Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Historiological Metafiction and Redemptive Violence in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained

The resolution of a Quentin Tarantino film, traditional thought would have us believe, is never as fun as the getting there. How else can one explain the appeal of an over-four-hour runtime for a two-part movie its very title spoils in Kill Bill? His still-most-renowned film, a game-changer for independent cinema, Pulp Fiction is a crime film the opposite of The Big Sleep. Where the quintessential noir makes us overlook jumbled, nebulous puzzle pieces so long as a big picture comes into focus, Pulp Fiction is a film of vignettes apropos of nothing, whose ending even the most ecclesiastical fan would stumble over in explaining what, exactly, it amounts to. But that won’t stop him from being able to recite Jules Winnfield’s assassination scripture, recall a benign conversation about a cheeseburger or recreate the steps of Vincent and Mia’s dance sequence at every wedding he attends. Pulp Fiction is an iconic mission statement overtly remembered for its punchy dialogue, visceral violence and fragmented style. Only what becomes clear as Tarantino’s oeuvre develops—and a barrage of aping, wanna-be indie auteurs fail to recognize—is neither these stylistic decisions nor the allusions to the films he cherry-picks is what breathes life into Frankenstein’s monster. The postmodern seal marking Tarantino’s filmography is less mélange and more mad-scientist criticism. His films, as referential as they can be, are not to be read as nostalgia, parody or (despite Grindhouse’s pitch) merely homage. True, they percolate an unmistakable reverence and rapture of exploitation violence, but not for the sake of spectacle alone. Heir to Penn and Peckinpah, Tarantino treads the fine line between embracing the kineticism of film violence and glorifying it. The resulting work, as Tarantino enters the self-proclaimed end of his directorial career (at least, he teases, as far as narrative, theatrical film is concerned), has evolved into an intensely-focused formal and thematic diatribe on the role of violence in American culture, film history, and the slippery grounds where to two coalesce.

Interesting then, for one who’s early career is remembered for fast-talking characters epitomized by spontaneous rage of fits-and-starts, Tarantino’s 21st-Century work (or, perhaps more significantly, post-9/11 work) is characterized by slow-burning, obsessive, tight-as-a-drum revenge tales. The Kill Bill films are episodically-structured genre experiments loosely modeled after François Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. In this sense, it is the Tarantino project most like Pulp Fiction. It riffs on French New Wave tropes and filters them though the “big three” grindhouse subgenres in the Tarantino universe: the Spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation, and the Kung Fu film. Funny then, when Tarantino tries his hand at a straightforward exploitation flick in Death Proof, the results are none of these, but half giallo, half carsploitation. If film history has overlooked and condescended to the exploitation genre film, Tarantino’s oeuvre has gone out of its way to legitimize it. Tarantino’s films seem to argue the exploitation film gets a lot right in terms of pruriency lacking in “legitimate” cinema. If academia has self-righteously overlooked what Pauline Kael refers to as “honest vulgarity”, Tarantino embraces kitsch as the lifeblood of the genre film and refines it into his own brand of film as film criticism (Kael 24).

More than merely a cinema of piecemeal derivation, Tarantino creates something new through reworking old genre tropes. If Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown were game-changers for independent cinema it was because they reappropriated hip grindhouse aesthetics to the American mainstream culture by way of snappy dialogue—even if their resolution, by comparison, seemed inconsequential. If Kill Bill and Death Proof were more blatant genre experiments which began to establish revenge as a key motivator in the Tarantino treatise, they, too, exist out of time. It is only with Tarantino’s two most recent films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, has he tasked his work with some heavy lifting so his erudite stylistics are matched by historical and cultural relevance. These two films, cut from the same cloth, show Tarantino’s take on violence come full circle; violence is spectacle and reality, binding is freeing, redemptive and atrocious. Through their strict ties to genre, the historical revenge fantasies, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are astute, self-reflexive works which undo traditional examination on violence in film by subverting historic and filmic paradigms. They blur the lines between our fragmented historical memory and ideological myths through the very act of intertextually exposing them. Tarantino’s postmodern tendencies make ambiguous the role of violence in film’s moralization, thereby clarifying how a disconcertion for and embrace of redemptive violence can coexist in American society.

