Double Feature

Our Peculiar Institutions

Over the holidays Dorothy and I have spent a lot of time in front of screens big and small. Interestingly, some of the movies we've seen have tied together in strange and unexpected ways. Case in point...

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012)

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Starring Benjamin Walker, Liam McPoyle, Ramona Flowers and Seth Starkadder

Remember in elementary school, when you learned that the Civil War was about slavery?

And remember in high school, when you learned that the Civil War had no single root cause, and instead developed from several different unresolved issues, including states rights, economic disparity, modernization, nationalism and increasingly bitter partisan politics?

And remember in college, when you realized, hey wait, all of those things are caused by or tie back into slavery, so what you learned in elementary school wasn't a gross oversimplification after all and that your high school textbook was full of shit?

And remember when Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter peeled back one more layer to reveal the root cause of slavery — vampirism?

To be fair, the vampires in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter don't claim to have invented the concept of slavery. They're willing to give mankind full credit for that. But they are definitely responsible for keeping slavery alive and well in America. Apparently it's easier to just buy your dinner at the local slave market instead of hunting it, and it makes cleaning up the bodies afterwards a lot easier.

This is a very odd version of Abraham Lincoln. I realize that all movies have to focus on someting, and this one is about vampires. You're not going to see young Mr. Lincoln doing his figures on the back of a shovel, unless immediately afterwards he's going to it to decapitate an undead blookdsucker. But it's just odd to see a Lincoln who doesn't seem to have strong moral feelings about slavery, one way or the other. A Great Emancipator who raises millions out of bondage not because he cannot stand to see their lives demeaned and their rights trampled but because he wants to deprive his bloodsucking enemies of their primary food source. It just doesn't feel right.

In keeping with that tone, there are hardly any slaves in this movie. Oh, we get to see some brief shots of slaves being eaten by those persnickety Southron vampires, and an Underground Railroad convoy hauling silver up to Gettysburg (don't ask). And also special guest appearances by William Johnson and Harriet Tubman, both reduced to bit players in this drama about white people fighting vampires. But it is odd to see a movie about the Civil War with a cast that's 90% white (possibly more).

In the movie's defense, it does actually have some fun and inventive fight scenes with beautiful color and cinematography. Still, at it's core it's a hollow action movie that is constructed around some huge set pieces with no dramatic through-line for any of the characters. Abraham Lincoln a friendly icon to put on movie posters to cause some cognitive dissonance and get you in the door, because God knows you'd never go see Salmon P. Chase, Vampire Hunter.

So, there you have it. Abraham Lincoln. He killed the vampires. And maybe freed the slaves along the way. You're welcome, America.

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained

Starring Ray Charles, Benjamin Chudnofsky, Jack Dawson and Samuel L. Jackson

At first glance Django Unchained isn't really about slavery, either. Most critics have pegged it as yet another overblown Tarantino revenge fantasy, exploiting race relations and film references for extra gravitas in the same way that Inglourious Basterds exploited the Holocaust. And that's not an unfair assessment.

And yet...

You have to wonder if any of those critics remember learning about "subtext" in film school, because slavery and racism suffuse almost every aspect of this movie. Jamie Foxx's Django is explicitly recruited to hunt down and kill the slave drivers who tormented him, and then turns his resources to rescuing his wife from the people who tore her away from him. Don Johnson's Big Daddy is comically tied into knots trying to reconcile the duties of Southern hospitality with his inability to treat a freed slave as an equal. Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen has spent so much time fighting his way to the top of the slave pecking order that he's suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome. Christoph Waltz's King Schultz, an ostensible outsider, is forced to confront the horrors of slavery in ways that don't even seem to register to people who have been forced to live with it on a daily basis. Even DeCaprio's Calvin J. Candie, the least complicated character in the whole movie, can only exist because the institution of slavery allows society to turn a blind eye to his darker impulses.

At every turn the characters are forced to confront slavery, force themselves to ignore it, and even spur themselves to greater heights of depravity as they try to confirm and deny the effect it has on their daily lives.

And like every Tarantino movie it's beautifully shot, full of memorable scenes, and everyone in the cast is chewing every line reading like there's a Best Supporting Actor nomination on the line.

Yes, at its core, the story is slight. Sometimes the journey means more than the destination.

But I suppose the surface elements of the movie are all that really matter. Certainly you can't expect film critics to spend more than five minutes thinking about the movie they just saw. I mean, they have to get to the preview showing of Texas Chainsaw 3D that starts in five minutes.

So yeah, I liked it, even more than Inglourious Basterds — it's in the same vein but with a lot more bite. But at this point you know whether you're inclined to like Tarantino movies or not.

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