Thursday, January 24, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Roots, Bloody Roots

written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz,
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Guns on the table: is Quentin Tarantino using a shameful period of American history as so much paint to splash upon his hipster pasticheur's canvas, as the Spike Lees and Armond Whites of the world have charged? Is he, in fact, turning the subjugation and mental colonization of a race of people into just another candy-colored Panavision playground for his boundless, grindhouse-fed imagination to romp through?

Of course, he is – and it puts him in the company of approximately every dramatist or storyteller who's ever existed.

Imagine, if you will, a human existence without the eternal Godzilla's foot of war and enmity between nations that looms over us in every era, threatening to stamp us into oblivion. Imagine hearts shielded from the pin-pricks of bigotry and callousness and brotherly betrayal; no random shootings, robberies gone awry or crumbling inner-city war zones blasted daily into our consciousness by op-ed pieces and chirpy anchorwomen. What, then, would our future artistes and essayists on the human condition use to fuel their plaudit-inspiring, name-making masterworks? How many little gold statuettes and industry back-slaps have been dished out on the deaths of soldiers at Normandy or grunts blown apart by Vietnamese land mines, while we swooned over all that Method-acted agony on the screen and inhaled another fistful of Goobers? Does one suppose that the Bard paused in the middle of writing Macbeth to weep for poor souls ground underfoot in man's eternal headlong rush to power? Human suffering is art, and the Tarantino of Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds – comic-book moral intelligence notwithstanding – is no more inherently objectionable than Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam restaging the David Berkowitz killings or Steven Spielberg and Roman Polanski slapping wheels under the Holocaust and riding that sucker straight into Oscarville.

What gets folks all indignant about The King of the Fanboys tackling a Serious Subject like slavery is the same thing that makes his work crackle with a charge unmatched in our dickless modern era: he refuses to stick a neat little bow on his intentions for the guardians of human suffering by ladling on the strings, standing back at a respectable distance and putting his sense of humor on ice. He refuses (is unable?) to treat the slave trade as any less of a springboard to rip-roaring action-movie nirvana than botched jewel heists, Mexican standoffs in diners or Uma Thurman and her samurai sword taking on a squad of assassins – hence, the accusations of cloistered geek-boy insensitivity.

But he's not wrong, in essence. To try and understand with twenty-first century minds a world where biblically justified chattel was as intrinsic to daily life as child labor and the outdoor commode is to circle endlessly around a cold black void of the unknowable. What might as well be dystopian sci-fi from the unbridgeable distance of neat schoolbook summaries or dusty daguerreotypes flashed upon in PBS documentaries becomes flesh and blood when couched in the grammar of a big Christmas-season revenge flick. Ancient history merges with the present-day narrative, the freedom of a Nat Turner becomes as tangible a hero’s quest as Batman cleaning up Gotham. Culture-wide catharsis beckons at the pop of an overloaded squib.

That's not to say that Tarantino isn't indulging in the usual Hollywood self-flattery. Your friend who still quotes lines from Pulp Fiction will swear to you that Django is an examination of how every facet of an ostensibly civilized society both benefits from and does its part to sustain institutionalized inequality. Tarantino's not that deep, though – not intentionally, anyway – so what we actually get is a rock-'em-sock-'em Sergio Corbucci/blaxploitation mash-up where modern-day liberals are time-machined back to the mean old past to wreak sweet, bloody havoc on the not-with-it-ness of our backwards forebears. No one with an investment in historical accuracy will mistake Christoph Waltz's kindly, über-progressive Dr. King Schultz for anything but an emissary of our present age of enlightenment, what with his pangs of guilt about buying Django like a horse and his blithe naïveté about riding through town with a black man at his side, while clueless as to what all the slack-jawed yahoos are staring at. His climactic Wild Bunch gesture – a Pike Bishop middle finger in the face of one last compromise – completes his canonization.

Obviously, then, Schultz is our Tarantino surrogate – the lone white swan amidst rotten-tooth redneck ducklings, the white man who gets it, the sole beneficiary of divine wisdom and madcap inspiration who atones for the sins of his race by freeing a black man from the chains of iniquity and molding him into an instrument of heroic vengeance that echoes the legends of his youth. (The Nibelungenlied for Schultz, Coffy and Fred Williamson flicks for the future masthead of the S.S. Weinstein.) It's interracial male bonding not as a balm for lingering social hostilities, not even as a Tarantino-esque tweak of buddy-movie conventions, but as a fundamentally white male artist's assertion of continued relevance in the age of identity politics; an application for renewal of the ghetto pass Tarantino first earned by sporting a backwards Kangol and telling the media of his mother's black boyfriends and his lifelong hard-on for Pam Grier.

