Thursday, January 3, 2013

Deforming History for the Purpose of Reform: Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

I have admired the work of writer-director Quentin Tarantino for nearly 20 years, largely because I identify with him. Both of us were born in 1963, spent a childhood in the South Bay area of Los Angeles which is also called the Beach Cities, lived with a single mother, and escaped reality by watching as many movies as possible. Tarantino gathered an encyclopedic knowledge of international cinema while I went off to college, where I learned that some texts are "art" and others were "trash." Tarantino, who didn't go to college, came of age without that discriminatory perspective, and ended up writing movies that reflected influences as low as the drive-in sexploitation flick and as high as Wagnerian grand opera. I imagine Tarantino, as a young teenager, watching LA television's channels 5, 9, 11 and 13, which screened formula gangster films, Japanese monster movies, gladiator films, westerns (especially Italian "spaghetti" ones) and cautionary melodramas, mostly from the Fifties and Sixties, typically B-fare from American International Studios or Roger Corman. (Perhaps, like me, he watched network television, with its florid but popular miniseries such as Roots, with its emphasis on civil rights, as well as its plethora of cameos from has-beens and never-weres of TV and film.) With access to revival houses and art theaters, and later the VCR, he could learn about the international auteurs of cinema, the "Ten Best" films and, most of all, the elements of film form.

Through an instinctive understanding of genre, and an appreciation of the possibilities within the critically-dismissed "popular" genres, Tarantino set out to deform film. I say "deform" in order to stress the positive and negative reputation of the filmmaker: he re-shaped genres, even blending them as he made a point, but he also (as critics claim) undid traditional genres to the point of ruining their simple pleasures. Tarantino also brought a natural talent for narrative structure and dialog that would have made him an innovative playwright, had he been exposed to legitimate theatre as a child, an unlikely prospect growing up in the working-class South Bay. With a formal education, whether through a private prep-school experience or a University adolescence, Tarantino might have grown to dismiss the B-genres of Hollywood cinema, and embraced canonical cinema, theatre, literature and the fine arts, but he did not. He grew up as a self-made, self-taught man, distilling the textual influences of his childhood with his natural gifts, and made friends in high places who opened doors for him.

As a result, Quentin Tarantino has produced a filmic body of work that eludes categorization. With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, he combined the film noir with the buddy film, the slapstick comedy and the romance, with Biblical and classical allusions coming out of the most unlikely characters. With Jackie Brown, he wove the blaxploitation detective film with the mob-gangster picture and, of all things, the melodrama of growing old. With Kill Bill, he took on the Eastern tradition of martial arts, as well as the post-Alien concept of a female gun-toting heroine. With Death Proof, one half of the underrated but masterful Grindhouse, he took on the Russ Meyer sexploitation film as well as the biker-gang and rape-revenge horror pictures. Through it all, he gave jobs to lots and lots of people who had been big (John Travolta, Kurt Russell, Bruce Willis), were kinda big (Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel), should have been bigger had they not been dismissed as cult figures (Pam Grier, David Carradine) and those who barely escaped a footnote in a Whatever Happened to... book, many recognizable from bad Sixties formula television, B-pictures from the 50s to the 90s, popular mainstream pictures and tabloid scandals. A Tarantino picture was as much comedy as drama, as much philosophical treatise as gunfight, as much trip down memory lane as it was a star-maker. One could be guaranteed a high level of dialog, clever editing technique, convoluted storytelling and buckets and buckets of blood. As the years went by, however, a growing number of critics had an increasingly legitimate complaint: why won't the great auteur make a "mature" film, the way that Stephen Spielberg, the barnstorming director of Jaws, could make a dignified film about the Holocaust, Schindler's List? 

