I knew early on in Django Unchained that I wasn't going to be able to take it seriously - even though according to A.O. Scott it's "a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism." (HA!) You see, right at the top there's this title card telling us that Quentin Tarantino's latest flick (although I think "cinematic fleshlight" may be the more accurate term) is set in "1858 - two years before the Civil War."
Two years before the Civil War? Really? You're sure about that - two?
Now we were only maybe five seconds into the film proper, but already I was thinking that maybe someone who wanted to make "a troubling and important movie about slavery and racism" might, you know, have fact-checked when the fucking Civil War started.
But then again, it turned out Quentin was actually just setting the proper tone. Because his movie had nothing to do with history, it turned out. I mean not real live history. Not the history that African-Americans have endured in the United States of America. Not that.
No, it's about movie history, of course. (Is there any other kind of history for Quentin?) And you know, if he can win World War II all by himself (as he did in his last opus) what does it matter when the "actual" Civil War occurred? Tarantino's a cinematic god, goddamnit. He may look like Jay Leno's grandma on meth, but hey - respect the genius, know what I'm sayin'?
Likewise, does it matter that the "mandingo fights" central to the plot of Django Unchained never really occurred - at least not according to those fusty old, you know, history-people? I mean mandingo fights were in a movie - Mandingo, in fact - and hell, that's good enough for Wesley Morris! Oh, and wait - you're saying the Ku Klux Klan (which also appears, sort of, below) didn't exist until Reconstruction? What the fuck does that matter, asshole? THE KLAN IS IN A MOVIE - BIRTH OF A NATION - SO TAKE THAT MOTHERFUCKER!! Seriously, what are we talking about here?
What indeed. That's what I kept asking myself as I sat through this hilarious parade of movie-brat ignorance. That is when I wasn't wondering - how did we ever come to this juncture? How did we get to the point that a major studio release about slavery could sink to a lower moral level than Gone with the Wind? Honestly.
I will admit this, though: I thought Django was going to be - I don't know, djisturbing or something. Tarantino used to be disturbing; at least Reservoir Dogs is disturbing - it's a glimpse straight into the mind of a sadist, after all - a sadist who believes torture is like a pop song, no less. Of course Tarantino immediately backed away from the honest nihilism of Dogs, and Disney-fied the finale of Pulp Fiction - and has sentimentalized his endings ever since. Fiction was still plenty creepy thanks to its homophobia; but I guess people were desperate at that point for any sort of new juice in the movies.
And Tarantino had energy and confidence, and in their carefully-calculated mind-fucks his films functioned as gauntlets. They subtly played on the anxieties of their age - fatherless boys (and girls) flocked to them and saw the experience as a kind of rite of passage; an empty generation with no outlet but self-abuse found in Tarantino a perfect mirror. And of course he expertly exploited the obvious stupidity of film critics (who think of Pauline Kael as an intellectual). Tarantino's films weren't so much works of art as a kind of cultural symptom - but at least you understood why the kids were buying tickets.
Now Django Unchained would seem poised to replicate the twistedness of those early hits. Torture, Tarantino's forte, has gone mainstream, and slavery is the perfect environment in which to conjure it. At the same time, Obama's presidency has ripped the mask off Republican racism, so prejudice as a theme is fresher than ever. The Hollywood planets aligned in other ways - in fact Spielberg himself just wrapped a picture about slavery (these two directors are like mirrors, frankly, both grasping for prestige from different trash barrels with pictures about Nazis and slaves). Thus the Weinsteins had granted Tarantino a larger budget than usual, and Christoph Waltz (who won an Oscar for the thinly-sliced ham he served in Inglourious Basturds) had joined the cast - what's more, as in Pulp Fiction, the film's other lead was a closeted gay star (and the closet always adds a certain edge to Tarantino). How could the movie possibly go wrong?
