Skip to main content

Django Unchained, unmarked

I really wanted to love this movie. Some of the three or four best movie watching experiences in my life were at Tarantino movies. Not every film is great, but they're always interesting.

Django is not a great movie. It's a lot of fun for a cinemaphile but, in a movie with a substantial gory on-screen body count, it doesn't really draw blood.

Set in the antebellum South, Django (played with admirable swagger by Jamie Foxx) is a slave, freed from a chain gang by a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (a great role for Christoph Waltz). Schultz freed Django for the purpose of identifying three wanted criminals but the two later become friends. Ultimately Schultz agrees to help Django track his wife Broomhilda to a plantation owned by Calvin Candie for the purpose of buying her freedom. It's a Tarantino film, so that synopsis leaves out all the operatic violence, sharp dialogue, and atmosphere that makes one of his films entertaining. It all works really well for me right up until the last half hour or so, when Tarantino paints himself into a corner, ending-wise, and has to backtrack a few steps to pick up the loose ends where he had dropped them.

But I'm going to take a second and bring back to mind Tarantino's most recent movie to highlight where I see this film really went off the rails for me. "Inglorious Basterds" was not a universally well-received movie. Some people didn't like the talky sections, some people didn't like the gratuitous violence. Some really resented the, eh, 'deviation' from established history the ending represented. While, I'm not going to argue the movie was some kind of classic, I do think it represented a brave experiment for Tarantino. Not so much for camera work or twisted narrative structures, like his other works, but for a ballsy determination to make a film that matters.

When I was still in college, I happened to get into this discussion about Tarantino with one of my professors. She asked me if I liked Pulp Fiction and I said, yes. She asked me why. I think I said something about the nonlinear plot and Tarantino's darkly comedic style. Then she asked me what Pulp Fiction was about. What did it mean? Did I honestly think Jules Winnfield had a genuine 'moment of clarity,' that would change forever the direction of his life, or was this simply an extended allusion to old Kung Fu movies? To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, was there any there there?

I didn't really have an answer back then and I think it's probably fine I still don't have one now. Pulp Fiction was just one of those movies, a rite of passage, a cultural touch-stone. It's not really about anything besides how cool movies can be.

But Inglorious Basterds, for me, posed an interesting question. Is it ethical to watch war movies? This is supposedly a review of Django so I'll keep this digression short but here's the essence of why I like this question: in the movie, we follow a brutal gang of America commandoes on a behind-the-lines mission in occupied France. They are fighting Nazis with blood-thirsty relish, each soldier ordered to collect 100 scalps. This is horrific but we don't, as the audience care, because we're watching the Americans and their enemies, the Nazis are so obviously horrific and deserving of death. But here's the thing, Tarantino doesn't let us off the hook in this movie. Towards the end of the movie, we follow a German sniper backstage as a cinematic depiction of his war-time exploits thunders behind him. The audience, filled with Nazis and collaborators hoots and cheers every single American death at the hands of the sniper. In the last shot of the movie, we the audience adopt the perspective of a Nazi branded with a swastika. As the American soldier takes away his bloody knife, it is we the audience marked.

Do I think for a second Tarantino is calling his audiences Nazis? No, far from it. I think he is simply pointing out in very graphic terms that we can not be cozy in our self-assumptions as an audience that we are safely removed from the events of the screen. We are complicit in some way in the violence in the movie, involved in it.

So that is what I found lacking in Django Unchained, any sense that this was anything other than wish fulfillment. An awful lot of cartoonish blood gets spilled in the course of the the freed slaves quest to save his Broomhilda, but not much actual blood is drawn by the script. I admire how matter-of-factly slavery and its obvious evils are presented in the film. Tarantino presents human bondage, in every manifestation, as a perversion of natural order, a mutilation. From a runaway slave torn to bits by dogs to a house servant incapable of distinguishing his interests from that of his owner, this is a view of the antebellum south designed to provoke and outrage. The ex-slave rises up, gets well-deserved revenge against all who stand against him, and then rides off into the horizon in the classic Western mode. Our anti-hero is an African American and so the familiar tropes of the genre seem fresh, but the fact remains, this is a very standard story. It ultimately doesn't make any demand upon its audience more than watching garish violence for its own sake. If you dislike the violence, then you can safely dismiss the movie.

I think that's a shame. Django Unchained, other than its ending, shows a lot of heart and craft in its details. I just wish the movie had left more of a mark.
2 comments

Popular posts from this blog

Solemn Treasures

In Gilead, the transcendent novel by Marilynn Robinson, a 76 year old man confronts his impending mortality and the sense he cannot provide for his young son after he is gone. He had not expected to meet his son's mother in the twilight of his life, not expected to have a son. If he had, he tells his son in a lengthy letter forming the substance of Robinson's novel, he might have set something by for him. Some sort of savings or investment. It pains him to think that when he is gone, all that he can leave are a few words.

What words.

As mentioned in a previous post, I set myself on the task (is that really the right word here? maybe endeavor would be better) to read as many of the 'great novels' of this young century as I could. After reading Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall-" which was also fantastic by the way - I made my way to Gilead. One of the many quietly strange things about this novel is that it's actually the second novel from Robinson. Her first…

New Story Acceptance!

As mentioned last week, I do have a bit of happy news to share. I am excited to announce that my story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," will appear in the next issue of the Electric Spec Magazine at the end of the month. I am tremendously excited about this for a few reasons:
Electric Spec is simply awesome. I've been reading this magazine for awhile and never been disappointed by a single story. To have one of my stories selected is beyond humbling. I can only give an earnest thank you to Lesley L. Smith for choosing the story.I love this story dearly. It has one of my favorite protagonists and shows in the clearest way I've managed where I'd like to go with my fiction. Electric Spec also gave me the chance to reflect on this story and its meaning in a guest blog which I am sharing below. Without being spoilery, this blog expresses some of what resonates about "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," with me. Guest Blog at Electric SpecAt the moment, I think the…

"The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY" is now available!

My new story, "The Yuru-chara of Hector, NY," is now available in the current issue of the Electric Spec magazine. I'm very proud that this story is getting published at Electic Spec for the simple reason I've been reading the magazine for years, dreaming of the day I might get a story published there. Well, it's finally happened.

The story of "Yuru-chara" is pretty simple: a young girl wakes up to discover that her old virtual friend, a seven-foot-tall yellow monster named Tama Bell, has come to life. While navigating through waves of other virtual creatures released through a world-wide hack, the young heroine tries to come to grips with her responsibility to her forgotten friend and the losses inherent to growing up.

I hope that you enjoy my story and that you give the other stories a try. They're awesome!

Thank you for your continued support.