It’s better than Lincoln,” my teenage daughter said, as the end credits rolled at a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. She was teasing me — it’s a sad fact of my life that some of the people I’m fondest of do not seem to share my fondness for Steven Spielberg’s latest movie — but also suggesting an interesting point of comparison.
Lincoln and Django Unchained, the one a sober historical drama and the other a wild and bloody live-action cartoon, are essentially about different solutions to the same problem. You could almost imagine the two films, or at least their heroes, figuring in the kind of good-natured, racial-stereotype humour that used to be a staple of stand-up comedy (and was memorably parodied on The Simpsons): “white guys abolish slavery like this” (pass constitutional amendment); “but black guys, they abolish slavery like this” (blow up plantation).
A more substantive contrast might be drawn between the approaches of two filmmakers — both steeped in the history of popular cinema and both brilliant craftsmen whose skill inspires admiration, as well as a measure of suspicion — to a subject full of pain and fraught with peril. Spielberg, in his ambitious, history-minded projects, hews to the proud (though sometimes mocked) tradition of the Hollywood A picture, in which big themes are addressed with appropriately sweeping visual and emotional gestures. Tarantino finds inspiration in what are still frequently seen as less reputable genres and styles: Asian martial arts movies, spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation.
Not that you need, at this point, to choose. Among Tarantino’s achievements has been his successful argument that the maligned and neglected B-movies of the past should be viewed with fresh eyes and unironic respect. His own tributes to the outlaw, outsider film tradition — flamboyant in their scholarly care and in their bold originality — have suggested new ways of taking movies seriously.
From Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, the writer and director Quentin Tarantino has concocted a genre of his own.
Django Unchained is unabashedly and self-consciously pulpy, with camera moves and musical cues that evoke both the cornfed westerns of the 1950s and their pastafied progeny of the next decade. (The title comes from a series of Italian action movies whose first star, Franco Nero, shows up here in a cameo.) It is digressive, jokey, giddily brutal and ferociously profane. But it is also a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism.
As such, Django Unchained is obviously a companion to Inglourious Basterds. Like Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness. Christoph Waltz, who played the charming, sadistic SS officer Hans Landa in Basterds, here plays Dr King Schultz, a charming, sadistic German bounty hunter (masquerading as an itinerant dentist) whose distaste for slavery makes him the hero’s ally and mentor.
That hero, first glimpsed in shackles and rags on a cold Texas night in 1858, is Django (Jamie Foxx), who becomes Schultz’s sidekick and business partner. Schultz is an amoral gun for hire, tracking down fugitives and habitually choosing the first option offered in the formulation “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”
Over time the traditional roles of white gunslinger and non-white sidekick are reversed, as the duo’s mission shifts from Schultz’s work to the rescue of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). After the couple tried to run away from their former plantation together, they were whipped and branded (the horrific punishment is shown in flashback), and Broomhilda was sold.
Django and Schultz’s search for her leads them to Candyland, a Mississippi estate whose debonair master, Calvin Candie, is played with almost indecent flair by Leonardo DiCaprio. Candie is assisted in his savagery by Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a house slave who may be the most shocking invention in Django Unchained. He is an Uncle Tom whose servility has mutated into monstrosity and who represents the symbolic self Django must destroy to assert and maintain his freedom.
The plot is, by Tarantino’s standards, fairly linear, without the baroque chronology of Pulp Fiction or the parallel story lines of Inglourious Basterds. But the movie does take its time, and it wanders over a wide expanse of geographic and thematic territory.
In addition to Tarantino’s trademark dialogue-heavy, suspense-filled set pieces, there are moments of pure silliness, like a gathering of hooded night riders (led by Don Johnson), and a late escapade (featuring Tarantino speaking in an Australian accent) that perhaps owes more to Bugs Bunny than to any other cultural archetype.
Of course, the realm of the archetypal is where popular culture lives, and Tarantino does not hesitate to train his revisionist energies on some deep and ancient national legends. Like many westerns, Django Unchained latches onto a simple, stark picture of good and evil, and takes homicidal vengeance as the highest — if not the only — form of justice.
But in placing his story of righteous payback in the Old South rather than the Wild West, and in making its agent a black former slave, Tarantino exposes and defies an ancient taboo. With the brief and fascinating exception of the blaxploitation movies and a few other works of radical or renegade art, vengeance in the American imagination has been the virtually exclusive prerogative of white men. More than that, the sanctification and romanticisation of revenge have been central to the ideology of white supremacy.
In Regeneration Through Violence, his classic study of the mythology of the frontier, from colonial times to the eve of the Civil War, the literary historian Richard Slotkin identifies two essential mythic figures: the captive, usually an innocent woman held against her will by ruthless and alien usurpers, and the hunter, who is obsessed with protecting her honour and, sometimes secondarily, securing her freedom. Broomhilda and Django certainly fit those roles, and yet the roles, historically, were not intended for them. The idea that regenerative violence could be visited by black against white instead of the reverse — that a man like Django could fill out the contours of the hunter — has been almost literally unthinkable.
