Thursday, December 27, 2012

Flamboyant Disreputability: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which is set before the American Civil War and stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave who strikes up a partnership with a dentist turned bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz (Christophe Waltz), has been called a “spaghetti Western,” both by Tarantino (when it was still in the planning stages) and by those (such as Spike Lee) who have publicly disparaged it as “disrespectful” to the memory of those who were caught under slavery’s boot heel. It says something about the disconnect between the two camps that they’re using that term at all. In the ‘60s, American film writers who described the operatically violent Westerns shot (often in Spain) by Italian directors such as Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as “spaghetti Westerns” were being derisive towards a subgenre that was widely seen as decadent, shoddy, and, oh yeah, disrespectful towards the proper, legendary West of John Ford, John Wayne, and Gunsmoke.

In recent years, critics who have re-evaluated and upgraded the work of Leone and other filmmakers who worked in the genre have largely abandoned the term in favor of the more staid label “Italian Western.” As a movie addict with a voracious appetite and encyclopedic (but non-judgemental) attitude towards popular culture, Tarantino still uses it. He appreciates it for the way it instantly telegraphs the look and feel of a hallucinatory, overheated world fueled by sadism and blood revenge, with violent rituals enacted by characters in period costume accompanied by the sound of psychedelic electric guitars. Lee, a self-styled provocateur, but one who plays by the establishment’s rules – his idea of a bold gesture is a three-hour, $30 million biopic, sanctified by the onscreen presence of Nelson Mandela, depicting a controversial and divisive figure from recent American history as a black saint – hears the term “spaghetti Western” in reference to a movie with an ex-slave hero, and can’t imagine how that combination can be anything but a dance on Harriet Tubman’s grave.

For Tarantino, style is character. That extends to the identities of his movies themselves. Django Unchained has a hero whose name will remind movie freaks of one of the spaghetti classics – Corbucci’s 1966 Django, starring Franco Nero, who appears here in a cameo so cute it practically wiggles its ears – and an Ennio Morricone mixtape for a soundtrack, and in the opening credits sequence, the camera keeps zooming in and out in a way that will strike a familiar chord in anyone who’s ever stayed up too late sitting in front of the TV, watching Italian actors in cowboy outfits take turns being badly dubbed. He wants to infuse the movie with some of the grittiness and flamboyance of the Leone movies, and also some of the thrill that came from their disreputability (before they had to go and spoil it all by achieving belated critical acclaim). He wanted Death Proof to have some the cheap-thrill appeal of a ‘70s drive-in flick, too, but in both cases, he winds up with a Tarantino movie, which is partly to say, something that would probably have gotten a lot of walk-outs if it had played in the Time Square area back in the day, to patrons looking for something tighter and with fewer soliloquies between the gross-outs.

Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained.

They’d have missed some great stuff. Tarantino may take more than an hour hanging out with his two leads and setting up their relationship, with Waltz taking Foxx under his wing and training him as a hired killer; he may make practically an entire movie (with Don Johnson as chief villain) before he even starts laying down the floorboards of his main plot, involving Foxx getting Waltz to sign on to his plan to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the slave dealer and plantation owner Calvin J. Candie (a delightedly Satanic Leonardo DiCaprio). But he keeps you entertained. He’s the first director to make really good use of Waltz since making him an Oscar winner and an international attraction thanks to his role as the smart, mercenary Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. Waltz’s character rides around in a horse-driven cart with a big, hollow tooth jiggling around on top. But he is, of course, a crack shot and quick on the draw, more than capable of meting out justice to the redneck peckerwoods who give him a hard time for his German accent and courtly manner. Like the veteran detective who tutors Tim Roth in undercover work in Reservoir Dogs, he counsels his new partner in thinking like an actor, and when they prepare to visit Johnson’s plantation, Waltz casts Foxx as his valet and tells him to select his “costume” for the role. This results in a moment when, with music rising dramatically on the soundtrack, Jamie Foxx menacingly faces down the man who once tortured him, while dressed in a bright blue Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit with knee britches and a big white bow.

