Thursday, February 7, 2013

‘Django Unchained’ (2012) directed by Quentin Tarantino, 4th February 2013

Django Unchained’ is a fantastic film that should be seen by anyone with the remotest interest in cinema.  It's a patchwork of cinematic references and musical cues swiped from other films, but though he may cast his net far and wide for inspiration, the true genius of Tarantino is the way he synthesises a hundred disparate elements into a seamless package.  Every character in the film is a work of genius, every performance sharpened to a razor edge. ‘Django Unchained’ radiates confidence from every frame.  If you haven’t seen it, go and see it. 

This film has been out for a while, so I’m going to be free and easy with spoilers for the plot.  If you haven’t seen the film, stop here, watch it and then come back.

Tarantino gets a lot of stick for obsessing over surface ‘cool’.  Films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and both ‘Kill Bills’ are criticised as being examples of style over substance.  Sure, the dialogue may be sparkling, the direction utterly entertaining and every single piece of casting might be perfect, but, these monsters of cinema say, where is the heart?  Why is style over substance such a bad thing anyway?  Given the choice between a film with big dollops of visual and verbal panache and something drearily important boringly eking its way to a moralistic conclusion I’ll take the thrill ride nine of ten times.  Cinema is an audiovisual medium, and as far as I’m concerned it’s perfectly valid to enjoy a film that's gunning for my reptile brain as much as one that wants to massage my frontal lobe.

But, I hear you say, why not have both style and substance?  You’re right, but both here and in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ that’s exactly what Tarantino is doing.  The climax of ‘Basterds’ has a cinema full of Nazis thoroughly enjoying seeing one of their own gunning down Allied troops, a twisted reflection of the thrill that we’re getting from seeing Brad Pitt carving swastikas into Nazi’s foreheads.  ‘Django Unchained’ uses violence in a similarly intelligent way, arguing that the only honest way to view true horror and brutality of slavery is through a fountain of blood.

King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Django (Jaime Foxx)
The film pointedly introduces itself as taking place “2 years before the Civil War”.  Right now this makes the film a sibling to Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’. While ‘Lincoln’ is about the importance of co-operation and diplomacy in trying to put a broken country back together, the violence of ‘Django Unchained’ demonstrates to us exactly why it was necessary to break the country in the first place. 

Django Unchained’ sets out its stall when we see Django hesitating over shooting a wanted man ploughing a field with his son.  Schultz explains what he’s done to deserve getting shot, then tells Django to “quit your pussyfootin’ and shoot him.” This is the moment where Tarantino properly shows his cards.  Slavery is so abhorrent, so intrinsically violent, corruptive and venal that approaching the issue in a tasteful and restrained way is disingenuous.  So when Tarantino applies grindhouse cinematic techniques he’s not trivialising slavery, he’s using cinematic language to explain to a switched on, culturally literate audience exactly how barbaric it was.  The idealism and dealmaking of ‘Lincoln will have to come later.  Blood needs to be spilled as an overture to the Civil War to come.  Bluntly and honestly, these slaving motherfuckers need to die.  

The avenging angel meting out this violence is Django, who Tarantino takes pains to depict as a self made man.  His development over the course of the film from hunched, monosyllabic slave to invincible gunman is perfect, we see a man consciously creating his own mythology, transforming himself from man to legend.  This identity - the super-cool slave bent on revenge against those who’ve wronged him is constructed within the narrative by Django and his partner, King Schultz, and by Tarantino as writer/director of the film.  

Tarantino is nothing if not self-aware, realising that a story about a white man liberating a black slave and ‘civilising’ him would raise some eyebrows.  Fortunately, Schultz avoids these pitfalls by allowing Django free rein to construct his own identity. Within the film Django gets to choose his own outfits and to try on different roles as he and Schultz concoct plans to collect bounties.  While Schultz impresses roles upon Django (the servant, the black slaver etc) these function as a space for our protagonist to concoct an identity of his own.  But these are still restrictions or chains placed on Django by another, and for these reasons it’s necessary that the film kill off Schultz before the final act.   

It’s only in the final act of the film that Django is truly unchained.  Throughout the majority of the film, Schultz has constructed sets of fertile fictions within which he can decide who he is and what he wants.  Before the last act, these fictions are swept away.  Django is once more in chains, naked, sent back to square one.  But things have changed, Django cunningly talks his way out of his bondage, displaying an wit we haven't seen him have a chance to display.  As Django rides a white horse through the plantation fields, rifle raised in the air he realises his identity as an iconic force of nature, an avatar of the righteous fury of the black diaspora.  He effortlessly toys with his tormentors, passing violent judgment upon them.  It’s interesting to note that in this process, Django even kabooms the white man that’s been extratextually ordering him about, Tarantino himself.

As interesting as Django is, the character is necessarily slightly restricted by having him to so perfectly embody heroic vengeance.  The other two characters of note are Calvin Candie, the owner of the horrific ‘Candieland’ plantation and King Schultz, Django’s mentor.  Both men represent different aspects of civilisation, Schultz embodying an outsider’s European idealism and Candie representing a hypocritical ‘Southern hospitality'.  For all their differences, both utilise the mechanics of slavery to get what they want out of life.  Schultz may deplore cruelty, but is still sure to get a legal bill of sale when he ‘buys’ Django and later Broomhilda. 

