Django Unchained was almost a great film. It is very unsettling, as any movie about American slavery should be, although I am left wondering if it was unsettling for good reasons or for troubling reasons. If you’re interested in the film, you’ve likely read much about the race and slavery and history issues it stoked, as well as the fast-and-loose use of the “N-Word“. There’s better things to read on these subjects than you will find here.
But I do want to say that I tried (without success, as you’ll see) not to be bothered by the conceit of Django. As a matter of principle, I try to give the artist the benefit of the doubt, and allow a piece of fantasy to stand on its merits. I tend not to believe in sacred subjects that should remain outside of the artist’s purview. If QT wants to make a revenge fantasy about slavery, he can. Whether he should, or shouldn’t, or succeeded in such a delicate endeavor, that’s far more complicated to determine.
More than these issues, though, I am interested in the cinematic experience of Django Unchained. The film was released nearly two months ago, and I finally saw it at an afternoon showing, in a theater with 2 other people. This may not be most ideal setting for a film like Django, but it offered that rare opportunity to have a direct interaction with a film. Audience response did not affect my interaction, and that unmitigated interaction was a strange experience.
First, and quickly, Tarantino deserves an award for bringing Chistoph Waltz to American film viewers. Waltz’s performance as Dr. King Schulz is brilliant, as he was in Inglourious Basterds. Almost good enough to make me rethink everything below. He’s a wonder to watch on screen. Moving on.
My overwhelming response to Django was: take a breath, for goodness sake. Every cinematic element of Django is amplified beyond my comprehension. Any inclination that seems like it might be a good idea now appears to make its way into a QT film, whether or not those individual parts are going to combine to improve the whole. Django Unchained is fever pitch film-making. The music overwhelms almost constantly, with sharp and jarring shifts between its booming film score, contemporary rap, American roots, and Beethoven. Like the action on screen the volume ramps up down up down dramatically and swiftly, sound effects interjecting like bullets at levels unprecedented.
Hyper-stylized violence (a lot of it) accompanies hyper-stylized performances from actors who must have been told with bold Sam Jackson-style exclamation points: “OVERACT MOTHERFUCKAS!!!!” The movie screen bombards the audience for 2.5 hours with the sensory overload one expects more from Michael Bay than from Tarantino. I am reminded of the quiet, (and superior) movie Wonder Boys, in which a young student reprimands her teacher’s never-ending novel by stating, simply: “it reads like you didn’t make any choices. At all.” That, too, is how Django reads. Restraint in film-making is an asset. The more films Quentin Tarantino makes the more he appears reluctant to make choices. He made tough and rewarding choices in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, which are, in my opinion, his two most sophisticated and successful films. There is real and powerful subtlety to those movies, not in-spite of but because of their exuberant QT-ness.
In Django we are essentially presented with an image or idea or blood-spattering gunshot, and are asked to take it all at face value. This is most easily evidenced in the klan scene early in the film. The (unidentified but essentially) KKK are obviously idiots and not threatening. Okay. Their cartoon behavior lessens the horror of the men out to murder Django and Dr. King Shulz. But so what? That’s easy, and the idea is not worth an entire stand-alone overlong scene. It may be funny, but it’s just not that interesting. Jonah Hill’s Bag Man #2 could add a moment of laughter in Tarantino tradition to what is in actuality a horrible situation. Five minutes of comic banter about cutting eye-holes in bags is just a joke for it’s own sake, unencumbered with the burden of bringing out an anything beyond itself.
I know such depth is not always required. But this is Tarantino. This is what makes QT’s work QT’s work: operating with style but always doing something more. His mastery of the film language allows him to continually work beyond its limitations. Too little of Django makes any attempt to go beyond it’s core moment of conception: a hyper-stylized revenge fantasy of American slavery as spaghetti-western. I grant the conceit, now reveal something of value to me. Quentin Tarantino has always excelled at creating caricatures of humans that talk too much and engage in terrible violence. Never in a QT picture does one forget that these are in fact characters. These characters are comedic, and for the most part, I think of QT as a comic director of genre pictures. Or at least, operating within genre but busting genre open at its seams. But I’ve never felt like the caricature’d nature of Tarantino’s characters has been less meaningful than it is in Django, and never been more important. Django is genre play, revenge-fantasy, American Western, all the things that are QT, but it is also, always, a slavery story, and thus disturbing. And that means something.
The most disturbing scene of Django takes place at Candie Land, as Mssr. Candie learns that he is being duped, and in response presents his guests with a phrenology lecture while using a saw to cut open the skull of a former slave. It’s a terrifying, strange bit of cinema that could only have from Quentin Tarantino, filled with epic possibility. Fans of QT know his fondness for long-winded lecturing. His monologues allow Tarantino an opportunity to do what he loves: write odd but delightful wordplay filled with heavy cultural references to elucidate some thematic element of his fables. But unlike Bill’s Superman monologue, Jackie Brown’s fears, or even QT’s own dead n*gg*r storage monologue in Pulp Fiction (which more than anything walks the Tarantino line on race), there was nothing behind Mssr Candie’s lecture. There’s no meaning. It may have seemed interesting to include that old and forgotten science, but it really isn’t. And this, more than anything, is why the Candi Land dinner scene is the film’s most difficult: it gives a racist slave-owner the opportunity to make a racism-based-on-science lecture, and then simply moves on to horrible violence. It isn’t funny. It’s not challenged by the outcome of the scene or even the outcome of the film. It’s just terrible. It’s all style and facade and seems to forget the horror of what’s happening on screen.
Perhaps this is not different than any other Tarantino picture. I have a heightened reaction to Django, which if nothing else praises the film as a challenging piece of work. It’s possible this heightened response comes from the very conceit of the film. Maybe it is the fact that this is a film about slavery that makes Tarantino characters more unsettling than normal. Perhaps that’s even the point. I don’t know. I do know that I wanted to love Django Unchained, and I didn’t. Because underneath the over-stimulating stylized, hyper-violent revenge action thriller, I can’t figure out what I’m left with.
Maybe I’m just getting old.