Thursday, January 3, 2013
Eric's Review - DJANGO UNCHAINED
I've had a frustrating relationship with Tarantino as a filmmaker. On one hand he wrote and directed PULP FICTION, one of the best movies of the 1990s. On the other I grew tiresome of his propensity to force his language and his fan boy fantasies on his characters. In Tarantino's universe, everyone is on his wavelength but he is the God: the ultimate arbiter of good taste in his self made world. Made more evident by literally placing himself in his movies (and revealing himself to be the worst actor). But there was still brilliance in even his most indulgent of fantasies. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, while the whole is not the sum of its parts, had moments that were so fantastic, so brazen you had to applaud some of its set pieces. And the idea of approaching something like DEATH PROOF by not parodying Grindhouse by way of Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR, but instead attempted to exist as an actual movie in it's own right. Although valid in theory, the film ended on a bad punchline to a joke that wasn't too funny in the first place.
Once DJANGO UNCHAINED was announced as his next project, I cringed at the thought of how he'd approach the Western. Or more specifically the Spaghetti Western since the film's title is taken from a pseudo film series where there may have been only one "official" sequel whereas the other titles had "Django" slapped on for merely commercial reasons. And then there was something too "cute" and somewhat tone deaf about how his lead would be a slave and that his Western would be dubbed a "Southern" instead. So Tarantino is going to tackle slavery during the 1800s? By presenting it as an Exploitation/Spaghetti Western? The same Tarantino who claimed an entitlement to speaking "black" during the release of JACKIE BROWN because he grew up in the 'hood. He was raised amongst black peeps. This gives him leeway as a White Man to write and say such things as "Nigga'." It was enough to understand why an African American filmmaker like Spike Lee would give pause when hearing such a thing. That this white, geeky, awkward movie fan is suddenly down with the Afro Americans and can bitch slap better than anyone.
But an annoying, frustratingly unself aware Tarantino is still an interesting Tarantino. There is always at least an aspect to his work that is worth acknowledging no matter how flawed. And so I entered DJANGO UNCHAINED expecting an interesting but potentially non fulfilling experience.
To say I was pleasantly surprised might be an understatement. Because one could possibly attribute my enjoyment of DJANGO due to having kept my expectations low. But there is more to what I took away from this film than having been merely entertained. Yes, DJANGO is most definitely entertaining. And very funny. In fact, DJANGO has more in common with BLAZING SADDLES than anything by Leone or Corbucci. Other than the Italo era zoom shots and Spaghetti Western music lifts, DJANGO really does not feel like a Spaghetti Western, not in the way that was initially promised. Nor does it feel like the Blaxploitation Westerns of the 1970s like the NIGGER CHARLEY series or BOSS NIGGER. Although the levels of violence reach slapstick, cartoonish levels, it's really not even within the bubble of 70s Grindhouse era violence, the sadism/surrealism of the 60s Euro Westerns, or even arthouse violence like CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 or EL TOPO. If there is any exploitation film that is specifically echoed in DJANGO UNCHAINED it's the ultra campy MANDINGO. But MANDINGO was in itself sensationalism by way of exploitation. But DJANGO.... DJANGO is not exploitation. Nor sensationalistic. If anything, it reminds me more of the offbeat, quirky Westerns like MISSOURI BREAKS, POSSE (it's star Bruce Dern makes a cameo in this), BUCK AND THE PREACHER, BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE and to a certain extent MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. That 70s oddball American Western feel is further compounded by the inclusion of Jim Croce's I Got A Name within the movie's soundtrack.
There is also a more linear feel to DJANGO than Tarantino's past flicks. Yes, there are fleeting moments where he plays with flashbacks, etc. But DJANGO moves in a fairly straightforward three act structure. It is, however, a little too long. Scenes could have been edited further. There are set pieces that should have ended on perfectly timed punchlines but, for some reason, the camera still lingers. And while the dialog is some of the best Tarantino has ever written (this being set pre-Civil War era, it forces Tarantino to have his characters speak other than film geek speak), there are monologues that could have been cut down. But the actors' performances really deliver: everyone is excellent. Enough has been said about Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, et al, that I don't need to reiterate what's already been said. But I was particularly impressed by Don Johnson in what is more of a comedic role than I'm accustomed to seeing him in.
The humor of the film is what sets DJANGO apart and not just from the movies it purports to pay homage to (although there is does exist a slight Terence Hill/Bud Spencer buddy romp vibe at times). If anything, it might have in its DNA the forgettable 1971 comedy THE SKIN GAME where James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr. portray con artists - a white man and a black man posing as his "slave" - whose dynamic is not too dissimilar to that of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz (although Waltz' character affords Foxx a lot more respect than Garner does with Gossett, Jr). But instead of playing along with his usual encyclopedic knowledge of Film, Tarantino instead displays what seems to be some deeply researched historical facts. On the surface, one could easily compare DJANGO to any Blaxploitation Western what with the lead's background as a former slave. But Django the character is a LEGALLY freed man (he is indeed referred to as Django Freeman on DeCaprio's plantation) whereas the characters of Blaxploitation past were runaway slaves turned outlaws, fighting against the white man and the law. In DJANGO UNCHAINED Jamie Foxx's character is trained to use the law to his advantage. And it is here where Tarantino displays a talent for using the odd historical fact to his film's advantage. The bounty hunter is in effect protected by the law and therefore considered a federal operative. And legally he is allowed to kill any man -- even a LAW man - should there be a bounty on that man's head. It's a subversion of the 70s Black Hero rising up against his oppressors. But instead of illegally battling the Man and the law itself (and thus becoming a folk hero), DJANGO shoots his way under the protection of the law. And in the eyes of his fellow slaves, he ain't no folk hero. Not yet, anyway. But this is a detail I've never seen presented in a Western (let alone Spaghetti, Blaxploitation or otherwise). And often times it is used to comedic effect.
