Saturday, January 12, 2013

Django Unchained: 3/4s of a great movie



I love the best spaghetti westerns. The tragedy of Django Unchained is that it could've been the greatest ever, but it fails in the third act.

Before getting into why, a few words about the obvious: if taboo words or violent images upset you, don't see this movie.

But "nigger" and explosions of blood are not what's wrong with Django Unchained.

Nor is the history, because anyone who confuses this movie with a historical knows little about westerns or history. It's set in the spaghetti west, as should be clear by Django's "Little Joe Cartwright" costume. It's a place where you cross the Rockies when you ride from Texas to Mississippi. It deserves huge credit for acknowledging slavery, but it's not about slavery. It uses slavery as an excuse for a standard spaghetti western plot: the good violent man kills all the bad violent people.

Here be spoilers.

The plot is extremely improbable. If Schulz and Django have $12,000 to spend, why didn't they simply offer Candie ten or twenty times the $300 he paid for Brunhilde? Everyone would've won.

But the movie could've survived its idiot plot—we know from the beginning that we're in a genre story where things happen by genre rules.

The movie fails—or at least, becomes generic—when King Schulz shoots Candie. At that point, Schulz and Django have got what they want. Schulz is an old hand who knows the stakes. I didn't buy his decision, even by spaghetti logic.

Without Schulz and Candie, the movie loses focus. Django never properly mourns his mentor, possibly because his mentor's last act was so stupid, and he doesn't get a memorable scene with Brunhilde. Instead, Django kills a lot more people, and the movie ends.

In the brouhaha over "nigger", a more interesting discussion about Django has been lost: it's surprisingly sexist, and I say "surprisingly" because Tarrantino ought to know that a story like this requires at least one moment when the good man's woman saves his ass by killing someone who is about to kill him. But poor Brunhilde never gets to be anything more than the Grail.

If Tarrantino was committed to having Candie die at the end of the second act, he should've set up Candie's sister to be as bad or worse than her brother. Instead, she's merely someone who gets to die in a bit of black comedy.

And comparing the movie's use of "bitch" to "nigger" is interesting. "Nigger" isn't always used as an insult, but "bitch" is. That may be the most historically accurate approach to language in the movie: the distinction between "nigger" and "negro" wasn't established in the south until long after the Civil War, but "bitch" was always an insult. I can't remember if Brunhilde is called a "nigger bitch", but she probably is, and when she is, she's at the intersection of gendered and racialized insult.

Which doesn't mean a whole lot more than that she should've gotten to kill someone who called her a nigger bitch.

But it's hard to discuss what should've been in a movie that only had three goals:

1. Acknowledge slavery.

2. Provide funny moments.

3. Provide violent moments.

Tarrantino did all three. I wanted more, but he succeeded on his own terms. While I'm disappointed that ultimately there's nothing of substance in Django Unchained, this spaghetti western fan enjoyed himself.

Will-Bob gives it four stars out of five.

PS. There's a simple test for whether this is a racist movie: Do most audience members think Django's cool? I hereby announce Shetterly's rule for action movie racism: If the black guy's cool, the movie ain't racist. Whether Django Unbound is sexist is trickier with that test: we don't disrespect Brunhilde, but the only people who get to make choices in this movie are male—which is another way in which it's not historically accurate.

PS 2. Before I saw the movie, Christopher Enis at G+ linked to Quentin Tarantino on Django Unchained and the Problem with ‘Roots’ - Newsweek and The Daily Beast, which includes this:
One thing both men agreed on was a scene in Roots that served as an example of what not to do in Django Unchained. The last act of the final episode features the character Chicken George being given the opportunity to beat his slave master and owner in much the same way he’d been punished and tormented. In the end the character chooses not to so he can be “the bigger man.” 
“Bulls--t,” exclaim both Tarantino and Hudlin in unison as they discuss the absurdity of the scene. “No way he becomes the bigger man at that moment,” says Tarantino. “The powers that be during the ’70s didn’t want to send the message of revenge to African-Americans. They didn’t want to give black people any ideas. But anyone knows that would never happen in that situation. And in Django ­Unchained we make that clear.”
At the time, I commented:
Something Tarantino seems to have missed in the Hong Kong flicks he loves is that a lot of them end with the good guy refusing to sink to the level of the bad guy. And, throughout history, people tend to forgive. He talks as if every story should end on a note of revenge. But that's only a film noir ending.
I still stand by that.

Recommended:

We are respectable negroes: Post-Django Unchained: How Many of You Remember "The Legend of Nigger Charley?"

Faster, Quentin! Thrill! Thrill! - Roger Ebert's Journal