Dana Polan describes Tarantino’s intertextual work by saying, “there’s a post-modern genealogy here in which the classic American films noirs are reworked by New Wavers like Godard and Truffaut which are then themselves reworked in a film like Pulp Fiction” (Polan 20). This same case could be made for Tarantino’s appropriation of that other uniquely American genre. Django Unchained (and Inglourious Basterds, formally) are American Westerns of reimagined Spaghetti Westerns which are redacted classical American Westerns. Formally, Tarantino’s cinematic style owes a great debt to Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci (who directed the original Django in 1966). Much of Leone’s style is punctuated by extreme close-ups and point-of-view deep-focus long-shots. Often these two go hand in hand, where rapid cross-
cuts elevate the urgency in climax, and the juxtaposition of traditional Western long-shot and immediate, threatening (or vulnerable) close-up magnifies violence. Take, for instance, the climactic showdown in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, where dramatic tension is elevated through editing. The three-way graveyard duel is a rapid montage of facial close-ups, point-of-view shots behind guns, and a back-and-forth of mise-en-scène compositions in various circular long-shots. These edits and compositions are not narratively imperative; to the contrary, they can be disorienting. But the effect of the montage coupled with the score’s crescendo punctuates the violence when shots are finally fired.

Compare this to the opening scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The film opens in extreme long-shot of a French dairy farm under a Nazi-occupied countryside. One of the scene’s principle characters, Perier LaPadite is introduced in low-angle medium-shot and immediately cuts to an over-the-shoulder point-of-view from one of LaPadite’s daughters as she witnesses danger approaching in the distance. The disquiet of LaPadite’s interrogation by “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa is accentuated by a montage of low-angle empathy, high-angle savagery, slow-zooming facial close-ups and static, inanimate close-ups all in a very restricted space. This Leonean montage is a language of violence and terror. It is, perhaps, even an allusion to a scene in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in which Angel Eyes enters Stevens’ house and after an extended, uneasy stare-down montage, shoots Stevens, telling him to “sit down and eat.” Both scenes erupt in brutality after a torturous elongation of the mundane. Likewise, the power of Tarantino’s scene is not in the massacre or the escape, but in the dreadful silence of the elephant in the room. This isn’t to say Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns aren’t explosively violent—they can be. Only this brutality is matched with a filmic language of anxiety and dread in its quiet spots as well. Tarantino ups the ante as his montage and mise-en-scène, in a departure from his early work, speak louder than the spoken word.

If Sergio Leone’s montage establishes a language for the Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci has a less subtle gimmick. Corbucci employs a self-conscious, visible formal tactic of rapid zoom at least twenty times in his 1966 film, Django. Usually the zoom immediately precedes graphic violence, though other times it is used for characterization in terms of epiphany or reaction. Two of these rapid-zooms occur in the iconic shootout which reveals the Mitrailleuse machine gun hidden in Django’s coffin. These zooms magnify his vulnerability, sitting one man against an army of bandits. Later, Corbucci’s technique mirrors gun violence as this purposely visible camerawork infiltrates a character’s space.

Tarantino utilizes two such rapid-zoom cross-cuts in Django Unchained which double as homage to Corbucci’s much-loved trademark as well as develop character depth. Both come at key moments of thematic epiphany for central characters, both as direct results of unfathomable violence, and both reactionary. The first follows the scene in which Calvin Candie, while touring Django and Schultz around his plantation, learns his slave and Mandingo fighter, D’Artagnon has escaped. D’Artagnon is found hiding up a tree from Candie’s hunting dogs, called down, reprimanded and humiliated by Calvin. The dialogue makes very clear that D’Artagnon is property intended for the sole purpose of absorbing and dispensing physical violence. As if this vulgar disregard for life weren’t dehumanizing enough, Calvin capitalizes it by mocking him for not knowing the meaning of the word “reimburse.” This pressures Schultz to act. He stands up and offers to “reimburse” Calvin by buying (and, presumably freeing) D’Artagnon. It is here Tarantino utilizes a rapid-zoom (even more rapid than Corbucci’s uses) and couples it with a “whoosh” sound-effect, to symbolize Calvin being hit by a brick wall. Calvin is astonished by Schultz’s compassion (as if these characters would express it in those terms), and this formal device brings with it a thematic understanding of Calvin’s character. The chasm between these two worldviews is widened as D’Artagnon is then fed to the dogs.

