Sunday, December 30, 2012

On the Big Screen: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

The new film by Quentin Tarantino is a poor excuse for a spaghetti western in many ways, whatever its other virtues may be. Consider: the great fan of the genre forgot to include a climactic mano-a-mano gunfight between the hero and a villain. Yes, not every spaghetti western has such a scene, but just about all of them have villains who are good with guns -- but Django Unchained does not. It actually has a couple of great villains in Leonardo DiCaprio's decadent plantation master and Samuel L. Jackson's loathsome sycophant of a major-domo, but neither of them shows any prowess with firearms. Tarantino saw no need to endow either character with gun prowess, nor any need to stage a classic showdown. As far as the big action scenes are concerned, Django often resembles Asian films in which the hero, whether armed with a sword or just with kung fu, slays multitudes. Even most of those films, however, have some sort of one-on-one showdown involving an evil master, a worthy antagonist who allows the hero to show off his ultimate skills. The absence of such a figure in Unchained is glaring. It's not as if Tarantino's hero Sergio Corbucci eschewed such showdowns; the face-off in his Il Mercenario between Jack Palance and Tony Musante is one of the best of the genre. Such scenes don't figure so much, however, in the revolutionary westerns, usually set in Mexico, which certainly influenced Tarantino.

In the teaming of Jamie Foxx's title character and Christoph Waltz's Germanic bounty hunter Django echoes the archetypal pairing of "primitive" bandit and foreign "expert" in films like Damiano Damiani's Bullet for the General and Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dynamite. Those movies usually involve some sort of consciousness raising, but that element is strangely abortive in Unchained. That's unfortunate given the potential for rich backstory for Dr. King Schultz, an immigrant who despises slavery and proves less capable than Django the ex-slave of restraining his disdain for the slavemasters. The bounty hunter may be German only because Waltz is playing him, but the casting raises the possibility that Schultz might have been a refugee from the suppressed 1848 revolutions in Germany and the rest of Europe and thus a liberal if not an outright leftist. Schultz's past goes unexplored, however, and in general Django has fewer of the digressions that define Tarantino's work. It's the most rhetorically subdued film the director has made to date. The only truly characteristic Tarantino moment comes with DiCaprio's impromptu lecture on the phrenological proofs of Negro inferiority, illustrated with his hacksaw dissection of a former servant's Yorick-like skull. Otherwise, Waltz's occasional grandiloquence hardly holds a candle to the arias Tony Kushner gave to some of Dr. Schultz's contemporaries in Spielberg's Lincoln.  As my original complaint might indicate, Django Unchained lacks much of Tarantino's usual genre magic. That may be because the spaghetti western as a genre is a form of pastiche, and one that embraces a certain superficiality -- or sacrifices depth to achieve other, often impressive effects -- so that a pastiche of spaghetti westerns starts at one further remove, at least, from any kind of spontaneity. Unchained is lovely to look at, but that's the least you could expect from a cinematographer like Robert Richardson on some epic locations. But there's less feeling of seeing something with new eyes here than you'll get from any other Tarantino film except for Death Proof. If anything, the new film feels redundant, its ultimate resort to slaughter differing little from Inglourious Basterds, as if that's how Tarantino movies are going to end from now on -- not with showdowns, not even with revolutions, but with executions. Even his sampler soundtrack -- including an original song contributed by Ennio Morricone -- sounds relatively uninspired. As a fan of Jacopetti & Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom, I found the absence of cues from Riz Ortolani's tremendous score for that film conspicuous. Maybe the use of the theme song in Drive last year made it poison for him.

Worse, Tarantino may have joined the ranks of directors who've forgotten how to end movies. You'll think you're seeing the wrap-up of Django Unchained in one very violent sequence, but you'll see that the film has about a half-hour to go. Django is one of Tarantino's most linear movies -- it plays out in chronological order, apart from brief flashbacks, and there's only one of the director's compulsive chapter breaks -- and it may show why he prefers to go non-linear. At nearly three hours, it lacks pace along with much urgency in the first half. It picks up considerably once the heroes begin their journey to Candieland, DiCaprio's plantation where Django's beloved remains enslaved. Tarantino has suggested that Apocalypse Now is a structural model for his film and you do get a sense of descending into an abyss as DiCaprio and Jackson reveal their evil. But perhaps out of some misplaced sense of historical or social realism, Tarantino's villains aren't made for single combat, and beyond that he fails to make the most of their menace. As a case in point, I was expecting Jackson's Stephen, made up as Uncle Tom's evil twin, to be a sexual threat to Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django's wife, but that threat never materializes, and as an elderly, lame man Stephen is no one to get into physical fights with Django. He falls somewhere between Grima Wormtongue and Edward G. Robinson's Dathan from The Ten Commandments, with a volume of Tarantino-Jacksonisms thrown in. Jackson and DiCaprio give the film's best performances but the film still seems to underutilize them, while Tarantino may have plotted a climax and filmed it before realizing that, while he might do without a climactic gun duel, he couldn't dispense with another key spaghetti trope, the capture and torture of the hero. It couldn't come at a more awkward time. Overall, Django Unchained feels surprisingly haphazard, especially since we know that some scenes are pointless whimsies (the dreadful business of Don Johnson's proto-klansmen kvetching about their ill-made masks) while others (retained in the graphic-novel adaptation) were cut out or never filmed.

