Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained


Every story Quentin Tarantino has told since Kill Bill has centered, in one form or another, on the desire for revenge. At times, cinematic revenge can open up complex reflection, and my favorite Tarantino movie after Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, certainly compels thoughts about the power the movies themselves have to fantasize acts of revenge. But with Django Unchained, Tarantino is less interested in reflection and more in the sheer energy of cathartic violence. For two hours Jamie Foxx does very little in this film but then he explodes in a torrent of bullets that Tarantino imagines as a vision of black male empowerment. But is empowerment genuinely Tarantino's concern? The form of his film is too set on duration for its affects, too interested in lingering around and in the details of American slavery for it to ever really convince us that it wants to escape the milieu caught in its fetishistic gaze. And even if a certain authentic desire for enabling black power does fuel Django, the form it takes in this film equates agency with gunplay, a deeply dangerous political gesture at this moment in American social history.

Beyond this, the movie is frequently boring, full of sequences that dwell, variously, on a group of ineffectual clansmen struggling to see through the holes in their masks; or on DiCaprio's slave owner presenting a lecture on phrenology. Most disturbingly, these passages, which serve a minimal function in the causal structure of the film, suggest that Tarantino is fascinated rather than repelled by slavery ephemera. The subject of slavery has not received adequate examination in American cinema; but fascination is not examination, and although I admire Tarantino's boundless energy and love for cinema, I found it hard to get my bearings with this film.

5 comments:

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

By coincidence (though perhaps not such an alarming one, given the cycle through which theatrical releases leak), we both put up blog posts on this within the same hour, presenting more or less the same sentiment--though yours is the far more concise and lucid. "Too set on duration" nails it, I think--this is only an epic insofar as it's been diluted by unnecessary events, and there's very little of the director's trademark "burrowing" dialog offered to justify the endless set-pieces (the phrenology lecture aside, which plays like a DR. PHIBES outtake). Thanks for your thoughts.

Steven Rybin said...

Thanks for alerting me to your review, Jon. The idea of a "marketplace of spectacle," which never sleeps, nicely ties together your thoughts on the film's pairing of duration and ethics. (Surely there is always a Tarantino movie playing in the world, to someone, somewhere).

Jason Roberts said...

Contrary to the fact that you're both talking about it right now, I think one of the most fascinating things about Tarantino is how little attention his use of duration receives. I haven't seen "Django" yet but remember being dumbstruck by just how long shots and scenes last in "Inglourious," because I had somehow forgotten that he's almost the lone American exponent of Bazinian duration. (I say almost because he rarely uses great depth of field, or focus.)

Is that right, or am I just missing the critics who have talked about this aspect of his films?

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Jason:

I haven't seen much discussion along those lines, aside from in formalistic piddles (eg Ed Gonzalez reversely describing QT's "resistance" to hyperkinetic cross-cutting in BASTERDS as "a masterstroke of restraint") and, naturally, analyses of his marathon back-n-forths (which usually focus on text rather than image). That said, you might be intrigued by how DJANGO's duration is mostly sustained through (occasionally) overlong scenes and (almost always) overlong acts, rather than shots--which isn't *strictly* Bazinian, per se.

By coincidence I watched Oshima's BOY last night--now *there's* a film that drags out shot lengths without any pretensions to documenting "reality," or even representing real-time action. During many of the long, static shots that comprise the movie, characters are literally hanging off the edge of the frame while they converse, dwarfed and marginalized by their ugly, modern environments; it's completely fitting for a story about the experience and uses of existence on society's flayed fringe.

Jason Roberts said...

Joe,

Haven't seen that Oshima yet but otherwise like the stuff of his I have seen, so I'll try to check that one out.

Bazinian, even just "almost Bazinian," is really not very accurate, but I think there's an interesting disconnect between the public perception of QT and his movies as being exciting in a salacious way, mostly because of the violence but also because of the postmodern pastiche, and the movies themselves, which seem willfully slow to me, either in long takes (such as the very long shot circular shot in "Death Proof") or, perhaps, as you suggest, in dialogue-intensive scenes that are self-indulgently slow.

Then again, I tend to wait until a movie is old before reading much criticism of it, so I'm also not really an authority on what people are saying about QT's latest.