Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Spurs that jingle, Django, jingle

Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is a remarkable achievement.  Remarkable for reasons that have everything to do with its subject manner - the antebellum south and its cruel and peculiar institution of slavery - and nothing to do with it.  It is remarkable primarily because it is a compilation of improbable things: a nearly three hour long spaghetti western; a $100 million blaxploitation movie (in fact, perhaps, the "granddaddy" of all blaxploitation movies); and, most improbable of all, a nearly three hour blaxploitation spaghetti western that is smart, funny, savage, knowing, telling, entertaining, and, often, bloody, engrossing, and full of surprises.  

A gritty parable of love, lost, sacrifice and revenge, Django follows the prototypical arc of the spaghetti western's man with no or one name - with a notable twist.  When we meet Django ("the 'D' is silent") he is chained to a quartet of black men who have been bought at a slave auction.  They are being transported through the woods, chained neck to wrist to ankle, barefoot and bare-chested on a cold and chilly night, when they encounter a man driving a quaint wagon with the giant white tooth bobbing on its top. Fortunately for Django, the loquacious and courtly Dr. King Schutz (Christoph Waltz) has given up dentistry for the more lucrative profession of bounty hunting and he needs Django to identify a trio of ne'er do wells for him.  

It so happens that the three men Dr. Schutz is tracking are the same three men who whipped and branded Django (Jamie Foxx) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) before selling them further down the river.  Not knowing where the brutal Brittle Brothers have gone, Dr. Schutz's plan is to go from plantation to plantation with Django masquerading as his velvet-suited valet until Django can spot and identify the culprits.  Mission accomplished, Dr. Schutz takes Django on as a junior partner while promising him both his freedom and the good doctor's help in finding his wife.

One night after a cowboy meal of beans and strong coffee, Dr. Schutz tells Django the German legend of Brunhilde: Brunhilde, a half-divine shield maiden, has been condemned to live her life as a mortal woman imprisoned in a remote castle protected by a dragon and surrounded by a wall of fire where she will remain until a man can slay the dragon and penetrate the wall of fire to save her.  Django's half-goddess/whole woman - his wife - is named Broomhilda von Shaft (which, ostensibly makes her and Django the great grandparents of that bad mutha "shut your mouth" private dick whose movie of the same name greenlit the blaxploitation explosion of the late sevenites).  And the dragon who guards her citadel is the suave and savage Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio).  Django resolves to walk through the fires of hell, in this instance, the laws and mores of pre-Civil War Mississippi, to reclaim his wife.

The lead actors in Django are excellent.  Waltz exudes the innate charm he oozed as the silky but vicious Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino's last revisionist epic, Inglourious Basterds, only this time he uses his considerable powers for good.  Waltz's Dr. Schutz is the glue that anchors Django's tale and he steals almost every scene he is in, even those with the equally impressive Dicaprio, who has slyly grown into the best actor of his generation.

Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as the house nigger, Stephen, who has fashioned himself a cushy sinecure as the lead slave at Candieland, the plantation owned by DiCaprio.  It is Jackson's most cunning and diabolical turn since Ordell Robie, the devil in man-clothes he played in Tarantino's Jackie Brown.

Foxx's role is a thankless one that requires him mostly to be noble and stoic.  He complies admirably, giving it his best "Clint Eastwood."

About the "N" word: suffice to say it is probably said enough to make your teeth white.

In this new millennium, four years into post-racial Obamarama, it is possibly disheartening that the red meat of a black actor dispatching scores of white men (and one white woman) with accuracy and aplomb is still thrilling.  As thrilling as it was when Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and the rest of them bloodied the screen forty years ago.  

What is heartening is that the hero of Django never once lusts for a white woman.  There are no heaving bosoms, ala Raquel Welch or Stella Stevens, for him to lust after.  The primary white woman of note is Laura Cayouette as Candie's spinsterish widowed sister, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly, and she is mostly a comic foil. 

Our hero only has eyes for his purloined wife of whom he has frequent visions as he endures both his quest and their separation.  While "When a man loves a woman" is not on the soundtrack, it could be.