7 Random Thoughts on “Django Unchained”

09Jan13

Some feelings I’ve had, and here they are, I said in typing words:

1.) The Post-Oscar Let Down. I can’t help it, but I feel a little let down by “Django Unchained.” There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which could be my own personal hang-ups about stuff (and more on that later), but there’s a similarity in the Tarantino canon that I cannot overlook: the same thing happened with “Jackie Brown.”

“Pulp Fiction” was heralded for taking amazing risks and liberties with movie making, earned seven Oscar nominations and nabbed one.

Similar treatment was bestowed upon “Inglourious Basterds.” While it maybe wasn’t taken as such a breath of fresh air as “Fiction,” “Basterds” also took (and received praise for) risks involved with the storytelling and got a bunch of Oscar buzz (8 nominations, 1 win).

Tarantino followed “Fiction” with “Jackie Brown,” which focused on an African-American main character, used the N-word over 100 times, and even starts with that titular character walking in profile. Just as “Django Unchained” does. Both films utilize two of Scorsese’s favorite actors in bad guy roles (DeNiro and DiCaprio), and both films feel a little longer than they need to be. I get that an artist goes through periods of exploration, and that’s fine, but it’s too similar not to note. 

2.) Where are the great scenes? I was also a little let down by the lack of fantastic scenes, which sounds like a high demand, but this is the legacy Tarantino has built for himself. If I were to make a list of the best Tarantino scenes*, I cannot think of which ones would come from “Django Unchained.” Maybe on a second viewing and more meditation.

3.) What’s at stake? The same thing that was at stake from the beginning. I’d have to watch it again, but it seems like it starts out with Django wanting to free his wife and ends with… Django freeing his wife. I feel a lack of nuance to the story. Perhaps it’s a want-vs.-need thing going on that I’m missing, and maybe I’m just too academic on the whole thing. But the point is that the road doesn’t deviate too much. Django gets handed a lot of stuff, they set out on their plan, it goes badly (to be expected) and then he perseveres.

4.) It’s shot like a comedy. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I’m making this aside, because the whole Random Thoughts section of this blog could often be retitled “Random Complaints,” and I don’t mean it to be. I enjoyed this movie, but it’s definitely not a Leone western (not that it needs to be). In fact there are many laughs to be had, both out-and-out jokes and the kind of “this is fun” giggles that I have come to value more and more. There are a few shots of Epic Epicness to be had (Django standing under the Weeping Willows, for example). One of the best scenes is the KKK arguing about hood-hole sizes straight out of “Blazing Saddles.” There are a few reveals to be used as Comedy Filmmaking 101.

So back to the complaining: I have been in a place where I WANT that Epic Epicness Leone harnessed with his Dollars Trilogy.

5.) The Ghost of Will Smith. I felt him here. There’s some famous story that Tarantino sought Will Smith for the title role. And that would’ve been huge, in a way. It would have been kind of amazing to see Will Smith in something so nasty and underground (as underground as something like this can be; y’know, compared to “Men In Black 3”). And as much as I enjoyed Jamie Foxx’s performance, I couldn’t help thinking about how different the movie would have been with the Biggest Movie Star in the World in there. It would have changed everything. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as good, or better. But it wouldn’t have been the same, for certain.

6.) The Ghost of Sally Menke. A true ghost, if I can say that. She had edited all of Tarantino’s movies, and considering what a motormouth overwriter Tarantino tends to be, it’s no stretch of the imagination that she had a considerable hand in making these movies more streamlined. One might even argue she helped make some of them great.  And while my “OK, sure…” reception to “Django” set in, I wondered how Menke’s hand would have influenced my feelings.

7.) My own hang-ups. My main complaint would be about Django himself, but in complaining this way, I am being petty when you take things in a historical context. This is the second movie in a row where Tarantino’s villains are unequivocally and historically seen as evil. But in “Basterds” the evil doers were German/non-American killing Jewish people (i.e. light skinned people). In “Django,” they are AMERICANS killing black people (i.e. dark skinned people). It is easier for a simpleton like me to align myself with the efforts of Good Guy Americans killing foreign evil, and it’s more difficult (apparently) for me to understand the plight of the African American in history. I mean, I *understand* it in terms of what happened, of course. But maybe the reason “Django” left me a little cold was that the central action (punishing racist white people) is fortunately not something I’ve had to live with. Long story short: maybe I’m not responding as positively because I’m a white guy who’s never had to deal with any kind of horrible bullshit like being denied food at a diner, let alone slavery. It doesn’t mean Django’s any more nuanced, but it does shed some light on his actions as being seen as heroic. If you actively hate slave owners, yeah, it’s pretty heroic, or at least very gratifying, to see them gunned down. If you don’t live with that burden every day, it’s possible to overlook it.

