29 December 2012

THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION

First the easy, if depressing part: Django Unchained is easily the least impressive feature film yet made by director Quentin Tarantino. Nothing to do with what it does or does not say about racism in America, or the liberties it takes in turning a very tender period of history into a violent exploitation film, or any of that (though I think it says unfortunate things about where our culture finds itself in the second decade of the 21st Century that we've decided as a society to find fault with the famous black director who has serious misgivings about the project, while giving a free pass to the famous white director who made it in the first place). On the level of pure, mechanical filmmaking, this is far and away the least I've ever enjoyed watching a Tarantino film: the screenplay is astonishingly messy for a writer whose loopiest tangents still feel focused and purposeful in a way that doesn't make immediate sense, the dialogue lacks the arch, self-amused tang of Tarantino at its most bright. And considering that the most impressive parts of his last film, Inglourious Basterds, concerned lengthy dialogue-driven scenes where virtually nothing happens and it was exciting as all hell, the number of discrete points in Django Unchained that hit "oh, just get on with it already" territory was genuinely heartbreaking.

I don't want to read too much into anything, but I honestly think the film's biggest single problem is the absence of Sally Menke, the editor of every single one of Tarantino's projects from his 1992 professional debut, Reservoir Dogs, until Inglourious Basterds, his last film before her unexpected death at age 56 in 2010. That would certainly be enough to explain why the film's overall rhythm seems off, lacking the punchy, even jokey cutting that has long been, for me anyway, one of the best hallmarks of the director's films; certainly, it's the best possible explanation for why so many scenes seem to linger beyond their natural expiration point, leaking energy rather than building it as they go on. No disrespect intended to Fred Raskin, Menke's assistant on the Kill Bill movies, but while Django is more than competently cut together, it lacks the flippant spirit that was so consistently wonderful in Menke's work. And who knows? Maybe she'd have been able to talk her director down from making quite such a long movie - 165 minutes - or to keep it from running into quite so many blind alleys (a final sequence that is bizarrely redundant and padded-out, or a desperately long chat that ends in a man being ripped apart by dogs, a scene that conflicts with the tone of the rest of the movie in a very bad way).

Which isn't to say that Django Unchained is bad. It is, in fact, good, though only good; and good in a way that promises a much better movie wanted to be made. If nothing else, having seen the completed movie, I am still quite positive that Will Smith (Tarantino's original choice, who declined) would have been considerably better in the title role than Jamie Foxx. But that is really quite immaterial, since the movie we've received is the one with Jamie Foxx as the main character: a slave purchased and the freed by the delightful, friendly German-American bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) - oh, shit, Dr. King, I just got that - and having gotten it, I think I wish I hadn't - who takes the young black man as his pupil and trains him in the ways of bounty killing in the American South of 1858 and 1859. Eventually, the two of them mount a daring rescue to save Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, utterly wasted), from the notorious plantation Candieland, so named because it is owned by the grinning devil Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with a taste for anachronistic puns.

Insofar as every Tarantino picture since Jackie Brown has been, at heart, a modern-dress version of a '70s exploitation genre, it's no surprise that Django Unchained is basically a mash-up of blaxploitation and spaghetti Westerns (the title references 1966's Django, one of the most classic of Italian-made Westerns, and as has become ubiquitous with Tarantino pictures, classic Ennio Morricone cues are omnipresent on the soundtrack), for all the good and ill that promises: ill, because despite any after-the-fact protestations to the contrary, the film really does not have anything insightful to say about America's history of racial subjugation and violence, in a way that Inglourious Basterds has many insightful things to say about the way history and pop culture regard World War II (the relative scarcity of films on slavery outside Tarantino's cherished Mandingo - which is quite an important touchstone here - perhaps explains this, for riffing on older films is the most important throughline in the director's canon).

And good, because Tarantino sure as hell knows his blaxploitaiton and spaghetti Westerns, and while Django Unchained doesn't scale the heights of his greatest films, in wit, creativity, or addictive energy, it's still crammed full of wonderful individual moments, some of which feel more like deleted scenes artlessly shoved back in: the much-discussed lynch mob arguing over their hoods is undoubtedly hilarious, but it's also disconnected from anything else happening in the movie. But those are the rarities, and much of the film ambles by with the sharply-drawn cartoon characters typical of Tarantino at his best: Waltz is nothing less than terrific, and Samuel L. Jackson gives his absolute best performance in years as a self-loathing slave who embodies the toxic spirit of antebellum racism at its most corrupted and violent (it basically plays like a parody of the "exuberant but ultimately unthreatening black man whites love" roles he played so often before his career become nothing but a string of cameos in superhero movies). The frequent bloodletting is impeccably staged, particularly the first massive violent finale; and the massive volume of blood spilled with every gunshot is reminiscent of the comic excess of Kill Bill, but grounded here in something vaguely related to humanity.

