BOOKS AND ARTS JANUARY 5, 2013
There’s an old Gestapo story. A prisoner is brought in for interrogation, and one of the guys in black does the regulation line, “We have ways of making you talk.” He can shout it out, or whisper it; there are stylistic choices. Either way, the prisoner’s face brightens— he loves to talk. And almost before the Gestapo can get a shorthand typist in to take it all down, the fellow is talking, talking, talking, and it’s lovely stuff, with different voices for scenes where he needs to recount a conversation. He’s like a Sierra stream as the snows melt. On and on. Finally the Gestapo shoot him just to shut him up. “He had nothing to say,” says one Gestapo guy, the pistol still hot in his hand, the blood speckled on the wall. “I like that shade of red,” says another guy in black.
The blood in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is like that sort of talk. It leaps and turns; it has its own ballet movements; it’s Jackson Pollock on speed; and it spouts from bodies the way oil arrives in Giant or jism comes in a porno movie. Though their diet and exercise seem lamentable, the people in Django are bursting with the liveliest, fresh-painted blood. It can’t wait to get out of the bodies. The capsules Quentin uses are double size and extra strength. There’s a big shootout near the end where the walls of a Southern mansion are essentially redecorated with blood, and there’s a gorgeous camp scene where a rider is shot and the spray of his blood transforms the white flowers that are growing “somewhere in Texas.” It’s to die for. There is even a quote (or an homage) to the last shootout in Taxi Driver with an overhead tracking shot of all the bodies laid out. Quentin has more bodies than Scorsese had, and whereas Marty was obliged to tone down the blood hue to get a rating, it looks as if Tarantino has gone in with a gallon of crimson paint to highlight the blood. And he has nothing to say except the inability to stop talking.
You will hear that Django Unchained is a tribute to spaghetti Westerns in the school of Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci. (The latter actually made the original Django in 1966, with Franco Nero, who has a small part now in 2012). But that’s just what Quentin says, and he will say anything. What the film is really about is his chronic and inspired need to talk. He mainlines talk. He seethes with it. He can make any movie go way beyond a reasonable length because the characters are helpless with loquacity.
Take the curious case of Christoph Waltz. Waltz, Austrian, is 56, and he has made over a hundred films. For decades he did stage and television as well as movies, and more or less no one noticed. Then Tarantino cast him as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, and chemistry started to bubble like blood. Landa is a rare variant on the Gestapo archetype: he tortures with talk. Waltz had a sinister ease: it was like Sidney Greenstreet cut with Peter Lorre, and it was riveting to the extent that Waltz won a supporting actor Oscar. Naturally enough he was cast in a few other films—Water Like Elephants and Carnage—but he was close to invisible or unheard. The man who wrote the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs knows exactly how you do torture as talk. Tarantino said he might not have made Basterds but for Waltz, and the actor now seems entirely dependent on his author.
In Django, Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a travelling dentist in the old, toothless west, who uses that job as cover for being a bounty hunter. He dresses rather like a Germanic Dr. Watson; he is a lethal gunslinger and a steadfast and altruistic abolitionist. He hunts bad guys dead or alive, and the nub of his anti-slavery philosophy is to assassinate as many slavers as possible. He has his own extermination policy, yet Quentin likes to admire the doctor. Waltz and Tarantino are having an intense affair, minus carnal knowledge, and entirely expressed in talk. “Ah, sir, says Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, “I like a man who likes to talk.”
It could be an interesting premise: the right-minded politician who can’t stop talking (we have had examples, notably that other King—Clinton). Schultz acquires Django, a scarred slave (Jamie Foxx), because Django can recognize three bad guys the doctor wants for bounty. But Django’s aim in life is to free his wife, who is owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is like George Sanders cut with Denis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets. So it’s a weird Mexican stand-off between two talk-slingers, with the largely taciturn Django in the middle. It’s ridiculous, prolonged, and nauseatingly bloody, but there are grown critics who believe it is the height of entertainment.
Well, they have a point. There are big talking showdowns where you can close your eyes and just rock to the rhythms of the talk. Moreover, as a bonus, near the end, all geared up as an elderly black retainer, along comes Samuel L. Jackson. That’s when you hear the wonderful call and response of Jackson’s voice—it’s Iago crossed with Othello, and Jackson could do both parts in that play. At the sound of Jackson you hear the great aria-diatribes from Pulp Fiction, the film in which Tarantino offered the prospect of giddy, literate talk taking a stale, corpse-rotten genre and inventing a wild new poetry. It was like Charlie Parker rapping one of the standard tunes—but Quentin was white, even if the white was paint.
Django Unchained is 165 minutes and nothing much happens beyond talk and the provision of corpses. The plot lurches around and the artful structure of Pulp Fiction has been abandoned. In Pulp Fiction, you could believe that Tarantino had gone back to the crime genre and rescued it with sinuous plot arabesques that matched the rococo of the foul-mouthed talk. That film remains deeply intriguing. With Django Unchained, Tarantino has taken on another genre, but he no longer has the energy to transform it with wit. Further, he seems to have given up on female characters—the stolen bride in this film is hardly worth the trouble,
Spike Lee has attracted some attention by saying Django is so disrespectful of slavery that he won’t see the film. Well, I’ve seen it and Spike is right—though the film is not so much disrespectful as blithely ignorant. The same thing marred Inglourious Basterds, where Nazis and Jews were glazed in a zest that was indifferent to what the war and the Holocaust meant. It would be wiser if Tarantino abandoned violent genres, blood-letting, and anything requiring adult experience. He has a talent that begs for the imprisonment of screwball comedy for the rest of his life. If you doubt me, just go back to Pulp Fiction, Winston Wolfe, and the Bonnie thing.