27 December 2012

First Impressions: Django Unchained

The premiere of any Quentin Tarantino film is pretty special. He's the rare kind of auteur with enough of a mix of independent credentials, big studio power, and a passion for his craft and intuitive sense of coolness to inspire a loyal following of die-hard and casual fans alike. His previous film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), was also one of his best ever, so needless to say, the anticipation for this year's Django Unchained (2012) was immense. Plenty of SPOILERS to follow, but let this be a thorough discussion of the narrative, thematic, and contextual elements of the film.

Hanging out in a Tarantino film is always a little lesson in film itself. This was never the case moreso than in Basterds, but Django is also both an exploration, amalgamation, and subversion of similar genres. It's based on the Spaghetti Westerns pioneered by Sergio and Clint in the 60s, most notably and obviously, though, by Django (1966), starring Franco Nero, who does make an appearance in Unchained, passing on a bit of a torch to Jamie (we've seen that before). I mostly recognized Franco from Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990), but that's neither here nor there.

Tarantino has also had a vested interest in late of moving away from his gangster or assassin films to these sorts of period pieces. Django Unchained also owes some inspiration to Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), a Japanese Western. When you finally pair that with Tarantino's protege the RZA's The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) and you've got this movement by all these dudes to place western tropes or plots into unfamiliar settings, which really just continues the kind of post-modern interpretation of pop culture that QT's been digging since Pulp Fiction (1994). The core element of the Western, thus, is no longer its geography (despite its name) but the characters, which echo across a wide range of settings, as both Tarantino stock actors both old (Sam Jackson) and new (Christoph Waltz) attest to.

Inglourious Django

This film in many ways is a continuation of the filmmaking direction Tarantino began when he created Inglourious Basterds. While there are thematic elements similar across Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction, as well as similar directing styles, likewise Basterds and Django are a solid pair. Dogs and Pulp both involved gratuitous gangster violence, cool black suits, an LA setting, and conversations about minutiae between likeable people who do horrible things for a living. Basterds and Django involve gratuitous war violence, cool luxurious suits, period settings, and intense, extended conversations between good guys trying to fool bad guys.

It's the latter in Django that is ultimately derivative of Basterds, though the tension in the scenes is just as palpable, knowing that at any moment the cover of our protagonists would be blown and they would meet their end by the worst people in history. There's also this binary Tarantino view of morality. He treated the Nazis in Basterds as utterly irredeemable, undeserving of any form of mercy or treatment other than an ultimate brutality. He gives slaveowners and generally any White American in this film the same way. Evil cannot and will not be tolerated.

There is an excessive brutality on display here. Like Basterds, Tarantino seeks to shock people into realizing the evils of history through his trademark hyper-violent style of direction. However, there isn't anything in this film that bucks or criticizes the voyeurism behind his audiences enjoyment of the violence. Instead, Tarantino uses copious amounts of violence, including some really harsh mandingo fights and scenes of dogs tearing apart those unwilling, to demonstrate a kind of unforgivable evil in this world. This also tends to be an unremembered brutality. It's a reason to oppose things like Confederate Flag bumper stickers and hanging chairs. There is still an evil in symbols like this that deserves an unflinching brutality to eradicate.


This binary morality bleeds into the characters. Christoph Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz almost in reverse of his Colonel Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. He plays a loquacious, educated, wily German, except Schultz uses his powers for good while Landa, the Nazi, was the embodiment of evil. There hasn't really ever been an actor more capable of delivering a Tarantino monologue, and his ability to deliver entertaining exposition or explaining trivia is unparalleled in any film. The key thing about Schultz, though, is his morality. He kills, yes, but only those who have done deeds enough to warrant a bounty, or again, those irredeemably evil such as slaveowners. It is for this reason that he is ultimately unable to compromise and even shake Candie's hand.

Evil likes coconut.
There are a lot of big egos and big ideologies at work here. It's ultimately not a huge deal for Schultz and Django to by back his wife, Broomhilda from Candie. What is a big deal, though, is their ruse (which was necessary to get someone as powerful as Candie to sit up and listen). Candie becomes infuriated at their deceit and intrusion on his Southern hospitality, made all the more biting by requiring him to shift how he treated Django and what he let him get away with (staying in a bed in the Big House, letting him ride a horse and rip another man off his horse, among much more). It's this heavy level of insult to their own ideology (and their way of life) that causes Candie to react with such furor (it's also what caused the Civil War and stretched it out so long - see also: Lincoln [2012]). You can't mess with these things and expect to go unpunished.

This doesn't sit well with either Schultz or Django. It's a significant morality and duty to understand, because otherwise the film could end quite nicely when Candie signs for Broomhilda's freedom and the three of them are free to leave Candyland. This, despite its logic, doesn't work with the narrative, theme, and as we've said, the pride of the characters.

