The films and personality of Quentin Tarantino both tend to have a polarizing effect on filmgoers, and Django Unchained will most assuredly continue that tendency and for the same basic reasons.
Despite his reputation, QT’s early work is actually not that violent when compared to most contemporary action movies. It’s the slow, tense build-up and the sudden, sporadic bursts that give the sense these films are more violent than they actually are. But with Kill Bill, Tarantino began veering more towards the all-out, gleeful blood-spilling that his cinematic heroes – guys like Kinji Fukasaku, John Woo and Sam Peckinpah – practiced in their heydays. When that same kind of aestheticized violence is paired with a highly charged topic like slavery, it’s tricky territory.
For the most part, Spike Lee’s criticisms notwithstanding, Tarantino navigates this territory fairly well. Don’t expect any profound historical or psychological insights, though. The antebellum South simply serves as an operatic backdrop for what is essentially another revenge fantasy, an entertaining if less layered one than the brilliant Inglourious Basterds.
Tarantino’s usual obsessions (race, revenge, derivative homages to old films) and stylistic flourishes are all present in Django Unchained and will incite heated argument as always. Personally, I’ve always felt ambivalent about the way he treats these subjects even as I enjoy his work. But one thing I have always been unambivalent about is his talent as a filmmaker which is on full display here from the loving attention to detail in every shot to the dedicated, nuanced performances of his actors.
Say what you will about QT, one thing for certain is that his oeuvre has invigorated contemporary cinema over the last 20 years, particularly in terms of public interest and debate. And if for that reason alone, even, he has earned his place in film history.[subscribe2]
Aside from Dusk to Dawn, I agree that Tarantino is one of the best young(ish) filmmakers in the last 20 years. I've seen parts of Inglorious Basterds and have it on my netflix list and now I will definitely be adding Django Unchained to my list as well.
Oh my gosh, 'Dusk to Dawn' was terrible. I felt like it was just Tarantino and Rodriguez goofing off and having fun, nothing more.
'Inglourious Basterds' is actually my favorite film of his and I've seen them all, including the ones he only wrote but didn't direct. It has all the usual Tarantino elements but it's the most humane with the most depth and I cared about all the characters (well, except for the Nazis of course).
The others are stylistically all brilliant but I tended not to care about the characters as much, except for Mr. Pink in 'Reservoir Dogs', Butch in 'Pulp Fiction' and the Bride in 'Kill Bill.'
The author David Foster Wallace has written a really interesting piece on David Lynch (available here: http://goo.gl/FYZhA) where he compares Lynch to Tarantino. He claims that Lynch is an “exponentially better” filmmaker than QT. Wallace, never shy of over-intellectualizing, describes a “Lynchian” moment as “refer[ing] to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Unpacking this statement, Wallace gives an example: “Ted Bundy wasn’t particularly Lynchian, but good old Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victims’ various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread, was thoroughgoingly Lynchian.” What Wallace is getting at, I think, is that Lynch recognizes that the truly creepy moments happen when really, really bad stuff (i.e., serial killers dismembering their victims) become so normalized into their lives that they themselves become banal and commonplace. This blurring of the line between the horrible and the banal makes much of what Lynch’s films look at (say, the normal suburban life running in the background of Inland Empire) terribly creepy, because constantly calls to mind how much of our everyday lives is actually pretty strange and macabre. Make no mistake, Lynch’s movies are not nearly as fun as Tarantino’s, but I agree with Wallace that they are trying to get at something much deeper, and they demand real emotional investment (and discomfort and fear) from viewers.
Now in Tarantino’s work, we see a lot of blatant attempts to juxtapose the horrible and the banal (e.g., the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs set to bland 70s soft rock). Siding with Wallace, I would say that this juxtaposition in Dogs doesn’t point to anything deeper precisely because it is so forced and in-your-face. As such it lacks the actual referent to real American life that is always running as an undercurrent in Lynch’s films.
In Django, we see the same dynamic, perhaps even more pronounced. Here QT takes something even more incendiary than cop torture –American Slavery – and runs it through various techniques to try to make the material banal: the vintage snap-zoom shots, the clichéd dialogue, et al. Now we don’t need Django to be some kind of Roots-like orgy of white guilt, but there’s a really interesting story in the movie that becomes diminished because it is constantly undercut by irony. I thought Basterds was more fun because the tone is consistently ridiculous throughout the movie, but here in Django the painful scenes can’t help but linger in the memory, and as such the ironic elements seem more like a defense against the movie becoming overly sentimental or serious. I always enjoy Tarantino’s cinematography, but this viewer hopes at some point he can work through what seems to be a genuine fear of demanding an emotional investment from his audience.