The biggest problem with Django Unchained (2012) wasn’t on the screen, but giggling to my right whenever she saw someone was in horrible pain. The hallmark of writer/director Quentin Tarantino is his fan club. Say what you like about Michael Bay or J.J. Abrams or even, God grant me patience, Zack Snyder, who are lauded for production, story, and image, respectively, no one serious invokes the word “genius.” Fans please themselves by saying that, like cilantro, you either love him or hate him. Django Unchained proves that dictum wrong. I didn’t love it or hate it. I really liked it. Except for that sociopath sitting next to me. One could argue that this sociopath is just a reflection of the sociopath who made our evening possible, but I’ll leave that for after the jump.
Bounty hunting is a bloody game. The German dentist-turned manhunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), is on the trail of three loathsome characters, but he needs a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to identify them. Turns out Django is pretty good at the hunting of bounties, so Schultz makes a bargain with him. Help him with his work for the Winter and, in the Spring, Schultz will help Django find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington)–who was brought up to speak German because her owner was German and wanted to hear the sound of her native language…it’s fine, really it’s fine. As you know from the trailer, Broomhilda is enslaved by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who takes a strong interest in mandingo fighting (like cock fighting but with slaves).
As I like to do before I viciously bite into something, I’d like to point out its good/great qualities. I liked Django Unchained a great deal. It will certainly (and deservedly) net Tarantino Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Picture nominations at the Oscars (as it already has for the Golden Globes). Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (with Mark Boal for screenplay) is my pick for Picture and Screenplay, but I would probably tag Tarantino as most deserving of Best Director (though perhaps not for Best Directoral Choices). As a piece of craft, this is a damn fine movie. The acting is very strong top to bottom and in any other year, Jamie Foxx probably would have gotten a nomination at the Golden Globes. Still, the Globes nodded in the film’s direction by giving supporting actor nominations to both DiCaprio and Waltz. Possibly shocked that Samuel L. Jackson didn’t make it three.
But what’s best about the movie is the storytelling. It’s a traditional story told traditionally. Fear no non-linear artistry, no upset expectations of character or conflict, no surreal dance scenes of any kind, nor are characters drenched in blood (just spattered). Welcome to the mainstream, Mr. Tarantino (screenwriter), we’ve been waiting for you. It’s also a long story–two hours and forty-five minutes–which does not stall for a moment. This is the best kind of story. It has halves that allows for real developments to play out without twists or turns. It just goes. It’s so good. You’re gunna love it.
Now let’s dig in.
Where better than with the dubious claim that this is a “spaghetti western”. Spaghetti western is a term for movies made in the 60’s concerning the American West but made in Italy by Italians (which is why the voices don’t always match the lips). All but the most aloof film nerd will say that spaghetti western is synonymous with Sergio Leone, the writer-director of The Man With No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)–the latter two are phenomenal and among my all-time favorites buy them without compunction. These films were all accompanied by a terrific score by Ennio Morricone (easily in the Top 5 film composers if you like lists). The scores are timeless, haunting, beautiful, and high quality. They are as linked and important to their films as John Williams is to Star Wars (1977).
I’d like to compare Django Unchained and its spaghetti bona fides against the animated film Rango (2011) from Gore Verbinski (who directed the upcoming The Lone Ranger (2013)) about a lizard who becomes sheriff of a small town in the desert (my review). Django (read: Tarantino) is so pleased with its literacy that it gathers up every speck of minutiae it can find and churns out a slurry. Example. Tarantino did a broadcast for SiriusXM to promo the soundtrack–yeah, that’s right, sometimes I research stuff–and in it he said “basically, this movie is done in the style of spaghetti western and any spaghetti western worth its salt [me: or perhaps sauce *snicker*] has an opening credit sequence and in fact if it doesn’t I don’t want to see it.”
This can mean one of two things and I take it to mean the worst of those two. An opening credit sequence can mean a sequence in the beginning of a film that gives time to play a rousing overture during the opening credits or it can mean a cheesy theme-tune in the style of folk music contemporary with the making of the film, summarizing said film, and usually shares the title of the film. The latter is the crappy one. I know he likes this alternative because the title song is from the über obscure film Django (1966) the tune of which nods to the particular bop of the sixties. This dated quality appeals to Tarantino. Kitsch and its anagram.
Rango, on the other hand, takes only what it likes–which happens to be what I like–and that’s Leone and Morricone. (Though, incidentally, does have a title song from a Mariachi Chorus composed in Morricone’s timeless style.) If Verbinski has seen the Sergio Corbucci oeuvre, I’d be surprised but only appreciate his discernment even more. Verbinski’s preferred musical allusion is to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as opposed to Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) which is Tarantino’s Morricone selection for Django Unchained. Verbinski plays to the best and recognizable. Populist, may be, but Sergio Leone is my kind of populism.
An interesting inclusion in Rango and exclusion from Django Unchained re: spaghetti western is the final duel where extreme close-ups of the duelists are intercut at length to a sweeping, climactic score. Tarantino used this in his Japanese film send-ups Kill Bill: Vol. 1/2 (2003/04) but not in Django Unchained. We’ve got fast zoom-ins all over the place–and done with great technical skill–but those are anachronistic ways of underlining a moment. There are better alternatives. It isn’t that he isn’t using Leone or Morricone, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to honor them in any way. It makes me wonder whether Tarantino can’t actually tell the difference between pulp and classics. When he uses mash-ups of Morricone or other good sounds with rap or what have you, it turns spaghetti into Spaghetti-O’s. Sure, they taste good, but don’t you feel like you’re doing something wrong?
