Posted December 15, 2012 by D. K. Holm
Django Unchained is the first “Obama movie.” It’s a film made by a white person who facilitates and endorses African-American rage at injustice. The film is sure to scare the pants off of, or confirm the suspicious of, those knee-jerk extremists who fear an unchained Obama second term.
This is to be expected from Quentin Tarantino, who has invested much of his time and energy into an interest in and support of African-American culture, especially it’s harder, masculine side, and all this despite what Spike Lee says about Tarantino’s work – though Mr. Lee will be even less happy with Django than he was with Pulp Fiction, given the use of the N word. In any case, it’s informative, finger-in-the-air-wise, to compare Django with Spielberg’s Lincoln. The biopic takes place just at the end of the Civil War; Django two years before. Yet at the same time, both films are talky enterprises, in which people in conflict retire to rooms to carefully and elaborately tease out some level of dominance. Over his past three films or so, Mr. Tarantino has slipped into a format in which he pursues the interview or interrogation as a dramatic forum (he should probably do a crazy courtroom drama next). Inglourious Basterds was almost all interviews, a succession of people talking at each other in florid, regal tones and exaggerated courtesy. Same here. Only in Tarantino World would anyone sit still for these convoluted and arch ways of communicating.
Django Unchained is, of course, borrowed in part from the Franco Nero Italo-oater Django (1966), from its credit font and color to its setting, though Tarantino, who is also credited with the screenplay, tells a wholly different story while addressing similar concerns about loyalty to a mate. If Quentin Tarantino hasn’t quite yet stopped borrowing, or stealing, or “paying hommage” to other films and filmmakers, he has switched gears slightly by starting to steal from himself. In Pulp Fiction, a Caucasian and an African-American team up to work as enforcers for a gangster. In Django Unchained, a German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) teams up with a slave he plans to free, Django (Jamie Foxx), in return for help in tracking down crooks, while also searching for Django’s wife.
Also like Pulp Fiction, and most of Tarantino’s other films, an emphasis is placed on performance. Like Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, the duo “get into character” before a confrontation. Tarantino began as an acting student, which is much more important to his aesthetic than the more fabled and concurrent years he worked at a video store. Acting as a way of life informs all his films and explains some of his peculiarities, such as the long interviews that his characters often slip into. Schultz tells Django that when confronting various people they will be playing a part, and that he must not “break character.” Django goes through several different “costume changes,” each one creating a new identity. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson eventually turns up also as someone who presents himself in public one way, while being something else in private. Along with performance, there is also the interest in storytelling itself, and people tend to tell each other tales. In one cute moment, Django sits at Schultz’s feet at the campfire in order to hear the story of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Weirdly, for one so obsessed with performance, Tarantino himself remains a problematic actor. He has given himself a dramatic cameo in his own film, but his accent is incomprehensible, or his speech mumbled, which may be intentional, as another characteralso mumbles extravagantly perhaps in hommage to The Usual Suspects, and at the same time Tarantino has put on a lot of weight, which may or may not “fit” his character, who has an explosive exit, but which makes him look like one of the bold character actors from the westerns he likes.
Also borrowed from himself are some of the settings. From Kill Bill he reädapts the high staircase of the House of Blue Leaves to the foyer of a plantation mansion. And though famous for juggling chronology, the only time Tarantino plays with narrative is when he starts one scene – of Don Johnson leading an ur-KKK raid on the heroes – than interrupts it to go back and show the KKKers bickering amongst themselves amusingly about their poorly cut hoods. In general, the tale is straightforward, chronological, and with only a few explanatory, emotional flashbacks. The film isn’t visually dynamic – there are maybe three or four overhead shots, and the most significant dramatic change is that people seem to show up in crowds, usually of seven or so people.
If I sound less than enthusiastic about Django Unchained, that’s true. Though I wasn’t overly excited to see it, I enjoyed watching it (twice), but wonder if I will ever feel the urge to see it again. The film feels too long, even though a glance into the script shows that there were even more (usually explanatory) scenes, and the tone feels off. Moments of high drama or bloodshed are followed by oddly sit-com or TV level humor, and several of the lines are distractingly anachronistic (“No worries.” “Unring that bell”). Casting issues abound. I wasn’t entirely smitten with Foxx in the lead, and Kerry Washington, who seems like a one-note actress anyway, is given little to do, maybe 16 lines, most of them in German. Tarantino didn’t used to have a “woman problem.” He is so uninterested in the women in this movie that he doesn’t even show their feet, in the Buñuelian manner that was one of his signature codes, and worse he hides Zoe Bell, stuntwoman extraordinaire, under a mask.
Perhaps these issues, if they are issues, can be traced to the loss of Tarantino’s long term collaborator, editor Sally Menke. When Hitchcock lost his editor, his composer, and his cinematographer all around the same time, his films were never again the same. The late Menke was one of the great film editors, and she kept a rein on her boss’s tone and excesses, while seeming to thoroughly understand his vision. She also understood performance, and her shot selection of which moment to use of an actor’s on screen creation was impeccable, and went a long way toward creating Tarantino’s rep as an actor’s director. One hopes that this tragic loss doesn’t similarly derail Tarantino’s future works.