Monday, December 31, 2012

Blogorium Review: Django Unchained

 Django Unchained is by far the most entertaining of Quentin Tarantino's films. This comes from a fan, an unabashed apologist. I look forward to Tarantino films and I rarely find myself disappointed after finishing each new offering. (The exception being Death Proof, which had the unfortunate task of being immediately compared to Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez's crowd-pleasing horror portion of Grindhouse.) As I revisit the films, I find I appreciate them more, and while Django Unchained may not be my favorite - not after one viewing, anyway - it's the most fun I've had watching a Tarantino movie since I saw Pulp Fiction at far too young an age.

 It's worth noting to the five or six of you who read the Blogorium but haven't seen Django Unchained yet that like Inglourious Basterds, its attachment to the title and the adherence to the legacy of the Django series of Spaghetti Westerns is tenuous at best. Yes, Franco Nero appears in the film, but most of the audience I saw the film with (and many of my friends) a) didn't know who he was or b) weren't aware that the title was based in any way on anything, let alone half a dozen movies about the titular gunfighter sometimes - but often not - played by Nero and directed by Sergio Corbucci*.

 That said, you don't really need to follow any of Unchained's cinematic antecedents - or necessarily be aware of them - to enjoy the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave separated from his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) turned apprentice Bounty Hunter by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). If you've seen the trailer, you know the basic beats: Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers (MC Gainey, Doc Duhame, and Cooper Huckabee), and because they captured and split up Django and Broomhilda, his associate has the benefit of knowing what the brothers look like.

 What I didn't expect was how quickly this particular plot point is resolved, and for the most part by Django without the involvement of Schultz. It turns out that "the kid is a natural" at the bounty hunting business, not to mention the "fastest gun in the South," and by the time Django and Schultz head into the heart of Mississippi to rescue Broomhilda from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Di Caprio), the apprentice has surpassed the mentor. When it comes to dealing with the discomforting reality of slavery, and particularly of "Mandingo" slave fighting, Django has more of a stomach for it than Schultz does.

 Since we spend most of the film with Django and Schultz, I'd like to mention Jamie Foxx's stoic, composed title character (until he sees Broomhilda, anyway) and Christoph Waltz's amiable, conflicted Dentist / Bounty Hunter. As if to counter-balance Hans Landa, Tarantino gives Schultz's German dentist an appropriately disconnect European opinion of slavery - he feels uncomfortable at the concept of having to buy Django, even though strictly for legal purposes in order to free him. Until late in the film, when he can no longer help himself, Schultz is a man capable of maintaining whatever ruse is necessary to win legally. Django, he discovers, has a natural talent as a gunfighter, as a bounty hunter, and a fierce loyalty to what Schultz taught him. As he slowly transitions into the character audiences are expecting to see, Foxx earns our good will because he doesn't begin the film as "Bad Ass Django." When we come to the end of the film, he's earned a just victory.

 On the opposite side are Calvin Candie and his house servant Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Candie is the spoiled, sadistic, and not particularly bright third generation owner of Candieland, the third biggest plantation in Mississippi. While not immediately apparent, it becomes clear that Stephen is the real power behind the throne, and he realizes quickly what Schultz and Django are up to. There's been some debate about the merits of Stephen being arguably a worse human being than Candie, and I'm not sure what side of the fence I land on. It's clear that he's happy to perpetuate slavery on the plantation in order to maintain his own standing, but much of what he does in the film is a reaction to his distaste for Django in principle.

 Much as it pains me to say it, Tarantino really dropped the ball with Broomhilda, the least developed female character I can remember in any of his films. Yes, she occupies most of the first half of the film in Django's imagination, linked to Die Niebelnungen by Schultz's recognition of her name (Brunhilde was in all likelihood "Americanized" to Broomhilda by the Brittles or Candie), but when we're finally introduced to Kerry Washington's character in the present narrative, she's naked and being kept in "the hot box" for trying to escape. Admittedly, she doesn't have it quite as bad as the other failed escapee, who Candie feeds to his dogs after Django seals his fate. Nevertheless, Broomhilda never develops beyond a crying, fainting, screaming, tortured plot device. I don't blame Washington so much as I do Tarantino, because there's just not much of a character there.

 Django Unchained may suffer from that in other instances, as there are a lot of recognizable actors in small roles, many of which you might miss entirely. I saw Amber Tamblyn but not Russ Tamblyn, neither of whom factor into the narrative at all. Candie's toadies include Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, and almost unrecognizable Zoe Bell, and Walton Goggins, who may be the only character that registers at all.You'll also see Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, and James Remar in two roles - once as the slaver Schultz kills to buy Django and later as Candie's "muscle."

