Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Thoughts on Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

1. Though there's no point denying it'll do its part, for better or worse, to shape young Americans' thoughts and feelings on the subject of race, saying Django Unchained is a movie about race is like saying Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a movie about lesbianism.  This is because Django does absolutely no serious thinking on the subject of race; it attempts no insights about race as a force shaping American memory and consciousness.  What it is, simply, is a movie about movies—and their seldom fully exploited potential for wish fulfillment.

What's the most primal, enervating wish, arguably, a human being can have?

That for revenge. 

In what context might an American filmmaker set a revenge-wish-fulfillment story if his goal is to make contemporary American audiences achieve orgasm right in their movie seats?  

Well, how about a scary abusive-husband context?  (There's your Kill Bill.)

Or a Nazism/antisemitism context?  (There's your Inglorious Basterds.) 

Or—why not?—a racism/slavery context?  (Hello, Django Unchained.) 

It's hard not to think Tarantino will be doing Crazy Horse and Custer next.

But deepening our understanding of what went on between slaves and masters in 1850s Mississippi is not on Tarantino's to-do list in Django.  In fact, he seems weirdly determined not to extend our knowledge beyond the set of facts and quasi-facts most Americans with high-school educations already carry around in their heads: that slavery typically took place on a "plantation," one of whose key features was a "big house"; that unlucky slaves toiled in the hot sun, picking cotton, while "privileged" ones tended massuh's desires indoors; that phrenology, a popular 19th-century garbage science, was sometimes used to validate slavery; that a slave who attempted escape and failed might be chained to a tree and bullwhipped to within an inch of her life, so her knotty scars could serve as a warning to others.

We know all this before we sit down for almost three hours' worth of Django Unchained.  And we've gained precious little on the knowledge front (Mandingos, anyone?) when it's over.

What we do get is the not-inconsiderable pleasure of watching a gun-slinging American slave take his brutal, insane, hilarious revenge on a bunch of mental-defective white Southerners who sure do have it coming.  And what the movie, which tirelessly quotes '70s spaghetti-Western and blaxploitation flicks, never lets us forget is that this thrill is brought to us by the movies, which institution's ability to fulfill wishes is as boundless as our violence-obsessed American imaginations care to let it be.

So be careful what you wish for, America, says the closing scene of Django Unchained (much like the movie-theater-massacre scene near the end of Inglorious Basterds). Because Hollywood will give it to you.  And the brain that finds its delight in the dark is the same one you'll take back out to the parking lot after the lights come up again. 

2. One thing that's always been simultaneously excellent and awful about the U.S. is its antipathy to history, its conviction that history's lessons simply don't apply to it or to anything that goes on inside its borders.  On the one hand, this results in a citizenry embarrassingly baffled by events like 9/11.  (Why is all this Jewish/Palestinian stuff coming over here into our New York City?)  On the other, it results in a citizenry brave enough to elect Barack Obama, who would have looked mighty like a slave just a couple short human lifetimes ago, president. 

Oh how Django Unchained participates in this American proclivity.  It literally (I guess) dynamites American history, congratulating American audiences on being part of a nation hip enough to give its own history the finger.  Gleefully rewriting the high-school textbooks, morphing abject trod-upons into fire-breathing hellions, the movie invites us, maybe foolishly, to overlook the grim reality too many black Americans still live in today, a century and a half to the minute after the Emancipation Proclamationa reality birthed by a history no mega-badass Django Freeman will be riding in and blowing up anytime soon.

But then isn't all the smoke and splatter thrillingly protean, too?  Doesn't Obama's America deserve at least one truly celebratory Hollywood movie, movies being, like, windows on the American soul? And doesn't the U.S.'s going from Emancipation Proclamation to black president in less than a century and a half (holy hell: maybe history doesn't much matter in America) deserve at least one great fireworks display of the sort Django ends with?  And isn't that the real meaning of Django's horse's dressage steps there among the embers—a final up-yours to all the racists, subtle and otherwise, who convinced themselves America would vote for a stuffed-shirt, dressage-loving buffoon like Mitt Romney just because he was white, which fact, owing to our history, should, like, mean something? 

Isn't history blown to smithereens actually a pretty beautiful sight? 

3. While Django Unchained might wind up remembered as the Tarantino movie best capturing its moment's zeitgeist, the fact remains it's lesser Tarantino.  Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, and a never-more-fearless Sam Jackson make the material seem pretty decent.  But don't look or listen too closely—because Django's characters are strictly comic-book fare, lacking anything like the depth and complexity of those we know from Pulp Fiction or, especially, Jackie Brown.  (It's a shame Tarantino's sworn off novel adaptations, since what he did with that Elmore Leonard book was pretty choice.) 

Leo DiCaprio is badly miscast as Calvin Candie; the role should have gone to Don Johnson, who's way more menacing as a slave owner called Big Daddy, gone from the movie too soon. 

And one last gripe: how does DiCaprio's Candie inspect, in one scene, the bleached  insides of a long-dead slave's skull, pointing out dimples bespeaking servitude and docility, and not have the insides of his own skull inspected in like fashion by, say, Django Freeman before the closing credits roll?  

The tune is called "Bloodbath," Mr. Tarantino.  Let's take care to hit all the notes.