Django Unchained

The clue comes in the opening titles of Django Unchained, while the title theme plays, an unashamed pastiche of songs written for spaghetti westerns:

Made “… with the friendly participation of Franco Nero.”

…of which more shortly.  Quentin Tarantino movies were always derivative, but in recent years they are becoming increasingly self-indulgent in tune with his reputation and bankability as a director, and, in the process, have become much, much longer, such that each is in its turn a sprawling epic rather than a neatly defined segment-pleaser.  And when you have won your own sizeable cult following, they who will watch anything Tarantino without daring to criticise the master, you can get away with practically anything.  IMDB give it 8.6/10 and Rotten Tomatoes 89% with an audience rating of 94%.  Praise indeed!

So much of the audience will not care that where once Tarantino movies were cut to look sharp, they now look bloated, go off at rambling tangents, revel with schoolboyish delight in cartoonish violence, interspersed with moments of genuine nastiness and cute dialogue – so far over the top they are practically in the enemy trenches.

Consider the evidence: Kill Bill was chopped in two rather than being edited into one manageable movie; Inglorious Basterds ran a very full course, and now comes his spaghetti western about slavery. Django Unchained weighs in at a tad over 3 hours on the big screen (but strangely only 2:45 on DVD – some minutes lost in translation?), though presumably QT will eventually reach 24 hours and start again from scratch.  Brevity and minimalism is not Tarantino’s style.  He wants to do epic, and while Hollywood will finance epic he will continue in the same vein.

And talking of veins, all three movies are dripping with gallons of screen gore: KB through hentai-style swordfights and inventive deaths aplenty; IB courtesy of a band of Jewish Nazi-scalping Nazi hunters; and in DU it is gunfights where blood flies, sprays, drips, you name it.  Even corpses run with seemingly unlimited supplies of red stuff.  Clearly if you were a man in the wild west, eight pints was for wimps!

Every effect is calculated for maximum effect, regardless of accuracy.  For example, when at the end Django shoots Miss Lara from the top of the stairs at an angle, she does not fly straight back in the line of the momentum of the bullet but straight backwards as if he had been standing directly in front of her. Maybe I’m being picky but there are nerdish people out there who compile lists of errors such as this, and who would be gratified to notice it.

But back to the duration factor, the flipside of this trend is that where once his characters were beautifully constructed in 3D from miniature replicas, now they are fully formed and give the actors ample opportunity to develop them as living, breathing people.  The best actors take full advantage:  Christoph Waltz imbues bounty hunter and ex-dentist Dr King Schultz with all the chutzpah of a very civilised snake oil salesman, one imbued with a fine talent for reasoned arguments, but keeps a keen sense of murderous morality to his noble dealings in the Wild West. Finding and buying Django from a slave chain gang helps him catch and kill some baddies for a generous reward, and thereafter Jamie Foxx develops the eponymous slave into a phlegmatic bad-ass gunslinger and sidekick worthy of Clint‘s Man With No Name.

In the light of this approach, one performance I was keen to see was Leonardo DiCaprio, of whom, regular readers will know, I am highly sceptical.  At first he looks, as usual, lightweight and woefully miscast as a Francophile member of the Deep South landed gentry, Calvin J Candie, but when his moment for comes he delivers loud, clear and convincingly.  Well done to Tarantino for getting the man to emote more than his usual bemused frown.  In fact, it’s quite startling to see the man act something other than his usual Leo DiCaprio act, and hopefully the start of a wonderful new career… though somehow I doubt it.

But, and it’s a big BUT, everyone else is acted off the screen by Samuel L Jackson as wrinkled retainer Stephen.  Not remotely unusual – Tarantino manages to pull magnificent performances from Jackson every time a winner.  Who could forget Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction?  The man’s style is Tarantino to a T.  Here, he laughs and chortles ingratiatingly to every word spoken by his boss, Candie, but proves ever more menacing against his own kind, who are spoken about here using what has become a truly taboo word: “niggers” – and that alone takes nerve in the 2010s, a homage maybe to Lenny Bruce who said in the 60s that words mean nothing, which he amply demonstrated by using the N word to black audience members and insulting his own Jewish background with every conceivable insult.

