Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Who did that to you?; Short Notes on Django Unchained
This was initially a two-paragraph blurb that was to be part of a round of catch-up bit notes but then it burgeoned into…this. Apparently I had stuff to say.
If you’ll allow me my gross exaggerations, Django Unchained is probably the best way to explain my feelings on 2012 cinema on the whole. Things seem to go on for longer than they should (it never hurts to remember that knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing that anyone can learn) and my love for the things which are done right is threatened by my aversion to the things which just don’t seem to fit. A film loses something of its lustre when it ultimately so much of it feels like something of a a hodgepodge and there is a significant tendency for elements of Django Unchained to feel not just gratuitous but obstinately superfluous. Perhaps the issue of discordance is so significant in Django just because the necessity for a sharper focus and a tighter editor is pronounced where the promise of something greater seems to loom just below the surface.
(A perfect example of how the film threatens to lose me in its lesser moment is the much discussed Klu-Klax Klan scene which is indicative of my biggest issues with the film. When a scene’s inclusion seems tangentially – at best – related to the forward thrust of your film it’s best, I think, to excise no matter how much it works on its own.)
As writer and director the inability to be discerning when deciding who and what stays is probably something many wrestle with and for the record I’m least interested in qualifying the goodness of films on length alone but rankles with Django Unchained is that its worse moments feel like extended jokes which go on for too long, and when jokes are stretched they lose their punch. Like with 2012 cinema on the whole, though, I can’t rid myself of Django Unchained because even within the fabric of things which don’t fit the effect of the goodness which emanates from the film when it gets things right is distinct.
Conversation on the morality of the film feels like a non-starter for me, both because it’s hardly an issue for me and from the opening shot the film invites me to consider it as a beautifully drawn fantasy. I may have overstated when I said a in December on twitter that the film had next to nothing to say about race, but it does not have much to say and it’s not so much a direct criticism as it is a cool observation. Django Unchained is invsted in relations only inasmuch as it gives the film a time and place to happen but within that realm there are no discussions or examination on race relations to be had. Realising that might make for a film that’s less…layered than I would like but then when I consider that the centre of the film with Django’s quest to get his wife is unsubtly fantastical in its debt to legend I realise that the film’s fabric is one created in a far-off world that – perhaps deliberately – does not care to engage in “real world” conversations, at least not directly
In the regard of focusing on the fantastically then, the most important part of making the film work in that regard is ensuring that the actors are on board with that fanciful aspect – and they are (even if the divide between the performances I love and the ones I’m apathetic about is huge). My favourite thing about Tarantino’s contribution to the film is his work with the actors, he’s always been good with blocking in ensemble scenes and it’s on point here. Ralph Richardson’s photography emerges as my easy MVP, though. More than Tarantino he’s able to insert sly tricks in his work (those grainy flashbacks are so evocative) without putting the forward thrust of the story at risk. Maybe Tarantino is his worth enemy when it comes to knowing what to leave out, but he’s probably his own best friend for knowing what to create in the first place. There are elements of Django Unchained that don’t work for me, but when lined up against the things that do work the whole is pleasurable.
Two more things, a bit more on the race issue – I suspect that Tarantino suspects that he’s doing something revolutionary with race and that’s somewhat to his detriment when a random line from Django about him being that one black man in a thousand that’s able to succeed (or something in that regard) seems counter-intuitive to that racially free aspect, but I’m vaguely forgiving if only because the narrative is caught between a rock and a hard place. And because it seems a case of being (albeit woefully) misjudged instead of true nastiness.
Point two, on the performances. Minor conversation has emanated on the slight role given to Kerry Washington and what it portends for women within Tarantino’s universe. Also a difficult issue to grapple with, I will say, though that Washington with a “slight” role still turns in my second favourite performance of the film.