Sunday, April 21, 2013

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2012)

Tarantino's latest is furiously empty.  What is ailing Quentin?  Django Unchained's best moments are comedic; while the man himself is almost painfully ungraceful on-camera (which hasn't stopped him from making his numerous cameo appearances), Tarantino is expert in directing comedy, and in writing it.  He not only knows how to cast actors in roles that will highlight their comedic skills, his greatest cinematic talent is as an observer of the offhand, the humorous, and the stylishly idiosyncratic in human interaction.

I've long believed that one of the signal joys of cinema is in the ability to observe this kind of behavior - of people being people.  Theater is naturally more artificial and more immediately physical, features that the best dramaturgs have always used to their advantage.  But in cinema, the audience and the stage are made invisible, the camera and the cut allows the director to manipulate time and space, and the living action of the mind and body become available to see and enjoy in literal and metaphorical close-up. Tarantino is a filmmaker who understands this capability of cinema, this magic.

But Tarantino has devolved into a willfully adolescent filmmaker.   Visually, his films have become increasingly lazy and uninspired; Django Unchained evinces this most starkly.  His writing has become fatuous and meandering.  The story behind the film is yet another rote revenge fantasy, and its pursued by Tarantino with only a modicum of interest and vigor.  Clearly, the man is more fond of writing pithy dialogue and having his excellent performers deliver it.  The characters here are present enough, but again Tarantino seems uninterested; only Dr. King Schultz (played with effortless élan by the wonderful Christoph Waltz) has some sense of personal history and emotional depth.  Even so, his very European insistence upon honor - which leads to his downfall - comes across as mere fastidiousness, given the moral compromises he has made so far.

As a filmmaker, Tarantino has always been a bit more hype than substance, but at his best, he can be a storyteller of significant wit and perceptiveness.  His formula has always been that of old-fashioned storytelling virtues combined with a modish flair for kitsch.  His taste for the lurid and the puerile are part of his charm, but lately he's been relying too heavily on them.  The creeping tendency to tell his stories "bigger," has resulted in movies that are either bloated curios (the Kill Bill films) or embarrassingly glib historical mashups (Inglourious Basterds and this one.)

Tarantino's range of influences and references is wide, but it's a mistake to confuse that with his aesthetic range as an artist.  His best work focuses on small-scale human interaction that is occasionally interrupted by terrible, weird violence.  He has no sense of historical scale or gravity; in Django Unchained, he does a pastiche of historical grandiosity that doesn't know it's a pastiche.  People who say that this film is "brave" or whatever because its Dealing With Slavery are being silly or are actually ignorant.  While it's true that Tarantino does effectively portray the depravity and viciousness of slavery and the ridiculousness of the culture that fostered it, he ultimately belittles it, robs it of its complexity and its power.  The slavers in Django are uniformly absurd and awful creatures.  Most of them are quaintly stupid.  We see nothing of the banality of this particular and essential American evil, the overt and subtle ways in which the "peculiar institution" was reinforced economically, politically, religiously - in a word, culturally.  Granted, that might not fit in the mode in which Tarantino is working, but that's not a reason to let him off the hook. 

I'm going to sidestep the other glaring issue with Tarantino, namely his gleeful reveling in extreme violence, because for me, that aspect of the movie had been sufficiently built up that I wasn't too surprised or affected by it.  I suppose I'm sympathetic with the position that Tarantino's violence (especially in these last two films) is often so cartoonish that its visceral effect is diminished.   The more "serious" violence, or the "bad" violence, if you will (and this is distinguished from the righteous, vengeance-based violence) - the stuff Tarantino clearly wants us to know he disapproves of - is shown as being repulsive and cruel.  Whether or not this is ethically sound is a can of worms that I'm not going to open up here, but I will say this:  it doesn't do the experience of the film any favors. 

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