Jackson portrays a bully and bigot of the worst kind, the inverted racist.  Worse even than the buffoonish KKK predecessors arguing about the eye holes in their masks, his every remark is dripping with insidious and malevolent intent.  This is powerful stuff from a fine actor.  That Jackson is not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar I can put down only to discomfort in the Academy about how the negro race has been portrayed in past movies – and this serves as a timely reminder to an uncomfortable past.  But Jackson’s loss will presumably be Waltz’s gain, since he is nominated (and won) Best Supporting Actor.

Westerns are, of course, all about revenge, and far be it for Tarantino to buck that trend.  Bounty hunting is Foxx’s Django’s escape from slavery, and also saves his life near the end.  In the final analysis, DU is about the hero’s search and ultimate rescue of his German-speaking wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) with help from Dr Schultz and not caring how many people he kills in the process, nor how near death he comes in the process.  But playing an act to persuade Candie to sell her the novelty slave fails when Stephen rumbles the act and spreads the word.

After the mother of all comic strip gunfights Django is captured and rechained – though you know all along that he will win out, kill the villains and get the girl.  Westerns, even spaghetti westerns, are nothing if not predictable – just that this one has no red injuns, only black slaves and servants.  Much is made of this being the only western to feature slavery as its main theme (Tarantino famously stopped answering questions in an interview, effectively accusing the interviewer of enslaving him), though its main rival for Oscars is Lincoln.  If Django is a Western, Lincoln is an Eastern – a tale about the president and his battle against slavery.  There endeth the similarity.  Another overlap is with 12 Years A Slave, though to my was of thinking you can’t compare the approach to slavery, the tone of 12 Years being that of an honest broker and portrayal of biographic truth, where DU is unquestionably there to entertain first and foremost.

This is a movie with more Tarantino traits than paying homage to Sergio Leone, and indeed Sergio Corbucci’s original Django from 1966.  There are jokes, good ones at that, which suggests QT is also making a nod or two in the direction of Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles (which famously included a black sheriff in the person of Cleavon Little.)

Ever since Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino the scriptwriter has been known for his off-the-wall dialogue, and there are conversations here that could have slotted into Pulp Fiction almost unedited.  For many, these are the high point: the fact that Tarantino hears how people really converse, even when they are in the process of dispatching many men to the great beyond – a deliciously ironic use of dialogue that directors and writers have tried on thousands of occasions but very rarely pulled off.  Quentin won’t win Best Director, but his name must already be engraved on the statue for Best Original Screenplay (though I’ll come back to the “original” bit.)

His movies are also renowned for their charismatic soundtracks, often taken from obscure hits of yesteryear, juxtaposed with highly contrasting moments of action.  You can’t think of Stuck in the Middle With You  and not think of its associated ear-slicing moment in Reservoir Dogs.  Think Pulp Fiction and you think Misirlou by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, or one of a number of other well-chosen numbers.  And so the hits keep coming.  Here there are specially-commissioned songs and background orchestral music that echo the spaghetti westerns of the past, without ever anything quite as memorable as, say, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Not the greatest Tarantino soundtrack, but perhaps the most sympathetically attuned to its content, with many a nod – even to rap.

Many friends have said they really enjoyed Django Unchained, and undeniably many portions are richly entertaining.  The problem comes back to editing out those sections that go on too long for their own good and serve no purpose in the movie, other than to pad out some more time.  You might overlook those to some degree but in my humble opinion a movie 20-30 minutes shorter could have been much the sharper and therefore much the better.  Less truly is more on some occasions, not least in a film that is as long as Blazing Saddles and A Fistful Of Dollars put together!

The problem from a career perspective is that you get diminishing returns.  I loved Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction, but once you’ve sent up the heist movie, crime movies, blaxploitation, road movies, car chase movies, vampire movies, war movies, martial arts movies and now spaghetti westerns, where do you go next?  Taking off Hitch maybe?  Many would have proceeded him there, and it’s not Quent’s style.  Tarantino’s problem is that while he takes off other people’s movies brilliantly, he is incapable of doing an original screenplay that sets its own agenda.  When he does that, QT will finally have arrived among the greats!

The Tarantinoites will not care.  What they see is a movie that looks ravishingly good, is packed to the rafters with fine actors who give their all, delights in its every blood-splattered moment, yet has a plot that in the hands of, say, Woody Allen could be told on 90-minute postage stamp.  A marmite movie to be sure, one that you love or hate. But at least it entertains.  Enjoy!

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