Writing History

by David Armand

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

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The other day, my wife and I were debating about some of the more detestable characters in my work and some of the detestable things those characters do to one another. She was almost disturbed by the fact that the man she married writes about people who would do such things, and about those things themselves. I assured her that, as an artist, I wasn’t concerned with shock value, nor was I concerned with the sort of nihilistic realism that has no regard for aesthetic or beauty or hope or meaning (the things all artists should strive for).

I am also not necessarily concerned with psychoanalyzing my characters, nor my own motives for writing about these things. I’m simply relating a story, and sometimes bad things happen, sometimes horrible things happen. Flannery O’Connor said that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. It’s truth, and at the end of the day there’s hope. Whether it’s hope for a better life, unencumbered by our history; or better yet, a life where our history is a part of us, but it doesn’t weigh us down and we can ride on with it: that’s hope. So it was with these ideas that I started thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, which I had just watched for the third time, mainly in an effort to try to figure out how I felt about it.

This film has received a lot of criticism (as well as praise) since its release late last year. Despite the controversies surrounding the film, its script (written by Tarantino) has garnered several major awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2013.

From a writer’s perspective, I greatly admire the originality of Tarantino’s vision, his expert use of dialogue, his close attention to seemingly mundane details (the scene in which Dr. Schultz is pouring two beers for Django and himself is worth paying close attention to: for the sound of it and for the pure joy of the act that Schultz seems to display. Tarantino himself seems to relish in filming such actions as well. Another quick scene that I love is when Schultz shoots one of the Brittle brothers from his horse and the man’s blood splashes across a boll of cotton. ) All of this as well as the almost Shakespearean plots that Tarantino weaves, which almost seem to aim for Greek tragedy status (his use of the WANTED ad that ultimately saves Django’s life (told by Schultz much earlier in the film that his first bounty’s handbill should always be kept for “good luck”) later becomes a sort of deus ex machina used to propel the film’s denouement), is well worth your money and your time, in my opinion.

Any writer who is serious about his craft should pay close attention to Tarantino and his work. Take this snippet of dialog as yet another example of his genius:

[Django and Schultz ride up to the local Sheriff, with the dead bodies of the men they’ve killed being carried on the horses riding behind them]
Sheriff Gus: Doctor, Django, how the hell are ya? Who the hell you got there?
Dr. King Schultz: The Wilson-Lowe Gang.
Sheriff Gus: Who the hell is the Wilson-Lowe Gang?
Dr. King Schultz: Bad Chuck Wilson and meaner Bobby Lowe, and three of their acolytes.
Sheriff Gus: Huh. Well, just leave ’em out here, they ain’t going nowhere. Why don’t you come in out of the snowy snow and get yourselves some coffee. We had a birthday yesterday, got some cake. Pretty good.
[Schultz and Django follow the Sheriff into his cabin]

It’s laconic, terse, but believable and effective. There are so many implications and allusions in that little scene, just under a minute long, that seem to hint at Django’s rise in social status and newly-earned respect, plus it’s just funny.

These are just a few examples of what makes this film so great. There are many more.

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Another point of debate about this film is the veracity of the depiction of “mandingo” fighting, in which slaves were forcefully pitted against one another in battle. Historians have argued that this “sport” would have been unlikely since slaveholders would not have wanted to have their valuable  “property” damaged so viciously.

But I believe this could very well have taken place: if there were wagers placed on these battles, surely some of these vicious slaveholders could have stood to profit from it. Then consider the visceral thrill Colonel Sutpen experiences from this in William Faulkner’s dark Southern novel Absalom, Absalom!:

“Yes, Ellen and those two children alone in that house twelve miles from town, and down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on the fourth, and in the center two of his wild negroes fighting, naked, fighting not as white men fight, with rules and weapons, but as negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad [….] and Ellen seeing not the two black beasts she had expected to see but instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist and gouging at one another’s eyes as if they should not only have been the same color, but should have been covered with fur too. […] Yes. That’s what Ellen saw: her husband and the father of her children standing there naked and panting and bloody to the waist and the negro just fallen evidently, lying at his feet and bloody too, save that on the negro it merely looked like grease or sweat….”

