Review: Django Unchained

The Thinker by Rodin

There are movies you love to hate and movies you hate to love. Django Unchained falls into the latter category. I wish I could loathe this ultraviolent movie where racism in the South just prior to the Civil War is its unrelenting focus. The guilty truth is I loved pretty much everything about this movie, but I particularly loved Christoph Waltz as King Shultz, the German immigrant who befriends the slave Django (Jamie Foxx), unleashes him as a companion bounty hunter and finally helps him rescue his wife from plantation and slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). King Shultz is truly one of the most interesting characters to be seen in the cinema in years, more interesting than Mattie Ross in True Grit. Yeah, that interesting. It’s too bad that King Shultz gets killed off in this movie. He deserved a whole series of movies, hell, a television series featuring the adventures of King Shultz, bounty hunter.

This is not to take away from Jamie Foxx’s undeniably great job as Django. Django and Shultz make quite a pair, and despite the stomach wrenching violence that permeates yet another violence-filled Quentin Tarantino movie, you so enjoy the ride. To my knowledge this is the first movie where retribution against racism is at its core. It’s horrific to watch, but a guilty pleasure nonetheless when unfeeling monsters like Calvin Candie gets his just rewards.

Still, this is Quentin Tarantino, so you know what that means. Yes, lots of excessive violence, and it will be a movie filled with themes about larger social issues. In Inglourious Basterds, we got to see (among other things) an American Jewish soldier behind enemy lines in World War Two torturing Nazis. We get the same theme here, when Django finally gets a chance to wreak vengeance on Candie and the many white-boy racists that keep his plantation and slave holding active. It’s poetic, almost inspiring violence. It is also over the top violence, so bloody that it becomes cartoonish. Granted I haven’t been to war and I haven’t seen what happens in actual combat. Particularly given the firearm technology just prior to the start of the Civil War, shooting up people could not possibly involve so much blood spattering as occurs in this movie. It’s like the scenes out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

As a guy who abhors violence and violent movies, I somehow sat through this grisly movie and enjoyed the whole experience. I have read enough about Jim Crow laws and plantation life to know that the Candie plantation is not that removed from reality. His surreal indifference to the humanity of his slaves makes DiCaprio’s performance memorable, sickening and, yes, wholly fascinating. You wonder how it is possible that anyone can be so clueless and out of touch, but then again there are all sorts of surreal types out there, like, say crackpot rural police chief Mark Kessler. The difference between now and then is that, with some prominent exceptions like the Koch Brothers, they don’t tend to wield power and influence like Calvin Candie.

Anyhow, Tarantino has found his niche as a director, and it’s a comfortable niche that he will probably inhabit for the rest of his career. It involves violence, controversy, memorable characters, rectifying injustice and examining the extremes of humanity. It’s a controversial but fascinating niche, making most of his films worthy of seeing in spite of the pervasive violence. Django Unchained may be his most memorable movie since his monster hit Pulp Fiction in 1994.

This is really good/bad stuff but certainly not for the squeamish. It is actually a pretty good way to appreciate just how insular and crazy the segregated South used to be and in many ways still is. It should rankle the heart of any true redneck, make liberals like me feel guilty for enjoying it and it qualifies as fascinating, albeit extremely violent entertainment. And, of course, there will always be Christoph Waltz’s performance as King Shultz, for which he deservedly won as Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Waltz. He also won it in 2010 for his performance as the memorable Col. Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

Good stuff! 3.5 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Civilized countries should not play football

The Thinker by Rodin

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a dispiriting article about a draftee football player, Kyle Long, all six feet and 313 pounds of him. Kyle’s father is hall of famer Howie Long. Football runs in the Long family apparently, as Kyle is a third generation football player in his family. Kyle will be a new offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears this fall. He’s about to get paid big bucks to bash into other very big, very heavy and muscular men. And like his father Howie, the more he succeeds the more likely he is to be seriously maimed from football. His father has undergone thirteen surgeries due to his football career.

