All I can offer here is my own experience of this film, and what I took away from it. I’m not actually given to reading film reviews because I am painfully aware of my tendency to subconsciously form an opinion on a movie, based on a review I’ve read before the opening credits have even started rolling. Sadly, I’m not capable of reading a review, whether glowing or damning, and discounting it when I am at the cinema. Anyway, the following is purely self indulgent (as is the rest of this blog, really) and doesn’t claim to be searing piece of analysis of the film, but it is completely personal, entirely subjective, and I may even allow myself the freedom to be quite inconclusive. As usual, this is a bit of a ramble, but there may something of interest buried in here somewhere. Let’s see.
So, I saw Django Unchained last night. It was an exciting prospect, a Tarantino film that pays tribute to the classic Westerns?! With an incredible cast?! And Ennio Morricone music?! I couldn’t help it; I wanted to go into the cinema with no expectations, experience it for what it was, with no prior judgement, but I couldn’t. I was excited and anticipated something incredible.
Predictably, I thought the film was awesome. I couldn’t pick fault with it. But this isn’t a piece claiming to understand the technical merits of the film or how great it is. Lots of people have no doubt written about that already. It’s a piece about what I took away from the film. And what I took away was a scene that affected me in a way that I did not anticipate when I sat down with my Latte and waited for the credits to roll.
The scene that stayed in my mind was one where the plantation owner, (brilliantly, in my opinion) played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has two slaves fighting in his drawing room for his entertainment, ordering them to continue to beat each other like animals in the wild until one brutally kills the other. At this point of the film I thought I was going to be sick. Not out of some moral objection to it being shown on screen, but out of pure disgust that anything like that could ever have happened, at any point in human history. Our capacity to be brutal. Yes, yes, I know, get over it. Lots of crazy stuff has happened over the course of human history. That intellectual voice in my head didn’t stop me from looking away from the screen when I realised that this film was not going to allow me the luxury of skimming over the brutality of one man killing another man for the amusement of one very fucked up rich man. I was almost surprised when I realised that I would not be able to handle seeing it. I don’t know how the other people in the cinema were feeling at that point; I expect that everyone was pretty disturbed by what was happening on screen, but I don’t know if anyone actually looked away as I did. Maybe lots of people did and I just didn’t notice, but because I was feeling a little bit silly for being such an over – sensitive so – and – so, I must admit, I was looking out for signs that people were not simply staring at the screen, drawn to it. Or maybe paralysed with shock. I don’t know. I didn’t notice anyone else looking away.
In any case, it got me thinking. I’m often surprised at the ability that we have developed to see the most terrible human plight, and to have a suppressed response to it. The ability to respond to such paralysing horror and brutality in a controlled way that doesn’t betray any real emotional involvement. I’m definitely not suggesting that it’s an altogether bad thing to be able to maintain control of your reactions to seeing horror, if everyone was as much of an emotional pansy as me I would place my bets on the human species dying out – no one ever got anywhere by being all sensitive to everything and claiming that every little thing is a justifiable reason to burst into tears declaring that it’s “awful” and that you “can’t believe the capacity of people to be cruel” or whatever. Which is the healthier response? I’m not sure. What’s the real benefit of allowing yourself to be completely affected by everything that you see? It doesn’t always lead to action. Sometimes what you see, what you’re upset about, cannot be changed. I cannot ever change the fact that the brutality that I saw in the film happened and that people really suffered like that. I cannot change it. Why then, have such an invested emotional reaction?
I have an intellectual understanding of slavery, prejudice, racism. But, I have never been forced to sit up and experience the truth of it in such painful and honest terms before. If I’m honest, I’ve avoided it, finding the whole issue too painful after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for school when I was 17. Although the film is full of the ridiculous, tens of people being blown through walls, blood spilling from their guts at the hand of one man on a quest for revenge etc, the presentation of slavery and the poisonous effects of it on all who lived in a society that accepted it are shown, and this may be an inappropriate word, tastefully. Because it is so painfully honest, and real. The casual nature of so much of the prejudice, the fact that things happen that are not even acknowledged because at that point in time those events were just part of the accepted social and psychological landscape, these details and the larger events of the film all work together to create a petrifying world where dehumanisation was a part of life, and accepted by society. Was the lack of “response” to this prejudice, the conditioned “suppressed” human reaction to such brutality of any use at that point in history? Was it that suppression that allowed some to live an easy life and prosper at the expense of the basic human rights of others, ultimately? Did that actually help anyone? I guess it did.
Yikes, I need to man up. Things affect me so deeply sometimes that I wonder whether I will be able to continue to watch and enjoy any kind of emotive media. I say this and recognise how self satisfied and pretentious that sounds, and I don’t forget that there is a very real up-side – once you start living your life in a fuller way and are willing to experience the bad, you can fully absorb the joys of love and life as well as allowing the sadder and darker aspects to enter you and educate you, rather than putting up a shield that blocks it all from getting inside the fortress that is your psychological life.
Somehow, though, things always seem to seep into your psychology, don’t they? It doesn’t really matter how much you try to control it, you are affected by things. Memories sit in your subconscious, even those you have repressed, and somehow work themselves into your daily responses to stimuli and it can all feel very confusing because you don’t know what is actually causing you to feel the way you feel anymore. Perhaps it’s healthier to watch a film like Django Unchained, feel sick through the film, have the disturbing images and thoughts in your head the next day, allow yourself to process them, and then move on. That way, you have the memory of how it affected you, and you’ll have a clearer picture of what it means to you, and you won’t have a bizarre reaction to something one day that ultimately is based in the experience of horror that you should have allowed yourself to acknowledge and experience at the time rather than having to spend years and years in therapy digging through the endless network that we all have buried away to isolate the cause of some strange feeling or response that you have to something that is inexplicable. I suppose I’m just saying that perhaps it’s not entirely unhealthy to be totally accepting of how you feel at any given time, and to make the effort to work through it, live it, experience it fully in the present moment and perhaps you will get something out of that. A nugget of self understanding. There’s nothing wrong with feeling anything, really, the problems really start when you decide to judge yourself, suppress your reactions and feelings and lose sight of why you have reacted the way you have, or even that you have a response to anything at all. And, scariest of all, and saddest of all, when you are completely desensitised to the world around you and can no longer truly live life. If you have shut yourself down so much that you aren’t truly living, you cannot be expected to fight for life. And suddenly, before you know it, nothing affects you anymore. And you’re dead. And that is really depressing.