Friday, January 18, 2013

Django Unchained

This post was actually written on the 19th, but I've dated it for the 18th for the sake of pretences that I was able to write something every day. We did see Django Unchained on the 18th, and if it'd been a shorter movie I'd have written and posted it that night.

This is going to be a semi-random collection of thoughts and reflections; having only seen the film once there's undoubtedly plenty I've missed. I might jump around a bit, and no doubt some of these thoughts will be only half-finished.

At 3 hours, Django Unchained is not a short movie. But it's deceptively quick; it doesn't feel like a long film, and in fact could easily have got away with a few more scenes in the early part of the story.

I don't want to go into the story in any detail because spoilers, but also because other people have already said a lot more than I could in a much better way than I could about the legacy of slavery in America and how Tarantino has challenged the rather lazy assumptions people have made, in recent decades, about the lives of slaves. In short, it's not just "working without being paid"; the violence, inhumane treatment and abuse of black slaves by white plantation owners is much worse than my white middle-class upbringing ever gave me reason to consider. I always assumed white liberal guilt was about making people feel bad about racism, but in my case it's my ignorance and indifference that's making me guilty. Surely the treatment of slaves on the plantations of the American South isn't any worse than the treatment of slaves in Britain at the same time; I've taken a lot for granted, and it's always a bit of a shock to be reminded just how much.

I've long accepted that years of consuming violent media and video games have desensitised me to violence, but Django Unchained challenged that assumption. There are two types of violence in Django. The operatic, cartoony Tarantino violence, with literal geysers of blood and cannonfire sound effects used for bullets. And there's the real violence. The cartoony stuff I can take, but the real is horrific.

The best examples of this difference are from early in the film; Christoph Waltz shoots a slave trader, and his head explodes in a fountain of red. It's actually kind of funny, and most of the violence at the start of the film - and in fact all of the deaths of white people - are treated with at best indifference and at worst glee1. White people die in either boring or hilarious ways. Then there's the introduction of Leonardo di Caprio's character, which features a protracted and uncomfortably visceral "mandingo" fight - two black slaves forced to fight to the death. The audio for the entire scene has the grunts, howls and screams of the fighters underneath it, so even when you don't see them you know what's happening. There are no fancy special effects or quick cuts. It's horrific, and it wants you to face the horror with the knowledge that, not so long ago, it was actually happening.

I can't remember the last time a fight in a film was presented as anything other than a macho, ultimately good battle between good and evil. Watching two powerless men trying to kill each other for the enjoyment of bored farmers is so far from that usual fantasy.

There's a lot of humour in the film, and the performances are universally brilliant (although when Tarantino makes his cameo appearance it did briefly pull me out of the moment). Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are very goof, but I've not seen either of them in enough to have had expectations going in. The standout performances, for me, are diCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, whose master/servant relationship has layers and nuance going back years. It's difficult to tell how much of their interactions is for show - for each other as well as any onlookers - and the apparent equality between them is in marked contrast with both the usual slave/owner relationship and the genuine equality between Django and Dr. Shultz.

TL;DR version: Go see Django Unchained. It's funny, violent and uncomfortably serious, and manages to pull them all off equally brilliantly. Probably Tarantino's best film, and something people are going to remember and talk about for years.

1 "Best" and "worst" in this case are not the ideal words; I don't think it's a bad thing that Tarantino chooses to gloss over their deaths. It's not a film about white people, and in every case they're very clearly people who deserve every bit of what happens to them.

No comments: