Quentin Tarantino and the elusiveness of realism

Django Unchained should be rewarded for flouting the felicity criterion.

Last week, Arthur P Shimamura wrote intriguingly about psychological responses to concepts of "reality" in film. He touched on a struggle many viewers have with movies which seem to depict reality, yet contain fabrications or inaccuracies. A degree of disorientation tends to mark these attempts to reconcile a film’s reasonably fantastical narrative with its apparently "realistic" method of explication.

Films are often judged by a felicity criterion, a debate which tends to precede (or supplant) discussion of aesthetic, thematic or moral merits. Such conversations are not confined to an echo-chamber of specialists, yet it is so rare that one overhears reflections on the cinematography or the editing of a film when leaving the cinema. Two of the most interesting things about Skyfall, for example, were the way it looked (think of the blue, hall of mirrors-like Shanghai scene – reminiscent of Orson Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai) and its sly invocations of SIS anachronisms. Yet as I exited the cinema all anyone cared about was that Bond ought to have died in the prologue anyway. This is wrong-headed. The final sentence of Shimamura’s article, referring to the long takes in Amour, demonstrates that subtler elements can quite easily be discussed in reasonably lay terms.

But as for realism, this is a concept that is very difficult to apply accurately. Consider, for instance, that in spatial terms film is a fundamentally realistic mode. The theatre, in contrast, requires that any space larger than the stage be imagined by the audience. The Prologue of Henry V might be read as something like an orison for the invention of film. It laments that the theatre must contain the "vasty fields of France" in its "unworthy scaffold", and Agincourt within its "wooden O", as the audience "piece[s] out... imperfections with [their] thoughts" and "into a thousand parts divide[s] one man". But instead of a muse of fire to relieve us of these labours we got a camera. Whilst the invention has ability to achieve spatial realism, many film-makers do all they can to forbid it. Despite the fact that streets and houses and the sky appear in L’Age d’Or (as they could not do on the stage) every technique is engaged in dislodging reality’s dominion.

The studies cited by Shimamura show that if we think we are watching a person being hurt, we respond to it more emotionally (and sweatily) than if we think we are watching an imitation. Moreover, Shimamura continues, "the authenticity of a movie depends not only on us having prior knowledge that a movie is based on actual events but also on how realistic the characters appear in their actions and predicaments". Further to this, I would like to see the skin conductance tests of viewers of the water-boarding scene in Zero Dark Thirty (in his terms, a re-enactment) and the sixty seconds of Django Unchained (in my terms, a fantasy) in which a Mandingo fighter is eaten alive by a pack of dogs. For me, the knowledge that the latter has befallen human beings produced a reaction in me as vehement as that inspired by the former. The "realism" of Zero Dark Thirty is immediate: it dramatises a prominent contemporary issue, and indeed it is probably possible to trace the real-life counterpart of the water-boarded detainee. Yet this did not intensify my response any more than the knowledge that the skin of unrecorded men and women has been cleaved from its bones by the teeth of dogs. Shimamura concludes his article by naming Amour the most convincingly "realistic" film of the Oscar-nominees. The movie is a fiction, and through imagination Michael Haneke achieved this effect. The significance of re-enacted realism turns increasingly pallid.

Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty satiate the desire for re-enactment, diverting attention and appreciation from the surprising ways in which these movies mobilise the apparatus of film. Yet Quentin Tarantino’s two latest movies, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, are savage, rococo confutations of the felicity criterion, personifications of the argument that it is fantasy that fills the arteries of film. In these movies fantastical inventions (Hitler’s bullet-popped and pilfered face, a black slave turned slave-driver) are inserted into historical narratives. It would be a triumph for the medium were Django Unchained awarded the Oscar for Best Picture.

I'm certainly not calling for historical inaccuracy to be overlooked. But I am making an appeal for audiences and critics to give up the flimsy concept of realism – a fetish which has become a critical cul-de-sac. I'm also casting a vote for Django Unchained to win Best Picture at this Sunday's Academy Awards - although I’m sure it won’t.

 

Quentin Tarantino poses with the award for best original screenplay for Django Unchained during the British Academy Film Awards in London. CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

TV show ideas better than the Game of Thrones showrunners’ series about slavery

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

So David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners on Game of Thrones, have announced their next TV idea: a revisionist piece where slavery never ended in America. The response was... not good. As Ira Madison III wrote for the Daily Beast, “this harebrained idea serves as yet another reminder that the imaginations of white men can be incredibly myopic... this show sounds stupid as hell.” So I and the New Statesman web team came up with our suggestions for TV shows we’d rather watch. Please enjoy.

The Office, except it’s your office, every day, from 9-5, from now until you’re 70.

Blackadder, but it’s just about fucking snakes.

Pingu, but after the icecaps have melted.

A children’s TV show about a time-travelling grammar-obsessed medical pedant called Doctor Whom.

A Series Of Unfortunate Events, but it’s just me, trying to talk to people in various social settings.

The Great British Hake Off: who has the best medium to large seawater fish averaging from 1 to 8 pounds?

Gilmore Girl. Lorelai is dead.

Brooklyn 99. Let’s go buy an ice cream in New York City, baby!

Come Dine With Me. The host only cooks one meal and other contestants fight for it.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Alan Sugar selling broomsticks in Romford market.

Match of the Day, but it’s just about actual wooden matches.

One Tree Hill. It’s just a tree on a hill.

House of Cards. It’s a man building a – ok I think you get where we’re going with this now.

Knife Swap: what happens when gangs trade territories?

Recess: a provincial MP goes home and sorts out his guttering.

Blue Planet: on the ground in the smurf community.

Transparent: Your TV, replaced with glass.

Game of Thrones, without the violence against women.

Friends, but without modern medicine so all the friends die by age 25. Except Ross. Ross lives.

Beep Show: 25 minutes of constant annoying beep sounds.

Rugrats, but it’s just one long tracking shot of a rat-infested rug.

A talking head countdown starring minor British celebrities but instead of the best comedies of the 1970s or whatever they’re just ranking other talking head countdowns starring minor British celebrities.

30 Rocks: seven sweet, sweet hours of unfiltered footage of 30 motionless rocks.

Live footage of the emotional breakdown I’m having while writing this article.

The Good Wife: she’s just super sweet and likes making everyone cookies!

Stranger Things, but it’s about the time that stranger walked towards you and you both moved right and then both moved left to avoid each other and oh my God how is this still happening.

Parks and Recreation: Just a couple o’ pals having fun in the park!

Who Do You Think You Are? Just loads of your ancestors asking you how you even sleep at night.

The Crown: some really graphic childbirth footage playing on repeat.

Downtown Abbey: nuns in inner city Chicago.

Peeky Blinders: a study of neighbourhood curtain twitchers in a Belfast suburb.

DIY: SOS. The emergency services are called every episode!

The Big Bang Theory.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.