Monday, June 10, 2013

Film Review: Django Unchained, History Dumbed Down

Originally appeared in the

When I left *Django Unchained*, in something approaching fury, I wrote (roughly) this:

Bad movie.
The plantation South, in which cotton was king, becomes a boxing arena.
Leonard Dicaprio, major Mississippi plantation owner, is in effect, Don King. (The guy with the big hair, onceTyson’s manager.)
His fortune rests, so far as you can tell, on “Mandingo fighting” — slave v. slave matches, which spring out of Tarantino's imagination and his addiction to all manner of genre movies.
Spike Lee is right not to have seen it.
It does insult and defame his past.
Not only his, all pasts.

Tarantino has run out of steam. . .
Too bad this movie (a la a long Henry Louis Gates interview with Tarantino) is garnering serious attention.
For all those n-words.
That’s faux controversy.
Django Unchained doesn't merit attention.
It merits avoidance.
It stinks.

Later, with more thought, I wrote this:

I’d like to qualify my view about *Django Unchained* in one way, namely by acknowledging that Tarantino is consciously trying to counter the racist polemic of D.W. Griffith’s *Birth of a Nation*. Hence the scene of
buffoonish Ku Klux Klansmen complaining their hoods don’t fit right; they can’t see through the eyeholes. No matter that there was no Klan in 1858 when *Django Unchained* is set — the Klan arose after the end of Reconstruction in 1876 — Tarantino wants to mock its portrayal in the hugely influential D W Griffith movie, which treated Klansmen as heroic, the only force between the South and black savagery.

That scene reminds me of the Nazis tromping around in *The Great Dictator*, idiotically singing, “We’re Aryans Aryans Ary Ary Ary Ary Aryans.” Of course, the Chaplin movie was made in 1940, when there were still plenty of Nazis marching around.

None of this makes me fundamentally revise my initial pan of the movie. There is so much of a certain kind of violence — the kind you’ve seen in
Tarantino movies before, but unimproved  — that it in a sense takes the violence out of violence. But some violence has to remain effective, has to gain purchase, in movies that are essentially revenge fantasies. There’s plenty of effective violence in *The Godfather*, for instance, a revenge masterpiece of film.

There’s another problem with Tarantino’s revenge fulfillments, as enacted in *Inglourious Basterds* and *Django Unchained*. The revenge climax in both is too total. In *Inglourious Basterds* the whole leadership of the Nazi party is annihilated in one fell unconvincing swoop. It’s a smug and simplistic conclusion. So much for Hitler, the Holocaust, World War II. That was fun, let’s move on. Same thing in *Django Unchained*: Django wipes out — with a combo of bullets and bombs similar to the armament in *Inglourious Basterds* — not only one huge Mississippi plantation, leaving none of the whites connected with it alive, but by extension the whole plantocracy. How neat. To what will Tarantino turn his exterminationist fancies to now? What has he pegged for annihilation?

By the end of Tarantino’s *Kill Bill*, the Bride (Uma Thurman) has revenged herself on an entire cast of enemies, working through them over the course of the two-part film one by one, in individualized encounters. The violence, however stylized and cartoonish, is innovative and — dare I say so? — brilliant, in the way it joins and customizes genres. There are parts of *Kill Bill* I admit to fetishizing just the way Tarantino, that supreme fetishist, wants me to. But the plot of *Kill Bill* makes no pretense of being historical.

History seems to dumb Tarantino down, dull his imagination. The revenge, unfortunately, is on history, which in the process gets painfully dumbed down.

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