Django Unchained - review

Tarantino's new film does a disservice to the oppressed.

Django Unchained (18)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s last film, the wartime wish-fulfilment fantasy Inglourious Basterds, ended with the hero examining the swastika he had carved into a Nazi colonel’s forehead and declaring, “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” It’s too soon to know whether that will prove true of Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino’s soulful Jackie Brown still has the edge for me) but the case looks stronger in the light of his latest picture. Django Unchained feeds the subject of African-American slavery through the same parallel-universe hypothesis processor that the previous movie used on the Second World War.

Where the earlier film followed a band of Jewish-American Nazi-scalpers, the heroes of Django Unchained – the white German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick, former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) – shoot their way through plantation owners and racists in the American South in the late 1850s. Those killed with a dainty silver pistol die from a tiny chest wound that despatches a trickle of blood. Anyone dying in a shoot-out can expect their heads and torsos to explode in tomatoey splashes. The aftermath of the Tomatina festival would resemble a minor Rioja stain by comparison.

Tarantino has made no secret of his adoration for scuzzy B-movies with Kill Bill or Death Proof. Django Unchained is a different bucket of gore altogether, marrying this lowbrow art form with a subject matter that appears to merit a less sensationalist sensibility. But the problem isn’t the tension between the sober subject and the titillating style, with its authentically amateurish crash-zooms (when the lens lurches inelegantly towards its subject). After all, Fassbinder already travelled the same route in reverse: his 1971 western, Whity, applied a classical shooting style to a lurid melodrama about the exploitation of a black servant. Tarantino’s downfall is his compulsive over-scaling. For a B-movie nut, he has often failed to grasp that the B should stand not only for “bloody” and “brazen” but also “brevity.” In Django Unchained, he stretches pulp material to indulgent length (nearly three hours) without a corresponding upgrade in depth or characterisation.

Script and dialogue have been Tarantino’s strong suits but there are few scenes that don’t outstay their natural life. A skit featuring racists complaining about the eyeholes in their prototype-Klan masks will amuse only those who haven’t seen the bathos of evil explored more cleverly by David Mitchell and Robert Webb (as Nazis realising they may be the “baddies”) or Eddie Izzard (who imagined Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen ordering penne al arabiatta).

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant. He smacks his lips over language, yet doesn’t seem to know that people are “hanged” rather than “hung”, or that the expression “no worries” hasn’t been coined yet. Jamie Foxx has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down: he’s a righteous bore. Tarantino has said he wrote the character to give black American males an empowering Western hero. It’s an honourable intention, though it’s also an obscure kind of slight to have made him so glumly virtuous.

Anyone is more interesting than Django. There’s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the effete owner of the “Candyland” plantation who gets his kicks watching slaves fighting to the death. And Calvin’s house slave Stephen, played by Samuel L Jackson in oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair. The film is at its most electrifying when it touches on the disruption caused by slavery to racial solidarity; Stephen, a slave who colludes in the oppression of other African-Americans, is the personification of this warped state. (The name recalls Stevens, the butler from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who looked the other way or offered a helping hand when confronted with fascism.)

Many of Tarantino’s usual strengths work in the film’s favour, such as his unrivalled ear for music (the soundtrack includes rap, country and old Ennio Morricone cuts). But he is less skilful than usual at mastering jarring switches in tone. Funny violence and grave violence in the same film risk cancelling one another out, so that it all becomes numbing; the humorous brutality doesn’t seem such a riot, and the sense of outrage drains from scenes that should be shocking. Any gains the film makes by drawing on the vocabulary of exploitation cinema are soon outweighed by its losses in gravitas. Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed, who deserve at least to have their suffering understood.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington in Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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If you think Spielberg can't do women, you're missing his point about men

Donning her Freudian hat, Molly Haskell uses her new book to explore Steven Spielberg's attitude to women. But is his real target masculinity?

