DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
This, the ninth film directed by Quentin Tarantino, and a doozy. In order to discuss this, I have to look at it from two different positions: as a movie separate from cultural context, and then, as a cultural artifact.
In a pure sense, Tarantino is a mash-up artist of humongous scholarship and skill. He doesn't make movies about reality, he makes movies about the movies we love, making meta-commentary on the myths we devour and the images that shape our perceptions, especially of the shadow worlds of crime and violence. In PULP FICTION he demonstrated an ability to twist time lines to create moments of tension (remember Butch and his girlfriend on the motorcycle? I thought for sure Jules would jump out and "pop" them...but no, he'd already left the business, if you look at the sequence. Wow.) as well as pull all kinds of bizarre subtexts up to the text level, and give us maps of the inner worlds of these low-lifes that we'd never seen before. A stunning movie, tht somehow created a context in which things I'd never imagine could be enjoyable became hysterically funny (Ving Rhames and the hillbilly. I'm just sayin'...)
While DEATH PROOF was nothing other than a C-movie romp, KILL BILL 1 and 2 had an emotional line and impact that I'd never seen coming, and made me start to think about him differently. But it was still about movies, not human reality. INGLORIOUS BASTARDS was fascinatingly misunderstood by many. It wasn't a movie about WW2, but rather a movie about movies about WW2. A hybrid of an art-house film about a Jew seeking vengeance, and a bad WW2 "men on a mission" romp with terrible acting as part of the image system. And the two worlds slowly wound together, getting closer and closer until in one memorable scene, you actually watch Christopher Waltz and Brad Pitt engage in a Bad Acting Contest across a table, and I was in geek heaven. But over under and around the fun, there was something else going on, a righteous indignation that there were cinematic sins that had never been addressed in the Tarantino fashion--bloody vengeance for payback of extraordinary evil.
I think he basically asked himself "If I was a Jew, what would I want to see in a movie?" And being the kinda guy he is, that meant watching Jews wrecking havok on the Nazi High Command. And if it didn't happen in the real world, why by God it was going to happen in his. Whatever one thinks of I.B. as a movie, it was audacious as hell, and not quite like anything else I'd seen.
We'll get back to that. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a mash-up of several different genres or films, chief among them the Spaghetti "revenge" wester, Blaxploitation, and the "slave plantation" film. Basically, Django is a slave who is trained as a bounty hunter by a German dentist (you have to see it) who seeks to rescue his wife, who has been sold onto a Mississippi plantation. Pretty straight through-line, in some ways a story we've seen a thousand times before. It is played out with verve, beautiful cinematography, some hysterical comedy, and wonderful performances up and down the line (especially when you realize that these people are pieces of movies, not real people.) If I were an alien from another planet, watching film, and Django was slotted into the festival I'd consider it fun, bloody, and better by far than most of the movies it copies. I might put it in the top five Spaghetti westers I've ever seen, just on that count.
But there's a bigger issue here. And that is that if you compare films about slavery from the slaves' POV with films about, say, the civil war, or about slavery treating slaves as humans rather than animals, you'll see the extraordinary level of avoidance of this most deeply poisonous aspects of American history. Human history, really, but contrasted with our national myth, it is extraordinary. For an institution that lasted 250 years, followed by another 100 years of Jim Crow and Segregation (which was still alive and well in my youth) to have been documented in dramatic form so infrequently (compare the 5 years of the Civil War. Compare films made about the Holocaust. Hell, compare films about Jewish oppression in Biblical times) suggests a level of avoidance, aversion, guilt and fear that distort the national discourse to this day. You don't depict the rape, torture, and murder necessary to keep a people in bondage. You just don't.
And dear God, you don't even imply that there is an unpaid debt in blood. At the end of "Roots" you had the absurd sight of Chicken George refusing to whip the overseer who had tormented his family for decades, a "that would make us no better than him" absurdity on the level of Batman refusing to kill the Joker, even though everyone knows Joker will simply escape Arkham Asylum and kill again. Period. We all know that's an artifact of the Comics Code, and the need to preserve a neat-o villain, but has nothing to do with the real world.
And we all understood that Chicken George's action was pure Hollywood Don't Scare The White Folks stuff. Black people aren't like us, the image said. They wouldn't want the kind of revenge we ourselves would seek out.
The problem is that we're not different. And therein lies a real, real problem. No payback. No vengeance against the perpetrators. Oh, that's great for the spiritually minded, but a quick glance at world cinema suggests that vengeance is understood just fine by a large enough percentage of the human race to make the omission glaring. That is what happens when one group can control the images used to depict another group. There is no humanity. You don't get the "full spectrum" of human response. You have very low level thugs and sacrificial "buddies" (any Dirty Harry film), and extraordinarily high level (Morgan Freeman can play God), but not the simple arc of growing up, becoming an adult, finding and satisfying sexual needs with honor, falling in love, raising AND PROTECTING family, growing old. The precise arc of human life which is most common, most often presented in film all over the world...the "what will my life be, Daddy?" question, the "how do I become an adult?" question that all world literature answers for its people...
