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
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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump