Thursday, February 21, 2013

Putting the Rant in Tarantino

Ive been trying to organize my notes about Django Unchained for about two weeks now, and Im not satisfied with anything Ive been able to turn them into.  So, as a homage to David Shields--who is considered a writer because he publishes a bunch of unsourced quotes whose real authors are only noted in an appendix (and whose new book was originally titled How Literature Saved My Life Because It Gave Me People To Steal From)--here are those notes, in no particular order at all. 

Opening sentence:  Django Unchained is the kind of movie Tarantino fans can point to as a perfect example of what he does best and why they love it

Its really two movies:  the first half is For A Few Deutschmarks More; the second half is Inglourious Niggaz.  So its a mash-up of a Sergio Leone Western and a revenge fantasy where the Jews Blacks kill Hitler Whitey.  As well as a twisted version of Paleface.

In-jokes abound.  The bar Minnesota Clay is the title of a Sergio Corbucci Western.  Theres a wanted poster for Edwin Porter, who directed the silent movie The Great Train Robbery.  Franco Nero, who played the original Django, is the guy next to Jamie Foxx when he spells out his name.  Samuel L Jackson’s last words (“You son of a b--“) echo Eli Wallach’s in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.  The trick horse dance at the end is a direct steal from the Trinity films (including the Trinity theme music under).

Like Brecht, Tarantino steals with impunity.  (I eagerly await his heist movie, where the main character’s sidekick will be named M. Punity.)  And he displays his stolen goods so openly that they appear to be his possessions by right.  But the truth is, he is owned by them.

I don’t get the Australian accent thing at all.

Slavery is to this movie what torture is to Zero Dark Thirty.  Not just the Big Moral Issue, but The Elephant In The Room. The difference between Bigelow and Tarantino is that Bigelow shows you the elephant right up front, and then escorts you through a couple of other rooms that have a bunch of different animals in them.  Tarantino keeps showing you the elephant no matter what room youre in, because its big enough to hide the lack of furniture.

QUESTION:  So if you take that elephant out of this movie, does it still work as a movie?

ANSWER:  On paper?  Sure.  A bounty hunter frees a prisoner because the prisoner can identify someone the bounty hunter is after.  Because the prisoner has a personal vendetta against, say, the evil rancher who framed him for murder, he agrees to a trade: Ill help you if you help me.  The bounty hunter agrees, teaching the prisoner the tricks of his trade while they accomplish the first mission (The Job Plot), and then either dying or getting wounded heroically while helping the prisoner with his vendetta (The Revenge Plot). 

QUESTION:  You said on paper.  What about on film?

ANSWER:  Ah; well now.  Theres a teacher/student story here too.  In The Job Plot, the student learns the value of Doing The Job Without Caring; while in The Revenge Plot, the teacher learns that There Are Some Things Worth Caring About.  And thematically, whether or not he learns that lesson determines whether or not the teacher dies at the end.

I really hated the way Schultz dies at the end.  It was such a giant FU.  The one guy you figure is going to keep his cool turns into the one guy who loses it, like Steve McQueen suddenly turning into Robert Vaughn halfway through The Magnificent Seven. 

Schultz's plot role requires him to grow as a character--to move from the job view of life to the caring view of life.  But in the second half of the film, hes the audience surrogate.  He views the casual violence of slavery the way we are supposed to: as something sickening, something to be despised.  Is this character evolution?  Or is this just the most likeable character in the movie continuing to be likeable? Is Tarantino even capable of character evolution?  He’s really good at scenes of competing self-interest, but character evolution? 

And how does Django evolve?  In the words of Stuart Klawans from The Nation: "He changes clothes."   And winds up dressed like a black version of Little Joe in Bonanza.

In story terms, you can do the final revenge movement one of two ways: with Teacher and Student fighting (and possibly dying) together, or with the Teacher off the board and the Student fighting alone.  Tarantino chose the second approach.  Not because the Student grows as a character, but because, since hes alone, the Student is all we have left to identify with, so were the ones who make him bigger.  In a sense, by killing off Schultz the way he does, Tarantino is making us do his work for him.

Sidebar: the whole thing feels schematic.  Like Tarantino wrote it backwards and had to figure out a way to get rid of Schultz that would make sense.

