28 January 2013
I confess I had to see Django Unchained, Tarantino's latest historical revenge fantasy, twice before I was able to fully grasped my reaction to it. Django pulls the viewer in multiple and diametrically opposed directions. At once it is an epic, a love story, a revenge fantasy, and an historical reimagining, while maintaining wickedly funny -- and gruesome -- overtones. It is disturbing and heavy while also being witty and light. Only Tarantino.
For those who are even semi-regular readers of this space are aware of my strong affinity towards Quentin Tarantino, whom I have aptly dubbed the Patron Saint of Cinema. There is no other filmmaker in the world who makes the kinds of films that Tarantino does. The combination of vision, audacity, technical prowess, film history proficiency, and general auteurship, is something that Tarantino alone possesses.
From sadistic villains to anachronistically hip protagonists, Django is a classic Tarantino film, replete with all the hallmarks we've come to expect from a QT production. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a loathsome plantation owner whose idea of leisure is participating in cockfighting, except with human slaves fighting to the death instead of roosters. Even more abject is Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, a complexly hideous Uncle Tom. Stephen's nauseating subservience to his master is the driving force in thwarting Django's heroic bid to abscond with his enslaved wife, whom Candie owns, and arguably makes him the most problematic character in cinema's history.
Django is an important film in ways Tarantino's previous films were not. Never before has Tarantino -- or any other filmmaker I'm aware of -- so brazenly and unabashedly confronted America's shameful slave past in such an unsolemn and untactful way. In the Antebellum South, slaves were considered subhuman, and Tarantino misses not one opportunity to depict that debasement on screen. Could you ever imagine seeing a film that spews the n-word with such frequency and unrepentance that after a half an hour the phenomenon is barely noticeable?
Recently, DiCaprio admitted that during filming he began to have serious reservations regarding the content matter and even confronted Tarantino asking, "Are we going to far with this? Are we crossing a line we should not cross?" Apparently, Tarantino was joined by Jackson in adamantly defending their unrelenting approach. If there is going to be a movie made about slavery, and Tarantino is behind it, then it has to go this far. It has to be done right. To borrow a phrase Cornel West used to defend Huckleberry Finn from modern editing: "The funk must remain."
Christoph Waltz's cognoscenti Dr. King Schultz and Jamie Foxx's muted Django may be the protoganists, but slavery is the main character in this film, as every second of screen time, every characterization, every word of dialogue, is weighed down by its albatross. And still the film is wildly fun and entertaining.
One of the things Tarantino does best, and for which we love him for, is he takes a general setting, say, a heist, an underworld double-cross, World War II, antebellum South, whatever, and then he creates an environment in which the most horrific occurrences -- specific to that particular moment in time -- are allowed to come to fruition. Of course he plays with the facts, but it's solely to maximize the effect. Tarantino doesn't bother with pedagoguery, instead, what he is concerned with is eliciting the greatest possible audience reaction, preferably visceral, and followed quickly by a loudly audible, "Ohhh!!"
The scenes of slavery at its worst are an absolute nightmare. And yet what might be even more frightening is that no matter how exaggerated Tarantino makes them, we know through the lens of history that nothing that is shown can ever go far enough. Slavery, by default, is an unspeakable human catastrophe.
Now, of course QT's last film dealt with another unimaginably terrible event, World War II and the Holocaust. But what makes Django even more affecting than Inglourious Basterds is that the latter wholly avoids the ultimate mechanism of the Holocaust, the death camp. Surely there are terrifying scenes as Landa, the Jew Hunter, stalks his prey, but Tarantino elides the crematoria. In the Antebellum South, there is nothing to elide. Slavery is chains, whips, rape, commodification, and just about every other possible dehumanizing act one can and can't imagine. Skip over even just one of those and it is no longer slavery, not in the way we know it truly to be. In short, don't expect to exit this film psychologically unscathed.
Mental scarring aside, the film looks marvelous and the cinematography is exquisite. And of course, there are the usual sight/sound gags, none better than when the freed slave Django and his bounty hunter and abolitionist partner, King Schultz, ride off into the wilderness to Jim Croce crooning "I Got A Name." Ironically, as much as I enjoyed that scene, it is precisely here that my adulation of Tarantino recedes.
Tarantino has reached such cinematic heights, is imbued with such supreme confidence, and has had his sense of cheekiness emboldened to such an extent, that he has over-indulged the part of his creative mind that fetishizes the minutia, at the expense of the bigger picture. The devil is indeed in the details and I fear Tarantino is well on his way down the river Styx. He exerts a tremendous amount of effort in developing over-elaborately fascinating backstories, inside jokes, set-pieces, and constructing a cinematic kaleidoscope, that he inevitably runs out of room (literally and figuratively) when the climax comes due. If the film is like a jigsaw puzzle, then he's got all these magnificent pieces but they can't all possibly fit onto one board.
Like Basterds, Tarantino again finds himself in an untenable position once he hits the 150 minute mark and must rely on a bit of deux ex machina to right the ship. Probably, Tarantino's past virtuosity is his own undoing as there are only so many ways to revolutionize (Tarantino-ize?) a final shoot-out scene, and he's already done them all. The finale, the main confrontation, suddenly becomes an afterthought, an incongruently consequential tangent, rather than a properly organic culmination, to everything else that has already happened. Although, I must admit, I did find the Antonioniesque fulmination of Candyland a nice touch, a symbolic blowing up of the institution of slavery and everything it stood for.
As I've declared many times before, I love Tarantino's films, and I love his uncompromising vision, how he gleefully manipulates our expectations, and even challenges our sense of history and values. And this film was by no means a disappointment. As I mentioned, it is quite an important film, in fact. But if I had a few moments with the man, I'd entreat him to return to the days when he firstly crafted a magnificently deranged, fully-fleshed out story, and then went to town on the details of how to get there, instead of the other way around.