Few great film directors are as picked on as Steven Spielberg. For a large segment of the cineaste population, a liking for Spielberg over, say, Martin Scorsese is like preferring McCartney to Lennon, or Hockney to Bacon – a sign of an aesthetic sweet tooth, an addiction to flimsy, childlike fantasy over grit, darkness, ambiguity, fibre and all the other things we are taught are good for us in film-crit class. I once suggested to a scowling Sight & Sound reader that while a director such as Stanley Kubrick might be the epitome of the aesthetic will to power – bending the medium to do the master’s bidding – Spielberg’s work was the place you looked to see the medium of cinema left to its own devices: what it gets up to in its free time. The look of disgust on his face was immediate. Conversation over. I might as well have told him I still sucked my thumb.

Partly this is down to his outsized success, which sits ill at ease with our notion of the artist. This is wrong-headed when applied to the movies in general, but particularly when applied to someone such as Spielberg, athletically slam-dunking one box office record after another in the first half of his career, before morphing in the second half, greedily bent on acquiring the credibility that is naturally accorded to the likes of Scorsese, the auteur agonistes, tearing films from his breast like chunks of flesh while wandering in the Hollywood wilderness. Never mind that Scorsese’s reputation for speaking to the human condition rests on his mining of a narrow strip of gangland and the male psyche. Spielberg is a people-pleaser and nothing attracts bullies more.

The film critic Molly Haskell was among the first to kick sand in the director’s face, writing in the Village Voice of Jaws, upon its release in 1975, that she felt “like a rat being given shock treatment”. If you want a quick laugh, the early reviews of Jaws are a good place to start. A “coarse-grained and exploitative work that depends on excess for impact”, wrote one critic. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons”, wrote another. Interviews with Spielberg at the time make him sound as if he is halfway between the Mad magazine mascot, Alfred E Neuman, and a velociraptor: thumbs twitching over his Atari paddle, synapses synced to the rhythms of TV, his head firmly planted in the twilight zone. Who knew that this terrifying creature would one day turn 70 and stand as the reassuring epitome of classical Hollywood storytelling, with his status as a box office titan becoming a little rusty? The BFG did OK but Lincoln came “this close” to going straight to the small screen, the director said recently.

The timing is therefore perfect for an overdue critical reconsideration of his work, and Haskell would seem to be the perfect person for the job. For one thing, she never really liked his work. “I had never been an ardent fan,” she writes in her new book Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films. A card-carrying member of the Sixties cinephile generation – a lover of the brooding ambiguities, unresolved longings and sexual realpolitik found in Robert Altman, John Cassavetes and Paul Mazursky – she instinctively recoiled from the neutered, boys’ own adventure aspect of Spielberg.

“In grappling with Spielberg I would be confronting my own resistance,” she writes. This is a great recipe for a work of criticism, as Carl Wilson proved with his mould-shattering book about learning to love Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: a Journey to the End of Taste. More critics should be locked in a room with things that they hate. Prejudice plus honesty is fertile ground.

But the problem with Haskell’s book is that she hasn’t revised her opinion much. Sure, she grants that nowadays Jaws looks like a “humanist gem” when compared with the blockbusters that it helped spawn, but she still finds it mechanical and shallow – “primal but not particularly complex” – catering to “an escalating hunger for physical thrills and instant gratification”.

But how sweet! Remember instant gratification? It must be up there with Pong and visible bra straps: the great bogeymen of the moral majority in the early Seventies. The dustiness persists. Donning her Freudian hat, Haskell finds “three versions of insecurity” in the three male leads of Jaws. “Lurking behind their Robert-Bly-men-around-the-campfire moment is that deeper and more generalised adolescent dread of the female.”

Haskell is on to something, but only if you turn it 180 degrees. What is critiqued in Jaws is precisely the masculinity that she claims sets the film’s Robert Bly-ish ideological agenda. Refusing to cast Charlton Heston in his film because he seemed too heroic, Spielberg chose as his heroes a physical coward, afraid of the water, fretting over his appendectomy scar, and a Jewish intellectual, crushing his styrofoam cup in a sarcastic riposte to Robert Shaw’s bare-chested Hemingway act. Throughout the film and his career, Spielberg sets up machismo as a lumbering force to be outmanoeuvred by the nimble and quick-witted. His films are badminton, not tennis. Their signature mood is one of buoyancy; his jokes are as light as air. He’s a king of the drop shot.

