maybe there’s a good reason to rip on django unchained, or maybe not, i can’t tell

You know, just because I love Quentin Tarantino doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear criticisms of him. I do; I genuinely enjoy hearing what people think about movies and why they don’t like them. That said, the sophist in me wants you to make the best argument possible, even if it’s against a piece of art I happen to like.

photo by Steve Rhodes under cc

To begin with, if you’re going to criticize Quentin Tarantino for using the n-word too much, you should probably wait until he’s doing a movie that isn’t about slavery, since QT has already nicely answered your concerns about Django Unchained:

Personally, I find [the criticism] ridiculous. Because it would be one thing if people are out there saying, “You use it much more excessively in this movie than it was used in 1858 in Mississippi.” Well, nobody’s saying that. And if you’re not saying that, you’re simply saying I should be lying. I should be watering it down. I should be making it more easy to digest.

(That’s Tarantino talking to Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Root.)

I think Tarantino has handily dealt with the issue right there. I’ve seen the movie, and every time the word comes out of anyone’s mouth, it seems like they actually would have said it in that scenario. And the movie’s set in the antebellum South, so most people are racists and they talk about slavery a lot. Moreover, it’s hard to criticize him for choosing the topic. Tarantino knows we need to face up to this dirty past of ours, and he’s right to force the topic on us.

So if you’re going to get on Tarantino’s case, it’s probably going to have to be for the way he’s executed the film, not so much the content therein. When I say “you,” by the way, I might actually mean “me”: I haven’t even really decided if I’m alright with Django Unchained.

I was thinking about this recently while reading a piece in the L.A. Times by Erin Aubry Kaplan on the discomfort people experience watching Django. She sees past the n-word stuff, but it strikes me that as she tries to explain the problem of the movie, she isn’t able to put her finger right on what that trouble is.

One theory she pursues is from Tim Cogshell (a critic associated with KPCC-FM’s “Filmweek”), who compares Django to Tarantino’s last film, Inglourious Basterds. She quotes him as saying that “the surreal liftoff that happens at some point in Basterds doesn’t happen here [i.e., with Django, presumably], because of the weight of what’s still real.” As an example of “what’s still real,” he cites “a certain racial backlash to Obama that’s still going on.”

It’s a fair point (if misapplied) that racism is still alive and well in America, but I just want to point out that Cogshell seems to be implying, quite unjustly, that the victims of the Holocaust and Nazism do not have their own “real” stuff to deal with. (For whatever it’s worth, Kaplan says Cogshell is black, though I don’t think that matters.) Anyway, it’s true that Django tries for comedy more than Inglourious Basterds, and maybe that’s what’s awkward. One scene is a longish gag involving proto-Klan guys complaining about the craftsmanship of their homemade white hoods. The moment made me cringe a bit, because in the general horror depicted by the movie, the jokiness seemed out of place.

Still, Cogshell seems like he’s missing something when he calls it a “dark comedy” or characterizes the film as “broadly comic” (although technically that’s Kaplan’s paraphrase of his take on Django).

It’s similar to how Kaplan generally seems to be searching for the right phrase to encapsulate the Tarantino Experience and doesn’t ever hit it. She calls it “gleefully outrageous,” and “an extremely Hollywood-ized vision” with “highly stylized violence.” Later, paraphrasing another critic, she says Tarantino has a “unique, pop-culture sensibility.” She says critic Eric Deggens believes that “the film’s brutal depiction of slavery makes up for its shortcomings — that is, its over-the-top approach to a subject that’s generally swept under the rug is aesthetically justifiable, even necessary.”

I want to give Kaplan points for trying, but then I don’t think Tarantino is really “over-the-top” or any of those other descriptors. Maybe they don’t feel right because all of them just could be applied to other, more vanilla directors, and I think Tarantino is a lot more subtle than a James Cameron or even many of the hipper directors that followed the success of Pulp Fiction. A single phrase can’t ever quite capture the mood of one of his movies because QT, especially recently, creates entertainment that shifts and combines tones that normally exclude each other. For a less skilled director, that is a strange and ambitious project that would probably fail, but Tarantino consistently pulls it off.

A claim that vague needs to be justified, so take for an example the earliest scene of Django, seen in the trailer. Christoph Waltz appears and blithely kills one of the white slavers, then lets the slaves beat the other one to death. This sets a certain tone, a mortal one where life is cheap and brutish. But that’s undermined by a prop, the huge plaster tooth mounted on a spring on top of Waltz’s carriage. As a dentist-turned-bounty-hunter (?!), Waltz goes around with this thing bobbing around on top of his transport for the first half of the movie, undermining the seriousness of everything it comes near.

Another classic example would be the massacre that concludes Kill Bill: Volume 1, in which Uma Thurman hacks apart the Crazy 88 gang, letting loose jets of blood that splatter the walls. The effect is both gory and slightly wacky. The Kill Bill movies overall seem purposely over-the-top — that’s one way to describe them — but it’s missing something crucial if you don’t mention that Thurman’s character is more genuinely, bone-breakingly vulnerable than anything you’d ever see in a Michael Bay movie.

I suspect that the bizarre fusion of moods and tones is what Kaplan is trying (but failing) to explain. By not getting there, she misses the point that Django Unchained may be “gleefully outrageous” but also arresting and serious. I don’t know that these two things should exist in the same movie, especially one about a topic that’s so damn important to America. But if we’re going to shoot Tarantino down, we might as well have his number.

2 thoughts on “maybe there’s a good reason to rip on django unchained, or maybe not, i can’t tell

  1. I agree that Tarantino’s stuff is messy, but I guess I just like messy films. When things are too tightly done I get almost anxious.

    About the n-word — I thought this film was an exception, because the word was so appropriate to the context. But yeah, in earlier movies, it seemed a little gratuitous. His appreciation of “pulpiness” is not my favorite part of Tarantino.

  2. i think tarantino’s movies are inept and fun. a hit-and-miss series of sometimes great scenes that riff on his blaxploitation/kung fu flick inspirations, but don’t add up to much. his rambling dialogue can be amusing but it’s played out by now, and his movies could use pruning by a hungrier director — and he certainly uses “nigger” a lot for a white guy.

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