Tarantino Returns, Guns A’blazin’ & Rattling Chains.
DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO/2012
Gritty, grainy and downright proud of it, writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s unconventional Western Django Unchained effectively continues what could be considered the filmmaker’s third career phase, that of historical revenge fantasies. Prior cycles include his junk culture f-bomb laden crime riffs Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), followed by his talky-violent grindhouse cycle of Kill Bill volumes I & II (2003, 2004), and Death Proof (2007).
This current cycle, one of marked artistic maturity while forsaking none of his trademark edge, began with the Nazi killing spectacle Inglourious Basterds in ’09; that film retaining the lead as slightly superior, it’s internal cleverness and audacity being as remarkable as they are. While what makes Tarantino Tarantino hasn’t changed (Django is as explosively violent, personality infused, and bound to stir unease in viewers as any of his films), its good to see him evolving as an artist rather than remain stagnant in the basin of Repeating What Worked.
Tarantino continues to cement his reputation as cinema’s greatest appropriator, cobbling together bits and pieces of previous films, television shows, music and books to form stunningly lively new wholes. What previously may’ve been culturally dismissed dreck (cheap spaghetti Westerns, Shaw Brothers films, blaxploitation pictures, et certra, et certa.) are now re-imagined with the passionate heart of a true fan, infusing art and soul where there was previously little to none seen. The consequence, and result, has been a kind of mass acceptance of the swept-under-the-rug grindhouse past of movies, something that has yielded results both interesting and detrimental, but ultimately valuable.
Likewise, it also mustn’t be left unsaid that Tarantino displays an equal influence of global “high art” films, intellectual World Cinema powerhouses such as Godard and Fassbinder – an entire range of movies that fans of his grindhouse sensibilities might prefer be swept under the same rug. No matter where one comes into a Tarantino film, the director always seems to have some new avenue awaiting each willing participant, deconstructing perceptions of high and low art as he goes. If you’re so willing, there’s always an illuminating post-movie rabbit hole of home film festival exploration waiting for you, be it 1950s French noir, the films of Brian De Palma, Oz-sploitation, Ozu, Asian splatter cinema… The list goes on and on.
Tarantino now turns his attention to the Deep South, shortly before the Civil War. True to the genre, Django Unchained is rife with murky justice and loners living by their own code. In classic American movie terms, straightforward Howard Hawks-ian “men on a mission” horsepower is what fuels it. But less true to the genre is the landscape itself – an essential element in any Western.
As the newly freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx, doing real well what he hired to do: Look cool) and his bounty hunter/dentist associate Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz, giving life yet another unforgettable Tarantino character, this one 180 degrees removed from Col. Hans Landa) travel from one town to another, leaving a bloodied trail of bodies in their wake, it’s not John Ford’s Monument Valley or even the dusty cattle drive terrain like that of Red River that informs their function and purpose. Rather, it’s ornate plantation cotton fields and tree after tree loaded with kudzu, “the weed that ate the south”. Grindhouse level blaxploitation (a controversially proud legacy in African American cinema) fuses with the American Western and the Spaghetti Western by way of Sam Peckinpah for something uniquely Tarantino: A subversion of form, yes, but also a wholehearted embracing. Django Unchained is at once a Western, and (as it’s been labeled so often already) a “Southern”.
And, like the foreign, omnipresent kudzu weed (Japanese, originally), the inhumane institution of slavery is the thematic infestation here. Can it ever truly be exterminated from these parts? Pity anyone who attempts to stop these protagonists from trying. Avenging this great historic wrong – or at least offering a 150-year late catharsis – is a major part of this film’s mission de jour. That said, Django and Schultz are on a mission, one far more personal than altruistic.
Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, the first anti-proactive Tarantino leading lady in a long time, maybe ever) is being kept by the harsh and cruel plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, gleefully venomous). Django aims to get her out of there. Their ensuing quest is equated early on by Schulz to the epic Germanic myth of Nibelungenlied, in which the heroic Siegfried must slay a dragon in order to rescue his true love, Kriemhild. He is informing his partner, and, by extension, us, of the ancient template upon which the film they occupy is treading, even emulating.
