Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
I’m gonna kick off Trash Talk! with a bang, taking a look at Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Django Unchained. Is this much debated film more arthouse or grindhouse? The answer, like Tarantino’s movie itself, is more complicated than it seems on the surface. The pictures most closely associated with the grindhouse are called exploitation flicks for a reason. They exploit the most lurid of subjects to get asses in the seats, and Django has no shortage of gory (literally) material to paint its plantation walls with. Does it, though, try to “exploit” its subject matter (those hot button issues of slavery and racism) so much? Does its use of language, violence, and emotions veer towards rank manipulation? Well, first things first, let’s clear up some confusion about Django’s genre.
To call Django Unchained an homage to spaghetti Westerns isn’t accurate. Tarantino has already made his own spaghetti Western, and it’s called Inglourious Basterds. The director has said so himself in interviews. Yes, it has all the trappings of a World War II film (Nazis!), but the locations, music, style, and pacing are all classic spaghetti Western. Which really makes a lot of sense, considering that while the Western is a very American genre, the spaghetti Western is entirely European, and Basterds is a very European film that takes place “once upon a time in Nazi occupied France.” Classic spaghetti Western. Then what is Django? Again, it has the trappings of a classic Western (Cowboys!), but what is it at its heart? That’s easy. Roots with shootouts. A slavery epic that wears a mean Stetson.
Again, this is perhaps a little too easy. To compare it to Roots makes it seem more like a message picture than it actually is. It owes more to the classic exploitation flicks like Mandingo and Boss Nigger. Tarantino never sets out to make “important” movies. He makes wildly entertaining movies that at times discuss very important issues. Like the Holocaust in Basterds or slavery and racism in America with Django. Django, unlike Basterds, is a very American film, and has, of course, generated more controversy stateside because of it. We’re no longer talking about some terrible thing done by some far away country. This is our sordid backstory, and it’s ruffled some feathers.
Even those that have enjoyed the film have commented on its abundant use of the word nigger. Moviegoers are understandably, and reasonably, uncomfortable with the word. However I think we can all agree that the Antebellum South was not known for its forward thinking, and while the word is unpalatable to modern ears (because of its disgusting history), it was commonplace then (that aforementioned disgusting history). The best argument for the use of the word in the film is summed up here, by Samuel L. Jackson himself. Check out this video at around 13:56.
Jackson cuts to the core of the discussion that should surround Django Unchained. If you want to talk about a topic, you need to be able to look at all its facets. If you are going to talk about the word nigger, you can’t be afraid to say the word. In the same way, if you’re going to talk about the ugliness of slavery in the United States, you can’t be afraid to authentically examine that ugliness. Say what you will, but Tarantino is certainly fearless in his exploration of the grotesque nature of his subject matters. That said, I don’t think he revels in it here. While he exults in his wonderful action pieces, there is no revelry in the depiction of the atrocities of slavery. What some may view as a celebration of the suffering of others, is merely the director not letting his audience off the hook. This isn’t Transformers, where countless pixelated civilians die without the bat of an eyelash. When a man is maliciously allowed to be torn apart by dogs, your stomach will wrench. When another man watches his wife be brutally whipped, his pain is palpable. As it should be. This is something you can’t responsibly gloss over. Sure, there is a gun battle or ten to help the medicine go down, but it doesn’t make the medicine any less valuable. This is where Tarantino’s love of the exploitation film comes in handy. Its brazen willingness to “go there” allows the filmmaker to tackle thorny subjects without the need to force any moralistic conclusions, while also making a kick-ass picture at the same time. Tarantino will force you to look at the terror of racism, and then reward you with a spectacular shootout.
“I tend to be attracted to genres that deal freely in violence. If a character is shot in the stomach, I want to see him bleeding like a stuck pig. It shouldn’t look like a stomach ache. His stomach has been pierced. His gastric juices are running all over the place. It’s a horrible thing. And the film has to deal with that.” – Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino has always had his audience on the hook, from his very first film. Remember Mr. Blonde’s jovial dance number in Reservoir Dogs? Remember the brutal ear-cutting scene that followed it? Of course you do. In an introduction Tarantino did for the film (which was online until Miramax decided to be a buzz kill and take it down), he discussed how he used the humor of the first scene to draw his audience in, and make them complicit in the violence to come. Mr. Blonde entertained you, and now you’re taking part in his malicious act. Complicity plays a big part in Tarantino’s films. This is best realized in Django by the second to last person our hero kills (you guessed it, spoilers to come).
