DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINOSTARRING: JAMIE FOXX, CHRISTOPH WALTZ, LEONARDO DICAPRIO, KERRY WASHINGTON, DON JOHNSON, DENNIS CHRISTOPHER, LAURA CAYOUETTE, AMBER TAMBLYN with FRANCO NERO, BRUCE DERN, QUENTIN TARANTINO and SAMUEL L. JACKSON
Kamal Haasan – in the context of the recent ‘Viswaroopam’ mix-up – called cinema an ‘aerated drink’ – something you drink if you want to, where to take it or not is a choice you own. While I could see where he was coming from, I couldn’t agree with his statement. Not one bit. Cinema is both cause and effect of how things are, how people are; how they thought and acted, communicating what they had intended to communicate through the film, and having made it in the first place.
Having said that, I’ve always had trouble situating Quentin Tarantino in the present day, as controversial as that’s going to sound – uncontroversial if construed as stupid, which would further be a downfall. There’s no doubt that Tarantino – who, along with the Coen Brothers, undoubtedly personifies the wit and wackiness of here and now – is as much a symbol of current consciousness as one can be. A stretch of imagination might even canvas him to be exactly what post-modernism in cinema is all about, for he is someone who reinterprets the past in the style of the present and is constantly aware that he does. And in his awareness of the fact that he’s retelling, he finds a story of his own to tell.
I’m fresh from a discussion on filmmakers of the present day with special focus on Tarantino as somebody who’s bothersome in the fact that his disregard for real-world issues doesn’t come across as problematic, per se. Genre-filmmaking gives him that comfort. He isn’t a continuation from yesterday’s trouble at the office or today’s misunderstanding at home that people tend to run away from. A Tarantino film begins and ends on film-reel. Or whichever digital device has come to replace it. His writing and technique are bottles adorned with gems of ideas that bear his signature as he pours a drink he had collected in droplets from what had percolated through grains of sand, of time gone by.
It’s a 1961 Chateau Cheval-Blanc. And he would waste it on KFC and a bag of fries as he asks you to be tasteful.
‘Django Unchained’ had its defining moment somewhere near its 150th minute, when Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) – a captured black woman, a slave – trembles at the sound of footsteps, and clings to her blanket like it could save her from whatever it is that whoever was to come would be capable of. The door bursts open, its frame is a spotlight on the wall. We see the silhouette of a man wearing a hat. Until ‘Django Unchained’ happened, there would’ve been a hundred percent chance that that man was white, in the manner of a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood, or an Eli Wallach, at least. “It’s me, baby,” says the shadow/silhouette. It’s a black man who goes by the name of Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), thanks to a doctor who was crazy enough to have hated slavery in pre-Civil-War times.
Christoph Waltz plays that doctor – Dr. Eric Schultz, a dentist who has quit his profession to round up corpses and earn himself a reward. He is a bounty hunter. Django gets comfortable playing deputy for the span of an hour and a half, with the doctor being rather gun-in-cheek with his humour. What he can’t beat, he blows off. And when he can’t blow it off, he talks his way ahead. There’s one encounter where he kills a sheriff to get to negotiate with the U.S. Marshall. His profession, he says, is about “getting paid for killing white people.” Nothing could excite dear Django more.
Bounty-hunting with Dr. Schultz has very few rules, all of which are of utmost importance. Every con needs them to play characters they shouldn’t break. Django’s first mission requires him to identify and help exterminate three men known as the ‘Brittle Brothers.’ Freed from slavery for God knows how long, Django is allowed to wear clothes as he sees fit – which he takes to a level that one of the women slaves at the plantation shows surprise that he chose to wear it and wasn’t forced into it. He’s allowed a gun as long as he’d use it. And Dr. Schultz has something like an elephant-rifle that can’t fire without pulling some entrails out to trouble the censor board with instances of gore.
If the first con is to show how good the two of them are, the second comes to show how evenly they could be matched. Dr. Schultz crosses work boundaries to ask Django about his sweetheart. He tells him about the Siegfried-Brünnhilde legend, and how Siegfried climbed a mountain, tamed a dragon and walked through a ring of fire to rescue his beloved. Every German, he says, would give anything to help a Siegfried get his Brünnhilde back. Over dinner on the rocks, they plan their next con.
This time, the Doctor and Django play a Mandingo trader, and a slaver – a sort of wrestling consultant, crisp and cut-throat like an army commander – as they find out that Broomhilda had been sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) from ‘Candyland’, an estate down in Mississippi. Django throws caution to the winds as he treats the wrestlers (whom he had come to inspect) like dogs as real dogs maul one such called D’Artagnan – a wrestler who dies to show us what Calvin is capable of. Dr. Schultz does his share in asking for ‘Hildi’ the moment he arrives at Calvin’s doorstep.
