I could go on and on.

We’re in mysterious terrain. The paradox that is Tarantino’s career most closely resembles the “so-bad-it’s-good” paradox—but that’s not it.

If it’s working, Django is an examination of history from fantasy. If it’s not, it’s fantasy-pleasure scraped out of historical pain. The latter is amoral at best, immoral at worst. The former is highly moral. Both are self-aware.

And in that department: I don’t know what it is.

Structurally it’s a mess. An odyssey full of bits and segments and detours where the scramble for pleasurable-payoff is often so transparent, so easy, that it’s hard to just let yourself enjoy. The ride keeps stopping. That’s what makes it minor Tarantino.

And then there’s Candy Land. Once Tarantino finds his screenplay firmly rooted to Candy Land, everything gets much, much better. He seems to work best given restraints (unsurprising) and the natural physical crucible provided by the plantation space do his story a lot of favors. Suddenly we know where we are. We know the characters, the rules (sort of) and the stakes. For the sake of spoilers (Tarantino’s work is holy) I’ll only say here that the game does sort of collapse at the end. Perhaps the heroes aren’t smart enough, or good enough at doing their jobs?

Rather than mire in the details, I’ll say the movie works as: a vital injection of style into a commercial wasteland. It’s fun, brutal, and intriguingly historical (really.)

Watching American history get reprocessed as pop continues to be funny and eerie at the same time. How many times did you think about Abraham Lincoln between elementary school and when Spielberg’s “epic” came out?

I’m not accusing you, Dear Reader, just saying that this is where the dreams, the history, the ancestry, is getting stashed: Hollywood.

In a particularly bad Terry Gross interview, Terry asks if it was awkward shooting black people pretending to be slaves. Tarantino mentions, with admirable restraint, that they’re all breaking for Powerbars in between cotton pickin’ sessions and that “everyone knows what time it is.” I love the question, because it points to the fact that we still believe movies are real, even when we know they’re not.

Surprise has been registered (and more frequently, can be inferred) from some corners that a white man is making a film about a black slave killing white Americans. But it’s not surprising. Django is kind of sweet in that way. A lot more innocent when you realize it’s an awkward, fumbling scream from the white-guilt-ridden subconscious of one American, who only knows how to rip apart history and morals from a genre-film perspective. And in the end, that’s what makes the Tarantino “style over substance” debate so absurd. It’s like the complaint that Hemingway’s sentences aren’t long enough, or his words big enough, to tell the important stories.

-Max Berwald




Filed under Reviews, Thoughts

8 responses to “WHITE GUILT ‘UNCHAINED’

  1. I’m still processing it as well, but I’ll disagree that it’s a minor Tarantino work. It’s got some structural elements and one key scene that elevates it for me. I haven’t seen that scene mentioned in any reviews so I’ll get into it a bit below the requisite:

    –––––––––SPOILER TAG (Come back when you’ve seen it)––––––––––

    What sold me on the film in the end was Stephen’s monologue to Django. Tarantino has shown more than enough awful violence in his career that there wasn’t any doubt in my mind he’d castrate Django if he thought it would serve the plot. And sitting in the theater I was really hoping that he wouldn’t think it was necessary, regardless of whatever established torturous Grindhouse/Blaxploitation precedents he could cite. Tarantino being Tarantino though I also didn’t want that scene to defuse due to self-censorship. A Tarantino script wouldn’t wear that well. I was hoping that scene had a clear purpose, and in setting up Stephen’s monologue it did.

    The monologue boils down to a solid statement of purpose for the film. What’s most horrible about the slavery system is not any particular extreme of cruelty, but the straightforward facts of slavery. Working someone hard for their entire life with no account for their comfort, health, or life, is hellacious. When Stephen attempts to extract his own vengeance on Django he realizes that he doesn’t have to do anything unique to punish this unique outburst of violence. He simply has to forcefully reassert the system that has applied to both of them to various degrees for their whole lives.

    One of my favorite bloggers, Ta-Nehsei Coates, has been doing research on the era and points out that the acts of slave escape and rebellion which did occur were rarely linked to extreme acts of violence perpetrated on slaves, but to the sudden stresses caused by the all too common practice of splitting up families. Django’s ultimate massacre of Candi Land holds to that truth of human motivation. Schultz ignites the final act due to his disgust with Candi’s particular cruelty, but Django’s concern is both more general and more personal. His vengeance has the immediate purpose of rescuing his wife.

    Of course killing a shit ton of people in the name of rescuing your family is a tried and true staple of the vengeance sub-genre (The vintage awfulness of ‘Commando’ springs to mind). But with his efforts to ground it in history I think Tarantino does a good job of exploring why that theme might have the broad resonance that it does with American filmmakers and audiences. It’s more successful to me in that regard than ‘Inglorious Basterds’, and far far better than other self-aware but ultimately failed attempts at genre-deconstruction that typify your notion of “fantasy-pleasure scraped out of historical pain” such as as Zak Synder’s ‘Sucker Punch’.

  2. Max Berwald

    Very interesting that you return to the castration scene!

    I agree with everything you’re saying. There really is a lot working in the movie, and I think at its best it is doing what you describe! “…exploring why that theme (killing a bunch of people to rescue your family) might have the broad resonance that it does with American filmmakers and audiences.”

    But I think there are a lot of script issues that detract from that thematic punch. So I’ll just say ‘I agree with you’ and then point out some of what makes it not-so-great-for-Tarantino for me.

    —here there be spoilers—

    I don’t buy that Schultz, who has lived in proximity to slavery all his life, suddenly decides to, not only give up his own life, but effectively condemn to death (if he doesn’t know that Django is a superhero, as we in the audience have begun to suspect) Django and Django’s wife (whom he has just spent a lot of his own time, energy and talent tracking down.) And I don’t buy that he makes the decision to condemn them on the basis of… not shaking a plantation owner’s hand. You can call it nitpicking, but it’s kind of the crux of the end-of-the-movie.

    The only ending Tarantino has earned at that point, in my opinion, is to have Django, Schultz and Broomhilda walk out of the room having won the day. I don’t even fully understand why we’re supposed to think they’ve lost (as when Candie calls Schultz a “bad loser.”) Their plan was discovered and they had to… pay more money? They’re still walking away with the girl, right? Mission accomplished.

    The audience still has some blood lust in them though, and Tarantino knows that, so he fixes the problem by having the bad guy demand something, but the demand isn’t even an unreasonable one. So again, the only thing he’s earned is an ending where Schultz shakes Candie’s hand.

    It’s just a case of being able to see all the puppet-strings very easily, and it ruins the ride for me. I find that usually Tarantino plotting grows pretty organically. But ‘Django Unchained’ seems causally arbitrary.

    • I agree that there’s something off about the confrontation between Schultz and Candie. It lacks some touches and details that keep it from archiving that organic feeling that’s often Tarantino’s best asset.

      For me though it’s not enough to derail the crux of the movie. I think most of why we’re differing on this is because our interpretation of who Schultz is differs. My understanding of the character was that he was a relatively recent immigrant who, having grown up in Germany, hadn’t lived in proximity to slavery his whole life. However I really have no idea if this is accurate or not. Watching the film I thought Schultz’s origin had been made plain, but looking back I’m not sure what the specific moment was that lead me to that.

      With that notion of Schultz informing my viewing though I thought his arc played well enough. German Schultz is able to elevate himself morally above the backwards slave owning yankees, making it all the easier for him to kill them for easy reward. He’s also able to relate to Django better than perhaps even one of the period’s white American abolitionists could have due to a lack of any guilt about slavery. And in the end German Schultz, who has scant experience directly witnessing anything like the cruelty he sees at Candie Land, who has never bought a human being, and who has held himself aloft with bloody disdain for the culture Candie specifically invokes with his Gentleman’s Bargain, is ultimately unable to keep his rage at Candie and this American culture of people as property in check. He breaks character; just what he warned Django against.

      Again, no clue if that’s actually accurate. And even if it is it doesn’t let Tarantino off the hook for some sloppiness. Schultz’s growing unease with the compromises required of him and Django at Candie Land is illustrated well, but for his final moment to work smoothly the specific theme of people as property and how exactly Schultz related to it would need to have been developed more. But I really liked the version of the character that emerged to me, I felt I understood his actions, and if it’s not the character Tarantino intended then I wish it had been.

      • Max Berwald

        They do seem to be alluding to a childhood in Germany at the very least, what with the Broomhilda story. And it’s true that the “break of character” is at least seeded by the advice to Django. I felt a little jerked around by the film already and was really waiting for a homerun, so I was over-sensitive to the fumble.

        To be clear, did you like this one more than Basterds?

      • I think I might like it a little better than ‘Basterds’, but it’s a pointlessly close call. The difference might come from nothing other than me having a more demanding standard for WW2 Pulp than for Westerns. I’ve seen, read, and enjoyed more of the former. When it’s doing its own thing with that genre ‘Basterds’ produces some of my favorite Tarantino scenes (I will never stop prasing that use of Cat People), but the homage underpinning the narrative leaves me a wanting a little more.

  3. ascendingdevil

    I also found the Schultz thing to be a bit sloppy but wasn’t horribly bothered by it for similar reasons to you, Chris. My interpretation was that he had been in the south and around slavery for a while but he was not used to seeing Mandingo fighting or watching Slaves be fed to hungry dogs. In other words, he didn’t totally understand what slavery meant until he came into contact with Django.

    Also, perhaps the reasons most people (me included) are annoyed by how Schultz dies is because everyone LOVES him as a character. His death doesn’t quite do justice to how fun and entertaining he is. He’s so cool that we wish he’d been able to exercise some restraint and get out of there a live.

    That said, I think Schultz’s death is necessary for the film. Tarantino seems to be playing with the idea of the buddy gunslinger movie. The film starts out like normal Hollywood fare: White hero (Schultz) with cool ethnic sidekick (Django) but then half way through the movie turns and Schultz decides to aid Django on Django’s own quest. Now, as Django comes into his own, he becomes more the hero with Schultz as the sidekick. I think Tarantino felt it was necessary to kill Schultz off at the end so that the movie wasn’t another typical Hollywood film about white people helping black people accomplish things. This is also, I think, why he kills Monsieur Candie and has Samuel L Jackson become the true villain. Commenting on the final face off between Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson one reviewer (I forget who) wrote that “Django is truly a film that plays with the Civil War slogan of pitting Brother against Brother” (Ba dum psh).

    Last thoughts:
    At the end of Basterds Tarantino has that line where he’s clearly talking to the audience: I think this might be mah masterpiece.
    In this film I think it’s the Schultz line: “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help myself.”

    • Max Berwald

      I had exactly the same thought about “I just couldn’t help myself.” What do we think about the Tarantino cameo?

      • Zac

        His two cameos actually. He also plays one of the KKK members arguing about their hoods. And I have no idea what to make of it other than be amused by it. Do you have any special reading?

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