L to R: The good, the bad and the ugly – Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds.
Quinton Tarantino would like to suggest that with Django Unchained he has created a piece of cinema which will lead to a wider discussion on the role of slavery in American history. I don’t know whether he expects us, as the audience, to take his word on this matter or is it just an attempt at irony by a film maker so completely soaked in the tepid water of mainstream postmodernism he has lost any sense of objectivity. If Tarantino seriously wishes for his latest blockbuster to ignite debate around questions of historical violence based on racial discrimination then there are serious issues of both tone and methodology in his apparent attempt.
Nowhere are these problems clearer than in the treatment of violence throughout the film. Django Unchained has been attacked from some quarters for being too graphic in its portrayal of violence. Personally I don’t have a problem with intensity of violence on screen. The levels to which directors exploit the use of graphic violence in modern cinema knows no bounds and Tarantino hasn’t dipped half as low as some of his contemporaries. The problem however remains that Tarantino, if he is attempting to illustrate the horrific and degrading violence which was central to the African American slave experience, completely undermines his efforts by the repeated use of cartoon style violence throughout the film. The killing of Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly during the film’s climactic shoot out is only one such example.
‘The killing of Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly’ – Django Unchained (2012)
The only conclusion that can be drawn is far from trying to make a serious historical comment Tarantino is instead using violence to both shock and/or entertain. The brutality he is portraying has no moral implication. All that matters is that it looks stylish and services the spectacular of his film.
This trivialisation of serious issues for a cheap payoff is again used by Tarantino in his treatment of the Klu Klux Klan. Once more this is highly problematic. By reducing this racist organisation to a group of bumbling idiots the audience are invited to laugh at their ridiculousness without ever seriously considering the true malevolence they actually represent. The problem of historic institutional racism and the forces that propelled this are swept away in a series of gags which would not look out of place in a Three Stooges film. Although the Three Stooges would have executed the slapstick with a little more sophistication.
‘Klu Klux Klan’ – Django Unchained (2012)
Tarantino’s own cameo is unfortunately but predictably laughably poor. His contribution only further highlights that Django Unchained does not wish to deal with the issue of slavery seriously, despite Tarantino’s protestations. The cameo, like the entire film, is just a projection of the director’s ego. His Australian accent can surely only be meant as a joke. Sadly I think he believes he can act. If he was truly as great a director as many contemporary critics insists he is this scene would have ended up on the metaphoric cutting room floor. Sadly it remains.
Underneath all this showmanship and pageantry the reality persists that Tarantino simply has nothing of worth to say. He survives upon his unique talents of mimicry coupled with an extensive knowledge of cinema. He knows how to make a film look good. He knows how to make self-consciously ‘cool’ motion pictures with arresting cinematography and exceptional soundtracks. Even I will admit he is excellent with dialogue. In fact many of the most iconic moments from his work revolve around memorable scenes where people simply sit and talk such as the Madonna speech in Reservoir Dogs, ‘Royal with Cheese’ from Pulp Fiction and the opening verbal exchange from Inglourious Basterds; the only part of the film worth watching in my opinion.
‘Madonna speech’ – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
It is interesting to see how as his budget allocation has grown and he attains more control over the final production of his films the more sloppy and incoherent they becomes. Up to and including Jackie Brown there were tentative signs of the film maker I hoped he would develop into. Perhaps that is why I react so negatively now. He held such promise once. Sadly that promise is now but a distant memory.
Central to current acceptance and championing of his work by those who should know better is the hangover postmodernism has placed on contemporary culture. Style is far more important than content. There is no imperative to have something to say as long as you look good saying it. To the modern cultural observer high art and pulp aesthetics are equivalent in all aspects and are therefore equally valid. This is a dangerous fallacy masquerading as a dubious democratising process. There can be no doubt that classic philosophical postmodernism such as the contributions by Derrida and Lyotard amongst others have been invaluable in thier enrichment of the discourse surrounding the culture debate. No serious academic can deny the insights offered by such inspired critique of the enlightenment project. However much like modernism is often vilified for its insistence on a single ‘true’ approach leading to totalitarian tendencies equally postmodernism must acknowledge that it’s unfortunate manifestation in contemporary culture leads to the type of nonsense that is Django Unchained. And then it is celebrated.
The critics of course love the film. The Internet movie database or IMDB.com collates various notable reviewers’ opinions and thereby produces a largely accurate reflection of any works stature in the critical sphere. Django Unchained receives a rating of 8.5 out of 10. By that reckoning Tarantino must have produced one of the greatest films of the 21st century if not all time. Apocalypse Now also receives 8.5. A Clockwork Orange receives 8.4 while Raging Bull can only manage 8.3. So clearly Tarintino is not only the equal of Coppela but superior to Kubrick and Scorsese. Sadly this is not true. However this is the world we inhabit presently. Even the attempt at art is futile. Popularity is its own end. When will the peasants notice the emperor is wearing no clothes?
Django Unchained (This is how you get REVENGE!!! Part 2). Youtube.com. 2 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
Django Unchained KKK Horse Raid Scene. Youtube.com. 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
Pulver, Andrew. Quentin Tarantino defends depiction of slavery in Django Unchained. TheGuardian.com. 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.
Reservoir Dogs Opening Scene Like A Virgin. Youtube.com. 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.