This is a blog-post of two halves. Just like Django Unchained, in fact. Just like Death Proof, and Kill Bill and Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino does things in segments, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t do the same when I’m writing about him.
You may have already read Part One, which was first published in the Guardian in May 2009, shortly before the release of Inglourious Basterds, and deals with the increasingly female-friendly nature of Tarantino’s films. This has a bearing on my thoughts about Django Unchained, so instead of posting a précis, I’ve reproduced the entire 700-word article here. So if this sounds familiar, please skip straight to Part Two.
PART ONE: TARANTINO AND ME
I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to Inglourious Basterds. I expect it will be brimful of puerile in-jokes, pop culture references and gratuitous violence, while being entirely lacking in moral gravity and transcendental style. Indeed, I shall be terribly disappointed if it’s not. This is what I have come to expect from Quentin Tarantino, and this is what I like.
My feelings about Tarantino seems to have followed the reverse trajectory to those of many of his erstwhile fans, who hailed Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as evidence of the Second Coming but with each new film have grown increasingly teed off, as though they were waiting for him to morph into Michael Haneke. I doubt Tarantino has the desire, the intellectual rigour or even the life experience to mature into the popular idea of a “serious” cineaste, and I say thank God for that. We’ve got enough films like The Reader as it is.
I don’t set out to be contrary, but you know how things are. One minute you’re laughing your socks off at Observe and Report, and then, when you scan the critical consensus in the confident expectation of that warm and fuzzy sensation of having your judgment corroborated, you get hit in the face by such a blast-wave of invective that you start questioning your own opinion. For about five minutes, anyway. If I’ve learned anything in all my years of filmgoing, it’s that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. Odds are, they’ll come round to my way of thinking in a few years’ time, the way they finally saw the light about Heaven’s Gate, and The Thing, and Death Proof. Well, maybe not that last one, but you get my drift.
One of the reasons I like Tarantino more than I used to is that his women’s roles have been getting stronger. One can’t expect adolescent fanboys to get excited about this – they prefer girls to be seen and not heard, preferably dressed in punk-stripper outfits – but it works for me. Reservoir Dogs was notably oestrogen-free, and while there was a little more chick-activity in Pulp Fiction, it was the boys who got all the best lines. But, surprisingly for a director whose early screenplays reduced women to walk-ons and prostitutes (yes, True Romance, I’m looking at you) and whose imitators continue to plough that furrow (yes Guy Ritchie, I’m looking at you), Tarantino has since developed into one of those rare directors who film actresses so they appear like real people rather than airbrushed fantasy objects.
Jackie Brown, of course, was a welcome showcase for the glory that is Pam Grier. I’m not a fan of Uma Thurman, but she’s magnificent in Kill Bill, where Tarantino encourages her to be ugly, at the unkempt extremes of physical endurance, in a way that only makes her seem more attractive. As for Death Proof, if you haven’t seen the version with Vanessa Ferlito’s lapdance, you’ve missed out; it’s the opposite of demeaning, and a celebration of the female physique with a proper belly and bottom. I swear, only a director who really likes women could film them like this.
Another reason I enjoy Tarantino’s movies is that we’re both partial to the same genres. As an addict of 1970s kung-fu, I can’t say I felt let down when Kill Bill cobbled together many of the clichés of my favourite Shaw Brothers canon, including simple vengeance-propelled plot, extreme bloodiness and extraordinary choreography. The elements themselves might not be original, but the way Tarantino tweaks them into a gung-ho cinematic pop-art collage is.
The only other director who pulled off this trick with such panache is Jean-Luc Godard, who in the 1960s picked ‘n’ mixed his Hollywood bon-bons to create something derivative yet at the same time deeply personal; you could never mistake a Godard film for the movies he is referencing. The comparison may go some way towards explaining why Death Proof flopped. It borrows elements from exploitation, yet it isn’t in any respect an exploitation movie. It’s not even commercial. It’s an art film, dammit, but fun. You wait. One day you’ll see it my way.
And here’s the all-singing, all-dancing, all-new Part Two. This is not a review – there are plenty of those around; if you want to read what the film’s about, or who’s in it, or what the cinematography is like, or how many times the n-word is used, or find out everything that happens and all those regular film critic-type things, I’ve posted links to a hand-picked selection of reviews at the end.
I’m afraid my post is more of an incontinent ramble exploring the reasons why I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I’d wanted to. If I’d had unlimited time and/or was getting paid for it, I would have edited it down to half the length.
PART TWO: SOME NOTES ABOUT DJANGO UNCHAINED
I went to see Django Unchained knowing only what I’d gleaned from a teaser trailer about six months ago, but I’d glimpsed enough tweets and headlines to surmise people really liked it. Some were calling it Quentin Tarantino’s best film – which should have rung warning bells, because my views on Tarantino tend to be the opposite of everyone else’s.
Despite strenuous efforts not to build up unreasonable expectations, I nevertheless left the cinema feeling deflated, the opposite of post-Inglourious Basterds euphoria, and have been trying to work out why. I enjoyed the first half, but as soon as Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx meet Leonardo DiCaprio, the film starts going downhill. This is no reflection on DiCaprio, who gives a full-blooded evil racist performance, aided by terrific bad tooth make-up, which is becoming such a trend (see also Cloud Atlas) that it will soon merit a Bad Tooth Make-Up Top Ten.
The defining element of Tarantino’s films is neither character nor action nor (though it’s often mooted as such) dialogue – it’s genre, which he then plays with, bends or marks with his own personal stamp. Sometimes he mashes more than one genre together to form a hybrid, but in no film since From Dusk Till Dawn (for which he wrote the screenplay) has this been more evident than in Django Unchained, not just a film of two halves, but also a film of two genres – spaghetti western and the slave melodrama, with just a dash of Superfly. The genres overlap, but it’s the point at which the first slides definitively into the second that the film-maker lost his hold on me and I could feel my interest slipping away.
I could live with the way Django is transformed, almost overnight, from a barely literate former slave into a supercool superhero. Foxx and Waltz manage to sell their mentor/pupil relationship, and it’s feasible Django could have learnt all sorts of stuff on the road. But there are deeper problems.
One of them is obvious – while many critics have described Django Unchained as a love story, I see it as, essentially, yet another action film in which a woman gets kidnapped. It’s true Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) has already been “kidnapped” – sold as a slave, whipped and maltreated – before the story begins, and that Jamie Foxx is preoccupied throughout the film with rescuing her, which provides the story with its motor. And yes, that’s adorable of him, and obviously they love each other very much. But all she gets to do is suffer, speak German (that’s her party trick) and wait to be rescued. Yes, yes, I know she tries to run away, but that’s meagre pickings. Just about every female character who ever gets locked up in a basement by a psychopath tries, at some point, to escape. And she never gets very far. That’s par for the course.
I don’t suppose audiences who like seeing Foxx transformed from ex-slave to supercool superhero would be interested in seeing even part of the movie from the whipped and maltreated female slave’s point of view, and I daresay it would be one anachronism too many if she were suddenly to turn into the 19th century black equivalent of Lieutenant Ripley, but that her character is largely reduced to being a) a passive plot device and b) Django’s personal property which he will stop at nothing to get back, is doubly disappointing now that we’ve seen Tarantino-world through the eyes of Jackie Brown, Beatrix Kiddo, Arlene and Abernathy, Bridget von Hammersmark and Shosanna Dreyfus.
As if to rub it in, Django calls Broomhilda “Hildy”, which, may I remind you, is also the monicker of one of the spunkiest, kickiest, quickest-wittiest female roles in all of film – Hildy Johnson, as played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. There is no way Tarantino would not be aware of this. Well, there’s a fuck you right there, because his Hildy is 100% victim.
Elsewhere, we have Zoë Bell in a mask as one of the racist trackers, hanging out like one of the guys, so I guess she was supposed to be a guy too. We also have DiCaprio’s Southern Belle sister – a potentially interesting villainess role squandered on a not-very-interesting actress, though I may be doing her an injustice since the unfortunate woman is lumbered with not-very-interesting characterisation and dialogue, and her director is clearly not interested in her either. Surely this was a role crying out for the novelty casting of the female equivalent of a John Travolta, Christoph Waltz, Robert Forster? I don’t know – Juliette Lewis, anyone? Winona Ryder? Some poor overtalented sod who’s been toiling away in daytime soap for the past two decades?
But it’s not just the boring female roles that left me disheartened. Tarantino may be at ease with his first genre, the spaghetti western, but he’s less than comfortable with the second, the slave melodrama, hence his need to beef it up with funky Blaxploitation cues. The slave melodrama is classic exploitation fare, like women’s prison dramas with a racial element added to the sex ‘n’ violence, with the promise of payback waiting at the climax. Tarantino nails the violence bit – the shootouts in Django Unchained are festooned with splurges of blood, but there are also ferocious whippings, a vicious all-black fight to the death for the white man’s entertainment, and a horrible scene in which a slave is torn to pieces by dogs. He has left us in no doubt that being a slave was not a bed of roses. But he has completely ignored the sex.
When I think of slave melodramas I think of Mandingo, of course, but also of Russ Meyer’s Slaves aka Black Snake aka the film Lady Weinberg, formerly known as the actress Anouska Hempel, would like to bury. (Because instead of looking back on starring in a Russ Meyer movie as her finest hour, as you or I would have done, she evidently thinks it shameful to have once played the sadistic whip-wielding owner of a 19th century Caribbean island whose slaves finally revolt against her evil racist repression.)
