Monday, December 31, 2012
A Rambunctious Sort, Ain't He?: Django Unchained
Over at LATimes.com, an article examining the mixed reaction of blacks to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is preceded by one of those quick poll questions that site managers like to tack on to stories in an effort to foster interactivity and "enhance" the online experience. It asks, "Does Django Unchained go too far over the line?" Like a check-box note written by an 11-year-old girl determined to find out if her elementary school crush likes her back, the answer options are simply "Yes" or "No." And yet the only appropriate answers to that question are "Which line?" and "When, exactly?"
Director of seven or eight features, depending on how you count his two-volume epic Kill Bill, Tarantino has been stepping well over someone's lines of appropriateness for 20 years now, making movies that aren't just dominated by violence and profanity but that are gleefully obsessed with them. His latest two pictures, 2010's Inglourious Basterds and this year's Django Unchained, further court controversy by taking on (and then to some degree simultaneously avoiding) the Holocaust and the American slave trade, two topics guaranteed to make everyone hyper-aware of those proverbial lines.
Given QT's track record, including his occasional habit of playing some of his controversial characters (with unmistakable relish), there can be no doubt that Tarantino, like most modern stand-up comedians, is obsessed with crossing the line. He gets laughs out of it, cheers out of it, gasps out of it and critical hosannas out of it, and, yes, he inspires furious anger with it, too. His unwillingness to stay behind the line is as core to Tarantino Cinema as his reverence for cinema itself.
Of course, the list of filmmakers who have line-crossing in their auteurist veins is longer than a typical Tarantino monologue. Oliver Stone, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and QT's good buddy Spike Lee, just to name four off the top of my head, have made careers out of attacking our delicate sensibilities — and even our not so delicate ones. What's unusual about Tarantino is the way in which he crosses the line: with the calculating indiscriminateness of someone who has spent so much time on the other side of the line that he seems to forget where he last saw it. If guys like Stone, Haneke, von Trier and Lee are akin to graffiti artists who zero in on a target and make their mark, Tarantino is more like a guy who leaves muddy footprints on your living room carpet because he decided long ago that refusing to take off his boots at the door was part of his identity.
There's something charming, refreshing and almost liberating about Tarantino's approach: it's easier to ignore or forgive offensiveness (those times we think QT "crosses the line") when it feels more like absentminded indifference — the byproduct of a guy who never quite "matured" or bought into societal conventions — rather than a finger-pointing provocation. And yet there's something disquieting about it, too, because if the provocative nature of Tarantino Cinema isn't by pinpoint design, then it isn't commentary, symbolism or active defiance so much as negligence or abomination. It's the difference between Tarantino Cinema being obscene or being an obscenity.
That Django Unchained "crosses the line" isn't up for debate. Even the LA Times online poll question assumes as much. But, like D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, which in 1915 made heroic white knights out of the Ku Klux Klan, does Django Unchained become an obscenity itself? While recognizing anyone's right to be offended by the film on a number of levels, that's a harder case to make.
Still, the knocks against Django Unchained's approach to slavery are so numerous and obvious that they should give us pause. You don't have to be particularly uptight to be offended by some or all of the following: (1) Tarantino uses the brutal slave trade as a setting for an ahistorical revenge fantasy that makes light of that era at least as often as it confronts its horrors; (2) Tarantino is once again liberal in his use of the word "nigger," a term with such a repulsive history, and, yes, even a repugnant present, that many (including me) feel that the word should be used as limitedly as possible and then only with great care, and that white folks have no business whatsoever employing it as a casual noun, regardless of intent; (3) Tarantino's attempts to ennoble some of his black characters also seem to reinforce already limited cinematic (and/or societal) stereotypes and otherwise objectify those black men and women.
And yet ...
I struggle to come up with a mainstream film that represents the hideousness of slavery with such unblinking matter-of-factness. Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple and Jonathan Demme's Beloved are set more squarely within the slave-era South and approach the subject matter with more solemnity, but I don't recall those films showing so many slaves wearing iron collars or masks, or depicting black slaves fighting to the death like pit bulls for the amusement of their masters, or showing a black slave being torn apart by dogs. I don't even remember a scene like the one in which Tarantino observes the house slaves carefully preparing the dining room table for dinner. (If my memory is off, please correct me.)
