DJANGO UNCHAINED Is All Too Restrained

DJANGO UNCHAINED Is All Too Restrained

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A plantation in the antebellum South is a perfect setting for a Quentin Tarantino film. His movies flip expectations, revealing gangsters as mundane chatterboxes and assassins as loving parents, transforming the would-be victims of murderous stalkers and World War II Nazis into forces of vengeance. So with Django Unchained, Tarantino takes aim at the mythology of the southern plantation through his genre-colliding structure to bathe the culture in his excessive style. The film is intermittently thrilling fun—the director is in complete control of his camera—yet for all its surface pleasures, it feels oddly unfocused. It rarely displays Tarantino’s ability to undermine or reinvent the familiar. Too often it feels like a film by one of his poor imitators.

In many ways, the structure of Django Unchained recalls Inglorious Basterds. It’s a mix of spaghetti western and blaxploitation that takes its title from the Sergio Corbucci film Django, and even features a cameo by its star, Franco Nero. The film begins with a shot of whip scars on the back of the titular Django, played by a quietly soulful Jamie Foxx, as he’s led across the landscape as part of a chain gang. Dr. King Schultz, a dentist played by Christoph Waltz, approaches the slave masters in the middle of a forest, using words such as parley and malarkey to intimidate them with his control of the English language. It turns out the good doctor is actually a bounty hunter who needs Django to identify his next targets. When Django’s owners turn down Schultz’s request, he turns this nighttime encounter into a bloody mess, sending our heroes on their way, and planting the seeds of black revenge.

In terms of sets and locations, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s most expansive film, but it features his most straightforward story. Django and Schultz first team up as bounty hunters across the South before deciding to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She’s being held captive by the vicious, maniacal slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, miscast) and Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s loyal servant Stephen, an Uncle Tom to the nth degree. Schultz and Django must perform in order to deceive their captors, hiding their shock at the violence and pain of slavery around them. Playacting in service of the job is a Tarantino signature (see Reservoir Dogs’s undercover cop posing as the bank robber Mr. Orange, the Pulp Fiction assassin Jules bellowing Biblical passages as a prelude to murder, and the various role-players in Inglorious Basterds). Django doesn’t come at this theme with nearly as much originality or verve, nor does it present its bloodshed in a way that comments upon the moviegoer’s attraction-repulsion to violence. The characters obsessively discuss the savagery onscreen and the way violence is commodified, but their observations never add up to a critique.

Tarantino’s initial concept is promising; one would think that if anyone could re-imagine the clichés of Spaghetti westerns and slavery exploitation pictures, he could. But because the outcome of this tale feels inevitable and telegraphed, there’s little at stake, and the characterizations are disappointingly one note, and don’t defy our expectations as thrillingly as some of his other creations. Although Foxx plays Django with a cool and calculated depth, the hero never seems more than an archetype at the center of a myth, and Washington, another excellent performer, is given even less to do as Django’s mate Broomhilda. As much fun as DiCaprio looks like he’s having shouting epithets, his character is still a bombastic cartoon—stylish and fun but rarely complex. Only Waltz and Jackson give their characters more complicated, dynamic shadings. The plot machinations eventually lead to violent battle at the plantation, but it takes so long that when it arrives, it seems more a peak of excess than a satisfying climax, and throughout, the film lacks most of the other elements that make his earlier work more than just flashy entertainment. The hero slays all those who perpetuate the culture of slavery, but after the apocalyptic finale of Basterds, the bloodbath feels rote.

Tarantino, the Man Who Loves Movies, is still a virtuoso with the camera, taking inspiration from his idols to craft thrilling and exciting scenes. Sergio Leone’s tight closeups, Corbucci’s zooms, John Ford’s vistas and Howard Hawks’ editing patterns are all in play throughout Django, and there are echoes of blaxploitation films, too, particularly Shaft and Superfly. His camera movements are bold, taking you right into the action, and with Robert Richardson as director of photography, Western iconography hasn’t looked as good since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The film also boasts some of Tarantino’s most violent action, which for him is saying a lot, and its point-of-view is squarely with the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Scenes of violence toward blacks have an intense visceral quality and are often shot in tortuous close-ups with a grainy, oversaturated texture; violence against whites often plays in long shots, which lend these scenes over-the-top comical quality.

Unfortunately, Tarantino’s proficiency stops with the visuals. He seems more interested in its surface pleasures than actually engaging with his text. The movie’s most subversive moment—a comical set piece involving a very game Don Johnson and the Ku Klux Klan—feels less like Tarantino than a deleted scene from Blazing Saddles, and the deliberately anachronistic use of rap and soul artists, including 2Pac, Rick Ross, and John Legend, feels more intrusive than organic. (None of the songs feel as strangely right as David Bowie’s “Cat People” did in Basterds.)

More puzzlingly, the verbal tangents, a Tarantino hallmark, fall flat. Those elongated discussions usually serve one of two purposes: They contribute to the creation of unique character moments later, as in the TV pilot discussion in Pulp Fiction or the lap dance narrative in Death Proof; or they suggest what is not being said in a scene and build tension, as in the German pub sequence in Inglorious Basterds. Django’s talk lacks such richness. Much of the dialogue in the film’s second half centers on discussions of how slaves’ strength is rated; it should cut to the heart of the film’s subject, but it only underlines how much Tarantino loves his own phrasing. By the time Candie gives us an anatomy lecture with a human skull, the film seems as if it’s trying to be bold for boldness’ sake, without giving much thought to its ultimate goal. What, if anything, is the filmmaker trying to say about race, racism and slavery throughout Django Unchained? It’s not clear. The film plays out the fantasy of African-American revenge to an appropriately bloody conclusion, but it all seems more passé than inventive, clever but never revolutionary.

The movie’s failures are all the more depressing when one considers how many great films Tarantino has made, and how his talent has evolved over time. Twenty years ago, he revived commercial cinema with an adrenaline shot to the heart, but any complexity or surprise Django Unchained might have had gets asphyxiated under Tarantino’s love of his own craft. The movie is technically impressive but never emotional, its flourishes are witty yet superficial, and over time it becomes tedious. A film involving this many sticks of dynamite should have been more powerful.

Peter Labuza is a film critic and blogger. He is the host of The Cinephiliacs, a podcast where he interviews the great cinephiles of our time. His written work has appeared in Indiewire, MNDialog, Film Matters, and the CUArts Blog. You can follow him on Twitter (@labuzamovies).

VIDEO ESSAY: ON THE Q.T.: Chapter 2: PULP FICTION (The Cool)

VIDEO ESSAY: ON THE Q.T.: Chapter 2: PULP FICTION (The Cool)

Quentin Tarantino’s films treat talk as action; torrents of words spill out of his characters' mouths, defining and redefining them, in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. Words as clay, the speaker as sculptor, the rest of the world as spectator, art critic, vandal: this vortex of monologue and dialogue draws the viewer into the curiously theatrical spectacle of people attempting to create, refine, and propagate their own mythology. They are what they say they are, and more, and less. They build themselves up, and the film does, too; then somebody else tears them down, and the film grinds the last remaining pieces of their fragile self-images into powder.

nullTarantino has been doing this from the start of his career, from the moment in Reservoir Dogs when the doomed Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino himself) waxed profane about the supposed true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” then promptly died of gunshot wounds behind the wheel of a getaway car. His second film, Pulp Fiction, moves this tendency into the foreground. Nearly all of the movie’s 150-minute running time features characters talking, talking, talking, about their personalities, their values, their world views, and about other characters, some of whom we don’t get to know—or even meet—for an hour or more. All the film’s major characters are modern, workaday cousins of the Great and Powerful Oz; the film builds them up by having others repeat their (often self-created) legends until they loom in our minds like phantoms, then tears away the curtain to reveal panicked little people desperately yanking levers. “Come on,” Jules tells Vincent in the film’s opening section, “let’s get into character.”

The gang boss Marsellus Wallace is granted a Col. Kurtz-level buildup. Jules and Vincent’s early dialogue about how he threw Tony Rocky Horror out of a window for giving his wife Mia a foot massage establishes that he’s not a man to be trifled with. In the film’s second section, Marsellus orders the boxer Butch to throw a fixed fight, but remains tantalizingly undefined. He’s a big, bald head with a Band-Aid on its neck—a totemic abstraction on par with the fabled briefcase, contents unknown, that emits hellish light when opened. We see him again from the back right after Butch pulls a double-cross, kills his opponent in the ring, and flees with the money he made by secretly betting on himself: again, no face, just a voice and some words. When we finally see Marsellus’ face 95 minutes into the movie, Tarantino instantly demystifies him as a burly man standing in a crosswalk holding a box of donuts—whereupon Butch runs him over. Marsellus’ first close-up represents Pulp Fiction’s storytelling strategy in microcosm: after all that advance press, he’s just a stranger bleeding on the street, his face framed upside-down as if to certify what we already suspected, that his mythology has been suddenly and violently flipped.

nullTarantino does this over and over again in Pulp Fiction. Mia Wallace is introduced as a sex goddess monitoring her date, Vincent, via surveillance cameras while mood-setting music (“Son of a Preacher Man”) thrums on the soundtrack, and then speaking to him through a microphone. Until Vincent’s car pulls into the parking lot of Jackrabbit Slims, she’s just a pair of lips and two bare feet, intriguing by virtue of her remoteness and sense of control. She seems a more strange and special person than the woman described earlier by Jules: a failed wannabe-star turned gangster’s trophy. “Some pilots get picked and become television programs,” Jules says. “Some don't, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.” But the date proves to be a complete disaster, as Mia mistakes Vincent’s heroin for cocaine while he’s in the bathroom and nearly dies of an overdose. And about that needle scene: Vincent and his drug dealer Lance’s terrified babbling about the right way to administer a heart injection refutes an earlier conversation in which they tried to make themselves seem like world-weary bad-asses. (Lance on his smack: “I'll take the Pepsi challenge with that Amsterdam shit, any day of the fuckin' week.” Vincent: “That’s a bold statement.”)

Vincent Vega creates a mythology of a globetrotting hipster on a voyage of self-exploration, but as the movie unreels, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s a bullshit artist whose main target of deception is himself. He can’t take criticism, advice or even notes from other people (“You have to ask me nicely,” he tells the man entrusted with cleaning up Vincent’s accidental shooting of Marvin). And when the film’s fractured chronology is rearranged in linear fashion, we realize that the poor bastard learned nothing from the According-to-Hoyle Miracle that stopped the bullets and spared his life. He dies on the toilet reading Modesty Blaise while his buddy Jules—who had a religious experience after the near-miss, and pledged to stop murdering people and “walk the Earth, like Caine in Kung Fu”—lives on. “I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee and replaying the incident in my head, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity,” he tells his friend, who’s locked away so deep inside his own mythology that he doesn’t recognize that Jules has just handed him a second chance, an opportunity to escape, to be free, to live.

null“There's this passage I got memorized,” Jules tells Pumpkin, the would-be diner robber who has dared to steal his “Bad Motherfucker” wallet. “Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.’ I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.” – Matt Zoller Seitz

Peter Labuza is a film critic and blogger. He is the host of The Cinephiliacs, a podcast where he interviews the great cinephiles of our time. His written work has appeared in Indiewire, MNDialog, Film Matters, and the CUArts Blog. You can follow him on Twitter (@labuzamovies).
 

Matt Zoller Seitz is a co-founder of Press Play.

EYE OPENERS: Peter Labuza’s THE CINEPHILIACS, A New Podcast

EYE OPENERS: Peter Labuza’s THE CINEPHILIACS, A New Podcast

In the last twenty years, film culture and cinephilia specifically have radically changed and altered the way we watch and think about film. Today, cinephiles come in all different shapes and forms. They watch films at theaters but also on DVDs and from streaming sites. Their taste might by low budget horror films or Romanian cinema or animated films. There’s no end to what form and shape a cinephile might be today.

So who are these cinephiles? How did they become interested in film? And what makes them so passionate about this medium? I started The Cinephiliacs back in July as a longform interview show where I could talk with those who have made it their life to explore cinema. Think of the show as “WTF With Marc Maron,” except with cinephiles in the chair. Matt Seitz, who was on episode #2, has kindly offered to cross-promote the show here and I'm glad to bring this show to the Press Play audience. I'm now on the fifth episode, which includes a great talk with Bilge Ebiri about his work as a film critic and filmmaker, as well as a long discussion of one of his favorite film, Barry Lyndon. I hope you enjoy the show, and please subscribe in iTunes, where you can see all the previous episodes and receive new episodes as they're released. — Peter Labuza

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Click here to download the episode

“I’d like to think while I’m watching a film, I try and approach it on its own terms. I think to myself, ‘What is the review this movie wants? And what is the review this movie is going to get?’ But really it’s about asking, what is the ideal version of this movie? What is it trying to be and to what extent does it get there?”

New York Magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri loves films that he can constantly revisit and pry into more and more deeply, so Peter has no problem prying into Bilge’s own head for his conversation on The Cinephiliacs. Bilge talks about his early exposure to the Hollywood New Wave in Turkey as a young boy, and then traces his cinephilia through his desires to trying to become a filmmaker (including working on a film by Nikita Mikhalkov) before finding his voice as a critic. The two then discuss his love of films that indulge their wildest pleasures, some of his favorite auteurs (a list that includes Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan side by side), and his own feature film, New Guy. Finally, the two dive into the truly daunting task of investigating Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Barry Lyndon and trying to make sense of a film that asks us to identify with “The Past,” yet always undercuts and manifests itself as something even more audacious.

0:00-4:48 Opening / Establishing Shots – Film Vs. Digital

5:04-1:14:17 Deep Focus – Bilge Ebiri

1:15:13-1:45:31 Double Exposure – Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)

1:45:32-1:47:58 Close / Outtake

VIDEO ESSAY: DIAL K FOR KUROSAWA

VIDEO ESSAY: Dial K for Kurosawa

The perfect crime, the wrong man, the speeding train, and the surprising MacGuffin. High and Low has all the best elements of a great Alfred Hitchcock film. But it isn’t Hitchcock—it’s Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director better known for his samurai flicks and complex moral tales.

When Kurosawa adapted works of Western fiction, he often chose from the greats: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Gorky. But High and Low (1963) is not adapted from a literary giant or even a Japanese author, but a minor 1950s American pulp novel entitled King’s Ransom by Ed McBain. King’s Ransom was part of a series of novels following the stories of the 87th police precinct, and while it has its literary qualities, the novel’s style bears no resemblance to the serious tone and moral complexity of Kurosawa’s film.

However, one director in Western cinema made his entire career through the meshing of high and low art: Hitchcock. The master’s reputation stemmed from spinning popular murder and suspense stories while engaging critics and scholars with morbid and psychological themes. High and Low feels as much indebted to Hitchcock as Kurosawa’s samurai films show the influence of John Ford’s westerns. Like Hitchcock, Kurosawa explores the roles of duality, ubiquitous guilt, and the incapacity to understand evil in a frightening and ultimately despairing fashion. High and Low ultimately paints a disturbing portrait of humanity, where evil simply exists within each person without explanation, creating a world similar to the sadistic one Hitchcock often presented.

The film seems ripe for comparison to Hitchcock from the opening shot, as the camera never leaves the home of Gondo. Like Rope, Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder, and especially Rear Window, Kurosawa limits himself by never staging a sequence outside of Gondo’s mansion—even the credits are framed from the large window looking down. Other classic Hitchcock tropes play large roles in the film: a train—essential in the narratives of North by Northwest and Shadow of a Doubt—literally bridges the two sections of the film. And we can see intense shadows, symbolic staircases, voyeurism, and grotesque death, other Hitchcock trademarks.

But High and Low’s most noted motif is the use of doubles and opposites as a sign of similarities between good and evil. Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Frenzy, and countless other Hithcock works explored this topic, and Kurosawa forges the same relationship between Gondo and Takeuchi. Kurosawa foreshadows the duality with the use of the two children, who are so identical that Gondo’s wife confuses them when they switch clothes while playing cops and robbers. The children’s outer appearance might suggest their societal roles, but under the surface, both Gondo and Takeuchi are both conniving and malicious—Gondo simply confines his immoral practices to business.

Kurosawa builds this philosophy into the film’s structure. Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, the narrative breaks into two parts with a protagonists in the center of each part. The film’s first half centers around Gondo and his moral dilemma of whether to save Shinichi. The second half of the film focuses on Takeuchi, operating on an opposing plane. Set in multiple locations, often with crowded frames, the genre of the film changes from morality play to police procedural in this part. The film bears down on Takeuichi’s story—his background, identity, and methodology—as the cops investigate and arrest him. When Gondo and Takeuchi meet face-to-face in the film’s final scene, Kurosawa uses the glass to literally reflect their faces onto each other, a technique that recalls the penultimate shot of Psycho as Norman’s mother’s face is superimposed over Norman’s.

So why does such a fate fall on Gondo? In High and Low, the kidnapping narrative is not just set up as coincidence, but as a fate that Gondo is punished for. As soon as the Osaka deal is set, Takeuchi calls almost immediately with news of the kidnapping. The placement of the phone is made to seem not like coincidence but fate—even one of the rival businessmen later reflects that it was “divine retribution.” Gondo hasn’t done anything terribly wrong, but he does recall Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest.. Before Thornhill becomes a case of mistaken identity (as Shinichi is here), we watch him pretending his secretary is ill, to grab a taxi quicker. Thornhill likes playing pretend, and thus his punishment is an extreme version of that.

Plus, Gondo’s not the only one to be punished. During the first half, Akoi, Gondo’s driver, seems like a humble man who deserves to have his son back. But in the second half, we see how poorly he treats his child, and that perhaps deserves the shame. And during the film’s harrowing alley sequence, we watch an addict suffer at the hands of Takeuchi. Her death seems inevitable, but it only happens because the police, the men responsible with her protection, allow it to happen so they may arrest Takeuchi. As Kurosawa’s camera shoots up to reveal her discarded body on the floor, he reveals that the height of evil is also its lowest point.

These ubiquitous punishments of the not-so-innocent relate to the worldview that both Hitchcock and Kurosawa seem to subscribe to: an evil that is ever prevalent and simply incapable of explanation. In Hitchcock, evil is often presented as kindness and without any precise motivation. Psycho’s famous psychiatrist speech has always had a humorous tone to it, more than one of essential exposition. And what motivation could one even begin to ascribe to the titular animals of The Birds?

In the second half of the film, the main narrative tension derives from the mystery surrounding the identity of the kidnapper and his rationale. The fact that High and Low leaves the spectator with an unsatisfactory answer is only more significant in examining the evil that surrounds the film. Takeuchi turns out to be a simple medical intern who is also a drug dealer, but nothing establishes him as a unique case. In the last sequence, he reveals that he wanted Gondo present to show that he was not afraid to die, but he soon screams in anguish, making him more pathetic than villainous.

The final moment in High and Low, where Gondo stares at his own image, answers the question of where such evil lies. Hitchcock suggested this answer too, but so often, his endings left us with a smile. Kurosawa never mentioned the influence of Hitchcock in any of his interviews, but I can’t imagine watching this modern day crime story and not think of the master of suspense. Kurosawa may have seen Hitchcock’s cinema, but instead of exiting the theater with a smile, he would have left with a chilled face.

And whatever happened to Ed McBain, the author who inspired this masterpiece? His real name was Evan Hunter, and he went on to write a little film called The Birds.

Peter Labuza is a film writer in New York City, originally from Minnesota. He has written for Indiewire, Film Matters, the CUArts Blog, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and MNDialog. He will be attending Columbia University in the fall for a Master in Film Studies, focusing on the history of American film genres. He currently blogs about film at www.labuzamovies.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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In 2011, the New Zealand Film Archive discovered part of The White Shadow, a film directed by Graham Cutts, and written, edited, and assistant directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. The first three reels of this lost work have been arduously restored, but the film has only had a single public screening. For this year’s For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, we are asking for donations to the National Film Preservation Foundation. If we can raise $15,000, the Foundation will provide free streaming of The White Shadow for four months, and record a new score by Michael Motilla. To donate, simply click here. And for more information on the blogathon, please visit Ferdy on Films, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod. Every donation counts, and we thank you for your continued support of film.