Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino gets away with a lot in Hollywood. It appears he’s even celebrated for what he can get away with – the latest of which being the Oscar nod to Django Unchained in the Best Picture category. While his latest film is in no uncertain terms great, I’m hesitant to say it’s the Best Picture of the year… yet.

If you know Tarantino’s schtick, you’ve seen all of his other films; Django Unchained shouldn’t be surprising in any ways. QT creates each of his “new” films by arduously selecting only the best bits and pieces of a cinema long-gone and tying it all together in a story that is ripe with exposition, dialogue and graphic imagery. In this case, one bit he’s carefully selected from the annals of cinema history is the title and title character.

Django Unchained

The original Django (from 1966, directed by Sergio Corbucci) had nothing to do with the Antebellum South or slavery, but it did have a man tortured by the loss of his woman who was also on a vengeful quest to get her back. One of my first disappointments with Tarantino’s film was the surprising lack of startling imagery as compared to many of his previous works. In this film, his usual cinematographer Robert Richardson and he, seemed to be a little less inspired with the visuals. For example, the opening imagery in Sergio Corbucci’s Django is of the titular character dragging behind him a coffin on a rope. Unchained opens with Django’s character walking in the woods tied to a group of other slaves – granted – also a powerful image you’d think, but not in the way it’s presented here, dark and expected, and even more, it’s an image that’s been burned into an American’s psyche forever. In this respect, I almost find myself having to agree with Spike Lee in his protestation at Unchained’s release, to leave this topic alone – almost.

That issue aside, the first three-quarters of the film had me pretty much hooked and under his spell. I commend Tarantino on what he’s succeeding to say with the story, but then by the end, when he goes for the simplistic, tie-up-every-loose-end-of-the-story-with-a-ridiculous-gunfight (very much akin to the final scene in True Romance or the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill), my interest and appreciation quickly began to wane.

The thing about Tarantino’s films are they confidently take themselves very seriously. It’s why arguments are easy to make with Unchained about its use of the word “nigger” and its over-the-top violence. As for the word “nigger,” I’ll admit, I was a little taken aback by its gratuitous use from the first scenes forward in Unchained, but at the same time, I know that’s because I’ve been conditioned to be repelled by that word – a seemingly more disrespectful and distasteful slur now-a-days than, say, calling someone a “bitch” or a  “fuck.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be repelled by the use of one derogatory slur, we should be repelled by them all equally. Historically though, I know the use of the word “nigger” was a real and extremely prevalent thing (and to some extent, unfortunately still is), and therefore, even though QT uses it to his cultish, slightly perverse pleasure here, it’s not without point or reason. For much of the violence, however, I cannot say the same.

Django Unchained

Violence in the cinema has never been an issue to me; cinema is all fantasy no matter how you look at it, but it’s the new breed of violence in films (most of it re-invigorated by the torture-porn musings of films like Hostel, Saw and basically any “horror movie” from Asia in the past decade-and-a-half) that turns me off of filmmaking in general. Much of Tarantino’s brand of gun violence is point blank with plenty of maiming. When it works for the story, I can accept it and move on, but when it’s just random and unsubstantiated, I find myself getting bored. The final shootouts in Django Unchained are very over-the-top. Although someone will likely argue that I shouldn’t keep comparing them, the final shootout in Corbucci’s Django was equally over-the-top, but so much more acceptable (maybe not believable) – and just plain cool. Franco Nero, the actor who plays that original Django, after having his hands crushed to the point where he can’t hardly hold a gun, much less shoot it, musters the will and strength to bite through the trigger guard on his pistol and then by pressing the exposed trigger up against a gravestone, and using his gimp hand to hit the hammer back, he cleans out a cemetery full of bad guys all by himself.

Jamie Foxx’s Django has a far less impressive final shootout, although also equally unbelievable. Hardly even grazed by a bullet in a barrage of fire at him, he dives under a wooden wardrobe that is toppled over and despite it then being riddled with bullets – which indeed appear to be piercing the wood – he is not even showing a scratch once he emerges. It’s only that he runs out of ammo that he is even stopped and gives himself up. While I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino remains firmly planted in plausible territory with his action sequences in all his films, Unchained’s final shootouts seem a little haphazard and too “easy.”

As usual, the characters in Unchained are full, colorful and engaging. The highlights here are most certainly Leonardo DiCaprio as a young owner of one of the largest plantations in the South, his house slave, played by a well made-up Samuel L. Jackson and, of course, the always coolly hilarious and ebullient, Christoph Waltz as, quite literally, the only white man in the Antebellum time period to “abhor slavery,” aptly named Dr. King (Schultz). Upon just hearing the name for the first time in the movie, it brought a smile to my face.

Despite some of its drawbacks, Tarantino’s film is a much needed respite from the overwrought, striving-to-be-historically-accurate period pieces that normally tackle subjects as large, sensitive and America-centric as the Civil War and slavery, in that it allows audiences to actually enjoy a movie, while still also getting the gist of what was egregiously wrong about that time period in America’s history, and poking fun at how far (and in some cases, how not-so-far) we’ve come since then. Too bad Spielberg never had the balls to do that.

Straw Dogs

The first film I’d ever seen by Sam Peckinpah was 1971’s Straw Dogs. I chose to view no other Peckinpah films before it because the director (who’s notorious for violent, allegedly misogynistic films) seemed to receive the most negative feedback on this particular picture. As a result, I didn’t want to taint my eyes with the other “violent” films in Peckinpah’s oeuvre, until I’d had the visceral initiation without any prior knowledge of his style. I now know that I probably should have started with The Wild Bunch or at least Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.

Actually, I say that last bit in jest more than with sincerity, since I’d wager that Straw Dogs, while maybe not as obviously blood splatteringly violent, is likely the cruelest look at gender, marriage and small town society ever burned into celluloid.


What came of this initial viewing was the subsequent scraping of my lower jaw from off the floor. The exhausting film stars a post-Graduate Dustin Hoffman as David, a seemingly brilliant mathematician (who I speculate suffered from A.D.D. before it was so easily diagnosed). David moves to rural England with his gorgeous wife Amy (Susan George). This presents an immediate feeling of foreignness for him and his Einstein mind cannot deal with both the social ramifications of the move and the next Nobel prizing winning problem he is computing. What stood out about this movie above many other things, is how it basically built on the premise of a horror film (or thriller even), yet was thematically structured and filmed like a Western.

Self-assurance is a defining character trait for all the characters in the story, and it is reflected in various degrees; this is what makes the plot fit the horror genre so well. No one thinks twice before they act. The “monsters” are inherently confident and are seen as reacting to both social unacceptability and foreignness. Their “victims” exhibit the two most genre specific emotional traits in horror films: superficiality and carelessness, while the “hero/heroine” displays two more: discontent and (one or more) redeemable qualities of which they are ashamed.

Most impressive? The fact that every main character on screen is monster and victim and hero or heroine.

Violence Is Sexy

Although it had always been prevalent in cinema, violence was only becoming glorified and exploited in the early 1970s. As far back as 1903 the ending in The Great Train Robbery is that of a pistol barrel pointed at a viewer. Film noirs of the 30s, 40s, and 50s only took it to another, somewhat respectable level, while the shock-and-schlock horror films of that time slid to the opposite end of the spectrum.

The 60s, a time of radical change in the world, produced yet another breed of on-screen violence, by gradually throwing in sex, nudity and other easily identifiable exploitations to further muddy the waters. One sub-genre that was taking a firm hold of on-screen violence was the slasher film, proposing a dark reflection of society typically through one character’s actions on a number of characters who were staples or stereotypes of the rapidly evolving American and European societies.

Alfred Hitchcock was the director most notable in pioneering this sub-genre with his indelible mark on celluloid that is Psycho. But more importantly, it was little known films like The Toolbox Murders or Driller Killer which helped this burgeoning sub-genre explode into the onslaught of slasher films the 80s produced. Films like Friday the 13th maybe wouldn’t have been possible if not for the inspiration of ones like, say, Bloodbath.

There’s something intrinsically frightening to a society where only one individual is a threat. At the same time though, there’s something utterly captivating about an individual who could pose a threat to an entire society, and the 80s capitalized on this idea as well, spinning it off into Predator, Die Hard and Rambo, where one man stands as both savior and menace.

Generally, horror films appear in greatest amount during or after a time of war, so it’s conceivable that during a war such as that in Vietnam, where a society finds itself in an opinionated divide, the horror genre, always in flux, should begin to peak once again. Just look at the last seven or eight years.

In the late 60s films were trying to shape the way audiences perceived life, society — the world, and were subsequently slapped on the wrist while critically applauded (e.g. Midnight Cowboy). Gritty realism was in full swing during this time and was spilling into the early 70s, so much so one could almost feel the slime on the streets of New York (just read some of the the article below).

Politics of cinema were vastly changing during this tumultuous time, especially in the horror and drama genres; in fact, by the mid 80s horror (and its many sub-genres) would be the most produced (and rapidly produced, at that) films of any genre! 1971-72, I propose, was the catalyst for this horror film explosion, due to a concentrated collection of four films which were typically filtered out of being considered in the “horror film” genre.

Through the future articles on this blog Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972), Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) will be carefully (open to debate) dissected. Subsequent comparison of the parts to circulating ideals, morals and motifs of those years will show that society is reflected in horror films as an instrument of aversion; and therefore, this genre can thrive in times when society needs to reflect upon itself in order to find something, anything, which could be more frightening.