Friday, January 18, 2013

Django Unchained

Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2012) is a spaghetti western about slavery. Set in Texas and Mississippi in 1858, it follows the trail of a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his associate Django (Jamie Foxx) as they hunt wanted outlaws.  Dr. Schultz’s basic operating procedure is to identify the outlaws and then to shoot them dead, taking their bodies back to the local sheriff to claim the bounties.  To justify his methods, he always points to the wanted poster that says “Wanted Dead or Alive.”  After they dispense with a particularly nasty gang, he gives Foxx his freedom, and together they set out to find Foxx’s wife, who has been sold to a particularly nasty plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) of the plantation Candieland.

This film has all the distinguishing marks of a Tarantino film--moments of comedy followed by scenes of extreme violence. The funniest scene (there aren’t many) comes when a band of hooded men headed to attack the bounty hunters stop to argue about their masks, which do not fit.  The man whose wife made the masks is offended by their discussion and rides off in a huff.  Shortly afterwards most of the masked men die in a bomb blast rigged by the bounty hunters.  Such scenes juxtaposing the comic or bizarre alongside violence are traits of the spaghetti westerns and B-level films Tarantino takes as his models.  Schultz himself drives a closed wagon with a large tooth mounted on a spring on its roof—it wobbles back and forth as he drives—he was once a dentist—the tooth is an ever-present mark of absurdity that would fit right into any number of Sergio Leone films.

Tarantino’s main method in Django and other films is to show horrible scenes of racism, brutality, and suffering that are followed by scenes in which those responsible for the racism, brutality, and suffering receive their violent comeuppance.  Moments of inhumanity followed by violent retribution.  “There is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood.” These scenes provide catharsis, or so I think Tarantino intends, that allow the viewer release from whatever the brutality might be.  This was his approach in Inglourious Basterds (2009).  I didn’t like that film’s heavy-handed distortion of history (all the high command of the Third Reich, including Hitler, are killed in a bomb blast and fire at a movie theater). But here it doesn’t bother me that much.  There is a deliberate broadness to this film’s portrayal of plantation owners, slaves, and lower class whites.  One reviewer noted that it is the broadness one finds in a comic book—there are few if any gradations between good and bad.  Only in the two main characters do we find complexity.

Christoph Waltz creates a truly unusual, distinctive character in Schultz.  He is affable, always calm and sociable, never out of sorts.  He seems to fear nothing.  In his cart with the wobbling tooth, he at first seems a foolish figure, but when he begins to shoot down people in his way we realize he is someone to take seriously.  He decides what he needs to do to achieve his goals, and he does it.  From the earliest moment he makes clear his aversion to slavery, although slavery is not his main concern.  Bounties are.  Moral compunctions don’t slow him down when it comes to killing wanted men.  Finding outlaws and bringing their bodies in for the bounty is what he does.  He agrees to help Django find his wife out of friendship. 

Django begins the film as a beaten-down man in a coffle of slaves being led towards auction.  When Schultz frees Django because he knows what several men Schultz is hunting look like.  The film shows Django’s gradual transformation from oppressed victim to agent of retribution.  Schultz lures him into the bounty hunting business both by the offer of freedom and by the opportunity to shoot white people.  Schultz asks him, after one successful episode, how he likes bounty hunting, and Django answers, “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” After Schultz frees him, they set out to find his missing wife.  But the search for his wife, and the desire to punish those who mistreated her, gradually becomes a quest to punish those who practice slavery.

The final scene in the film, in which Django slaughters every member and worker of Candieland and then blows the plantation house up in a tremendous explosion is the expected cathartic moment.  But what does it accomplish?  It does away with the bad guys (and woman).  It allows Django to ride away with his wife.  In reality, it’s not likely they would have survived long into the night, given the historical place and time of the action.  But the film doesn’t show reality.

Perhaps the most unsettling character in the film is Stephen, the head slave of Calvin Candie.  Played by an almost unrecognizable Samuel K. Jackson, the character seems to have been designed to resemble the bug-eyed stereotypes of slavery.  He shucks and jives, speaks in a heavy dialect (of the sort that whites would imagine for him), and is wholly devoted both to his master and to slavery in general.  Any challenge to that Institution enrages him.  Slavery gives him his position of power and influence as the head slave of Candie’s plantation.  He is the incarnation of what slavery in one sense sought to accomplish—the complete deformation of a human individual.  Stephen has no sense of himself as a slave, as a person of color, as someone who shares in common certain social and ethnic realities with other slaves on the plantation.  He embodies the stereotype Slave, the iron jockey figure that used to appear on so many Southern lawns. In fact, he seems to run the plantation on an equal basis with his owner.  When he recognizes that Django and his wife Broomhilda know each other, he summons Calvin into another room and informs him, speaking without dialect, sipping on a bourbon and sitting in a comfortable chair, in the iconography of the patriarch.  The racist type that he embodies is a conscious and voluntary identity he assumes for himself.

Even though the film attacks slavery and racism, it certainly uses racist stereotypes.  Stephen is an example.  The first time Schultz gives Django the chance to choose clothing, he dresses up like little Boy Blue.  Django’s wife is named Broomhilda.  Django loves to kill white people.  And of course the whites are stereotyped as well—no graduations of moral virtue at all.  It’s beyond Calvin Candie’s range to be anything other than the stereotyped slave owner that he is. 

The film’s final violent scene of retribution towards which everything has moved reminded me of any number of video games that allow the player to slaughter hordes of evildoers.  It reminded me of similar scenes in numerous films of the last fifty years, including many of the films that Tarantino is emulating here.  And it reminded me of nothing so much as the school house in Connecticut where a deranged killer with an automatic weapon slaughtered 20 little children.  Is there a connection—between the video games, the movie violence, and the savagely slaughtered children?

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