Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Django Unhinged

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to include a tutorial in his new movie. For anyone sitting in the audience who thought they had come to see "Duh-Jango Unchanied," a few minutes into Django Unchained Tarantino shows his hero, played by Jamie Foxx, confronted by a white man who wonders if, reading Django's written name, the black man knows how to spell. "The 'D' is silent," Django explains.

It doesn't matter what inspires a film, as long as the inspiration results in a good one. Filmmakers have based great films in the past on dreams, visions, significant or trivial events, conversations, a determination to set the record straight, memories, hope, ambitious ideas, life, books, music, and even on other films. If a film is inspired by historical events or on an existing book, play or film, part of our assessment of the success of that inspiration will derive from the extent to which the filmmaker was true to it.

By now it is no secret that Quentin Tarantino gets his inspiration exclusively from movies. He isn't simply a movie buff. Like the French filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol, for Tarantino Movieland is practically a locale. But when style is based on other styles, and when fictions are based on fictions, if their underlying ideas aren't at least refreshed by re-examination, the results can seem lifeless and hermetic.

With Tarantino, whose "cut & paste" technique has attracted critical as well as popular acclaim, the distillation process comes in multiple stages. His last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, are dimly inspired by history, and by the films of quasi-Hollywood genre, Italian Spaghetti Western directors. One could almost say that, with Tarantino, the Hollywood pulp movies that inspired European filmmakers in the 1960s have come home to roost.

In his two movies, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's success at revitalizing stale genres was more successful because of his investment of sheer energy. He made his love for such movies painfully obvious. He obviously loved the whopping clichés he was playing with. If it ultimately doesn't matter from what angle you look at a cliché, Tarantino knew how to play the game so well that watching (and listening to) Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was fun.

Jackie Brown, based on an Elmore Leonard potboiler, was a change of gears for Tarantino that caught his fans off-guard. At least he proved he had more up his t-shirt sleeve. I liked Jackie Brown because of the strength of its characters and the performances of two resurrected actors (Tarantino has a penchant for rediscovering forgotten talent.) Some of it was sheer brutal nonsense (Robert De Niro was utterly wasted in an empty role). At times it looked too much like Tarantino's noirish answer to Steven Soderbergh glossier Out of Sight, which was also based on an Elmore Leonard book.

Kill Bill was an obvious attempt by Tarantino to return to the multi-layered style of Pulp Fiction. Its failure to do so was complete. His detour, with Robert Rodriguez, into Grindhouse movies was a self-indulgent stunt that impressed only Tarantino's purblind fans. Inglourious Basterds was no way to make a comeback. I expressed my disdain for it a few years ago (q.v.).

What I find most deplorable about Tarantino's rise and his current slide is how much too many serious critics have invested in it. It's as if Tarantino is some kind of Great White Hope for American film, a reason (or an excuse) to get excited about it, at long last. Never mind the low-budget stabs at art from the American Independent Film movement, a few of which drew real blood. Critics want their cake and eat it too. They don't want personal little films whose reach was well within the limits of their grasp. They want - and found in Tarantino - someone who reinforces all of Hollywood's hoariest clichés, a grave-robber who could put flesh on old bones.

Django Unchained is, as always, based on several otherwise mindless but harmless sources. In Tarantino's hands, they are transformed into fresh outrages. Inglourious Basterds wasn't simply an attempt to refresh old B-movies. It tried to pour chili sauce into old wounds and old prejudices. Frighteningly, Tarantino tried to make us hate Nazis all over again. He failed terribly, only because he didn't dare make the Nazis seem real. Instead, he made them into hysterical idiots, making their ultimate destruction seem grossly excessive.

Now Tarantino tackles slavery in America. But this time he commits the error of making its evil tangibly and terribly real. There are plenty of films that make the exploits of people who stood up to Hitler look heroic. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino wasn't interested in heroes. Why else would he go to such lengths to make them so two-dimensional?

In Django Unchained, he gives his heroes more depth (played by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz), but his villains (Leo DiCaprio looking juvenile as ever) are so far over the top, it's once again impossible to believe in them. Historical truth is terrible enough that all a filmmaker has to do to make it real is be truthful in its representation. Like Nazis, the slave-traders were rotten enough human beings that simply by giving us a clear picture of them would make us despise them.

When Dino De Laurentiis produced Mandingo and Drum in the 1970s (movies that Tarantino also cribs in Django), they certainly outraged a lot of people. But because both movies were so stupidly and intentionally exploitative (the salubrious promise of interracial sex was probably their biggest attraction), their outrages were partially excusable.

When I watched the scenes from X-Men and X-Men First Class that were set in an unnamed, but easily construable, Nazi death camp in Poland, I raised the objection that the use of one of history's most horrible events simply to add depth to comic book movies was putting it mildly, reprehensible.

Django Unchained was attacked by Spike Lee for being "disrespectful to my ancestors." On Twitter, Lee tweeted: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them."

I think that Lee's objections are valid, if only because Tarantino was obviously aiming at making a movie somewhat more serious than Mandingo. He certainly spent a great deal more money doing it. But he didn't spend it on getting the period right or not stinting on accuracy. He spent it on ever more ingenious ways of spilling and sprouting and spraying gore.

I recall an interview with Charles Bronson in which he objected (in 1975!) to the ever-expanding glorification of gore in films. Where before all you had to see to believe in a gunfight was a man pointing a gun at another man, shooting off a blank, and watching the other man grab his stomach and fall on the ground, filmmakers now find it necessary to show you, with heightened inaccuracy, blood escaping from wounds like water from a ruptured water main, with accompanying bits of flesh and brain tissue. More than fifty years ago, Ernie Kovacs parodied this same zeal for graphic gunfights in a sketch in which one gunfighter fires a shot and, in mock slow-motion, we watch as it slides out of the pistol barrel toward another gunfighter (the bullet is on a quite visible string). When it reaches the second gunfighter's chest, Kovacs makes it look like it comes out of his back, and then swings his camera around behind him and peeps through the hole the bullet made. We see the first gunfighter (Kovacs, of course) thirty feet away, doubling up with laughter.

In the ever-expanding catalog of movie gore, Tarantino evidently relishes acquiring citations. But the worst thing about Django Unchained isn't its sadistic cruelty or its turning history into a punchline. It's an expensive, ambitious, and perfectly idiotic movie - which is up for five Oscars. Every year the Oscars give the retort "So what?" a new lease on life.

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