hero this time, Christoph Waltz is as captivating a presence as he was in Inglourious Basterds. He’s also, once again, a master storyteller and soothsayer, escaping from several tight situations by taking solace in the cool logic of the bounty hunter’s legal rights, and blocking some of the moral quandaries inherent in touring through slave country with Django by agreeing that they must only play the roles of master and slave. It’s an echo of the performative impulse than runs through Basterds, but this time, Waltz’s character must finally come face to face with the horrors that he’s witnessed. The deep pain and sadness on Waltz’s face as he realizes that Calvin Candie can’t just be dismissed as another loathsome business associate is moving stuff, and when he blows the whole deal by murdering Candie rather than debasing himself with a handshake, it’s almost understandable. Here is a man who, much like the audience for this film, has passed through so much of others’ pain and suffering only to finally know the full cost of such a distancing. True, the aftermath of this explosion of violence eventually leads to Django slaughtering the plantation survivors and reclaiming Broomhilda’s freedom, which can be read as both historical revisionism (a claim also levied against the Basterds’ climactic Nazi massacre) and as uplifting an ending as 12 Years provides. But there’s no forgetting the extreme ugliness that took place deep in the heart of the gilded palace of sin that is Candieland. And that evoked a conflicted, ruminative feeling upon exiting the theater, the combination of elation and horror one that is tough to shake, and anything but reaffirming.

That world that Django offers can seem very distant in a modern society that has become more enlightened in racial, ethnic, and sexual tolerance and acceptance than previous eras. And yet, there are the major city police shootings of black men that have taken place in the years following the film’s release. And the coded, immigrant-baiting racism at the heart of several major presidential campaigns. And the increasingly corporate culture that has helped to expand the income gap to levels not seen since the Jazz Age, a disparity that overwhelmingly affects minorities. American culture is in the full flush of a love affair with the frictionless experience (as Silicon Valley magnates put it), one in which we pass from pleasure to pleasure without much thought or hard matters of choice. Too often, we confront racism with a social media campaign, or by signing a petition. Or by watching a film that tells us exactly what we expect it will about the subject. It might not ever be acclaimed as a profound treatise on race relations, but in packing such horrific lessons into a deeply alluring exterior, Django Unchained captures so much of what racial discrimination means in the world in which we live.