Friday, January 11, 2013

The Man With No Editor: Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

It's difficult to watch the new film from Quentin Tarantino and not think about the loss of Sally Menke. For all of Django Unchained's virtues (we'll get to those later), its setpieces lack the precise sense of timing and subtle manipulation of tension and release that burned scenes like Mia Wallace's overdose and The House of Blue Leaves into the cultural consciousness. When the extended dinner the characters share at Candieland is viewed alongside the Tavern scene in Inglourious Basterds it feels loose and unfocused, the focus begins to drift as DiCaprio's monologue raises salient points, implying parallels that are germane to our own experience. It's hard not to wonder if Menke could have helped shape the rhythm of the scene into something that better held audiences attention. Practitioner of a craft that strives for invisibility, it is perhaps a compliment that her absence registers more deeply than her presence ever did.

Inglourious Basterds proves a valuable reference point when judging Django Unchained, not only for the superficial reason that they both consist of Quentin putting his spin on actual historical events, but also because the latter plays as the former reduced to its essence, two hours and forty-five minutes of pure wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, this process of eidetic reduction strips away the subtext, unique narrative structures (and even on a level of structure Django comes half-formed, a superfluous climax deflating the films final half-hour), and idiosyncracies that made Inglourious Basterds a film that rewarded repeat viewings and in-depth analysis. With Django, it's all there on the surface.

The other factor that contributes to Django's insubstantial nature is a lack of characterization. This is Tarantino's first film since Pulp Fiction that doesn't feature a female lead, and the most prominent female character, Broomhilda, is the least developed of his career. As Django's desire to rescue her is the only facet of his own character that is explored to any substantial degree, this diminishes both of them. Waltz's King Schultz is the only character given a meaningful arc and he's disposed of prior to the finale between Django and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, a relationship in itself woefully underdeveloped.

Which isn't to suggest Tarantino's film is completely devoid of value. Its "kid gloves are off" approach to slavery possesses a certain vitality, courting controversy while frankly addressing a part of our history most would prefer to ignore, making the ugliness inherent in treating human beings as property frighteningly tangible. The ways the races process this differently is expertly evoked in the scene in which Django and Schultz watch one of Calvin Candie's slaves torn to pieces by dogs, a contrast between utter horror and resigned familiarity. The film also contrasts Candie's pseudoscientific justifications with Schultz's guilt and patronizing feelings of responsibility for Django.

On top of all that, it is, for all its structural and editorial problems, pretty consistently entertaining. It still, mess that it is, possesses that inimitable Tarantinian vibe. It may not have the snap, crackle, pop of his best work, but it is still undeniably his, which makes it on some level interesting. Unfortuantely, the above moments are few and far between, and as a filmmaker who so recently claimed he could not make a film that was lesser than Death Proof, he may well have. That film was also a structural mess, but at least it served to create enlivened discussion regarding its subtext. Which isn't to deny the debate Django has inspired on slavery's place in our culture isn't valuable, it's just more of a result of Hollywood as an industry than a film that could be so much more.

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