by Benjamin Studebaker
Yesterday I found myself rewatching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. This morning, I found myself watching a few interviews with Tarantino and was reminded of one of his running traits–he really hates it when people attempt to connect violence in movies to violence in real life. It goes beyond mere point of disagreement; he views the very notion that his movies could have any affect at all on the real world behaviour of people as beyond ridiculous. It suggests a fundamental different in aesthetic philosophy between Tarantino and his critics, and I think I have managed to put my finger on precisely what that difference is.
The famous interview in which Tarantino “shuts the butt down” of an interviewer who asks him about the violence in Django has done the rounds recently. The one I found more enlightening as to what Tarantino himself believes is this old interview I stumbled across back when Kill Bill was coming out–around 10 years ago:
The most relevant lines? His answer to the question of why he wanted to put so much violence in the movie:
Because it’s so much fun!
He then goes on to say this:
I saw movies when I was a kid, all right. I saw all the movies that I’m basing my movies on–they’re movies I saw as a kid. And yes, kids go to a movie theatre, they can tell the difference [between movie violence and real violence]. Maybe you [the interviewer] couldn’t when you were a kid, but I could.
As regular readers might be aware, lately I’ve been reading the late political theorist Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs. I’m presently reading his section on interpretation. Dworkin believes that we interpret in reference to values. The first question we ask when we are trying to decide what to make of a law, a novel, a poem, a film, a song, or what have you is what the purpose of the genre of interpretation we’re talking about is.
If, for instance, you believed that the purpose of movies was the moral education of the populace, you might object to any movie in which characters that the audience is led to sympathise for act immorally. Of course, this is very clearly not Tarantino’s view. Tarantino thinks movies exist purely to entertain people. This may sound like a shallow or unsophisticated view, but in the context of what I have written previously on aesthetics, it’s actually a very reasonable view.
What is a movie, after all? A movie is one big extended metaphor. It’s a false anecdote. A movie tells a story that never actually happened, a story that usually has some kind of moral content or point to make about the nature of the world.
Django Unchained certainly makes points about the world–it’s not devoid of moral content. There are a variety of moral claims we could derive from it, namely that slavery and racism are really awful. Of course, as a viewer, I believed that slavery and racism were awful long before I went to see Django. The movie didn’t convince me not to be racist, and it didn’t make me more opposed to racism than I was previously. It reminded me of a position I already had.
The trouble with anecdotes is that, in and of themselves, they are not (or at least should not be) persuasive. We should not believe moral or empirical claims based on an individual incident even if that incident really did happen, let alone if the incident were made up. A movie can be made to make any point–you could make a pro-slavery movie just as easily as you could make Django. But I’m betting that if you did, people wouldn’t much care for it.
And why is that? Because thinking people do not get their moral philosophy from movies, they come into movies with a worldview and enjoy movies when they are reminded of principles and beliefs that match that worldview. I think Django is a great movie not simply because it is extremely violent, but because it reminds me of a series of beliefs that I already held, and agrees with me on those views:
- Slavery is a terrible thing to do to someone.
- When people are abused by a system, they are often inclined to strike back against that system.
- Well-spoken intellectuals like Christoph Waltz’ Dr. King Schultz are useful to society, and likely to be successful.
- The American South was and is an intellectual and moral backwater.
I liked Django much better than Lincoln, which espoused a variety of views that I did not agree with:
- The democratic system achieves great things.
- It is better to compromise than to stick up for what is right.
- People who advocate social change only do so because of personal relationships with the adversely affected people.
- Abraham Lincoln was some kind of morally perfect demi-god.
For people like myself and Tarantino, we take a set of beliefs into a movie and if that movie reminds us of them and agrees with them in a way that we find enjoyable or entertaining, we deem that a good movie. Unlike Lincoln, Django is not a whitewash of the United States at mid-century. It agrees with my view of US history and its exaltation of King Schultz’s cleverness in a world full of ignorance is a tonic. In most movies, the villain is an intellectual and the hero an everyman. In real life, the greatest damage is done by the ignorant, not the clever. We see that the movie matches our worldview in a funny or dramatically engaging way, and we enjoy that. Or, conversely, we find that it reflects ideas we don’t agree with and we resent it. I despise the movie Gladiator because it simultaneously both whitewashes the reign of Marcus Aurelius and darkwashes the reign of Commodus, because it portrays the Roman Empire in an unrealistic and unsophisticated way.
Now, not everyone does this. There are a lot of people who go into movies expecting to change philosophical positions in response to what they see. These people are influenced by anecdotes, metaphors, and other individual emotionally engaging or sentimentalist instances. It may well be true that many of these people are children, but age in and of itself has nothing to do with it. People who do not have philosophical positions will develop them on the basis of anything they encounter. If I didn’t know anything about the Roman Empire and I saw Gladiator, I not only wouldn’t mind it, I would probably just assume that it depicted the Roman Empire in a realistic way. A lot of people don’t know anything about Abraham Lincoln or 19th century US history, and as a result they don’t take issue with Lincoln. A lot of people think the real message in Django is “violence is cool, you should act violently”. That’s not the point of course–Django is not attempting to persuade the viewer of anything. All Tarantino wants to do is give us a good time, something that reflects the world as he sees it and as we see it in a way that’s fun for all of us.
So it’s not that movies influence people to act wrongly, it’s that many people, both adults and children, have an incorrect interpretive conception of what movies are for in the first place. Movies (documentaries aside) do not exist to persuade or to inform–they exist exclusively to entertain. People who act out what they see on the big screen haven’t confused movies with real life, they’ve confused anecdotes and metaphors with philosophy. It’s that belief that needs to be corrected, not the content of our movies.
