THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN AESTHETIC
This being Tarantino's first legitimate western begs analysis against Tarantino's repertoire. This is a film which is a long time coming from Quentin Tarantino. As said in a Charlie Rose interview, Tarantino's inspiration for DJANGO UNCHAINED came from the movie Kill Bill. Kill Bill was, aesthetically speaking, Tarantino's first try at the "spaghetti western" style of movie. This is most notably the case with Chapter 5 of Kill Bill where, after having sampled many other different genres, the most operatic of the genres sampled was chosen - the spaghetti western aesthetic. Spaghetti western is a directorial style which examines all emotions the characters feel as well as emotions that the director wants the audience to feel when a character comes on screen, accompanied with a sweeping Morricone score or some other Italian composer trying for same effect (or maybe in rare times, succeeding in being original). The second attempt was after he turned grindhouse mediocrity into an aesthetic, when he took on the Macaroni War film with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (which is an extent of the Spaghetti Western in which the same style was applied to WW2 films by the Italians taking another American genre and making it their own. This Academy Award nominated practice, mixing a military tale with a personal revenge story. With DJANGO UNCHAINED, as far as shot choices and montage choices are concerned, regardless of the setting, Tarantino makes a film which truly can sit up there with the original Django and Once Upon A Time In The West.
DJANGO UNCHAINED is a film in the tradition of faux Django sequels/films. Tarantino is good enough to resurrect the old DJANGO theme, which at first might seem a bit dramatic. Such sets a precedent that the film has to live up to as far as substance go. Alas, only the beginning credits of the film really take place in a setting which can be called "western". Deserts and rocks and what not. In the end, DJANGO UNCHAINED is the birth of a new sub-genre of western, the southern. But though a southern, DJANGO UNCHAINED does keep other aspects of the western. Such as the use of guns, which is mostly rifles though there are cute tidbits like Dr. Schultz's pop out gun, a throw back to TAXI DRIVER. Regardless of fire arm though, what really makes an impression is the blood spray. Quantity matters, with the big blood spray being used for the less notable deaths as to give them something which makes them memorable compared to the more subtle bloodshed kept to the Brittle brothers and some of the people of Candyland. Tarantino uses subtle blood shed as juxtaposition for only the most moving of kills - the first time Django kills someone, Calvin Candie's death, ect.
Ultimately, this is a southern and we see that the film physically and then substantially transforms into a southern. We begin in a desert like Texas, we flow into Colorado and then ultimately to Mississippi. It is a gradual change, one softened by the Colorado episode being one of snow. The evolution of western to Southern comes from the manipulation of the event. The first what (the characters are doing) is the same. The who could also be similar. But the how of the characters doing it, the where, what the director is emphasizing when expressing the verb's cause/effect's most potent imagery for the wanted effect are different. Where as Blondie shoots at people in a town square, Django shoots the people in a Southern abode. Instead of kicking guilty people with bounties on their head out of a saloon, we have Schultz shooting another such character off of a horse, spraying blood over a coffin. It is actually from the irony of the slave trade in comparison to the bounty hunting business along with the tip of the hat from Franco Nero, which isn't just something for the sake of the pseudo-Django franchise, but of genre evolution. Acting as the proverbial wax seal on the deal, we have Christoph Waltz having pretty much the last word at the end of the film, saying, “They’ll call you the quickest gun in the south.”
THEME OF BLACK MALE EMPOWERMENT
Movement, even of the spiritual/metaphorical/moral/image type is relative. In DJANGO UNCHAINED, there is not just empowerment of the black male, but also the disempowerment of the white male. Indeed, this is an attack on the typical macho male stereotype of the western, one which leads the guilty literally ball-less while leaving the heroes with newfound strength and power. Case in point, two white male characters have their genitals mutilated - one guy who was caught off guard taking a bath (a possible wink to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) and the character Billy Cash, who Django punishes after having almost made Django a eunuch via a red hot bowie knife. This is in contrast to a scene which was in an early draft of the screenplay (unknown if filmed) of sexual torture of Django via the rape of his wife and the brutal masturbation of Django involving barbed wire. Additionally, there is some insult when it comes to what some character's genitals would be doing if not for the interception of Django. Calvin Candie's interest in his sister appears to be incestral, an insult to the injury of the illegality of slave marriage. Even as a possible first on a more serious time period western, we see that Billy Cash may have some sub textual gay over tones about him - the way he talks to Django, along with his style of walking - his strut. How he handled almost making Django a eunuch is off too.
Yet, even when the black male symbol that is Django has his freedom, love, power, and everything else, he is a sensitive character. This is a more metaphysical reading of the film, but here is the case: Django is first and foremost a slave. Unless something happens in a future installment (something which is unlikely) which would prove otherwise, Django is the penultimate voice of moral reason. He was a slave, a state of being that breaks a person down. Loss of will, ambition, and other such feelings. Regardless of how empowered he is, he will always have to live with neither a broken or unbroken will, rather a mended one. His purpose was to save his wife and to now live out his days. A simple living, a living fit for a real man But Django is not the John Wayne figure which the archetypal cinematic west was built on, something a lot who like the stereotypical John Wayne True-Grit archetype would have a problem with (though the Duke himself even had his soft spot at times).
