Sunday, 5 July 2015

Fifteen Mostly Unconnected Points about Django Unchained

From March 2013, when I was trying to make my criticism more explicitly political. Also, despite what me-from-2013 wrote below, it is no longer out of character for me to listen to Kanye West albums on repeat.

  1. The Cowley Road Ultimate Picture Palace was the right place to see this. The warm, scratchy, faintly scuzzy, you-can-actually-drink-beer-there, obviously-film-obsessed building fits Taratino's aesthetic with rabid perfection.
  2. The film is Great.
  3. Obvious political problems first. This isn't a racist film. But turning the messy, unresolved historical atrocity of slavery into pulp entertainment (and this is without doubt pulp entertainment) is problematic.
  4. Also problematic is the way that the crux of the plot involves simplistically heroic anti-racists smashing up simplistically villainous racists – for a film ostensibly about race, this shuts down any conversation about racism or prevailing racist attitudes in contemporary culture: an audience can uncomplicatedly relate with the heroes and unite against the villains. Whatever unpleasant assumptions exist in their heads remains unexamined – while watching this film, we can assure ourselves that our culture contains nothing rotten because we are not Leonardo di Caprio. Similarly, we can assure ourselves that the darkest corners of Western history can be safely ignored as hero vs villain conflicts where we are the hero. The film comforts. It cannot unsettle.
  5. Swap “slavery” for “the holocaust”, and Inglourious Basterds left exactly the same sour taste for exactly the same reasons.
  6. (This makes it sound like I'm saying all films about race should call its audiences racists. I'm not saying that. That would be stupid. I just want it to say something more complicated/new/illuminating/difficult than “Jamie Foxx should shoot racists in the face”)
  7. Having said that, it's an explicitly pulpy film tackling these issues head on, and trying desperately to be on the side of the angels. That's definitely positive. The (enormously entertaining but) toxically unpleasant 300, for example, has a whirlwind of shitty opinions about the Middle East/Women/Masculinity/Sexuality/Eugenics, and seems to function as a very odd Iraq War metaphor. All this stuff, however, boils under its surface without ever fully exposing itself above the brawl. It 1) doesn't have the courage of its nasty little convictions and 2) allows these attitudes to remain unexamined by an audience. Django shoves these issues front and centre – despite being simplistic, it's impossible to watch the film without interrogating race, slavery, and the film's view of it. As I said, this is positive.
  8. (Side point – on gender politics, this film does not score well)
  9. Tarantino is one of the few directors who writes mainstream thrillers with unpredictable plots. I can think of at least three occasions when the script loops into wonderful what the hell was that territory. This is a film you can meaningfully spoil.
  10. And it's nice to be reminded that when a script gives him something meaty to do, Samuel L. Jackson is a hell of an actor.
  11. Fantastic soundtrack too. I can't think of an occasion where I've enjoyed hip-hop that much. Apart from the weird out-of-character week where I listened to Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat.
  12. Was the violence here influenced by videogames? I can't think of another visual reference for the sheer speed, regularity, and kineticism with which the bodies fall in the biggest shootouts, especially when one considers the hero's ridiculously good aim and apparent invulnerability in a straight fight.
  13. This is a funny film, but there are a couple of comic scenes which fall horribly flat. A comedy KKK was weird in O Brother Where Art Thou, but at least that was funny. Here it's just weird. Also, there's a lengthy scene where I think we're meant to find badly executed Australian accents hilarious. I'm not sure what was going on there.
  14. THE NEXT POINT CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS. See point 9 for reasons you shouldn't read on if you haven't seen it yet.
  15. Pseud point – the film shares a lot of structural dna with Renaissance Revenge Tragedy (and presumably with all the Senecan/Greek stuff that I haven't read). There's the huge cast of twisted characters, where even the heroes are drenched in blood and driven by a bitter need to destroy. There's the fact that it's set in a temporally and spatially alien environment, allowing for a moral code considerably sicker than the one in our own world. There's the constant feeling that we're lurching towards an apocalypse. There's the sprawling structure, lengthy running time, obsession with language, and a hyperperformative death-choked finale from which very few characters escape. But – BUT – Django gets out alive. Even if the final shots of the film are undeniably cool (Tarantino, as ever, is great at cool), this seems faintly unsatisfying. The revenger getting away perfectly with their revenge isn't something we're generically trained to expect, and if Tarantino is going to give us that, he better show us that he knows it's a subversion. The film's a tragedy, dammit, and it should act like one.

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