As I left the theater, the only thing that nagged at me about the movie was the death of Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) sister Lara. Yeah, she was a stuck-up bitch, but did she deserve to be gunned down brutally (and, strange enough, hilariously)? My girlfriend pointed out that she was the one that decided to send Django to the hellish LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. Of course, this was a reaction to Django being partially responsible for the death of her brother, and being directly responsible for the death of countless slaver mooks (seriously, how awesome was that shootout?), but it was a solid point, so I left it at that.
It wasn’t until my second viewing that the importance of her murder really sunk in. No, she hadn’t necessarily done anything to Django. She hadn’t really done anything, positive or negative. Nothing for all the slaves she saw come through the doors of her plantation over the years. Nothing for all the suffering she saw them endure (and we witness some of it, it’s not easy to ignore). She was lovingly ignorant, and she was terribly complicit.
Tarantino’s films have a wonderful way of avoiding the portrayal of any of their characters as fundamentally good. They are all flawed in some way. Just like us, they’re human. Django (in a stone-hewn performance by Jamie Foxx) is the white knight of the film, and he is also a cold-blooded killer. He and his partner, Dr. King Schultz (the incredible Christoph Waltz), do very hardhearted things to survive the world they find themselves in. Schultz is arguably the most honorable character in Django, and he urges the titular hero to gun down a hunted criminal in front of the man’s son.
I’ve read complaints that Django really doesn’t engage in the morality of its revenge-seeking heroes, which is true. It forces its audience to deal with it. Feel the hook? Nobody is born a good person, neither in reality nor in a Tarantino film. Merely doing nothing does not absolve you of judgment. Lara participated in the systematic dehumanization, and brutal degradation, of an exceptionally large group of people that found their way, through no choice of their own, into her home. Seeing a wrong, and doing nothing, makes you complicit in the crime. It made Lara complicit. Does it make us complicit? If there were a revenge movie for sweatshop workers in third world countries, should the consumers of those slave made goods (*cough* us *cough*) be exempt from comeuppance? As a man at the beginning of the film points out, he’s just “doing his job.” That particular job entailed marching half-naked men, barefoot and chained, across the desert against their will, but it was just his job. Perhaps a more straightforward example of what I’m talking about can be found in a scene from Basterds. Near the end of the film we watch Adolf Hitler, the 20th century’s biggest monster, enjoy a violent action film. He laughs, thoroughly entertained. Just like we are when we watch Basterds. There are no supervillains in our world. Atrocities are performed (and allowed to happen) by people. People with mothers, and fathers, that eat, and breath, and enjoy movies. People just like you and me. I believe (and I think Tarantino does too) that given the right circumstances, any one of us is just a hair’s-breath from being a monster ourselves.
So, are the shoulders of a rollicking blood spattered Western broad enough to carry an issue as weighty as slavery? Absolutely, at least in the assured hands of Quentin Tarantino. He can be self-indulgent, and he’s definitely an exhibitionist, but he doesn’t just mimic those old “trashy” exploitation flicks he grew up with. He fulfills their promise. He doesn’t merely settle for shock, he uses the shock to dive deeper into the human condition, and to entertain the hell out of his audience while doing it. Tarantino has admitted himself that he views himself as an “orchestra conductor,” and that the audience are his instruments. He does manipulate his audience. He “exploits” us; our hopes, our fears, our sense of “cool”, but in that (at least in Django) he exposes us to the exploitation of others. Tarantino’s films have always had a grindhouse heart, but an arthouse mind, and that tension has allowed for some deceptively complex films. So let’s go to the gutter with Tarantino and have a good time, while realizing that some hard truths rest down there as well.