Certainly the film captures the essence of the films it's copying: not that any '70s exploitation film would be this long, or graced with such clean, self-consciously lovely cinematography, courtesy of Robert Richardson (who does get to play one great visual joke: a sequence of flashbacks is filmed on super-grainy film stock that looks like hell blown up, and brings the movie back to its grind house roots). But the cheerfully destructive attitude is exactly right, as is the unyielding love of violence, untroubled even by the standards of Tarantino's blood-soaked cinema. A lesser work it is, but it's still a lesser work by one of America's most ebullient auteurs, and some of that enthusiasm still seeps through, lowered energy level and uncertain sense of historicity and all.

7/10

27 comments:

The.Watcher said...

Yeah, this is pretty much what I thought. I watched it at 10 pm yesterday, and left sorely disappointed. The fact that I arrived at my cinema at 6 pm, found out the 6:30 was sold out and had to wait 4 hours with a friend probably expounded on that disappointment.

One thing bothers me that I would like someone to either agree with or dispute: much of the film seemed unnecessary. For example, why would Django and Waltz think up this complicated scheme to buy the wife back?

They went through all this effort to be found out, and then bought her, anyway. It just seemed pointless. Why not just approach DiCaprio and offer a lot of money for her in the first place, thus avoiding the violence? Doesn't make sense.

Brian said...

Well, I definitely liked this more than you did. I don't think any of Tarantino's previous movies have made me laugh as often and as hard as this one (which, granted, it being a straight-up action/comedy about slavery could be a negative, understandably)

It definitely wasn't as good as Jackie Brown (his masterpiece) or Pulp Fiction, but, on first watch, I have it narrowly above Kill Bill and Basterds (with Death Proof and Dogs bringing up the rear.)

Waltz has replaced Jackson as the actor best suited to Tarantino's milieu, and that is despite a great performance from Jackson. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked Foxx. DiCaprio was fantastic. Washington was.. Well, yeah, wasted.

I will say the rhythm felt a bit off compared to his past works, and I expect you are right, that it was the absence of Menke. But I scored it an "A-" and I feel pretty good about that.

Also, The Watcher, the explanation in the script was that they would never have gotten the meeting with him to buy a disfigured house slave, because they didn't cost that much money (god, it feels wrong to even write about that. I mostly left white guilt behind in college, but damn.) so they needed a cover to get on to the plantation. And they needed to get on the plantation before making an offer, because they had to confirm she was still there. Whether or not that explanation works for you is, I guess, a case of "ymmv." I didn't bother me, but I get why it might you.

Brian said...

However, I also want to take a moment to bitch about the people sitting a few rows behind me that would not shut up throughout the film.

There was a woman who kept asking this man about the movie. Like, who characters were, what they were doing, etc etc... There's a scene nearish the end, when a guy left the room, and she asked "who was that?"

"I don't know."

It took every ounce of self-control I had not to turn around and say "maybe if you'd been paying attention instead of talking, you'd have noticed the three or four other scenes he was in!"

Jeremy said...

It wasn't IB(his masterpiece), but it was still the best American film I've seen all year(although know, I haven't seen ZDT or SLP or various other limited releases yet).

Helped that I had an awesome audience, all the crowd-pleasing moments live up to that title, because they're amazing in their sweet, over-the-top violence.

Maybe QT's most viscerally satisfying climax, even more than IB. Holy God damn, that was a riot.

Sam Jackson's best performance since...well, Pulp Fiction, too. "Good lord, please let me kill this nigga, oooooh"

The.Watcher said...

@Brian - But why not just approach him and say that they'll buy this slave for, I dunno, 2 grand? It was said that she's not worth more than 300, so only a fool would have turned that down.

I dunno, I still don't see the reason behind such an overly-complicated scheme. Especially cos Candie wasn't an evil villain, just an asshole businessman.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Watcher: The reason for the scheme was pretty explicitly laid out in the movie. They had to use the ruse of the Mandingo fighting in order to give Candie an offer so outrageous that he would have to listen to them. They would then ask on top of the Eskimo Joe purchase to add in Broomhilda. That part didn't confuse me. What confused me was that after Jackson and DiCaprio have that great moment in the study, they basically reset the dinner scene, dragging it out to ungodly length.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I think I agree with almost everything you say here, Tim. The film was trying to be Kill Bill but didn't take the time to establish the quest for the audience to invest in in the same way that Kill Bill does.