As this one was done in Louisiana, maybe Gumbo Western is more suitable.
Music is probably the one thing that makes Zero Dark Thirty my pick for Best Picture over Django Unchained and it underlines what makes Tarantino unalterably kitschy. Movies will fall within a scale of using only a score on the one end and using only original songs (pop tracks and the like) on the other. Tarantino falls closer to the original songs side of the scale. That’s ambitious. It’s like setting out a buffet where the diners are forced to eat from every tray. It’s easier to create one dish or series of courses from the same chef. The downside there is that the whole meal rises and falls with the quality of the chef. But the difficulty with the buffet-style is that it is set by the tastes of the director and Tarantino likes chocolate torts and fried pickles and doesn’t mind eating them together. It isn’t that crazy, really. More often than not, it’s rousing and acceptable, but it is not the work of a craftsman, it’s the work of a fan.
The master of the original song in film is Martin Scorsese or by Lawrence Kasdan in The Big Chill (1983) but those guys have either relatively narrow (good) tastes and/or a particular time period in mind using the music to create an atmosphere. They have a purpose and they have good, conservative tastes. Tarantino in music and film is a magpie. He’s seen every crappy movie there is and has, according to the XM commentary, an enormous record collection. When you refer to your collection by its size rather than by its quality, you’ve shown your hand–as if we needed any further proof of Tarantino’s dubious tastes. That’s kitsch. Things that were massively popular but are artistically barren is Tarantino’s milieu.
Tarantino used what he calls an “eclectic” list of tracks. Eclectic is generous. Schizophrenic is closer to the mark. He uses Morricone, Tupac, and Jim Croce–Jim Croce! As lovely as Jim Croce is–and “I Got a Name” is a great song–it blares out at you in the theater like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)–just wrong. That’s why a buffet sucks. You need a firm hand that creates a unified–though not unitary–atmosphere with voice being a central part of the environment. The music can be weird–like Hanna (2011)–so long as it’s something more than a mix tape of neat stuff. “I’d rather work with a music editor and make it fit.” That’s not good, QT. Massive caveat. He uses what I take to be Wagner–The Flying Dutchman, possibly–to great effect. Blind squirrels and all that.
Let’s talk about the two controversial elements of this movie. Violence and racial slurs. I’m probably the most sensitive person to racial slurs that I know personally. For some reason I wasn’t too flinchy in Django Unchained. I was prepared for a lot of slurs, probably over prepared, and that accounts for some part of my ability to get over it. The other part is that this is set in the antibellum South. Where I’m inclined to entertain the idea of closet racism coming through in creative work is when these slurs are used by white characters after about 1980 or are entirely gratuitous and Tarantino has done both extensively in his movies. There are examples in Django Unchained that could (and I’d say should) have been cut. It could have been paired down. I just don’t think people are that repetitive in their nouns. But this movie is just the wrong target on that score. For one thing, there’s no suggestion that anyone who used the slur were anything but bad-to-evil and often incredibly stupid. Of these qualities, racial slurs are authentic.
A real target is the portrayal of violence. Tarantino has made ludicrous violence a defining characteristic of his movies since Kill Bill and that has not cohered with a wholly upward trend in quality. Django Unchained is certainly vivid in its violence, but it isn’t ludicrous and it only flirts with gratuity. Where it veers into actual sickness is those characters that are effectively tortured for comic effect. I felt that you could see these scenes without laughing out loud but accepting them as shockingly painful. A part of it is definitely darkly comic but on the other hand gun fights aren’t always shoot-kill, so you could claim this is bringing out a painful reality. This isn’t Sam Peckinpah, I’m not saying that, but it’s defensible. But Tarantino has already been convicted of a frivolous approach to violence. You can really only imagine Tarantino creating these scenes with a high-pitched giggle at how gross he’s being.
Tarantino proves here a hope that I’ve harbored for some time. That is that movies that were pretty good prior to 1990 can be made better with the use of technological and emotional developments in film. With the onset of realism and the ability to create anything the mind can imagine allows us to recycle schlock into gold. I’ve got one in mind, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. The problem is that Tarantino likes to remake schlock with the emotion and the technical improvements without upgrading to the current visual language throughout. He wants to bring those silly things back into vogue like some deranged fashionista. I don’t mind a recycled story. A story is forever. But language evolves.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I am most critical of the almost-greats. And Django Unchained was almost great. If I tear it down, it’s only because it disappointed me. You can’t be disappointed when a puppy pees on the carpet, but you can be when your girlfriend does. Being upset is something else. On the way home, I thought of this analogy. It’s the old turd in the punch bowl. When there’s a turd in the punch, you can’t drink the punch. It could be the best punch in the world, but it’s got a turd in it so it’s been ruined. Ruined. That’s what bad music or a bad ending can do to a movie. If your movie is a mud pie, then a turd doesn’t really do much damage and so long as it doesn’t smell too bad you can probably scarf it down. You can’t ruin a mud pie. Now, Django Unchained isn’t really punch, it’s more like mango juice. And the music isn’t really a turd, it’s more like a few drops of piss. If you notice it, you’ll probably be disappointed in the experience.