The point is this: I respect the opinion that America's slave history is so monstrous that it can only be approached with complete seriousness and sensitivity, and that those lines should never be crossed. Fair take. But all signs within Django Unchained specifically, and Tarantino's filmography in general, suggest that this revenge fantasy is exactly that: a fantasy. And while it's distasteful to leverage such real-life horrors for the purposes of fantasy (Tarantino could have found safer ground), the basic morals of Django Unchained are plain as day: slavery was vile, inhuman and evil, and anyone who perpetuated it or simply enabled it committed sins that no amount of time can forgive.
If there's a concern that less educated viewers (the kind who only recently learned that Titanic isn't just a movie by James Cameron) will come away with false ideas about slavery, yeah, that's possible. But the stench of slavery's inhumanity is much stronger here than in, say, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, in which all the black characters are well spoken and dignified, and in which all whites opposed to the 13th Amendment come off as foolish blowhards more than cruel human traffickers. (Django Unchained enjoys portraying Southern slave-holding whites as yokels, too, but that's balanced by its depictions of abject barbarity.)
Perhaps we're hesitant to "cross the line" with Tarantino because reimagining the slave holocaust might imply that we're done confronting it at face value. Slavery may have been outlawed almost 150 years ago, but the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation is not yet 50 years old, and what worthwhile confrontation of slavery could happen in the century-deep abyss in between? In many respects, this conversation is just getting started, assuming we choose to have it at all.
So, granted, maybe Tarantino is fascinated by slavery the way many of us are fascinated by serial killers, getting consumed by the cinematic creepiness of the grisly details and losing sight of the very real human suffering underneath. Certainly he isn't the director best suited to "feel the pain" of such epic atrocity or to approach sensitive material with somberness.
But while recognizing that Tarantino's approach to this subject matter is sometimes crass, we should accept that the horrors of slavery live on the other side of the line. The only way to confront such atrocity is to leave our comfort zone.
Additional Thoughts ... Packed Full of Spoilers:
* One more footnote on the above rumination, before diving more specifically into the movie: From my point of view, an obvious fantasy like Django Unchained — set in another era and repeatedly winking at the audience — is less concerning that Tarantino's casual use of the word "nigger" in his other, more modern films. There's a theory that when Tarantino or other artists (most of them African-Americans) use that word casually it takes the bite out of it and creates ownership, as if turning a rattlesnake into a pair of snakeskin boots. But in my opinion it just blurs the line, because it doesn't eliminate the original grotesque meaning of the word. It only expands upon it. (Put a different way, that whip of a word remains firmly in the grasp of racist hands.) To this day, no word makes my skin crawl more than "nigger." But Tarantino and others have made the term so commonplace that it doesn't offend as much as it once did. Becoming desensitized to that word, allowing such hateful iconography to be assimilated into the everyday lexicon, doesn't feel like progress to me. And it's worth wondering: If everyone used that word as freely as Tarantino, would he continue to use it as frequently? And if not, what does that mean?
* Django Unchained is lesser Tarantino, but, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, "lesser" ain't too shabby. It's almost certainly in my top 10 for 2012 (a phrase I've uttered so often in the past few weeks that I probably need to jot down a list to confirm I'm not full of shit), faults and all, because Tarantino's pictures vibrate with energy in a way most don't. A perfect example is the scene in which Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz tells Jamie Foxx's Django the legend of Brunhilde. The scene takes place at the pair's evening campsite, but Schultz's face isn't illuminated by a crackling fire and his hand movements don't make any particularly dramatic shadows against the massive rocks behind him. The story Schultz tells isn't particularly long or detailed (especially by Tarantino's standards), and Tarantino doesn't do anything with the score or the sound design to heighten the theatricality of moment, the way he did when Waltz's Hans Landa talked to a farmer over a few intense glasses of milk in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino doesn't even employ any dramatic cuts or compositions (as I recall, most or all of the scene is captured in a rather utilitarian medium-length shot of Schultz). And yet the scene has a vitality that's palpable. As it unfolded, I tried to figure out why it was so powerful. Was it Waltz? Tarantino's screenplay? The juxtaposition of this scene to the ones that came before it? Nothing about it seemed especially remarkable, and yet in that moment Django Unchained has a cinematic spirit that most directors can't match. For all the scenes that have that kind of power, Django Unchained is among 2012's top tier.