The NFL is concerned about all these injuries, many of them concussions, but of course not concerned enough to go out of business. No, it is trying to walk a fine line: protect players from injury, figure out better ways to treat injured players while doing its best to pretend that all those past injuries were not its fault and it has no particular liability beyond whatever severance contracts are in place with the unions. Few successful football players can avoid a concussion or two, so it’s likely that Kyle will deal with a few of them in his career. He is likely to be also encounter plenty of sprains, torn ligaments and broken bones. If he is like most “successful” football players he will spend his long and extended retirement somewhat crippled, in a lot of pain and consulting with a lot of doctors.

You don’t even have to be a football fan to have heard about the Washington Redskins star quarterback Robert Griffin III. He tweeted yesterday that he was cleared to start practice, this despite severe injuries last year, multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy that is still underway. They were made worse when he was allowed to stay on the field by team doctors when he should have gone to the hospital. Across the NFL there are a lot of hurt players, a lot of players that are queued up to get badly hurt and of course thousands of former players that are still hurting years or decades after their careers ended. Why? Because we want them to get hurt. Okay, maybe we don’t wish to actually have them injured, but these facts don’t deter them from the excitement, money and glamor of playing professional football. We fans of course are very excited about the whole game of football and the violent crash of players. The NFL puts helmets and padding on them in the hopes they will not get injured, of course, but experience shows that it happens. It’s unusual to get through a game of professional football without a single injury.

My modest proposal: make them play flag football. We both know how well my suggestion would go over. At best it would get a derisive laugh. If fans pondered it for any length of time though they would understand that much of what draws them to football is its violence. No, it’s not exactly gladiators fighting in a Roman coliseum, but it’s as close as we can come two millennium later. Football and other violent contact sports like wrestling and boxing allow us to reconnect with our warrior past, albeit safely and through proxies. Of course our proxies are not transformers; they are flesh and blood people. Line up rows of well-padded athletes weighing hundreds of pounds each, have them repeatedly charge at each other and players are going to get hurt.

Football playing simply models in real life what we watch repeatedly in television and the movies. Few things sell tickets more than violence, real or simulated. Few of us actually lust to be in violent situations, but we do like to imagine being in violent situations (and coming out triumphant). Violence is scary but also exciting and it seems a whole lot more real than the dull reality that most of us endure instead. Watching football though is better than watching a violent movie. In the movies you know it is all faked. In football, players can and actually do get injured. When we see RJIII limping off the field, we coo in sympathy for his pain. He did it for us, so we could win this game and move toward the Super Bowl.

We tell ourselves football is just a game. I disagree. Any game where actual violence is at its center is not a game. By definition, if it’s a game, it’s not real. Football is quite real. Who wins the Super Bowl really doesn’t matter, although it makes a lot of people very happy or very sad. Nations don’t collapse. Wars don’t begin. But actual people are regularly injured, sometimes seriously, and frequently endure a lifetime of pain. Why? It’s apparently because we still carry some bloodlust in our hearts and it means enough to us where we want to pay for the privilege to see it done publicly.

A truly civilized country would outlaw any sport where there is a high probability that players will be seriously maimed. Football and boxing are two obvious sports in this category. Arguably hockey is as well, although it does not have to be. It could be reformed with a “three strikes and you are out of the hockey ring permanently” policy. There are games that are gritty and look like they should be violent but which actually are usually not. Rugby is one of these games. Perhaps we could make rugby our new national pastime.

Billion dollar businesses like the NFL aren’t likely to go away as a result of legislation, at least not in my lifetime. Many would argue that we have a constitutional right to enjoy football, and players go into the game fully aware of the risks of traumatic injury and lifelong pain. Yet we outlaw bullfighting because it is inhumane to the bull. However violence is perfectly okay in professional football that destroys and maims healthy athletes. I just find it curious that we go out of our way to make safety such an important part of our lives, and just don’t seem to give a damn when it comes to violent sports. It makes no sense.

It doesn’t have to happen here

The Thinker by Rodin

The senseless and tragic massacre of 32 people at Virginia Tech yesterday underscores what the comic Eddie Izzard has said about guns and violence:

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and monkeys do too (if they have a gun).

Or as I put it myself in this entry:

Firearms make it much, much easier to kill people.

This largely preventable massacre underscores what should be obvious, if so many of us were not blinded by our obsession with firearms: guns have their place in the field of combat, and perhaps on the hunting range, but they have no place in the rest of society.

