chris kilby -> RE: Django Unchained (28/2/2013 11:54:04 AM)
Well that made an interesting double-bill with Lincoln…
Retro as always and ever the cinematic magpie, QT is at it again. From the old Columbia logo at the start to virtually every western trope you can think of - from Sergios Leone and Corbucci to Peckinpah, Roy Rogers to Blazing Saddles.
Django Unchained is also The Searchers in reverse while a Searchers-style montage includes a wintery sojourn in the snow which homages the frozen landscapes of Corbucci’s other classic spaghetti western, The Great Silence as well as Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Then there’s the Wild Bunch-style slo-mo and bloody exit wounds. Quite a lot of blood actually.
QT starts as he means to continue, “borrowing” the theme tune from Sergio Corbucci’s original Django. The blood red titles too while the Mississippi mud is yet another visual echo. Curiously the plot of Django Unchained seems to be inspired by the song’s lyrics (about Django’s lost love) in a way the original wasn’t – Franco Nero was far too busy mowing down Klansmen with a frickin’ great machine gun, the one thing Django Unchained sadly lacks.
Hard to believe, but for all his flamboyant excess, QT’s Django Unchained lacks the sheer mad exuberance of Corbucci’s original and isn’t anywhere near as insane as something like Django Kill! The most mental film ever made in any genre, it makes El Topo look like El Top Cat.
Like McCabe and Mrs Miller (an “eastern”), Django Unchained isn’t a western at all – it’s a southern! Conspicuously set in 1858, “two years before the Civil War,” Django Unchained predates the Wild West – roughly the twenty years between the end of the Civil War and the completion of the railroads. QT being notoriously particular when it comes to historical accuracy.
Green and lush where most westerns are dry as dust, Django Unchained is an anti-western. And for all its sub-Leone posturing (sub-Corbucci, actually), Django Unchained is an anti-spaghetti western as well. Where, due largely to language difficulties among multinational casts and crews, the spaghettis cut dialogue to the bone and let the six-shooters (and Ennio Morricone) do the talking, Django Unchained is talky even by QT’s standards. His biggest yack-fest yet, even Lincoln is tight-lipped by comparison. Where spaghetti westerns tended to be nasty, brutish and short (at least until Leone got all epic on the subgenre’s ass), Django Unchained is saggy, uneven and way too long. It also has one explosive climax too many. QT’s first film since the death of his editor, Sally Menke, in 2010, maybe he owed even more of his success to her than he realises.
But what talk. And another film-stealing turn from the wonderful Christoph Waltz (a nod to German “sauerkraut westerns” based on the Old Shatterhand novels of Karl May) as loquacious dentist-cum-bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, like a cross between Doc Holiday and Lee Van Cleef’s dapper Colonel Mortimer in For A Few Dollar$ More – conspicuously not the same villainous character he played in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Waltz even has a similarly fraternal relationship with Jamie Foxx’s Django that Van Cleef had with Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (Joe). A great running gag has the erudite Schultz forever apologising to ignorant shitkickers who don’t know what he’s talking about - “Speak English, goddamnit!” There’s umlaut of it about.
Schultz is very much the flamboyant ac-tor, but isn’t he just a benign version of the same performance Waltz gave in Inglourious Basterds? Mind you, that hasn’t done Samuel L Jackson’s career any harm. He’s been delivering the same performance he gave in Pulp Fiction for years! It’s a wonderfully florid turn and camp as Christmas - “You silver-tongued devil, you.” Surely it’s just a matter of time before we see Christoph Waltz sitting in a hollowed-out volcano and stroking a white cat…
No wonder Jamie Foxx looks even sadder-eyed than usual. Softly spoken at the best of times, his Django isn’t so much taciturn as virtually mute if not worryingly docile. Foxx is frustratingly passive where Eastwood, like most spaghetti western heroes, was impassive. At least until Django Unchained’s completely superfluous final conflagration which is simultaneously too much and too little, too late. He might be “The fastest gun in the south” (eventually), but Django’s many humiliations, from dressing like Little Boy Blue (“You mean you want to dress like that?”) to near-castration, repeatedly rob him of all dignity, do little to empower him and only serve to undermine his eventual triumph.
