Friday, January 11, 2013

Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino has his peccadilloes and they are, in no particular order: guns, obscure film history (especially those involving martial arts) and dialogue. 

Lots of dialogue. 

If there's a downside to Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained, it's that this verbosity gives a certain flabbiness to the third act - but more of that later. Rest assured, - if you haven't seen Django Unchained yet - it is not only predictably funny (Cf: the hilarious deflation of a proto-KKK lynching scene by a discussion about the inefficiency of eye holes cut into sheets) but it retains and even improves on the way in which, when not wreaking havoc, his characters love to talk.  

Unlike his more art house contemporaries - these characters, while loquacious, are never, ever dull. I'd argue that this is why Tarantino is a great director. Because he revels not just in wordplay but in acting itself. I saw 90-year old Alain Resnais'  lovely You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet this week, and I got the same feeling of respect for the right person to deliver the right lines in the right way. But with QT you get all this AND immense wit with canny sureness of touch, all achieved by using a familiar team of editors, cinematographers and, naturally, actors. Django Unchained has all of this.

And the two perfect actors for this kind of chatty film are Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz, joining Jamie Foxx as the freed slave who wants revenge on his oppressors and his wife (Kerry Washington) returned to his side. Jackson's place in Tarantino's work is 67% assured, if you take into account his appearance in four out of six of his films. And Waltz seared himself into our collective consciousness in the first 15 minutes of Inglourious Basterds. Let's just remind ourselves of that, shall we? This isn't the full scene (unfortunately) - missing the deliciously malevolent charm Waltz exudes when he first arrives. But it does have the pipe bit - which is one of THE funniest moments in cinematic history.

This scene is relevant to Django Unchained because, as pointed out many times, the whole beginning of IB mirrors the opening of another film which is a Tarantino touchstone: Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). Django Unchained feels like the natural and correct next step for Tarantino - because it's a Western. A spaghetti western. Since Kill Bill he's been referencing Leone and his contemporaries innumerable times, through the use of Morricone scores, editing techniques and framing. At last he can use all that Italian goodness in its correct context.

And while the original trailers for Django Unchained seemed too obvious in its glaring use of music at odds with its subject matter and genre, when you see the film the Jim Croce and hip hop all seems entirely apposite. Mind you, can anyone tell me of another film that reuses another's title music in the same place? It's a bold move, even from a man who paired Gerry Rafferty and ear-slicing. But listen to Rocky Roberts' song from Sergio Corbucci's original Django (1966), and it's clear that it could have been the ONLY choice!
Waltz, as Dr King Schultz - a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter - essentially OWNS this film. So much so that when he (SPOILER ALERT) disappears from the action in the third act the whole film seems to lose impetus. This isn't to say that Jamie Foxx is less than great any time he's on screen, but that Waltz adds a heart to this simple revenge tale. It's a suitable reward for playing such a monster in Tarantino's previous film. He gets to defend Germanic culture as the polar opposite of the brutal culture American slavers and their mock classicist mansions. I loved the part where, racked by his conscience he finally snaps and stops a woman from playing Beethoven badly on the harp.

The overall simplicity of the plot (slave loses girl, slave gets girl back) allows Tarantino to stack up the wordplay even more. But when the director finally makes his cameo (along with Willie Nelson, of all people) as a porky Australian mine employee, it's left to Foxx alone to cajole and finagle before blowing away his captors. Without Waltz's charisma the dialogue seems leaden this far down the line. All we really want by this point is payback. Luckily we get it in gloopy, blood-spattered spades. 

But forget any simplistic squeamishness over the violence portrayed, what QT is doing here is directly related to Leone's 'opera of violence' credo. Again and again Django Unchained goes beyond gratuitousness in its adherence to a tradition that's a key part of American (and world) cinema history. While Django Unchained may not exactly reinvent the Western in the way Leone and Eastwood did it still pans out as a coherent genre piece with all the nods to its predecessors, even down to an appearance by the actor who played the original titular hero, Franco Nero.