Django Unchained, Tarantino's latest film, is an answer to that question. The movie is his most political yet, taking on America's most shameful legacy, its history of African slavery at its ugliest and most brutal. A childhood spent in the Seventies watching television revealed years of exposure to dramatic anti-racist shows such as Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, not to mention often-insightful but just-as-often offensive sitcoms such as Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening! Later on, such as child would have some way of seeing filmic representations of anti-slavery, albeit in a sensational, luridly sexual text such as Mandingo or Drum. That period, however, also showcased independent filmmakers inspired by the Black Arts movement and the civil rights movement, who received funding from the same B-producers who funded knockoffs like Bloody Mama. Fred Williamson, Godfrey Cambridge and Gordon Parks made powerful anti-racist films that were also popular with audiences looking for entertainment. As violent as they were, the blaxploitation films of Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson provided a catharsis for racial minorities and feminists. In an early 70s Ms. magazine article, the author quotes a black woman coming out of a Pam Grier film: "Damn, that movie felt GOOD." Tarantino synthesized all of these influences, and combined them with a narrative influenced by the spaghetti westerns that also began airing on TV in the Seventies, as well as those that screened at drive-ins.

America's slave history has been called a "Holocaust" on the scale (or, arguably on a larger scale) of the Nazi murder of the Jewish people in Europe during World War II. In the late Seventies, when the NBC-TV miniseries Holocaust aired, famous author and camp survivor Elie Wiesel condemned such fictional representations as reducing mass murder to "kitsch," and began a heated and ongoing discussion about the ethics of representing such histories through any form of art. By the time Jonathan Demme released the film version of Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, images of the horrors of slavery were kept fleeting and were referenced obliquely, as a past that should not be repressed, but should not be exposed, either. The emphasis was on living with the effects, rather than dramatizing the event itself.

Tarantino responds to this discussion by employing "kitsch," or, worse, "schlock," as the medium through which he explores the Holocaust of American slavery; rather than reducing history to kitsch, he elevates kitsch through his treatment of history. Django Unchained combines the spaghetti western with the plantation melodrama and the rape-revenge/vigilante thriller, and his synthesis of genre  contains a narrative that alludes to a German tale dramatized by Wagner. Doing so, Tarantino produces what must be acknowledged as a work of art.

I don't support a criticism that involves too much plot summary, as it is so readily available online and elsewhere. However, a brief synopsis will provide detail. A former dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, purchases a slave, Django, played by Jamie Foxx, and enlists Django in the pursuit of wanted criminals. Django was separated from his wife, Broomhilda, also a slave, and he aims to find her and rescue her, even bring her freedom. The film takes Dr. Schultz and Django through two plantations, site of a few of the most graphic depictions of cruelty shown in any "slave-genre" film, as they find Broomhilda. Django, called "fastest gun in the South" by Dr. Schultz at one point, rages over the injustice he experiences and sees, and slowly builds a strong case for the revenge he plans to seek.

The faces of racism belong to several recognizable but forgotten faces, including Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher (Breaking Away, Stephen King's "It"), Franco Nero (whose spaghetti western series Django is referenced here) and Michael Parks, as well as current stars such as Leonardo DeCaprio. They are not merely employed for camp comedy; they revive their careers and redeem their names as they give legitimately powerful performances. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, DeCaprio tries but fails. DeCaprio long has had Edward Norton's film career; watching The Aviator, J Edgar and this film would have been much better had Norton played those roles. As someone best called "Uncle Tom from Hell," Samuel L. Jackson gives a ferocious portrayal of monstrously misdirected rage.

The heart of the film belongs to the triad of Waltz, Foxx and Kerry Washington (as Broomhilda). As Dr. Schultz, Waltz brings a charm, charisma and compassion that perfectly complements his bravura, award-winning turn as the Nazi of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Foxx has the highly difficult job of reacting, mostly without words, or with words very carefully chosen, while projecting great reserves of strength through enduring pain. He emerges as a powerful hero, with a quiet vulnerability in the presence of Waltz and Washington.

Kerry Washington might have the most challenging role of all. Throughout Tarantino's career, he has objectified women through a fetishized heterosexual lens. Grier, Thurman and Rosario Dawson (in Death Proof) were not necessarily exceptions to that rule, as they showed strength through a decidedly erotic angle. The character of Broomhilda, a slave taught German from a German mistress, is used sexually on the plantation, and her nudity is displayed for gut-wrenching torture scenes (including a bullwhipping, a branding and imprisonment in a "hot box"), but Tarantino, for reasons not entirely clear, does not present her as the object of a heterosexualized male gaze. Instead, she is filmed as a strong woman who endures the abuse of history; being dressed is depicted as violation, too. Much has been made of the decision to present an African-American woman as "damsel in distress," rescued by the African-American hero at the end of his quest. To her great credit, Washington radiates dignity, intelligence and guts despite being made a spectacle of abuse that is not necessarily (sadistically-) sexual. Of course, her natural beauty shines through, in order to show the moviegoer her appeal to Django.