Here, not only is there a version of this “mandingo” fighting, but the slaveholder is actually participating with the slaves. This is not to say that since Faulkner wrote about it, then it must be true, but we generally revere Faulkner for his veracious depictions of the antebellum South, so it’s worth at least considering.

And then, of course, there were the Roman slaves who were made to fight in the gladiatorial games, ostensibly for entertainment and with little regard for the “property” that was being destroyed. This obsession with violence seems to be a pretty consistent theme throughout our human history, and so the film doesn’t seem that far off in its depiction of it. Violence is a part of our history, and that doesn’t change because of our inability to stomach it. There are only a few instances of violence in this film that seem gratuitous to me, and I think Tarantino is using them intentionally to create a sort of satire of violence and our response to it.

He’s an incredibly gifted writer, one who makes his own rules and succeeds by them.

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I also like how Tarantino breaks other so-called rules of historical films: the soundtrack is mostly anachronistic, but somehow appropriate to the overall feel of the movie. There’s a great song by Rick Ross, “100 Black Coffins,” that appears in the film and then there’s the folksy tune by Jim Croce, “I Got A Name,” which seems incredibly relevant, as it plays just as Django is saddling his horse with his “D” engraved on the shiny leather of the saddle, himself a free man and about to cut out for the territories. There are also some original scores that serve the film’s overall feel as well, such as “Ancora Qui”  by Ennio Morricone. When one is able to break the rules of their trade and still come out with a successful piece of work, one is doing something right.

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Most critics said the film lacked profundity but, to me, the connection between Django and Schultz is very touching and profound.  The thing that struck me was how civilized and (despite being a bounty hunter) morally upright Dr. King Schultz (I doubt the former part of this character’s name is an accident, though I’m surprised I never heard anyone mention it) seemed to be:  like watching Huck and Jim sailing down the river, we ultimately come to see the humanity of these two men, and through them get a sense of ourselves as well. We also, with our perspective of history, can see the almost eery connection between Schultz’s civilized German background and what would come just eighty years after the film’s frame of historical reference: yet another human atrocity in history (this is especially relevant when considering Tarantino’s precursor to this film, Inglourious Basterds).

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Then there are the beautiful scenes of an almost pristine America during the film’s “winter” montage, where we see cattle grazing, beautiful snow-streaked mountains: an almost perverse beauty that serves as a sort of paradox to what the folks who inhabit that land are doing, especially when viewed as a sort of prologue to the following scenes in Greensville, Mississippi, where the true horrors of slavery are depicted. The mise en scene here is exquisite: you can feel the sweltering humidity as the characters ride to Candie’s plantation and you can literally hear the mosquitoes and the crickets buzzing in the background. This landscape is almost like a darker Eden, which Faulkner (to quote the man again) describes in his famous short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in one sweeping sentence:

“They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.”

Of course, this virginal “meadow” would be the South (a sort of Eden corrupted by slavery) and the bottleneck of years being the war which ended the Great Sin, but still the old Confederates long for that time again. It’s an America that has a dark, dirty secret, but an America that will never again belong to the Scarlett O’Haras and Rhett Butlers and Colonel Sutpens of that time. It’s interesting, also, that this very image that Faulkner makes here seems to form the picture of an hourglass if one were to literally sketch it out: Faulkner was certainly one obsessed with time (particularly the past), and I think Tarantino owes a debt to the great Mississippi author for this.  Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, so maybe time and the weight of history is just a hangup of Southerners, I don’t know.

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While I was researching for this article, I came across this quote in a review of Django Unchained by Kirsten West-Savali, in which she said: “That’s art. It is not something that one should necessarily like or enjoy; rather it is something that should make one feel.”  So whether a piece of art makes you feel good or bad, it’s successful when it leaves you with something inside of your guts that you can take home with you and think about for a while.  And that’s really what any art that’s worth a nickel should do: nothing more and nothing less.

So to conclude, I have decided that I very much like Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and I don’t think he’s morally or ethically bankrupt for showing us things that we don’t necessarily care to see: he makes us feel, and I sincerely hope that although I tend to write about things some folks don’t want to see, there is a feeling that I do so out of love for humanity, and not anything more or less than that.

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