The second use of rapid-zoom occurs as Django gets physical confirmation that his wife, Broomhilda is indeed on Candie’s plantation. Candie’s “house nigger,” Stephen explains to Calvin that Hildi also ran away, was recaptured, and placed in a “hot box” for punitive measures. Django seethes, fearing Candie’s dogs attacked his wife and, in a montage more viscerally violent than physically violent, we see a frightened, naked Hildi pulled from the solitary confinement of a sweatbox. An over-the-shoulder point-of-view shot showing Stephen’s perspective as Django’s epiphany marks Stephen—even more than Candie—as Django’s nemesis is recorded through rapid-zoom. As written in Tarantino’s screenplay:

as we move into a Sergio Leone CU [close up] of DJANGO'S FACE. (Django Unchained).

Granted, Tarantino writes his screenplays for his own direction, but it is telling that the visual language of the Spaghetti Western is so defined he considers “Sergio Leone close-up” a legitimate film term. Telling, also, is his appraisal of “revenge music” as a genre. This is more of an intertextual stylistic reference—perhaps even a cue for Tarantino to scour his soundtrack collection (Django Unchained lifts ten pieces of music from 1966-1971 Italian genre films; Inglourious Basterds, nine from 1965-1974)—but becomes more than the sum of its parts. More than merely homage, Tarantino’s work in many ways surpasses what Kael might rightfully refer to at kitsch in many of these Spaghetti Westerns. Yet such barrage of audio and visual intertextuality also defies the conventional postmodern reading as pastiche.

Fredric Jameson calls pastiche, “the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language” which is devoid of politic or moral because it is a “neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives” (Jameson 17). This may very well be true in Pulp Fiction, where pop culture references are self-congratulatory and ambiguity is part of the spectacle. Yet the thematic depth of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained is more than referential. The violence is contextualized—personally and culturally—through history, and the films’ politic and moral, though ambiguous, is far from neutral. It’s no accident these two scenes—arguably the ones in which the film most specifically addresses the evils of slavery—are the ones Tarantino chooses to inject this postmodern film effect, reminding us through their very insertion amidst some of the film’s ugliest violence we are watching a film. Yet, in Inglourious Basterds, the most viscerally violent scenes (again matched with self-referential film effects of freeze-frame, flashback and on-screen titles) are not parody of history so much as of film. The introduction of the “Bear Jew” comes in a torturous scene that conspicuously mirrors The Dirty Dozen, a film loosely based on historical events, reappropriated into a role of Jewish vengeance. But contrary to Jameson’s analysis, these postmodern tactics align more with Linda Hutcheon’s theory of historiographic metafiction.

Hutcheon’s postmodern theory allows for a “self-conscious dimension of history” which “works to situate itself within historical discourse without surrendering its autonomy as fiction” (“Historiographic Metafiction” 3-4). This loaded pastiche still denies the absolutism of Modern thought, but makes a contextually compelling argument about the role of history in the present. Inglourious Basterds is a brazen, postmodern reaction to Robert Sklar’s lament for America’s historical amnesia. Sklar states, “historic memory in the late-twentieth-century American society appears to hang in midair, suspended between too many pasts and no past at all,” negatively connoting the cultural power of movies is diminished without a concrete ideological uniformity (Sklar 358). “Around this time you could ask whether you’re real or fictitious,” the Nazi Major explains as a rule to actress Bridget von Hammersmark while trying to guess the name written on the card on his forehead in the tavern game sequence of Inglourious Basterds. “My native land is the jungle, I visited America but my visit was not fortuitous to me ... When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? Am I the story of the Negro in America? Well then I must be King Kong,” the Major declares triumphantly. This reverse allegory capitalizes Tarantino’s play between the historic and fictitious and, while he chooses to reference a film which historically struck a chord with what Sklar refers to as an ideology of “public consciousness,” Tarantino’s decoding of King Kong as metaphoric (and literal, as the very opening sequence of Django Unchained displays the Negro in chains at the fortuitousness of the white man) suggests that a film can be postmodern and learned while exhibiting the cultural power of historic memory. The violent revenge fantasy of Tarantino’s historiographic metafiction gets at universal truths as “the intertexts of history and fiction take on parallel (though not equal) status in the parodic reworking of the textual past of both the ‘world’ and literature” (Politics 4).

