Sunday, January 27, 2013

'Django' and the American Culture of Violence

I went to Quentin Tarantino's latest bloodfest Django Unchained at the local multiplex yesterday in order to be able to say I had seen all nine nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. While driving to the cinema, I was sort of dreading it and looked upon the outing as more of an obligation so I could win the Oscar pool at an upcoming award-show party rather than as a pleasure. I was not wild about Pulp Fiction and only watched the first 20 minutes of Inglorious Bastards on TV and knew the director-screenwriter's penchant for ultraviolence. But whoa, did this picture blow me away and not with disgust.

Django is sort of an anti-spaghetti Western  or an inside-out Gone With the Wind. Tarantino uses the cliches of the lone gunfighter, Clint Eastwood movies to rip apart the brutal culture of America's slavery-lovin' past. (It's interesting that another Best Picture nominee, Lincoln, also deals with the issue but through a John Ford, feel-good Steven Spielberg lens.) The title character (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who joins a white, German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to kill evil racists outlaws disguised as upstanding citizens. After many adventures, the duo attempt to rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington), now bound to the dandyish Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio) at his massive plantation Candyland, a symbol for the entire corrupt slave system.

After numerous graphic slaughters, Django blows Candyland to smithereens and rides off with his emancipated wife. The violence is purposefully excessive and the film has been cited by many gun advocates as just the type of Hollywood shoot-em-up to inspire tragedies like Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado. But Tarantino's violence is not just bloodthirstiness for its own sake (You could make that argument about The Dark Knight Returns which seems to have an explosion every ten minutes as if filling a quota.) The director is using the graphic cruelty to expose the basically violent way of life slavery represented. The savage punishments visited upon Django, his wife Hildy, and various slaves throughout the story are not exaggerations. Runaway slaves would be ripped apart by dogs or whipped until they were senseless.

The film contains so many intriguing details--the hooker with a crutch and the boy with the goats in the early town scenes, the spilled candies at the wrestling match, the daughter with the axe in the house of feral trackers, etc. I keep going back again and again over every scene to catch more.

There are numerous references to 1970s blaxploitation like Drum and Mandingo as well as Westerns such as Unforgiven. The casting contains insider references employing former TV and movie stars such as Tom Wopat (Dukes of Hazzard), Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn, Lee Horsely, and Franco Nero who starred the 1966 Italian western Django which inspired the film. Tarantino even makes fun of himself by playing an avaricious slave hunter and them allowing himself to be blown up. As the walls of Candyland are drenched with blood and later explode, Tarantino is ripping the veneer away from Scarlett O'Hara's genteel Tara and exposing it for the savage hell the South and America really was. That's the real violence.Tarantino is only exposing it and making you feel it.

No comments:

Post a Comment