Sunday, January 6, 2013

UPDATED: Three Ways to Consider Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Two weeks after it opened,  "Django Unchained" continues kicking up a windstorm of commentary, critiques and rants.  It has also earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office, not exactly small change for a spectacularly complicated film that opened at the height of the Christmas season.

I'd read the reviews in The New York Times and other outlets and sat it out, opting for a Christmas holiday free of blood-splatters.  During the film's first week, I followed and sometimes chimed in on the discussions that clogged my social media channels. Many of the writers, academics and media folks who are the core of my network expressed -- sometimes in heated language -- widely diverging opinions about the movie.  In summary:

-- Tarantino foolishly makes light of the horrors of slavery. (Susan Fales Hill.)
-- Tarantino delivered a liberating revenge fantasy, disturbing but legitimate (TaRessa Stovall.)
-- Tarantino wrongly suggests that an eye-for-an-eye philosophy would have been an acceptable antidote to slavery, i.e., slaves or former slaves killing whites in retribution. (William Jelani Cobb)
-- Tarantino is talented but woefully immature. (Me.)

Now that I've watched it, here are two points on the film, brief analysis on the buzz surrounding the film, and observations on the filmmaker's comments about how and why he made it. 

1) Story

"Django Unchained" is a love story wrapped in an action-packed revenge fantasy set against the backdrop of slavery in the Deep South and in the Southwest. 

Or is it?

As a postmodern, edgy action movie, it is wildly successful. As a love story it is weakened by excesses that Tarantino either didn't notice, failed to reign in, or willfully created. As a revenge fantasy-cum-commentary on racism, it succeeds moderately.   There are strained metaphors and over-long scenes that hamper the action  (Fales Hill, for example, quite astutely noted the 'hamfisted' inclusion a reference to Wagner's "The Ring Cycle,"  within the plot).  But the  biggest story deficit is that the film's spine -- it's core meaning -- isn't clear. Is it foremost a love story? A revenge fantasy? A buddy film? Tarantino's reputation as an enfant terrible of modern film auteurs springs from his ability to produce jarring, swift acts of violence, unexpected moments of tenderness, and black humor laced with creative explosions of colorfully profane language.

All are present here, but given the incendiary frame (slavery, the ultimate third-rail in American cultural politics), identifying the genuine point of the story is difficult. Tarantino's biggest weakness as a filmmaker (in my book) has long been his inability or unwillingness to honor the tradition of linear cinematic storytelling, i.e., plots that have clearly defined beginnings, mid-sections, and endings. His elliptical style, in which flashbacks and future developments pop up randomly, swing around and double back on each other, sometimes at a dizzying pace ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction") is used, I believe, as something of a dodge: He may indeed be capable of writing a linear narrative and simply elects not to. But as I view his catalog, Tarantino is more interested in encouraging incipient ADHD in the audience than in steadily building our investment in the characters, in cultivating a gradual, creeping tension as plot developments logically unfold. (No, I am neither inflexible or inherently opposed to 'non-traditional' storytelling tactics, I merely prefer the former method and Tarantino has yet to produce a film that  has this flow.)  The story within "Django Unchained" is obscured; it takes a back seat to the main theme that Tarantino is promoting -- blacks avenging the cruelties of slavery. That is not a 'story,' it is a political statement.

2) Artistry

Other reviewers -- film scholars and smart movie-goers alike -- have correctly identified the film's obvious homage to the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Sergio Leone.  Unmentioned, though, is its liberal borrowing of motifs from a host of other films and filmmakers, including Hitchcock, John Ford,  Gordon Parks, Mel Brooks, and in a fleeting reference, David O. Selznick. Taken individually, the references to Leone, Hitchcock, Parks, and to Brooks are not problematic.  Collectively though, they diminish the opportunity for a truly original film that might have been enhanced by deploying fewer (or by a more subtle deployment) of references to past films or other genres. As it is, the driving artistic feature of "Django' is that it is a mash-up, however slick, visceral and humorously drawn the total sum of its parts.

There are liberal doses of Peckinpah in the grisly images of spurting blood and rending limbs; reminders of Parks in the many shots of  Django's quick-draw skills and bad-ass lines of dialog; hints of Ford in the back-lit, sillhouettes or heroic shots of Jamie Foxx's Django swaggering away from the camera framed by looming mountain ranges;  big splashes of Hitchock in Django's intense, tunnel vision focus on rescuing Kerry Washington's Broomhilda, a character who serves as the proverbial 'McGuffin' -- that item or person identified by the Master of Suspense as the driving momentum of a plot (really, Broomhilda in "Django' may as well have been a mysterious uranium formula, a la Cary Grant's and Ingrid Bergman's 'McGuffin' in 'Notorious"). The scene in which the Klansmen -- led by Don Johnson's character --  disagree over their hoods is an updating of the bandit's 'beans for dinner' scene in "Blazing Saddles" -- unexpected, hilarious and decidedly un-PC.