You're also absolutely right about the sad absence of Menke. There were so many scenes where I was just sitting there, waiting on the edge of my seat for the film to make its punchline through the editing (like his best films do), and it just never happened. I kept giving it every opportunity. I still quite liked the movie and its tone (the ending didn't bother me at all), but it was pretty sloppily paced.

I do have a theory about the shifting tones of the film (I've said this in many other places, so I apologize for the repetition): Django Unchained moves in the same phases that the Spaghetti Western subgenre moved in (Leone, Corbucci, Trinity films). What I mean is this: the film starts like your basic Leone-inspired Spaghetti Western (revenge, extreme violence, eccentric villains (by the way, how awesome was Don Johnson as Big Daddy?); it then moves into the second phase which is a darker, more cynical revenge picture a la the Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Western. Tarantino then moves his film into the third phase with his polarizing coda. This phase is reminiscent of the final phase of the subgenre: the parody, specifically the Terrence Hill Trinity films (which were huge box office hits in Italy, but they essentially killed the subgenre). I want to watch the film again. so I can see if this is as clear as I am positing. But it struck me that the minute Django did his horse dance that this was playing like the Trinity films.

The.Watcher said...

Kevin: I get that. My point is that Candie was a businessman first and foremost. What was stopping them from walking up to him one day outside and saying: "Hey, you have a woman slave that speaks German. I'll buy her from you for $(X).

Candie didn't have any special need for her, so there's no reason for him to refuse to sell.

Even after Candie found out about the lie, he still sold the woman. Candie has to be in town sometime or other, it would have been easier to just ask him then.

Another part is: why would Waltz shoot Candie? He fucked up the situation for everyone, not to mention forfeiting his own life. It was an absurd action to take.

Tim said...

The grand debate on the $12,000: my take is that Schultz was hoping not to spend that much money - he's a businessman, too - and the scheme was the best way to make things happen.

And he subsequently kills Candie because he is already established as well and truly hating slavery, and in his own words, "I can't resist."

Kevin- That is a fascinating theory. I'm not sure if it stands up all the way - I'd think that the film would be more evenly divided into thirds - but it's worth keeping in mind during a re-watch, no doubt about it.

Jeremy- I have to confess, my audience really sucked. Totally dead to everything except the Movie 43 trailer preceding.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Watcher: I get that, too. I think Schultz was also, as a businessman, trying to pull one over on Candie, as Tim suggests. I re-read my comment to you, and I hope you don't think I was being a jerk in my resply. I didn't mean to sound so snippy in my comment. I agree with you that the whole Candieland scene is really, really problematic. It has individual moments that I really liked (like the tete-a-tete between Jackson and DiCaprio), but it doesn't flow at all.

I think the reason Schultz shoots Candie is justified (again, problematic) by the images of the runaway slave being eaten by dogs. I think that's the last straw for him. He got his last intellectual dig in on the Francophile Candie, and I think maybe he was disgusted by the fact that he refused to break character (like Django did on Big Daddy's farm) while that atrocity was taking place in front of him.

At least that's my take. Does it work? Debatable. I don't think Tarantino's dialogue adds weight to moments like that one with Schultz and the flashback (followed by his decision to kill Candie) the way it does in films like Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds. I think we're all in agreement here: the editing is to blame for a lot of the film's problems.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Tim: Yeah, I pulled that theory out of my ass last night, but I'm going to think about it when I see it again next week. I'm just trying to find something that justifies that last act of the movie. I enjoyed the ending in that farcical kind of way, so I have to believe Tarantino was doing that purpose...right...


Right?

JPK said...

Nice write-up as usual, Tim, and a great comments thread too. I have a related question that has been bugging me. I heard or read somewhere that Django is the first revenge film with an African American hero. Maybe in the mainstream, because I'm drawing a blank on it at the moment, but off in the cult/indie/whatnot realms that can't possibly be true, can it? Somebody help me. I think I have to be missing some obvious titles.

Kevin J. Olson said...

JPK: Not true at all. There are a number of blaxpoitation movies that are about revenge. And just off the top of my head, Man on Fire with Denzel pops into my head as a revenge movie with an African American protagonist. I'm sure Tim and others can come up with countless other titles.

JPK said...

Kevin, thank you! And I just saw Man on Fire a few months ago. I'm sure it's a long list.

jjjonatron said...

I had a packed full theater and they were uproarious the whole way through. It was incredible. By the end of the movie the 50/50 pretty equally ratioed movie crowd had gone on one hell of an amazing experience. There were a lot of talkative people around me but they all reacted when they needed to. God damn I wish I could have recorded that and made it a commentary track I'd watch whenever I watched Django again. Which I will do.