I wonder, though: what happened to the mad bomber of Miramax who played around with form and context like a mischievous brat who'd just received the history of cinema for a Christmas toy? Whither goeth the pop revolutionary who delighted in taking stock genre characters and dropping them into the real world with its frustrating refusal to stick to the script? When a pair of bad-ass hit men like Pulp Fiction's Jules and Vincent find themselves faced with the consequences of careless firearm handling in an everyman's L.A. full of observant cops and friends who want your ass gone before the wife gets home, it's how they extricate themselves that epitomized the singularity of Tarantino's gift – the way that their B-movie programming short-circuits at life's improv and sends them scrambling out of the cineplex toward a kind of shaky humanity. "Movies are great," the video store clerk-turned-overnight sensation seemed to be telling us. "But at some point, you've gotta grow up." Jackie Brown's sublime meditation on aging and regret only furthered the perception.

Now his gift's in service of cinematic wish fulfillment, righting the wrongs of history. The bad-boy president of the N-word Fan Club is now defined by his eagerness to liberate himself from the shackles of white maleness and soothe his chapped ankles in the waters of grrl power, anti-anti-Semitism and black hipness. Problem is, that eagerness has blinded him to how underwritten his totems of payback-against-The-Man tend to be. (Unless, of course, he meant to make Basterds the first World War II movie in which the Nazis are complex, three-dimensional magnets for audience identification while the Jews are little more than bloodthirsty comic relief.)

Jamie Foxx, as Django, is supposedly the centerpiece of the Unchained saga, and yet – grim irony – he winds up about three-fifths of a fully sketched lead. (Waltz is the true star of the film.) One guesses that Tarantino didn't feel the need to – pardon the pun – color him in: our counted-upon disgust for slavery was assumed to be enough to have us cheering on Django's rebirth as the ebony Siegfried. (Just as motherhood in Kill Bill was meant to be the trigger for our investment in The Bride.) And Tarantino was likely motivated by the threadbare characterization and shadowy man-with-no-name aura of any number of spaghetti western protagonists. Still, he somewhat glosses over the psychological scars of a life in bondage by having Django go so easily from human property to damn-the-system avenger and crackshot marksman. We need to feel, as well as see, the spectacle of a black man rising from the prehistoric racial milieu of 1858 and pointing his shotgun toward a better tomorrow. We need to see the nuts and bolts of nothing less than a man's mind being molded. The potentially fatal audacity of learning to put bullets in white men for money, of developing a ruse in order to waltz into the fourth biggest plantation in Mississippi and reclaim his wife, needs to be as eye-opening and as consciousness-transforming for Django as the contact with other lifeforms in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – he's discovering new planets. Instead, we get an amusing scene of Django decked out in Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia and a nifty montage set to Jim Croce.

Foxx is less a pure actor than he is a movie star and comedian (call it The Eddie Murphy Factor), so he keeps us at arm’s length, never truly disappears into the character the way a Don Cheadle or a Chiwetel Ejiofor might have. Tarantino, in a recent interview with Henry Louis Gates, spoke of having to coax Foxx into the mindset needed for Django – the spirit-killing degradation and utter smallness internalized by a man who's used to life as a farm implement. But Foxx doesn’t do "smallness." Here, as in most of his performances (Michael Mann's excellent Collateral being an exception), he's too tethered to his public award-show image of super cool Jamie Foxx-ness, too locked into a shell of 2012 black male hardness that refuses all hints of vulnerability and bristles with anachronistic indignation. It's a variation on the same false note that plagued Spielberg's Lincoln, with its 1865 black soldiers proudly addressing not just any white man, mind you, but the President of the United States of America – and with far too much direct eye contact and (to echo Richard Pryor) "bass" in their voices, to boot.