Never mind that the great German composer Richard Wagner didn’t complete his famous operatic adaption of the tale until 1874; it stands to reason that a good German such as Schultz might know of it anyhow; anachronism averted. The same, however, cannot be said of the presence of kudzu, as it wasn’t introduced to the U.S. until 1876. But it wouldn’t be a Tarantino historical film without a few anachronisms, both large and small. Everything from the wicked sunglasses Jamie Foxx sports to certain waves of modern day “enlightened” thinking are elements that technically shouldn’t be there. Nor for that strict matter should music by Jim Croce and James Brown be heard on the film’s soundtrack, but, there they are. Bottom line: Anyone who’s seen Inglourious Basterds knows for crying out loud that one doesn’t see a Tarantino film for an accurate history lesson. Informed, yes. Smart, you bet. Willfully subversionary? That’s the name of the game.
And so, Django Unchained gladly follows in the decompressed Nibelungen footsteps as three-hour epic. (Wagner’s opera tops out somewhere around fifteen hours. Fritz Lang’s two-part 1924 film adaption runs over three and a half hours.) In the hands of Tarantino and his top tiered crew, the length is never a haul. It’s a breezy behemoth, playing like Leone’s 180-plus minute The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly rather than some kind of bloated self-important history lesson, ala Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate or Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. In this film season, in which we’re being asked to consider no less than four major three hour “prestige” films within weeks of one another, (Zero Dark Thirty raids the national conscious in a vital way, but as for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey… One would do better sticking to this incognito “Ring [des Nibelungen]” adaptation. Finally, Tom Hooper’s musical adaptation of Broadway’s Les Misérables is a much too deliberate contraption. This one is the most cinematically solid, the one most intoxicating, selling the desired illusion of its own rabid animalism. This while also being never not pastoral and always beautiful to look at – thank you D.P. extraordinaire Robert Richardson.
Django Unchained comes out blasting, swearing, and bandying more now-shocking but era-appropriate racial slurs than a lot of folks are going to be comfortable with. Tarantino never even begins to apologize for it, nor should he feel the need. By now most film buffs will know if Tarantino is right for them or not. For those of us who do anticipate his new work, and continue to be impressed by it, it’s up to us to navigate the boundaries of when wallowing in brutal, albeit stylized subversion is morally worth it – even as it touts itself within a modernly moral viewpoint, if not a similar reckoning.
Tarantino makes revenge films, pure and simple. By going after Nazis and nasty slave owners, he offers an escapist catharsis to moviegoers. In those moments of extreme killing, when the screenplay finally stops the brilliant chatter to blood let, the catharsis is so powerful, so intense, that some sort of sensation overcomes the viewer. A delirium of gun shots, property damage, and people getting blown oven as though they were always just sacks of blood in moving meat. In these times of national re-evaluation on the role of violence, gun violence in particular, a film such as this one presents a challenge, and maybe even a question: Is the historical revenge fantasy any healthier than the routine death dispensing that awaits most any film villain and his thugs? More fulfilling, more thought proving – strangely yes. Healthier? That’s a lot tougher. But wait…
One of the absolute funniest scenes of the year rests somewhere in the first half of this film. This may come as a surprise to many, considering the film, the filmmaker, and the subject being mined – racism, and its logical evil endgame, slavery. In this unlikely scene, the film itself calls out the perpetrators of such hate as buffoons, and not in a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel way. There is no shortage of shooting and people getting shot at many other points, but for this one brief gut busting moment, laughter is the weapon, and here it is one worth wielding. The buffoons may or may not look like gory Swiss cheese minutes later, as they are all part of the grand dragon that Django must slay on his quest. Such is the cold and troubling trail for a Western loner, full of twist, turns, and tonal shifts.
Thankfully, in real life, things did change in regard to slavery, and when they did, it wasn’t via Peckinpah-style plantation shootouts, but ultimately, by humane legislation (see Spielberg’s Lincoln for an unlikely companion piece to Django Unchained, and for that matter, Spielberg as an unlikely comparison to Tarantino). A war had to happen, and emancipation came only as a sidebar in the grand scheme. So it is as well with Django and Schultz – things must get messy before they get better (even if a larger betterment is the result of a personal mission). And since they happen to be movie characters occupying a movie, these things will go down in movie fashion. And our box office is one fueled by aggression. But perhaps, just maybe, violent revisionist fantasies such as this one can serve as deliberate gaze forcing sidesteps in our own internal grappling with our national past sins, as well as our own troubled hearts that make for such a situation in the first place. And such consideration is indeed he a healthy thing… in between the gunfire.