Django and my nerves

Django is earning Quentin Tarantino a lot of praise, from some.  And the Box Office suggests it’s a big hit.

But it really left me jangled and upset.  It felt like the Marquis de Sade met Road Runner.  The succession of brutal, excessive, sometimes pointless (from the pov of any real character motivation) violence was relentless. The number of uses of the “N” word may have set a new world record for feature films. At times that seemed to be Tarantion’s main motivation: slip the “n” word into every scene and have at least one white and one black character use it.  Over and over.  Tarantiono clearly thinks he has an entre into black culture and a free pass on the use of offensive speech and the depiction of appalling acts of cruelty against blacks since these are what the kind of cartoon characters he creates would say and do.  But they seem to exist only to say and do these things, with little link to any historically complex reality. From the hodgepodge of locations to the glee with which everyone scars, maims, or kills others, in a manner just about totally devoid of remorse and lacking in any sense of moral consequences, the film exists in its own peculiar world.  That may be why the packed theater I was in did not erupt in anger or disgust: it was clearly not competing with Lincoln for historical accuracy or insight.  There is, in fact, just about zero insight into anything social, political or psychological. Everyone is a sadist, to one degree or another, including, by the end, our hero, Django, who maims and kills with the worst of them.

Why is it so popular? Is it the cartoon quality that provides an alibi?  Is it the strange frisson of hearing the “n” word and other expletives repeatedly?  Is it seeing a rebirth of Shaft with Jamie Foxx’s super macho black male hero?  Is it seeing whites, rich and poor, revealed as a single collection of trash and depravity, with the possible exception of Dr. Schultz who is at least somewhat philosophical about his lucrative career of killing wanted men to collect the bounty put on them?  Is it seeing Leondardo DiCaprio camping it up as the corrupt, decadent plantation owner?  I will wager it isn’t seeing Quentin in a little cameo role near the end.  I only wish he had found a way to link this kind of carnage and depravity with the kind of Let Evrey Good Man Have a Gun To Take Out the Bad Guys rhetoric of the NRA, which could have produced this film quite happily I suspect.  Or perhaps Tarantino could have alluded to “enhanced interrogation” (torture) or the sickness of Abu Ghraib, as some other films have manage to do, but metaphor and allegory seems far more absent than the urge to imitate and empty the spaghetti western of its form without its content.  Django gives us the spaghetti without the calories of a nourishing afterthought; it is all high energy carbs and more than a disappointment.  It’s a symptom of a director without a moral compass.

I basically prefer to write about films I like or love so take this as the knee jerk rant it is; something may considered may emerge down the road.

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11 thoughts on “Django and my nerves

  1. I don’t watch Tarantino films; he manages to lace everything he makes with gleeful and unabashed depravity which is, I agree, despicable. His films are not art; they are, though, perhaps psychological testimony to a very unhappy childhood and I suspect that, were he not a filmmaker, he’d be a sociopath.

    That’s MY knee-jerk rant.

  2. Strangely enough I watched ‘Inglorious Basterds’ yesterday because everyone else was, and I wasn’t disappointed in locating the Tarantino signature!. I remember watching ‘Natural Born Killers’ and wondering why Oliver Stone was mimicking Tarantino, only to find out later that Tarantino did right the script……As to why the N word would be ‘positively’ used in the 21st century…I have no comment. We certainly don’t use it in Africa.

  3. I can take a lot of comic-gore violence and self-congratulatory pop references, but in my opinion, the film wasn’t even a good Western. Total failure of the genre. Missing all the pieces that work well for this narrative structure, and it had so much potential to bend the rules in favor of fantasy and historical revisionism. It was also boring.

