Thursday, April 25, 2013

Movies I Love: Django Unchained

There wasn't a movie I was more excited about in 2012 than Django Unchained, the seventh film from Quentin Tarantino. I saw it. I loved it. It took the number two slot on the list of my favorite movies of the year. But that was on a single viewing, and I knew I wanted -- nay, needed -- to see it again.

Now I've watched it twice in a week, and I love it even more.

Django Unchained is unlikely to top my list of favorite Tarantino movies, but I may end up revisiting it more than some others I think are "better" because it's such a satisfying movie experience. I've spoken before about my desire to live in Tarantinoland, and Django Unchained might be behind only Kill Bill as the movie that has set up shop right smack dab in the center of town square, not just combining but celebrating all of his influences (from spaghetti westerns to blaxploitation to historical epics) into a movie designed as much to entertain as it is to push buttons.

A few weeks ago, I published a piece in which I finally came clean about the fact that Quentin Tarantino has become my favorite director. I won't rehash the reasons here; you should read it if you haven't already. But revisiting Django Unchained twice more in the wake of this public admission felt good, as though the film's arrival on DVD and Blu-ray was perfectly timed to shut down those who would criticize my position. Don't agree with me? Fine, here's Django Unchained to put you in your place and back up everything I said. My point is that Tarantino probably only wrote and directed this movie as a favor to me.

Ok, no he didn't. But it does feel like a favor -- not the "this will vindicate the things you say on your movie blog" kind of favor, but the kind of favor in which someone does something really nice for another person. Every Tarantino movie is the director doing something nice, not just for me but for anyone who loves movies. Here is another thing that will bring you happiness for the next 40 years, he is saying. You are welcome.
Though it made tons of money and was nominated for awards, Django Unchained received a somewhat mixed reception when it came out last December. It was sloppier than Tarantino's past work, people said. It was badly paced and overly long. Some attributed it to the loss of Sally Menke, Tarantino's longtime editor who passed away before she could work on this one. One of the most common observations (complaints?) about the movie when it was released was that it doesn't really get going until Django and Schultz arrive at Candieland. While that's not exactly a criticism, I understand where those people are coming from -- it's at that point that the plot really starts coming together, where the stakes are raised, where we get to spend the most time with Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the best things about the movie.

But I realized in these two recent rewatches that I could watch a movie about Django and Schultz riding horses and collecting bounties all day -- the "snowy snow" sequence, scored to Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" -- is beautiful and one of my favorites in the film. I don't need them to even go to Candieland, though the shootout that occurs there is one of the standout scenes in the movie and joins Kill Bill's House of Blue Leaves and Death Proof's climactic car chase as one of Tarantino's best action setpieces ever. It's reminiscent of Golden Age Brian De Palma, where you can practically hear the director cackling from behind the camera at just how excessive he's being. It is joyful carnage.

So the violence is great. The music is great, because of course it is. The dialogue is great, because of course it is. The movie won an Oscar for its screenplay, and in his acceptance speech, Tarantino pinpointed what makes his movies so special -- it's not just the dialogue, it's the characters. A good movie has one or two good characters. A great movie has three. Tarantino is on a very short list  of writer/directors whose every movie contains an embarrassment of riches of great characters (the Coen Brothers would be on that list, too). Think about it: Vincent Vega, Jackie Brown, Hans Landa, Stuntman Mike, Beatrix Kiddo, Bill, Max Cherry, Ordell Robbie, Bill, O-ren Ishii, Aldo Raines, Jules Winnfield, Mr. Blonde, Clarence Woorley, Earl McGraw, Marsellus Wallace, Mia Wallace, Louis Gara, Elle Driver...it just keeps going. Add to that list Django Freeman, Dr. King Schultz, Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, four more of Tarantino's best creations. I'd also like to include Bettina (Miriam F. Glover), the slave girl working on Big Daddy's farm. Her every line delivery is funny, and she's oddly cheery given her lot in life. How many writer/directors make us miss even the bit players when they're gone?

