Saturday, 19 January 2013

Chew: Django Unchained

I finally saw Quentin Tarantino's new film Django Unchained and have a lot of things on my mind to say about it. But every blogger and their uncle has already written about it. And mostly about surface-level things: it's main plotline, it's storytelling, Tarantino's use of music, cameos and movie references, even something of the film's approach to the raunchy historical subject of slavery. So I won't do a basic review.

But instead of seeing these realities as obstacles, I see them as an opportunity. For I've wanted to push the blog forward a bit, and to start a series that focuses deeper into a film's themes and content than an easy run-off-the-mill review. I don't have to tip-toe around crucial plot-points in writing about these, so now Spoilers galore. Needless to say, I think you'd get more out of this text if you saw the movie already, for I'm about to gloss over the basicalities.

In short

I feel Django Unchained is Tarantino's most solid movie since Jackie Brown. That doesn't necessarily mean best, though. But this time around he has a good story at the core of his moviemaking rather than just a framework in which to drop dialogue scenes and movie references. Now all his characterizations and reference choices serve the main story, give or take a few gratitious cameos (the most aggravatingly coming from the director himself (twice!)) and a few beauty errors (like unnecessary flashbacks). But this is a movie that's more than just the sum of it's parts. The parts vary in quality a bit, but not as considerably as in the director's last few films.


Django Unchained features the very tarantinoan idea of cinema as a liberator. As The Bride reconciled with her estranged daughter over a VHS of Shogun Assassin in Kill Bill Vol. 2, or as the love sparked between Clarence and Alabama over a Sonny Chiba Triple Bill in True Romance, it is as evident here. As the film is set on a pre-cinematic times, Tarantino is forced to be a bit more creative than to just end injustice with a huge cinema screening. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a sort of actor, a bounty hunter who relies on playing various roles and to have an aim in his flamboyant appearances. The scene where he shoots a small town's sherrif in front of townspeople also hints he has a knack to entertain and to shock. Tarantino's alter ego, in other words.

The scene with Dr. Schultz tells the Niebelung Saga to Django (Jamie Foxx) over campfire is framed as if it were a shadow theatre. Django sits watching, as Schultz tells the story in his pleasant German accent over a "canvas" of stone. Listening to the story, the viewer can almost see the story unfold on the solid rock as fire flickers the shadows a bit.

So crucially, Django gets the idea to liberate his beloved Brünnhilde (Kerry Washington) not directly from Schultz, but from a retelling of an age-old legend, as one could get an idea fom watching a movie featuring such an archetypal story. The Niebelung legend, it has to be noted, is perhaps best known as Richard Wagner's opera. The choice to use this story as a start point also works to tie Tarantino's own tale into the same sort of framework used by his beloved Spaghetti Western directors. Sergio Leone, for instance, started out riffing off Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and ended his stint of westerns with the most epic meet-up of the genre's main archetypes in an operatic showdown.

A line can also be drawn from Tarantino's southern to the Coen brothers's O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which re-imagined Homer's Odyssey set also in Deep South. In both cases, indie filmmakers have picked up on films they love dearly (the Coens from the films of Preston Sturges), and the Americana that they love fearly, and made a movie that no one else could've done from the same ingredients as they have. In both cases the film is also a chain gang escapee's adventure through mishaps, during which they grow to be a loving husband. A love story, in short.


Tarantino grasps the basic of westerns in that they are stories of the birth of American civilization. The filmmaker has tended to emphasize human structures as the milieus in his films, such as apartments, cafeterias, cars, bars, coffins, hotel rooms and so on. Even his war movie Inglourious Basterds didn't have a single battlefield scene and mostly spent its time indoors. But telling the story of civilization doesn't work unless you contrast it with the great outdoors. Thus, we have more of the wide-angle shots utilized mostly in Kill Bill's flashback sequences and the opening of Basterds.

As expected, Tarantino's outdoors doesn't look very real, but rather like post cards sent from various movie universes. But it doesn't mean his version of American wilderness wasn't a cinematic and a wonderful thing to behold. The sound of nature is also surprisingly important in several key scenes. During the scene where Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) horribly allows one of his slaves, d'Artagnan, to be ripped apart by ravenous dogs, the wind hums in the treetops more ominously than any Morricone stock music Tarantino could've found for background music. Also important is the sound of nature in the scene where Django performs his first assassination. It is a turning point for the character and how he will act during the rest of the movie.


Many issue-filmmakers would've made Django much more of a savior, single-handedly rescuing every slave from Candyland by the movie's end. But Tarantino keeps his characters' goals simple and adds layers in their needs of achieving them. Django's only aim is to regain the freedom of his wife and get revenge on those that have wronged the pair. He learns more and more on how he needs to be both brutally violent and fiendishly clever in order to achieve this. Thus he walks the journey to be a bit naive fish-out-of-water in white man's world to grow into the cynical, stoic  mercenary that Spaghetti Westerns offer as their heroes. But he never loses his love for his wife (Kerry Washington's Broomhilda, it should be noted, is by contrast really more of a plot device or a MacGuffin than a fully-fleshed out character).

Django is the 1 out of 10,000, not in a way that he's superior to all his slave peers, but because he gets a chance by luck. It may feel like the part where Django is recaptured and sold off to a mining company is stretching the movie, but in fact it is crucial to the character. Before this, Django has more or less been Schultz's sidekick. Now the German has proved his own impulsiveness and hot-headedness to be worse a character trait than anyone surviving in his business is allowed to have. As well as getting himself killed, he has thus also doomed Django to be recaptured. But all they have worked for has not been in vain. The more level-headed apprentice now has to rely on his own wits, and the things his mentor taught him to survive. Django frees himself again through his own work, and doesn't owe anything to anyone any more. The film doesn't make a point on how only rare people have what it takes to fight back, it makes a point how rarely they get the equipment, chance, and crucially, education.

More used to Americans

Tarantino has aimed with his film to open a painful chapter of the American history to a pop culture re-evaluation. Provoking the audience while at the same time making them enjoy themselves is something films used to be able to do, and now when it's attempted the idea is so alien that the audience may have a hard time grasping it. The movie does offer a thoroughly black-and-white western set up, where the good are good, the bad are really bad, and the ugly are also bad. But America was really built on violence, blood and injustice, and I don't find a single good thing about slavery, anyway. Tarantino's approach to this cultural holocaust is not that different than the send off Nazis received, Dirty Dozen-style, in Basterds.

I find most of the discussion of the film's race issues so far has been more or less a fruitless conversation, attacking against the movie and it's (viewed) shortcomings rather than going into real social structures. The most over-minded liberals accuse Tarantino of being racist by having most black slaves of the movie be passive on-lookers, or even malicious such as Samuel L. Jackson's head house slave Stephen. Historically it's quite clear that most slaves did not rise against their oppressors, and remained silent and obidient. In such drastic situations, people are also easier to turn against their own kind. The capos working at Concentration Camps prove the same. So the argument appears to be that one should only have characters that work against stereotypes in a movie rather than both those that do and those that don't.

Thinking characters as vehicles to get a message across to audiences is exactly the kind of thing most message movies tend to do and bore the audience at the same time. QT has them be a lot more interesting. Multi-dimensional, intriguing and sometimes even conflicted, much like real persons are. The characterization is something he has picked up from writing Hans Landa from Basterds, his greatest single character.

Tarantino's film may not be deep, but it is entertaining first, and manages to raise some challenging ideas at the same time. I don't think there's nothing more to ask for a film such as this. So mark this one down as a success.

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