|Oh, no, it's the KKK! Where it shouldn't be!|
But the surprise about Django Unchained is that it is so very un-disturbing. In fact for much of its length it is quite boring. Perhaps this is because familiarity breeds contempt (which is why all horror has a short shelf-life). Fifteen years after Frankenstein was eliciting screams, he was meeting Abbott and Costello. Tarantino is in something of the same fix. The Saw franchise has out-grossed him (in both meanings of the word), and his outraged adolescent-masculine id has lost a bit of its fire. He hasn't grown up, but he has gotten older (so have we), and his mind-fuck techniques only work as long as his anxieties match our anxieties - and you can't see (or don't notice) the strings holding up the puppets as he gouges out their eyes.
But everything feels painted and phony in Django Unchained, and Tarantino's twistedness feels tired. Because let's be honest: as an auteur, he has never really gotten very far. He's just not an intuitive cinematic talent. When you go to a Spielberg or Scorsese picture, you quickly feel an inner coherence, a personality, behind the style - an assurance about camera placement, rhythm, and musical cues. There's also a whole younger generation beneath these technical masters who are if anything even more facile (Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, for instance, is overstuffed with brilliant cinematic gambits). And then there are the magisterial pop auteurs like David Fincher and Robert Zemeckis, who actually suppress their talent to achieve an atmosphere of restrained sophistication - and who can count on our ability to appreciate their cunning.
Compared to all these directors, Tarantino remains an amateur rather than an auteur. Klutzy, crude, and simply under-powered as an image-maker, he's obviously a screenwriter with a bullhorn, not an actual director. You can even sense in the raves the critics give him that they're minding this gap: Tarantino has "never been more fluid in his film-making technique," they'll say, or "His work has a new, more mature range and power!" Uh-huh.
Now this may be technically true - Django has a few evocative images, and a handful of Tarantino's trademarked moving-frieze tracks and pans. But mostly it's just a tedious series of establishing shots, medium shots, and close-ups (sometimes rendered as "ironic" zooms); the movie plausibly has a new, more mature range and power only because the starting point of this director's development is so far behind that of his peers.
Of course Quentin has always had a way to dodge this core truth about his ability; he works in pastiche, after all, and what's more, in pastiches of poorly-made movies. Thus his crummy technique actually counts as a form of "tribute" - it's the air-quotes that count critically, his fans tell us, not what's in between them.
|Once Upon a Time in the West. Sergio Leone did things with the camera that Tarantino never could.|
Okay . . . I guess you can believe that if you want to. But I wonder - why then, doesn't Tarantino ever put air-quotes around something worth watching? I'll explain: after sitting through Django Unchained - and seeing as Tarantino has described it as a "spaghetti western - exploded!" - I watched a little Sergio Leone on my computer. And I was once again stunned by Leone's sheer talent. Sergio Leone was fuckin' awesome; he was a director. His sequences are superbly controlled; his vast spaces are all but sculpted (above); and it's obvious what his desolate tone brought to the spaghetti western: a profound and haunting sense of alienation - precisely the opposite of what Tarantino conjures in Django Unchained (which, for all its pretensions, is actually a gruesome form of comfort food).
Thus I knew that Tarantino could never pull off a "tribute" to, say, Once Upon a Time in the West. He wouldn't know how. Which is why he instead quotes obscurities like the original Django - they were forgotten for a reason; their directors were as bad as he is. So the bottom line is that in Django Unchained, we're basically trapped for three hours in a bumping, halting cinematic contraption, in which we're chained to a chattering grindhouse maniac who simply cannot shut up. And the excuse for the whole dreadful exercise is that we're engaging with our country's history of racism.
But are we? Honestly - is this August Wilson? Is it Faulkner? Is it even Toni Morrison? Sorry, I just don't think so. And can a torture porn auteur really make a convincing moral statement about torture? (In other words, is Tarantinoland so different from Candie Land?) Hmmmm. There's still more here to unpack, so I'll have to explain in full the contradictions that render Tarantino impotent as a shaper of art in the second half of this post. (To be continued.)