Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Django Douple Dip

There's a lot to say about Django Unchained. Fortunately, DJ already covered the review quite nicely, so I don't have to worry about objectively describing the story or background. We can get right into discussing Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, and the strengths and weaknesses that I've wondered about. Your mileage may vary, and that's the only warning you'll get.

I left Django feeling stunned and quiet. No part of me was going to feel happily excited or amped after seeing people treated like that. I'd feel the same way if it involved any other oppressed group. The realistic brutality couldn't leave a smile on my face. Tho it's not impossible for a film to reach out to me, it's impressive that a movie like this could have any kind of profound impact.

Yet, at the same time, I think this was one of the funniest pictures of 2012. I hadn't seen Inglorious, so I had no experience with Christoph Waltz. In fact, during the bar scene that introduces King and Django to each other, I began to lose patience with his part a bit - but I barely needed to wait for CW to pay the scene off. And the aftermath of Django Freeman picking his very first wardrobe was brilliant. Chuckles, grins, and belly laughs were in surprising abundance, given the topic and content.

I'm not sure whether I should credit the humor to Tarantino's skill or to that of his actors, but DU also had this odd ability to keep me from being pulled out of this story. I expected that I would be, but the narrative had enough of the typical familiarity of Quentin's stories that I kept getting drawn back in. Hell, I should probably write a post about how every one of his pictures feels like a fan version of some other film.

Those were some of the obvious strengths in QT's 2012 oddball opus. As to its weaknesses, I have much more to say: DJ and I talked, shortly after leaving the theater, about Waltz's final scene. I said that I couldn't believe that King decided to blow everything and murder Candie.

DJ correctly noted that this moment was integral to the whole movie - not only did it signal the true rise of Foxx's Django, but it showed that Schultz had reached his breaking point. The awful, senseless violence and stupidity he had witnessed made him incapable of dealing with DiCaprio's role any longer; even the calmest, most experienced con man couldn't keep cool in the face of such vile and evil behavior.

As happens so infuriatingly often, DJ's argument was perfect. It's not only a comment by the director on this one particular fictional character, it's a comment about slavery as a whole and society at large and what people should or should not allow to exist.

Which is even more impressive, because it's a social/humanist message and Tarantino is too busy having fun and exploring imaginary violence to give a damn about any of that. I guess I could say that I'm amazed he created a film from which such a statement can even be gleaned, whether he intended the message or not.

However, I knew that my initial feelings also had some grain of truth: someone this calm doesn't freak out and get his friends killed, even when face-to-face with 1850's Hitler. The story laid out the groundwork nicely, creating the right tone for this development. And yet I could feel arguments rising up within me: Waltz's part could've broken sooner, or held out a bit longer; Schultz might've spoiled the deal in a different way; the final conflict would have felt more natural if it occurred some time after our heroes had walked away safely...

I guess I felt that the characterization part of this moment was forced. Something in me knew I should go past the Waltz-Foxx situation and look at other aspects of this story... Soon, it occurred to me - why would these bounty hunters create a ridiculously elaborate lie in order to buy Mrs. Django back? Candie seems happy to sell his house slave off - perhaps the leads couldn't anticipate that, but their whole ruse was designed to create an excuse to walk away with this slave without paying a fortune.

Well, in that case, why didn't they just approach Candie by saying that Schultz wanted a black slave who could speak his native tongue? The more I think about it, the more that it kind of undermines the entire plan. Candie is hard to meet, and he favors this one slave? Yes, that is a problem.

But that doesn't mean you set yourself up to see many of slavery's horrors just to create such high stakes so that Candie will gladly sell Brunhilda. Surely King is smart enough to know better! It's like deciding to start a fire by chopping down an entire tree and breaking it up into pieces when you have perfectly good fallen branches right at your feet... So I either have to call utter bulls--t on the entire last half of a fairly good movie, or I just have to let it go.

For all that, I walked away from my conversation with DJ holding onto a handful of real problems. Firstly, Quentin Tarantino basically s--ts all over his entire film in the last few seconds of the picture when Jamie Foxx pulls off some dumb horse tricks, and Washington protects her ears from a bomb in this moronic, Looney Tunes manner.

I understand that Tarantino likes to be "wink-wink" corny sometimes, that he loves to laugh at his own jokes, and I suspect he is likely to casually say "hey, look in my toilet and see what just came out of me." But it undermines the seriousness of the underlying topic to try (and fail) to be so stupidly comical at the end. I don't want to see Michael Bay direct a film involving the Holocaust for this exact same reason.

Secondly, I realized that this picture is so stylized that a lot of it will never make sense from a practical "hey, did you stop to think that through" perspective. Ms. Washington is basically wasted in her role - I think she has like 8 lines. And she's not the only woman that's used oddly here. Ms. Candie's exit from the film is her quick death at the hands of Django. It's very obviously a "bitch be cool" moment - or given how suddenly she's gunned down, more of a "bitch be quiet" moment.