Worse, the exception to all the endless jibber-jabber, Django is ruthlessly upstaged throughout by Mssrs Jackson, DiCaprio and, especially, Waltz. Which has gotta be the reason Will Smith passed on a role QT reputedly wrote for him. A smart move in retrospect.
If anything, Django’s lost love, Broomhilda von Shaft (Who’s the black, gorgeous chick who’s enslaved by total dicks?) is even more docile and curiously underwritten than her man. So much for black power; QT’s love-in with his more verbose (white) characters further undermining the supposed point of his film. King Schultz evokes the legend of Siegfried and Brunhilda (which also inspired Wagner!) but Django is more Candide than Siegfried.
Where QT really scores though is in his unflinching (and righteously angry) portrayal of the horrors of slavery. In true exploitation style, Django Unchained doesn’t shy away from all the whuppin’ and brandin’. Or the unblinking sadism of its perpetrators. (The eye-wateringly brutal “Mandingo boxing” scene seems to be a pointed dig at modern boxing as well.) This is very much in the cruel spirit of Corbucci’s Jacobean revenge westerns – the original Django was banned in the UK for many years and The Great Silence has the bleakest, most horrible ending ever.
Predictably it has been said that an exploitation film like Django Unchained isn’t the right place to address a subject as delicate as slavery. Yet exploitation (notably, blaxploitation) cinema has a long if not exactly proud tradition of tackling racial themes more than mainstream cinema does. Mainstream American cinema certainly, Spielberg’s “Slavery Trilogy” of The Color Purple, Amistad and Lincoln notwithstanding.
But while the “trashy” Django Unchained has more to say about slavery than the “important” Lincoln, neither is as profound a film about racism as Blazing Saddles. Seriously. The film which supposedly killed the western (it didn’t – it was just the final nail in its coffin) there’s a surprising amount of Blazing Saddles in Django Unchained, from our heroes’ inter-racial dynamic (which also echoes James Garner and Lou Gossett Jnr in the less well-known comedy western, Skin Game, which riffed on Eastwood and Wallach’s scam in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) to “They’ve never seen a nigger on a horse before.” The merciless piss-taking of The Birth of a Nation and the KKK’s amusing lack of peripheral vision is pure Blazing Saddles. In typically anachronistic QT style, of course: for obvious reasons the KKK wasn’t founded till after the Civil War. In 1866 to be precise. Quite right too. Why let historical facts get in the way of a good laugh?
Speaking of which, Leonardo Di Caprio hams it up outrageously as flamboyant, southern-fried boo-hiss panto villain, Calvin Candie. Leo really puts the “boy” in flamboyant here - wooden teeth notwithstanding it’s the youngest he’s looked in ages. Christoph Waltz we already knew about from his towering performance in Inglourious Basterds. But Leo is a camp revelation here and absolutely hilarious - Leonardo Di Camprio! Relishing his wild-eyed, hammer-wielding, scenery chewing performance, Leo clearly had a ball. Would sir like some eggs with that ham…?
A preening, smiling villain, Candie’s Old Ben speech/lecture about the then-fashionable but long-since discredited pseudo-science of phrenology sets him up as a proto-nazi. But even more interestingly, Candie’s hollow French affectations seem to (deliberately?) echo QT’s own Nouvelle Vague pretensions…
Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen… Jesus H Christ on a horse, where in the wide, wild world of sports do I start!?!
An awkward mirror of King Shultz and Django, and a clumsy stab at Pinteresque, wag-the-dog role-reversal, Stephen might be the Machiavellian power behind the fey boy-king’s throne (or the brains at least) but he’s still a grotesque Steppin’ Fetchit caricature of the worst kind and a colossal misjudgement so terrible it almost sinks the entire movie. There is simply no escaping the fact that this calculating Uncle Tom (who looks like a malevolent Uncle Ben!) is a hideous racist stereotype straight out of the 30s – the 1930s not the 1830s, although that would be an easy mistake to make.
