Monday, February 25, 2013

Django Unchained

I saw a lot grisly stuff a little too early—or, let me qualify that: I saw representations of grisly stuff. My brother has five years on me and was a movie buff, so I was exposed, over his shoulder, to the likes of Natural Born Killers, Pink Flamingos (few are ever old enough to see that one, really), and, inevitably, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. In some ways, when we're talking themes and such, the films of Quentin Tarantino are for a mature audience, but as far as the tone itself goes, Tarantino makes a movie so that even your pets and house plants know it's awesome. And that's about the short and skinny of it: we can jaw all day about referentiality and the like in the works of that motormouth, but for me all that is a thin layer of ice over a deep sea of awesomeness. Depending on whether you love or loathe Tarantino, this estimation might be either laudatory or insulting. I don't mean awesome in a good or bad way, but in a static way; Tarantino is awesome in the way heavy metal is loud, the way hoppy beer is hoppy. For my age—11 or 12ish—and head space, I fell in love with Tarantino. I memorized Tim Roth's "commode story," recited Samuel L. Jackson's "Ezekiel speech," watched Michael Madson's low-key boogie to Stealers Wheel over and over again. Tarantino is, frankly, catnip for males, exciting the men in boys, and the boys in men.

Maybe chalk it up to seeing Tarantino at a young age, but the guy's films, after Jackie Brown, have felt somewhat childish to me. Or maybe youthful would be more apt. I might also attribute this new-found aplomb to a feeling of joy present in his post-millennial movies. His work lately is shot through with this exuberance. You really get this feeling that this guy loves what he does, that he makes movies like he was ringing a bell. This, of course, is usually the main point put forward by Tarantino's detractors: that his stuff is just a little too cool, too awesome, that he loves himself and what he does just a little too much. I don't have an opinion about this being positive or negative. It just is what it is. Tarantino is only ever Tarantino, and seems constantly thrilled to be so.

Maybe it's finding Christoph Waltz that has really exploded the joy in Tarantino. That theretofore unknown Austrian actor sings the guy's banter, rides the air streams of it like some raptor. But the introduction of Waltz into Tarantino's realms also points to a disquieting shift in Tarantino's work. Waltz, as the repugnant Jew Hunter in Inglorious Basterds, is beguiling and mellifluous. He steals the show. With anyone else in that role, the movie—a WW2 What If?—might not have been as well received. I imagine many more people would have been snagged on the sharp edges of the content were it not for Waltz's smoothing. Tarantino has always loved the bad guy, and made a habit of distinguishing one's job from one's character. But his previous mugs have mostly been extracted from the world of film. With Inglorious Basterds and now Django Unchained, Tarantino has been harvesting his loveable villains from the real world, first from a Nazi-sick Europe, and now from the antebellum South. As a result, it becomes a bit more difficult to love his baddies qualm-free.

Jamie Foxx picks up the role of Django, here a slave emancipated (sort of) by a German bounty hunter posing as a dentist, cheekily named Dr. King. King needs Django's help identifying a troika of nasty brothers, and from there takes him under his wing, killing white men. A friendship blossoms and King agrees to help Django find and free his lost wife, Broomhilda. Tarantino loves himself some revenge narratives, and this one might be his bloodiest. Dr. King and Django track his lost love to Candyland, a plantation lorded over by Leonardo DiCaprio.

There's egregious violence in Django Unchained. Gore is Tarantino's cowbell, if you will. And it blows the kid in me's hair back. It's thrilling, joyful violence, taken right out of some bored teenager's sketchbook. But considering the historical contexts that Tarantino is beginning to explore, a serious tension is beginning to creep in. The giddy gore is being juxtaposed with very earnest, brutal, hateful cruelty. With Django Unchained, Tarantino might be presenting some of the grossest, near-real examples of the extreme dirt we've done to one another in the past. There are some scenes here that go at your empathy with the claw-end of a hammer. It makes you sick, and it should. What does it mean, though, when violence that's a little too close to reality exists next to violence that is so far from reality as to be comical? I'm not entirely sure what balance Tarantino is trying to strike, but the lingering result is unsettling. A month after first seeing the film, I still don't know what to make of it, still don't know if I'm okay with what I saw.

I do wonder sometimes how seeing what I did when I did might have damaged my character. Time and my loved ones will ultimately be the judges of that. But a movie like Django makes for an interesting litmus. The ten-year-old me loves the look of this movie, loves the performances, loves the cool-for-cool's sake anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack, the incessant nodding to and winking at film history, and he even kind of loves the laughable jam-red melee of blood and guts. However, I take a sort of solace in the discomforting crawling I feel during the more blunt, human incidents of savagery. Tarantino's always walked the line (or the blood trail?) between the glorification of violence and the critique of it. And while it's still obvious that he relishes the special effects splatter of it all, I get the feeling that there's an increasingly adult, less nerdy discussion of that line and his role in it that he's maybe preparing to have—with himself sooner, and hopefully with us soon thereafter.

- Andrew

1 comment:

  1. There was a moment in Deathproof where I think I finally understood Tarantino. The first batch of girls had just been killed and we had picked up on the second. I'd thought, my god, he's not going to make us sit through another forty five minutes of inane banter just for the promise of some more brutal violence is he? Though I wasn't keeping track, it felt like hours before we'd finally approached the moment we'd all been waiting for and what does he give us? A moment of pure suspense. In fact, I'd have to say it was one of the most on-the-edge-of-your-seat scenes I'd ever seen in a film, and I had to applaud how he subverted our expectations to create something wholly unexpected (and exciting). Now, I thought afterwards, if only he would use his powers for good instead of banal. I guess I'm still waiting (and watching Old Boy and City of God again and thinking of what might possibly be).