Sklar’s insistence that the demystification of American myths in popular cinema has led to “nostalgia and amnesia” (358) reads concurrent to the Jamesonian postmodern theory to which Hutcheon refers when she states, “the prevailing interpretation is that postmodernism offers a value-free, decorative, de-historicized quotation of past forms and that this is a most apt mode for a culture like our own that is oversaturated with images” (Politics 94). If the insinuation is that reappropriating history and referencing film in the context of these metafictitious films is valueless, it doesn’t make sense that Tarantino would argue “there's two types of violences in [Django Unchained]: There's the brutal reality of the violence that slaves lived under, under the slavery laws, 245 years. And then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence” (Interview). Certainly Tarantino isn’t daft enough to suggest the slave violence in his film is non-fiction documentary, but his delineation is intriguing given both his self-reflexive misrepresentation of history and the fact that the difference between these “violences” isn’t distinguished formally. Additionally, these unapologetic historical divergences don’t merely subvert history, but film history as well.

Django Unchained incorporates an extended sequence suggesting the first emergence of the Ku Klux Klan (an historic anachronism by seven years) which represents its members not only as bumbling oafs, but as recipients of the terror they historically doled. Compare this to another filmic genesis of the Ku Klux Klan, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (itself an historic anachronism by six years), and it’s no secret what Tarantino is doing: if the historical presence of the KKK marred the face of American history for a definable era, how much more did Birth of a Nation mar the face of racial representation in film history through subliminal appeal to the public consciousness and an establishment of film’s narrative language? Inglourious Basterds reimagines Adolf Hitler being blown up in a burning movie theater for crying out loud; film history is history, genre is a language and film (literally, in Basterds) is a weapon.

Though Tarantino adopts postmodern tendencies (specifically through intertextualism), his moral is far from Jamesonian. His historical reimaginings don’t suggest, as postmodernism might, that history is provisional. True, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds refute that language or action has value without history as a constructed narrative, but the films are underlined by an American metanarrative which Tarantino doesn’t seek to rewrite. Inglourious Basterds has characters make literal reference to Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew, but is itself a formal reference to the American propaganda film Hitler—Dead or Alive; the former—still banned from public exhibition in Germany—more than partially responsible for director Fritz Hippler being sentenced to two years in an Allied internment camp, the latter—a relic of the victors—is mostly forgotten kitsch. Inglourious Basterds gives representation of a fictional Jewish propaganda film as a critical assertion that film holds historical power.

Violence is inseparable from history and film history, and Tarantino recognizes this through the filmic language he employs. These films work both as an agent for and critique of history. Through historiological metafiction, Tarantino has achieved what Marc Ferro describes as the rare strata of film which “is no longer merely a reconstruction or a reconstitution, but really an original contribution to the understanding of past phenomena and their relation to the present” (Ferro 163). Tarantino expresses this thematic interplay through the language of the Western genre—itself a barometer of concurrent ideologies. Tarantino acknowledges in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, “there's no other genre that reflects the decade that they were made and the morals and the feelings of Americans during that decade than Westerns” (Interview). Hollywood Westerns grew in moral complexity, fittingly, as John Ford returned from making World War II documentaries. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre simulates the war experience of a man displaced. Ford’s own The Searchers moves beyond simple black-hat/white-hat morality, as racial integration demystifies established Hollywood tendencies and Native Americans started to be looked at with a sympathetic eye. Wide-eyed dreams of manifest destiny that typified the 1950’s suburban boom correspond to the American Westerns’ return to frontier taming in the epic How The West Was Won, and by the time the Vietnam conflict, political assassinations and civil rights resistance came to a boil in the late 1960s, revisionist nihilism broadened America’s signature genre in films like William A. Graham’s interracial Cry for Me, Billy, Sam Peckinpah’s violently iconographic The Wild Bunch and Budd Boetticher’s late A Time For Dying.

As Hollywood Westerns began to question established ideological myths through disillusionment in the socio-political climate, Italian filmmakers appropriated Hollywood’s fertile genre to legitimize or subvert an overturned nation’s conflicting tenets before they could take root. Italian Westerns “drain the myth of any pioneering doctrine whatsoever, and in so doing remove the ambiguity (some might say subtlety) inherent to the Hollywood genre,” but the violence remains (Fisher 58). Since the frontiers aren’t rife with civilization, the Spaghetti Western, skeptical of authority, caught between zealous sects of fascism and communism, retains its outlaws amid nihilism and desolation. These Italian renderings “kicked up the violence and the surrealism and the brutality” (Interview) because violent Nazi resistance, as well as the “ongoing blood feud between fascists and communists in Italy presented both sides with legitimating historical reference points for the escalation of violent tactics as the 1970s dawned” (Fisher 74). The outlaw hero trope the Hollywood Western helped create was lived out through rural Italian desperados, whose own histories began appearing in their nation’s new Western language. This isn’t to say Hollywood Westerns instructed Italian history, only that Italian filmmakers were able to formalize their nation’s struggle—concurrently rather than with the benefit of hindsight—through the language of Western genre.

