Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Quentin Tarantino Unchained in Django

Tarentino is a genre enthusiast because his creative forte is revisiting, and recasting a canon which he understands better than anyone. His understanding is better as he keeps his observation alive in the face of his child-like fascination with the genre. He is a connoisseur or a lover not a fanatic in this regard.  In fact, he gets his directorial rush by messing with his beloved genres. His creativity takes its initial impulse from the set points of certainties that any genre provides. However, this creativity gains its momentum from making an intervention into these rigidities and redefining them to tell a story where genre props are, in a big part, used to showcase director’s visual, creative and chromatic panache. His use of underlying structures and conventions of genres is intelligent foraging of a very sleek director who enjoys telling a good story. He told New York Times “You can’t really do a spaghetti western anymore. Spaghetti westerns were a thing of their time. But one of the big influences that spaghetti westerns have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront. There is a part of me that likes to go in from time to time for those big operatic effects.”  Kill Bill 1 and 2 were love letters to various genres and his trivia loving non trivial love for movies. 

 He also goes to them to kick start the whole process of conceptualizing a movie project. Speaking of the influence of Elmore Leonard he said “He helped me find my voice — the way that he would set up these genre stories you’ve seen a zillion times but then let real life complicate them and [mess] up the scenarios from time to time but in a very realistic way. That’s kind of what I was doing in my early writing.” The dependence on genre to switch on the creative process may have  reduced but it  still plays a big role and key Tarentino features- Unexpected spectacular violence, crispy intelligent dialogues, irreverence for any line that might be held sacrosanct by his peers find full play when reference points of certainty-bound genres provide a comforting counterweight. 

   Same applies to his sense of History. He may choose a subject and develop an intuitive understanding which will be so deep that he will be in a position to see the dramatic possibility in the situation and the context. He digs into the impulses and throbbing dramatic possibilities of a context which may or may not be factual because his palette is a different terrain then the factual History.  This surfaced in its most visible form in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ an  “ebullient Holocaust fantasia” an attempt to “to reframe and rewrite American history in boldly absurd strokes and, by doing so, to make us confront the distortions and omissions of so much "fact-based" cinema.”  Poetic licence often highlights the innards of a context much better than the rational application of historical investigation. But that’s not the primary task of that licence. Great poets use the licence to tell a story and situate their ‘sweet excesses’ in their proper settings. Tarentino is an intelligent curator of mores of genres but he always has a nice story to tell and has all the attributes and technical knowhow to give this story a sleek sheen and a visual flair. Django Unchained is no exception to this, now, well traversed path.

Django Unchained might jolt few cinematic conceptions of slavery and other social hot points but viewing it as a comment on societal woes will be wrong. Agenda here is not to correct the distortion or availing the slave story the true horror it deserves. Here too he is telling a love story using the props of western and a backdrop of slavery and giving vent to his directorial strengths . His initial impulses are coming from the conditions and context of slavery and momentum is coming from upending the tradition of description of this context in the cinematic history. This film is often being described as an effective attack on the conspiracy of silence on slavery in the Hollywood tradition. The silence is a historical fact owing much to the continuing struggle in the public psyche to find ways to deal with it. Realistic films on native Indian themes are easy because solutions, howsoever problematic, have more or less settled and immediacy, if any, is not really threatening. Slavery and the race question, on the other hand, is a continuing conundrum. But that does not matter when Tarentino decides to make the movie. He is not dealing with the social issue for any activist like reason. He sees ‘many cool situations’ which could be leveraged to showcase his storytelling and directorial strengths, he takes them. But his understanding of contexts is so intuitive that he ends up on the right side. A O Scott is right on money when he writes “Like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.” Key point is playfulness and ethical seriousness is a by product, though an inevitable one.
The Film starts when Django (Jamie Foxx) is bought and Unchained by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz- a stellar performance in a superbly written character), a German-born dentist-turned-bounty-hunter whose wagon, in a typical display of Tarentino visual wit has a perky giant tooth. Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing Nazi colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, has emerged a great vehicle for acerbic wit and great chaos that Tarentino channels through his actors. King wants Django to point out the Brittle brothers, outlaws carrying a huge bounty, dead or alive. His reward is freedom. On the other hand,  Django needs King to locate his enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The Mayham soon begins as the project is completed in a spectacular fashion at Bennett Manor, where Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson- another Tarentino speciality is to dig out legends and get great performance from them) is fooled into allowing the hunt. Free Django agrees to a partnership for an year and after profitable bounty hunting year they end up at Candyland, the slave plantation run by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an  inspired performance ‘as a charming, posturing sociopath’). Whatever excesses of cruelty slaves had to endure reach a new height here. The house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), supervises whippings, brandings, beatings, dog attacks and castration.  Jackson (now joined by Waltz) is an old Tarentino muse. He conveys the perverse pleasure  that he feels in being crueler then his master. He perfectly portrays the tenuous nature of the power space that he has carved for himself and his well honed sensitivity to any threat to it. At Candyland, Django finds Broomhilda suffering for her spirit and that leads to elaborate denouement that gives full vent to famous blood geysers of Tarentino and crisp dialogues. As Rolling Stone says in the review “there's something here to offend everyone.”

Quintin Tarentino has managed to ‘concoct a genre of his own’. Any new director of wit and violence is measured against his achievements and he has created a place in the pantheon of Hollywood which is firmly cemented for years to come. He is that rare director who inhabits the sweet spot where flexibility of spontaneity meets the unwavering control over the tenor and texture of the output. He is a flamboyant storyteller and joy of doing it well shows in Django Unchained.

-Dhiraj Singh

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