Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Django Unchained, a fairytale of slavery.

In my last post about Sergio Leone, I discussed the theory of his whole oeuvre of work being fairytales, with titles such as Once Upon a Time in the West/America. In Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained,  that is exactly what we get; a fairytale. Naturally, this doesn't fall into the good old wholesome Disney fairytale, but nonetheless it does possess all the characteristics and traits of a fairytale, and the characters even allude to the fact that their journey does share resemblance to the old German folklore of Brynhildr. The motive of the hero within that legend and our hero, Django (Jamie Foxx), is to rescue and free his love from the depths of hell, more or less. We have seen it a hundred times before, maybe not in Tarantino's style, but we are stepping on familiar territory here.

Returning back to these fairytale characteristics I spoke of. The opening scene begins in a deep, dark forest "somewhere in Texas", kind of like "in a land far far away" type scenario and already we are dropped into a common staple in the fairytale motif. We are not dropped in there all alone though, by our side is the eccentric Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). In all fairytales, there's an overlooking presence, a guardian angel if you will, that we the audience and our protagonist (Django) can place our complete confidence upon. Schultz is that presence. Tarantino has mentioned before that Samuel L. Jackson and Waltz are the only two that don't just say his dialogue, but sing it and that is exactly what Waltz does here. He is one of today's finest actors, but not in the style of a Daniel Day Lewis or Robert De Niro method acting. Waltz's acting style is more modest and polite. Just like with Col. Hans Landa, King Schultz has a way with words and pronunciation that wash over the audience allowing them to feel that they are in good hands.

However, from a subtextual point of view, who exactly is Dr. King Schultz? That he is a guardian angel from a fairytale perspective is certainly already imposed, but allowing to brush away that notion for a moment, we may propose the theory that Schultz is in fact us, the 21st century audience. We are not all too familiar with slavery besides from the few historical bullet-points. All we really know is that it was bad and not to say the N-Word; end of story. We live in a completely different world far away from the antebellum south of 1858. Schultz is also not from this culture, being German and all. We see the atrocities of slavery through his eyes and it is shocking. Django is used to this treatment and way of life because he was born into it and knows no better. This is a whole new experience and incomprehension for Schultz/audience. 

However, before we reach the heart of slavery in Mississippi, our protagonists Django and Schultz begin their relationship by King releasing Django from the chain-gang and teaching him the ways of a bounty hunter. This answers the question of "who is Schultz?" with a different outcome as we may recognise him as a father figure for Django. He teaches him to read, feeds him, dresses him and gives him his humanity. He admits to Django that he has never given anyone their freedom before and feels responsible for him. Since Tarantino himself had no solid father figure, can we interpret this as a childhood fantasy for the director? At the end of the day these are theories, but when it comes down to the basics it is evidently clear that Schultz is the teacher and Django is the student during that cold winter in the bounty hunting business. 

However, after Django proves himself as a valid and talented gunslinger it is time for the two to travel to Mississippi to rescue Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the Francophile and infantile, Calvin Candie (Leo Di Caprio). They masquerade as buyers and experts in the vicious sport of mandingo fighting. We soon begin to see Django become the teacher as we delve deeper into the sadistic conditions of slavery. He invites us and Schultz into his world and we are exposed to the brutal realities of the slave trade. I suppose this is where I should discuss controversy surrounding the violence and language of the film. In my view the display of violence is completely sensationalised by the media and this isn't to say that is easy to watch, but there has been a lot worse. I admit that the idea is placed in our minds during dreaded scenes such as the mandingo fighting and the dog attack, but Tarantino sets it up, we finish it in our heads. There is the cathartic shoot out scenes, which are drenched in blood, however, I believe this to be aesthetically wonderful. If this is what critics are wailing about then they aren't watching enough movies. At the end of the day people in the audience are going to have different thresholds when it comes to viewing violence, but when you are dealing with a Tarantino flick and slavery I think its pretty safe to assume that this ain't no fucking High School Musical (2006).