Each main character has a double.  Schultz, who could be the grandfather of Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, is an amoral cosmopolitan who speaks at least three languages fluently.  Hes paired off with Calvin Candie, the fake cosmopolitan who affects to be French but God forbid you speak real French to him because he doesn't know the language.  (Hes sort of like Jay Gatsby with slaves.)  Meanwhile Django,  who starts out not knowing basic words in English and who, thanks to the miracle of montage, winds up as fluent with the language as he is fast with a gun, is paired off with Samuel L Jacksons nasty-ass Stephen, who looks like the love child of Uncle Remus and Uncle Ben, and who (unless I misinterpreted a brief but telling moment in his final confrontation with Django) has spent most of his adult life faking a leg injury to get over with the white folks.  And he is a nasty piece of work, let me tell you.

It makes sense that the members of each pair will face off with each other, but Tarantino (characteristically) undercuts both moments.  Neither one is satisfying.  The Schultz/Candie showdown is so WTF it either gets nervous laughter or cries of anger or both.  And the Django/Stephen showdown, well, all along I figured wed end up with a Mandingo fight between these two guys, which would have been all kinds of thematically satisfying.  But instead, you got a guy with a gun and a guy with a cane, and the outcome aint in question once the guy with the gun begins shooting.

Tarantino quotes Mandingo as an influence, but that movie is an uncle compared to the three Fred Williamson movies from the Seventies that can claim a piece of DUs parentage: The Song of Nigger Charley, The Soul of Nigger Charley, and Boss Nigger--which is currently available under the single word title Boss, and plays out like a dead serious version of Blazing Saddles. 

Speaking of which: the KKK scene is in this movie?  Straight out of Blazing Saddles.  A bunch of lynch-happy peckerheads arguing about eyeholes in their pillowcases?  You can just hear Cleavon Little saying , White people are so DUMB, baby.  Its a safe laugh, and when they get blown to hell, who cares?  Theyre nothing but a bunch of stupid rednecks who deserve to die at the hands of our cultured, politically-correct heroes.  And in the background, you can hear Tarantino saying, Thats right, modern audience--you laugh.  You laugh away.  Because in about 20 minutes, I'm gonna have an old black guy torn apart by dogs.  Who's your bitch now?

If Tarantino was a fighter, he would only have two punches: a left jab so pussy it makes you laugh, and then a right to the jaw that makes you see stars.  He makes you laugh, and then he knocks you on your ass.  He makes you care, and then he knocks you on your ass.  He makes you sick to your stomach, and then he reminds you that its only a movie; and then he knocks you on your ass again.  And boy, is he a sucker for that its only a movie move.  Remember the end of Death Proof?  Where Kurt Russell is getting the crap kicked out of him, and suddenly it turns into a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, complete with sound effects?  Theres something like that in all Tarantinos films, and its beginning to feel more like a character flaw than a character trait.

Every time Tanrantino gets close to a real emotion, he points to the camera.  Hes the kind of guy who cant have sex with you without picking the absolutely worst moment to point out that hes doing to you what Mickey Rourke did to Kim Basinger in  9 ½  Weeks.

MICKEY ROURKE:  In his dreams.

KIM BASINGER:  Not mine.

I keep coming back to Schultzs death, because its totally arbitrary, and yet, because of the way the film is structured, totally necessary.  There are so many ways a plot necessity can be accomplished, but in the end, the way its done says something vital about the artist.  When a man faces death, really faces it, you see exactly how much he values life. When a creator kills off one of his characters, especially someone the audience likes and identifies with, you see the same thing.   He can give him dignity, he can give him disgrace; he can have him come onstage cradling the dead body of his daughter, or he can have her willingly commit suicide because the odds is gone and there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon.  Or, as in this movie, he can have a character shoot another character and then turn around and say Im sorry; I couldnt resist, before he gets blown away.  A moment which, the more I think about it, seems to me to be nothing more than Quentin Tarantino talking directly to the audience.   I could have done this so many ways, hes saying to us.  I could have given Schultz a noble death, or a clever death, or a death that was totally in character for him.  I know that.  But I decided to make it meaningless.  I decided to make it the preface to a ridiculously-over-the-top bloodbath.  I decided to go for the cheap laugh.  Im sorry--I couldnt resist.

Opening sentence:  Django Unchained is the kind of movie Tarantino detractors can point to as a perfect example of what he always ends up doing and why they despise it.