    Here’s an interesting read of racial dynamics in the film, similar to your complaints:
    http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/12/28/django-unchained-as-post-race-product/

  4. Thank you for this. I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts on the film. A few of them here:

    I do like the way with this film, and with ‘Inglourious Basterds’ QT introduces popular genre and fantasy as modes of approaching historical subjects. There is something liberating, particularly in the face of verisimilitude and sepia-tinted authenticity that is part of, say, the Spielberg approach (but which smuggles in its fantasy nonetheless). But I think ‘Inglourious Basterds’ may have been more subversive. Cinema plays a powerful role in the film, not only in intertextual references but in its use of a propaganda film, a resistance film, and a theatre as focal points. The bombastic finale takes place where the propaganda film is set to screen. It is here that the resistance picture is shown instead (“the face of Jewish vengeance,” and Goebbles and Hitler face death from the Basterd played by Eli Roth, the torture porn director who made ‘Nation’s Pride’, the propaganda film within the film. The theatre is where we encounter history and where battles over history take place.

    With ‘Django Unchained’ there seemed to be less engagement with the very medium that has perpetuated racial violence (through stereotypes, ideology. etc.). Black bodies are placed on display, often nude, mimicking the slave auction and the legacy in cinema for our pleasure. It is noteworthy that we see Mandingo fighting (a fantasy drawn purely from [bad] cinema) here while ‘Inglourious Basterds’ stops short of entering the camps or showing the brutality enacted upon Jewish bodies. In fact, the merging of horrific historical violence (such as the slave being set upon by dogs, Hildy (naked) in the box) with the cartoonish violence does something very unsettling. That said, I might be more generous with ‘Inglourious Basterds at the moment, suitably distant from the first viewing, when I found myself almost bored with his unwieldy excess and concerned that he was perpetuating the fantasy that justified the violence against the Jews: They really did pose a threat. This can be the same for Django Unchained, in which a taciturn black man is preoccupied with little else but his wife and killing white men. This rests uneasily between two types of fantasy. And perhaps for both of them, I can’t shake the sense that both films are empty at their core. Tarantino isn’t as concerned with this as he is with indulging himself.

    But one of the more important questions raised in the discussions of ‘Django Unchained’ (which may be the best thing about the film) is this: In light of the many real slave rebellions and in light of a legacy of representing slave revolts on film (Brasil, Cuba), why has it taken so long for this to reach US screens? And why is it a white male director who gets to tell this story?

    I ask these questions, but realise that this is sloppy writing. I know why. Tarantino has made this film about revenge because, as a white male filmmaker, he is the one with the access to the funding. Other films are languishing– possibly because it is frightening to imagine revenge scenarios when they emanate from women and people of colour. Better to tame and contain the fantasy via filmmaker, even if it seems excessive. In fact, maybe because it is, allowing the excess to mask the fences that stay in place.

    • Indeed! Funding influences what can be said and how. I wonder how I would have told the same story.
      An African proverb says it for me:
      “Until the lions can tell their stories, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”
      —–Sensationalising traumatic past like slavery for the sake of “entertainment” doesn’t particularly make the world more enlightened.

  5. This reminds me a bit to a great scene in the film “Hitchcock”. After finishing what must have been an even more terrible first version of ‘Psycho’, Hitch has to face the horrid MPA censor who is more outraged to see an inappropriate toilet being flushed, than actually interested in discussing the real motivation that made Hitchcock ‘kill the blond’ by multiple stabbing by a drag-motel manager in a shower (sorry for the spoiler).

    The criticism I read against the (ab)use of offensive vocabulary and exceeding carnage, specially regarding this man’s cinematography, surprises me a bit. Tarantino’s work itself deals with inflammable exaggeration and genre remix. In his writing, he happens to feed from film genres that originally to some, were rather offensive. Anybody who buys a ticket for a Tarantino film, I take it understands, is closing a contract with a genuine joker, and is not to take seriously, less literally, what is splashed on the screen.

  6. I call it the Smart Aleck aesthetic, which I was a big fan of in my pre-teens. But it wore so thin that I haven’t seen a Trotinana movie since Jackie Brown. Went to this one with a friend, just to remind myself why I don’t bother anymore. Even if you put it in flimsy “quotation marks” (because you are “paying tribute” to earlier genres), gunshot blood splatter is still just that–gratuitous adolescent wanking.

  7. @Ines: I’m a writer, not a filmmaker, but I know what I like. And indeed, anyone who buys a ticket to a Tarantino film ought to know what s/he is getting into. But why bother? As Stephen King says, there’s too much good stuff (to read) out there-why waste time (and in this case, money) on the bad stuff?

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