 Slavery is the unabashedly central theme that will have audiences debating. The discussion of controversy was desensitised best by the director himself, claiming that this movie is just the flavour or talk of the month and that something new will come along that everybody will deem reprehensible.
I don't see Tarantino's ambition to portray American slavery as taboo, what he did that was audacious was to portray the hierarchy amongst black males e.g. the Uncle Tom, the slaver, the field nigger. We can see hierarchy like this reflected within the black community in America today and that was a ballsy decision on his part, but he seemed to make it work. The word "nigger" is thrown around constantly throughout the film and people have spoke out about it. Spike Lee, who I see as a talented director gave his two cents for what it's worth, claiming that this movie is disrespectful to his ancestors (without actually seeing it mind you). This is coming from a man, who a few years back called Sam Jackson a "house nigger" and confesses that he uses the word himself? Give me a four fingered Kit-Kat now. You want the tension of racism to continue within America, then go to a Knicks game with Lee and bash whites, Jews and Clint Eastwood.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the nice fairytale. So if Schultz in essence is us, the modern day audience, who or what does Django represent? Reminiscing to the idea of fairytale and folklore, surely Django is portrayed as this mythological superhero for black people during that period. This superhero idea came to me when Schultz and Django are in search for the Brittle Brothers at Big Daddy's (Don Johnson) plantation in Tennessee. After an emotional flashback of Broomhilda taking a whipping from the brothers, Django confronts them in this masterfully cathartic scene of revenge and retribution. While he shoots and whips the brothers, the slave onlookers gaze in awe, kids mouths drop as if they are watching Superman. We can picture the story been told throughout the south by slaves like a game of Chinese Whispers, giving them a sense of hope. In the reality of the story though, Django is only a man that would go to hell and back for his wife, but simplicities have always influenced greater causes. Rosa Parks wasn't trying to change things in any social manner, she just wanted to sit at the front of the bus and her persistence led to the Civil Rights Movement.

As the mission continues through Mississippi towards Candyland, we enter the gates of hell where Broomhilda is trapped. Her owner is Calvin Candie, an ignorant bourgeois, who clings onto his theories of phrenology in order to justify slavery. This is the first time in a very long time that Di Caprio hasn't played a leading man, he is in the mode of character actor here and his first time playing an antagonist too. Sam Jackson plays his accomplice as the O.G. of Uncle Toms, Stephen. Stephen is much smarter than Candie, older and wiser, but just as malicious. Possibly even more so as he betrays his own people and considers himself to be white. From the moment Django first sets foot on Candyland, Stephen sees him as a threat, jealousy arises and he lies in wait for just one slip up. Rest assured there is when he notices eye contact between Django and Broomhilda. After a terrifying ordeal after a dinner, our heros and Broomhilda are free to leave, due to a purchase of $12,000 for Django's wife. 

It would appear they are free, but images of a slave being ripped apart by dogs haunt Schultz as the transaction is underway. He cannot comprehend this heinous culture and realises that by purchasing Broomhilda he is partaking. As Beethoven wafts over the room he is sickened by the entire event and must leave the room. Soon after he humiliates Candie by bringing it to his attention that the author Alexandre Duma, who Candie admires, is in fact from African descent. Candie returns the embarrassment by attempting to get Schultz to shake his hand to close Broomhilda's deal. To our satisfaction Schultz doesn't oblige. Thus, resulting in one of the bloodiest shoot outs in cinema history. Although we recognise Django as the hero within the boundaries of the spaghetti western and black folklore, Dr. King Schultz is the real hero in terms of fighting slavery by not giving into Calvin Candie.

Django Unchained is not flawless by any means, it's predecessor Inglorious Basterds (2009) stretched much closer to that feat with its three dimensional characters, moments of genuine suspense and it's solid, yet complex plot. Note the climax duel between Django and Stephen within this movie. Now we understand that Stephen is no real threat at this stage, but I thought the dialogue could have stretched out longer and been more potent. Django's most obvious loss are the hands of the late editor Sally Menke, who was Tarantino's greatest collaborator. It is only after her unfortunate passing that we can come to terms with how good she really was and clearly how essential she was to QT's process. Also, it was a mistake for Tarantino to put himself in the movie. He is a character himself in real life so during a scene of genuine hopelessness we do not want to see his mug in the shot as it removes the sense of impending doom.
All that been said, this is great entertainment that sets out exactly what it was aiming for. It's a genuine spaghetti western, from the high speed, zooming close-ups to the blood splatter to the beautiful photography of landscape done by Robert Richardson. Since his debut Quentin Tarantino's work has evolved, but from the same heart of Resevoir Dogs (1992). A true American storyteller, who juggles both the mainstream Hollywood system and the independent circle in his hands with perfect balance. If he is not the greatest living director, he is the luckiest. He has lived his life in celluloid, discussing cinema for kicks rather than profit, taking the past and remixing it to produce his own future.

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