Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Tarantino Unplugged: “Django Unchained”

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Quentin Tarantino dramatizes the process of filmmaking more religiously than any American auteur since Orson Welles.

“I really think I have about 10 more years of being an artist with the vitality I have right now,” Tarantino recently told the New York Times. “And at 10 years from now I think you will still see a complete umbilical cord from “Reservoir Dogs” to whatever the last movie that I end up doing is… I want to risk hitting my head on the ceiling of my talent.”

What’s remarkable about Tarantino, both as a personality and an artist, is his capacity to be at once highly self-conscious and blithely devoid of self-awareness. Everything, as he noted, is set in “Tarantino world.” Each new release is heralded by a year or more of pre-publicity, followed by a round of interviews in which the writer-director enthusiastically discusses his particular sources and references, locates this latest movie’s place in his oeuvre (as well as movie history), elaborates on his methodology, reiterates his position on violence, and refines his theory of cinema.

“Django Unchained,” which opens Christmas Day (America’s Christmas present to itself) synthesizes Tarantino two favorite ‘70s genres, spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation flicks; it also continues the relative maturity of Tarantino’s last movie in that it purports to be about something beyond its author’s fervent cinephilia. As “Inglourious Basterds” constructed a blatantly movie-centric fantasy about the Holocaust, so “Django Unchained”—which stars Jamie Foxx in the title role—is a movie about the American crime of slavery. It’s less successful in my view but not for want of trying.

Set, mainly in the South, on the eve of the Civil War, “Django Unchained” is a lot slacker than need be, but otherwise has all the Tarantino trademarks. The mayhem is exuberantly choreographed, the humor is daringly absurd, the characters are entertainingly garrulous, and the performances are almost uniformly flamboyant. While Foxx underplays his role (remaining largely deadpan as his liberated slave grows increasingly badass, adopting shades and an attitude to match, as the movie progresses), the supporting players are all but drooling over theirs. Christoph Waltz plays a jolly German bounty hunter with less restraint than he required for his affably evil SS man in “Inglourious Basterds”; the movie’s two major villains, Leonardo DiCaprio’s suavely monstrous slave-owner and his nearly as horrendous major domo, Tarantino axiom Samuel L. Jackson, are themselves largely unchained in their portrayals.

Although the movie begins with a few choruses of the original “Django” song and flurry of spaghetti western tropes (percussive zooms and cheesy sunbursts), it’s in no way a parody. The initial round of vengeance becomes altogether less amusing once the movie decides to settle down on DiCaprio’s plantation (a country club in the heart of darkness, named, in a typical Tarantino gag, Candyland). The body count escalates as the spectacle turns to bloody “Mandingo fighting,” but perhaps that’s the point.

Say this for Tarantino. Unlike the makers of “Dark Zero Thirty,” he has not the slightest ambivalence regarding the brutal truths of American history. In a way, he even enjoys them.

Image: Weinstein Bros.

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