I understand the complaints about the editing, it did feel a little sloppy, but I was still ultimately so satisfied with what was happening. I honestly felt like some of the problem was that there seemed to be so much left out of the final product. I enjoyed the journey, and quite a journey it felt like, hammered home by an increasingly impressive performance by Foxx. But I need to see it again to re-assess and maybe see it without a raucous crowd who all loved it loudly and brought that out in me.

Brian said...

I should say that most of the people in my audience, other than the two that kept asking questions to each other about the plot and the characters, was quite good. Laughing and cheering and such.

I have this incredibly strange comparison between Inglorious Basterds and Pixar's Up that I am half tempted to make in this thread...

boy on the dock said...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/20/quentin-tarantino-django-unchained_n_2340987.html

He explains some of the rationale behind the elaborate candieland plot in this interview, which is quite good. I find his answers plausible, but it could have been brought up a bit more forcefully in the film.

The.Watcher said...

Nah, it's all good. Yeah, I can see that happening for those reasons, and I too enjoyed all the individual moments. It's a shame the film is such a narrative mess, especially in its second half.

I did enjoy it, though I wish I'd have enjoyed it more. Hopefully Tarantino gets back on track and sorts out the editor problem by the next film.

KingKubrick said...

Saw it yesterday and was blown-away by how visceral and thrilling the experience was. Now that I've had a little while to reflect I would actually say that while I rank Basterds higher because it's a better overall film in terms of narrative and thematic structure, I found Django a more enjoyable film. It's an odd beast for Tarantino because it's by far his most linear film to date, which helped the character work. Seeing Django and Schultz relationship develop for the first hour made (spoilers) Schultz death have way more impact then any demise in a QT film to date. I also thought Django's farewell to his mentor to be the most tender moment in QT's oeuvre. It's hard to judge if this is a foray into new aesthetic grounds or if this is just a result of the loss of Menke but I'm not at all discouraged by it and am looking forward to see what Tarantino does next. I thought it was great frankly.

Too-Tickii said...

Tim, I'm so glad you appreciated the brilliance of casting Samuel L. Jackson as a white person's idealization of a black man. Were you also put off though by the extent to which the movie delighted in hating him?

The most depressing aspect of the movie's shortcomings was definitely how noticeable Menke's absence is, and the realization that we might not ever see a Tarantino movie really firing on every single cylinder again.

(side note: finding myself as the only person in a packed theater laughing at the absurdity of aussie Quentin was awkward.)

Brian said...

I, personally, was too baffled by the Aussie accent to actually laugh at it.

David Greenwood said...

For the record, I liked it a lot. Solid QT. Not as well constructed as Basterds, but I may have personally enjoyed it a smidge more. And that climax... holy hell.

And no, it's not Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction. Most directors are lucky to make one masterpiece, let alone 2 (2 1/2?), so I've permanently lowered my expectations. That comedy scene with the hoods was teleported in from Blazing Saddles or something though.

I liked the way that the white characters in the movie were constantly having their expectations and roles challenged. The scene where Big Daddy tries to explain to his slave girl not to treat Django like a slave, but not like a white man either, and gets all confused was hilarious. Likewise, watching people constantly have to get used to a negro on a horse.

But the element I responded to mostly was the tension that Schultz and Django had to face between staying in character and responding to injustice. At various points in the movie both characters are in danger of losing their cool, and the other has to keep them in line. That was a nice change of pace from the usual "mentor has to keep his hot-headed protege from going ballistic" cliche.

And I think the best explanation for the $12,000 question is Tim's, that Schultz didn't want to spend the money if he didn't have to (I think partly out of contempt for Candie, partly for good business sense... that was a lot of money back then!). That sets up the strongest conflict in the film: How much blatant injustice and horror are you willing to tolerate in order for things to work out the way you want?

By going in deep cover, play the role of good little racists, refusing to save the man from the pack of wild dogs etc, what are they really hoping to accomplish? To free one woman? At what point have you crossed over from playing a role and begun to do a deal with the devil? Both Django and Schultz become what they despise for the sake of the scheme, and Schultz's decision to shoot Candie is his final decision to cash in his chips and speak his mind, to not submit to the "polite" handshake.

True, Django doesn't make that call. He's forced to as a result of Schultz's action. But I think he had decided by that point that any subterfuge, any lie or role play was acceptable to free himself and his wife from the hell of slavery, and given that he (unlike Schultz) has been a victim his entire life, I think I can understand that.

