Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movie Review: "Django Unchained"

Update on the heating situation: the heat came back on late Thursday night, as though the Internet read my cold and angry blog post and made magic things happen. One new tactic I learned for dealing with the no-heat situation though, is to boil water. My Tall Boss advised me to put a big pot of water to boil on the stove, said it would turn the place into "the lizard house" (which I really hope was just a reference to the climate reptiles need to survive, and not something I need to speak with my union rep about). And while the range on that heating technique wasn't fabulous, the area of the apartment around the stove did get quite toasty, if a bit moist. I put my bonsai there to perk it up.

That's all taken care of, so let's have a movie review!

I've seen "Django Unchained" twice now. It's good, let's start with that. It's very cool and entertaining, and it gives one an enormous sense of satisfaction to watch Jamie Foxx kill dozens of racists. But being cool is really all this movie has going for it, lacking the meta-texual commentary on the influence of movies on history that made Quentin Tarantino's previous historical fiction effort, "Inglourious Basterds," such a triumph.

I'm thinking it may have something to do with the subject matter. Tarantino is at his best when he's paying homage to various genres and sub-genres of movies. He's an aficionado of pop-culture, and he has a unique talent for turning conventions and tropes on their head and making them feel fresh and original. The BF likes to say that Tarantino is fluent in the language of film, "but keeps coming up with new shit" to say (that's how he talks before morning coffee). The problem with "Django Unchained" is he really doesn't have a lot to work with--Tarantino, I mean, not the BF. Much of this movie plays like a spaghetti Western, which is, again, entertaining, but also really highlights just how lacking cinema is when it comes to the depiction of slavery in America.

The portrayal of slavery in films and television has been--not sparse, exactly, but compared to the amount of material Tarantino was able to draw on for, say, his heist movie ("Reservoir Dogs") or his World War II movie ("Inglourious Basterds"), his slavery movie is drawing from a much smaller pool. There was "Roots" in 1977, "A Woman Called Moses" in 1978, "Glory" in 1989, "Amistad" in 1997, and "The Boondocks"  did an episode called "The Story of Catcher Freeman" in their second season, which I throw on this list because "Django Unchained" feels more stylistically similar to that cartoon than the others. (Maybe you could throw "Gone With the Wind"in  there, considering that it is the definitive work of art on the antebellum South, but it's only about slavery if you're doing an analysis of  the evolution of African-American stereotypes in movies.)

An interesting side note of this train of thought: the lack of movies about slavery stands in sharp contrast to the amount of movies made about racism in America (in general) and the civil rights movement (in particular). "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" in 1967, "Blazing Saddles" in 1974, "King" in 1978, "Do the Right Thing" in 1989, "Malcolm X" in 1992, "Get on the Bus" in 1996, "The Great Debaters" in 2007, "The Help" in 2011. There was even a trailer for a new Jackie Robinson bio-pic before my second viewing of "Django Unchained."

This makes one ask oneself, Self, are filmmakers and audiences more accepting of willing to explore slavery's aftermath and legacy than slavery itself? Why?

It's weird, because I remember reading many, many works of fiction as a child written from the perspective of slaves. One of the American Girl series was about a slave, as were several Newbery books. These were considered age-appropriate and curriculum-approved, assigned to me by teachers who led class discussions on the topic. And I attended public school, so this was state- and federal-sanctioned material, given to fourth- and fifth-graders. We're okay with children encountering slavery in America through fiction. Why aren't we okay with adults encountering it through film? I don't know enough about the history of film to say anything conclusive about the situation. I just wanted to air some suspicions I've been developing since I started researching the other movies I referenced in this review.

Speaking of which, let's get back to the review of "Django Unchained." As I said, this movie owes a lot to spaghetti westerns. The BF pulled up the opening credits of Sergio Leone's "For a Few Dollars More" (1965).

Unfortunately, I don't have a video of the "Django Unchained" opening credits to put up here so you can compare them, but if you've seen the movie or are planning to see it, you'll get the homage to "For a Few Dollars More" right away. The music, the imagery and the font on the credits bear striking similarities.

