Monday, January 14, 2013

"Auf Wiedersehen": review of "Django Unchained"

The key to deciphering the message of "Django Unchained" may just be the lyrics to Jim Croce's "I Got a Name," a song that features at one point in the movie.

Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I got a name
I got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I got a name
I got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I'm living the dream that he kept hid
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life won't pass me by

Croce's song is a paean to identity and individualism, but also to freedom and depth, to living life both broadly and deeply. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave at the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, but he is soon to be known as Django Freeman, master gunfighter and bounty hunter partner of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an ex-dentist turned bounty hunter. To gain a name, even if the name is a generic designation like "Freeman," is to gain one's humanity, to have the right to be addressed as a fellow human being, and not merely to be considered property. Being human, by extension, means being free: "moving ahead so life won't pass me by."

Although the most obvious reading of Tarantino's bloody cowboy film (which the director lovingly and rebelliously dubs "a Southern") is as a revenge fantasy in the spirit of the director's two previous works ("Inglourious Basterds" and, before that, "Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2"), another, equally plausible, reading is that "Django" is a heroic tale of humanization, as Django the slave journeys from bondage to bounty hunting to blissful reunion with his love. As King Schultz notes during the story, Django is a real-life Siegfried, the Germanic/Nordic hero who, according to the legend, braves fire and a dragon to reclaim his love, Brünnhilde.* In "Django Unchained," this love is Django's wife, Broomhilda (the gorgeous Kerry Washington; and yes, the name's spelled "Broomhilda" like the comic strip); what's more, sie spricht Deutsch.

The plot of "Django Unchained" is fairly simple: King Schultz is looking to kill the Brittle Brothers. The problem is that he doesn't know what they look like. Schultz tracks down Django's slave procession, frees Django, and makes a deal with him: help Schultz track down the Brittle Brothers, and Django can have his freedom. In the process, Django and Schultz form a partnership that becomes a friendship, and when Django tells Schultz his personal story, Schultz, enthralled by the Siegfriedian overtones of Django's life and mission, resolves to help Django find the latter's lost love, Broomhilda. Schultz and Django find and kill the Brittle Brothers at the plantation of Big Daddy (Don Johnson); after outsmarting Big Daddy's attempt at revenge, they then move on to Candyland, the plantation realm of francophile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Broomhilda languishes as a slave. Does Django succeed in rescuing Broomhilda? Do the three friends survive to the end of the movie? Well, I shouldn't spoil things, now, should I?

In his review of "Django," Skippy wrote the following insightful observation:

I'm not going to lie to you, even if ["Django" were] a lesser film, I'd still love it because it so upsets loathsome race-hustling assholes like Spike Lee and Tavis Smiley. Neither of those dickheads actually [comes] out and [says] so (and neither has actually done anything crazy, like see it,) but I suspect that if a black director made Django Unchained exactly the same way Tarantino did, they would be demanding a fucking parade for it and insisting that it be shown in grade schools. Their problem with the movie isn't so much the depiction of slavery as much as it is that Tarantino is insufficiently dusky. (italics added)

I think this is spot-on. I respect Spike Lee's films because they're issue films: as much as they're meant to entertain, they're also meant to provoke discussion and argument. I don't think Lee is happy unless he's ruffled a few feathers, especially on the white side of the aisle. Lee's complaints about Tarantino's films center almost exclusively on Tarantino's perceived overuse of the ugly epithet "nigger." But Lee is hypocritical in complaining about this: anyone who has seen Lee's "Do the Right Thing" has watched and laughed at the hilarious montage in which people of different ethnic groups spew strings of racist vituperation about other races. Why should Lee be allowed to traffic in racist language—for the sake of art, for the sake of illustrating a point—and not Tarantino?

