Quentin Tarantino’s new movie is somewhat restrained by his standards. And who knew he thought like a film critic?
When I read about how the idea for Django Unchained took root in Quentin Tarantino’s head, I had to smile. This is what he told Entertainment Weekly (rather, this is what he said at a Comic-Con panel, as reported by Entertainment Weekly): “I was writing a book about [brilliant Italian spaghetti western director] Sergio Corbucci, when I came up with a way to tell the story. One of the things that’s fun when you write about subtextual criticism… in subtextual film criticism, you don’t have to be right.”
“It doesn’t have to be what the director was thinking. It’s what you’re gathering from it. You’re making a case. I was writing about how his movies have this evil Wild West, a horrible Wild West. It was surreal, it dealt a lot with fascism. So I’m writing this whole piece on this, and I’m thinking: ‘I don’t really know if Sergio was thinking [this] while he was doing this. But I know I’m thinking it now. And I can do it!’”
I smiled because film critics, when they say the same thing, often face a fusillade of criticism — that they’re overanalysing the film (as if someone determined, to the decimal point, just how much anaylsis is the right amount of analysis, beyond which there’s only overanalysis), or that they’re seeing and reading things that the director never intended (as if we don’t “re-make” the film inside our heads as we watch them, thus becoming directors in a very different way and rendering the original director somewhat redundant).
What Tarantino says about subtextual analysis is exactly what it is, and his most important words are these: I’m thinking it now. The emphasis is on the I, on the now — which is why it’s always hilarious when someone else comes up and says that’s not the case. Unless you’re a Charlie Kaufman creation capable of burrowing into my consciousness, how can you even begin to question the film that I say I saw, and only because it doesn’t neatly match up with the film you saw?
As for the film itself, the first thoughts it inspired were of Chennai from long ago, when the original Django and its many sequels would show up routinely in theatres, along with other low-rent Spaghetti Westerns such as the ones featuring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. Of course, I didn’t know then what a Spaghetti Western was. These were just insanely entertaining films.
Even the Clint Eastwood films by Sergio Leone — the now-revered Dollars trilogy — weren’t so much the classic works of an auteur (if you’d said the word out loud then, I’d have thought you were referring to an aquatic mammal) as just... insane entertainment. How could you not laugh and roar with approval when, in the earlier Django, we’re finally shown what the eponymous loner (Franco Nero, who has an awkwardly conceived cameo in Unchained…) is lugging around in that coffin of his? It’s one of the great “mass” moments of all time.
Quentin Tarantino has, at least in one respect, become this generation’s Stanley Kubrick. The older filmmaker jumped from genre to genre, imposing his unique vision on the tropes of the noir thriller (Killer’s Kiss, The Killing), black comedy (Dr. Strangelove), sci-fi (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), war movies (Fear And Desire, Paths Of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), period drama (Spartacus, Barry Lyndon) and contemporary drama (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut).
Despite the varied themes and settings, these films (especially the later ones) were unmistakably what could be called ‘a Stanley Kubrick film’ — and that’s how we feel about Tarantino’s work. Despite his dabbling across various themes and settings and genres (noir, war, martial arts, blaxploitation, grindhouse, and now Spaghetti Western), his work is quintessentially his. The major difference, of course, is that Kubrick was a cool, precise, high-minded formalist, while Tarantino’s style is overheated, a shrine to low culture.
From the opening scene where we see an inflated model of a tooth wobbling over a dentist’s wagon (it’s, ha ha, a loose tooth), we know we’re inside ‘a Quentin Tarantino movie’. This dentist is inclined to use words such as ‘parley’ and ‘caterwauling’, and the people he’s talking to ask him to ‘speak English’ — and on and on it goes. The film isn’t without its pleasures — a burlesque bit involving the Ku Klux Klan is stupendously funny, and only Tarantino can think of a snowman as target for shooting practice — but after a first viewing, I was left somewhat dissatisfied.
Django Unchained doesn’t build the way Tarantino’s films usually do, it doesn’t explode. He tells the story with a newfound reserve, without putting winking quotation marks around each moment — but I’m not sure a Spaghetti Western is the kind of film where this reserve is warranted. There’s the constant feeling of something being held back. Then again, that’s what I felt when I first watched Jackie Brown, and it’s now one of my favourite films.