Django Unchained (2012)

Tarantino’s Not So Sweet Bad Ass Song, or The Sauerkraut Western Revisited

For at least the first 90 minutes of its bloated 165 minutes, Django Unchained is, if not a great film, at least a very good one. However, given the ending, I don’t think the things that interested me are those that interest Quentin Tarantino. Most crucially, I think he wants to make a blaxploitation film, when in fact he has assembled all of the ingredients for a terrific anti-blaxploitation attack on the genre. To take two examples, Bill Gunn’s fabulous Ganja and Hess (1973) eviscerates the phony radical pretentions of Blacula (William Crain, 1972). Both early 1970s films fuse vampire legends with African-American identity. However, while Blacula merely places a black vampire in urban America, Ganja and Hess theorizes the metaphorical aspects of vampirism to understand race sociologically. When Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) acquires a vampiric disease studying African relics, he, as an upwardly mobile black man feeds on the blood of the black underclass in the ghetto. The film offers astonishingly precise social commentary.

Closer to Tarantino’s project, Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) begins with Sweetback handcuffed to an abusive white police officer while the latter beats a black suspect to death. Tired of having his hands shackled to white supremacy, Sweetback murders the white police officer, and then spends the rest of the movie fleeing American racism toward the Mexican border. This is a political film, reworking the Western to undo the classical Hollywood dynamics of action-based urban blaxploitation films such as Shaft (Gordon Parks, Sr., 1971) and Superfly (Gordon Parks, Jr., 1972).

Made after Van Peebles’ disastrous deal with Columbia Pictures, which resulted in the studio butchering his comedic masterpiece, Watermelon Man (1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is indeed a film about unchaining black filmmaking from its Hollywood roots. Django Unchained begins by promisingly following in Sweetback’s path (indeed, Tarantino’s film’s credits seem to be echoing the graphic design of Van Peebles’), fusing traditions of the American Western to the anti-Western tradition, best exemplified by Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), the most severe deconstruction of the American Western ever put on celluloid.

The premise of Django Unchained ties it directly to the Hollywood Western, despite the film’s music—featuring a song by Ennio Morricone—and periodic stylistic flourishes which evoke Italian spaghetti Westerns. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist frees the escaped slave Django (Jamie Foxx) so that he can assist him in identifying his latest quarry. After successfully completing this first mission, Schultz teaches Django the bounty hunter business, eventually coming to care about Django as a human being. Shultz discovers that Django and his wife have been separated by the slave trade. Shultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notoriously cruel Mississippi plantation owner.

In the first hour of the film, Tarantino effectively evokes the classical Hollywood Western’s devotion to searching in order to unmoor it from its assumed racism. For example, as Django and Schultz wander around the snowy West, passing buffalo and elk herds, shots match almost exactly those in The Searchers (1956), a very different quest narrative. In John Ford’s iconic mounting of the Western, the white Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and the Native American Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) search for Ethan’s niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been kidnapped by an evil Commanche chief. Django Unchained reframes the captivity narrative which obsesses The Searchers, shifting its focus from hysterical white people afraid of being taken captive by savages, to a far more historically-grounded reality: the ripping apart of black families by the abhorrent everyday practices of the antebellum South.

Django Unchained hits the apex of its creativity when the German Schultz learns that Django’s wife is named Brunhilde (Kerry Washington). Django asks Schultz to tell him the German legend, since he as a slave has been denied access to such information. In a stunning set piece, Schultz sits before a massive granite rock, telling the story of Wotan’s punishment of the heroine atop a similar stone, and her rescue from confinement within a ring of fire, by Siegfried. One imagines that at the time of Shultz’s telling of the story (1858), Richard Wagner in Germany is masterminding his operatic retelling of the legend as The Ring of the Niebelungen, having completed portions of Seigfried, the third opera in the tetraology in 1857.

Tarantino’s film’s invocation of German culture to tell its story of the American West, relocated to the South, holds interest for two reasons. First, the positioning of the slave as a Wagnerian hero links Django Unchained to the deconstructive impulses of Jarmusch’s Dead Man. That film also features a European (in this case a Native American expatriate, Nobody [Gary Farmer]) who has to tell the white Easterner (Johnny Depp) that his name, William Blake references English poetry. Secondly, Django Unchained becomes not so much the spaghetti Western that it seems to want to be aesthetically, but a “Saurkraut Western,” a German filmmaking tradition that invokes that country’s fascination with the American West. That tradition is best exemplified by the most popular novels in German publishing history, those of Karl May, whose Winnetou novels also feature a kind-hearted German, Old Shatterhand in the American West who is befriended by an Apache chief, Winnetou. These books were adapted into a few dozen German films in the 1960s that form the base of the so-called “Saurkraut” Western, to which Django Unchained is a sparkling homage.

The liberal tradition of Karl May explains a number of improbabilities in Django Unchained. Beyond the unlikelihood of a white man in the Old West befriending an escaped slave, the film positions Schultz increasingly as Tarantino’s proxy from present-day America, very similarly to May’s alter ego, Old Shatterhand. The German sets the third act of the film in motion as he refuses to shake Calvin Candie’s hand after making the deal to buy back Brunhilde, instead shooting the plantation owner with a spring-loaded derringer hidden in his sleeve. This sets off a bloodbath that results not only in Schultz’ untimely death, but the movie horrifyingly jumping the shark.

