Is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained a homage or a rip-off? For Critic After Dark Noel Vera, the best argument against watching a Tarantino flick is to watch the far superior if less expensive originals he stole from.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is basically a cartoon; a well-acted, fairly well-produced and even for moments well-directed (Tarantino continues to improve on his action sequences, this time borrowing from the shootout finale in Johnnie To’s Exiled) cartoon on slavery, the way Inglourious Basterds is a cartoon - something funny and sometimes clever and occasionally amusing - but to regard it as anything more than an insubstantial contribution to a mostly disreputable genre is, to my mind, insane.
He’s clever, I’ll give him that; he surrounds himself with spells, charms, the basic accoutrements to make his movies critic-proof (opportunistically assumed liberal agenda - check; outlandish violence - check; genre-bending - check; sophomoric humor - check; excellent actors mysteriously buffaloed into participating in his ‘vision’ - check).
He even adds historical details that give his movie the outer appearance of being serious about the subject (the ‘hot box’ torture, the vicious hunting dogs, the various esoteric neck gear meant to keep a slave docile). He stops short of actually saying something serious but the man probably, as another fictional vigilante might put it, “knows his limits.” He does, but one wonders - does his fans?
God - or the Devil - is in the details, and Django gets off on a spectacularly wrong foot early in the picture: the man (Jamie Foxx) is rescued by an improbable walking plot function, a German dentist turned bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who totally gets Tarantino’s ‘let’s bullshit the audience’ spirit). They strike a deal - Django will help Schultz find his bounty, an endeavor that may take several months, and Schultz will eventually help Django find his wife.
So what do they do, this pair on a mission to hunt down a band of dangerous criminals - do they look around quietly, gathering information, perhaps sending out feelers as to where said criminals may be? Nope - they ride into town and straight into a bar, shoot up the sheriff in front of the entire town, and demand two hundred dollars for the privilege (apparently they do get the money as opposed to getting killed, which is another crazy development). Later they shoot up a plantation, and blow up a posse of proto-Klansmen in the bargain.
Now I’m aware this is a cartoon but there’s “pushing the limits of plausibility” to milk a gag and there’s following a pair of boneheaded morons who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘discreet.’ Bad enough that a white and black man have partnered together to go bounty hunting - that certainly won’t attract any attention - but judging from the rather loud and extravagant way they progress across the countryside I doubt if anyone will be willing to sit tight and wait patiently for their arrival.
Of course the prey could be even dumber - there’s always that. And I suppose this whole bit is really a minor plot loophole, but I submit to you that it’s the kind of loophole that helps you buy into a scenario instead of sitting with your feet up, spitting watermelon seed shells at the screen.
Finally they find the wife; she’s been busy baking in an iron box in Candyland, Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation of horrors. They concoct a scheme to rescue her so elaborate even the head slave Stephen (Samuel Jackson) could see through it; they get caught, are forced to settle the transaction on hugely disadvantageous terms, under gunpoint (fortunately Schulz has an ace literally up his sleeve, which he saves till the last moment).
Before the deal is closed, DiCaprio’s Candie offers a handshake to Schulz - who suddenly is up to here with slavery. What does he do? He doesn’t shoot the guy holding the gun.
Like I said - morons.
Incidentally, about Jackson’s Stephen - Tarantino was never one for making his characters sound like different people; every actor no matter how handsome or beautiful or how beautiful the diction or heavy the accent ends up sounding like Tarantino. But Stephen - yes, there were slaves who actively collaborated with their white masters, but one that talked and cussed like he was walking the streets of ’70s Los Angeles (”motherfucker” incidentally became popular only about World War 2)? Really?
He’s Tarantino’s most entertaining conceit though, despite the howling anachronism - a kind of airing of black history’s dirtier laundry (though why it has to be Tarantino and not Spike Lee - why, say, Tarantino gets the funding to do a spaghetti western version of slavery and not Spike Lee with a possibly more thoughtful approach…).
It was suggested to me that the mention of Alexandre Dumas was a giveaway, that the reason Stephen was so dedicated to Calvin was because he was Calvin’s real father.
The theory goes something like this: Candie grand-pere had an only daughter, the girl had an affair with Stephen, got pregnant, and when grand-pere died (presumably from a heart attack), the daughter left the plantation in her son’s care, with the biological father as overseer slave. Got to say that if this is true, it somewhat weakens Tarantino’s picture - Stephen doesn’t do what he does for the sheer perversity of it; there’s a biological basis.
Interesting idea, thought I’d air it here, and beyond that - well, that’s it for interesting ideas found in Tarantino’s latest.
Along the way I’d like to file an unofficial protest on behalf of Kerry Washington (who plays Broomhilda, Django’s girl) and the way her character is wasted in this picture. She’s a pretty actress - maybe talented; I wouldn’t know, because Tarantino doesn’t give her a single thing to do except scream and flash a nipple or two.
By picture’s end she’s on a horse smiling confidently and swinging a rifle like she’s been doing that all her life - where did that come from? Far as I know she’s been spending her time in Candyland either baking underground or spreading her legs for every guest to come visiting (the last because her beloved husband would rather spend a few months of quality time with his newly befriended bounty-hunting partner than focus on saving her). A chance for the girl to target practice with rifles, in short, seem a tad unlikely.
Maybe Tarantino’s a one-issue guy. He tackled sexism in his previous movie Kill Bill (well, feels he has tackled it; I beg to differ), and needs to focus his limited attention span on racism this time - maybe that’s why his Broomhilda is such a thin creation, thinner than even the other cartoon sketches populating his picture.
Perhaps the best argument against watching a Tarantino flick is to watch the far superior if less expensive originals he stole from. I mean - Corbucci’s Django for all its lack of production values and haphazard construction (Corbucci talked his brother Bruno into dashing off a quick story outline in place of an actual script) has a deadpan demented sense of humor and outlandish cruelty, plus subtle taint of melancholic loneliness (women - and men even, come to think of it - are drawn to Django, who rarely let them in) that Tarantino just can’t quite capture.
The director also borrowed the Mandingo idea from Richard Fleischer’s film - arguably the most accurate portrait of slavery committed on celluloid - but couldn’t reproduce the lurid tone (Susan George beats Washington up and down the block for onscreen sensuality), or visual elan (Fleischer against Tarantino? Gheddafakouddahere), or thematic complexity (the suggestion that Mede is more animal than man, and eventually acquires the dignity of a man, at the cost of horrific sacrifice).
Far as I can see Tarantino doesn’t borrow from the most famous title to deal with the subject, the mini-series adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. Maybe he considers the show inferior product, irredeemably cheesy and uncool - a pity, because despite the low budget and occasionally clumsy TV mini-series style storytelling the treatment has its moments of grandeur and dramatic power, and is by far the most comprehensive fictional treatment to date.
Arguably my favorite title from the genre is Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn, a small film that possesses every virtue Django Unchained does not - subtlety, grace, a kind of unblinking yet unbowed humanity, a stubborn belief in the superiority of human intelligence over violence. Too cheesy, I suppose, too uncool. Of Burnett’s influence I see not a trace.
Note: You can also email Noel Vera at email@example.com.
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