Django Unchained is a nasty, brutish piece of work.
God knows what goes on in Quentin Tarantino's mind these days, but whatever ravings that too much success, too early, created it's a pity that there seems no muse he can turn to for editing. Inglorious Basterds was nasty and brutish as well, cruel, self-loathing, but HEY!, they were Nazis.
In Django, we have all of that (substituting slave owners for Nazis), along with a Goebbels quality racial screed designed to incite, not divert, nor amuse, or dare I say it: entertain.
As the movie progressed most of the audience sat increasingly nervous about what else they would be confronted with on the screen. What god awfulness would this age of anything goes allow: a living man being torn apart by dogs complete with surround sound? Check. Two black men forced to fight to the death in a whorehouse for the amusement of white men? Check. Not violence, or über violence, or a bit of ultra vi, but deliberate, lovingly filmed and scored savagery, Liveleak quality savagery complete with shrieks and cries and pleadings for mercy? Check.
All made hip and hipster-ish by Tarantino's grab bag of disconnected imagery from the movies of his youth. In this case his love affair with spaghetti westerns. Complete with announced shout outs for the cinematically illiterate in the opening credits. To persuade, perhaps, that something other than cultural and racial loathing is happening on the screen. The audience at my theater: all Americans at first, but then within 10 minutes the separation commenced: we were all either quavering descendents of slave owners or vengeful descendents of slaves.
The white actors in Django, deliberately selected by Tarantino, make the mountain family in Deliverance seem Ralph Lauren model-esque, Ivy League, well-dressed, bridge players. These actors play Einsatzgruppen in the movie: laughingly forcing slaves to be whipped, eaten by dogs, humiliated, raped, worked to death, forced to fight each other, locked in metal boxes for days in the heat, shackled, made to wear Grand Guignol face cages. The slaves, quite naturally given the movie's script, when given the chance, are depicted murdering all of the white people within gunshot or club range.
As the star of Django 'joked' about his role, "I get to kill all the white people."
Thinking about the movie, it is sort of a reverse Birth of a Nation in its racial caricatures.
The director, deliberately, or for ironic purposes, creates a disconcerting, Goebbels quality, racial divide and animus in the audience viewing Django. The whites in the theater, stunned by it all, sank into their seats and wondered whether their hipitude cards would be docked if they slunk out. Some of the African Americans actively engaged with the movie in a call and response, punctuated with riotous laughter and cheers, as the inventive violence against the white characters grew more violent.
Between the cringes, a semi revenge fantasy spun out before us amidst Quentin's bizarre surreal West Hollywood spaghetti western al Tarantino, with, of course, soundtrack and costume in jokes. Even a disgusting, given the circumstances, homage to a great American western: The Searchers.
His cultural loathing in the movie even extends to that most gentle of children's games: Candy Land.
The story: a slave wanting to rescue his wife from slavery. As noble a cause as can be imagined.
Indeed, Quentin makes reference to the Seigfried/Brunhilde German myth, using it as a double in-joke by allowing the SS killer from Basterds to explain the connection. And, according to IMDb, spelling the character's name, 'Broomhilda', you know: the cartoon witch. An indication as to the level of QT's wit these days and of the audience he hopes to delight with such drivel.
We live in such a strange time.
We have just endured a savage massacre at an elementary school.
Yet the trailers before Django were filled with guns and killings and close ups of bullets hitting movie flesh. Jarring, to say the least, with such real violence so fresh in our minds.
But, what's new? It's like Reacher, and even the new Bond movie, ratcheting violence up, to Balkan War quality savagery. In the Bond movie a beautiful young woman murdered, shot in the face with an 'assault' rifle. Why? To what end, as part of what story?
In Reacher, the movie begins with a lovingly crafted, specifically designed to shock, sniper murder of five (or was it six) human beings, again with an 'assault' rifle. The victims mostly women, with a child in the mix.
Why? To what end, as part of what story?
And, remember, Django and Reacher are Christmas movies, movies for the holidays. Perhaps this is Hollywood's attempt at irony? Or just common, every day, cultural loathing? Tin-eared bad taste, perhaps? Or, more likely: run of the mill cupidity.
We will move on from Newtown. We moved on from Beslan. A fresh tragedy will intrude. But, the images that Django puts into one's mind, the fact that major movie makers, backed by major studios, continue to make nihilistic gun porn and, in this case, racial porn, surely has to be part of the Newtown discussion.
At the end of Django, with all the white people shot to death or blown to pieces by a Hollywood quality IED, with Jamie Foxx's horse doing an end zone celebration in triumph, some of the African Americans in the audience cheered and clapped.
It was stunning.
Is this what Tarantino hoped to accomplish with Django?
How far below the surface, despite a newly re-elected African American President, despite a Civil War to free the slaves depicted in the movie, despite the monumental shift brought about by the civil rights movement, are the grapes of wrath stored in a Tarantino world?