Our acceptance of the gun culture and our willingness to nods our heads like morons to NRA pablum trivializes the fundamental thing that is unique about guns: they allow for large numbers of people to be killed easily. This alleged mass murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, would have doubtless killed many fewer people had he been armed with a butcher knife instead of a Glock 9mm pistol and a .22 caliber handgun, both of which he could easily procure in my gun crazy state of Virginia.

According to The Washington Post, Seung-Hui was apparently a neighbor of mine from nearby Centreville, Virginia. Police say he killed himself as they surrounded him. Regardless of who committed this crime, by making it so easy for him to acquire lethal weapons society is indirectly complicit. As construed by the courts, gun ownership is a right, not a privilege. This incident, the largest single mass murder of its kind in United States history, is the latest outrageous example of why Americans need to stop worshiping their firearms.

Perhaps this incident will spur us to action. A similar 1996 incident in Dunblane, Scotland made the British realize that most such atrocities could be prevented. In that incident, Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people and himself with a gun. He injured 12 others as well. As a direct result the British passed stringent gun control laws. At least in Great Britain, similar incidents have not recurred. The British learned from the incident. Will we?

I would like to think so, but history is against me. Somehow I expect that after all the crying, funerals and compulsory speeches expressing outrage are over that we will choose gun rights over gun violence once again. Congress doesn’t care. In fact, we have Congress trying to overturn the District of Columbia’s gun ban. In addition a federal appeals court recently overturned the District’s 21 year gun ban. (The District is appealing the ruling to a higher court.) Perhaps gun advocates think that when we are all carrying loaded pistols like during those Wild West days we will all be safer. I do not buy this argument. Westerners carried firearms everywhere they went in the West because they were not safe. Is this the sort of society we aspire to live in? Do we want to send our kids to school with a loaded pistol so they can defend themselves if they get in a firefight? Or do we want to feel safer from gun violence in our community by restricting the possession and use of firearms?

This incident could not teach a clearer lesson: easy accessibility to guns contributes to the deaths of tens of thousands of us every year. Sadly, it is only when massacres happen that it draws our attention. We need a culture that considers gun ownership socially unacceptable. Clearly, death by firearms is not an abstraction and kills many of us every day. Just like smoking, this kind of death is largely preventable. Unlike smoking though, which is an activity you choose to do to yourself, you will not choose to have someone kill you with a firearm.

This incident should have one small silver lining: it should facilitate the end of our gun culture. I am not shy to speak up with my friends and neighbors about the need for society to tightly regulate firearms. I realize my quest is a bit quixotic, but perhaps this incident will finally change the dynamics. I encourage you to do your part and speak up loudly. Tell your neighbors and friends that you think it should be illegal to store firearms in our communities. Tell them that while you agree that the vast majority of gun owners are honorable that nonetheless the possession of these weapons in our communities sends the wrong messages. It makes the use of guns in commission of a crime far more likely. (Here is another egregious local example that turns my stomach. The assailant in this case was a former student of the high school my daughter attends and his wacky father was obsessed with firearms.) Guns should be as difficult to acquire as dynamite. We need a zero tolerance policy for guns in our communities. Hunters should be licensed to use guns only in designated areas. Guns should be required to be transported in locked containers. Guns should be stored in community armories when not needed. We should encourage neighborhoods to become gun free communities.

As with addressing global warming, no campaign like this will succeed overnight. It must build up a head of steam before real progress can be made. It succeeds when pressure builds from the grass roots. It is time to start talking with our neighbors. I encourage you to tell them in quite emotional and emphatic terms that we must to much more to prevent gun violence. Possession of guns in the community should be a shameful thing. We need to carry this message emphatically to our representatives and tell them that enough is enough.

Guns Don’t Kill People, But They Do Make It Easier

The Thinker by Rodin

Maybe there was something to be said for the swashbucklers. It’s true that to do their job properly they had to kill other people. But at least when they did the dirty deed they were in their opponents’ faces. They got to see their victims die up close and personal. There was no escape from the intimacy of the act.

And at least as portrayed by Errol Flynn the victim usually had a fighting chance. They’d grab their own swords and engage their opponent. The better fighter usually won. The dying person at least could die with some dignity: they honorably defended their own life.

