January 2, 2013

There and Back Again

Sure, it was probably not the best idea to see Django Unchained just before spending a few days with some gun fans in the south, but you can't really plan for everything, I suppose.

Circumstance, not choice, brought us together. On this trip I encountered a collection of what I can only describe as southern style misanthropes. One of the group brought his revolver with him; one was a prepper and a gun collector. Another had relocated from LA after the Rodney King riots because he apparently feared that "they" would infiltrate his neighborhood, and now he lives in a big house set back in the woods, where he can see you coming. And there was another, one who knows in their bones that there are no good people, anywhere, and you just have to keep to your kind, and to yourself.

Across town on this same weekend the Frist museum had two exhibitions up -- one on German Expressionism, and the other a retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems. Both exhibitions were wonderfully done, but the Weems retrospective was also brain-changing, and deeply emotional. And aaaahhhh, the cognitive dissonance. Just writing the last three paragraphs recalled to me the almost paralyzing headache I had during this visit. Because this was real, not technicolor; I really had dinner with a racist prepper, and then the next morning cried in front of a brilliant artist's work about our collective history of race and pain. And meanwhile, on honky tonk row, the stage was going up for CNN's New Year's Eve celebration. Things just go on.

Regarding the actual movie, I don't think I am giving much away by noting that Quentin Tarantino's character accidentally blows himself to bits with dynamite near the end of the film, because that's what shit-stupid racist white men have always done when they are given a choice to make some coin. They blow themselves up. (See also: Republican party circa December 2012.)

In contrast, Jamie Foxx's Django survives intact every horror imaginable, and then blows the holy motherfucking crap out of a plantation, after simultaneously saving the love of his life from slavery and killing almost everyone there first. Except for the venal Uncle Tom character, whom Django leaves alive so he can get blown into a lot of tiny bits. In Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the whole German high command and their acolytes and lovers get blown to tiny bits too. It’s fantastic! The kind of gorgeous, outrageous, mythical vengeance, against the most vile of humans, that you can only dream about. Or, if you are a mythical hero like Django, the kind of gorgeous, outrageous vengeance you can actually extract on a grotesquerie of southern racist whites in a fantastic Tarantino piece.

Grappling with hatred, fear, destruction, the unfulfilled desire for vengeance: these are the things you work out in art. These are all present in Weems's unflinching photographs. And in Tarantino's over-the-top films. And one can even connect a line from these two back to the way the Expressionist movement dealt with emotion and interpersonal violence visually. But grappling with all this requires what can seem a strange and visceral combination -- a deep respect for a visual imagination which can be repellent, dark, and messy, combined with an unbreakable commitment to not actually hurt others in the expression of that imagination.

And this is not, as Tarantino shows through his depiction of gun lovers in the south in this film, a commitment that those gun lovers of the southern United States whom I just spent some time with will likely ever make.Or have ever made.Which is just one more reason why the gun lovers of the United States having collections of AR-15's at home should give us all pause.

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