Thursday, February 21, 2013

ON MASTERS, MONSTERS, AND EMANCIPATORS (PART TWO)


There is one more thing I'd like to adress about DJANGO UNCHAINED before moving on. While it is true, and definitely a part of the problem with the film, that even though the film boasts a black main character and cast, there is almost no interaction among the black characters in the film. What little verbal interaction there is, it is full of derogatory stereotypes. But if we're going to address the lack of real dialogue among black characters in the film, we must then consider what there is in its stead. One certainly cannot criticize a lack of dialogue, assuming that such lack comes to mean an emptiness of meaning, a vacuum of interaction. What's more, one cannot either go on to fill that silence, that supposed emptiness, with one's own words and complaints of lack of realism and historical conscience, before taking into account what exactly the film says about the characters involved in the film. Film language is not only tied to the spoken word. Alas, dialogue can be deceitful when we think that the things people say in a film are actually what the film says about the world created in front of us. Sometimes image and dialogue collide, and sometimes they work together in harmony. With DJANGO UNCHAINED, however, the 'other' language and interactions between black characters actually lead us to even more problematic conclusions about the consciousness of that very film.



I'd like to first return to the pivotal flashback Django suffers when first encountering one of the Brittle brothers. In the flashback, as I said earlier, Django verbally argues with the slavers for them not to whip his beloved, Brumhilda. His pleading with them is humiliating in its desperation. He tries to speak a language they would understand, arguing that Brumhilda would be devalued would she be beaten, and that the one really deserving of any punishment was him. We then see images of Brumhilda and Django escaping a plantation under the cover of the night. There is a close up of both their faces, and in this intimate moment before running off with the hopes of reaching freedom far away, they do not exchange words. They look at one another, silently, and their eyes do the talking. They know they are putting themselves in danger, and before making the decision to run for it, they need to reassure and strengthen one another. For the purposes of this scene, there is no need for expository dialogue. Later, when Brumhilda is actually whipped, we see her face up close, torn and twisted by this lashing pain. She can only cry out in her torment. The moment is effective in allying us with the two victims, and it instills in us the necessary anger to be able to be on Django's side when he enacts his revenge.

Then, later on the film  we get another very peculiar and silent interaction between black characters. It occurs when Django, riding a horse, arrives at Candieland's big house. Previously, on the way to the plantation, he was being very antagonistic towards anyone who would challenge him in any way. He is riding a horse, and every other black man is walking, chained in a line. One of the slaves eyes him with much resentment, for as Django had communicated before to Dr. Schultz, there is nothing lower and more disgusting than a black slaver. The resent and anger from the slave towards Django is, under the circumstances, justified. But it is also established that Django is 'getting dirty' in order to achieve his goal: rescue his beloved Brumhilda. The film will later even posit that the blame is to be placed at the slave's feet, for he is the one who does not understand that Django is somehow gaming the system, the institution, and that his antagonism is just a pose, that he really is a hero. Back to the actual arrival at the big house, we get this great and simple exchange:


It is here that we get the gist of the performance by three black men and their position with one another.  There is a exchange of glances from Stephen (played by Samuel L. Jackson), and Rodney (a silent role by Sammi Rotibi) towards Django. Both faces looking at Django attentively are of very angry black men. Stephen's change in expression is glorious to behold, as Samuel L. Jackson's face truly betrays all the motivation, all the ideas behind his attitude and actions towards Django later on. His face is first one of astonishment, which then quickly changes into a controlled rage: He is looking at a man who is a very affront to the nature of the institution where he belongs.

Rodney's glance, which follows after a shot of Stephen's, is also revealing. His is a piercing look, similar to Stephen's but with resentment added into it.

And Django? There is no close up of his face. He hides under his shades. He is the epitome of cool.

At that moment, there really is no more meaning behind the exchange of glances, at least not until we return to Rodney's glance once more towards the very end of the film, when Dr. Schultz has already died and Django is left to rescue Brumhilda on his own. Django kills some Australian slavers (Tarantino among them), and goes to retrieve a pack of dynamite from a cage where Rodney and two other slaves are held. He then gets up on a horse, with no mount, and rides off into the distance, free as the wind, an agent of vengeance. We get a close up of Rodney's face, which at first looks upon him with those angry eyes we've seen before but then changes into an agreeable smirk.  It is the moment Tarantino uses to 'transform' Django into a 'mythical hero'. Every interaction from here out will be not only cliched, but outright insulting. It is after this that Tarantino becomes not only derogatory, but outright exploitative. What did we expect? This is an exploitation film! Slavery is not a historical event to be analyzed and worked through. Slavery, to Tarantino, was but a problem of culture, to be approached and solved only through the coolness of well dispatched entertainment...I'm sorry, violence. The suffering face of Brumhilda, or the angry face of Rodney, are turned into adulating faces. They admire Django's cool vibe, his troublemaking stone face.

Tarantino, when interviewed about DJANGO UNCHAINED, has repeatedly said that he made a film that will make people talk about slavery the way it hasn't been talked about in 30 years. I'm beginning to think he is right. After all, I don't think slavery has been talked about in quite this way before. Yes, to compare a person's attitude and understanding towards slavery to attitudes towards entertainment, towards the 'cool factor'. Sure, such drivel hasn't been brought up before, in quite this way.

I felt the need to go into these details about the treatment of a changing face, because first, they reveal a troubling dialogue among the black characters in the film, and second, because these same tools will be used in another film, not nominated for the Academy Awards. In that other film, THE MASTER, the face and its transformations will not only reveal dialogue, but will unveil a spiritual, ideological, temporal and generational struggle.


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