Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained

Every story Quentin Tarantino has told since Kill Bill has centered, in one form or another, on the desire for revenge. At times, cinematic revenge can open up complex reflection, and my favorite Tarantino movie after Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, certainly compels thoughts about the power the movies themselves have to fantasize acts of revenge. But with Django Unchained, Tarantino is less interested in reflection and more in the sheer energy of cathartic violence. For two hours Jamie Foxx does very little in this film but then he explodes in a torrent of bullets that Tarantino imagines as a vision of black male empowerment. But is empowerment genuinely Tarantino's concern? The form of his film is too set on duration for its affects, too interested in lingering around and in the details of American slavery for it to ever really convince us that it wants to escape the milieu caught in its fetishistic gaze. And even if a certain authentic desire for enabling black power does fuel Django, the form it takes in this film equates agency with gunplay, a deeply dangerous political gesture at this moment in American social history.

Beyond this, the movie is frequently boring, full of sequences that dwell, variously, on a group of ineffectual clansmen struggling to see through the holes in their masks; or on DiCaprio's slave owner presenting a lecture on phrenology. Most disturbingly, these passages, which serve a minimal function in the causal structure of the film, suggest that Tarantino is fascinated rather than repelled by slavery ephemera. The subject of slavery has not received adequate examination in American cinema; but fascination is not examination, and although I admire Tarantino's boundless energy and love for cinema, I found it hard to get my bearings with this film.