Christoph Waltz, left, as Schultz and Jamie Foxx as Django in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. (Andrew Cooper)
Quentin Tarantino knows only two forms of cinematic punctuation—scare quotes and exclamation points—and he uses them both nonstop to produce his “irony!” To his detractors, he’s a preening copycat, bombastically frivolous, pedantically vulgar, using the work of older, better filmmakers as his litter box. To his admirers, among whom you may sometimes include me, he’s more like a curiously wired electrical transformer, plugged into a main power source of pop moviemaking.
The energy he draws comes from the magnitude of cinema—not so much the dimensions of a big screen (an artifact that is becoming obsolete) as the accumulation of sound and light, part junk pile and part treasure trove, that is the vastness of film history. In Tarantino’s best work—which now includes Django Unchained—he exaggerates social conflicts to the point that movie culture itself seems to be the only common body of reference large enough to encompass them. Imagine, for example, that racism in America is a monumental fact of centuries-long duration. (A plausible thought.) Older narrative techniques, such as the depiction of an exemplary life, often struggle to convey the tremendous scale of this horror, which extends far beyond any one person’s experience; but a film, as Tarantino understands, can express the enormity at will, pulling images of a multitudinous racism out of 1960s spaghetti westerns and ’70s blaxploitation thrillers, Hollywood epics of the silent era and Quentin Tarantino mashups from the recent past.
You might say, in an unkind mood, that Tarantino cares more about the thrills these movies can provide than he does the substance of his story—that he calls up the violence that has haunted the lives of black Americans, or European Jews, or Uma Thurman, as a mere excuse for satisfying the audience’s bloodlust. Judged on a film-by-film basis, this accusation might sometimes stick. But if taken as a principle, which would condemn all gory entertainments as suspect, the argument falls apart, for reasons having to do with the same film history that Tarantino plunders and glorifies.
Throughout this history, dour moralists have fretted that people may confuse the screen with reality, while cynics have never tired of reminding us that “it’s only a movie.” They’re both wrong. Almost from the start—say from the time of Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice—audiences have known perfectly well that movies can be a self-referential game. For an equally long period—starting, say, from The Birth of a Nation (a film of keen relevance to the subject at hand)—audiences have liked to feel that they’re not wasting their time at the movies, and so have admired films in which the game seems to be played for life-and-death stakes. Good popular movies can invite us to recognize them as outsize fantasies, largely concerned with themselves, while at the same time touching on something substantial in our lives—which is what Django Unchained is able to do.
It begins with one of those spontaneous confrontations that are a Tarantino specialty, a scene in which a cheerfully self-assured character suddenly initiates and controls a dangerous face-off—made all the more stark in this instance by its taking place in a near void. In the dead of night, in an unpopulated wasteland of the Old West, a line of enslaved black men is being force-marched through nowhere when an absurd figure materializes out of the darkness. Nattily dressed, elaborately bearded and perched high upon a wagon, from which a large, bobbing sculpture of a tooth protrudes on a spring, the man smilingly introduces not only himself but also his trick horse, Fritz, speaking in an English that is lightly accented but impeccable—though perhaps a little too voluble for the liking of the slave drivers, who are Americans in the brute state, ignorant, monosyllabic and utterly undistinguished. If you’ve seen a thousand westerns, you’ve seen these men a thousand times. By contrast, the stranger, the dentist—not that he practices dentistry any longer, please excuse the trappings of a former profession—or, to put it more precisely, Dr. King Schultz is clever, European and as individuated as the buoyantly resourceful actor Christoph Waltz can make him. Bang! The figures out of antique cinema are vanquished, clearing the way for Schultz to acquire for his own use one particular slave. This is Django (Jamie Foxx), a man who also appears undistinguished at first—just another shackled wretch, except for a nasty vertical scar over his left eye—but who will soon clean up nicely and eventually prove himself to be “one in 10,000.”