There's a certain danger that Tarantino has been locked onto a hipster demographic that belies his talents as a serious director of worth. Conversely, I often see my erm… older friends getting out of their Parker Knolls to shake a virtual fist at QT's shenanigans. (Much has been made of this year's Academy nominations being opened up to a wider, younger demographic by the use of online voting. People seemed appalled by the predominance of white, 50+ males in the list of over 7,000 members eligible to vote. (As a white 50+ male I feel slightly defensive about this. A broad knowledge of more than just recent film history HAS to be a good thing, especially when you consider what happened back in the '80s when BBC Radio One polled listeners for the 'greatest film of all time'. The result was Star Wars. Star Wars! Anyway, we need a reasonable balance of experience versus iconoclasts. What's more, the idea that this aged audience's nostalgia resulted in The Actor winning everything last year seems nonsense to me. It seems more likely that the film was rewarded for box office performance. If the elderly fraternity were just being nostalgic they'd probably go for anything that resembled Mean Streets or Apocalypse Now). But what the establishment (and that includes a lot of you reading this) can't quite fathom is Tarantino's wilful post modernism. In Kill Bill, QT seemed hellbent on showing us exactly HOW many films he'd seen and absorbed, resulting in a jarring mismatch, albeit one that's expertly scripted and never, for one second BORING. Yet QT's last two films show he IS maturing. Which makes his next project - a mooted return to Kill Bill - a little disappointing, to say the least. 

Politically (as with so many other Oscar nominees this year) this is pure post-Obama fodder. But whereas Spielberg's willing to get down and dirty with real history in Lincoln, Tarantino allows himself the freedom to play fast and loose just to get the biggest kick out of portraying sweet revenge on the Antebellum South and its crimes against humanity. Whether this can be seen as good clean fun, or as dumbing down to reach out to the more intellectually challenged of his fans remains to be seen (I do worry that there's a generation of midwesterners who think that Hitler died in a cinema). 

But this is a film, not a history lecture, and ultimately Django Unchained does portray a fair few of the least pleasant aspects of slavery (not to say that it had any plus points at all, unless you count the blues) and even manages to ask some knotty questions; some of which were raised in Inglourious Basterds. Samuel L Jackson as Stephen the head of domestic staff is the equivalent of a Nazi collaborator in occupied France - milking power from oppression - and, as such, is possibly the true evil heart of Django Unchained. Meanwhile it's up to Leonardo DiCaprio (magnificently relishing his part as southern gentleman Calvin Candie, the mandingo-fighting aficionado with a possibly inappropriate attachment to his fawning sister Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwillie, a faded southern belle played by Laura Cayouette) to ask the really key question - why, when they outnumbered their odious masters, did slaves not revolt? 

It's interesting that Tarantino's last three films have seen the director vicariously conquer sexism, anti-semitism and racism while merrily rewriting history. I'm beginning to wonder what's next. A '60s spy thriller pastiche in which Kennedy survives? A sword and sandal epic letting the Trojans get their revenge on the Greeks? Or maybe an MGM-style musical about Florence Nightingale fighting zombies and curing the world of all known diseases?

In the end it matters little, as we know that Django will get his bullet-ridden, explosive revenge and win his Broomhilda back (another typically QT touch here - Django's wife is named by her former German owners, yet the original Brünnhilde is perverted to become the name of a syndicated cartoon witch who made her appearance 100 years after the scope of this film). All the necessary respect is played to the story by leaving us with the leading black characters in triumphant mode, yet what is most important is that Tarantino has turned in a fine Western at last. Considering that we've known all along that he had it in him to do so, it's about time. 


Robin Parker said...

Re the use of another movie song - Tarantino has previous for this - Jackie Brown uses Bobby Womack's title song from Across 110th Street in its own title sequence. Which is interesting, since he once lambasted Dirty Dancing's director for daring to use Be My Baby, thereby neutering some of its magic in Mean Streets.

Anonymous said...

Schultz does not stop the woman from playing Beethovan badly on the harp. She was playing it very well. It was his disgust at hearing this lovely, lyrical piece by a German composer being played in this tranquil setting when in fact it is a place of utmost horror and human cruelty. He cannot abide it and cannot stop thinking of the horror he witnessed earlier.