But when she's shot, she soars out of the frame. She doesn't fly backwards, at an angle that corresponds to the angle from which Django is shooting. She flies straight back, as if she was punched by Superman standing directly in front of her. I appreciate a good wire-effect as much as the next person - and I understand that 1700's & 1800's ordinance was simply brutal - but why would Mr. T violate logic so obviously and unnecessarily?

Art can be a very masturbatory exercise for many artists. But there is supposed to be some agreement with the audience that, even when one's creations are steeped in onanistic narcissism, the outside viewer is given something to appreciate, as well as something emotional/intellectual to take away for themselves. It's not just "hey, why don't you come over and watch me j--k off?" And Django made me wonder if Quentin is going to seriously cross that line some day soon.

Thirdly, Mr. Tarantino really managed to capture the extent to which slaves were treated as livestock. I know it may seem obvious - they were slaves, duh. But the movie shows husbandry (well, the opposite, in the separation of Django from his wife), sale, fighting for entertainment, branding, migration in bondage, and castration. This is the way that (some) people treat animals, and the slavers here do it without thinking or flinching - some don't even do it with any particular cruel intent. It's simply the way things were done.

And that particular normalization of such evil behavior is beyond chilling. I was prepared to see people picking cotton, cleaning house, or stuck in hot work sheds, but I did not expect to see so much of the aspect of slavery as a materialist/capitalist treatment of human beings as animals. Property I was prepared for, and forced labor as well... but not this much or to this degree.

The fourth issue comes in the form of the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson. This man - who was actually a militant member of the Black Power movement in the 60's - is really the second highlight of Django. And, where Mr. Jackson has engaged in tons of willful scenery-chewing since his turn in Pulp Fiction, here he gets a more textured role.

If anything, Samuel's part, Stephen, actually serves as a perfect counterpoint to Waltz's role. Where King Schultz fosters amicable and equal treatment, Stephen spends his public time playing the simpering, doting slave to Mr. Candie. While Schultz lets his cleverness ooze into every exchange, Stephen comes off as dim and simple. It's only in private moments with his "master" that you see Stephen is more intelligent - and more in control - than anyone truly realizes.

Yet Stephen's rich qualities as a character are almost incidental to what the role displays. Whereas Candie and others have this jovial sense of privilege, Stephen is a salt of the earth type. And though he should have an easy life of managerial work, Jackson's part is only superficially happy and at ease. In fact, he's simply dripping with a pure, raw hatred the White men never convey: while this slave-in-command does truly adore his owner, the vitriol that he reserves for other Black folk is simply chilling.

I'll put it this way: Django Unchained features enough N-bombs for 5 or 6 Rap/Hip Hop albums. Yet that awful word is often used in a very matter-of-fact way. "N--ger" is simply what Black people are called in this world, as if no other noun existed. Slavers, townspeople, and other folks just say it, because it is their way of life.

Stephen, however, invests the epithet - one which truly applies to him - with the same sort of scorn that a devout Christian would instill in the word "Satan." The slur never seems more pointed, damaging, or derisive than when Stephen himself starts uttering it.

When you couple this with the unexpected depths of Stephen's intellect, you end up with a character that is unique, yet familiar. It calls back to Iago from Othello, even tho his back room conferences with Candie make me think more of Macbeth. In the context of this motion picture, the part is amazing, and sad, and hurtful... As Quentin (and Samuel) surely intended.

My fifth and last takeaway from the experience was that you would need a really particular mindset to feel "pumped" by this movie. I asked a coworker what she thought after she saw the film. She was very smart, cool, and funny... But she talked about the pic like I would talk about Pulp Fiction or the first Die Hard.

I'd like to not think it's because she's white - I am of a mixed background, and at least one of my ancestors was a slave, despite my coloring - but I can in no way imagine how a thinking human being walks out of Django Unchained pumping their fist and thinking "F YEAH! That was AWESOME!" I don't care who does the f--king score, this isn't The Matrix, guys.

As much human misery as Mr. Tarantino managed to put on-screen, the reality of slavery was even worse. Commendably, he did a great job with it. And watching his exciting/funny slave revenge Western only made me think even more that a real film about what slaves went through - whether they were fresh off the boat or whether they had been born of slaves here in the States - would probably leave every audience member crying for at least a few days.

I mean, the non-horrible ones, anyway. I'm sure some sociopaths and a--holes would enjoy it nonetheless. In a non-ironic way.

I took my sweet time preparing this entry, but I don't know if anyone was touched by this movie in the same way I was. Feel free to chime in with your opinions. You might sway me...


  1. I understand your point about the seemingly needless plan to save Brunhilda but I suspect that bit of the plot was somewhat inspired by the latter half of Huck Finn,where Tom Sawyer knows full well that Jim is a free man but can't resist making an elaborate scheme of escape for him anyway(which is a dick move but one that rings true with his character). I could be wrong and it may have been a simple choice to extend the story line.

    I saw DU on DVD and appreciate the Spaghetti Western style of the film(particularly in those long scenic shots during Django's training with King). Tarantino has been creating a series of revenge themed films for some time now,starting with Kill Bill 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds(which you really must see,Thaddeus!) and Django, each one using familiar cinematic exploitation tropes to subtly slip in some depth into the material such as Stephen's character arch in this film.