There's also that bit with Beethoven. In mid-19th Century Germany, Beethoven was a tremendous point of national pride. The woman who casually plays it in Schultz's defeat in the very heart of everything he has grown to despise, is thus an insult to his pride and ideology nearly as much as Candie is insulted by a Black Man on a Horse pulling the wool of his eyes. There's also the more personal fact that Schultz is not a man who is used to losing. As we'll get into later, though, where Schultz's wits fail, eventually Django's succeed.

Southern Wagnerian Spaghetti Western

So yeah - what's that, four disparate elements? We have the Italian treatment of the American Western meshed with a German Epic and set in the Deep South. It's a twirling mess that ends up becoming a unique genre and narrative. So, let's talk about Wagner.

"Oh Bwoomhilda, you're so wovewy!"
Wagner didn't invent the story of Siegfried, that's within the Nibelungenlied, an ancient German epic poem, as I learned from that Wikipedia Link. Wagner did, however, incorporate much of the story into his Der Ring des Nibelungen, which nowadays is likely the most famous interpretation of the story outside of Germany. Admittedly, most of my knowledge of the story comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Anyway, the story is famously epic and excessively long. As it was being composed around the same time as the movie takes place, it's unlikely Schultz is directly referring to Wagner and moreso the classic story, so we can't say for sure if there actually is Wagner directly here (it would be strange for the same man who composed Inglourious Basterds to include references to the music of a famed anti-Semite and symbol of National Socialist pride anyway). Still, the dude's not totally concerned with historical accuracy.

Ultimately, at any rate, Tarantino's goal appears to be to apply this same sense of epicness to a tome about the Black Experience in the Antebellum Deep South. It's a full hero's journey through hell and hell and then hell again. In doing so, the film really pushes the narrative structure of such a tome. We've talked about this again and again. Ultimately, the story structure is difficult to accept because it's unconventional. The main villain, Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio), doesn't appear until well into the film, and is dispatched with far from the climax. As this review from the Playlist suggests, there's really three films at work here: 1) Schultz's enlisting of Django and their dispatching of the Brittle brothers, 2) Django's training and journey to and through Candyland, and 3) Django's final escape and retribution.

The unconventional narrative should be nothing new to Tarantino fans. He has long structured his films around emotional highs and lows rather than highs and lows of plot. We could almost consider Django as a series of vignettes similar to Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/04). Pulp Fiction was nearly connected but ultimately had distinctive stories that occasionally ran into each other. Kill Bill had a strong driving connector to its vignettes but ultimately still worked as a series of self-contained scenes. Basterds has the same thing going for it. Django may be easier to swallow if its vignettes were not linked chronologically, which is, admittedly strange for a Quentin film.

Django and an Unconventional Narrative Create a Black Triumph

Taken together, Tarantino has strung a series of stories together to tell a complete journey of the freed slave Django. In the first major story he is transformed by a white foreigner from an ignorant slave to a flashy, if not inexperienced bounty hunter. After that his confidence grows as "the fastest gun in the South" but ultimately the film seems to crash and stumble when both Schultz and Candie die. This generates confusion by refusing to follow the beats of a more familiar narrative. The hero is supposed to keep rising, refuse defeat, and beat the bad guy. The trick is that Candie is not the bad guy. Well, at least not the main bad guy.

Think again about Tarantino's morality. It's not enough to inspire social or legal change (again, go see Lincoln if you want that kind of movie), nor is it enough to just kill the main dude. In Tarantino's world of Django and Basterds, no amount of evil may be tolerated. There isn't a slaveowner who lives in this film and it's not over until Django says it is - and that means that no racist hillbilly or Uncle Tom can survive. In this way, it's not the triumph over Candie that serves the climax, he'll be replaced. It's the triumph over everyone - racism and oppression itself, that completes Django's journey. Until Candyland is literally blown up and then lays in ruin, the film cannot stop. The excessive length to do this only cements the extreme difficulty in achieving this endeavour.

Blame it on the pigment
Schultz's death is also essential for Django's story as well as the theme of the entire film, and the entire genre as of late. In the first few stories, Django is dependent on Schultz for his wealth, connections, race, and intellect to advance their goals as well as Django's place in life. It's not terribly different from films like The Help (2011) or The Blind Side (2009) that tend to demonstrate little more than white patronage, ultimately making the black race dependent on Whites. This tends to make these films more palatable to white audiences, who can feel all warm and fuzzy that they'll help Black People out of any jam they find themselves in.