Here, you can see that hip-hop-appropriate I-ain't-no-muthafuckin'-slave-ness bubbling up long before the narrative has a chance to account for it: on the plantation of the Don Johnson character as Django pumps a hole in the leering sadist who once reveled in whipping Django's wife, or at the beginning as Django struts forward to grab the coat from a dead white man and put his weight on the mangled leg of the dead man's brother. It's there as Django cracks wise and simmers with animus during his and Schultz's visit to the Candie Land plantation under the guise of purchasing mandingo fighters – and it's enough to smother whatever suspension of disbelief we've been able to muster between all the cutesy spaghetti western speed-zooms and flashbacks filtered to look like a faded film print from 1968. It's an admission of this misplaced modernity when Tarantino drops 2Pac and Rick Ross on the soundtrack. And because we haven't fully bought into his kitsch-laden panorama of the past, the choice doesn't jar us nearly as much as, say, Peter Gabriel's synth-drums over the opening battle in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

It’s worth noting that Django only bonds with Schultz the hip Tarantino stand-in rather than with any black characters. Despite his flair for the verbiage of salt-and-pepper interaction, Tarantino has no real idea how black people might actually relate to one another. (Jackie Brown's tête-à-têtes with Ordell aside, and that's in large part due to Elmore Leonard's source novel – in which she was white.) We keep waiting for Django to offer a helping hand, some ray of hope – something befitting a hero – to his fellow black men as he prepares to ride off into his preordained sunset of ass-kicking righteousness. They stare up at him like a living Greek myth whose legend they'll undoubtedly spread to others, and he looks back at them – knowing yet dispassionate, a god made flesh. And then? Tarantino seems to be nudging us toward something larger, some sparking of a communal flame – perhaps a plantation-wide revolt – that might thrust his fantasia into a broader historical context, that might use his worship of the "bad muthafucka" archetype to scrape decades of Hollywood-applied makeup from the bloodstained, genocide-blemished face of American history.

But nothing comes of it. Was Leonardo DiCaprio's plantation heir Calvin Candie right when he pegged Django as a one-in-ten-thousand rarity among biologically docile blacks? It's as if Tarantino spent all his capital on enriching Django's relationship with a white man and had none left to flesh out the sense of community that undoubtedly existed among slaves, even under the shit-encrusted boot of captivity. Save for a brief, enlightening throwaway of Samuel Jackson's Stephen joking with the kitchen help, we get no hints of the cobbled-from-scraps culture – the humor, the secret communication – that managed to nourish blacks in spite of slavery's every attempt to sever them from human connection and turn them into self-regulating extensions of Massa's whip. There's nothing from Tarantino, that eternally bowed figure at the monument of superficial black coolness, that even nods in the direction of slaves' capacity for aiding one another. Rebellion other than Django's crackles at the margins of the narrative but it's ill-planned – and we do need a sacrificial lamb or two to help showcase the depths of hillbilly depravity – so it's easily quashed. Django, though, has the good fortune to have Schultz; he's given agency and on-the-job training by a Magic Caucasian figure who feels sorry for the poor devil, thus, he triumphs. It's retroactive affirmative action; the auspices of the hipster's White Negro impulse jumping back in time with the cutups from Dave Chappelle's "Playa Haters in Time" skit and rewriting Roots.

As with Basterds, though, the real meat of Django Unchained is around the edges. Laura Cayouette, as Candie's sister (and probable lover) Lara, is a satirist's sketch of blushing Southern-belle coquettishness; Susan George in Mandingo minus the storm clouds of scorned-woman spite. Walton Goggins, as Candie Land henchman Billy Crash, is our grinning death's head of keep-the-niggers-in-their-place-ism – a bud of privileged intransigence that would shortly blossom into the Confederacy and the Klan. (By the way, Quentin, 1858 is three years from the start of the Civil War, not two.) He's in a constant, self-perpetuating fit of arousal: he can't wait to kill you in the most agonizing way possible, and he wants to know if it turns you on as much as it does him. A cineaste could die smiling from all the great character actors that keep popping up: Don Stroud facing down his doom with prickly unawareness, a befuddled Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, James Remar, Franco Nero (in Tarantino's obligatory nod to the original Django westerns).

From the second he turns to greet us, DiCaprio's Candie is clearly no member of the laboring class. He's a cover-boy dandy for the Esquire of the antebellum South, with his ridiculous Holly Golightly cigarette holder, his pointy cartoon-devil goatee and his air of bored hedonism that can't help but hold a mirror up to the thoroughly average countenance of whoever has the audacity not to have been born a wickedly clever son of the landowning class. Like the insane dreamworld that surrounds him, he's a study in contrasts: he's our gracious host for a banquet on the elevator to hell, balls-deep in chained chocolate as he preaches phrenology and offhandedly instructs a pair of bloodied mandingos to "keep fightin', niggers" while tossing his Southern hospitality around the room like bits of bread thrown to starving pickaninnies. That's no goof on nineteenth-century hygiene when his smile flashes rotting yellow teeth: that's the state of his soul, the silk hanky of the "suh-thun way-a lahf" peeled back to reveal a lump of maggot-infested horse meat.