(As a kind of aside, it is worth noting that Tarantino, known for displaying the female foot as a sex object in his films, refrains from doing so in this film. The foot is a cinematic image in Django Unchained, but he shows the foot as a symbol of the monstrous cruelty of slavery in America, as the slaves are forced to trudge barefoot through a prickly desert in the film's title sequence. It is a torture almost as uncomfortable to watch as the snapping of a bullwhip just before it hits the body.)

Aside from the motley crew of "has beens" and allusions to genre cinema, other, more subtle qualities mark this as a Tarantino film. Broomhilda's name embraces both high and low art. While there is the reference to Siegfried and Brunhilde in German art and folklore, there is also a sly reference, in the spelling of her name, to the "Broom-hilda" comic strip. The musical score remains eclectic but perfectly appropriate to the scene; Ennio Morricone's music is predictable if delightful, but Jim Croce's "I've Got a Name" befits the assertion of Django as freed man as well as alluding to Croce's ubiquitous presence in early Seventies pop culture. Don Johnson, more portly than he was during TV's "Miami Vice," wears another white suit, but it is that of a plantation owner, and he is given the name of a Tennessee Williams iconic figure, "Big Daddy." Other examples are included, and they all remind the viewer of the postmodern force that has been Quentin Tarantino, as he continues to deconstruct both genre and hierarchies of cultural capital in his films.

Many Tarantino's films end in a festival of gunfire and attendant blood, and Django Unchained is no exception. This one opens the filmmaker to the charges of historical revisionism as well as immaturity (the audience cheers for the bloody revenge enacted by Django), but it is dramatically effective and satisfying to watch. To his credit, the use of sound accentuates the lethal power of the gun, and its explosions, resulting in mutilations as well as splashes of blood, show the danger of treating guns as kid toys.

To sum it up, Django Unchained is a step forward, a surprisingly relevant, ethical and necessary social comment on America's racism, and a confirmation of his intellectual depth as well as visual cleverness. To translate into plain English: Yes, I liked it! Thumbs up! Go see it! (Happy now?)

A postscript: I forgot to mention the influence of the 19th century slave narrative, particularly Frederick Douglass' and Harriet Jacobs' accounts. The torture of Broomhilda, witnessed by Django (as shown in flashback) seems to allude Douglass's witnessing of a woman being whipped by her white owner. Furthermore, as I re-read this blog entry, I realized that my choice of the word "deform," and the ways in which I defined the term, was influenced by the African-American scholar Houston Baker. He invented the opposing concepts of "mastery of form" versus "deformation of mastery." The former reflected the work of black writers whose work affirmed the influence and status of dominant culture. On the other hand, "deformation of mastery" indicated the texts by black authors that attempted to destabilize dominant culture through expression of minority voices at the level of form as well as content. If I applied these terms to Quentin Tarantino's film, I might think that Django Unchained posited a more revolutionary anti-racist stance through his deconstruction of critically maligned genres, as opposed to a stately, reverent "mirror of reality" film along the lines of a Spielberg history film.

Here's a link to an extended definition of Houston Baker's oppositions:


  1. You are as brilliant a voice and credible an authority as any reviewer I've ever read. This is also very satisfying on a scholarly level.

    As with most excellent writing about art, I found ideas springing up as I read your post. I hope that you continue to thrill us!

  2. Every time I've read one of your FB meditations on a film or play that moved you in some way, I've thought, "He should be blogging about this stuff." Thanks for writing this extremely thought-provoking and knowledgeable piece. I enjoyed it very much. You really are one of my favorite reviewers.

    1. Thank you, Connie! You helped to inspire me with your book of poetry.

  3. Your comments about the film, its context, and its director's touchstones are useful, clearly woven together, and objective. I will have your comments in mind when I see the film.

  4. I do encourage you to see it; if you like his films, you'll be pleased. Thanks for writing.