director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/25/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA
Love him, hate him, feel ambivalence to him, Quentin Tarantino inspires a variety of responses, usually strong and pointed. His revisionist Western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, Django Unchained, will keep those emotions strong, though you might shift your position one way or another.
For me, it’s the most inspired big theatrical release of the year.
What’s inspired about it is the entire concept. A revenge film about a freed slave empowered to high gun-slinging cowboy hero, shot in a style heavily informed by the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, absurd and yet profound, and more than anything, quite damn entertaining.
The Western genre represents a classic form of American drama and identity, defined from the end of the period itself in cheap magazines and novels and quickly taken up in cinema. It’s a genre that started with the general heroism of European settlers taming the Wild West, fighting the brutal land and the native peoples who lived there, as well as the best and worst of human character in battles between the good, bad, and ugly.
And until the 1960’s, this was a white man’s version of America. Even in films that were subversive or culturally critical, the fact of the matter stood that the heroes were white, no matter what color they wore. Revisionist Westerns, which began in the 1960’s started to take up the mantle of the Native Americans, no longer purely posing them as savage villains but trying to begin to accept the reality of what was America’s first most atrocious defining reality: not simple mistreatment and misrepresentation, but the genocide that cleared the West for “American” settlers from sea to shining sea.
While it’s doubtful that the Western has ever come to full terms with that, revisionism to the classic and codified tropes of cinema for this genre opened doors for other angles as well. But outside of Mel Brooks’ satire Blazing Saddles (1972), I can’t think of another important Western that really dealt with an African American protagonist in this largely historical genre. Many films have been centered around pre- and post- and during the Civil War, but slavery as a key topic is most unusual.
Why I call Tarantino’s “Spaghetti Western” conceit inspired is that it gives license to the story to not have to hew to utter historical truths. Adding in a musical score featuring funk and hip-hop, he rises above mere meta-commentary, film referencing and, much like he did in Inglourious Basterds (2009), with his fantasy revenge of Jews massacring Nazis in World War II, he sets a stage for a radical narrative in a world of mixed history and “truthiness”.
The criticism that has arisen about his use of the word “nigger” in Django Unchained seems incredibly off the mark. The world depicted here, the pre-Civil War South is the place that such an epithet was defined, and as ugly as it is to hear it, it’s probably one of the more close to historical truth aspects of the film rather than unpleasant indulgence as it was in his contemporary film Jackie Brown (1997). It’s far more fantastic, this whole concept of this German dentist turned pro-emancipation bounty hunter, than the commonality of that word in that period in that place.
It’s a radical concept, this film, and more than anything, it’s funny, brutal, clever, surprising, inventive, and exciting.
Jamie Foxx is great as Django, as Christopher Waltz is as Dr. King Schultz. But Leonardo DiCaprio gets the best role as the juicy horrible slave owner Calvin Candide. Samuel L. Jackson is also fantastic in his role as Candide’s head house slave, with his own virulent racism and complex relationship with the worst people in the film.
I have to say that this is probably the best new film that I’ve seen in 2012. Tarantino is suggesting that he wants to step down from film-making before he starts to “get old” and start turning out lame films as many of his hero directors did. But oddly enough, it seems that he’s actually at the top of his game at the moment, tapping into things that somehow touch on much more profundity than arguably his earlier films did.
This is a very good film, I think. A clever, inventive, inspired concept, executed aptly and beautifully. One of the best trips to the theater in a long while.