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Quentin Tarantino and the elusiveness of realism

Django Unchained should be rewarded for flouting the felicity criterion.

Quentin Tarantino
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

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.