Another complaint leveled against the movie (which was Tarantino's most financially successful movie and racked up two Oscars, so it's not like there was some big backlash against it) is that Jamie Foxx isn't compelling as the lead character -- that the movie really belongs to Dr. Schultz. Again, makes enough sense. Christoph Waltz gets all the good speeches and lines, and his character is the mastermind behind the film's whole plot. Django is largely silent for most of the movie, first because he's a slave who has been forced into silence and then because it's right for the character he's playing.
What those complainers overlook is that Django Unchained is an origin story, and that he has to be built up from nothing into the iconic, larger than life hero he becomes by film's end. Django may seem like the least interesting character of the film's major players because he is the least colorful, but watch the movie a second time and pay attention to the subtleties of the character and of Foxx's performance: the way he's always watching and learning, the way he has to play layers and layers of character -- a guy pretending to be something he's not by hiding in plain sight. Watch how he transforms from someone who needs Schultz to define the word "positive" to someone who concocts an escape scheme worthy of King Schultz himself.

I will fully admit to being disappointed when Jamie Foxx was announced in the lead instead of Will Smith, because I was excited at the prospect of Will Smith taking such a chance with his movie star image and finally doing something interesting. I should have known better: always trust Tarantino (ATT). Jamie Foxx owns the role, and sells his self-actualization as a total badass in a way that would have felt like bullshit posturing in the hands of most other actors. Will Smith would have repurposed his sad bastard performance from Seven Pounds for the first half and then gone full on Wild Wild West. Besides, he says he didn't take the part because he didn't think it was the lead and he HAS to be the lead, so fuck Will Smith for not understanding the movie. He didn't deserve this part.

Those that argue that Foxx makes Django too cool or tough from the outset ignore the possibility that a guy who is cool or tough was made a slave because he was black. There is an uncomfortable subtext to that criticism, implying that we want our slaves to be more slave-y, the way we've always seen them in movies. Foxx understands that the leap from traditional "movie slave" to badass gunfighter wouldn't have made sense and cleverly plays Django as a guy full of anger and toughness who just needs the chance to become what he knows he can be. Dr. Schultz gives him that chance. Django announces who he is almost immediately when he chooses the royal blue pageboy uniform as his valet costume. It's such a great moment -- a big laugh, a declaration of individualistic cool and the closest Tarantino can come to referencing Superfly is a movie that takes place before the Civil War.

The most common criticism of Tarantino is that he has nothing original to say -- he is a mash-up artist whose movies consist of nothing but references to other, better movies. That's just patently wrong, and Django Unchained is the proof. Recontextualizing the Western through the prism of an American slave isn't just bold and provocative, it's downright brilliant. It gives him the opportunity to play out a revenge story -- clearly his favorite kind of story -- on a huge scale, since Django isn't just taking revenge on the guys who took his wife way but on every white motherfucker responsible for perpetuating the criminal shame of slavery. But Tarantino isn't interested in "statement" movies, so he sneaks these political ideas into an incredibly entertaining revenge story, tricking audiences into thinking his movie is about nothing.
I read one theory at Big Media Vandalism suggesting (MAJOR SPOILERS) everything that happens after Django is captured and hung upside down is a fever dream fantasy of escape, revenge and reunion with his lost love -- that Django never does get away from Stephen or Billy Crash. One piece of evidence the author points to is the cartoonish shot of Broomhilda reacting with excitement when Candieland explodes, which he categorizes as having the "demented happiness" of a winning game show contestant. It's so over the top, the author suggests, that it can't be anything but a fantasy; Django is still hanging upside down, a prisoner, as Stephen and Billy Crash tell all black men in America that they are fucked no matter what. This is a perfectly reasonable reading of the ending (even if it does smack of some post-Inception "nothing can be taken at face value" digging, but the authors are too smart for it to be just that), but I simply can't agree. Tarantino is, ultimately, a romantic. A softie. Consider his screenplay for True Romance, or the cathartic purge of emotion that is The Bride reuniting with B.B. in Kill Bill. He wants happiness for his characters. He's not going to free Django from slavery, put him on a two-hour quest to rescue his wife, transform him into the Fastest Gun in the South and then cynically enslave him again. He wants Django to reunite with Broomhilda. He wants those two to ride off into the sunset together -- they have more than earned it. The stylization of the scene isn't a demented fantasy -- it's a direct reference to the western iconography of the '30s and '40s. As Django has his horse Tony strut around like Trigger and Broomhilda excitedly beams in that "my hero" way we all played as kids, he has become every screen cowboy. Better than every screen cowboy.

