12/31/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

Django's Djumbles

"Directors don't get better as they get older." The line is Quentin Tarantino's, and it mirrors his character Marcellus Wallace's soliloquy on aging fighters delivered in Pulp Fiction. I didn't expect to find confirmation of this aphorism in Django Unchained. I went in well aware of the criticisms about its depiction of slavery, as well as the myriad accolades for the power of its originality. I left nearly three hours later with the most damning critique any artist can bear: amid all of the fury and ferocity of the film, I returned to my car unmoved.

Django involves the familiar Tarantino formula of revenge fantasy killfest. The novelty is its placement in 1858 and the world of American slavery. The problem is that in both Django and Tarantino's filmography, there is such an avalanche of horrific violence and gore that I found the movie pulling off what I thought impossible. It made the horror of slavery unremarkable. It's not that the brandings, whippings, "hot-boxings," man-hunt-and-kill scenes were not horrific enough -- they most certainly were. But their presentation alongside other horrible acts (shootings, beatings, and other creative acts of torture) made them seem part of some greater mis-en-scene of gore Americana. Coupled with his oeuvre's litany of ball-in-mouth rapes, beheadings, sword-dicings, and such, I wasn't so much appalled by Django as I was nonplussed. And most tragically, I was left more numbed than moved by the depictions of slavery's grotesqueries.

Even Tarantino's characteristic humor was lost on me. There is, for example, what should be a hilarious scene involving proto-Klansmen donning their hoods for a midnight raid. The hoods -- homespun fare with uneven eye-holes -- do not work; no one can see properly, rendering the raid hapless. This is funny the first few seconds. But Tarantino milks the scene until he's convinced we are convinced it's funny. By its close, I found it tedious. And so it goes with the violence. The overwhelming sadness found in the now classic whipping scene with Denzel Washington in Glory, for instance, arises because it's the only such scene in the movie. You know, Psycho had only one shower scene for a reason. Sadly, Django whipped the sentiment out of me. I think it whipped the sentiment out of slavery.

Finally, unlike other Tarantino films, I found the director's love of craft missing from the work. There are a small handful or artistic touches -- blood sprayed on unpicked cotton, Nosferatu-like music properly portraying slavery as cinematic horror. There are other intriguing touches, but they lack the magic of the snowy violence found in Kill Bill, or the wondrous tension found in any number of scenes in Inglorious Basterds. The film is also loveless with respect to dialogue. The wit, wisdom, and marvelous idiocy found in so many Tarantino screenplays is here delivered as formulaic. It is uninteresting, despite some great performances, including the ever watchable Christoph Waltz, whose acting was built for listening. The weight of the film's paint-by-numbers strategy is simply too much.

For the record, I have no objection to white directors making films about slavery, or the appropriate use of time-bound racial epithets. I also happen to take no offense with "overly-violent" films. And as an academic who traffics in political history, I don't mind the world of cinema getting history a bit off, for art's sake. That's my job, not Tarantino's. What I found myself unable to abide at the end of Django was, and is, the loss of meaning in art -- any art to be sure -- but especially that which asks us to think seriously about slavery. Perhaps Tarantino has spent too much time in his beloved "character." More important, his inability to reinvent himself has the ironic effect of confirming his own worst fear about directors. That is too bad, because Tarantino has been a truly original filmmaker. Sadly, Django was anything but original, and no stockpiling of "Blaxploitation film-meets-spaghetti Western-meets-Southern" explanations can hide its sad predictability.

Saladin M. Ambar teaches American politics at Lehigh University. He is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press) and a forthcoming book on Malcolm X, Malcolm X at Oxford Union (Oxford University Press)