All of which begs the question: What cultural symptoms or ideologies does Tarantino reflect through his use of Western language and its violence? The possibility of postmodern violence even being ascribed cultural, ideological meaning speaks favorably to Hutcheon’s theory of historiographic metafiction. The opening sequence in Leone’s For A Few Dollars More is an extreme long-shot of anonymity. It is a point-of-view from a sniper, only with no hint as to the culprit or his victim. The result is an absurdist nihilism in which violence is happenstance. Tarantino structures an almost identical scene in Django Unchained, though the thematic implications of its moral tone differ greatly. When Schultz begins training Django as a bounty hunter, the scene opens with the same elevated point-of-view behind a rifle in extreme long-shot, only we aren’t afforded anonymity. Schultz talks Django through the assassination process, reassuring his victim is a criminal. He even pulls out a handbill to give the criminal a face before the bounty is fulfilled. Tarantino takes this one step farther: despite the kill in extreme long-shot, we inexplicably hear the voice of the victim’s son as he witnesses his father’s death. The child questions the circumstance of which he has no context shouting in anguish, “Pa? ...Pa!” Though Django harbors tremendous unease and will stop at nothing to find his wife
(further allegorized through a bastardized version of the Siegfried epic), Tarantino suggests he still needs instructed that this form of violence is indeed redemptive—that perhaps this violence is not only learned, but unnatural.

The violence in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained may dabble in the absurd, but it is not nihilistic. Corbucci’s nihilistic Navajo Joe shares thematic implications with Django Unchained—the protagonists of each are abused, marginalized minorities seeking vengeance for their wives and race—but the presentation and intention of the violence differs. Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, like Navajo Joe, demands vengeance in the form of body count, yet the brutal scalpings in Corbucci’s film are performed by the enemy. Tarantino even apes the Spaghetti Western trial-by-fire tradition of having both Aldo and Django captured by their enemies (Django even tortured), just like Joe. But when it comes time to dispense vengeance, Tarantino’s wider socio-historical purview is telling in its ambiguity. Where Navajo Joe singlehandedly takes on an entire band of brutal criminals, each kill (many of which presented again with Corbucci’s rapid-zoom) shows us the grisly faces of the aggressors. Even as Joe carries out his cathartic finale, he is the underdog; though his vengeance is complete, he’s not exactly victorious: no one walks away. Joe’s closing moment is heroic—almost Christ-like—as the town is free from bandits and has its money returned. When Shosanna has her vengeance on the leaders of the Third Reich, the stakes are much more ambiguous. Nothing in the filmic language accuses Tarantino of being a Nazi sympathizer, but there are no close-ups of the victims. Nazis are shot in the back and anonymously scream in terror as they realize they are locked in the theater which comes to resemble (not coincidently) a furnace. This anonymity isn’t of the extreme long-shot variety as in For A Few Dollars More, this kind highlights the perpetrators as our “heroes” grow sadistic. Shosanna is something of a martyr, but a ghastly one inverted by hatred. Her closing monologue to the Nazi party isn’t one of healthy catharsis or detached political strategy; the “face of Jewish vengeance” is a maniacal spectre.

Equally haunting is the closing scene of Django Unchained where Django’s horse steps to a perverse victory dance as it appears Django has now shaken his demons. But at what price? Django despises Stephen, seemingly, for something more than putting his wife in a sweatbox. He hates him choosing self over his people; for fully embracing the role of house-nigger for preservation over righteous freedom. He hates Stephen for being a slave who found the lives of others dispensable for his well-being and, perhaps, because the role hits close to home. Django puts on a charade of his own during his visit at Candieland and, though a free man, opts not to let Schultz intercede for D’Artagnon. The avenue of Schlutz and Django’s ploy demands—perhaps orchestrates—a Mandingo fight to the death (the violence of which transcends exploitation and genre and might be the clearest example of Tarantino coming full circle, representing trauma rather than violence as aesthetic cool) and Django, like Stevens, accepts a measure of harm against his own people for personal gain. Worse, Django employs it without the threat of a sweatbox. Django Unchained presents us with a deep, ambiguous hero who, in his freedom, again takes on the role of slave to his own vengeance. One which doesn’t end with the death of Candie, but with the death of Stevens positing whether this black-on-black violence is served with more than an ounce of self-hatred.

