Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shaft, Django And Intermediate Tarantino

There’s a moment in “Django Unchained” where Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) walk into a bar and pour themselves a drink. As Dr. Schutlz speaks, in love with the words filtered through his German accent, the camera focuses on his beer pouring. Suddenly, his speechifying stops. The brew pours gracefully into his glass, as the Doctor removes a knife to brush away the cream at the top. Director Quentin Tarantino preserves this moment, silently observing Schultz pouring a second glass and doing the same, the foam sensually slipping off the curved glass, into the bar top. It’s a moment that stops the scene cold, a borderline-romantic observation of objects in motion that reminds us that, if Quentin Tarantino is an expert linguist in the language of cinema, this is one of his more intermediate lessons.
As he has aged, Tarantino has begun to lose his youthful recklessness. Instead, he’s filled in these gaps by allowing his cinematic universes to widen, to create worlds with colorful characters that feel less eccentric and more of a product of a crooked world. This has shown not only in his camera-work, but also in his storytelling interests and long-winded dialogue exchanges that often seem to be talking about talking. Moving from the world of super cool hitmen and bulletproof assassins, Tarantino’s turned to re-writing American history, even if his historical awareness has rarely stretched beyond the movies of which have resulted. He’ll never be cinema’s greatest teacher, but in some ways he’s one of the more unique students.

“Django Unchained” right off the bat shows Tarantino to be our best remixer, opening “Django Unchained” with the triumphant Luis Bacalov “Django” theme from the 1966 film. Except this isn’t a lone gunman toting a casket behind him, but black slaves two years before the fall of the South. This recontextualization extends to the identity of Django himself -- formerly the wise, soft-featured hero played by Franco Nero, he’s now a man who removes his robe to reveal whip-marks scattered all over his back. He says little when freed by the loquacious Dr. Schultz, a traveling bounty hunter who needs reliable confirmation from the slave as to his former owners’ whereabouts. Schultz does most of the talking, as you can forgive Django’s reluctance to fully trust another white man with a gun.
Your political and moral readings of the world may interfere with your enjoyment of “Django Unchained,” which is a pity given that you should be able to separate the real world and the world of Quentin Tarantino -- such is the power of a skilled filmmaker. In Tarantino’s films, violence and revenge, intertwined, are a form of currency. When you put a gun in the hands of a Tarantino character, his intentions are to punish those who have less ambiguous moral shadings than he/she does. Violence is always the great equalizer, and in “Django Unchained” we’re dealing with a character who has faced a lifetime of oppression. When Schultz puts a gun in Django’s hand and points him into the direction of his former slave owners, Schultz is the only one surprised by what will happen.
This momentary union soon becomes a partnership, as Schultz vows to help Django find his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and free her from slavery. There is a moment where Schultz, in a moment of rare affectionate cultural exchange that never occurs in a Tarantino film, explains the meaning of Broomhilda’s name to Django, illustrating the myth of Siegfried. What Tarantino does here is both ridiculous and understandable -- the clunky Von Shaft surname refers to Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft in the three “Shaft” films from the 1970’s, meaning that Tarantino is essentially equating “Die Niebelugen,” the story of a heroic Aryan empire that crumbles under its own hubris, with that of a series that produced “Shaft In Africa.” Of course Tarantino’s appreciation of black history is going to start with a film series that helped pioneer the blaxploitation movement. Broomhilda was the name she was given by German slaveowners. Von Shaft is the name she has, and Tarantino here is taking great pains to take the story of slavery away from the white man, and gift it to the black man. Is what he’s doing any more problematic than Steven Spielberg turning black people into hood ornaments as a group of old white men debate their rights in dusty rooms through three hours of “Lincoln”?

Tarantino doesn’t make films as much as he adds to the rich cinematic tapestry that has solidified the art form as the primary one for audiences in the twentieth and twenty first century. As Django sits at a bar, he’s greeted by a nameless figure played by none other than Franco Nero himself. It’s a brief moment of passing the baton, with the suggestion that Nero himself is playing Django, a character who has consciously walked out of his film to this one. He enters and exits, a tourist in a film carrying his character’s namesake. On another level, there’s the casting of Tarantino regular as Stephen, the “house nigger” for notorious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jackson is instantly recognizable, a man of dark skin who has, for multiple generations, represented onscreen African American virility. But as Stephen, Jackson looks to have darkened his skin, while wearing artificial-seeming light curls in tufts of hair above his brow. Jackson is playing a symbol, one that carries certain significance, one that reminds us of this time period more than many others. Jackson, in costume, is THE Uncle Tom.
While DiCaprio’s Candie is a sadistic sociopath who genuinely makes the skin crawl as he rambles on about the phrenology of a black man’s skull, Stephen is his companion, his confidante, charged with keeping the Candie home running, and allowing the profiting off slavery in order to continue greasing the wheels for the white man. It’s an ugly performance, which some might find unsettling due to its abstraction: Stephen is playing all Uncle Toms, beyond all of cinematic history. Tarantino’s film lets no one off the hook, exactly, but it does suggest that the Uncle Tom archetype is something to be ashamed of, despite the fact that it still persists today in forms like the popular Magical Negro trope, with black characters in one way or another assisting in the advancement of whites. It’s the most scathing contemporary blow that Tarantino strikes, one that, judging by reviews, some critics are unprepared for.
Then again, maybe casting Jackson as an oppressor to Von Shaft has its own subtle critique within. After all, it is Jackson who starred in the stillborn “Shaft” remake, which didn’t whitewash the character, but it did de-fang the racial commentary of the material as well as the racial identity of the character himself, while casting a host of non-Hispanic black actors as Latinos. Problematic, that. Of course, there is the moment in that otherwise forgettable film when Jackson toasts to “Uncle Jay,” played by Richard Roundtree. Unlike many filmmakers, Tarantino understands cinema as a Moebius strip, and “Django Unchained” a highlight of another intermediate lesson.


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