Friday, June 21, 2013

LCC Review: Django Unchained

Tarantino I've always held to be a director of quality and substance with his film making. He makes great films (brilliantly written especially), but they are very much stylized affairs that make sense in the world of his imagination--but not much sense out of that stylized world he's created. In other words, the way he presents the world not as how it is, but in a manner that is completely unique to himself that no one else can quite replicate without it seeming disingenuous.
And I'll say that Tarantino is not the only one of his kind, but represents just one species of director. The species consists of (and I'll even throw in a playwright) some of those that are hailed as "greats" amongst the field. They build similarly stylized worlds that are unique and distinctive to them. Hitchcock is just one example, the German Expressionists like Fritz Lang are others, Chaplin yet another, and Bertolt Brecht is yet another still. Sure, their works might be heavily based on realism, but the style of their storytelling supersedes and transcends simple realism (the Expressionists being the obvious example). The world they portray isn't necessarily the world as we know it--it's slightly better and slightly worse simultaneously, done on purpose to make a point that transcends actual reality.

There are other species of directors as well, the hacks being a notable subset, as are the actual realists, and many many more, but today with this film, I want to talk about the directors who create highly stylized films, and take apart the world of Django Unchained.

On the surface, Django Unchained looks like your typical comic formula--especially in the latter parts of the film when we arrive at the Candie Land plantation--with a hint of romance thrown in for good measure. For a brief summary of the plot, the story is about a slave named Django who is "freed" by a bounty hunter to find some overseers who he knows to collect a reward on. The man trains him to be a bounty hunter and after bagging the overseers decides to help Django in getting his wife Brunhilda back--who was sold to another plantation owner. Pretty simple stuff--on the surface.
The senex iratus was played by Samuel L. Jackson, with Django playing the tricky slave. There's a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure via the Sigfried and Brunhilda structure the film looks at later on, but that's Tarantino dipping his toes in the water of romance at most, not going in for the full plunge. If anything Tarantino brings our German bounty hunter over from the world of romance, as he has the most romantic viewpoint of the entire film, in fact one could say he's a refugee from a romance story that found himself amongst an ironic comedy world and learned to adapt.

The overarching formula is comic as it is about an eiron character: the slave (Django) who earns his freedom and thus rises or ascends to the status of a freedman through bounty hunting. Bounty hunting requires our tricky slave character to transcend twice throughout the course of the film and evolve into a sly servant character for our "master bounty hunter" in the beginning and finally by the end of the film evolving into the prototype of our amateur detective as an independent bounty hunter all his own. Essentially, giving us the history of the evolution of this eiron character archetype all in one film. As such, the role requires this character throughout his many incarnations to always be donning disguises, which is a clear sign of an eiron character, no matter the genre. Eirons will always pretend to be "lesser than they are" so that when the big reveal happens it's a shock to those around them. Typically you can find eiron characters cloaked or donning some kind of disguise, act, or fake pretence around others. You can see this in Django when he pretends twice to be a manservant to his master bounty hunter, when in reality the bounty hunter gave him his freedom early on in the film. Ultimately through the film we are watching the evolution of Django from chained slave to independent bounty hunter.

After the evolution of Django, the overarching story of the film is still comic, but an extremely ironic version of comedy--probably the most ironic you can get without it crossing into the sphere of irony completely.
Django seems to mix different stages of Comedy together: "stage one" and "stage two" most especially:

Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, p178-80):

Phase One: Ironic Comedy - Existent society remains: The absurd society triumphs or remains undefeate
d or sometimes, in more ironic cases, dissolves without anything to take its place.

