Not-So-Lost In the Crevices – Viewing “Django Unchained” As Another Tarantinian Masterpiece
“Django Unchained” is masterful, humorous cinematic “irreverence,” and a newly crowned masterpiece in the catalog of Quentin Tarantino
All of the ongoing dialogue concerning the “moral bankruptcy” of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” needs to stop. Why? Because fuck that. That’s why. In Tarantino’s sensational and tenacious cinematic universe, plot, dialogue, and story arch are all instruments of outlandish fantasy lying readily at the fingertips of their incendiary movie man. His films are lavish tales–deeply rich in style–that exist outside of time and space, and “Django Unchained” is certainly no exception. In them, violence is prevalent, but is never glorified. Since “Reservoir Dogs” it has existed as stylistic decoration but is not–as some have claimed–an endorsement of such things.
While on his press tour, QT was asked incessantly, without fail, about the correlation between violence in reality and violence in his movies, and he, also without fail, no longer took questions. I don’t blame him. If more people viewed and discussed Tarantino’s films in the manner in which they were meant to be viewed and discussed, our dialogue wouldn’t be nearly as prevalent.
But, why are we talking about violence, anyway? Focusing on these kinds of things is to view Tarantino’s work myopically. When it comes to QT we, collectively, have lost our perspective–not to mention the seedier side of our sense of humor, too.
Much like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is another axiomatic extension of Tarantino’s velocity-laden playground. This time though, it’s in overdrive, if, in fact, such a thing exists for the man who envisioned the outrageous brilliance of “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Basterds.” While walking out of the theater after my first viewing, my mind was busy pondering a young Tarantino–the movie store clerk who, allegedly, spent countless hours eagerly consuming every film he could get his hands on: Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Exploitation, Blaxploitation, Kung Fu, Drama. QT: the genre-soaking sponge that, nearly two decades later, has conceptualized a slam-bang genre mash up already worthy of folkloric enshrinement.
Tarantino’s spectacular tale of American history re-envisioned begins with the director’s tongue ever-so firmly planted against his cheek. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a traveling dentist, rides his horse-drawn buggy out of a fairy tale-like forest, an over-sized model of a tooth bobbling ceaselessly atop its roof. Making the whole thing look enchanting is a bold and cynically hilarious masterstroke, especially given what we already know about the atmosphere that pervades the antebellum south.
This scene sets the tone for the films’ entirety, and the fact that it maintains its cocky, comical irreverence is a testament to Tarantino’s skill. Schultz rescues Django (Jaime Foxx) from a chain gang of slave transports, and the two set out on a ruthless, vengeful killing spree across the pre-Civil War south. Schulz is not really a dentist, rather, he is a bounty hunter who’s on the hunt for the heads that will bring him his cash reward. The two form a modus vivendi of sorts: if Django informs Schultz as to the whereabouts of the Briddle Brothers, the bounty hunter will in turn help him find his enslaved wife.
It is during these scenes that QT’s absurd brilliance takes form again. By inverting the historic expected, the mad man of the cinema begins toying with our innermost sympathies. As we watch Django savagely beat white plantation owners to a bloody pulp, we cheer for his triumphant revenge, and suddenly, it becomes part of a bigger historical perspective: we’re not only cheering for him, but for the hypothetical revenge of an entire generation of the enslaved.
Also consider the sequences that contain the ferocious Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His accent rolls off the tongue like molasses, a 17th century cigarette holder always dangles between his teeth, and his merciless brutality is a byproduct of his inexorable mindset. By making him a caricature rather than a character, Tarantino again mocks the comfort we take in historical norms, turns said comfort on its head, and laughs maniacally as we squirm to fight back laughter.
Trickling through the films’ rich dialogue and exorbitant style is a quintessentially pervasive dark sense of humor–a commonality found in every one of Tarantino’s films. In 1994, during an interview with Roger Ebert at Cannes, Tarantino said:
“When I’m writing a movie, … I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? ‘Pulp Fiction’ has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for ‘Dogs’ just as much as ‘Pulp,’ is to watch it with an audience who doesn’t know they’re supposed to laugh.”
“Django Unchained” is a brilliant entertainment that exists in a universe where the laws of history, time and the remainder of reality are non-existent, and we–the casual, giddy, ceaselessly entertained observers–are there to witness it in all of its violent, glorious excess.
And what of Tarantino’s depiction of slavery? “Django Unchained” is no more a “depiction” of slavery than “Inglourious Basterds” is an accurate historical representation of World War II. Don’t get me wrong, though. Many scenes depict the brutality of the institution, but, Tarantino’s main objective is to use slavery as a device to drive his vengeful tale forward.
This brings me to the “gratuitous” use of the “N word.” If you think that entitled white men in the antebellum south, on a constant basis, didn’t refer to slaves as “n words,” I have some beautiful Italian beachfront property I’ll sell you for five cents an acre. And, if you don’t think that word wasn’t uttered less than three times in a sentence when discussing a slave or any other “person of color,” I’ll lower my asking price to a penny. Anything more, which there is, is Tarantino pandering to the exploitation of your sensibilities.
What, again, was that genre he began soaking up and became so enamored with as a young movie store clerk?
To be offended and only offended is to experience “Django Unchained” with shortsightedness. Fuck all the hoopla–especially the controversy. This is storytelling at its finest. If we desired our best stories to be inoffensive, lackluster in conviction and meek in style, they wouldn’t be our best.
To do so would be asking Mark Twain to not be Mark Twain and, I don’t know about you, but asking Tarantino to not be Tarantino would be fatally detrimental to the culture of American cinema, or all of cinema, for that matter.
Let’s not be so sensitive, and how about we allow ourselves, collectively, to welcome back the seedier side of our sense of humor.