*Off the top of my head: “Reservoir Dogs” has the opening Madonna-diner conversation and the color-name assignments; “Pulp Fiction” has the Jack-Rabbit Slims conversation, the final showdown in the diner (maybe his greatest finale) and the adrenaline shot; “Jackie Brown” has “get in the trunk;” “Kill Bill” 1 and 2 has the opening, the meeting of Hatori Hanzo, the fight with O-Ren, the wedding rehearsal, the pregnancy test; “Basterds” has the opening scene and the bar scene (“Say goodbye to your Nazi balls!”); “Django” might have the Klan’s “The holes in these hoods don’t work” scene, but it’s not nearly as intricate as any of the others.

I’ve felt this way before, with Tarantino’s follow up to his ballyhooed and beloved “Pulp Fiction.” “Jackie Brown” had the unfortunate task of coming after a groundbreaking film, and no matter its merits, just could not and does not stand up by comparison. Upon initial release, “Jackie Brown” was criticized for feeling slower than “Fiction,” using a lot of a certain racist slur, etc., etc. Sounds familiar, right?

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5 Responses to “7 Random Thoughts on “Django Unchained””

  1. I would argue the scene in Django with the Sheriff and then the Marshall coming to eject them from the bar to the list of great scenes. I also had the opposite feelings as you vis a vis Inglourious Basterds, a film I could never quite get into because I know that’s not how Hitler died so it just seems irrelevant. This one feels like it could have happened (okay, not really of course, but something vaguely like this) so I don’t have that voice in my head going, “yeah but…” the whole time.

    I’m also not sure I totally get your point about the stakes. The stakes were saving the woman he loves. Seems fine to me.

    • 1.) That moment in and out of the bar is really great. But it’s not much more than a moment. A framework for showing how Dr. King Schultz does things, and getting out exposition. It does this well, but it doesn’t feel like a SCENE to me.

      2.) I can’t argue with the whole “my brain will only let me go so far” aspect of watching any movie. I have the same problem with the X-Men. For some reason, I’m totally willing to believe that a man can fly or has claws coming out of his hands, but when there’s more than 5 of them, I start to think “…C’mon….”

      3.) In terms of the stakes point, I’m not saying that Django shouldn’t have gone to save his wife. That’s totally fine. For him. But as far as the movie goes, we don’t really know much about Hildy, other than what we hear from Django himself. She sounds fine enough. It would be different if we’d had a scene or two of Hildy being awesome so we could all say, “Yes, we love her and we want her to be saved.” I think this was sort of the point of including Django’s daydreams of Hildy, and the flashback to her being whipped. But really, she’s a MacGuffin for Django. And since we know that he’s going to save her (or pretty certain anyway), there isn’t much that surprises us. The only thing we couldn’t predict is how long it would take to save her.

      Compare this to “Basterds,” where the goal is kill as many Nazis as possible. There, QT has history on his side. Most reasonable people agree that Nazis should be punished, and that without much set-up, we can enjoy (however you want to interpret that) seeing them taken down.

  2. I found myself thinking about Sally Menke, too. I know that Tarantino held her in extremely high regard, and I wonder if she might not have had some differing thoughts on pacing and scenes that could be cut in “Django Unchained.”

    This is his most straightforward film, in terms of sequencing. The brief flashbacks aside, it’s a direct line forward at all times. For my money, part of Tarantino’s genius (and quite possibly Menke’s) has been in the way he plays with time/cause and effect in a way that makes his stories both more interesting and meaningful. While such an approach isn’t a requirement, I wonder if it might have given more nuance or complication to Django (while I liked Foxx’s performance, I found the character to be a little predictable until he puts on Candie’s clothes at the end).

    Also, I found the Australian slaver scene to be both interminable and oddly positioned in the film. Django’s just reached his nadir, and then we spend ten minutes puttering with these weirdos. I realize that we need to see Django fight his way back, and I like the choice of having him use both his gunfighting and his wits, but the tone of the scene struck me as a poor match for the emotional tenor of the scenes surrounding it.

  3. Great analysis. I haven’t seen this movie but felt EXACTLY the same way about the other QT movies and their context.


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