How quaint. How old fashioned, this up close and personal means of killing people. Thanks to firearms we can do the dirty business from a distance. And we can do it so much quicker. Often one well-placed shot will do it. But for insurance purposes get yourself a revolver, or one of the plethoras of multiple shot and semiautomatic weapons out there. But don’t worry, Mr. Criminal. You still can do from across the room! With the right equipment you can do it from across the street. Your victims will be just as dead but hopefully you won’t hear their cries of anguish. You can high tail it out of there while they are just beginning their death throes.

Some of you are likely thinking, “Why are you taking on this topic? Don’t you know what a hopeless cause gun control is in 21st Century America? Didn’t Congress recently gleefully allow the Brady Bill to walk into the sunset? Don’t you realize that many gun owners in America will part with their spouse or first-born before they part with their gun? Why talk about this issue when you know a hundred years from now guns will still be as plentiful in America as popcorn?”

You are right. Gun control is probably a hopeless cause in this country. We are addicted to our firearms. About 30,000 people a year in America die from firearms. While many of us root for the body of Terri Schiavo to survive another year connected to a feeding tube because Oh Lord, we must respect life at all costs, we are inured to the 17,000 or so suicides last year that were accomplished rather quickly with a gun, or the 12,000 or so murdered with a firearm. Yep, of course we’re all angry enough that these people died. We’re particularly angry with the murderers, so much so that a majority of us want these killers put to death. But apparently we’re not angry enough to do something practical to dramatically reduce the problem, like get the guns out of our houses and our communities.

I realize of course that “Outlawing guns will mean only outlaws will have guns.” But I also realize that your odds of dying from a gun rise dramatically if you actually have firearms in your house. It’s likely not going to be some burglar coming through the window that will want to kill you with a firearm. Sad to say it’s more likely to be your spouse, or your child, your estranged lover or someone you know intimately. And most likely when they murder you they can make the case that it wasn’t premeditated. Rather it will likely be done during a moment of heat when their common sense will scoot out the backdoor.

It’s time to take down our crosses and crucifixes. Let’s pay homage to what we truly worship: our firearms. They mean so much to us that, here in Virginia for example, guns can be worn openly in public and we explicitly allow adults to bring guns into teenage recreation centers. Mind you we can’t give our daughters a Midol to take to school if they get cramps. And of course we must teach abstinence in sex education class but give short shrift (or skip entirely) the section on contraception. But it’s perfectly okay for an adult to bring their gun into a youth recreation center. Any wonder why our children grow into dysfunctional adults? Talk about mixed up messages!

So I know it’s pointless but apparently people like me must still point out the obvious connections now and then: firearms make it much, much easier to kill people. As a result there are doubtless lots more dead people than there would otherwise be. Yesterday, while America wrung its collective hands over the brain dead Terri Schiavo, a 16-year old boy killed himself and nine other people on an Indian Reservation in Minnesota. He also left seven others wounded. If it made the front page at all it was way below the fold. This teen self identified himself as a “NativeNazi” and an “Angel of Death”. Yep, he sure killed these people all right. It was his fault. But those nine other people might not have died if our cultural values were not so wrapped around our phallic shaped guns. Rather than give up our guns we instead chose to inculcate a pro gun culture that made it very easy for this messed up boy to get a gun and quickly murder nine wholly innocent people.

Yes, yes I know: if we had gun control only criminals would have guns! But if we gave up the gun culture there would be no demand for guns. Do you think drug traffickers would be rushing across the border if we didn’t demand our narcotics? The same is true with guns. It can be done.

As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…

We are all connected. We can celebrate freedom in our country, but freedom in this case has the obvious consequence that lots of others will have their lives cut short through the simple and expeditious use of a firearm. I say that if you think that your choice to own guns affects no one but yourself then you are in denial. I say that if you believe in and promote a pro-gun gun culture then your values rubbing off on others of less sound minds will result in a lot of those guns being used to kill people. I say even though you are not to blame for these crimes that you did not commit, you should be troubled by the message your behavior sends.

But you can take a stand. You can say: I will not own a gun. You can say: even though I would never use my gun to harm an innocent person or myself, I care about myself, my family, my neighbors, my country and my world. So I will not own a gun. You can send a message that your love for your fellow human beings transcends your interest in firearms. Of course it’s not easy, but it is the right thing to do.