    In my opinion, DU hit too close to home for some people which is why it caused more outrage than IB(which did have some detractors but not as prominently featured in the media) and while the film could have used some editing for the sake of story and running time, I give QT credit for daring to bring some of the harsh truths about that time period to the forefront.

    I recently saw 12 Years a Slave, which deals with this subject in a more dramatic and heartfelt way than DU( Chiwetel Ejiofer was robbed at the Oscars in my opinion and yes, I saw MMC in Dallas Buyers Club but he was just good not great) and ruffled quite a few feathers as well. American society needs to be more open about this topic in all areas and art is as good of a place to start as any.

    1. Thank you! Django was actually quite beautiful, and made for great viewing on a big screen. Honestly, the look of the film silenced a lot of potential complaints on my part.

      It's not surprising that the film generated controversy. These days, news announcers reporting on racism are not allowed to quote the words that people used, and this is really the most appropriate use of epithets - to shame the idiots who use them (with the intent of a slur, of course).

      I hadn't thought of the Huck Finn angle, so thank you for that! I could see it as a possible inspiration, even though it doesn't quite seem right for *this* story, especially as a revenge film.

      Clearly, QT is drawn to the levels of goofiness and violence and drama that are conjured up by the whole "wronged person" trope. I had always hoped that he might try his hand at comedy or drama, yet he obviously just wants to make "fun" films, and I guess I'm fine with that.

      I love Ejiofor, but haven't seen both movies - so, much as I wanted Chiwetel to win, I can't really provide an informed opinion. But I'll try to see everything - and Basterds - and weigh in later.

      Thanks again for all your thoughts, lady t!

  2. I had some similar issues the first time I saw DU but I think upon repeated viewings, it becomes a more enjoyable film.

    First of all, the mixture of brutality and the "fun" stuff. I think what Tarantino does is that he takes these awful periods of history like here and in IB and gives us a fantasy of what would have happened if there were movie badasses like Django and Schultz or the Basterds there to exact revenge. I think once you embrace this vision of his, you can watch a woman being catapulted across the room at an unbelievable angle or have "100 Black Coffins" playing while slavers take slaves to their farm and truly enjoy it. It's like basic storytelling tropes where the bad people are REALLY BAD and we see that through the monstrosities they commit (which I'm sure they really did do. Perhaps QT brings a lot of it together in one place which is why it seemed so extreme) and then we have these proper hero-types tackle them and it's nice to see that happening at least on film even if it didn't happen in real life. I think that's why we can come away from this movie calling it awesome or whatever.

    As for Stephen, I'm fully convinced he's the true bad guy in this film. He was just evil to the core. Candie is hilarious next to him.

    About Brumhilda, I was kinda underwhelmed with her too the first time I saw the film, especially seeing QT's track record with really strong female characters but I did end up appreciating her role in it too. She couldn't fight back because of that time period. I mean, a black guy going against white slavers is one thing, a black woman attacking white slavers is taking it to a whole another level. I think of her more as a Sansa Stark type, quietly resilient, inherently pure.

    And lastly that horse trick. I was a bit pissed off with it too but it seems that it's some kind of a reference and its point is to show just how far has Django has come in becoming his own man and the true hero of the story.

    The movie in itself is not perfect but I cannot help but love it. It does so much right that the little problems don't really stand a chance.

    Nice post :)

    1. Thank you! I worked on this entry piecemeal for a long time, as I had so much to say - as well as lots of other posts to prepare.

      I agree that Tarantino uses humor to offset the brutality on display, I believe that DU and IB stand apart from the standard revenge trope that he's been playing with since Kill Bill. However, I agree with you most that we're seeing what we would like to see happen - a slave gets freed, empowered, and shoves his foot right up slavery's backside, so to speak.

      And yet it's harder here to find some cathartic release with his alternate-timeline films - and given how Django struck me, I want to put it in the same sub-sub-genre as Inglorious. I must admit, tho, that watching it again may cure some of my qualms right quick.

      As to Brumhilda (or Brunhilda, or Hildy, what have you), it's not so much expecting her to fight as expecting her to have more to do and say. It would be weird to have her role talking back or fighting back, but she barely even gets to say anything.

      I am hardly well-versed in American westerns, but I suspect it's a call back to the mid-50's fare. Cute horse tricks were popular at the time... At the most, it might convey that Django has been learning something other than murder for profit - which is good. Yet I believe that's the part of the movie that I'm least likely to understand/accept.

      Thank you so much For chiming in! I have some new reviews and double dips coming up soon, and I hope you find them as interesting or thoughtful as this one...

    2. I love this discussion of Candie's sister's demise. That moment (and much of the end of the movie) is of a mind with the heightened violence in some of the scenes in Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds where the "fantasy" part of revenge fantasy takes over. Part of Tarantino's artistry is how he manipulates the violence in his movies to shift between realistic violence, cinematic violence, and ridiculous violence.

      The end of the movie probably works best if you imagine that everything after and including the LeQuint Dickey speech is a fantasy or a dream that happens as Django bleeds out from Walton Goggins's botched castration attempt.


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