I agree with you that major-budget film projects exist primarily to entertain, and that part of doing that is to reinforce widely-held beliefs already present in the intended audiences. There is also a robust industry of independent films that are made to challenge audience preconceptions either through persuasive dialogue, innovations in linear narrative or unusual styles of production. But you won’t see these films unless you subscribe to selected cable/satellite channels featuring them, or live in a town with an “art” theater.
One aspect you didn’t bring up about movies based on historical events or characters: they always reflect the times and culture during which they are produced. Gladiator isn’t primarily concerned with the actual reign of Marcus Aurelius, for example. It’s more about updating and remaking an earlier 1964 film using bigger “bangs”, improved camera techniques, and a “new” acting style compared to the typical wide-screen declaiming used in the earlier epics – to make a Rome-themed action movie, more like Ben Hur or Spartacus. Crowe and Ridley Scott confirm that much of the main dialogue was improvised during filming!
A current historical concern is also the central reason for Spielberg making Lincoln. It’s an indictment of our do-nothing, gridlocked Congress. By re-addressing the passage of a difficult law during a crisis far more difficult than anything we are experiencing now, Spielberg and the screenwriter can say, “See? A grand bargain CAN be struck, if each side can give a bit to see the bigger picture.” In any case, if you just want the Tarantino aesthetic applied to history, you can view “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” instead. It’s in 3D!
Independent films are not in and of themselves usually distinct from regular movies. Unless there is actual philosophical argument or scientific research in the film, it is anecdotal evidence, and should not influence our opinions or views. There is no legitimately persuasive truth in narrative alone.
I agree that descriptively, most filmmakers do not even attempt to depict historical eras with accuracy, because period pieces are generally not made for history fans but for fans of the action/adventure genre who enjoy the look and feel of different periods and different “bangs”. I will forgive significant departures in event accuracy if the themes remain true to the periods they depict. For instance, the KKK was not around in 1858, the time during which Django is set, but the theme (that the South was racist and morally backward) is a true theme, so I don’t mind the scene depicting the klan and instead find it amusing.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a parody of Lincoln hero-worshipping and the Hollywood vampire obsession. If you have strong anti-nationalist or anti-vampire views, you might be entertained by it. There’s significantly more going on in Django, insofar as Django does make claims about the historical period which we can agree with or disagree with. In both Django and Lincoln’s cases, there is no argument of value, merely a series of claims made in a comedic or dramatic manner that we can agree with or not agree with based on pre-existing arguments. The ability of politicians in the 1860’s to pass the 13th Amendment does not in and of itself say anything persuasive about current budget negotiations, certainly not without substantial analysis which that movie, by its anecdotal nature, cannot give. Only if one goes into Lincoln thinking that thought will one be entertained by it.
Movies can either be morally null or morally positive. They can deepen and validate rationally true moral positions. If moral truth at its groundwork is rooted in the supposition that human states of suffering or well-being matter, then we have to recognize the validity of expressions of those emotional states. The conclusions and arguments that one develops from the supposition that human well-being matters are rational, but the foundation is ultimately human subjectivity. To truly understand moral truth, it requires an emotional understanding as well. There is a reason that you and I probably find modern instances of slavery and racial subjugation to be not just rationally invalid, but viscerally repugnant, whereas 100 years ago a public lynching and immolation of a Black person might have been considered a public event, with families and public officials in eager attendance, taking photos and maybe even cutting off a piece of the Black person’s anatomy as a souvenir. This is well-documented.
What has bridged this gap between rational moral truth and its execution is the widespread development of emotional understanding of these truths. People, especially children, must learn to model the emotional truths that are the foundation of any rational moral conclusion, and they often must do so against the prevailing culture of their parents and even the law. Without an ability to do that much – accurately model emotional states – a rational conception of morality is severely crippled in its ability to actually do anything in the real world. I think Roots, The Color Purple, Richard Pryor, and Dave Chappelle have done as much to expose the absurdity of slavery and racism as all the elaborate rational arguments that most people never encounter in their lives.
So while I will be the first to admit that one will not find rational truths in movies, or art in general, that doesn’t mean that movies or art are morally null or void of utility. Sometimes they are. Sometimes movies are morally null or redundant, and therefore make great entertainment. But I also wouldn’t prescribe that people invest all their time in morally and intellectually null activities, either. Emotion is not a method of determining rational truth, but emotion is real, it is a truth, it simply needs to be squared against rational truth.
Emotion is certainly a real thing, but indicative of truth? Surely not. If I feel an emotion, all I know is that I feel an emotion. I do not know if that emotion is a justifiable basis for taking action. In order to know whether my emotion is correct or incorrect, I require a rational argument.
A non-documentary film can reinforce a view I already held for other sound reasons, but it cannot provide in and of itself an independent reason for believing something. Whether the view that is being reinforced ought to be reinforced or not is also impossible to discern from the film alone.
If I encounter in a film an idea I do not agree with, I should not change my mind as a result, because the kind of evidence offered by films is never sufficient reason for changing one’s view. I would instead have to come to the conclusion that the film was itself misleading.
You are right that it is important to not merely know what the right thing is, but to desire to do that right thing. If a film, by reinforcing a good rational conclusion otherwise arrived at by reason, can do this, then it would contribute to good behaviour.
A great write up. Studying the relationship between film auteurs and their use of violence and comedy within such films as Django for my dissertation and the relationship the audience engages with through that and this has definitely opened a viewpoint of consideration greatly. Thanks.
You’re very welcome! Glad to be of service.