* My primary disappointment with Django Unchained is what it does retroactively for Inglourious Basterds, which I believe is Tarantino's masterpiece. If I were Tarantino or Waltz, and I had collaborated on such a singular, awesome character as Hans Landa, the last thing I'd want to do is spoil our sense that the crafty fiendish charmer was "one for the ages" by creating another character more or less in his image in QT's very next picture. This disappointment doesn't ruin the appeal of Django Unchained, because Waltz is as perfect a fit for Tarantino's wordy pictures as the silent, squinting Clint Eastwood was to Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. But the next time I watch Inglourious Basterds, Hans Landa will no longer feel "glouriously" unique. And that's a loss.
* Jamie Foxx is terrific as Django. He does the strong, silent type well, and his sensitivity is always just below the surface. I must admit I wish Tarantino would have dug a little deeper and allowed Django to really bear himself, the way Beatrix Kiddo does in Kill Bill. Foxx would have been up to the task.
* The biggest problem with Django Unchained is the way it loses momentum and seems hurried and yet plodding over the final hour. Tarantino's longtime editor Sally Menke might have helped to shave off some of the rough edges, but the epicenter of the damage seems to be Tarantino's screenplay, which includes a few oddities that couldn't have been undone in the editing room. In particular, when Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen and Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie uncover the Schultz/Django ruse, the result is that they insult Schultz and Django and then require them to pay $13,000 for Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The dramatic tone of the scene suggests that Tarantino sees this as a victory for Calvin and Stephen, but in fact all that Schultz and Django ever wanted was to walk away with Broomhilda's signed-sealed-delivered freedom, which is precisely what they get. At least, it's what they're about to get until the scene suddenly becomes about basic ethics (should you shake hands with a monster?), at which point the narrative runs off the rails. Once off the rails, Django Unchained still covers some worthwhile ground, and raises some interesting questions, but the transition is jarring, to say the least.
* Considering how the movie ends, with Django killing everyone at Candieland and riding off with his free wife, it's worth asking why the initial shootout (following Schultz's shooting of Candie) couldn't have resulted in Django's against-all-odds victory. Awkward scripting is one possible explanation, but I wonder if Django needs to be captured because it sets up the conditions of his release from Candieland: Initially, Django is about to be castrated and allowed to bleed to death, but then Stephen announces that Django is being transferred to another slave camp, where he will spend the rest of his life "turning big rocks into smaller rocks" (or something like that). Is that passage meant to suggest that victory for the freed slaves was short lived, and that what followed was a fate worse than death: a lifetime toiling for the (white) man? If so, it's an imperfect metaphor, but a pointed one.
* Similarly, what do we make of the climax in which Django puts on his sunglasses, watches the mansion at Candieland explode before him, mounts his horse (which then performs a Trigger-esque strut) and then rides off into the night with his beautiful lover? Is this more damning evidence that Tarantino knows the world only through movies? Or, on the heels of Stephen's aforementioned sentencing, is this acknowledgment that America is most comfortable around strong black men when they play cool action heroes on the big screen? Thus, in the end, does Tarantino wind up suggesting through the totality of Django Unchained that the options for black men in America are utter slavery and victimization (as portrayed by the field slaves), unstable partnership in which the white man has the ultimate power (as portrayed by Stephen, the lead house slave), athletic self-punishment for rewards that exceed those of their peers while paling in comparison to the wealth of the establishment (as portrayed by the Mandingo fighting) or movie star (as portrayed by Django in shades)?
* For what it's worth: I saw Django Unchained in a packed theater that was approximately 70 percent black. No one seemed to enjoy it more than the African-American woman next to me, who hooted throughout (she especially loved all the rednecks complaining about the insufficiency of their headwear). Although people started putting on coats and heading for the exists as soon as the mansion exploded, that seemed to be due to the movie's length and deflating second half, not the appropriateness of the content. During the movie, I spotted no walkouts, and two (black) guys chose to stand for the entire film rather than sit in the first row (which was mostly full anyway). In my theater screening, like yours, reactions were of course individual, private and no doubt mixed, but when Django says of bounty hunting, "Kill white people and get paid for it? What's not to like?" his response seemed written for my appreciation as much as anyone's. As if accepting the impossibility of giving due credit to black suffering, Tarantino instead cuts across class and race by unifying us around our almost instinctive desire to see the wicked get what's coming to them.