And the appearance, mid-way through the second reel, of the word "Mississippi" in all-caps, slowly crawling (or is it 'wiping?') majestically across the screen from right-frame to left-frame, indicating the protagonist's traveling into the Deep South is clearly a reference to Selznick's "Gone With the Wind." Much has been made of the possibility that Tarantino is attempting with "Django' to reap a kind of cinematic payback upon that epic film and presumably other 'Golden Age of Hollywood"  tales of the Old South in which blacks were portrayed as simpletons and victims. This may be the case and Tarantino and modern directors are of course welcome to update that hoary genre at will. Yet, while "Django" is indeed a 'fun,' moderately cathartic revenge fantasy-take on slavery, it is also ultimately a fairly cold-hearted film, unlike "Gone with the Wind." Tarantino is tremendously talented, and I enjoy his films -- within limits. I do though eagerly await the moment when his output begins to show signs of genuine maturity, artistically and in the ability to explore the human condition with a stronger emphasis on compassion rather than cynicism. At least in "Django,' Tarantino has improved on a basic skill of mainstream film auteurs -- constructing mis en scene that is visually arresting, if ultimately in need of editing.

3) Buzz, Criticism, Tarantino's Comments: 

After I posted this column, news emerged that a merchandising company had teamed up with the Weinstein Company, producer of "Django Unchained," to manufacture and sell 'action-figure' dolls based on the characters in the film.  My thoughts on that development were rounded up by columnist Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute, along with comments from other journalists and cultural critics.

As I said up top, lots of very smart people are chattering about "Django Unchained," with most of the heat apparently arising from Tarantino's decision to take on slavery. Part of the challenge -- and I say this with all due respect to my peers! -- is that academic experts in black studies are not necessarily experts on film, while film scholars are not usually known for their expertise on black American history. Thus, we've had a huge amount of teeth-gnashing in the media ecosystem about "Django Unchained," but not very much in the way of genuinely useful analysis.

Even so, a common  point of contention is the violence and surfeit of images showing Washington's character being whipped and of another slave character being ripped apart by dogs after attempting to escape.  These scenes are upsetting, although, yes, they are meant to be and they should be.  What is objectionable is Tarantino's decision to return to them gratuitously in the second and in the final reel.  The fact that the characters use the word 'nigger' with abandon does not bother me -- it is, after all, a story that unfolds in a era when that word was widely used.  What does rankle me is what appears to be the author's insistence that he deserves a pass on his continued appropriation on black pain (as we have endured it throughout the brutal physical abuse of the antebellum era and in the deep psychological and emotional scarring that has accumulated in the decades since thanks to Jim Crow laws, and more recently, persistent, low-grade racism that permeates American institutions including corporations, the law, and education.) Also, Tarantino does not get a 'ghetto-pass,' just because he grew up among blacks in Southern California, or because his mom 'dated Wilt Chamberlain," as he recently disclosed in an interview. I don't abide anyone using the word 'nigger' in conversation in my presence; and while Tarantino's film characters are obviously fictional, it is not acceptable that he apparently believes that he has earned a license to continuously deploy that word and that he seems to have the impression that by doing so he is diminishing its power.  I argued nearly a decade ago that there was something sick about the proliferation of the phrase 'ghetto-fabulous' in popular media and culture and this appropriation of the word 'nigger' by Tarantino or other artists -- black and white, truth be told -- is in the same category of outsized entitlement and general Dumb Assery.

Moreover, I find Tarantino's insistence that the gleeful depictions of over the top violence that he often highlights in his film are 'fun' to be terribly ill-considered.  Even Clint Eastwood -- who rightly caught lots of hell for the splatter-fests that distinguished his "Dirty Harry' films of the '70s and '80s -- eventually gave up the argument that such violence didn't have any negative impact on our national consciousness.  Eastwood grew out of such displays, likely in no small part because as he matured to fatherhood and grandfather-hood he could no longer justify producing films with the potential to negatively inform the behavior of individuals within his off-spring's cohort.

On January 2, Terry Gross, the veteran host of  NPR's "Fresh Air" published a riveting interview with Tarantino.  I am always rooting for artists, even those who produce high profile work that garners lots of press, generates high heat but which is often stubbornly flawed.  Tarantino, as I've said, is genuinely talented, and I root for his success. Yet his response to one of Gross's questions was very troubling: Gross asked if Tarantino ever considers the the possibility that the violence and brutality in his films may have any connection to or influence over the mass shootings that have increased in the U.S. in the past decade, in particular, the recent horror of 20 dead children and six dead teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Tarantino replies that he is 'annoyed' by such a question, and that even asking it is, 'insulting to the memory' of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary.

If I were writing a script about a public figure who produces mass media designed to resonate with millions of viewers.....but who also denies that his product has lasting influence on any audience members, I would include a version of this interview.  It would take place in the beginning of the third reel, at the crucial moment when the protagonist finally receives profound enlightenment, matures, and finds the strength and maturity needed to infuse his mission with clarity of vision, the bright light of hope, and the beauty of compassion.