Tarantino may have been too full of a sense of historical mission. He's told Henry Louis Gates that Django Unchained is to some extent an exorcism of John Ford, a director he affects to despise for his alleged offense of wearing a Klan hood as an extra on Birth of a Nation and his supposedly-unreconstructed racism, as if Sergeant Rutledge and Cheyenne Autumn had never existed. He seems really to want to blow bloody holes in a cinematic heritage he deems tainted by bigotry. His intellectually-admirable anti-racist agenda is even more sweeping, if you think about his appropriation of the Siegfried-Brunhilde myth most often associated with the anti-Semite Richard Wagner. Django is as much a self-conscious countermyth as Oliver Stone's JFK, and as such it has already been criticized. Inevitably, he's drawn fire from Spike Lee and fired back, dismissing Lee's insulted sensibilities as ridiculous. The exchange is telling. Lee protested against the idea of addressing slavery in a spaghetti western context, while Tarantino assumed that Lee insisted on some politically correct standard of dignity in any cinematic portrayal of slaves. This point came up in a different way during the actual shoot, as Tarantino had to persuade Foxx that Django could not be a Jim Brown-like badass superhero from his first appearance. The director had to know he was playing with fire by emphasizing the abjection of slaves, since someone might take it as a reflection on the character of slaves' descendants. But it's one thing to accuse detractors of demanding a false ideal of dignified resistance and another to caricature slavery for sensationalism, and by stating bluntly that slavery was not a spaghetti western Lee (who has admitted not seeing or intending to see the film) was probably criticizing some inevitable caricature, not flinching from some uncomfortable truth. Tarantino's slavedom is a realm of extensive collaboration by the likes of Stephen or Candie's apparent concubine, an arena for "mandingo fighting" and a venue for depravity by masters and slaves alike. If "slavesploitation" as a genre, from the epochal Goodbye Uncle Tom to Hollywood's lurid fantasies like Mandingo, has a defining fault, it's the generic focus on depravity rather than drudgery. You hardly see slaves working in the fields in slave movies. They are seen to exist as objects of their masters' fantasies and whims and become fantasy objects for audiences as well -- so goes the general critique. That extends to films that envision slave insurrections or the more personal revenge played out in Django Unchained.  I can imagine Tarantino offering his film as an empowering myth, but I wonder what he thinks the moral is.

Despite all I've said, Jamie Foxx's Django makes an intriguing spaghetti hero. His consciousness-raising arc is the closest the film gives us to something new in the genre. It's not the usual arc taking a "primitive" hero from selfishness to revolutionary consciousness. Django seems mostly indifferent, or else sometimes contemptuous, towards other slaves -- more so, in either case, as he adopts the role Schultz assigns for him as a "black slaver," an appraiser of mandingo fighters. Schultz talks anachronistaclly like an acting coach encouraging his charge in Method technique, while Django threatens to prove too good a student, his assumed arrogance toward whites and blacks alike threatening Schultz's delicate scheme to secure Broomhilda's manumission from Candie. To spoil a few things, however, it's Schultz himself who sabotages the plan at the last moment. They've been found out and forced to pay a high price for Hildy, but it looks like Candie will let them have her as long as he's got the money. As a last condition, however, Candie insists that state law requires the deal to be finalized with a handshake, but Schultz can't bring himself to shake hands with the vile slaveowner and can't stop himself from precipitating a disaster. You can't help thinking that had it been up to Django alone, he'd have shaken Candie's hand and left with Hildy.Whatever his political heritage, Schultz succumbs to moral indignation while Django seems able to restrain his -- despite several shots of him reaching toward his holster when he sees evidence of Hildy's suffering. This is a significant distinction, though for all I know the full significance of it may be lost to Tarantino himself. In simplest terms, the distinction may be between an idealist and a pragmatist, but Schultz remains too vaguely defined for me to guess where his fault lies exactly. Suffice it to say that his acte gratuite is where the film goes off the rails, but there may still be a point to his impulse making the rest of the movie's violence necessary. More than the monotonous flow of blood in the last reels, this mystery keeps me from dismissing Django Unchained as a genre botch, but it remains a disappointment. Tarantino has talked about quitting while he's ahead, but despite many positive reviews for this one, it may already be too late.


knobgobbler said...

I enjoyed the movie on a basic entertainment level... and it seemed to be a crowd-pleaser for the audience we saw it with.
Still, I wouldn't disagree with many of your points.
One thing I realized though is that the pre-climax of having the main villain go down a bit early is that he is deflated in import... a bit of meta-castration as his funeral consigns him to relative insignificance.
It would have been dumb fun though, when Jackson drops his cane and reveals he is not lame, to have him pick up one of the fallen guns and start leaping around like some white-haired master out of an old Kung Fu movie.
And I was half-expecting the Siegfried myth to carry out to the end with a funeral pyre and self-sacrifice... but oh well.

Jon said...

Samuel you and I are on the same page here. I was definitely disappointed with this effort. This is a great essay and gets at alot of things I was struggling with. Ultimately I think it's one of Tarantino's least inspired works. I actually also struggled with the shifting of the personification of evil. We're consistently chasing a new bad guy. Those 3 that are shot early on....and Big Daddy....then it's Dicaprio, and then it's Samuel L. I don't know I far preferred the bad guy of Waltz in Basterds. We knew who the bad guy was there and it builds and builds throughout that film to its fantastically absurd climax.

Samuel Wilson said...

knob, Django may just work on too basic a level compared to the level Tarantino normally works on; it is getting a lot of good reviews, especially from those who aren't particularly big QT fans. Interesting point about castration, too, given that the whole film is more about punishment than combat.

Jon, you make a good point about the surplus of villains, and the result is that they're all ultimately just victims, while the real meaning must be in the contrast between Django and Schultz and why one is doomed while one will survive. Tarantino may have a point to make here, but it isn't necessarily a coherent one.