Can a spaghetti western tell a story about slavery? Quentin Tarantino dares the experiment in "Django Unchained" with lots of fake blood.
Jamie Foxx as Django in a scene with Franco Nero Image: Sony Pictures/dapd
Blood is red. The ball of fiber on a cottonwood bush is white. If the first splashes on the second, it gives a strong color contrast. If the blood looks like an import from the spaghetti westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, the contrast becomes even stronger. That’s because the fake blood back then glowed brighter and was more viscous than it is today; it was more like tomato sugo than real blood.
In Quentin Tarantino’s new film "Django Unchained," much of this fake blood flows. That it sprinkles cotton is anything but coincidental, for Tarantino, while referencing the spaghetti western, moves the genre to a place where it is not at home, the deep south of America with its cotton plantations, its silver willows and mansions. This is fitting because the Spaghetti Western was itself a genre on the move.
It was based on a European idea of the American West, which directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci restaged in the rocky wastelands of southern Spain. In this transatlantic transfer, the frontier myth got dents and bumps.
While the classic U.S. Western was about carrying civilization into the wilderness, a crude nihilism spread in the southern European productions. At the end of Sergio Corbucci’s "Django" (1966), to which "Django Unchained" refers again and again, there is no one left who would know what to do with the blessings of civilization.
Gap in the collective memory
Tarantino thus reimports an exported genre to approach a subject that has been surprisingly little seen in cinema, slavery. Steven Spielberg made "Amistad" in 1997, Jonathan Demme "Beloved" a year later, based on the novel by Toni Morrison; there is the television series "Roots" and some exploitation films like Richard Fleischer’s "Mandingo" (1975).
And even if there are some films with a corresponding subject in the works, there’s not much more to be found at the moment. If Tarantino is to be believed, things don’t look any better beyond the big screen. At a press conference in Berlin a few days ago, he said that he had learned more about the gold rush in school than about slavery.
So there’s a gap in representation and collective memory, and therein "Django Unchained" makes its way with the brazenness familiar from Tarantino’s work. At its center is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who, in the opening sequence, is ransomed and ransomed by German bounty hunter King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). The two take a liking to each other, riding through Texas and Tennessee, shooting a white man here and there who has a bounty on his head.
They make their way to Mississippi, where they try to free Django’s wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) on Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) plantation.
The year of the action is 1858; besides the allusions to spaghetti westerns, there are also those to the Nibelungenlied, with Broomhilda presenting a tame variant of Brunhilde, Django, on the other hand, an all the bolder Siegfried. En passant, the racist film classic Birth of a Nation (1915) also gets a slap in the face. D. W. Griffith sent the Klansmen to the rescue of a white family beset by blacks; in Tarantino’s film, the Klansmen are a laughingstock, their hoods slipping as soon as their horses make the first move.
"Django Unchained" has caused some unrest in the U.S., and not just because the word "nigger" appears so often in it. Without having seen the film, Spike Lee commented, "Slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western." He continued, "It was a holocaust. My ancestors were slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them."
The resistance is both understandable and reflexive; it is somewhat reminiscent of the reactions that Tarantino’s previous film, "Inglourious Basterds," provoked. Alongside all those who raved about this counterfactual revenge fantasy, there were also those who turned away in disgruntlement. U.S. film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, wrote tersely and indignantly on his blog about a "film that seems morally akin to Holocaust denial."
The advantage of the B-movie
Indeed, one must grapple with the appropriateness of combining a crime against humanity with the attractions of the B-movie. Doesn’t that violate all the dictates of decency and historical accuracy? Or is there something to be gained from it that would be lost in any other mode of representation? B-movies have an advantage over A-movies when it comes to depicting social relations of violence.
Exploitation knows neither shyness nor good taste, so it expresses what is bashfully omitted in more elaborate productions. But this happens at the price of moral confusion. The violence of the oppressors on the oppressed is just as enjoyable as, conversely, the liberation blows. Exploitation films are perpetually on the edge, they allow for sadistic impulses as well as enthusiasm when the disenfranchised finally strike back.
At the beginning of Sergio Corbucci’s "Django," for example, one sees the female lead character’s dress being tugged from her body before she is whipped, tied to a wooden scaffold. The scene may evoke empathy for the character, but it lends itself just as well to prurient enjoyment.
And anyone who watches "Mandingo" by Richard Fleischer, a film to which Quentin Tarantino is faithful right down to the placement of bite marks on the shoulder of a minor character, suspects that this is far from being just about showing off the depravity of the plantation owners. "Mandingo" is overly showy when it comes to naked black bodies, men as well as women, soon to be hung upside down and beaten, soon to be drugged to fulfill the sexual needs of the plantation owners.
Such a film is an ambivalent thing: on the one hand, you probably have to look hard to find anything that so cavalierly brings out the biopolitical implications of slavery. Fleischer negotiates something that is demurely silent about elsewhere, and in doing so he prevents us from forgetting the atrocities – in this case: the atrocities of human breeding – or from pretending that they never happened. At the same time, there is so much softcore potential in the way the whites dispose of the bodies of the blacks that one feels quite different in the face of this greasiness.
The Pleasure of Exploitation
Tarantino’s selections of genre films and B-movies have so far almost always managed to make such ambivalences recognizable. They establish a self-reflexive level and thus momentarily throw the enjoyable gaze back on itself. This raises a lot of questions: Which images can be enjoyed under which circumstances? Which representations of violence make sense in which context? Where are the contradictions of a revenge fantasy?
This self-reflexivity is the reason why Tarantino’s films are far more than postmodern gimmicks or proliferations of quotations, and why you can’t get at them with the thesis that the director is a nerd socialized in the video store who is interested in nothing but film history.
But in "Django Unchained," the self-reflexive level is stunted and out of focus – as out of focus as the background of the image, which cinematographer Robert Richardson repeatedly works on with a fat lens. Shultz and Django do sometimes debate what it’s like to assume a role, such as when Django must pretend to be a black slave trader to camouflage his real intentions, something he deeply detests. But that’s as far as the self-reflection goes.
Spectacle of cruelty
When Broomhilda is whipped or branded; when a fugitive slave is torn apart by dogs; when an overseer threatens to cut off Django’s testicles, the images lack the very complexity that would be necessary not only to view the spectacle of cruelty but also to reflect upon it.
About halfway through the film, there is a long sequence in which two slaves are forced to fight each other until one of them is dead. This exhibition fight serves to amuse the whites, which once again raises the question of who enjoys watching violence and under what conditions. Then, in the showdown, Tarantino revisits the motif of two black men fighting. This time, however, not to emphasize the villainy of slavery, but, quite naively, to underscore the hero’s coolness.
This spectacle can only be enjoyed by those whose hood has slipped so much that they have become blind to the abysmal contradictions of the subject.
"Django Unchained". Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington a. o. USA 2012, 165 min.