Two scenes captured my attention at Candyland. The moment they – the Doctor, Django and Calvin – get there, Calvin tells Steven (Samuel L. Jackson), an Alfred of sorts, that “that is Django” and they’re supposed to hate each other. Steven, probably a bleach away from being inducted into the white-man-hall-of-fame, doesn’t think twice. He has no reason on his own to hate Django. But then, there’s the fact that he’s the Big Man’s property, making littler men little. It could also be a tussle between the privileged and the liberated. Still, he hates Django until the end, for the simple reason that the white man asked him to.
The other scene – one DiCaprio tries to make his own, losing out to a hammer and a bang – is skulduggery in a literal sense. It’s the typical Tarantino threat being dished out, the quintessential offer he won’t let you refuse. The scene almost plays out like a joke. I did something I wasn’t supposed to do and was amused with the result. Christoph Waltz, as we all know, shot to fame for playing a Nazi tyrant in ‘Inglorious Basterds.’ DiCaprio, on the other hand, is as soft as Hollywood can get. This in mind, what we get is an inversion. In a showcase of ruthlessness and one’s ability to intimidate in the Tarantino brand of terror, DiCaprio does well. Waltz tells him so. Like I said, the scene plays out like an inside joke, ending with another one of those ‘foot massage’ things that Tarantino had popularized with ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a revelation that Alexandre Dumas was actually black.
With Django playing apprentice to a rock-star for two-thirds of the film’s length, ‘Django Unchained’ works as a beginning story. There’s the classic case of “I’ve taught you everything you know” minus the betrayal. What these two men share both exemplify and redefine chemistry in the film sense of the word. They aren’t master and disciple. They aren’t brothers. You could call them friends, but there hasn’t been a test of faith. What starts off as a ‘you win, I win’ proposal takes a host of detours and lands up in a safe little place in your heart and the heart of cinema itself. The film is about a hero rising. The Doctor helps the film on its way by helping the hero do what he ought to do – rise. Every German, like he says, would give anything to help a Siegfried. A Tarantino character would be German, find a Siegfried and give his life to help his cause for the sake of the film. This is as pure as friendship can get.
The shot-taking and camera speak of a man who is defined by his trade. It’s like he sits in front of a big-screen monitor when the shot is being taken and talks to his cinematographer on a walkie-talkie from there. Every sequence overstays its time, its elegance stretched to the limit. In one such is a wounded man caught in the crossfire as a shootout happens. Every bullet that goes astray ends up hitting him. It happens once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Five times. You think you’ve gotten the point when Tarantino makes that man tell you that you have, indeed, gotten the point. It’s ‘overkill’ in every sense of the word, done with panache. The literal sense too, if you get what I’m saying. A mortally-wounded man being shot at again and again and again, for splashes of blood and whimpers you think you’ve had enough of. You get what I’m saying?
Which brings me back to the point of film being an ‘aerated drink.’ It’s not Tarantino’s definition. His wouldn’t be too far from it either. It reminds me of what Fatih Akin said to explain ‘Soul Kitchen’ – an exciting film – after something like ‘the Edge of Heaven.’ “I could really use the restaurant as a symbol for filmmaking,” he said. “The chef is much like a director, cooking and improvising. The owner of a restaurant is much like the producer of a film. The customers are like audiences; the dishes are like films. You even have film-critics with the critics of the restaurant.” As creator of this simulation, Akin manifests himself in the chef, the central character who spices the dishes with whatever he wants them to have; whatever they ask for. Dinners turn into orgies where music takes centre-stage. A health inspector and a shark (who’s after the restaurant) pair up and the chef actually films them ‘at it’ on his camera-phone.
“All you do is criticize, criticize, criticize,” says Tarantino, through the man whose wife made the masks, in the scene with the Ku Klux Klan – possibly one of the weakest of scenes. Another comes at the end when Django cons a bunch of Australians, Tarantino one among them. He tricks them into giving him a gun so he can shoot them with it. In the line of fire, Tarantino holds a bag of dynamite and explodes. Why did he have to take the dynamite from the saddle? So he can hold it in front when he gets shot at. So he can explode with it. Hitchcock said there’s excitement in the suspense that precedes a bang than the bang itself. Tarantino could go to war with him. He’d tell you he’s going to shoot you in the knee and he’d shoot you there to show you he can still get you excited about it.
‘Django Unchained’ is yet another guilty pleasure from the man who specializes in them and delivers them like pizza. The only one who can make two black men wrestling for their lives more erotic than a temptress named Sheba who waits for her prey. You know you don’t need it. You know it’s bad for you. Like a dead horse on an open wound, as he would say. A ten on ten, where the scale is not yours.