And what exactly is Tarantino's point? I think "Django" makes it over and over again: for a shamefully long period of American history, white people were fantastically, unimaginably, casually cruel toward black people. I felt great pangs of empathy for almost every black character in this film (except one; we'll get to him soon): their suffering and misery were front and center in almost every scene, with Django himself being the lone, positive, redemptive exception. One slave, a Mandingo fighter** named D'Artagnan, suffers a dismal fate after he attempts to escape from Candyland. The actor who played D'Artagnan (Ato Essandoh), a man with one half-closed eye, did a magnificent job of projecting total debasement and abjection. After witnessing so much on-screen cruelty, I took grim satisfaction in watching Django vent his fury on a white slaver, whose whip Django had grabbed from him and used against him.

Tarantino is front-loading all this incredible racism in a two-pronged attack on our sensibilities: he wants us to feel its omnipresence in our subconscious, and he wants to appall us at the conscious level as we realize the extent to which such medievalism permeated late-1850s society. Because Tarantino laced his script with so much black humor (no pun intended), it often became an ethical conundrum as to whether it was appropriate to laugh. In one scene, for example, Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie says, "What is the point of having a nigger that speaks German if you can't wheel 'em out when you have a German guest?" (source) I had a very hard time deciding whether I should laugh at that witticism. Some audience members did—heartily. I kept silent. At the same time, I understood what Tarantino was trying to do subtextually: he wanted to put us in a weird, liminal place where we would experience a kind of self-critical confusion. My ethical dilemma was Tarantino's goal.

All this racism talk brings me to the character of Stephen, played to evil, scenery-chewing perfection by Samuel L. Jackson. With his beady eyes staring out from under graying eyebrows, Stephen is the house slave (I'm using "slave" instead of the standard, odious label) of Candyland, one of the lowest of the lowlifes in the eyes of most slaves. Stephen manages the plantation slaves of Candyland, and does so with the same racist contempt as his white betters. When Django and King Schultz arrive at Candyland, ostensibly to dicker over the purchase of a Mandingo fighter but in truth to rescue Broomhilda, it is Stephen who quietly informs Calvin Candie that Schultz and Django have come primarily to save the girl. Stephen, old but wily, correctly surmises that Broomhilda is actually Django's wife, and Calvin Candie then has to decide just how long to continue the ruse of pretending to negotiate over the Mandingo fighter.

The scene in which Stephen reveals to Candie the machinations of Schultz and Django is striking: Candie stalks into the parlor to speak with Stephen; the latter is seated calmly in a plush, high-backed chair, swirling brandy in a snifter, and looking for all the world like the true master of Candyland. Stephen obviously knows how valuable he is to his master: he's valuable enough that he can get away with acting as privileged as the white folks. For a few moments during that scene, I genuinely wondered whether Stephen was going to reveal that he was the master of Candyland, and that Candie himself was a sort of slave or servant. The moment passed, however, and Stephen remained what he was: a loyal servant betraying a fellow black man. I fervently wished for his comeuppance.

My buddy Dr. Steve saw "Django Unchained" with me. Steve is notoriously hard to please, and he came away feeling this movie was one of Tarantino's weaker efforts. He did say something that stuck with me, though: Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson's roles should have been switched. I've chewed this over for the past week or so, and I think I've come to agree with Steve: DiCaprio, despite the fact that he's pushing forty, still looks fifteen and is too small in stature to be particularly menacing. Don Johnson, with his predatory smile and flinty stare (both on display in the guise of Big Daddy), might indeed have been the better choice to play Calvin Candie.

My own feeling, coming out of the theater, was that "Django Unchained" worked well as an epic tale, a blood-soaked épopée. Although the Siegfried story was the most obvious mythological template, I saw elements of Homer's The Odyssey as well as hints, now and again, of Shakespeare's grand geste, especially during those lengthy, orotund monologues that Tarantino is so fond of. "Django" was also a loving retread of any number of black/white buddy action movies dating back to the 1980s, not to mention a chance for Christoph Waltz to cleanse himself of his Nazi typecasting by playing the role of a noble-hearted, chivalrous German. One joke in particular had me laughing: as Schultz and Django are entering Candyland, one of Candie's lackeys informs Schultz that Monsieur Candie is a francophile, to which Schultz, subtly sneering and obviously proud of his own Teutonic culture, replies, "What civilized man isn't?"