And now we get to the issue of race (or the portrayal thereof).
Whether he grew up in the ghetto or not, in this day and age of political correctness it does seem kind of disingenuous (and potentially arrogant) for a white, reared-on-cult-movies nerdy guy like Tarantino to approach slavery by way of paying homage to Westerns. And on the outset, again, it could be understood why someone like Spike Lee would want to "boycott" DJANGO UNCHAINED. But Tarantino approaches the issue in a very interesting way. It's matter of fact. At some times even comical. It's an opposite approach to say how Spielberg handled the Holocaust in SCHINDLER'S LIST or even slavery in AMISTAD. Tarantino's characters are not presented as martyrs. They are complex human beings as capable of wrong doing as anyone else. And it's through that promise of faux exploitation that Tarantino lures you in then hits you with an in-your-face, this is how bat shit evil this whole slavery thing really was. For example, during the title sequence (fantastically filmed, by the way), we get the surface of a Spaghetti Western style opening - the zoom shots, the music, etc. But within the image we see a chain gang of black men, barely dressed, struggling to keep up on foot with their horse riding owners during trying conditions. We see the whip lashes on their backs. We witness the extreme discomfort. The complete dehumanized effect. It makes for a jarring juxtaposition with the stock music and the stylized camera work. And has a much more visceral effect than say a John Williams soaring score played against oppressed characters bathed in angelic light. Nor is this exploitative in the way of MANDINGO which was basically a big budget Elsa movie transported to a southern plantation.
Where it does get close to being sensationalistic, there is a scene where Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie feeds his slave to his dogs. However, within the traditional, Exploitation meme this would have been the mere result of a White Man punishing his rebellious slave. Yet, it is Django who gives the go ahead on this - to maintain his "role" as the "Uppity Black Man." Although it is more or less a sacrifice he has to concede to, it's an interesting moment in that it suggests that many African Americans of the time were in similar situations where they were the slaves (or ex-slaves) punishing the slaves. It's his understanding of this world that allows Django and Schultz to infiltrate Candyland and because of that, it is Django who has to school Schultz on this. Schultz, while established as a well meaning white man is still ignorant of the inner politicking of the slave caste system. Not just that, but like most liberal people of the White persuasion, its the need to appear enlightened that betrays his ignorance. It is simply not his world. By freeing Django, he's simply putting him in a far more complicated/awkward situation than that of slave and slave master. But the mauling of Candie's slave is a set up for an exchange of dialog that hits home the ignorance theme without landing too hard. Calvin Candie, it turns out, is a Francophile who is also ignorant of French culture. And by acknowledging Candie's slave's name as "D'Artagnan," Schultz recognizes that Candie is a fan of Alexandre Dumas. D'Artagnan, you see, was the hero of Dumas' THE THREE MUSKETEERS. It takes the literate, more "enlightened" Schultz to point out that Dumas was, in fact, black.
The caste system is further illustrated within a scene that introduces Samuel Jackson's character Stephen. Taking place outside of Candie's mansion, you have Django literally sitting on his high horse role playing the "Uppity Black Man," Stephen the "true" Uppity Black man, his true master Calvin Candie who from the get go shows deference to his slave Stephen, Schultz playing the role of of Django's master and, finally, Candie's shackled plantation slaves looking on at Django with derision while looking on at Stephen with abject fear. All of this is presented within the same frame. Later on it is revealed that Stephen has been indulging in some role playing of his own... not quite the cliche' Uncle Tom. More of a hardened, manipulative prison warden. And we see how much power he wields over Candie as well.
I'm going to go for a VERY loopy comparison but here goes... it reminded me a lot of Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. In how, on the surface, we are presented with a comedy that has at it's center a villainous Jew. Shakespeare still gets a lot of flack for this. But the play is far more complex. The world presented displays a class system on the outset: minorities (in this case those of the Jewish persuasion) are considered the lower rung. And you have the upper class who looks down on them. However, it is the upper class that are dependent on the Jews (just as the slave owners are dependent on their slaves) and, in being so, are somewhat enslaved to them. To further complicate things, Shakespeare introduces another class - the WOMAN. Within this world the woman must absolutely defer to the man no matter what the status. Without doing so, it can result in alienation. Even worse. To such an extent that one of the female characters in the play who is well schooled in the law has to defend another character while disguised as a man.
When it comes to the female component in all of this, Tarantino somewhat drops the ball. It would have been interesting to see how women are viewed via both races and whether or not they represent a separate class from everything else. However, it is a minor quibble for me as Django's quest -- to rescue his wife - is more of a MacGuffin. It's how he gets there, what he witnesses and how that changes him that counts. The ending, however, gets a little too goofy and almost cancels out everything we've seen before. It's almost as off putting as that "bad punchline" ending to DEATHPROOF. But it wasn't so bad that it ruins the experience of the movie as a whole.
I really liked DJANGO UNCHAINED both as a student of the Western Genre and a film fan who is always interested in seeing what Tarantino comes up with next. Even if it doesn't always hit its marks, DJANGO is his best film since JACKIE BROWN.