But even though many parts of it, like the opening credits, feel so familiar and well-trodden in terms of film-making, "Django Unchained" still feels like its own, wholly original work of art. Tarantino may borrow extensively from the imagery, music and plot elements of other movies, but the familiarity of his tropes is actually what makes his movies feel fresh and new and unexpected (that, and the fact he's completely willing to kill off main characters seemingly on a whim).

That said, "Django Unchained" is not one of his best works. As far as revenge fantasies go, "Kill Bill" was more exciting and visually stimulating; and as far as historical fiction goes, "Inglourious Basterds" had more depth. The problem with this movie--besides the dearth of movies about slavery draw on, as I mentioned above--is that the subject matter isn't entirely suited to the Tarantino treatment. All those musical stings and that snappy dialog clashes with the visuals of slavery: the whippings, the chains, the branding irons, the dogs, no amount of ironic detachment can make that stuff "cool." And the more realistically the movie portrays slavery, the more horrific Tarantino's attempts to make it "cool" feel to the viewer.

Tarantino is actually pretty good at gore, and normally he knows when the audience needs video game violence ("Kill Bill: Volume 1" restaurant massacre, with the geysers of blood spraying from severed limbs) and when the audience needs real violence (Mr. Orange's gut wound in "Reservoir Dogs"). But he didn't do so well with the violence in "Django Unchained." I'm thinking specifically about a scene where a runaway slave is torn apart by dogs. There's other stuff happening in that scene: there's a hunchback who mumbles with such a thick Southern accent you can't understand him, which is meant to be funny; there's a woman dressed in men's clothing, a red scarf covering her from the eyes down, who is meant to be one of Tarantino's intriguing female badasses; but none of it makes a damn bit of difference because a powerless man is being torn apart by dogs for the amusement of slavers. The tone of the scene is at such odds with the context, and when your context is this bleak, you have to watch your tone much more carefully than Tarantino did in this and a few other scenes in "Django Unchained."

That's not to say this movie fails entirely as a revenge fantasy or even a completely un-subtle exploration of racism in America. I had hopes early on the movie that Tarantino was going to take "The Producers" route and make a full-on satire of "Gone With The Wind" or "Song Of The South," movies that idealize the antebellum south and play down the horrors of slavery.

Mel Brooks's stated purpose in life is to get revenge on Hitler for the Holocaust by making him look ridiculous, which is why we have "Springtime for Hitler" and "Hitler on Ice" (and are a richer world for them). There's a scene in "Django Unchained" where Tarantino does just that, but with slavers instead of Hitler.

Django and his partner are camped out in a hollow and a bunch of Ku Klux Klansmen ride in on horses to kill them. It's a very striking, grand scene: Wagner thunders on the soundtrack, white-hooded men sweep over the hill on white horses, waving torches and yelling, and it almost makes your heart swell like its the charge of the fucking Rohirrim in "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." But then--oh, then, boys and girls--the Wagner cuts out, the movie jumps back about ten minutes in time, and all of the men about to go on the raid have an argument about how they can't see out of the eye-holes of their masks. And it is glorious. All those horrible human beings, perpetrating their heinous agenda because they visualize themselves as Nordic heroes of old, made objects of ridicule by their own jackassery.

Oh, and it felt good. 

If only there were more of that in this movie. But alas, there is not. It's the first and last time Tarantino tapped his inner Mel Brooks for "Django Unchained," because Tarantino doesn't really do satire. He dealt with the discomfort and horror surrounding slavery by having a former slave kill a bunch of slavers. While that was, as I said at the beginning of this review, enormously satisfying, I liked the raid scene better than any other scene in this movie because it struck the right tone and inspired the right feelings in me. How do you break power of evil people hold over your mind and spirit? You laugh at them. You turn Hitler into a figure-skater and Klansmen into bumbling idiots who can't see out their eye holes. It worked in "Blazing Saddles" thirty years ago, and it could have worked in "Django Unchained" if Tarantino was a very different kind of film-maker.

He's not. What we got is a pretty good movie with a lot of flaws--and the all-time record for number of times the n-word was spoken in a single movie (109).

Final grade: C. It would have been a B, but if you read my book reviews, you know I deduct a letter grade for racism, and breaking the record for use of the n-word is simply not something to be proud of.

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