Wow, I sure didn't have this much to say about Basterds.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I can't remember the last review of yours I saw so thoroughly (and knowledgeably) dissected in the comment sections. I don't think I have anything much to add. I liked it perhaps a smidgen more than you but it does feel tonally all over the place in its worst spot (as funny as the Klan thing is, it feels so disconnected from the film to the point of annoying me).

Even as I'd agree that in theory Washington is wasted, she probably gives my second (maybe third? fourth?) favourite performance behind DiCaprio, her, Jackson and maybe Waltz sort of blend together. She's given appallingly little to do but I view the performance as almost an exercise in silence and the character is thinly drawn on the page I have to say it's her and not the the script which has me moved in certain moments.

I vacillate on whether I like Waltz's character or his performance because even as he gets the best lines I never really get invested in Schultz to any degree. Which isn't an out and out criticism, because the character's inclinations are sort of wispily drawn in the first place.

I don't (or can't) really indict the film for not having anything to say about race because it's really not interested in that issue as much as it pretends to be although I will say the incidentally uttered line from Django about him being "that one black man in ten thousand" or something to that effective is counter-intuitive to almost any semblance of "racial equality" the film might pretend it's going for. But, that feels like a nitpick.

It's a good movie flirting with greatness which might frustrate if I was a more ardent fan of Tarantino, but I'm satisfied with what I got.

(Apparently I did have stuff to say.)

Chris Johnson said...

I'm late to this party, but I have to take issue with you, Tim.

How about the idea that we find fault with Spike Lee because he's shown himself to be an arrogant, self-important asshat whose comments smack of jealousy and a desperate attempt to staple his name to the conversation about a movie that he wishes he had made. Who cares what color he or QT is? Spike Lee is an ignorant racist for whom the ends justify the means, and he will propagate misinformation and ignorance in the furtherance of his dubious goals.

Rant over.

I only saw this movie for the first time last night (budget's been a little tight in the past year). Other than your commentary on contemporary racism, I agree with just about everything you said. It dragged. I've never experienced that from a QT film, and that was a problem. But I still highly enjoyed it, possibly because I'm entering into a Western kick, so it's fun to see the references and recognize them.

Later.

Fr. Chris

David Greenwood said...

I don't know, Chris. Tarantino sure does like to incorporate the n-word into his scripts, and sometimes in questionable fashion. The "dead n***** storage" scene in Pulp Fiction comes to mind as one that even made me uncomfortable. I can totally understand why Lee would express discomfort with Tarantino making a slavery picture. He's not known for tackling historical tragedy in a sensitive fashion (heck, IB basically expected us to know the holocaust and never really depicted it).

In the end, Django proved to be (IMO) surprisingly insightful about racism, but haven't you ever expressed a pre-emptive opinion about something? We all have. Just because everyone reads Lee's twitter and loves to get outraged over it doesn't make him special in that regard.

Plus, Lee is an ass-kickingly good director.

Chris Johnson said...

I see what you're saying, but isn't the point of Tarantino that he doesn't do anything in a sensitive fashion? Perhaps it's controversial to say this, but his movies have always struck me as being, well...post-racist.

He doesn't waste time mulling over whether this or that word (or this or that actor saying that word) should be in his film. He just puts it in there, gets the best out of the actor and the scene, and makes a damn good movie in the process. To me, the scene from Pulp Fiction regarding storage and signage is a miss because Tarantino himself is not a very good actor and does a crappy line-reading there, which stands out in the presence of Travolta and Jackson. It also stands out a little, as it's always been unclear to me what the ties could possibly be between a nerdy suburban white man and Jules, and that causes the scene to ring a bit false.

However, another through-point of his career has been depicting functional and amusing partnerships between a black person and a white person. I haven't seen Inglorious Basterds yet, so I don't know about that one, but the period and location might preclude such a possibility. Perhaps the only other exception might be Kill Bill, but that has one of the most exciting fight scenes ever staged in the opening fight between Thurman and Fox, and it's so wonderful that it almost counts, even though they're trying to kill each other.

To me, it seems to be the essence of "Show, don't tell". Spike Lee's films and how they deal with racism are the exact opposite, and he goes a step further when he depicts the most vile stereotypes of various white peoples that I've ever seen in major motion pictures.

I understand why, but it rubs me very much the wrong way.

David Greenwood said...

You may have really hit something there with "post-racist". The problem is that we don't live in a "post-racist" world, it's still alive and well.

I'm not saying by any stretch that Tarantino doesn't have a right to make the (great) movies he does the way he likes them, just that flying off the handle at a black person for being offended about is rather harsh.

I'm also curious what Lee film's you're referring to with such horrible depictions of white people. I've only seen Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X, both of which struck me as far less "I HATE WHITEY" and more enlightened than people seem to accuse him of being.