Sunday, 10 February 2013

"Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention."

Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino discussed the idea of creating a 'southern'. A spaghetti western set in the Deep South of the pre-Civil War United States, stating that he wanted to "do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to."

It was whilst writing a book about Sergio Corbucci that Tarantino came up with a way to tell his story.

Corbucci wrote and directed the original Django (whose star Franco Nero has a cameo in Django Unchained) in 1966. Initially unreleased in Britain because of its excessive violence, it is both an imitation of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and an exaggerated extension of Leone’s spaghetti western style.

After Leone, Sergio Corbucci is considered the genius of the spaghetti western, following Django up with a run of gritty, political greats such as Companeros, A Professional Gun, The Hellbenders and Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence). Tarantino even included snow scenes in his Django update as a homage to The Great Silence. The original Django went on to become a box office sensation across Europe, inspiring dozens of official and unofficial sequels, including Django the Bastard and the surreal Django, Kill!. Nero himself returned to the role in 1987 for Django Strikes Again.

Other sources of inspiration include the 1975 film Mandingo (about a slave trained to fight other slaves) and 1973's Charley-One-Eye. At one point Taratino's Django takes Charley-One-Eye as his cover name. And the connections don't stop there. The film Charley-One-Eye starred Richard Roundtree, Richard Roundtree played Shaft and Shaft is the surname of Django's lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Not to mention the 'Unchained' of the title which comes from Hercules Unchained, the American title of the 1959 Italian epic fantasy film Ercole e la regina di Lidia, which deals with a mythical hero's escape from enslavement to a wicked master.

Much like his World War II flick Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained sees Tarantino pulling apart this genre iconography and gluing it back together as a postmodern Franken-western.

Tarantino, like his latest protagonist, is a filmmaker unchained. Never exhibiting any agenda beyond revelling in his boundless love of cult cinema and sharing it with an audience whom he never patronises by assuming they know less than he does. So for good (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) or bad (Four Rooms and arguably Death Proof), his movies always come unhampered by studio fussiness or unvarnished by new trends. For a man credited with tearing up the rulebook, he is staunchly traditional.

So to see him tackle that most traditional of American cinematic genres, the western, makes Django Unchained somewhat an event. Inglourious Basterds was a riot, outrageously rewriting the history of the Second World War. But Django Unchained digs deeper into even more thematically fertile soil.

That said, the film isn't strictly speaking even a western. As Tarantino himself has already said, if anything it should be tagged a southern. Set in 1858, its events predate the Civil War by several years, whereas most Westerns sit between that devastating conflict’s conclusion and the start of the 20th century. Not coincidentally around the time cinema itself was born. The film trailer even featured a poster advertising a $2,000 reward for a train robber called Edwin Porter. Cinephiles among you may recognise the name as it was Porter who directed The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the first ever cinematic western.

So a 'southern' it is. Or rather a 'spaghetti southern'. For while Tarantino has skirted the western's customary historic home, he has still embraced the style of the two Sergios and their contemporary emulators, from the operatic grandeur of the score (Leone's musical collaborator Ennio Morricone also composed a piece for Django Unchained) to the gloriously outrageous scarlet fountains that cascade with every gunfight.

It is also very much a fairy tale. For the first time, Tarantino plays it linear and portrays a single character’s journey. Gone are the signature shifts in perspective, the chopping up of the chronology and pithy chapter separations. This is essentially a straightforward 'rescue the princess' quest. Far from the usual western mythology.

Taratino's script even spells it out. Having freed Django (Jamie Foxx) of his shackles, German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the brilliant Christoph Waltz) is astonished to learn that, not only is his new partner married, but also his wife (Kerry Washington) is named Broomhilda von Shaft. In one scene Schultz tells Django of her namesake, the Broomhilda of German legend - how she is abducted by a dragon and taken to the top of a mountain where she is surrounded by hellfire. It is then up to the hero Siegfried to make the perilous journey to rescue her. Django, it would seem, is "a real, live Siegfried" with his own hellfire to contend with and a dragon to battle.

On the subject of which, one of Django Unchained's most exquisite pleasures is Leonardo DiCaprio's (Inception, Revolutionary Road, The Departed) deliciously villainous Calvin Candie, the owner of grand plantation Candie Land. He may not breathe fire so much as hot air. When considering DiCaprio for the role, Tarantino envisaged Candie as a "petulant boy emperor". It is a role DiCaprio plays to hateful perfection. A rapacious, spiteful bully, vain and prone to flattery, whose civility is merely the froth bobbing on top of darker, poisonous waters. There is always a lurking threat of violence when he is on screen, something Tarantino plays on during a dinner table sequence which comes close to matching the German bar scene in Inglourious Basterds.

DiCaprio forms a superbly evil double act with Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers Assemble, Black Snake Moan, Pulp Fiction) as Stephen, the head house-slave. White-haired and rickety, eyes bulging in disgust at the idea of a "nigger" (a word some commentators have criticised the film for it's heavy usage of) being allowed to "stay in the big house". Waltz is also excellent, as accomplished playing a hero for Tarantino as he was as the villainous Hans Landa in Basterds. Despite being at the opposite end of the moral spectrum, Dr. King is just as brilliantly verbose.

Sadly, Jamie Foxx (The Soloist, Jarhead, Ray) feels somewhat flat in contrast. As Django he certainly looks the part and carries the physical presence you would expect. Yet he never feels entirely right as the gritty, gunslinging hero. Tarantino had originally offered the role to Will Smith and you can't help thinking he would have been better suited to the swagger of Django’s terse deliveries. Instead "I like the way you die, boy," sounds more like a compliment and less a vengeful put-down.

There are other problems too. Tarantino's penchant for black comedy and hyperreal, often cartoonish violence goes against his bold decision to depict the horrors of slavery head on. Scenes of lashings and pugilistic Mandingo fights, despite being utterly relevant to Django's story, don't sit comfortably next to the more classic Tarantino elements.

This is clearly a film that's been played out over and over in its creator's head since inception – hence the cameos, the hat tips and the relaxed running time. Ultimately you get the sense that he's not trying to address anything in particular, so much as spend time in his own chapter of film history.

With a result this vivid though, who can blame him?

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