"Django" works as a Spike Lee-style issue movie, even if Lee might resent that fact. It also works as a simple, bloody actioner—a hybrid of Sam Peckinpah and Brian De Palma. Tarantino himself appears as an Aussie slave transporter (his accent initially sounds South African, then resolves itself into faux-Aussie), which is good for a few moments' amusement until he's blown up by dynamite.*** The script is laced with dark humor, and as is true of so many Tarantino films, it's often hard to know when you're supposed to laugh at the proceedings. In this case, the viewer's hesitancy has everything to do with racism, which the film isn't shy about portraying. Spike Lee, far from refusing to see "Django," should screen it and realize that Tarantino is actually on his side: the movie asserts, in every frame, that slavery is a huge, damning stain on American history. Tarantino takes liberties with that history and constructs yet another revenge fantasy (I had to wonder, at one point, whether he was following the template of Korean director Park Chan-wook, who crafted his "Revenge" trilogy), but "Django" is more than that: in my opinion, it's a grand adventure—it's Siegfried rescuing his Brünnhilde, or Odysseus regaining his Penelope and clearing out the trash, or more simply, a man recovering his name and his humanity, and following that tree-lined, winding road.

The German expression Auf Wiedersehen, "good-bye," or more literally, "to [the] again-seeing," is a repeated trope throughout the film. Its presence reminded me of another epic tale that features the Quenya word Namárië.

*At least, this is the story as King Schultz lays it out in the movie. The actual myth may be a bit more complicated.

**The factuality of Mandingo fighting is in dispute. See here, for instance.

***IMdB's entry for "Django" notes a historical gaffe: dynamite wasn't invented until the 1860s, but the movie takes place in 1858.


Charles said...

I will definitely go see this when it screens here (which I've heard will be in March, probably because the distribution folks here were a bit scared and confused initially).

Kstylick said...

Truly an award-winning material movie. Leonardo di Carpio was so good in portraying a villain role. I would never forget the way he use the word 'nigger' ever.

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, I thought Leo was OK in the role, but as my friend Steve said, Don Johnson would have been better.

John from Daejeon said...

The revenge is straight out of the Corbucci's orginal (1966), "Django," and the 30+ sequels that followed in Franco Nero's Django footsteps. I just can't believe just how much Tarantino borrowed (lifted) from that Spaghetti Western masterpiece and from several others that are among his favorites. Here is his top 20 list.

Personally, my favorite film of all-time (a Spaghetti Western) has Henry Fonda as the cold-blooded killer of young girls and boys. It also helped that Sergio Leone put together a killer cast with a soundtrack to die for by Ennio Morricone.

Crud, now I'm re-watching both "Django" and "Once Upon a Time in the West" again. I'm going to pay for this lack of sleep later in the day.

SJHoneywell said...

Sing to the tune of the Django theme song:

He rides around on a big fucking horse. His name's Django. (Django!)
He'll kill all the bad white racists, of course. His name's Django (Django!)
You know he's bad-ass 'cause he's played by Jamie Foxx.
He blows people up and shoots one guy in the cock.
Tarantino's not black but he really wants to be so he made Django. (Django!)

Key change! (Key change!)

Tarantino is just a self-loathing nerd, and he made Django. (Django!)
He plays an Australian--completely absurd, but it's Django. (Django!)
He aims for street cred by having folks say "nigger" lots,
His character blows up though not required for the plot.
If you're white in this film you are prob'ly gonna die because it's Django. (Django!)

Kevin Kim said...

Witty. We gonna go to Germany and sing this in a Bierhaus, ja?