 Tarantino pops up late in the film with another superfluous cameo, this time with a terrible Australian accent to answer the question "could this be any more obnoxious?" He's accompanied by Michael Parks and Wolf Creek's John Jarratt, and if nothing else, Tarantino's (SPOILER) death scene elicits laughter enough to justify his nearly pointless appearance.

 In the past, moreso in the pulpy Kill Bill films than in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has mixed humor in with his violence to keep the audience engaged, but I can't recall anything quite as funny as the proto-Klan scene in Django Unchained. When Big Daddy (Don Johnson) brings together his posse to kill Django and Schultz for (legally) killing the Brittle brothers on his plantation, they quickly realize that wearing masks with hoods on makes it almost impossible to see. The impromptu meeting to complain about the masks is played broadly, with Jonah Hill of all people the straight man, one of Big Daddy's lackeys who tears his eyehole. It's one of many scenes in the film where the comedy is overt and designed for the broad laughter it invariably gets (at least from every review I've seen). Juxtaposed with the at times brutally violent sequences - Candie's introduction, for example, which is accompanied by an exceptionally rough "Mandingo" fight - Tarantino balances entertainment with a sobering truth about the world these characters inhabit.

  But is there a degree of "white guilt wish fulfillment" in the revenge narrative of Django Unchained? I feel like the question can't be avoided. It is apparent that crowd reactions to the movie have been similar - if not identical - to the one I experienced: laughter, gasps, uncomfortable chuckles, and some degree of cheers as Django tears his way through the slimy bastards at Candieland, saving Stephen for last. The audience I saw the film with was racially mixed, but it seems like there is a sense of relief in seeing Jamie Foxx blowing holes into these villains that satisfies a white audience's discomfort over our past.

 Yes, it's not all of our pasts, and not all of our ancestors had slaves, but slavery remains one of the great unresolved chapters in American history, so Django Unchained, like Inglourious Basterds before it, allows audiences to feel comfortable (by proxy) watching excessively violent retribution against two universally loathed types of people (Nazis and slave owners). In both instances, the oppressed turns against the oppressor and systematically dismantles their enemy, regardless of historical accuracy. (Unless, of course, historians have been wildly exaggerating Hitler's final hours.)

 Was it historically appropriate to use the same racial epithet 109 times in one movie? Probably. Does it still feel excessive? Sure, but I might argue it's necessary to. It tempers the escapism a bit, and calls into attention the baggage surrounding Tarantino's use of the "n-word" in his earlier films. Like the flashbacks to the dogs tearing into the runaway D'Artagnan, there is a conscious level of discomfort in place during Django Unchained. The question is what end it serves: to contextualize the fictional narrative in real horrors or to justify further audience catharsis when Django has his vengeance?

 Slavery and the Holocaust were both very real, and while to some degree I can understand Spike Lee's reasons for dismissing Django Unchained as "disrespectful" sight unseen, Tarantino's film is, like Basterds, a movie. Since Kill Bill, Tarantino's output has largely been increasingly operatic tales of vengeance, enacted on increasingly horrendous villains. Django Unchained is more streamlined, more satisfying as entertainment - it's a two-and-a-half-hour extension of the climax of Basterds, and while the film doesn't skirt around uncomfortable imagery, there is a concerted effort to leave viewers cheering at the end. It's escapism, constructed brilliantly, and so I'm conflicted about how much I should simply allow Tarantino's accomplishment to stand as a film and how much of what's behind the hybrid of Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation influence what makes me uncomfortable while laughing.

 Can I give it a pass because it's just a movie? Particularly when Tarantino doesn't let John Ford off of the hook for putting on a KKK hood as an extra in Birth of a Nation, or the following paragraph (used partially out of context when reprinted by The Huffington Post):

"One of my American Western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else's humanity -- and the idea that that's hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms. And you can see it in the cinema in the '30s and '40s -- it's still there. And even in the '50s."

 If Ford and, by extension, Griffith, were perpetuating a notion, that Tarantino is theoretically rebuking with Django, I'm still torn as to how to reconcile the ugly reality present in the film with the heightened reality of a revenge film, one told to provide a cathartic reaction for audiences who feel some degree of discomfort about said ugly reality. It's not whether Django Unchained can have its cake and eat it too, but how we as an audience are complicit in reacting to this disparity. It's not "did I enjoy Django Unchained" so much as "should have I enjoyed it as much as I did" and why?

*   To be honest, it's not really an issue unless you're expecting Django Unchained to be a Spaghetti Western (or "Southern" as Tarantino prefers to call it), but I'd suggest you look a little more locally for direct influences on the film. Specifically, Fred Williamson's "Charley" trilogy, which I  would prefer not to mention by their full names, and of which only the third film - Boss - is available on DVD. They center around a freed slave who ends up on the run (it directly influenced the Blacksmith's backstory in The Man with the Iron Fists) and who alternates between fighting oppression and tormenting the racists he comes across.

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