"We notice in ironic comedy that the demonic world is never far away. The rages of the senex iratus in Roman comedy are directed mainly at the tricky slave, who is threatened with the mill, with being flogged to death, with crucifixion, with having his head dipped in tar and set on fire, and the like, all penalties that could be and were exacted from slaves in life. An epilogue in Plautus informs us that the slave-actor who has blown up in his lines will now be flogged; in one of the Menander fragments a slave is tied up and burned with a torch on the stage. One sometimes gets the impression that the audience of Plautus and Terence would have guffawed uproariously all through the Passion. We may ascribe this to the brutality of a slave society, but then we remember that boiling oil and burying alive ("such a stuffy death") turn up in The Mikado. Two lively comedies of the modern stage are The Cocktail Party and The Lady's Not for Burning, but the cross appears in the background of the one and the stake in the background of the other. Shylock's knife and Angelo's gallows appear in Shakespeare: in Measure for Measure every male character is at one time or another threatened with death. The action of comedy moves toward a deliverance from something which, if absurd, is by no means invariably harmless. We notice too how frequently a comic dramatist tries to bring his action as close to a catastrophic overthrow of the hero as he can get it, and then reverses the action as quickly as possible. The evading or breaking of a cruel law is often a very narrow squeeze. The intervention of the king at the end of Tartuffe is deliberately arbitrary: there is nothing in the action of the play itself to prevent Tartuffe's triumph. Tom Jones in the final books, accused of murder, incest, debt, and double-dealing, cast off by friends, guardian, and sweetheart, is a woeful figure indeed before all these turn into illusions. Any reader can think of many comedies in which the fear of death, sometimes a hideous death, hangs over the central character to the end, and is dispelled so quickly that one has almost the sense of awakening from nightmare."

This phase is most especially visible when Django reflects on his past life as a slave as well as when he gets caught towards the end of the film and nearly is castrated. The world of ironic comedy is a harsh one--and for all intents and purposes is a police state. Ironic comedy takes the hell-on-earth of irony and then at the last moment undoes it all.
Candie Land itself as a plantation dissolves without anything to take its place, but overall the structure of slave society which allowed for the creation of Candie Land, remains undefeated.

Also Northrop Frye:

Phase Two: Quixotic Comedy - Criticism of society without change: The hero escapes a humorous society without transforming it

"The second phase of comedy, in its simplest form, is a comedy in which the hero does not transform a humorous society but simply escapes or runs away from it, leaving its structure as it was before. A more complex irony in this phase is achieved when a society is constructed by or around a hero, but proves not sufficiently real or strong to impose itself. In this situation the hero is usually himself at least partly a comic humor or mental runaway, and we have either a hero's illusion thwarted by a superior reality or a clash of two illusions. This is the quixotic phase of comedy, a difficult phase for drama, though The Wild Duck is a fairly pure example of it, and in drama it usually appears as a subordinate theme of another phase. Thus in the Alchemist Sir Epicure Mammon's dream of what he will do with the philosopher's stone is, like Quixote's a gigantic dream, and makes him an ironic parody of Faustus (who is mentioned in the play), in the same way that Quixote is an ironic parody of Amadis and Lancelot. When the tone is more light-hearted, the comic resolution may be strong enough to sweep over all quixotic illusions. In Huckleberry Finn the main theme is one of the oldest in comedy, the freeing of a slave, and the cognitio tells us that Jim had already been set free before his escape was bungled by Tom Sawyer's pedantries. Because of its unrivalled opportunities for double-edged irony, this phase is a favourite of Henry James: perhaps his most searching study of it is The Sacred Fount, where the hero is an ironic parody of a Prospero figure creating another society out of the one in front of him."

Some elements of this phase are thrown in for good measure but for the large part this phase is subordinate to the phase one setting. The most distinct part of this phase's inclusion is where Django rides off into the west with Brunhilda at the end after giving us a characteristic movie poster pose with sunglasses and cigarette in front of the smouldering ruins of the Candie Plantation. Our hero has escaped the society and is about to go and create a rival one out west as a bounty hunter with Brunhilda and whatever children they have together.

Okay, so Django has an overall comic formula, but what about Tarantino's style? Tarnatino goes the extra mile in this film to create not the slave-holding south as it was, but a kind of mixture between the slave holding south and the post-Civil War old west. He also adds in some elements of black exploitation cinema with the theme of having an underground wring of slave masters who have their slaves fight to the death for their entertainment. It's especially in this element that Tarantino transcends reality and--well, at least to our knowledge--invents something that could have plausibly happened, but we never actually saw happen in real life. Finally in pure Tarantino style over emphasizes the violence of this world--which is completely appropriate to do in an Ironic Comedy. As Frye mentions an Ironic Comedy world is a violent and repressive society that has teeth to back up its claims, and Tarantino presents it with all of its teeth intact.

In terms of performances, all the actors give a high caliber performance and I have to say I greatly enjoyed them all, with Jackson, Foxx, and DiCaprio probably giving the best performances of the film, and Waltz coming in a close second after that three-way tie for first.

Django Unchained does have a few problems most notably by bringing in the theme of vengeance--a theme mroe appropriate to tragedy than comedy. The reason I say this is because bringing vengeance into comedy allows us to entertain the notion that vengeance has no consequences--and most audiences don't react well to that idea. However Tarantino does his best to try and give vengeance its proper consequences in this film by amplifying the violence of the slave society, but with Django's triumph in the end there's some small hint of a consequence-free vengeance plot at the last minute. It also makes Django a much more serious character who is only occasionally funny or is perceived as funny to others, which makes him a much less of a fun character. Jamie Foxx arguably does however bring just enough of a minutia of levity to the part so that we feel he's having fun, which thus counterbalances the seriousness of this vengeance plot.

The middle part where Tarantino tries to dip his toes into the genre of Romance with Django and the German Bounty hunter talking about Sigfried and Brunhilda is a point when the film begins to drag and it becomes obvious that our Bounty Hunter is a refugee from another type of film and has tried his best to adapt to the strange new world he's entered. The part of the film between the killing of the overseers which was the initial reason for Django's release and the point when we arrive at Candie Land plantation has to be the slowest part of the film pacing wise and could've been snipped at and shortened to some degree--the worst offence being the long carriage ride to the Candie Land plantation that never seemed to end--which the characters even commented on it was so long...

Another problem is when there are cut scenes to showing Brunhilda as a character when she isn't in the first half of the movie outside of what Django says about her. There's this one of these cut scenes in particular where she looks to the camera and directly says: "call me Hilde". And then the camera pans out and shows no one else around her, thus overemphasising that was "just for us", which takes us out of the film for a moment, and is a trick that would go over better in a satire than here in an ironic comedy.

The hokeiest part has to be with the Australian slave traders, I was distracted the entire time how Australian slave traders were in the deep south. And of course the scene allowed us to hear Tarantino's barely passable attempt at an Australian accent. Not one of the better moments of the film--well at least until Django takes over the scene like he's supposed to.

Also Django Unchained often bends reality for stylistic and comic necessity, especially in the violent scenes. He bends reality to the point where it almost becomes blatantly obvious we're watching a movie to us.  The violence while it is enhanced, doesn't follow the normal laws of physics and thus enters the realm it shares with cartoon violence. One particular example comes to mind when Django shoots a lady from one angle and she goes flying back in a direction not possible from the angle at which he shot her--the point being to get her body out of the frame of the camera and is never seen again for the rest of the film--because dead overseers and red necks are funny to look at, but a dead and bloody Southern Belle ain't pretty or comic. And its at times like that that we're reminded that we're watching a film and brought outside of the world Django exists in.

So while I admire it for its daring, I also freely admit that in taking those risks it also creates some inherent problems within its own world. However, having said that, I must say that overall the film is a wonderful piece of entertainment and well worth seeing, whether you just want to be entertained, or you want to think a little more deeply about a film. That's probably the beauty of this film in general it allows for that wide variety of audience to see and enjoy it.