Sunday, April 28, 2013

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino 2012)

In an odd way Django Unchained reminds me of Cars.  That film was Pixar’s first failure and, consequently or causally, looked like a Pixar imitation while Django Unchained is Tarantino’s first complete failure and looks much like a Tarantino imitation.  Except that few imitators would have let their film stretch so far that a good hour or so should have been removed.

Consider the opening where Dr. Schultz inexplicably arrives from the exact opposite direction of the slave train so how did he know about the sale of a particular slave?  Or why he rides with Django all the way to the next town before either of them discuss what he wants?  Yes, this is nitpicking - both points could easily be explained and don’t much matter anyway.  But why set up a plot based on tracking down three brothers only to resolve it immediately, apparently at the first plantation the duo visits?  Only to then bring out the longer plot point of Django searching for his wife?  What’s the purpose of the entire winter sequence?  I suspect it was just a way to pay tribute to The Great Silence but supposed that it could be considered Django’s training.  It’s not at all clear if there’s any good reason to delay Django’s search through the winter.

The film basically meanders along, oddly slack and with little of the brisk dialogue that Tarantino favors.  Apparently the point is to show Django’s growth from his start with a (re)birth, to where he is taught to dress and read, sits down for a bedtime story then learns from the doctor until at last he’s a murdering, bombing, wife-saving Man.  The whole thing is so simplistic and even cartoonish (one sequence could have come from Blazing Saddles) that the film has nothing to say about slavery (which Tarantino perhaps learned about from viewing Goodbye Uncle Tom) or race or anything really.  Maybe it wasn’t meant to say anything but it’s not even entertaining except for bits here and there so that doesn’t leave us much of anywhere.

I’m still not sure whether Tarantino meant for us to notice, if in fact he noticed himself, the ethical problem of Dr. Schultz.  As a bounty hunter who can bring in a bounty dead or alive he chooses dead, something he explains in such a deadpan tone that it sounds more psychopathic than reasonable.  More to the point is this means that the legal system, if not justice in the broader sense, is being bypassed - there can never be a trial.  The suspect is prejudicially determined guilty.  Considering the vague descriptions and lack of photographs there’s certainly a good chance for misidentification, though admittedly this point starts to wander away from the film.  DU isn’t about the mechanics of bounty hunting though the blatant disregard of ethics is certainly to the point.

As an aside, this is a movie version of bounty hunting.  Such hunters weren’t officially part of the law enforcement system until well after the Civil War and most of them during the period in the film tracked slaves and deserters primarily.  And they only got half the bounty if the suspect was dead.  All this seems to have varied widely but it does point to some historical uncertainties in DU.  At the very start we’re told that the film is set in 1858 “two years before the Civil War” which of course is wrong.  I tried to see if Tarantino explained this but all I found were some people claiming that this is him deliberately adding historical inconsistencies though I didn’t really understand to what purpose.  In Walker Alex Cox added blatant anachronisms with the purpose of drawing a continuity between 19th and 20th century meddling in Central America.  That film wasn’t entirely successful in such a purpose (and of course ignored that Walker’s expeditions had no government backing unlike most of what the US did the following century) and Django Unchained has no similar point to make.  Besides being off about the start of the war by a single year looks far more like a plain old mistake rather than some deliberate effect.  I also noticed that instead of Brunhilde (or variant spellings) the character’s name is spelled Broomhilda just like the comic strip.

It’s nice to see Franco Nero, the original Django, in a cameo though it would have been even better to have also included Tomas Milian who had the lead in the demented Django Kill...If You Live Shoot (whether or not he’s actually called Django in that film).  The geek part of me thinks it would have been cool to have peppered the entire film with actors who played Django in the many films using that name, though most were simple retitles for the English-language market.