Well of courseSpike Lee is pissed. No one would ever give him $83 million to make a movie in which a freed black slave slays dozens of evil white pro-slavery trash and then blows up a plantation. They’d say Spike was being an angry black man. Fox News would go into an apocalyptic apoplectic shock for a month. Only the white guy, the master appropriator of black culture, gets to make that movie. On this point, I must say, I am sympathetic.
Not as brilliant as Inglorious Basterds. It would seem to be the next chapter of the same gesture of movie-making: a combination of exploitation era cinema tricks on a big budget canvas set as an alternative take on history–and a history that ASSERTS JUSTICE over injustices of the past. But IB took it to the next level, as they say–was made a more hallucinatory experience for this viewer–by staging WWII and the Holocaust as this entirely different parallel reality, a more complex world-making, supported in the film by the more complex plot–Shoshanna, Landa, the Basterds, the British spies. After IB, I was expecting Django to take my head directly off of my shoulders. It didn’t.
Part of this has to do with how history was managed. IB‘s success, for me, was in how it created such a sideways alternate reality–one in which Americans and Brits actually cared about Jews during WWII, for instance. I’m fresh up on my pre-Civil War American history, having recently reread the excellently culturally contextual John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and the beautifully constructed Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. I highly recommend both. The South was in hysterics over blacks having any kind of power in the two years before the Civil War. I wish that Tarantino had solved the problems of historical inaccuracy by making the alternate reality more strange.
Django Unchained was too single-minded a revenge fantasy–so much so that the seams of pastiche felt more obvious. Seeing it at the New Beverly was an outstanding experience, if only to see the parade of influences in the series of QT-curated vintage movie trailers that served as the previews. But I couldn’t help but think of Reza Abdoh and Tight Right White. After what Abdoh did to Mandingo (almost 20 years ago at this point!)–Django Unchained felt almost disappointingly straightforward.
(You’ll say I’m comparing apples to oranges, by discussing avant-garde theater next to big budget film; perhaps–but such was my increased respect for Tarantino after IB and Kill Bill, Vol. 1, that the comparison isn’t such a stretch.)
In the previews, you got a taste of how films like Mandingo made the horrors of slavery titillating under the guise of telling the truth. Now, we are post-PC–so we must show the horror as horror–and the pleasure comes from watching the slaveholders turned into boobs. This was a pleasure: the slapstick of Jonah Hill and Don Johnson and the proto-Klansmen with their poorly made bag heads, followed by their bloody obliteration was the finest sequence in the film.
Lots of really well-crafted set pieces, actually. But it just didn’t all hang together. Is this the movie where we see and take a moment of silence to mourn the loss of Sally Menke?
Having lived in Claiborne County, Mississippi, I did get taken out of it a bit when I saw them going through landscapes that look nothing like anything you’d see hundreds of miles around where they were.
That being said, I would give a back tooth to watch this movie back in Mississippi.
This is the only time I’ve ever liked Leonardo di Caprio in ANYTHING AT ALL EVER. He did some Daniel Day Lewis style scenery chewing and just seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.
How do you bring THAT role up to Sam Jackson? What was THAT conversation like? “Uh, could you play like the worst Uncle Tom, but of all time?”
Although, perhaps di Caprio and Jackson’s incredibly enthusiastic performances come from getting to play the baddy bad guys. And that brings us to why I wasn’t as big of a fan of Christoph Waltz in this film. His character had no complexity–little actory details obviously meant to demonstrate “character work” (his constant patting down of beard and throat, etc)–just seemed precious and smug. The character was too uncomplicatedly likeable. No flaws. Similarly, Django himself was pretty one note. Which again, totally makes sense against the pastiche of influences–do we complain when Clint Eastwood was one-note?–but both characters felt like missed opportunities.