For the second time in my life, I paid to watch a movie in a theater and didn’t stick around to see it end. The first time, some 18 years ago, it was Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” that sent me for the doors ahead of schedule. Tonight, it was Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” I’m sorry, Quent, but I don’t think it’s going to work out between you and me.
As in nearly any failed relationship, I accept that I bear some of the blame. When Killian told me a few days ago that she wanted to see this movie, I started to worry. I knew it would be violent – it’s what Tarantino does. But I don’t like violence in movies, especially when it’s ongoing and brutal. A quick scene or two I can handle, but when violence shows up in almost every scene like it’s one of the main characters, I’d rather take a pass. With that in mind, I started to read up on the film, and read and read and read, and by the time the lights went down, I was ready for the worst. So I didn’t go into it with an Oh-boy-this’ll-be-good mindset. At all.
But damned if it wasn’t partly his fault, too.
First, let me tell you what didn’t do me in. It wasn’t the repetitive use of the n-word. It’s historical. I get it. When we read “Huckleberry Finn” in my English class eons ago I learned that the word was kind of a thing back then. I don’t use the word myself because I hate it. Hell, I can’t even bring myself to write it out, but I get it.
It wasn’t even the violence that did it, though it was violent in abundance. The blood flowed like beer at Oktoberfest, it’s true. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I have seen movies with a higher body count. That said, I don’t need to see rivers of blood to get the gist that a lot of people just died. Don’t need it. Don’t want it.
What I couldn’t stomach – almost literally – was the cruelty.
Early on, there were flashback scenes that had me shielding my eyes, so I can’t even vouch for exactly how graphic they were. Visually, anyway. But I heard a woman whipped and branded, and that was bad enough. And that was just a passing scene.
Much harder to bear was a scene where two men were made to fight to the death for the enjoyment of others. Again, I heard it rather than saw it, but that was bad enough. It stretched on for minute after agonizing minute. When not watching wasn’t enough, I squeezed my hands over my ears to try and shut it out.
When the infamous dog scene came along, it was time to head for the exit. I knew what was coming, thanks to the reading I’d done. I just barely made it through hearing one guy clobbering another to death. I didn’t need to hear dogs do the same. Killian grabbed for her coat and pushed me toward the aisle. Well, let’s be honest – she’d been trying to get me to leave for some time, but by this point, I wasn’t willing anymore to stick it out. I ran for the door because I didn’t want to still be in the theater to hear the screams of a man being torn apart by animals. Enough was enough.
I felt bad for leaving early, Killian in tow. One of the reasons she wanted to see the thing in the first place was to see Samuel L. Jackson’s character, and I couldn’t even hold long enough to see him walk onto the screen. But I really couldn’t take any more. I came damn close to throwing up in the bathroom after that. And for me, root canals and vomiting are about on the same level of things I don’t want.
So I can’t even speak to the carnival of cruelty that I did not see, though I know a lot about what was still to come. But that’s OK. I don’t need to see a woman kept naked in a cage or hear a man reduce a woman to a lump of flesh to be used to know that sexual slavery is wrong. I was clear on that point already. I don’t need to see a thing that is wrong to know that it’s wrong.
The best film makers get that. Spielberg didn’t need to show Jews getting gassed to drive home the point that gassing people is an abomination. Showing people afraid of being gassed and then receiving water was strong enough. The audience felt it as though the worst possible thing did happen.
Likewise, I don’t need to see violence and cruelty against slaves to know that slavery is one of the greatest sins humanity has ever known (and it’s for a reason I say “is” instead of “was”). Combined with genocide, it is the very bottom pit to which mankind can slide, and both are born out of the idea that some kinds of people are more worthy than others.
I don’t need Tarantino to get it. I get it when I understand that the woman I love more than anyone would have been treated like cattle if she were born 150 years earlier and a few hundred miles to the south. It breaks my heart to know that all that I love most about her – her kindness, her intelligence and her creativity – would have counted for nothing in that time and place. I don’t know if she could have endured that. I don’t know if she would have chosen to. I imagine all that I love about her nullified and her value reduced to nothing more than the labor she can produce, and it hurts. Viscerally hurts. Realizing that her ancestors did endure that kind of hell crushes me – no cinematic gore and brutality necessary.
In the same way, I didn’t need Tarantino to tell me that the Nazis were a Really Bad Thing. While Tarantino did make a sort of companion movie to this in “Unglorious Basterds” – though I found its cruelty (if not its violence) to be muted compared to “Django” – I didn’t need a film to inform me that just two generations earlier in my own family lurked people who similarly thought another class of people were less than human, and who supported a regime that systematically slaughtered millions. I didn’t need a movie to tell me that was evil. My mother did the job, and she did it well.
I don’t need the Tarantino treatment to understand that what happened in Rwanda and continues in the Congo today is equally wrong or that the ongoing sexual slave trade is unbearably evil. Darfur, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Sierra Leone – I don’t need Tarantino’s help to understand how wrong and brutal any of it is.
But here’s what worse. At my most cynical core, I believe it’s Tarantino who needs these things. Because if he can hide behind an evil such as genocide or slavery, he can use it for an excuse to unleash whatever violence he likes at theater goers, all in the name of keeping it real and – what is that phrase he once used? – laying his vengeance upon me. If you make your bad guy bad enough, he seems to think, any amount of cinematic cruelty becomes OK.
Except I don’t think it is. I don’t understand how people can sit through a movie like “Django” and make it to the end without something inside them breaking. I don’t think I even want to be a person who can sit through something like that. So, sorry, Quentin. We’ve had our last movie date. I’m calling it quits.