Thursday, 24 January 2013

Wow, I Actually Saw a New Film:
Some Thoughts on ‘Django Unchained’.

This week saw me undertaking my bi-annual trip to the cinema to actually see a new film, and turns out it gave me a whole bunch of stuff to get off my chest, so why not do so right here, I thought to myself, if only to spare my real life friends the hassle of having to listen?


Readers should be aware that there are going to be some fairly extensive spoilers in what follows, so if that’s an issue for you, I’d suggest waiting until you’ve seen the film before reading.


To begin, I should state that I like Quentin Tarantino’s films and offer no apology for it. For all that their thefts from other films can prove irksome at times, they remain ridiculously good fun, technically impeccable, and generally represent the best (only?) chance we currently get to see some of the spirit of 60s/70s low budget filmmaking blown up to 21st century blockbuster proportions. And like all QT pictures,’ Django..’ is indeed hugely entertaining - a defiantly UN-subtle, brightly hued business that’ll have you leaving the auditorium with a swing in your stride and a cool song in your head (hopefully the newly composed Ennio Morricone one, which is bloody stunning – wish it had been allowed to play out for longer in the film).

Moreso than any of his previous films though, the second you start to think more deeply on what just transpired on screen, the illusion collapses, and the gaping, ugly flaws of the project are revealed.

The thing is y’see, for me the success of Tarantino’s previous films rests on the fact that (with possible exception of ‘Jackie Brown’) they have all been entirely cynical, self-absorbed endeavours, wherein characters and situations simply play out as tropes of the various genres and aesthetics he’s riffing on – mechanisms for providing the requisite sights and sensations we expect from films like these, openly rejoicing in the fact that there’s no deeper purpose, no moral imperative at work whatsoever – the cinematic equivalent of the enthusiastic sneer that seems permanently etched on the director’s face. None of which is a criticism; on the contrary, it’s great, and it works very well for him.

‘Django Unchained’ though marks something of a sea-change in his approach. Perhaps tapping a bit too heavily into the underlying sentimentality of the Western genre, this one sees him inexplicably presenting us with what is essentially an earnest melodrama with a fairy tale ending – a film in which the characters speak directly in terms of love and friendship and destiny, rather than just offering barbed comment on the cinematic archetypes they represent, and in which genuine historical/political issues are evoked, and dealt with on a strictly one dimensional good vs evil type level. This new approach brings with it a new set of expectations, one that the director is perhaps not quite so used to meeting.

We’ll get onto that shortly, but first off, a more minor, personal, ranting-outside-the-cinema type gripe. I’ll put these paragraphs in italics so you can easily skip them if you just plain don’t give a shit.

Despite his presumed status as a big fan of Westerns, I felt that QT at several points failed to stay true to the core values of the genre as I understand it. I don’t mean in terms of stuff like shifting the action from the West to the South and pushing back the clock to the pre-civil war era (things that you could at least *imagine* Leone or Peckinpah doing, even if they didn’t actually do them), but more in terms of the way the characters function, and the way that their actions define our sympathies towards them.

In essence, what I’ve always loved about the figure of the archetypal cowboy hero – what makes him so distinct from the often tedious romantic/chivalric heroes of most popular fiction – is that he operates on a purely utilitarian level. In a good Western, making a big show of honour and pontificating about one’s beliefs is left up to the bad guy. The cowboy silently observes, his motives opaque. And when the time comes, he does what needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, then buggers off, leaving the bad guy floundering in his own pomposity and hypocrisy until he meets his inevitable demise. Fucking brilliant! That’s what I want ‘heroism’ within this genre to represent basically, and I was hoping that, given his ingrained cynicism and love of genre tradition, QT would come though with some of that good stuff. Sadly not.