Jackson’s frankly jawdropping performance single-handedly puts emancipation (and possibly his career) back about a hundred years. A car crash of Mad Max proportions, it’s just as morbidly compelling. I sat staring in slack-jawed disbelief and simply could not look away. The audience pissed itself laughing at Jackson’s shrill, eye-bulging antics of course and, I’ve got to admit, I did too. But it was awkward, uneasy laughter and more than a little nervous and uncomfortable. What were they thinking? I don’t know. Maybe they were trying to give Spike Lee a heart attack or something.
I like QT and enjoyed Django Unchained – honest! I’ve actually enjoyed the last three QT films more than the first three – since Kill Bill his films have grown more richly cinematic and Inglourious Basterds was a real grower. But I do wish he’d grow up a bit. Sure, his stubbornly arrested development is part of his perpetually adolescent charm, but he isn’t getting any younger and I would love to see him do a proper, grown-up western. Cos for all his stylistic Peckinpah borrowings, The Wild Bunch this ain’t.
While Inglourious Basterds’ gleefully reckless disregard for established history was audaciously entertaining, QT’s deliberately crude attempt to address the delicate subject of slavery (which remains the biggest open sore on the American psyche) ultimately comes across as clumsy. Cruelly exposing his limitations as a filmmaker, it’s as embarrassingly gauche and awkward as any obnoxious teenager who tries too hard to be provocative. Like a lot of teenagers, Django Unchained is a bit confused. Django might be unchained, but QT seems to have gone off the rails.
Just look at the evident glee with which he indiscriminately deploys his N-bombs. More toe-curling than shocking, QT’s grating use of “The N-Word” smacks of blatant Spike-baiting and is about as shocking as Madonna’s tits. And like Madonna’s tits, we’ve seen it all before. Put ‘em away, luv. You’re just showing yourself up now. When Mel Brooks deliberately broke this taboo he was making a serious point about racism. QT, for all his doubtless good intentions, sadly just looks racist.
(Actually, the biggest shock in Django Unchained is the shooting of a horse early on. It’s more taboo to “harm” animals than people in films these days. Weird.)
Frankly I’m baffled that it’s Django Unchained’s heavily stylised and deliberately OTT cartoon violence which has proved so controversial and not its overt racism. But perhaps that’s understandable in the immediate aftermath of yet another massacre at an American school. However, blaming Tarantino for Sandy Hook is like blaming Marilyn Manson for Columbine. It’s not like Hollywood hasn’t been glorifying (and fetishising) guns since the days of Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Nosireebob! Much easier to, er, shoot the messenger rather than face up to the most inconvenient and glaring truth of all.
And another thing - QT can’t fucking act! I actually groaned when his big face leered into view again. I hoped he’d finally got over this distracting Achilles heel of his. And to add insult to embarrassment, that was the worst Aussie accent since James Coburn in The Great Escape. Strewth! Gawd only knows what Wolf Creek star, John Jarrett, made of it.
Still an explosive cameo though. And just one among many. Don Stroud looking alarmingly like grizzled Peckinpah regular, RG Armstrong. Crazy, wild-eyed Bruce Dern who once fatally shot John Wayne in the back. While Don Johnson IS Colonel Sanders! As for Lee Horsley, anyone else remember TV’s Matt Houston? Just me again, huh?
Anywho, I still think the western will make a big comeback some day. The more “futuristic” the world gets the more science fiction will fall out of favour, the same way 007 has largely dispensed with gadgets now we all have ‘em. Most of what passes for sci-fi (as opposed to “proper” SF) are disguised westerns anyway – what is Han Solo but a space cowboy? Star Wars even lifted the burning homestead scene from Movie Brat favourite, The Searchers, while Taxi Driver lifted its entire plot. Maybe, just maybe, Django Unchained is a welcome step towards that comeback…