Monday, 21 January 2013

The Many Masks of Django (Unchained)


Blessed with its impossibly brilliant title, the concluding chapter of Tarantino’s 2009 masterpiece Inglourious Basterds (‘The Revenge of the Giant Face’) was an apocalyptic homage to the closing sequence of Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the pages of Pynchon’s book were transformed into the screen of a doomed picturehouse:

The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out... And in the darkening and awful expanse of screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see: it is now a closeup of the face, a face we all know – ” (p. 775)

With his latest film, Django Unchained, Tarantino seems to have abandoned the labyrinthine Nazi-haunted wasteland of Pynchon’s 1973 epic in favour of the postmodern American pastoral of Mason & Dixon (1997), adopting a forgivingly linear structure for his glorious widescreen view of the Western (and Southern) landscape, peopling its antebellum setting with a more carefully rendered pair of male protagonists. If First Special Service Force Lieutenant Aldo Raine and Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz were dark satirical ciphers worthy of Pynchon’s Pirate Prentice and Tyrone Slothrop, then Dr. King Schultz and Django Freeman are Tarantino’s answer to the more human Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, wry ‘astronomy aficionados’, haunted by a missing wife and trudging beneath the ‘Stars that travel in arcs upon the Sky’ (p. 332).

With this stylistic transformation, the scale of Tarantino’s ambition (and, depending on whether you ask Roger Ebert or Anthony Lane, his achievement) begins to become apparent. The director has told the BBC’s Film Programme that his new feature bears a “symbiotic relationship” to Inglourious Basterds, and their running times are so nearly identical (165 and 153 minutes, respectively) that it is tempting to imagine screening both films simultaneously, side by side, in the manner of Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966): 

The most striking element of this strangely shared identity is, of course, the German actor Christoph Waltz, whose SD Colonel Hans Landa was the exact opposite of the fatally compassionate dentist/bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz. Where Tarantino’s earlier film contrasted the abysmal consequences of German fascism with the scalp-taking baseball-bat-wielding freedom loving American ‘basterds’, in Django Unchained we see the horrors of American slavery through the eyes of a cultured, multilingual, freedom loving German.

In any hypothetical Warholian twin-screening of these films, it would be possible to observe the eerily similar, yet utterly opposed, words, manners and movements of Waltz’s identical siblings. Language and German high culture itself are the tools of both his Landa and Schultz, to brutalize or to elevate – indeed, the plot of Django Unchained relies upon a fundamental equation between Django Freeman and the Wagnerian Siegfried (a resemblance that would have surely eluded the composer himself). Similarly, that ubiquitous scrap of Beethoven ephemera, the 1810 Bagatelle in A minor posthumously nicknamed Für Elise, crops up in both films in radically different contexts: in Inglourious Basterds the melody appears in an Ennio Morricone arrangement (entitled ‘La Condanna’) over the infamous opening interrogation, immediately establishing the strange Reich-Spaghetti aesthetic of the film. If Beethoven’s music was thus associated with the sinister German forces, in Django Unchained the bagatelle (performed upon a harp in the slaver’s mansion) serves an antithetical role, becoming the fatal reminder of civilization to the trapped and despairing Dr. Schultz, inspiring his final altercation with Calvin Candie. The initial form of this confrontation – as Schultz exposes Candie’s ignorance of Alexandre Dumas’s ethnicity – may well stem from the popular notion (noted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, 1866, p. 134) that the German composer was himself of partly African origin. The damning significance of biographical data such as this, in the abysmal territory of Tarantino’s South, is gradually dawning on the dentist in the film’s closing scenes: as Django remarked, earlier in the film, “I’m a little more used to America than he is.”

The growing sense of an antithetical relationship between these two films, first highlighted by Waltz’s casting (and gradually expanded to encompass race, nationality, and even music), is compounded by Tarantino’s announcement, in December of 2012, that he is already at work on “the third of the trilogy. It would be called Killer Crow,” a film set in Europe in 1944 and dealing with “black troops [who] have been fucked over by the American military.” The director’s postmodern historical trilogy thus takes the following approximate form: 1) German hell witnessed by Americans, 2) American hell witnessed by German, 3) American hell enters German hell. In classic Hegelian terms (as popularized by Heinrich Chalybäus in 1837), Tarantino’s three films might be seen as a low-genre parody of German dialectic structure – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – integrating an abstract notion with concrete artistic form in much the same way as did the sonata form perfected by Beethoven (ie. exposition, development, recapitulation).

In passing, it is worth noticing that the as yet unmade third film of this trilogy (whether it be tagged ‘recapitulation’ or ‘synthesis’) seems already to bear a subtle corrective to its predecessor: its titular reference to the American Jim Crow laws that ran from 1876-1965, reminds us that events such as those fantasized in Django Unchained (and even during the Civil War that followed) did little to ease the realities of African-American life prior to the late twentieth century. In this grim context, the historical associations of the director’s ‘Emancipation Trilogy’ start to come into focus, as we notice that Waltz’s martyred Dr. King Schultz, as well as recalling the name of a 1971 spaghetti western character, points in the direction of a more famous Dr. King, another man more “used to America than he”…