What particularly irked me was the key moment when Christoph Waltz’s character shoots DiCaprio. Waltz’s Dr Schultz very much comes from the ‘canny, educated foreigner / enabler of the primary hero’ tradition of Van Cleef in ‘For a Few Dollars More’, Franco Nero in ‘Companeros’ etc, and if there’s one thing all of those guys would have recognised, it’s that they had a clear chance here to walk away in one piece with their goal (freedom for Django’s wife) achieved, without having to fire a shot… mission accomplished. But instead Schultz gets involved in some sanctimonious puffery about refusing to shake hands with the guy. Any proper, utilitarian cowboy-hero would realise that shaking hands with a bastard means nothing – that both men will be judged by their actions, not some ceremonial gesture – and would have got on with it and got the hell out of there. Even William Holden and the Wild Bunch would have realised that the odds were against them at that point, capitulated and withdrawn to contemplate vengeance at a later date.

Not Tarantino’s beta-hero though – he’s got to beat his chest and refuse to compromise and make his big moral point… even when that guarantees his own death and of a life of continued misery for the friends he’s gone to so much trouble to help out. Schultz is presented to us as a steadfast and noble character, worthy of tribute, but as he dies all we can think is “what an idiot”. Tarantino sets him up as a hero, but in the end he doesn’t make the grade and dies a fool, betraying his ground level goals for some misplaced moment of idealism.

So that pissed me off. And as for Django himself, well his conduct is even more troublesome in the hero stakes. If you were to assemble a panel of great cowboys of yore – Franco Nero’s Django included - and ask them to put themselves in New Django’s shoes during the epic gun battle that immediately follows the deaths of Shultz and Candie, I think their priorities would be clear – the girl (D’s wife) is the pivotal object in this scenario (and as far as the film is concerned, she very much IS an object, but that’s another story..), so keep her in sight, keep her safe and get her out of there. But what does Django do? He abandons her completely, running off to some other part of the mansion and blasting away at everyone in sight, as the remaining baddies casually creep up and put a gun to her head. Again – what an idiot! I don’t care how cool and aspirational you look in your black cowboy get-up Django, you fail cowboy class for that one.

Obviously these are just my own bugbears with the minutiae of the film’s plotting, based on expectations created by a bunch of old movies I happen to like, and as such might be entirely irrelevant to the casual viewer, but there is also something more seriously wrong with ‘Django Unchained’ that didn’t really occur to me until I was walking home from the cinema, something that put a bad taste in my mouth and proceeded to infest my feelings about just about every part of the movie, and that – and I realise how much of an ass I sound saying this about a Quentin Tarantino film – is the moral message that ‘Django..’ conveys.

As mentioned above, ‘Django..’ is the first film Tarantino has made that, by the very nature of its melodramatic storytelling and emotive subject matter, is forced to embody a social/political message, however simplistic. Ok, so I guess ‘Inglourious Basterds’ spent a long time telling us that Nazis are bad, but hopefully most viewers were smart enough to realise that that movie had more to do with other war movies than it did with the actual war, and treated its goofily superficial ‘message’ accordingly. ‘Django..’s message is similarly blunt, and we get it sorted out nicely in the opening five minutes - “racism is bad, folks – now enjoy the show”. And we do, patting ourselves on the back for being such a good liberal audience as we go along.

But unlike ‘..Basterds’, ‘Django..’ has no post-modern safety-net to fall back on, and, well I don’t quite know how to best put this, but: demonstrating that racism is wrong and that black people are the equals of white people should not exactly be a difficult proposition for a filmmaker to achieve in a one dimensional comic book-style movie in 2013. Issues of fate vs free will, imprisonment vs self-determination, the individual as representative of the masses etc should pretty much write themselves into a story about slavery, with no additional head-thinkin’ required. It’s not like QT is trying to do anything difficult or challenging with this material – it’s straight down the line primary school level ethics, and yet somehow he manages to screw it up royally.