Not insignificantly, he was raised largely by and with women. His father was always at work and was later “disowned” by Spielberg for his lack of involvement. Together with his three sisters, he was brought up by a mother who doted on her hyperactive son, driving Jeeps in his home movies and writing notes to get him out of school. She “big-sistered us”, he said. A version of this feminised cocoon was later recreated on the set of ET the Extra-Terrestrial, where Spielberg brought together the screenwriter Melissa Mathison and the producer Kathleen Kennedy to help midwife a film that, as Martin Amis once wrote ,“unmans you with the frailty of your own defences”.

On ET, again, Haskell hasn’t changed her opinion much. Its ending is still, in her view, “squirmingly overlong”, while the protagonist Elliott seems suspiciously “cleansed of perverse longings and adult desires, stuck in pre-adolescence”. It might be countered that Elliott is only ten years old and therefore not “stuck” in pre-adolescence at all, but simply in it – but this would run counter to the air of gimlet-eyed sleuthing struck by Haskell as she proceeds through the canon. Indiana Jones is an emblem of “threatened masculinity” whose scholar and adventurer sides “coexist without quite meshing”. (Isn’t that a good thing in a secret alter ego?)

Spielberg is “in flight” from women – he can only do hot mums, tomboys and shrieking sidekicks: “Spielberg was no misogynist. It was just that he liked guy stuff more.” It’s a trick she repeats: seeming to defend him from the charge of misogyny while leaving the charge hanging in the air. “Misogyny may be the wrong word. One rarely feels hatred of women in Spielberg but rather different shades of fear and mistrust.” If it’s the wrong word, there is no reason for Haskell to feature it so prominently in her book.

Having examined her own prejudices with insufficient candour, Haskell leaves his career largely as those first-wave critics found it: the early work facile and “mechanical” until Spielberg “grew up” and made Schindler’s List. Her biggest deviation from this narrative is that she thinks Empire of the Sun, not Schindler’s List, is his greatest film. This is a shame. The narrative could easily be upended. That early quartet of his – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET – stands as one of the great glories of pop classicism, a feat for which Spielberg was unjustly chastised, forcing him to retreat into “prestigious” historical recreation and middlebrow “message” pictures: films with their eyes on not so much an Academy Award as the Nobel Peace Prize. Lincoln plays like the creation of a director who has worked extremely hard to remove his fingerprints from the film and is all the more boring for it.

In the book’s final furlong, covering the 2000s, Haskell finds purpose. She is surely right to defend AI Artificial Intelligence from the wags who claimed that it had “the heart of Kubrick and the intellect of Spielberg”. All the sentimental parts that people assumed were Spielberg’s were in reality Kubrick’s and all the pessimistic stuff was Spielberg’s. As Orson Welles once said, the only difference between a happy ending and an unhappy ending is where you stop the story.

The roller-coaster lurches of Spielberg in the Nineties – when he alternated Oscar-winners such as Schindler’s List with popcorn fodder such as Jurassic Park – have stabilised and synthesised into something much more tonally interesting: the mixture of ebullience and melancholy in Catch Me If You Can, of dread and excitement in Minority Report and Munich. The ending of Bridge of Spies is among the most sublime final scenes in the director’s work: entirely wordless, like all the best Spielberg moments, it shows a Norman Rockwell-esque tableau of the returning hero, Tom Hanks, flopping down on to his bed, exhausted, while his family sits downstairs, too glued to the TV set to notice. When aliens finally land and want to know what it is the movies do – what the medium is for – there could be worse places to start.

Tom Shone is the author of “Blockbuster: How the Jaws and Jedi Generation Turned Hollywood into a Boom-Town” (Scribner)

Steven Spielberg: a Life in Films by Molly Haskell is published by Yale University Pres,( 224pp, £16.99 )

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era