Simply doesn't exist in mainstream cinema. I've often commented about the lack of simple human sexuality in successful films with black protagonists (zero percent compared to about 22% for white protagonists in films that earn over 100 million domestic--the basic standard of "success), but there are other gaps, and among them the lack of payback, something so deeply held as a part of American mythology that in such movies as "The Gunfight At O.K. Corral" (which I was just watching last night) it was totally understood that clean-cut Burt Lancaster would throw his lifetime of legal service out the window to avenge a family slight. "He killed my brother." And that motivation--you mess with my family, I'll mess with yours--is understood as more than the Code of the West. It is part of every world culture you can find, anywhere.
And blacks in America...well, they kinda got messed with. And I think Tarantino, watching Westerns, realized that black cowboys weren't represented at 1% of their actual statistical existence. They were barely represented in Civil War movies--except in a film like "Glory" where they got vengeance, but had to die at the end for the "sin" of daring to demand to be treated like men. And the cinema audiences bought it, and the Academy rewarded the performances...it was as close to a moment of pure humanity as we could get, in that sense. Other films about slavery and its after-effects tip-toed around the horror, from "Amistad" (which was about people on their WAY to slavery), "Beloved" (about people already freed from slavery), "Lincoln" (slaves off stage), "Gone With The Wind" (the most powerful image creator in the entire sub-genre, in which slaves apparently just loved being slaves), "Mandingo" (in which slaves were exotic animals) and so forth.
Oddly, one of the very best major films on the subject was the comedy "Skin Game" with James Garner and Lou Gossett (about two con artists, one white and one black)...and it is no mistake that almost half of "Django" deals with a deadly con game. But the basic question at the core of "Django" is a geek cinophile's question: what would have happened if John Shaft, or Superfly, or Dolomite, or John Slaughter had been born a slave? And what if he had awakened to his true nature? In other worlds, what if the Avenging Hero as we understand him: the Rambos, James Bonds, Dirty Harry's, Martin Riggs--the human being who, armed with righteous rage and purpose can (in Shane Black's phrase) "Touch the myth" and become that irresistable force of nature necessary to bring balance to the universe?
And who would be crazy enough to make such a film? Gee, I wonder.
Tarantino has done something here that just makes me shake my head. I can barely believe it exists, and man oh man, is it in your face. Django starts as a slave, and ends as a mythic hero, the kind we've seen countless thousands of times on the screen. Except...we haven't. We've barely seen anything like this on screen, ever. At least for a generation. Remember: when "Shaft" was remade, they neutered him. We get angelic too-perfect Denzel and Will and Morgan, but no simple testosterone-driven male "thinking animals." You can say all you want about whether these images are important, but I can promise you the audience does. In fact, I don't think you can point to a single week in the history of cinema where where wasn't at least one such image playing in theaters. I submit to you that there is a hunger for them that is incalculably large, and consistent throughout all eras and most cultures--in fact ANY culture that has successfully survived contact with other, aggressive cultures. Don't have that energy? You get wiped the @#$$ out.
"Django" intends to correct that. As I said before, it is a big, messy, sprawling, indulgent, violent revenge fantasy that DARES you to disapprove of the target of its violence: slavers. Watch the reactions people have, and you'll very clearly see who empathizes with slaves and abolitionists...and who empathizes with the owners and abusers. Oh my Gawd, the blogosphere has been buzzing with hate, fear, and hysterical joy. This movie plays with cultural images and forbidden archetypes in a way only the most successful filmmakers in the world could manage, or possibly get away with.
It is FAR from perfect. I could make a considerable list of things I wish he'd done differently, or better, and yeah, it could have been trimmed by at least ten minutes. But that it exists at all is astounding. A simple story of a man seeking to rescue his wife from monsters. We've seen it countless times. Except this man is black, and the monstrocity underpins the single most persistent and attractive mythology in American history, as measured by GWTW's adjusted box office.
Viewed through this lens, it is hard to feel anything other than a kind of awe that this thing exists. There are maybe five filmmakers in the world who could have done it, and the other four didn't want to. A black director would have been too close--he actually would have to have been BETTER than Tarantino to pull this off--all the technical skills, and the writing skills, but sufficiently disconnected to maintain emotional distance...but simultaneously channel a volcano of emotions.
Hard to find.
I don't know how "good" DJANGO is. I think it is totally of a piece with the rest of Tarantino's oeuvre, but in an odd way more personal than most of his output. The man obviously grew up around black people, and simultaneously has a slight...remove...from the typical flow of human emotions. Is a bit of an "outsider" enough that he sees the human experience through a lens, and therefore doesn't fully associate with either side of this madness. That's apparently what it took to wrap his head around four hundred years of bullshit and come up with something like this.
Flawed? You bet. Unique? You bet. Was I hypnotized? You bet. Will I see it again? Ya think?
One of the best films of 2012, easily. But boy oh boy, is it not for every taste. Violent as hell, but not a fraction as violent as the institution it deconstructs. As a simple revenge fable, a romance, western, a Tarantino mash-up or a revisionist history that will...ummm...appeal to certain quadrants of the population and utterly appall others, DJANGO UNCHAIN is simply smashing entertainment. Excessive, overlong, self-indulgent...and masterful. A B+ at dead minimum. And in the right mood, virtually singular.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Posted by Steven Barnes at 5:31 AM