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
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle