My husband and I usually agree on movies. We don’t have exactly the same tastes, but when we find a movie we both want to see, we generally agree on whether it was bad or good, and why. Last night was an exception, though. We watched Django Unchained (2012), and he liked it, but I sure didn’t.
Disclaimer: I was only halfway paying attention for the first half of the movie. But that was actually one of the problems we both thought the movie had: the first half was a thousandfold more entertaining, even while I wasn’t even watching some of it, than the second half, which I saw all of. When King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) died, the movie missed him sorely, and I think it lost any particular reason for going on, after that point.
I had a really, really hard time dealing with a hero who was indistinguishable from the villains: he had no more mercy, conscience, or humanity than the bad guys. When he got his revenge, was just as brutal and cruel as his captors, just as hungry to torture. (And it’s not as this is just one of those conscienceless gore and action movies. Schultz has clearly struggled, and has fashioned his own set of rules about what is and is not acceptable; and even still, he has those ghastly flashbacks. Django, however, is just a machine.)
My husband says that this is entirely typical of a spaghetti western. The hero is not expected to undergo any character development, or to have any evident interior life. He says that all the “splut, splat, gloosh” bullet wounds are an affectionate mocking of Sam Peckinpah,* and I can see that; but I don’t know how you tell the difference, in a Tarantino movie, between making an homage and just hopping on someone else’s train and riding it like a fool.
I get that it’s just telling a story, and doing a gorgeous, stylish recreation of a particular American genre of movie. Not my favorite kind of movie, but I am okay with that. All right, so if that’s all it’s trying to be, then how are we supposed to think about the fact that it’s a slavery revenge fantasy? How is it not racist and exploitative to take a black couple and drop them into a genre where they don’t belong? It’s like, “Hey, I’m going to re-tell the Iliad, except in my movie, the Trojans are all cats!” Why would you do that? American slavery is one of those things that, if you’re going to make it a major theme in your story, you absolutely have to address some of the issues around it: what does it mean to be free, what does it mean to be cruel, what does it mean to be something. This movie doesn’t do any of that. It simply takes the spaghetti western and jazzes it up by inserting black slaves into the narrative.
Tarantino did the same thing in Inglourious Basterds, which I reviewed here: he had Jews exacting a bloody revenge on the Nazis, but none of the Jews were discernibly Jewish. They didn’t look Jewish, they didn’t talk Jewish, they didn’t think Jewish, they didn’t respond Jewish. They were just Jews plopped into a revenge fantasy. I can’t decide if that’s offensive or just stupid. Either way, it’s lazy.
There is another problem with Django which is similar to a problem in Basterds: the lavish revenge fantasy is supposed to satisfy some deep desire in your soul for certain wrongs to be righted. So we watch the black man whip the white, and the slaves wrench their freedom away from their cruel captors, and the husband and wife reunited, and you see foulness and corruption getting what’s coming to them. But the whole time, I’m thinking, “And this is exactly the opposite of what happened.” Even the pagan and petty part of your soul is not satisfied by the fantasy playing out on the screen, because it’s so thoroughly false.
I think the vengeance could have been satisfying (again, to some primitive part of your psyche, at least) if there had been some attempt to make Django and Hilda into actual characters, who had some sort of individual story. But they don’t. What is their future supposed to be? They’re just going to ride off and buy a house in upstate New York or something, and everybody will just shrug off the burning rubble and heaps of torn up bodies?
That being said, there were some good scenes. The part where the posse can’t see through their white hoods, even though one guy’s wife spent all day making them, was pretty funny — almost worthy of Mel Brooks. I liked the fact that there was really no exploitation of women in the movie. They could have eroticized slavery, but they didn’t. And I enjoyed watching a movie where the man has to go rescue his wife, and he does, the end. When’s the last time any movie allowed itself to tell that story?
Probably what this comes down to is that I just don’t get this movie. I haven’t seen a lot of spaghetti westerns, and I suppose I wouldn’t get them, either. And I don’t feel that my life is especially impoverished because of that.
I’m still waiting for Tarantino to get it together. This movie didn’t have his pseud0-intellectual, tawdry, masturbatory quirks stinking the whole film up. He had a slightly more coherent vision than usual, and just told the damn story, and clearly let someone edit it for him. I guess I hope he still keeps making movies, because he’s getting closer to doing something great. But he ain’t there yet.
*My introduction to Sam Peckinpah came when my husband and I were first married, back when people still had to drive to the store to rent a movie. I was pregnant and queasy and way too tired to go out in the evening, so I asked my husband to go pick out something for us to watch. I said that I really didn’t care what it was, as long as it wasn’t too violent. He was gone a long, long time. And then he came home with The Wild Bunch.
I’m not saying I’m still mad at my husband for this, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Sam Peckinpah.