The death of Shultz is the film’s biggest mistake, as it eliminates both its greatest performance and its most engaging character. For hours after the film was over, I was deeply troubled by my reaction, wondering if I was merely replicating racism by insisting upon my identification with Shultz. However, the more I try to work this through, the more I am forced to argue that the positioning of Schultz as the film’s hero, and Candie as the film’s villain, both of whom die at the second turning point are the best things the film had going for it. Djanjo Unchained is really, I think, about the unchaining of white guilt for slavery, more than it is about the celebration of Django and Brunhilde’s reunion.

Van Peebles’ film makes me care about Sweetback, desperately rooting for him as he fights off attack dogs and ends in a freeze-frame of indeterminacy, as he flees for the border, but never quite gets there. Tarantino’s film ends, not with modernist indeterminacy, but instead classical Hollywood convention. Django blows up Candyland, Calvin’s plantation manor, and exchanges a passionate kiss with Brunhilde. In the third act of the film, Tarantino desperately throws everything he can to save his project’s great premise, but he has no viable endgame. After it appears Django has been caught, and is about to be castrated as punishment for the shootout inside Candie’s manor, he escapes by tricking some improbably located Australian miners, one of whom is played quite terribly by Tarantino himself.

Not all of Tarantino’s gambits are as disastrous as this. At the moment of the bloodbath at the plantation house, the editor cuts to a high angle long shot of the proceedings, accompanied by a Negro spiritual on the soundtrack, “Motherless Child.” The moment effectively invokes the ending of a very different film about white and black bonding in the South, The Defiant Ones (Stanley Kramer, 1958). In that liberal Hollywood film, Sidney Poitier sings a spiritual—“Bowling Green, sewing machine!”—holding Tony Curtis in his arms as the white police dogs hunt them down.

Indeed, the intertextual referencing is one of Django Unchained’s great strengths. Unlike previous Tarantino films, where the references are showy and meaningless (the characters eat a Douglas Sirk burger for no apparent reason in Pulp Fiction), here a great many pieces line up quite effectively. For example, right before he shoots Candie, Schultz admires the books lining the mansion’s walls. Recalling the slave D’Artagnan who Candie’s men let be ripped apart by attack dogs, Schultz informs Candie that Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers (1844) was in fact the grandson of a black slave woman. When the bloodbath following Candie’s death results in the destruction of these books, Tarantino effectively demonstrates that civilization built on barbarity will destroy itself. This theme is best expressed when Schultz becomes unglued, having witnessed the barbarism of slavery, accompanied musically by Candie’s sister playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on the harp. He finally has to rip her hands off of the harp to keep her from sullying the radical Romantic Beethoven’s memory.

The most surprising thing about the first two-thirds of Django Unchained is how joyous and funny it is. Indeed, I think it might be possible to understand the film as a black comedy. The film’s funniest set piece involves the “bagheads,” a group of clansmen who pursue Schultz and Django for killing the three white criminals on their plantation. Led by Big Daddy (in a great comedic turn, Don Johnson), the white men don white cloth sacks. Tarantino begins the scene with the men riding triumphantly to surging orchestral music. However, the scene then abruptly retakes, as the men complain that they cannot see out of their masks. What begins as Griffith’s iconic, racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) becomes a travesty. The moment brings to mind both the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), wherein John Goodman plays a klan leader whose racist ceremony is interrupted by the comic hijinx of the Soggy Bottom Boys, but even more directly Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1973): when Cleavon Little’s hands are uncovered beneath the klan robes under which he’s been hiding, he jokes to the racist mob, “Which way the white women at?” Indeed, if I had to pick one film from which Django Unchained springs, it would not be any of the low budget films Tarantino admires, but indeed the big budget Blazing Saddles, which features both a black sheriff and a white gunslinger sidekick, as well as an interlude with a German sexpot (played with aplomb by Madeleine Kahn).

In sum, Django Unchained is heart wrenching to watch unravel, because of the unusual strength of its premise. The film soars for a majority of its running time. Tarantino is on the hunt for a great modernist critique of American filmmaking traditions as they pertain to the tragedy of race relations. Indeed, the “Mandingo fighting” section of the film is not just a cheap reference to the horrid exploitation film, Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975), but is far more importantly the closest American cinema has ever gotten to adapting Ralph Ellison’s 1952 masterpiece, “Battle Royale,” one of the stories within Invisible Man, a great piece of African-American modernist literature.

However, without any constraint, Tarantino’s film devolves into the sleazy exploitation violence of the films he seems to love too much. Most of his films—Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds to name just a few—suffer from not knowing when enough is enough. Indeed, this seems to be a problem with this generation of filmmaker. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) also suffers as a film with a great premise ending with a whimper because all of its energies have been directed toward an orgy of violence, the gushing of blood diluting the thematic message to the point of illegibility. The solution to this needs to be found in great producing: rather than letting these creative artists run amok, we need producers willing to reign them in, keeping them lean, editing for maximum effect.

Indeed, there was such an obvious solution to this problem, and for a split second, I thought the film was pursuing it. After being captured in the wake of Schultz’s murder of Candie, Django is held upside down, awaiting his death. I thought the film was going to invoke Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890), wherein the entire film would have been the dream of the dying slave escaping certain death, exploring an alternative identity as a bounty hunter hired to kill evil white men. Not only would the historical incongruities of the film be reigned in by this ending, but more importantly, the film would have ended, when it should have, before letting its life blood drain out of it. I hope I live long enough to see the great, focused film that the first 90 minutes of Django Unchained demonstrates Quentin Tarantino most certainly has within him.

– Walter Metz