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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Django Unchained - Nothing outside the movies




DJANGO UNCHAINED
Nothing outside the movies

- A small essay


"There is nothing outside the text"

Even if you're not really interested in philosophy (and all that) you might be familiar with this statement by French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida. In French it reads "Il n'y pas de hors-texte" and a more accurate translation would be: "There is no such thing as outside-the-text". Basically it states that one cannot step out of context. The con-text of a text, is textual, so texts refer to other texts, not to any reality outside the world of texts. Scholars will tell you that it's all far more complicated, but that what they're scholars for. They will also tell you that Derrida didn't like the term 'postmodern' and preferred to be called a deconstructionist (1).


I - A fistful of Spaghetti

Tarantino has been described as a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of genre movies most people haven't even heard of. When making his own movies, the raw material for it, is provided by those movies in his head. In 2007, when his latest film, Django Unchained was no more than a mere idea, he told interviewers that he wanted to do "movies about America's horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like a spaghetti westerns, not big issue movies." (2) Half a decade later, when asked if he had done any historic research for Django Unchained, he said:

"None."

To Quentin, there is no such thing as outside-the-movie, and of all movies, the spaghetti western genre seems to have the biggest impact on his way of film making. In Kill Bill genre elements were fused with manga and Asian martial arts cinema; in Inglourious Basterds they were smuggled into a revenge movie set during World War II. In both movies a young woman must witness how her family is slaughtered; in the first movie during a shotgun wedding, in the second movie as part of an ethnic cleansing. The theme of a young person witnessing the slaughter of his family, was taken from the spaghetti western Death Rides a Horse, in which the witness is a young boy. This movie is also famous for its recurring flashbacks of the massacre, with the camera  zooming in on the eyes of the boy and the image turning red, an effect copied by Tarantino in Kill Bill. The protracted opening of Inglourious Basterds (SD Colonel Landa having a conversation with the man he's about to kill) is similar to an early scene in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Tarantino's favorite movie. 

  
II - Close to home, back in time

And now there's Django Unchained, the title referring to a 1966 spaghetti western made by Sergio Corbucci, the so-called 'other Sergio'. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre: the eponymous hero Django from Corbucci's movie is a drifter, a black-clad cowboy, trailing a coffin behind him. He has fought for the Union, but after the Civil War he travels Down South, to a small western town near the Mexican border, to get even with the racist Confederate officer who has killed his wife. Django, the angel of revenge, almost became synonymous with the blood-calls-for-blood philosophy of the genre. The character was so popular that numerous unofficial sequels were released, barely related to the original, often even only sequels in name. In Germany - where the movie had been particularly successful - more than fifty movies were labeled as Django-movies. The actor who played the original character, Franco Nero, has a cameo in Django Unchained: he's the person standing next to Jamie Foxx explaining that the 'd is silent'.

Tarantino has turned a black-clad anti-hero into a black man, a slave who is freed by a bounty hunter because he has some vital information about a couple of outlaws the bounty hunter is looking for. After the slave has helped the bounty hunter to track down the outlaws, the bounty hunter helps the slave to locate (and liberate) his lost wife, a slave woman called Broomhilda, worth a few extra bucks because she speaks German. In the meantime the black man is introduced, by his liberator, into the art of bounty hunting, that is: the second great pastime of spaghetti western heroes. If they're not avenging murdered family members, they're collecting bounties.

With spaghetti westerns themes as a sort of leitmotiv, the three movies seem to form a trilogy of continents: In Kill Bill brought the widowed bride travels to contemporary Asia, Inglourious Basterds was set in wartime Europe, Django Unchained leads us back to a Deep American South on the eve of the Civil War. While getting closer to home, Tarantino is getting further back in time.


II - Deconstructing Django

Like some have noticed, Django Unchained is more a Southern than a Western (Tarantino initially referred to it as 'Southern' as well): the setting is not the desert or a western town, but the world of Southern plantations. There are visual references to various classic spaghetti westerns, and Tarantino's heroes shoot with the ultra-swift and ultra-precise hands of all those Djangos who populated the Italian West. Just look at the scene with the recently freed slave, who most probably has never used a gun in his life before in his life, showing supernatural marksmanship while practizing his shooting skills on a snowman. ("A natural talent," says his teacher). That's all very spaghetti, so to speak. But with a black action hero, female slaves being whipped and Mandingo slaves fighting each other to death in gladiator style, we're often closer to the world of blaxploitation. Some have read the excessive bloodletting in the movie as a nod to Sam Peckinpah (in particular his 1969 western The Wild Bunch) but the blood-spattered scenes (true explosions) are closer to  comic strip violence than to Peckinpah's balletic bloodbaths.

And then there's the music. As usual the soundtrack is, like the movie itself, a mixture of styles and influences, ranging from Jim Groce's I got a Name (probably a nod to Eastwood's No Name character) to Beethoven's Für Elise. The original title track of the '66 movie, composed by Luis Bacalov, is played over the opening credits and there's of course a lot of Morricone on the soundtrack, but some of his tracks do not refer to his spaghetti western scores (one piece is taken from the Hollywood ersatz spaghetti Two Mules for Sister Sarah) and we also get James Brown and Johnny Cash. Like some have noticed, only James Taylor seems to be missing.


