Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 24, 2012 3:54 pm 
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Tarantino is serious and really angry about race in America (but still violent and comic) in his new movie about a black bounty hunter who saves his lady love from a vicious slave owner.

In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino was angry about the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews. In his new movie Django Unchained he's even angrier about slavery in the Anti-Bellum South. More than ever he's working with pastiche, doing a seamless and dynamic blend of the Spaghetti Western (whose garish technicolor landscapes, fast shootouts and soaring music he gloriously evokes) with Seventies Blaxploitation movies, with their cool, sexy black superheroes. QT's font of inspiration will always be Seventies B-pictures, which is why a certain effete cinephile audience will never care for his work, however virtuoso his mastery of the medium. Like Mandingo or Nightjohn, Django closeups on the intersection of white plantation owners and their slaves. Like Boss Nigger, a 1975 Blaxploitation movie using a Spaghetti Western format, Django has a black bounty hunter as a protagonist, the titular hero (Jamie Foxx). The film also is said to be "spiritual successor" to Sergio Corbucci's "infamous" 1966 Italian western Django, with the latter's original star Franco Nero included in a minor role. This is a powerful movie, and it shows Tarantino once again working at or very near the top of his game.

For a while this is a salt-and-pepper buddy picture when Django, a slave, is freed to partner with a foreign-born bounty hunter and former dentist (or so he claims), Dr. King Schultz. Schultz is played by and was written for the multilingual Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, returning after his Cannes and Oscar Best Actor awarded performance as a Nazi officer in Basterds. This time the evil racist on the screen isn't Waltz but a dangerously charming Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Calvin Candie, a big-time Mandingo-fight specialist plantation owner whose ingratiating good humor masks a deeply repellent personality and mindset.

Compared to Basterds, Django is more underlyingly earnest. This is about an evil that for Americans is closer to home. As he made clear django-unchained">speaking at a London preview screening, Tarantino has put his shock and anger about what he's learned of slavery into this movie, even as he revels in the cinematic references and the snappy dialogue: "I'm here to tell you," he told a Bafta (British Academy of Fine Arts & Television Arts) audience, "that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened." Compared to Basterds, Django is also more unified -- its forward thrust little interrupted by its set pieces -- more directly, disturbingly violent, and less morally dubious. Again triumphant revenge is the theme.

This time, notably, unlike in Pulp Fiction (or even True Romance) the word "nigger," which peppers every scene, isn't tongue-in-cheek and provocatively funny, but the true currency of America's racist past hidden by today's cautious PC references to "the 'N' word." Obviously Boss Nigger wasn't shy about using the word, and Tarantino takes that 1975 movie's blunt ghetto message to the wide public this time. Forget Spielberg's tame "Scholastic Magazines" Lincoln: for all its Grindhouse pastiches and delight in verbal sparring, Django Unchained is a far more troubling look at the "American Dilemma." Django isn't as elaborate, complex, dazzling, or verbally intoxicating as many of Tarantino's earlier films. It doesn't meander as much and maybe isn't quite as much pure, irreverent fun. But it has a thrilling drive and an emotional conviction few of them can match, and its bloody shootouts using old fashioned movie techniques put contemporary CGI fakery to shame.

There is plenty of ugliness in this movie, and it takes the form not only of racist language and thought and shootouts but of on-screen slave beatings and Mandingo fights-to-the-death whose brutality and and Candie's condescension about them ("He is a rambunctious sort, ain't he?") are stunning. Tarantino excels at cat and mouse games, like Candie's with Schultz and Django: "You had my curiosity. Now you have my attention." And Schultz, like Candie, is good at this game. But when the time comes, the dentist-bounty hunter is sacrificed to the greater good, and Django takes over to be the lone cowboy hero who rides off into the sunset. Scenes of Calvin Candie's plantation, using Evergreen Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, are images of stark contrast between southern grandeur and the unavoidable constant scattering of human chattel everywhere in sight. Tarantino is not interested in showing the genteel politesse of the South. DiCaprio's soft tones are enough of that.

Django Unchained isn't as talky as most of Tarantino's films or as elaborate as Inglourious Basterds and so its best scene stands out all the more. It's a kind of companion piece to the one in Basterds wherein Michael Fassbender as an English OSS officer posing as a Nazi gets gradually smoked out in a cellar bar. This time we're at the dinner table of the despicably callous and elegant Calvin Candie. Informed by Steve -- Samuel L. Jackson in a wonderfully hammy and complex performance as Candie's both uppity and fawning chief "house nigger" -- the plantation owner realizes that Django and Schultz are not there, as they pretend, to buy a Mandingo fighter but to free Django's wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington). With suave menace, Candie takes the skull of a former slave and chops it apart to give a chilling racist phrenolgy lecture justifying slavery and allegedly explaining slaves' failure to revolt. This is where we realize that DiCaprio was born to play this role -- how did Tarantino know? it's his genius that he always does -- and that this actor is just beginning. Forget J. Edgar. He needs to play Orson Welles, and Hemingway, an we can hardly wait to see his Gatsby.

Bad guys are always more interesting and Waltz is less exciting this time, though the combination of a slightly nerdy foreigner who coldly kills for money is an original one. As Django, Foxx is all the stronger for being understated, and when he goes into action, well, he kills everybody in sight. Perhaps the most terrifying character is Steve, Jackson's quisling, toady and buffoon. I think it's with Steve that we see how out-of-fashion and kitsch pastiche can be used to invoke historical realities more powerfully and authentically than the polite historical transcriptions of a Tony Kushner. Tarantino, after all, isn't just a Grindhouse fanboy. He turns out to be digging around for emotional and intellectual realities, looking ugly historical truths in the eye.

Where Tarantino's coming from is clear when, an agreement seemingly in the bag, Schultz takes a moment off to stop a woman from playing Beentoven's "Für Elise" on the harp in Candie's drawing room. He will not have a German composer who championed freedom played in such a place, and he will rather risk armed confrontation in a hostile environment than shake this slave owner's hand to close a deal. I don't know about you, but watching Django Unchained leaves me a little shattered. Tarantino still works in the same ways but he seems to have gotten more serious, under the screen dazzle.

Django Unchained, 165mins, opens Christmas Day 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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