Samuel L. Jackson & Kerry Washington
In order to get close to Calvin Candie, Waltz pretends to be interested in getting in on the lucrative sport of “mandingo fighting”– hand-to-hand combat between slaves, with the victor being handed a hammer with the injunction to “finish off” his fallen opponent. This major thread is woven in directly from the notoriously deranged 1975 plantation melodrama Mandingo, in which plantation holder James Mason sat with his bare feet on a black child’s tummy as a cure for his rheumatism and his son, Perry King, boiled Ken Norton in a big pot on the front lawn. As Tarantino demonstrated with Inglourious Basterds (which climaxed with a scene in which Hitler and his top aides get theirs while attending a movie premiere), he sees movies set in earlier historical periods as their own genre, and feels free to take whatever liberties he likes with history itself; how irresponsible you find this depends on how devoted you are to the idea that there ought to be different artistic rules for the director of Kill Bill than there are for, say, E. L. Doctorow. I do know full well that there are plenty of people who are smart enough to recognize the inconsistency but are still prepared to go down tied to the mast over that one.

Tarantino may have taken the howls of outrage that Basterds inspired in some quarters as a challenge, one that necessitated that, having used the Holocaust (and Holocaust and World War II movies) as the pretext for a violent revenge fantasy, he had to use slavery and its legacy the same way. I don’t think his response to feeling challenged is to want to further piss people off, either. I think he wants to win them over, and it’s to his credit that, having defined himself as an entertainer above all else, he keeps raising the bar. His generosity toward the audience is the other side of the love of his own voice, which is why those words like “self-indulgent” and “undisciplined” keep cropping up in his reviews. It’s also part of what keeps him from turning into the Stanley Kubrick of cheap thrills. For at least the last quarter-century of his career, Kubrick seemed to have approached every project as if he’d selected a genre at random and was going to deliver the last word on it, a movie that through sheer force of over-thought-out over-direction would cow the world. Some times this worked out better than other times. The other big difference is, of course, that Tarantino is still deeply involved in the human material on the screen – that is, he loves the bejesus out of actors. After he lost Peter Sellers’ phone number, it seemed to be part of Kubrick’s mission in life to prove that there wasn’t an actor in the world he couldn’t turn into Gary Lockwood. By contrast, Tarantino is the kind of writer-director who you can imagine losing sleep at night from worrying that nobody has ever really made good use of Tom Wopat in a movie. (Wopat is in this one, briefly, as a U. S. Marshall. As it happens, he is quite good.)

Christophe Waltz as the bounty hunter.
Despite his reputation as an action master, Tarantino really excels at the slow, steady build-up, the slow boil. Django Unchained rolls around very nicely for an hour or so, then becomes ever more compelling for another hour or so when DiCaprio enters the picture and he and Foxx can play cat and mouse. (“Stop antagonizing him,” Waltz tells Foxx. “I’m intriguing him,” replies Foxx.) A self-styled Francophile who doesn’t speak French, and who feels insulted if someone else does speak it in his presence, Candie isn’t even the brains of his own operation. That honor goes to his despicable, groveling house servant, Stephen, played by Samuel L. Jackson in a makeup job that makes him look like Richard Pryor’s 200-year-old Bicentennial Nigger. Django finally goes haywire in its last half-hour, when Tarantino pulls out the stops and releases the fireworks, starting with a gun battle that’s like the climax of Brian De Palma’s Scarface staged on the set for Gone With The Wind. The action is set off by Waltz’s refusal to shake an evil man’s hand – a move than comes after he has told Foxx that you have to get your hands dirty sometimes to do good, though when he says that, he’s urging him to shoot a man dead in front of his little boy. Django Unchained might make a rewarding (if ass-numbing) double bill with the season’s other slavery movie, Lincoln. The Lincoln of that movie would probably shake hands with the devil to get his amendment passed, because he too, understands the need to sometimes dirty his hands. Would he have shot that guy in front of his kid? We may never know.

The last thirty minutes of Django Unchained is Tarantino waving his Grindhouse Authenticity card at the camera, and it comes yoked to an onscreen cameo by the director – the sort of thing he’d seemed to have outgrown in recent years – in which he goes so far as to try on an Australian accent; you could treat yourself to a more pleasant listening experience by turning up Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music while dropping golf balls down the garbage disposal. But if Tarantino’s aesthetic credit will always be iffy with a lot of tastemakers, it’s not because his amazing movies go on too long, or grow unstable, or even because the camera only loves him when he’s behind it. It’s because, like De Palma, he’s a serious filmmaker who doesn’t have a solemn bone in his body.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.