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
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism