Smash Cuts is a continuing series in which two members of the Walker’s Film & Video department go head-to-head on a divisive film, debating its various faults and merits. For our inaugural edition, Jeremy Meckler and Matt Levine discuss Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Warning: here be spoilers!
Matt: Obviously if you’re going into a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you’re going to get graphic hyperviolence, a rewriting of both cinematic and real-world history, and a subversion of one of the director’s favorite genres: exploitation flicks from the 1960s and ‘70s. So I wasn’t as outraged by the premise of Django Unchained — in which Jamie Foxx’s former slave teams up with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to kill white slaveowners and racists in the Antebellum-era Deep South — as some other people were (Spike Lee most publicly), though the underlying premise is unsettling (is it possible to make a badass revenge flick while remaining sensitive to this country’s insidious racial history and its unsettling aftereffects?).
After seeing the movie, though, it really does seem like Tarantino doesn’t have the ambition or the intelligence to indulge his fanboy tendencies while simultaneously saying something insightful or original about the knotty issue of race in American history. So my dislike for the film isn’t based on moral outrage or indignation at his insensitivity, since it’s obvious that Tarantino isn’t even trying to open up a dialogue about this tempestuous issue. But that seriously weakens my respect for Tarantino as a filmmaker (which is already only middling) and makes me question my enthusiasm for Inglourious Basterds, which I thought was a clever but precarious deconstruction of the integral roles that media and storytelling play in popular conceptions of history. It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of “post-race,” which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected — though anyone who thinks modern America is colorblind is oblivious to incarceration rates (and how they differ between whites and blacks) and to the widening racial and economic segregation in many urban areas.
“It’s almost like Tarantino is so postmodern that he subscribes to the empty notion of ‘post-race,’ which assumes that we live in a world that’s transcended racial divides and in which unique racial experiences no longer have to be respected…”
Jeremy: For me, I was not at all interested in the debate as to whether or not Django Unchained would enhance discussion about race relations in the United States. There have been so many films whose purpose has been to illustrate the very real racial inequities inherent in the culture, and the collective memory of the nation is certainly tied to a contemporary erasure of the horrors of those race relations. But, the thing about those films is that, though critically acclaimed, most of them suck (I’m thinking most specifically of Crash here) and none of them have managed to change the institutional and personal prejudices people face daily. School segregation and economic inequality seem to be increasing, not decreasing, not to mention the startlingly high incarceration and arrest rate differences across racial lines, but no movie, be it a mainstream critical darling like Crash or a deliberately provocative Blaxploitation-inspired-western epic like Django Unchained can make a dent in those problems. So I’m just not interested in judging this film by its ability to initiate discussions about race, whatever Quentin Tarantino may have said in interviews.
But, looking at the film itself, I think it has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving. Tarantino’s films, so often praised for their “realist” dialogue, are so far from that, existing in a space so far from the real world, and so deep into minute obsession with the formal aspects of a particular era of studio production, that imitators consistently fail to keep up. I like Tarantino precisely for this, for his obsession, his use of bricolage and homage, and the way his films talk about issues from the perspective of living inside a 70’s film.
“[Django Unchained] has nothing to do with accurate historical portrayal or with the current situation in our culture. Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving.”
And Django Unchained is one of his best in blending its particular combinations of styles and influences. It owes much of its style to the first revisionist westerns, the ultraviolent and morally complex films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, but it incorporates aspects from all over Tarantino’s library of influences. It has a lot of Blaxploitation in it, particularly a scene in which Jamie Foxx is chained up in a shack full of southern whites that could be copied nearly shot for shot from a scene in Foxy Brown. It also has a lot of deliberate Looney Toons cartoon violence, particularly in Tarantino’s strange cameo in an outrageously bad Australian accent. But beyond its charming blend of influences, the life-blood of Tarantino’s style, this film brings in some incredibly sweet moments between Waltz and Foxx. It’s a great buddy cop picture that happens to be set in the deep south during the wild west era.
Matt: You’re right that the best part of the movie by far is the rapport between Foxx and Waltz, and you’re also right that Crash is awful. I definitely didn’t want another highfalutin message movie about racial tolerance, and I had no misconceptions that Django Unchained could or should do anything to rectify the immense racial conflicts that still exist (have always existed) in this country. That being said, Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been. I’m not a big fan of Kill Bill Volume 2, but at least in that movie Bea starts to come to the realization that eye-for-an-eye vengeance might not be as unproblematically gratifying as she had assumed. With Django Unchained, on the other hand, we’re supposed to be titillated and satisfied with the graphic (though, as you mentioned, Looney Toons-esque) violence that piles up in the last hour, including at least two men that are shot in the genitals and a woman who is comically blasted out of one scene by Django’s shotgun.
“Tarantino’s infatuation with revenge storylines, indebted though they are to blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, is more juvenile and simplistic than it’s ever been.”
Aside from any question of racial sensitivity, Django Unchained‘s glorification of violence reveals not only a deluded view of human behavior, but also a filmmaker who seems to be running out of tricks. (I know Django Unchained is celebrated for its originality, but seriously, what does it have that we haven’t already witnessed in at least one Tarantino film?) He borrows some stylistic traits from Peckinpah and Leone, and even some broad plot points, but their treatment of violence is wholly different: Harmonica’s vengeance in Once Upon a Time in the West is carried out with a grim sobriety, as though he has nothing left to live for so he might as well embrace hopeless violence; and Straw Dogs is all about how vengeance can chillingly turn a man into a sadistic monster. As opposed to Django Unchained, which ends with a massacre followed by Django and Broomhilda von Shaft reveling in the carnage as though they’re in post-coital bliss. The movie is indeed supposed to take place in some kind of hermetically-sealed Movieland that has nothing at all to do with reality, but it’s not that simple; movies aren’t released into a vacuum. Django Unchained, in my opinion, operates at the lowest level of postmodernism, which suggests that nothing really matters in reality any more, so we might as well embrace a wholly artificial, mediated world.
Jeremy: Here’s where we differ, I think. Tarantino’s films are definitely postmodern and supremely intertextual. You would have to be a bigger geek than I am (if you can even imagine that) to identify all of the visual and narrative references that Tarantino packs in here for his fellow geeks, fetishists, and lonely purveyors at the few remaining video stores. But just because this world is fake, doesn’t mean that nothing in reality matters. I think it’s exactly the opposite, and that his films use their own shiny exterior to talk about concepts in interesting ways. Tarantino’s garish, polished, stylized universe is one that foregrounds its own artificiality, the way that modern art started to do at the turn of the twentieth century. The film is not intended to be watched as a document of history, and since it is so phony, it can’t really be read that way, even if most of the mainstream critique of the film has come from this camp.
Yes, there are probably historical inaccuracies in the film’s setting and characters; the most commonly leveled one (by a variety of historians and critics) is that the ultra-barbaric and near-unthinkable sport of mandingo fighting never existed. But I think what’s remarkable about this film and much of Tarantino’s work, is just that it really doesn’t matter whether it is “true” in the real world. The sentiment of the characters in his phony universe shines through, and his thesis is strengthened by its unbelievability. Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative. The alternative to this film, in my mind, is to put forward something realist that brings up the same issues, and that might be an interesting proposition too, but realist work is just as fake as stylized work. They are both films, just films shot in different styles. And isn’t a willingness to display its own means of production at the heart of modernism, not post-modernism?
“Watching a cartoonized, glorified scene of violence and gore on the subject of slavery is a way to think about that unthinkable subject, not because of the conversations it starts about slavery here in the real world, but because that moment of comparison between the real-world horror of slavery and a juvenile revenge plot allows a space to imagine the alternative [treatment].”
What’s more, this film, more than any of Tarantino’s earlier work, enlarges the gap between itself and reality by injecting a-historical moments, super stylized violence, and a ragged storyline together to create a setting, which no viewer can take for historical. So I think you’re mostly right that Django Unchained is a part of Tarantino’s vague and unexplained obsession with revenge plotlines, it is in no way original or new to his work, and many of its characters are flat photocopies of characters from other Spaghetti Westerns, but that is what makes it a strong film. And though it certainly isn’t much different from some of Tarantino’s other films, largely Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, and Jackie Brown, it is as well crafted as any of them. Django Unchained certainly has its failings, and I do think Basterds and Jackie Brown are both much better movies, but it does some things remarkably well, and does it with style, beauty (in parts) and some genuine Hitchcockian suspense.
Matt: Your comparison between Tarantino’s artificiality and that of modern art in the early 20th century is a very good point, although I think their historical contexts make all the difference: the formalist art from a century ago was responding to a Romanticist tradition that was dedicated to a faithful (or at least emotionally cohesive) portrayal of reality, whereas in today’s world we’ve been inundated with mediated artifice for decades. In other words, whereas the formalism of early modern art was breaking the artistic mold, today that kind of self-reflexive artifice is commonplace (witness the majority of television comedies today, for example Family Guy, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Glee, Modern Family, Community, etc.).
In terms of the historical accuracy of Django Unchained, I’m not really concerned with specific inaccuracies and definitely don’t think the movie should be read as a document of history; but I am concerned with the movie’s indifference towards the overall trauma of slavery. I wish I could agree that the combination of cartoonish, glorified violence and highly disturbing scenes of racial brutality offers “a way to think about that unthinkable subject [and] allows a space to imagine the alternative” to this kind of artifice, but I think the common interpretation is the other way around: watching that cartoonish violence side-by-side with scenes (albeit partially offscreen) of slaves getting ripped apart by bloodthirsty guard dogs or mandingo fighters gouging out each other’s eyes and getting offed with a hammer conflates these wildly different brands of violence, as though racial hostility is just another artificial trope for filmmakers to recycle into their own deconstructionist gimmick. This was partially true of Inglorious Basterds too, but not nearly to the same extent: imagine if Tarantino had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained? And while you’re right that a film about slavery in a more realist vein would be just as heavily mediated as Django Unchained, its effect on the audience would not be one of escapism and mollification, but (perhaps) an effect of introspection and unease. Django Unchained is certainly well-made, stylish, and visually beautiful—but in this case I don’t think that’s enough.
“Imagine if Tarantino [in Inglourious Basterds] had balanced his goofy revision of World War II history with actual scenes of Jews being ushered into the showers or their corpses carted off by the dozens. He seems to have been aware that his kind of self-reflexive artifice comes off as heartless when paired with actual historical atrocity, so why is he comfortable including similar-minded scenes in Django Unchained?”
Jeremy: Maybe you’re right, and I’m just a sucker for style. I love the tight, visually beautiful, and heavily stylized moments in this film just like I love the spaghetti westerns that they pay homage to. But, I don’t think you’re right to say that this film reacts with indifference toward the trauma of slavery. Take a look, for instance, at the film’s most charismatic character, Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Shultz. This is a character so disgusted by American slavery that he literally throws his life away only to kill a despised slave owner, and edify his sense of pure horror when faced with the reality of slavery. This moment actually makes little narrative sense, and feels relatively disjunctive in an otherwise tightly plotted enterprise, but I think it shows the film’s core, which is a strong refusal to accept this evil practice.
Perhaps there are indeed things and images too sacred, too intrinsically awful and unthinkable to be portrayed in Tarantino’s admittedly sloshy style, and if there are, then slavery may indeed be one of them. But I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery. The film hates the institution of slavery so much that it finds it necessary to show some gruesome images of its horrors, and some disgusting rhetoric, particularly Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s speech about the phrenological justifications for slavery. What you see as a trivialization of slavery seems to me to be a sign of respect to its massive and terrible influence. It is exactly to avoid producing a mollifying or escapist film that those vile images and ideas are necessary. Absolutely those scenes are incredibly distasteful, but that’s their intent. I have a hard time believing that anyone walked out of that theater the same way they would have walked out of a real escapist film, like Avatar, or that anyone really thought that they walked into another moment in history. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that that’s what all the style and gauche camerawork is for, to make sure that people cannot take this revisionist tale for reality. And the truth that lives outside the film, unseen (like much of that gruesome scene with the dogs) and implied through the narrative, is more terrible. This film reclaims history, rather than portraying it, but by doing so does that somehow negate history’s influence? I don’t think so.
“I think criticizing this film for being revisionist or for being stylized is not dealing with it on its own terms. Certainly this film is unseemly, and probably in poor taste, but its vulgarity comes from the same place as Shultz’s misplaced sacrifice, a complete disgust and rejection of the ideas behind slavery.”
Certainly this film is closer to Blazing Saddles than it is to Lincoln, but through its stylized parody, it gets at something a bit deeper, while remaining beautiful, very funny at times, stylish, and entertaining for those who can hold their screen gore.