Cinema Unchained

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A woman clapped. That was it. It wasn’t loud. This wasn’t the rapturous thrashing of hands found at sporting events or my favorite restaurant, Medieval Times. No, hers was a subtler act. It was quiet, it was proud and it was in a movie theater — a behavior far from out of place.

Except it was. No one else was clapping. The moment was tense. The circumstance in question? Osama bin Laden had just been shot dead in cold blood by a Navy SEAL in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.”

There should have been more clapping, the theater should have been uproarious with celebratory hurrah. Instead, there was a timid unease in the air. It was an uncomfortable and anxious dread that could also be felt during nearly every other big film released this year.

The vivid slaughter of children in “The Hunger Games,” the senseless anarchy of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the volatile shag haircut Ben Affleck dons in “Argo”—they are all disturbing. That’s it for jokes, though. Aside from scant comedy (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Sessions”), the movies of 2012 have been uncharacteristically somber, severe and complex.

For the past 10 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded films that digest fairly easily. They are nostalgic human interest stories with a touch of comedic flair (“The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Shakespeare in Love”). They are intricate ensemble dramas, sometimes for the better (“The Departed”), sometimes for the worse (“Crash”). But at the bottom of it, save for “The Hurt Locker,” and possibly “No Country for Old Men,” these are relatively simple stories of bad guys, good guys, inspiration and determination. They were rarely challenging. That trend is moving in another direction.

After watching Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti-western/slave revenge-tale “Django Unchained,” comedian Michael Showalter summed up the change when he tweeted the following: “Saw Django. Excellent movie. Not fun to watch people shooting each other anymore.”

Considering this is Tarantino, the king of cinematic pulp violence, Showalter’s statement speaks volumes to the striking shift in demeanor for not only audiences but filmmakers as well.

Let’s take “Django Unchained” for a minute as an exemplar of this new, violence-conscious aesthetic. It begins as a typical western romp. The vast American desert is spread before the audience as a 1966 Elvis-inspired track, “Django,” foregrounds the image of a lone man on a horse. It’s a fanciful and fitting homage to the Sergio Leone films of yore. But Tarantino’s indulgent and often hilarious tribute takes a tragic turn the minute Django is ordered to kill a man plowing a field with his son. The moral ambiguity intensifies from there as we see and hear a man ruthlessly ripped apart by dogs, a woman kept confined in a chained hot box all day and an absolute bloodbath of a shoot-out.

Graphic brutality is a Tarantino trademark, but unlike the ferocity he relishes in with “Inglorious Basterds,” the violence in “Django” is far more gray, more off-putting and more messy. There is a bad guy (Leonardo DiCaprio), but similar to so many of the Best Picture nominees this year, the line between good and bad has been blurred in a way that is both more realistic and more prone to creating a dialogue with the audience.

So many of the movies we pay to go see are light-hearted fluff. And not just the romantic comedies. Both “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” won Best Picture and were flawlessly produced, shot and performed. But what is gained? Speech therapy triumphs? People love old Hollywood?

When the Daily Cal arts staff discussed our top 10 films of the year, we concluded that the choices were limited. After seeing an audience react to a heated debate on the constitutionality of abolishing slavery (“Lincoln”) or even the deadened stare of an agent grown tired and frustrated (“Skyfall”), I realized this wasn’t a bad year for film. It was a different year for film where movies of unusual complexity provoked instead of placated.

At the end of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Jessica Chastain’s character is asked a single question: “Where do you want to go?” Like the films of 2012, the answer never comes. Instead, the uncertainty lingers with disturbing portent.

Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].