In depicting what Spike Lee has called (in a critical tweet) the “holocaust” of slavery, Tarantino takes evident pains to distinguish this American event from the European horror glimpsed in Inglourious Basterds. This care is evident throughout the director’s original screenplay, a document which is strikingly specific about almost every aspect of the production, down to the subtlest detail (‘Red blood splashes on white cotton’, p. 34). In the photocopied pages of the text, we see that while the slaving town of Greenville is viewed as a “spectacle out of Dante” (p. 54), the unforgettably-named plantation of Candyland is manifestly not a “hell on earth, Auschwitz”, but is “very beautiful. The fields of cotton, the way the trees hang green vines over everything. It’s full of nature and nature’s vibrant colors, and a broiling hot sun to set it all in” (p. 89):

This deliberate separation from the German ‘thesis’ (Auschwitz) remains absolutely central to the later film, as the fundamental state of being for the Jewish refugee (physical concealment, as introduced in the harrowing opening scene with Hans Landa pacing above the hidden family) is compared with that of the American slave. The slave, Tarantino suggests, lacks an authentic American history prior to slavery, and thus cannot hide from the system of oppression. Instead, African-American identity is seen as emerging throughout the film as a series of masks and roles, from the the grotesque ‘Uncle Tom’ of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen to the ‘Blue Boy’ of Thomas Gainsborough’s 1770 painting:

This series of inauthentic ‘roles’ is simultaneously troubling and, in a postmodern work such as Django Unchained, liberating. Like Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow (or Henry Burlingame in John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor), the possibilities of shapeshifting tumble open before Django Freeman. Tarantino’s screenplay describes their shared situation as a prolonged ‘Masquerade’ (p. 112), a process that is set in motion when the hero is required to adopt the most detestable role of all: that of a black Mandingo expert. When Django tells Schultz that there “ain’t nothing lower than a black slaver,” the dentist replies craftily, “well then, play him that way! Give me your black slaver.” In this guise, Freeman is forced to witness (and become complicit in) acts of shocking brutality, and gradually begins to craft an additional mask of his own: that of the aggressive braggadocio, a point brilliantly underlined as a unique (Tarantino-requested) track by Def Jam’s Rick Ross booms across the film’s soundtrack, accompanying the admiring gaze of his well-dressed wife. This moment, combined with later similarly anachronistic (non-diegetic) instances of James Brown and 2Pac, heightens the growing sense of the American holocaust as a formative moment in the maturation of both a sub-culture and of the nation itself.

In a crucial respect, the acts of concealment and inauthenticity seen throughout Django’s Shelleyan quest for vengeance (the slave unchained becoming an antebellum ‘Prometheus Unbound’) gradually come to stand for Tarantino’s America itself, in which Candyland stands so “very beautiful”, a deceptive front for what the screenplay explicitly refers to as a Wagnerian prison, the “Ring of Hellfire” (p. 166). This façade is deliberately preceded and anticipated by the exclusive Mandingo fight hotspot ‘The Cleopatra Club’, a bastardization of African history inhabited by fake Shebas, Cleos, and pasteboard Sphinxes.

Candyland mansion itself is much less obviously ‘fake’, even if the white pillars (like the President’s house itself?) seem a little hollow, compared to their Classical antecedents. Calvin Candie, however, turns out to be as much an actor as his guests – clearly unfamiliar with Alexandre Dumas, he is in fact (despite his preference for the title ‘Monsieur Candie’) unable to speak French. While Stephen wears the mask of the buffoon, Calvin desperately affects the wisdom of the armchair phrenologist and linguist. Indeed, it is presumably under his roof that the name ‘Brünnhilde von Schaft’ became mangled into ‘Broomhilda von Shaft’, a mishearing that manages to simultaneously lower her permanently to her ‘role’ as broom-handler, and to grant her a flash of anticipated glory as the heroine of a 1971 blaxploitation classic.

With Dr. King Schultz’s climactic revelation that Calvin Candie is an intellectual fraud comes his own belated recognition (courtesy of Stephen) of Django and King’s attempted hoax, at which the film, like Inglourious Basterds before it, totters into its apocalyptic final moments – a Wagnerian unveiling, and an MGM scale Redneck-dämmerung. Following a tide of blood-letting, Django marches down the wooden mansion’s stairs towards the wounded Stephen, recounting the numbers of the voiceless dead in a speech that echoes the ‘Ezekiel’ speech of Jackson’s own Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction (1994):

76 years, Stephen. How many niggers do you think you’ve seen come and go? Huh? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? Nine thousand? Nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine? Every single word that came out of Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothing but horseshit. But he was right about one thing. I am that one nigger in ten thousand.

Following this grim farewell, however, Django does not shoot old Stephen. Instead, like Wile E. Coyote, he lights (with his cigarette!) an extended dynamite fuse, a sizzling line that snakes ludicrously up around the doorway and back, almost like the lettering above a Vegas show: D-J-A-N-G-O. For while Inglorious Basterds ended with a cinema being transformed into a weapon, Django Unchained concludes with its titular character recognizing the nature of the wooden ‘film set’ that is Candyland (a mirage as hollow as Schultz’s tooth-on-a-spring), and blowing the flimsy structure into Looney Tunes smithereens.

And with this, Django is at last allowed to step through the mirror, entering his own triumphant no-space beyond Time, in which he becomes the grinning Trickster, teaching his horse to pimp-dance to the tune of ‘Trinity’ by Franco Micalizzi (“keeps the varmints on the run, boy”), and floating out of his antebellum nightmare. The redemptive coyote-like figure turns away from the burning set, and follows the stars back North, and to Schultz’s Europe. Killer Crow can’t come quickly enough.

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