Django Unchained

December 30, 2012 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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My rating is somewhat provocative  but perhaps I will get to that later.  Much has been said in the press about Spike Lee’s refusal to see this film; so much, in fact, that one could almost think that Lee was on Quentin Tarantino’s payroll.  Lee, himself, is very familiar with the way moral outrage can help sell a movie and has commented on the mileage he got out of David Denby’s near hysterical race-baiting rant in the New Yorker against “Do The Right Thing.”  While Lee’s disapproval is nowhere near the irrationality of Denby’s, there is something ironic about his criticism of Tarantino’s portrayals of racial tension and his obvious infatuation with the word which dare not speak it’s name (that would be n*****, ending “a” or “er” as you choose).  It was Lee’s own seminal work that paved the way for Tarantino and so many others.  “Django Unchained” stands firmly on Lee’s shoulders, whether he wants it to or not.  Having said that, I acknowledge that I come to this film through my own racial experiences, which are radically different than Lee’s (as my site name might suggest), and I cannot know what it feels like for him to witness how easily Tarantino co-opts  Black rage.  From my perspective, Tarantino is simply a provocateur, who has done with “Django Unchained” exactly what he did with “Inglourious Basterds.”  The question is, is there more to recommend than just provocation here?  I think so.  Much like his acolyte, RZA, did early this year with “The Man With The Iron Fists,” Tarantino fuses blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns to great effect.  His brilliant sound track sounds much like RZA’s, blending contemporary Black artists (including one song written by lead actor Jamie Foxx) with the likes of Ennio Morricone, Pat Methany and Jim Croce.  The resulting film scarcely touches ground in the real world; it is more allegory than history and, in fact, makes this point abundantly clear when Christoph Waltz’s character presents the German fable of Broomhilda to Django (but really to us) as the story arc of the movie.  This film is the classic movie trope: the hero rescues the girl and punishes evil, as run through Tarantino’s meat grinder.  And it resembles nothing so much as Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”  Through my eyes, Tarantino has made the film Van Peebles would have if he could 40 years ago; it justifies the angry Black man in a way few films ever have (Lee’s works being the most notable exceptions).  That this film comes from a White man is part of what makes it so provocative.  But, do you care about any of this if you are going to see the movie?  Or, does it only matter if you are entertained?  The film is all Tarantino aesthetic.   It flows with so much blood as to be ludicrous at times; more blood comes from some gunshots than would be humanly possible; they sometimes look like fat men hitting a swimming pool.  The mix of music, camera styles, and the careful arrangement of scenes all speak to his love of blending the modern and the classic, sometimes to make us laugh, sometimes to disturb us.  Tarantino’s name can get great acting talent and it shows here  as even small, non-speaking roles are played by known talent (though I will say that I wish he would learn from Hitchcock and be silent and brief when he himself appears on screen).  Foxx’s Django smolders with a raw power that White audiences wouldn’t have known how to tolerate a couple of decades ago.  Waltz is hardly the scene stealer he was in “Basterds” (that honor goes to DiCaprio for relentless portrayal of Calvin Candie) but his congenial bounty-hunter gave Django balance.  Don Johnson could easily breathe new life into his career after this turn as a plantation owner (perhaps, he could be Tarantino’s next John Travolta).  The real star of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson.  If anyone could be Tarantino’s muse (his “Johnny Depp,” if you will), it would be Jackson, whose love of provocation rivals Tarantino’s.   With a gusto that I was unprepared for, he embraces the character of Stephen (Candie’s “Stepin’ Fetchit” head slave) and turns him into something so over the top that he manages to shock the audience, even in a Tarantino film.  He will undoubtedly be a polarizing figure for audiences but that is precisely what Tarantino is trying to accomplish.  Twenty years ago, Tarantino transformed American cinema with two films and, as with many ground-breaking artists, he has been living in his own shadow ever since.  After floundering around for a few films, he seems to have settled into a new role, using the camp excess of his films to pick at our most painful cultural scabs.  Is there value in that?  Yes, I definitely think there can be.  Is there value in how Tarantino chooses to do it?  I think I’ll leave that question open.  Ultimately, it may depend on who you are and through which eyes you are looking.  So, why four lozenges?  I suppose, to be provocative in my own way.  I felt this film was better than most of my three and a halves and not as good as most of my fours.  So, I decided to keep with the spirit of the movie and push some buttons, as I have done with this entire review.

 

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