Tarantino is a virtuoso of bloodshed, that is for sure, and also more enamoured of a particularly toxic racial slur than any decent white man should be. But decency in the conventional sense is not his concern, though in another sense it very much is. When you wipe away the blood and the anarchic humour, what you see in Django Unchained is moral disgust with slavery, instinctive sympathy for the underdog and an affirmation (in the relationship between Django and Schultz) of what used to be called brotherhood.
So maybe it’s not so different from Lincoln, after all. And if Django Unchained is not better, it is arguably more radical, both as cinema and as (fanciful) history. A double feature might be just the thing, if you have five-and-a-half hours to spare. By any means necessary!
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Running time: 165 minutes
QT fanboy Pratim D. Gupta sinks his teeth into Django Unchained
Somewhere in the middle of all the bang bang and all the blabber blabber that is Django Unchained, Beethoven’s Fur Elise is faded in. The same Fur Elise that had opened Inglourious Basterds. But there it was Ennio Morricone’s version, called The Verdict, punctuating the original composition with his signature guitar arpeggios. Here a woman plays the tune on a harp… very classical, very straightforward.
That in many ways sums up Quentin Tarantino’s new film. Maybe it’s the period — 1858, three years before the American Civil War — or maybe it’s the setting — Texas first, then Mississippi — or most likely it’s the theme — blacks in a white world — the enfant terrible of modern American cinema has chosen to be a little less reckless. Rewarding yes, but not the ‘rambunctious’ sort. Easily Tarantino’s most un-Tarantino film.
QT’s “novel-like scripts” are usually split into chapters but the macro gambit is always pitched very early. The Bride killed Bill after four-odd hours of celluloid bloodshed but the two-minute black-and-white prologue was enough to set up the roaring rampage of revenge. Again in Basterds by the time the first scene ended, you knew Shosanna would return to settle scores with Col Hans Landa.
Django Unchained is more of a tumbling tumbleweed, gathering plots and characters as it meanders along. And it meanders quite a bit, given its 165 minutes running time. But there’s some delicious meandering there. And that’s got a lot to do with the two supporting characters — Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the magnetic but maniacal owner of the Candyland plantation who loves watching his black slaves being pounded to death in Mandingo fights.
It is Dr Schultz who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) in the opening scene of the film because he needs to track down the three Brittle Brothers. This is the first act which closes with the three dead Brittle Brothers and the good German dentist’s new offer: Django becomes his partner in bounty hunting for the winter and once the snows have melted, they go looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), languishing as a slave in Candyland.
And if you imagine that the big climactic shootout of a Tarantino film will bring the chains down, well, it will only end the second act, with Django Resurrected being the last half hour of the film. So it’s almost like three films, two short, one long in the middle, but all pointing towards one direction — the emancipation of the black man after 76 years of suffering through the might of “that one nigger in ten thousand”. From riding a horse to drinking a beer to dining at the same table to wiping out an entire population of white men, Unchained is Tarantino’s own bloody chaining of slavery.
There’s no humour in the violence, however. Bodies pile up in every QT film but there’s always a tongue-in-cheek subtext to it. Here from the moment the head of the horse explodes at the start to that big bang in the end, the violence is strictly serious. Whether it’s a man being ripped apart by dogs or a woman being blown to bits, it’s not easy viewing.
The Tarantino signature sings in the dialogues, of course. On the tongues of Waltz and DiCaprio, they play like music. Yes, some times Dr Schultz’s monologues remind you of Col Handa, some times Candie’s cadence reminds you of Lt. Aldo Raine but those are good ‘glourious’ memories. And if some of the lines themselves remind you of earlier QT texts, that’s what they are meant to do. Now, you can’t miss the tasty refreshment line, can you?
While Waltz and DiCaprio are disarmingly charismatic in every scene with every line, the man in the middle is bit of a bore. Jamie’s got attitude and the perfect physicality for Django but he runs out of expressions at very crucial moments of the movie. Like in the all-important dining table scene at Candyland where his inserts look more than a tad incongruous.
And maybe that is where Tarantino misses his editor Sally Menke (who’s edited each one of his films till Basterds before being killed in a hiking accident) the most. One also can’t help wondering what QT’s original choice Will Smith would have done to Django or what a young Samuel L. Jackson, who is expectantly excellent here as Candie’s limping Man Friday Stephen, would have brought to the scars on the back.
It is Tarantino’s genius that he writes his way to a situation where two black men negotiate lives in a white time in a white man’s mansion. But ironically the white men make the movie. The man with the ‘moving’ tooth and the man with the bad teeth.
Get your own teeth into this and take the blood-splattered trot through history. The QT mix.