I grew up in the 1950s on a steady diet of western movies and TV shows. The western is my favorite movie genre, and sadly few are made anymore, so I was really looking forward to Django Unchained. That was before Sandy Hook. And even before the mass child killings in Newtown, Connecticut, I worried that Django Unchained was going to be too violent and over the top. I love realistic westerns, or at least westerns that feel historical. Watching the trailer to Django Unchained didn’t remind me of any history I knew about. It’s a strange revisionist fantasy of 19th century America.
True Grit and Open Range were good westerns in my book, but I have to admit there’s little real history in westerns. Westerns are a genre that teaches us that guns are the answer to social conflict. Westerns are Darwinian tales about the survival of the fittest, but in the 1950s, westerns were stories about the fittest bringing civilization to the west. In modern westerns, civilization isn’t the focus, but gun play. It’s still good versus evil, but the good guys are pretty much as vicious as the bad guys.
The trouble with modern westerns is they often are just gun porn, and from the previews and what I’ve read, it appears that Django Unchained is a killing fantasy like a sex fantasy. Pornography is hard to define, but for me, porn films are those which merely press our brain buttons and set off our neural programming for sex, violence and fear, providing little else artistically and intellectually. In the old days if films showed actual sex or violence they were deemed pornographic and illegal. Over the years we’ve accepted more sex and violence in movies because the sex and deaths were artificial. We called it art. But art can push them same buttons as real sex and snuff films.
Movie makers want to make millions so they need big audiences, and action movies with massive body counts are among the top selling films. Such films need a bad guy that filmmakers can manipulate the audience into hating. And since our love for violence seems to have no bounds, movie makers need really evil bad guys to justify the extreme violence they wish to recreate on the screen. Django Unchained selects slavers in the Old South. These guys were plenty evil, so no one will feel bad if we watched them get killed in horrible ways. And evidently Quentin Tarantino didn’t feel actual historical slavers were evil enough, so he made them even more repulsive in his film, so the audience could enjoy watching them be punished with an orgy of good clean gun killing fun. What an emotional release it must be to see those slavers get their retribution. But is enjoying that retribution divine or evil?
Now I’m not saying I wouldn’t have enjoyed Django Unchained, because I probably would, I’ve been conditioned by decades of violent movies. I’m not going to see Django Unchained because part of me is telling myself that it’s sick and disturbing to be enjoying such gluttony of violence, in the same way part of me tells myself I can’t gorge on Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Too much of anything is bad.
I don’t plan on giving up all violent movies, or westerns. However, I need violence to be presented realistically. We should be shocked and horrified by violence, not getting off on it. Gun porn is just giving the little angry guy inside of us a hand job.
I read three books this year that covered the subject of slavery and violence in America around the time of the Civil War. Midnight Rising by Tony Horowitz, about John Brown the abolitionist terrorist, Reconstruction by Eric Foner about the horrors of the South after the Civil War, and Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr., a novel about a freed black slave returning to the South to find his wife after the Civil War ends.
Reading the lengthy plot summary of Django Unchained on Wikipedia and looking that the previews on YouTube convinces me that Tarantino’s history of this time period is some kind of strange fantasy created to justify the gun violence. Movie goers will not learn any history about slavery or the Civil War South, just like they didn’t learn anything about WWII from Inglourious Bastards. Where is the justifying art?
In fact, if you wanted to make an artistic anti-slavery film Mr. Tarantino, there’s actual slavery going on in the world today that needs our focus of attention.
The real issue is how we use fiction. Fiction has always been about entertainment, and it’s always manipulated us by pushing our emotional buttons. If fiction is high art we should learn something about reality, people and ourselves. Fiction should not masturbate our base instincts, but isn’t that what much of fiction has become? Low art. Our most powerful instinct is to reproduce, so most films deal with sex and romance. However, instead of dealing with them as a topic for enlightenment, all too often films just stimulate our urge for intense romance and hot sex.
We are all animals with a strong fight or flight instincts. Most violent and horror movies stimulate that deep biological programming. Fiction is based on conflict, and the plot must go through several stages before bringing its audience to a release of tension, which for gun porn usually involves the hero killing more and more people – a mass killer. On screen body counts have gotten ridiculous. Action violence is choreographed like live action cartoons, so unreal they are on the level of Roadrunner cartoons and Three Stooges films. Can anyone really watch The Expendables 2 without feeling insulted?
Our world is full of real violence, so why do we need pseudo violence to thrill us? Even if television news wasn’t presenting us weekly stories on mass murders, isn’t it time to wonder about why gun porn is so entertaining? Have we seen so many fictional killings that only visions of extreme slaughters can thrill us? Haven’t we become so jaded to violence if it takes the Sandy Hook killings to make us question violence in our society?
Maybe I’m just getting old and my testosterone is petering out, but gun porn has gotten too absurd. I just can’t ethically rationalize enjoying the big screen killings to myself anymore. I’m not immune to the thrill of violence. I can still rationalize Breaking Bad because the show is not about violence, but about a good man becoming evil, and there are many episodes where people don’t get killed, and when they do it’s horrifying. To me, films like Django Unchained are only about the thrill of violence, and other aspects to the story are just straight men setting us up for the high caliber penetrating punch line.
I’m tired of pretending it’s all in good fun. I’m not even suggesting that these films escalate violence in our society. I’m asking: Isn’t it weird we get so much fun out of watching people being killed?
JWH – 12/27/12