Thursday, 24 January 2013

Obama, Tarantino and slavery

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

Barack Obama, Inauguration Speech 2013

It seemed kind of appropriate that I saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, on the day that Barack Obama, the first black President of the United States, gave his inauguration address. There was much to enjoy in Obama’s speech and much to enjoy in Django Unchained. Let me mention a few of those things:

1. Samuel L. Jackson gives the performance of his career. Jackson plays an old slave, Stephen, who is fiercely loyal to his plantation owning master, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Stephen is repaid for his loyalty by having the ear of his master and access to the contents of his drinks cabinet. Jackson plays this attendant as a stereotype Uncle Tom figure, a kind of benign grandpa figure that you might find singing zipeedeedooda in another film genre. However, there is nothing benign about Stephen. He is a malevolent racist - spewing racial hatred and dehumanising his fellow slaves. He has styled himself as a black spokesman for white supremacy and the guardian of a vicious system of oppression. Jackson’s characterisation captures all the self-loathing and moral contradictions within this racist collaborator. It is a performance of psychological daring - one that is bristling with danger and menace. It leaves you open mouthed and deeply uncomfortable.

2. A superb musical soundtrack which exercises more than a background function. The meticulously chosen music provides a referential depth to the screen action. Tarantino has a magpie ear. He lifts music from other films and mixes musical genres with little regard for the historical context of the film - country, rap, soul, love ballads, classical are all to be found in Django Unchained. It’s a kind of postmodern game, mixing high and low culture in musical mash ups, but it works because you believe Tarantino loves the music he chooses. There is nothing philosophically arch about his choices. Tarantino layers musical references in order to arouse an audience’s aural imagination and complement the visual, storytelling experience. So, for example, the opening titles of Django Unchained are accompanied by the Luis Bacalov’s romantic theme song from the 1965 film melodrama, Django. In lyrical and musical terms it positions Tarantino’s contemporary take on the western revenge saga somewhere between the cinematic history of the western and a philosophical reflection on slavery.

3. Tarantino’s dialogue fizzes with energy and irreverence. Westerns usually have very little dialogue. Traditionally, the heroes of these movies are the big, strong, silent types. Characters in westerns talk with their Smith and Wessons. In Django Unchained the characters are wordy and lippy. There is a wonderful scene where a lynch mob on horseback argue about a design failure in the bags they are using to cover their faces – the eyes have been cut in such a way that it makes it impossible for them to see where they are going. Their comical exchange of views unmasks the horrific absurdity of their racist actions and their own moral blindness. Such sharpness and precision of writing is a thing of pleasure.

4. Tarantino's courage. Hollywood’s treatment of slavery can be rather worthy and tentative. For example, think of Stephen Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Amistad. To my mind, only Lars von Trier’s Manderley has succeeded in challenging the stock cinematic responses to slavery. The Guardian film critic, Peter Bradshaw, remarks that “Slavery is a subject on which modern Hollywood is traditionally nervous, a reticence amounting almost to a conspiracy of silence – except, of course, in the explicit context of abolition. As far as Hollywood is concerned, the day-to-day existence of unabolished slavery has been what welfare reformists call the live rail: don’t touch it.” Tarantino’s Django Unchained is not an historical account of American slavery. Django Unchained is a provocative, cinematic essay on the concept of slavery and how human flesh becomes currency. I admired Tarantino’s courage in tackling the issue.

After the duff, over blown, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is Tarantino striding back into town and shooting from the hip. The geek director offers us a slave trade spaghetti western interbred with a Jacobean revenge drama. There are longeurs, contrived plot moments (including one with the director doing an Alfred Hitchcock – don’t give up the day job, Mr Tarantino) and moments when ideas aren’t pulled off. Yet, Django Unchained remains bravura film making. It’s not for those with weak constitutions, but it is for those who want to see an important film director back on form and with fire in his belly.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Smiths and Catholicism

In A Light that Never Goes Out, the author Tony Fletcher places the phenomenon of The Smiths in the socio-political history of 1980’s Britain, paying particular attention to the city of Manchester, the birthplace of the pop group. The sifting of contextual details provides Fletcher with new methods with which to evaluate the music of The Smiths and their continuing influence.

Fletcher contends that the unique creative energies that shaped the songs of The Smiths are inextricably bound up with, for example, local geography: Whalley Range, the moors, Rusholme. Figures such as Myra Hindley, Alan Sillitoe and Margaret Thatcher inform the content and textural feel of these songs. Fletcher sets out to show that Morrissey’s magpie appropriation of ideas were as much cultural as they were musical - beside the vinyl of The New York Dolls you would find a copy of A Taste of Honey.

One of these cultural influences was the Irish, working class Catholicism that both Morrissey and Marr were weaned on as “cradle Catholics”. Catholic parish churches and schools had been created in the nineteenth century as the loci of community cohesion and identity. This remained the case into the twentieth century and, indeed, up until the present time. The famous Loreto College, founded by the sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854, was very much a defining presence in Manchester and could be seen from the Morrissey’s terraced house on Queen’s Square.

It is hard to determine the veracity of Morrissey’s version of his childhood Catholicism and that is, in part, because Tony Fletcher’s own antipathy to Catholicism colours his judgement. It suits Fletcher to accept Morrissey’s sour version of events. Morrissey never lets the truth get in the way of a good turn of phrase - his self portrait of the artist as a young man feels too contrived to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. An example of this is the following account of his disenchantment with the Catholic Faith. It sounds “quite absurdly” partial:

I came from a monstrously large family who were quite absurdly Catholic...when I was six there were two serious tragedies (the death of two grandparents) within the family which caused everybody to turn away from the church, and quite rightly so, and from that period onwards there was just a total disregard for something that was really quite sacrosanct previous to the tragedies.

But, in fact, there was not a total disregard for Catholicism in the Morrissey household - far from it. Morrissey would go on to make his First Holy Communion, Confession and Confirmation. He would attend St Mary’s secondary school, becoming a member of Margaret Clitherow House. His childhood and teenage years were immersed in Catholicism which would later feed his lyrical imagination. The affectionate, music hall song, Vicar in a Tutu, with its monkish monsignor advising, "My man, get your vile soul dry-cleaned" is one of the few compositions which references religion explicitly. Yet, there is a Catholic sensibility that informs these songs of death, martyrdom and immortality.

“Those Catholics, they really nab you when you’re young,” Morrissey admitted to Douglas Coupland in a 2006 interview, “They sear you. They sear you, they do.” This contradicts the simplistic view that Morrissey abandoned his Catholic faith to become the prodigal son of popular music. Far from being a cosmetic addition to his being, Morrissey senses that his Catholic Faith has transformed him ontologically, in ways so profound that he cannot rationalise them away. Morrissey’s relationship to his faith is more complex and subtle than Fletcher would have us believe.

One of Morrissey’s heroes, Oscar Wilde, famously said that “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.” Wilde, of course, did die a Catholic. Given his family background, Catholicism was the only religion that Morrissey could have been born into. At his death, will Morrissey meet Wilde at the cemetery gates? I wouldn't bet against it.