III - A Dog's Tail

Evaluating a movie like Django Unchained is complicated by a few things: a postmodern film maker is always aware of the fact that his work belongs to the category of 'make belief'. He therefore is deliberately playful, disrespectful, ambiguous. Historical and political correctness do not count. There's no sense in reproaching him that his work (or parts of it) is unrealistic: it was never meant to be realistic. Blaming him for mixing styles or degrading delicate subjects, will get you nowhere. Tarantino has been accused of playing out cheap tricks instead of trying to create a coherent work of art, and this is probably also what bothered Morricone when he said that Tarantino used music "without coherence". But his fans will tell you that's all part of the fun, you can take it or leave it. You can't blame a conjurer for playing tricks. All true, of course, but this is also the weakness of postmodernism: it too easily rejects criticism by wallowing in its own playfulness.

I must confess that I had no high hopes for Django Unchained. I had the feeling Tarantino had used his postmodern tricks once too often. In Inglourious Basterds, he had tried to recreate some of the magic of Kill Bill, as if he were a dog chasing his own tail. Inglourious Basterds wasn't bad, but it was not as good as Kill Bill and I was afraid that Django Unchained would be a further step down. I was also skeptical about Jamie Foxx, I couldn't picture him as an action hero.

I was pleasantly surprised in both aspects: Django Unchained is good fun and Jamie Foxx is perfectly believable as the black shooting star. I don't think the movie is much better than Inglourious Basterds, but in at least in one aspect it's a step up: In Inglourious Basterds Tarantino seemed to have lost his great feeling for dialogue, it all sounded a bit pedestrian (more as if someone tried to imitate Tarantino), in Dango Unchained he regains some of his wit. Some scenes show how effective this type of film making can be in the hands of a talented artist. The best example is perhaps the scene with the Regulators, KKK avant-la-lettre (and before the war): it's grisly and funny, history reflected in a distorting mirror, and at the same time a sneer to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, in which the founding of the Ku Klux Klan is glorified. 


IV - No shit from nobody

As said the scene is very funny, but it also goes on too long, and that's the main problem of this movie: it doesn't know where to stop. Another example is the shootout at the Candie house; with its true explosions of blood it's of course meant to be over-the-top, but it's so far over-the-top, and again: goes on so long that it becomes tiring and downright silly. The final 20-25 minutes are the weakest part of the movie and almost seem redundant.

Django Unchained made me think of another movie I studied a while ago, Peckinpah's Major Dundee. In popular myths about it, the production is described as a stereotyped war of a gifted artist versus bullying studio bosses, the latter destroying what would have been a masterpiece without their interference. Peckinpah was indeed a gifted artist, and no doubt some of those studio bosses were bullies, but digging into the production's history, it quickly became clear that Peckinpah was as guilty for the shortcomings of the final product as the studio. Artists - film makers, writers - have a tendency to think that they are the only ones who can decide what should be in the film (or book), and what should be left out of it. And usually they want to leave out as little as possible. When they are successful, they reach a point where they don't have to take no shit from nobody, and to many, this is a critical moment. Often it's the beginning of their artistic downfall. Stephen King is a good example: his novels were at good length and thoroughly readable as long as they were neatly edited, but then he became so famous that his publishing house would accept anything he wrote, with catastrophic results.

With a running-time of two hours and forty-five minutes Django Unchained is definitely overlong; it's not such a problem while watching it - it remains watchable throughout - but it could have been a lot better if Tarantino, or any other, had trimmed a bit. Or more than just a bit.

Note:

(1) In fact there are many readings of this catch phrase (which seems to be in accordance with postmodern beliefs that there is no ultimate truth). A common reading is also adopted by The Urban Dictionary:  "Derrida - A French philosopher, acknowledged as the father of deconstruction. More accurately described as a post-structuralist, Derrida is most famous for his catch phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-text," which exemplifies his belief that there are no transcendental explanatory structures which can be legitimately used as interpretative tools." 

(2) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/3664742/Quentin-Tarantino-Im-proud-of-my-flop.html (Scroll down to the end of the article for the statement)

2 comments:

  1. "...it's so far over-the-top, and again: goes on so long that it becomes tiring and downright silly. The final 20-25 minutes are the weakest part of the movie and almost seem redundant."
    Totally agree. I didn't even watch the last ten minutes or so. It just became too much.
    I thought Inglorious Bastards had some high points, though. No, it wasn't as good as Kill Bill, but Christoph Waltz was outstanding, and I'd look at Mélanie Laurent for hours in any film.
    Waltz is going to end up being like Tommy Lee Jones if he's not careful...essentially the same character in every film. He sounded just like Col. Landa in Django Unchained.

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  2. Excellent assessment, thanks. I haven't seen the film. I saw Basterds and some moments were superb - the scene in the bar was suspenseful - but some gratuitous violence seemed just that... I will watch Django Unchained - probably with more insight than before!

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