Maybe Django Unchained seemed like "lesser" Tarantino because it was coming out in the shadow of Inglorious Basterds, his definitive masterpiece (he even says as much IN THE MOVIE!). Like all of his work, Django needed time to live and breathe; while his movies are always great on first viewing -- he knows how to create the kinds of visceral sequences that grab us and shake our brains -- they get better the more you go back to them. They're "hang out" movies, creating their own worlds and characters with whom we can't wait to spend more time. Django's reputation will continue to improve as it is absorbed into Tarantino's larger body of work, when it becomes not "the new Tarantino movie" but instead another fucking awesome movie from a director with a lot of fucking awesome movies.

Does giving one slave his revenge undo the horrors of slavery? Of course not, and neither Quentin Tarantino nor Django Unchained dares to suggest as much. There are plenty of people (Spike Lee among them) who will not see the movie because they feel it trivializes slavery. That is their right. I still refuse to see Rabbit Hole, but that doesn't mean that Rabbit Hole isn't a very good movie. While I can't begin to have any insight into the African American experience and slavery, I never felt like the movie trivializes it any more than Saving Private Ryan trivializes World War II (which is to say that it doesn't). Tarantino doesn't shy away from the atrocity. At times, he rubs our noses in it -- a shot of Django's bloodied ankle when his shackle is removed creates a sickness in the stomach (that iron is nasty business) that's more impactful than the literal gallons of blood that squib out of people when they're shot. Isn't having a movie that reminds us of the horrors of slavery preferable to a movie that ignores it? Or is the thinking that it shouldn't be addressed at all if it's not going to be done in the "right" way?

Django Unchained does it in the right way, suggesting that in every Western we've ever watched, there is another movie taking place off-camera, one in which America is built on the backs of slaves. Some of those guys would make great movie heroes, too. Django does.

5 comments:

  1. I really can't wait to revisit Django Unchained. I'm waiting for SLP to come out to buy them both at the same time, but I can barely contain my excitement. I don't think I have much to add about Django Unchained that isn't already discussed in this great assessment of the movie. I will say I agree with you that the "I've Got a Name" sequence is wonderful. It looks great, it's a great moment, and it's yet another example of his many excellent uses of excellent music.

    For me personally, it is possible that Django Unchained might sneak into my top spot, in terms of Tarantino movies. For my tastes, it makes sense that it would. I love QT, I love Spaghetti Westerns, I love Jamie Foxx, I love Christoph Waltz, I love Samuel L. Jackson, and I at least like Leonardo DiCaprio a lot, not to mention I love the characters that each of them play.

    With every new Tarantino release, I'm always more and more intrigued by the man, and I become more curious as to what kind of a lasting legacy he will have. At this point, I would say he certainly deserves one.

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  2. Django is a terrific film. It does an amazing job of showing Mississippi as a literal Hell on Earth for those who happen to have color in their skin. And, I must confess, the character of Stephen completely snuck up on me. What seemed at first to be a comic relief character turned out to be the most evil bastard in a movie full of them.

    And how about Don Johnson as Big Daddy? His exchange with Bettina about how she is supposed to treat Django is an instant classic. And then there's the squabbling about those damn hoods, and how UNGRATEFUL these proto-Klansman are to the poor woman who took the time to make them! Oh, and King Schultz's retelling of the story of Brunnhilde, and then there's...

    Well, you get the idea.

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  3. There was this one time, couple years back it was, I got the Head Cheeze at the ol' site Horrorview to run my review of Inglorious Basterds -- I know! It was totally cool! (Actually, it wasn't all that hard, he loves QT because badass movies.)

    Point being, I thought it was alright. Most times all I can see is where I shoulda done better, but I liked it. Figured it was my genuine Tarantino love coming through (True Romance is the third greatest flick in American history, after Raiders and JC's The Thing).

    Well, after seeing Django and loving it, I stupidly put off writing anything about it, which I now regret. There ain't much point at. . .well, this point. Ahem. Anyway, no succeeding or failing with Django for me, 'cause. . .

    This right here pretty much tells the tale, and tells it true at that.

    Damn fine job, sir. Well done.

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    1. I like your style, dude. I would point you to Patrick's equally fine write-up on True Romance (3rd best American Movie is a bold statement I'm inclined to agree with) here: http://www.fthismovie.net/2012/08/movies-i-love-true-romance.html



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    2. Cool! Thanks! (You too, Sol.) And welcome!

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