Aldo Raine’s coda is less ambiguous and outright dastardly. The final scene of Inglourious Basterds is perhaps its most gruesome as Col. Hans Landa is pinned to the ground after Raine and Utivich break something of a gentlemen’s agreement (pun intended) and carve a swastika into his forehead. Thematically, it’s not too dissimilar from Navajo Joe carving symbols into the foreheads of Duncan’s gang members (despite the significant fact the Basterds’ vengeance, unlike Shosanna’s, is self-righteous and often once-removed from Nazi terror), but the visual representation differs greatly. Navajo Joe’s violence is cross-cut with rapid-edits typical of Corbucci’s visual style. His scenes of knife violence are either off-screen, in profile, or suggested through editing. Raine’s brutality is less punitive and more perversely gratifying. Not only is his behavior during the savagery calm, collected and even smug, Tarantino films the carving in a stagnant, close-up in one torturously long take. Like the Mandingo fighting scene in Django Unchained, this graphic violence transcends exploitation. Tarantino begs the audience to cringe rather than derive pleasure from catharsis. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained each present us with familiar genre language structured as a revenge tale, only by the time the characters’ catharses are fully realized, they have become the monsters they sought to vanquish.

In Tarantino’s universe, there is no sacrilege. The violence of a rewritten Holocaust or American slave narrative is valid because fiction is where we find our catharsis. Unlike Steven Spielberg who contemporarily grapples with these same themes of Jewish vengeance and the ills of slavery in Munich and Lincoln, Tarantino removes himself from the weight of history by denying it overt representation. Lincoln’s slaves are nonentities (as are Schindler’s Jews) so the marginalized—even when the source of sympathy—remain marginalized. Such is the case when history is told through archetype in a commercial narrative medium; historic ideological representation is difficult when individualistic. Filmic historical representation whitewashes historic memory as it is easier for audiences to cheer for an ideological myth than it is to translate historical context as presently applicable. Tarantino’s characters, too, are archetypal, but by pulling the rug of historical representation he refuses language the monopoly on history without denying it—as postmodern theory would—grand narrative. Tarantino’s fictionalization allows a representation of trauma usually kept at arm’s length in historical narrative. These traumas are as empirically historical as they are ideologically mythical and Tarantino doesn’t care much to differentiate between the two. The appeal and power of fiction is in its capacity to understand the present through its past. Ideological mythologies are the language of the American Western and, just as Italy sought to establish a cultural identity through the tropes of the Spaghetti Western, Tarantino’s Westerns use fiction to grapple with and transpose history to the modern zeitgeist. Revenge became Tarantino’s thematic obsession in tandem with America’s cultural embrace of the role of victim post-9/11. Not only did a nihilism seep into the nation’s ideological fabric through an unprecedented trauma which defined a decade, it was followed by a tangible, obtainable revenge. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies come with a cautionary tale: history is written by the victors. Yes, there is victory in Shosanna and Django’s stories, but at what cost? These systemic traumas are relieved and relived through the catharsis of cinematic violence but, just as Americans were forced to act in a self-righteous war on terror, Tarantino’s warns catharsis recycles into further atocity.

The audience knowingly grins when Landa asks “what shall the history books read?” as if Tarantino’s historiological metafiction poses this question in the past tense. But that doesn’t tell the whole tale. Tarantino’s historical reimaginings aren’t postmodern relativity but systemic, sociological explanation of our current political state using history as a reference point. What shall the history books read? Ask the Western: they’re written by victors but preserved through cultural ideology. The films don’t purport to recall historic memory, but transform it. The trauma deeply rooted in America’s scars live presently through Tarantino’s use of genre language. The resulting catharsis, through fiction and violence, unites us through our nation’s sacramental hurt and ideological narrative just as Tarantino’s postmodern pastiche unites myriad multicultural, intertextual film histories to breathe as a cultural organism.

Works Cited

Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988.

Fisher, Austin. Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. P. O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 3-32.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late-Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 1991.

Kael, Pauline. “Zeitgeist and Poltergeist; or, Are Movies Going to Pieces?” I Lost It At The Movies. Boston: Atlantic—Little, Brown, 1954. 3-27.

Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. New York: Random House, 1994.

Tarantino, Quentin. Django Unchained. Shooting Script. Undated. The Weinstein Company Guilds. 30 Dec. 2012. <>

Tarantino, Quentin. Interview with Terry Gross. Fresh Air. Natl. Public Radio. 2 Jan. 2013. <

No comments:

Post a Comment