The last story in Django is the most important because it concludes both Django's character journey and what this film should mean for Black People. He does what no white man in the movie can do for him - saves his wife and kills all the evil in the movie. Using his own wits, talent, and will he takes control of his own destiny and self-determination, doing so with the kind of flair (including, yes, his crip walking Horse - just watch Broomhilda swoon) that solidifies this as a black experience. It's a spectacularly Black achievement, with no help from the White Man, that is lacking in just about every racially-toned film ever.

Finally, the Characters

The big four in this film are surely Chris, Jamie, Leo, and Sam. Waltz makes love to classic Tarantino dialogue like no other, and is fast proving himself to be an incredible actor - even if he really is just playing a version of Landa filled with Justice rather than Malice. Leo is also having a great time as the slimiest character put in a major film in years (possibly since Landa) but he's devastatingly cold and brutal. There's also a clear bit of incest with his sister going on there.

So this is what Sam can do in movies that don't feature snakes or planes
So let's talk about Sam. Sam Jackson plays a ridiculous Head House Slave who is unquestionably loyal to Calvin Candie. He's putting on a few levels of acts here, though, and is clearly one of the closest confidants to Candie himself, helping himself to liquor in his private Library and altering his speech and walking ability drastically depending on the company he's keeping. It's one of the stronger Sam Jackson performances in years, though certainly a difficult and controversial one for the Academy to recognize. This is really as close to an Uncle Ruckus we're going to get on the big screen as we're ever going to get.

The Stock Character of an African who is extremely sympathetic to White interests is relatively rare. Sam Jackson clearly acts as Candie's dragon, though, and as the final opponent in Django's path to Broomhilda, really caps the final scene as an extension of the Nibulungenlied. The handful of times where Sam Jackon's inner Sam Jackson-ness (any screaming of "MOTHERFUCKER" for sure) is just icing on the cake.

So, finally, let's talk about Jamie and Kerry. Foxx and Washington are reunited from their time with Ray (2004), and they're both spectacular here. Kerry Washington doesn't have all that much to do here and is mostly the unattainable princess at the end of Django's journey, but Quentin does throw in a few significant roadblocks that really requires Django to walk through hellfire to get her. She of course, though, gets the most-Tarantino-esque moment in this whole picture at the very end when she sticks her fingers in her ears and smiles in preparation of Candyland's destruction. It's the kind of cheeky, genre-crossing postmodern moment that's noticeably absent from most of this film.

Now, really, this film leans all on Jamie Foxx. Jamie's career is really fairly bizarre. His first mainstream break was being hilarious on In Living Color, then he appeared in a lot of crappy films, won an Oscar for Ray, and then has done really bad crap like Stealth (2005), Miami Vice (2006), and Law Abiding Citzen (2009) ever since. He's also had a decent singing career that has ranged from taking advantage of an impeccable Ray Charles impersonation to disguising himself as a Panda while hanging out with Forest Whitaker, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ron Howard. I love Ron's face at the beginning, he's just like "yeah, I don't know why the fuck I'm here, either." Maybe Quentin can get in his next video. Somehow, though, his stock is still pretty high, probably because he's immensely likable. He's also confident in his own skin, unapologetic about his swagger, and is thus a symbol of black success through being black instead of acquiescing to a white standard. He's the man.

Also Django Powers
Django also finds his own skin, but a bit slower. His confidence grows as his skill does, and he eventually finds a medium between his flashy first choice of outfit, and something more practical. Jamie coos through every line he speaks with a soft but threatening rush, in the process becoming one of the coolest characters in contemporary cinema. Again, his last few scenes really emphasize this. He rides in bareback on a white horse, appropriates Candie's trademark clothing and cigarette holder as if finally settling on an outlet for his stylish nature, and gives Sam Jackson Sambo the best monologue in the film.

So what else is there? I haven't mentioned a lick of a script full of incredible one-liners, made cooler by Jamie's gentle and fierce delivery ("I like the way you die, boy" "I'm curious what makes you so curious" "The d is silent"), as well as bits of hilarity from brief appearances of the likes of Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, and many others. I can't imagine what this film would be like if the RZA, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Kurt Russell had all made the cut.

So here you have an excessive post to match an excessive film. It is an epic, a Black Southern Epic, and deserves to be treated as such. It's a fantastic film, even if its need of plot and theme at times trumps its need for believable scenes or characters. But hey, it's doing its job - delivering the message intended with sparing flights of fancy.

It also has just about the best soundtrack of any film this whole year - at some point no matter who you are you need to acknowledge his contribution to bringing that back to relevance.

The only thing I skipped over here is Quentin's gratuitous use of the N-word. Like the Mark Twains and Dave Chappelles before him, though, I don't find a problem with him using such a vile word in a context to further elucidate the evil in the world. Anyone who thinks that word isn't used today to a similar extent amongst private company would truly be ignorant.


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