As a note, Django could also be seen as one of the first people to popularize some fashions. Where as clothing choices range from wanting to make an impression (the Blue Boy) to a modern version of the Little Joe look from BONANZA. Notable though, and this is being brought up due to my mother questioning this, is Django’s use of sunglasses. Not yet a fashion statement, sun glasses at the time were made for people who had syphilis since a symptom of the sexually transmitted disease to be more sensitive to light than other people. Django is using it as a fashion statement, turning something which was a signature of something shameful into something cool (a possible sub textual parallel?)
TARANTINO'S FIFTY SHADES OF VENGEANCE
Django's sensitivity doesn't just effect his character, but also the evolution of Tarantino's work. Where as Tarantino has practiced the Spaghetti Western aesthetic in KILL BILL and INGLORIOUS BASTTERDS, Tarantino was also showing different sides of the revenge motive, a motive Tarantino likes due to it‘s Shakesperian magnitude. KILL BILL shows reckless abandon, claiming it to be God's work while leaving the vengeful one vulnerable to their own fate which is tied to another person's strand of vengeance. With INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, vengeance is motivated in matters of race and personal vengeance. Yet, Shoshanna showed herself to be more vulnerable, with her feeling something for her possible rapist Frederick Zoller, whose film exploits and quotes such as "every German soldier is someone's son" going as far to have a change of mind after she had shot him. We have a softening here.
In DJANGO UNCHAINED, Django at the beginning, kills people who have a bounty on their head. Though the first three were killed in vengeance, they did have a bounty on their heads, making it a scapegoat. The killing of pre-Klans men was an act of defense. The kills in the snow aren't particularly explained, but when it comes to killing a family man who was at one time Smitty Bacall - a train robbing murderer, Django does hold back. He has to kill the father simply plowing the field, no longer a man who is intent on being a criminal. To those who see Tarantino as one internet commenter claimed, “a moral idiot”, we see a new bit of depth.
For the rest of the film, Django doesn't kill anyone who doesn't have it coming to them. Calvin Candie is killed by Schultz, which in turn makes Django have to fend for himself. The rest of the people he has to kill are people who would either hunt him down for the rest of his life (in a time where the odds are against Django of having a fair trial which would see him innocent for self defense would be none because he's black) or stop him from stealing what they see as their property - Broomhilda. Not that those people wouldn't be deserving to be killed. Where as vengeance and vigilantism would be wrong in a society with due process and such, this is an America where not everyone had such a fair chance, and since our protagonist is Django, a black man, what he does is in fact necessary. This is one of Tarantino's most righteous films as far as the moral construct is concerned.
IMPERFECT HUMAN CHARACTERS
People who kill wrongly are either obviously antagonists or Dr. King Schultz. This makes Schultz an imperfect character, something which Tarantino had had to point out to critics who wonder why Django and Schultz didn't just buy Broomhilda. Schultz is a character of assumptions and of suffering illusions of grandeur. Not having the most perfect person to guide Django in his life as a free man makes one think that Django's trying to get his wife and get used to being a free man that much harder, if not dangerous. It is this which helps make DJANGO UNCHAINED a more realistic but at the same time grandiose film of Tarantino's. These grandiose actions, paired with some of the best shots that Tarantino has composed really make the film one of Tarantino's best, an interesting statement since Tarantino only has seven films as of this writing. This is a character trait that Quentin Tarantino has had to explain to critics on sites such as the Huffington Post. This imperfect character of Schultz is another barrier that Django had to overcome.
Schultz’s character traits do not stop at his delusions of grandeur. While Schultz has this grandiose air about him, it is also obvious from his career decisions that he is in it for the buck. Such is his being a dentist, a profession that especially now is seen as the lowest end of the medical profession job. Yet, particularly with the southern group of people who - like Calvin Candie are in dire need to dental care - they would be willing to pay through the teeth for dental work - some of the more intricate work. This quick buck mentality might be reason for Schultz's taking up of the bounty hunter profession. Get certified, search, and shoot them down. One could go on forever about the character, picking him apart in ways as to label him as a manipulation of the Deus Ex Machina plot device as said by Roger Ebert.
TARANTINO'S SIGNATURE TRAITS
People say that Quentin Tarantino will never win another Academy Award because of how identifiable his work is with its artist. Django Unchained is not exempt from such a claim, a film which is very Tarantino. However, it is a Tarantino which is getting a second wind about him. Going into the minuteness of the direction, it seems as if Quentin has story boarded Django Unchained a lot more than any of his other films. That is simply to say that there are more great “shots” in the film, shots which show composition of a certain quality. These are shots which could be put onto canvas and shown at an art exhibit. “Blood on cotton” or “Private Southern Funeral Under a Tree”. Some shots have the same quality, though work purely in a cinematic context. Such as the side profile of Django’s ragged face up against a giant rock with the manipulation of the depth of field of the shot, expressing the “Django is just sixth of seven on this chain gang” position Django is in at the beginning. Another such shot is a reflection of Django as he guns down the first Brittle brother and his reflection is missing a face - missing a race. Tarantino along with Robert Richardson has done a great job with this.
Tarantino’s touch effects his film in different ways though. Not unlike Robert Rodriguez, Quentin has cannibalized bits of his past works, most notable to this critic is bits of KILL BILL. Such as the swarming wave of riflemen before Django is made by Stephen to give up the initial fire fight. Stretch it some, there is a kind of repeating of a feeling of emotions from past films of his. It is always rushed though, which is understandable. Tarantino is taking more and more time in his films to detail the little things and the big things that matter. Django Unchained could have been over 3 hours long - not just with whole scenes deleted, but also individual shots like the stylistic putting on of a hat Django does in trailers of the film which would have taken place at the beginning of the film. These aforementioned emotions are things like the beginning of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’ chapter 5 with the run away scene from DJANGO UNCHAINED coupled with the song FREEDOM by Anthony Hamilton or the kitchen table discussion in DJANGO UNCHAINED mirroring the Operation Kino chapter of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Some of the mechanics are different in these, along with how fast they play by, it is there. In the possible extended cut Tarantino has thought about, it would be interesting to see how he would effect these scenes.
DJANGO UNCHAINED AS A SLAVE NARRATIVE
DJANGO UNCHAINED is a Spaghetti Western turned into a new breed called the Southern first and foremost. But since DJANGO UNCHAINED's slavery facet is under scrutinization, credence must be given. In a film that tackles less exposed sides of slavery like genital mutilation or phrenology, its Mandingo fighting which should be looked at first.
The inclusion of Mandingo fighting accomplishes a couple of things: Its a tribute to the film MANDINGO, which Tarantino has pointed out, was one of the only exploitation films which had studio backing. Its also one of a (relatively) few films which deal with slavery made by Hollywood which were depicted with a certain level of brutality. Its in that, and the use of slavery in general, in which fits in with the Corbucci aesthetic of having the most desolate, no-mans land Southern/Western America.
However, Mandingo fighting is a hyped form of an evil which went by the name Battle Royal before and after the Civil War. Black rights activist Frederick Douglas was a fighter in some matches in his life. Indeed, MANDINGO and the book it was based on (written by Kyle Onstott) were not the only depictions of the battle royal. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison is also a work which depicts such. Records are understandably scratchy, (unlike the traditional image of slavery where someone could try to say that slavery was an economic good, battle royals were purely entertainment. To quote an article on wikipedia, "Before 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed, battles royal often appeared on the undercard of boxing matches. These fights would normally involve five or six slaves fighting blindfolded and bare-knuckled. Depending on the pre-agreed rules, these fights would either last until one man was left standing, the winner, or until two remained standing, at which point the blindfolds would be removed from the combatants and the fight continued until one was unable to continue. The owner of the winner would receive the prize, which was usually small."
This kind of slave function serves DJANGO UNCHAINED for having the most pitiful of slaves being the ones the most brutal of torture scenes are saved for, making it all the more painful. Fictional depictions can also be found in films like 1976's DRUM. For a more factual account of such matters, which seem to go without a proper noun, there are articles such as "To See Who Was Best on the Plantation: Enslaved Fighting Contests and Masculinity
The topic of phrenology plays the next vital role in the film, being the faux science which real plantation owners that would mirror the likes of Calvin Candie would use to justify their racial superiority. This is actually just one of many, many pseudo sciences that existed, including teleology which claimed that black men were built physically to be natural laborers. The significance of this is that science, seen to be a blatantly objective field, truly isn't as far as the people who create the science is concerned. Even more is that other than a non-racial reference to phrenology made by Charlie Sheen in one of his films, phrenology has not been represented in films like ROOTS or AMISTAD. Alas, this gives the film's antagonists an edge.
Most importantly though, since slavery is a topic that has most heavily effected blacks, it is most hurting that some black people didn't feel brotherhood with their enslaved kin, rather to suck up to their white owners as much to even gain a personal love with them. This character, while not being anything new, is important for juxtpositioning Django - this freed black man - to Stephen - who is the freest slave if one was to go to the other end of the "getting my freedom" choice spectrum. This adds another variety of slave that we are shown in DJANGO UNCHAINED. We have Stephen, the house slave. Broomhilda is a pony. Django is a freed man. Some of the mandingos that Candie drags to Candyland have to see a free slave gallivanting about. We also have the bystanders.
There is a lot more that could, and will, be said about DJANGO UNCHAINED, (like the use of ritual in Tarantino’s films) but this is what struck me having seen the film in a theatre. We have a great mix of Spaghetti Western aesthetics placed on one of the most painful settings a film could have directed by a great auteur with a soundtrack which actually has original music from black artists and even an original song by Ennio Morricone. DJANGO UNCHAINED simply works and if Tarantino does make a director’s cut - which he has mentioned - then I will certainly be waiting for it!
*This review has been written by Evan "G2KMaster" Brehany, a Georgia resident like myself(he lives in Warner Robins, GA) and a young man who is an avid film buff. Evan is a long time and valued member of my online community called MONSTERLAND FORUMS . Evan will be reviewing some of his favorite films for me from time to time in "Packmule's Pen". *