The mess he makes of things might not be immediately obvious on a surface level, but just dig this ok, and see if you can get what I’m talking about:

When Schultz picks out Django to help him at the start of the film, it’s more or less pure chance. It’s not because he’s the toughest or the coolest or the smartest, it’s just because of some random information he happens to possess. Under different circumstances, he could have picked out any other slave in the South, and surely, we assume, this is going to be the point of the movie – that each and every slave can become Django, can break free and define his or her own future.

And yet when we reach the end of the story some two and a half hours later, this fairly elementary point has never been made. Instead the film falls victim to the rather insidious notion of unearned exceptionalism that seems to have become the norm in heroic Hollywood narratives in recent years – a notion that takes on a particularly ugly aspect when mixed up with issues of racism and historical destiny.

Although Candie and the world he represents has been thoroughly shot, castrated, crippled and blown up by the end of the film, his central doctrine of phrenology-guided racism – which he is allowed to fully outline in a lengthy dialogue scene – has never actually been effectively challenged. At the film’s conclusion, Django actually TAKES A LINE from the dead villain’s bullshit, happily describing himself as “the one in ten thousand exceptional n**ger”, whilst the other black characters in the film remain helpless imbeciles, craven traitors or, in the case of the women, so incapable of independent action they might as well be statues.

I mean, I hate to be the one to engage in supercilious “blah blah, so and so’s being vaguely racially insensitive” internet bitching as regards a movie that was generally highly enjoyable, and yes, Spike Lee’s much-publicised dismissal of the film was pompous and self-defeating (pretty much turning his nose up at the idea that a mere genre film could ever address serious issues), but still: honest to god Quentin, what were you THINKING?

Not only does this poorly-managed shift from random everyman to pre-destined superhero make for a lousy bit of screen-writing that even a second-rate spaghetti western director would probably have wanted ironed out before the cameras rolled, it also exposes a failure to responsibly address even the most basic moral/political issues that reflects very badly on a guy who’s been directing pretty good movies for over twenty years now. Hopefully he can chalk this one up to experience and return to what he does best – making superficial, escapist capers about amoral characters with no connection to the real world whatsoever.

Because, on that level at least, ‘Django..’ succeeds pretty well. There are lots of memorable scenes, good gags, fine performances from the supporting cast, great bits of filmmaking etc, all present and correct. It’s a pretty light-hearted affair given the subject matter, but as long as you’re primed to expect something more like one of Robert Rodriquez’ shiny action movie westerns than a work that approaches the great directors mentioned elsewhere in this post, it’s a good time, with a handful of transcendent moments that stir the blood the way a good western should.

For me, the best of these moments comes in the scene in which Django dispatches the Australian gangers who have been charged with delivering him to a hell-on-earth mining operation and high-tails it back to Candie’s plantation for a final showdown. There’s something truly rousing – genuinely heroic - about the way he hitches himself up on an unsaddled horse and roars off over the horizon, rifle in hand, as his fellow slaves stare at him in disbelief, his legend being born behind their eyes – “holy shit, check THAT guy out”. The film could have benefitted hugely from a few more moments like that – moments that give the figure of Django a wider role in the emancipation of black America, rather than just callously writing him off as an “exceptional n**ger”, standing head and shoulders above his fellows.

The western may traditionally be regarded as a genre that celebrates the individual, but as aficionados of the form like Tarantino should be aware, many of the best entries in the canon – and even most lesser-known John Wayne flicks – tend to end with the hero succeeding only thanks to the bonds of trust and compromise he has built with his allies (that utilitarianism again). And in the rare instances in which westerns have engaged with political issues and succeeded in making some kind of point ( I’m thinking particularly of Corbucci’s ‘Companeros’ and Damiano Damiani’s superb ‘Quien Sabe’ /‘A Bullet For The General’), they have done so through an appeal to a basic revolutionary collectivism, ending with the individual hero subsumed into the mass of the people, ready to overthrow the grandiose clowns who oppress them, regardless of personal loss or gain. I think that this approach would have been a perfect fit for Tarantino’s mixture of spaghetti western and slave plantation Southern gothic, and could have really given Django’s story the wings it deserved.

Given the director’s joyous screwing with history in “..Basterds”, what I really wanted to see at the end of this film (and it wouldn’t have taken much of a change of narrative to bring it about) is Django riding back towards the Big House not alone, but at the head of a whole army of freed slaves, fighting the Civil War two years early, with no damn Abraham Lincoln needed to help him out.

Corny and obvious maybe, but then EVERYTHING in this story is corny and obvious, and if you’re going to spell things out for the audience rather than relying on their perceived cultural sophistication (as per QT’s previous ironic mode), you might as well go the whole distance and leave their hearts swelling with cathartic glee, rather than with that faint withering feeling that accompanies yet another tale of a Chosen One stomping all over everybody for the sake of his individual happiness with his plastic fairy tale bride.

And I know, I know – I’ve just spent two thousand words chewing Quentin Tarantino out for making a film that doesn’t *mean anything, man*. I can’t believe it either. What a bore. As I say, the fact that they don’t mean anything is what I LIKED about all his previous films! But like any good cowboy, if he’s going to talk the talk, he needs to walk the walk, and failing to even mosey through a one-dimensional “racism is bad” revenge story without falling on his ass does not bode well for his future career as a proponent of grown-up issues. Sorry dude. But at least the violence was cool, and the one-liners were funny, and the music was good. Roll on ‘Kill Bill Pt. III’.


RayRay said...

Not to dredge up a dead topic, but I can't believe this didn't generate any comments. Very well written critique, but I don't believe you give QT enough credit. You hit the nail on the head with your analysis of collectivism in spaghetti westerns (and, really, in a lot of socialistic Italian cinema such as the films of Lina Wertmüller).

I believe the subtext of "Django..", however, to be about individualism, about being bold enough to defy the status quo. This is not a western about the outsider being lured back into the fold, the retired gunslinger coaxed into rejoining the fight against evil. This is about one man riding off into the sunset OUT of a world that doesn't properly value him.

In many ways, this is an expression of QT's own ego, his "too cool for school" avant-garde elitism. As a film blogger, I'm okay with that, I understand it. Rather than a "Spartacus" retread where the slaves rise up, the end of the film emphasizes the fact that these exceptional individuals are rare. Most everyone else is willing to either put on the bag or the shackles as expected.

And that's why Schultz goes out like he does. Much like the Wild Bunch, it's knowing suicide. In this case, it's not a failure to deal with growing old in changing times. Schultz teaches Django all the rules so he can break them in ways Schultz didn't have the courage to, and he can't abide his own cowardice.

That's my take on it, anyway. Congratulations on an insightful and entertaining blog. I'll definitely be back to read more.

Ben said...

Hi Ray -

I'm glad you enjoyed my post, and thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film.

What you say makes a lot of sense, particularly with regard to Schultz - it didn't occur to me to look at things that way, but that's a really good interpretation.

I think the tone of my writing above is probably harsher on QT than I meant it to be - I wrote it as a kind of "straight back from the cinema" rant, and my feelings on the film have mellowed a bit subsequently.

As someone who doesn't watch many modern Hollywood films, the focus on individual exceptionalism kind of bugged me, but in its own way it's an even older & more storied tradition than the collectivism of Italian films (even in its specifically racial, American aspect - perhaps the Django character harks back more to 'Black Caesar' and 'Shaft' than anything else..), so I kind of appreciate that too.

Anyway, it's certainly to Tarantino's credit that character motivations & meanings remain so ambiguous in 'Django..' - not something you could often say for his previous films...

Michael said...

Ben -

Bit late for a comment, maybe, but I just stumbled upon your post and I wanted to congratulate you on some great writing and a keen analysis.

I look forward to reading more!

- Mike

Ben said...

Cheers Mike - much appreciated.