Much has been made of the seemingly random, reckless decision of Schultz to shoot Candie through the heart rather than shake his hand.  It’s a surprise twist, the man who has epitomised patience and logic blows away the owner of a plantation in front of his entire staff.  On reflection its not so random after all, for the first half of the film Schultz is to some degree insulated from the true horror of slavery.  He’s unfailingly polite to slave owners, using his verbal dexterity to talk them round.  It’s only when he dons the disguise of pretending to be interesting in ‘Mandingo’ fighting in Mississippi that his demeanour begins to change.  Firstly we see him visibly disgusted at the fight to the death in Candie’s ‘Cleopatra Club’ and then almost brought to breaking point on witnessing a slave being torn apart by dogs at Candie’s command.  So, when his ruse has been rumbled and the tables have been turned he ends up looking into a mirror, seeing a confident, fancily dressed man with European affectations offering his hand. Shaking it would seal his complicity with Candie’s barbarism. He’s reached the point where he’s disgusted by his own twisted reflection and “can’t resist” blowing him away.

It's also interesting that Schultz is a sly inversion of the ‘magical negro’ archetype.  If you haven’t come across the term before, it refers to a cliche in American fiction to have a wise, generally old black character whose sage advice and innate spirituality are used to help the white protagonist in their struggle.  Schultz turns this upside down, acting as the ‘magical’ German to Django.  Brilliantly, even there’s a scene where, sitting around a campfire, Schultz tells Django ‘a story of his people’; the story of Siegfried’s rescue of Brunhilde.

Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Calvin Candie is a great villain, his sliminess and stupidity putting paid to the repellent myth of Southern hospitality.  Generosity and kindness across the scarred backs of slaves is a thin veneer of civilisation on top of sheer barbarism.  It’s important to understand that Candie isn’t naïve, in the “three dimples” speech he wonders why the slaves don’t just rise up and kill his family, prooof that he knows the immorality of slavery.  All of this adds up to a subtle but powerful argument against Southern slave-owners having any moral justification for their actions; even the defence of ignorance is exposed as lacking.  

Fascinatingly, Tarantino even has time to force us to identify with him.  There is a lot of violence in Tarantino's films, but few scenes as viscerally unpleasant as the Mandingo fight we watch Candie enjoy.  We instinctively condemn Candie's gladiatorial bloodlust, but the camera positions us behind the sofa with him, identifying us with the audience watching the fight rather than with the fighters themselves, rarely showing their faces.  This goes a long way to defusing the argument that he's exploiting slavery for entertainment value.  Throughout 'Django Unchained' we are sitting in comfy cinema chairs watching black slaves tear each other apart for our entertainment as we munch popcorn and sip soft drinks. We can learn from what Tarantino is showing us, but this scene urges us to recognise the problems with being entertained by it.

Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)
Possibly the most complex character to unpick is Stephen, Candie’s “house nigger”.  He’s a tightly wound ball of self-loathing and rage, a man who’s worked to get to the highest position of authority he can within a corrupt system.  While Stephen is vile in his obsequiousness and cunning, we know deep down that he’s consciously taken on this role to survive and prosper as best he can in a system designed to grind him underfoot.  Both he and Django have gained freedom and privileges, yet Stephen exists within the system of oppression and Django outside.  It's difficult to put yourself within Stephen’s shoes, but on a certain level his anger and disgust when he sees Django sitting at his master’s table is understandable.  If a black man is allowed to behave as if he is white, it's a clear threat to the power that Stephen has clawed for himself.

Ultimately, even though we may feel sympathy for Stephen it’s fleeting.  When we see Django tormenting him in the film’s finale he's utterly justified.  An interesting thread in Tarantino’s recent work is the moral judgment he makes on those that aid and abet oppression and evil as opposed to those that front it.  While Candie gets off relatively lightly with a single shot to the heart, Stephen gets shot in both kneecaps and left watching a dynamite fuse slowly burn down.  A similar scenario happens with the Brittle brothers in the first half of the film, the man who does the whipping of slaves is summarily executed, while the man who ties up the slaves and salaciously watches gets viciously whipped by Django before being shot repeatedly.  Tarantino reserves a large portion of his disgust for people that aid evil while trying to avoid taking any responsibility for it.  I can see echoes of this in the final scenes of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, with the solidly bourgeois men and women in the cinema getting mown down with as much righteousness as a platoon of uniformed SS officers.

Perhaps the funniest example is Django’s carefree execution of Lara Candie, the widowed sister of Calvin.  Although she never commits any overt evil during the film, it’s people like her who are willing to smile politely and ignore inhumanity without raising objections that allow systems like slavery to perpetuate themselves.  When Django shoots her, she’s hilariously yanked off stage at an almost 90 degree angle, her death comical and at the same time utterly justified no matter how ‘nice’ she may be.

By the time Django turns to us, smiling as the wreckage of the Candie plantation burns behind him we feel a powerful catharsis.  Tarantino and Django have carved their way through slavery with gusto, creating a new mythology in their wakes.  The grindhouse and blaxploitation films that Tarantino pillages are part of the bedrock of our shared cultural experience, the style that he's criticised for is the substance his critics are seeking.  By using these familiar techniques and archetypes Tarantino has created a pop mythology of retribution, he's taken modern culture, fashioned a missile out of it and fired it into the past.  Everything from the whip-pans to the 2pac song on the soundtrack makes the past pop with life and relevance, highlighting the evil of 1858 through the prism of 2013.   

That's why Tarantino is one of the few film-makers that successfully marries style and substance.  He's a creature of cinema, unashamedly standing on the shoulders of greats, forging new meaning out of the universal cultural experience.  That's why as far as I'm concerned 'Django Unchained' is a Great Film.


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1 Responses to “‘Django Unchained’ (2012) directed by Quentin Tarantino, 4th February 2013”

Unknown said...
February 11, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Great review and a refreshingly proactive approach to shutting down the naysayers.

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