THERE ARE SEX-RELATED SPOILERS COMING UP AFTER THIS PICTURE!
But these films have sex in them; Tarantino’s doesn’t. When Django and Broomhilda (I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to call her Hildy) are finally reunited, I expected them to make sweet, sweet love to a suitably cheesy soundtrack. But they don’t. Or if they do (and one would imagine they’d want to) it happens offscreen.
Django Unchained doesn’t even have sexual violence in the form of rape, though it’s implied in a curiously coy and roundabout way that this is one of the atrocities to which Broomhilda has been subjected. I’m not sorry there’s an absence of explicit rape and sexual abuse of women in the film, because I don’t like watching it, but since it’s an integral part of the slave exploitation melodrama it seems a little lily-livered to leave it out altogether, and there are ways of showing it without showing it, if you see what I mean. There is prostitution, but this is treated prudishly as well, couched in visual and verbal euphemism – more than once, prostitutes are referred to as “comfort women”, a term I thought originated in Japan in World War Two. (Judging by my slang dictionary, in the 19th Century the word “comfort” is more likely to have meant gin, or other liquor. Hence Southern Comfort.)
When, finally, the gloves come off and someone does get stripped naked and trussed upside-down with their face in a fetish mask, it’s not one of the female slaves, but Jamie Foxx. Please understand I don’t want to see female characters stripped naked and trussed upside-down with their faces in fetish masks, and I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing Foxx like this, fit though he is, because the lurch into Mandingo-style sexual abuse is so abrupt that I was left reflecting on the clumsiness of it, and wondering if we were belatedly entering true exploitation territory, and, if so, how far into it we were going to venture.
But when Foxx’s manhood is menaced with a knife, it’s not DiCaprio’s Southern Belle sister who does the menacing, nor even DiCaprio himself, but a minor heavy played by Walton Goggins, who holds off at the last second for… a pretty lame reason, Samuel L Jackson as the Uncle Tom servant popping up to say oh, the lady of the house has changed her mind. And not because she fancies a bit of servicing from the studliest guy on the plantation, either, as Susan George or Anouska Hempel would have done. No, she’s decided to send him off to work in a mine. Way to go.
But this whole scene reminded me the most memorable sexual encounter in all of Tarantino’s films is the one between Marsellus Wallace and The Gimp in Pulp Fiction. Even that, if I recall correctly, takes place offscreen. Are non-consenting variations of male-on-male BDSM the only sort of sex the film-maker can imagine? Not that there’s anything wrong with the consenting version, of course, but fear of male rape was probably treated more honestly and upfront in the last Rob Schneider movie I watched.
On the other hand, Tarantino doesn’t deprive us of his version of the porno “money shot”. Whenever any of the characters in Django Unchained gets shot – as quite a lot of them do – there’s a massive splurge of blood as orgasmic as any explosion of hardcore jism, often accompanied by groaning and writhing around.
What I’m trying to say here is not that I’m anti-violence in films (which I’m not), but that with Django Unchained, Tarantino has taken several steps backwards, back to the days when his films were full of men being men, and pulling out their pistols and pointing them at each other, and shooting each other. This is what they do instead of sex. This is their version of sex. This is the sex in a Tarantino movie.
And just when he was coming along so nicely, too.
I think Quentin Tarantino needs to get back in touch with his feminine side.
1) In Django Unchained, female characters faint – not once, but twice. The first time it’s quite funny. The second time, less so.
2) Broomhilda is named after the mythological German character; this is one of the reasons why German ex-dentist Dr King Schultz (Waltz) joins Django (Foxx) on his quest to rescue her, but the character as described by Schultz sounds like little more than a Teutonic variation on The Sleeping Beauty, about a helpless princess who needs to be rescued by a hero.
A shame Tarantino seems to have overlooked the fact, deliberately or otherwise, that Brünnhilde in the myths wasn’t just a princess – she was also a warrior maiden and Valkyrie! In the Nibelungenlied, Brunhild loses at spear-throwing, boulder-carrying and other vigorous pursuits only because Gunther, her prospective bridegroom, enlists the help of Siegfried and his Harry Potter-esque cloak of invisibility. In other words, Gunther cheats.
Later on, she refuses to give up her viriginity to him and instead suspends him from the ceiling of their bridal chamber. It’s not specified whether he’s also naked and trussed upside-down with his face in a fetish mask.
Tarantino and Me can also be found in ANNE BILLSON ON FILM 2009, a collection of my Guardian film columns available in e-book form (all formats) for $0.99 USD.
SOME REVIEWS OF DJANGO UNCHAINED:
Django Unchained, review (newstatesman.com)
Django Unchained, review (empireonline.com)
Django Unchained, review (telegraph.co.uk)
Django Unchained, review (guardian.co.uk)
Django Unchained, review (outlawvern.com)