Candie and Stephen, his head servant and the father figure that's shaped Calvin from childhood, are a crackling minstrel-show duo of his 'n hers interdependence. (Call it Jack Benny and an uppity-as-hell Rochester as sketched by the writers of Blazing Saddles.) Hilariously, Jackson's made up to look like a refugee from a crude Reconstruction-era staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He distances himself from the self-loathing of this doddering old sellout with that theatrical old-man look and with funky little touches like the tuft of white hair that adorns his bald geezer's dome. It's another of Tarantino's knowing black men schooling greenhorn white boys in the ways of the world (think Mr. Orange and Holdaway in Reservoir Dogs); yet another Sam Jackson performance that hones Tarantino's genius for triggering manic, queasy laughs to a diamond-bullet sharpness. From his every utterance of "muthafucka" to his Ordell Robbie huckster's laugh (more distancing techniques), to the glorious intro shot of that beady-eyed scowl that breaks over the landscape of his face like sudden nightfall, I couldn't get enough of him.

It's Stephen who runs the show at Candie Land – the original Head Nigga In Charge – and, though he gives great shuck 'n jive while yes'm-ing and mm-hmm'ing away at the side of his boy king, it's Stephen who reveals himself to be the dragon standing between Django and his sainted princess. Stephen drops his mask of servility twice, and indelibly: face to face with Django and, earlier, as he hips Calvin to the ruse that had a house full of fool white folks nodding along like Simple Simons. It's his truest self: the contempt for his socially appointed betters that lurks shark-like under placid waters of sass-tongued coonery. Forget Clarence Thomas, Jackson gives us Stephen as a great-great-grandfather to the flared-nostril surliness that white liberal tastemakers now applaud as Authentic Negro Expression – commodified black rage turned self-applied blackface. And tiny victories are all Stephen's world allows him; if he has to topple another black man just to feel the salve of backroom superiority against his own chapped ankles, then so be it.

Tarantino, divorced as he is from the fat, humorless bitch of highbrow critical consensus, has long championed Richard Fleischer's Mandingo for its big-studio wading into murky exploitation waters. But Mandingo – along with Lars von Trier’s overlooked Manderlay – trumps Django for pure daring. Fleischer and von Trier dig beneath evil-whitey caricatures to stare head-on at the fetishizing of black otherness that kept slavery on life support. That "otherness" eventually curdled into America's fear of miscegenation: for generations of self-styled white Siegfrieds, the black penis became the fire-breathing dragon forever coiled in wait outside the castle of white womanhood. That’s something Tarantino shies away from, cranking up gunshot geysers of tomato sauce in its place – Sam Peckinpah by way of Chuck Jones. It's not surprising, given his career-long aversion to the sexuality that informed much of the cinema he claims as inspiration. Django does bear the scent of sex in one regard, though, and it's the fruit of Tarantino's apparent white-liberal cuckold fantasies: he sits back and watches a black man fuck the legacy of his ancestors. And you know what they say about black virility. No wonder this long-winded film keeps climaxing over and over.

©2013 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

1 comment :

Dusty said...

All right, this is a much needed comment on an excellent piece. I don't know where to start...but here we go. I was one of the people who objected to QT rewriting history for Basterds. I didn't feel comfortable with it...until something said more or less what you just did. He's using it as a convention to stage a's a movie, dumb ass. That seemed fair to me.

I do wonder where the QT who made Jackie Brown has gone. He seemed to be on the verge of something there...weaving all the influences and show-offiness into a coherent point of view on life, death, aging, regret. That's a deeply mature film from our boy genius...just look at the scenes with Grier and Forster.

I agree with you about Jamie Foxx in general...who I think is an enormously likable actor who show boats too much. He did get crack second banana work in Collateral no doubt. (By the way, why didn't someone wrestle Tom Cruise out of that film? Take about high school drama acting).

As for the rest about DJANGO...well, I can't comment on it as I have not seen it. I will have to let you know.

Good to have you back.

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