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The Tarantiniest Birthday of All

Monday was my (35th) birthday. Hooray?

In any case, I found myself watching Django Unchained (2012) this weekend, and followed it up with a chaser of Inglourious Basterds (2009). It started just as “let’s put on a movie to watch with my dad” (who was visiting this weekend) but I liked the first enough that I decided I wanted to see the second.

I’m not… excessively a Tarantino fan? I liked his stuff a lot when I was younger, and I still own a DVD of True Romance and a VHS (!) of Pulp Fiction. I appreciate what he does with theme and symbolism and absurdism, but as get older I find I have less and less tolerance for the old ultra-violence. I also see very few movies in theaters these days, and both Django and Basterds came out in a time period when I saw almost no new movies.

Let’s be honest: Django Unchained is a brutal movie, full of violence and virulent, slavery-era racism. It is hard to watch, even cut down significantly from what it was originally. In most places, though, it feels genuine and not gratuitous — although, on the other hand, gratuitous violence is genuine to how Tarantino tells stories.

I remember reading that Will Smith turned down the role of Django because he felt he wasn’t the main character, which is how Jamie Foxx ended up in the role. I can see that, and it’s a real problem — the protagonist doesn’t get to protag. Foxx does have some wonderful moments of characterization despite that — a subtly shaking hand as he puts his smoked glasses back on, for example, betraying he’s not so cool as he seems.

I feel like the movie is more about King Schultz, Christoph Waltz’s German bounty hunter character, and in a lot of ways when he wasn’t onscreen I stopped being interested in the story. (Which becomes another “rescue another damsel in distress” story when those details are stripped away).

That said, Christoph Waltz is amazing. He will always be the Cardinal Richelieu of my heart. I was moved by how his mercenary and his conscientious sides were on display. He’s both the guy gunning down bounties in the street as well the one offering $500 to keep a slave from being torn apart by dogs. And, in that final moment where he shoots someone, and turns back to Django with a look on his face of mischief, saying, “I couldn’t help myself”… gah. That got me.

DiCaprio was amazing, too, as insanowitz plantation owner Calvin Candie — apparently the scene with the skull, where he cuts his hand? He actually smashed his hand down on a glass, and just kept on going, while bleeding.

(Also entertained by the speech Schultz gave to Candie about Alexandre Dumas, considering Waltz played Richelieu in the 2011 Musketeers, and diCaprio played Louis XIV and Philippe in The Man in the Iron Mask. And pleased that they remembered that Dumas was mixed-race).

Also, a word about Samuel L. Jackson: !!!! I was entertained to read that at one point in shooting, when diCaprio wanted to break because all the racial slurs he was throwing around were troubling him, Jackson said something to him like, “Motherfucker, this is Tuesday for us!”

Moment of Tarantinian absurdism: the ten-minute interlude of racists arguing about the quality of the bags on their heads.

Overall, there’s something not-good to be said for the fact that a white guy makes a movie all about slavery and makes it largely about the actions of white guys >.< And I can't excuse that. But despite that all I still enjoyed large chunks of the movie, in part due to the fantastic acting. Inglourious Basterds I was less sold on. After watching Django, I really just wanted a fix of Christoph Waltz, but as it turned out, Hans Landa, the SS colonel he plays in this movie, is just not a very interesting villain. He knows everything and everyone, speaks flawless French*, English, and Italian, and maintains a cool and polite facade while being an utter villain. And it’s just… boring, to be honest. I don’t know what he wants, really, and it’s implied he goes through this huge change as a character, to do what he does at the end, but it’s not on-screen.

I kind of felt that way about all the characters, especially the titular Basterds. Like… we only get brief snippets about some of them (Stiglitz, Donowitz), and not even all of them. I wanted more scenes of them doin’ their thing, basically… we only get one, really, which is when they’re interrogating the German soldiers near the bridge. And no, I don’t want to see people get beat to death with bats, but there was more characterization in that scene than in the rest of the movie combined.

And don’t even get me started on Brad Pitt. Next to other more talented folks, it becomes evident he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. His portrayal of Raine seems to be mostly composed of squinting.

I wish they had done more with the character of Zoller — he could have had an interesting redemption arc — although I thought it appropriate that when he’s rejected, he turns into a raging asshole who can’t take no for an answer.

I felt similarly blandly about Shoshanna as I did the other characters. Like most of them, her characterization boils down to “hating Nazis.” Which, while we can all get behind, is just not very interesting in the final analysis.

Moment of Tarantinian symbolism: all the rat symbolism in chapter one, post Landa’s speech.

The best part of the movie overall was the standoff in the bar. It kind of felt like the film was made just for that moment of awesome. Hard to buy that Fassbender’s character would be that culturally ignorant if he learned all his German from movies, tho…

* Christoph Waltz does speak a beautiful French, though *swoon* It’s kind of hilarious to hear him say, in the opening scene, that he’s “just about exhausted his French,” when he speaks it as well as English. I assume his German is flawless, too, as he’s German-born, but I have less of a scale on which to judge that.

  1. I haven’t watched Django. It’s on my to-do list.

    Inglourious Basterds I watched, and really liked. A lot of the symbolism there is not something you see on-screen, but out-of-game knowledge: movies tend to portray the small group of heroes as having huge impact – “it all depends on you personally” – and this leads to some blatantly unrealistic WW2 stories, like The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone, about small groups led by a major or a captain doing something material to affect the outcome of the war. A war where, in real life, everyone short of general rank was considered expendable, because that’s how little the individual matters on a battlefield with a 8-figure number of troops. Those movies are all written in ways that let you suspend disbelief if you don’t know the history in detail, but they’re still unrealistic. So what Tarantino did was put that out in the open and have his heroes kill Hitler, in two separate plots, in 1944.

    • It is probably not helpful for you at the moment, but Django is available on Netflix streaming.

      Huh. That’s a good point. The setup is really such that a small group of heroes can have an appreciable effect. Honestly, I wonder if that’s purposefully in contrast to what Zoller’s character supposedly does (shooting down over a 100 soldiers from a bell tower).

      • I wasn’t thinking about Zoller! (Mostly, when I saw him, I thought, “that’s Alex from Goodbye Lenin!”) But yeah, I think you’re right – the film-within-a-film is an exaggerated propaganda version of what postwar WW2 flicks were, just made by the other side. The actual film of course trumps them all in how ridiculous the plot is.

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