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Monday, January 14, 2013

Shadow of a Nation: Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

“The nationality of the author has nothing to do with the nationality of the character,” Bridget von Hammersmarck (Diane Kruger), German actress and spy for the Allies, says during a playful guessing game in Inglourious Basterds, where players have to guess the name of a famous individual written on a card and stuck to their forehead. “The character is the character. Hamlet is not British, he’s Danish.” She’s saying this because one of her Nazi colleagues has to guess the fictional Apache warrior Winnetou, created by German writer Karl May. It also suits the game director Quentin Tarantino is playing as creator of Inglourious Basterds, putting his sterling pen to a reimagining of history, where his own private Operation Kino is manufacturing a terroristic fantasy of Jewish revenge on Nazism.  
Tying genocides - along with history and metaphor - together: Inglourious Basterds
The game becomes more interesting when another Nazi, Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), is given a card, which we see is “King Kong.” His questions lead to an outline: this person was a jungle native who ended up going to America on a journey that was not fortuitous, “but the implication is that it was [fortuitous] for somebody else.” This character went against his will by boat, in chains and displayed in chains.  “Am I the story of the Negro in America?” Hellstrom finally guesses. “No.” “Well, then I’m obviously King Kong,” and he removes the card without looking at it, certain of his answer.
Revenge as cinema spectacle: Inglourious Basterds
Tarantino’s playing with a lot in this wonderful scene about movie subtext and metaphor, connecting fascist Germans to Apache resistances, cinema spectacle to decimation and suicidal insurgency, where genocides and terrorism ferociously parley without end, one culture exploiting and appropriating another culture just as filmmakers appropriate reality for their fantasies – just as Tarantino is doing with the Third Reich, as his Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering will all be wiped out, with the most extreme prejudice, during the premiere of a movie that was made to celebrate their regime and propaganda – and we, the modern day, Western, post-Al Qaeda audience, cheer the mission of sadistic heroes (who model themselves on an Apache Resistance) who are accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s music to Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, the most pro-terrorist movie until Inglourious Basterds. 
The Battle of Algiers
This scene plays as prelude to Tarantino’s current film, Django Unchained, which is something of a sequel to Inglourious Basterds, a fantasy about “the story of the Negro in America” rendered in the style of a Spaghetti Western, a genre where Europeans appropriated the American landscape, often smuggling leftist themes into the Manifest Destiny material (read Bilge Ebiri's comparison of Django to the genre here).  Notice that it’s Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), the enigmatic and anomalous German Basterd who, with an almost hilarious menace, writes down “King Kong” on Hellstrom’s card. Then recall the memory he has while listening to Hellstrom bloviate.: being whipped while tied to a tree or pole, an image connected to depictions of slave flogging, such as we see in Django Unchained.  In Tarantino’s collective unconscious of history, race, and movies, Stiglitz anticipates Django, both having forebears in King Kong’s wrath, in addition to the vengeance depicted in Westerns or vigilante movies. More interestingly, note how Stiglitz’s backstory as a German who killed other Germans is narrated by an African American (Samuel L. Jackson), who plays the most problematic character in Django (a black man who tortures other black people), a kind of representational racial “Shadow” to Jamie Foxx’s heroic and empowering Django.  At the same time, Christoph Waltz, who portrays the charismatic and brilliant Jew hunter Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, is Django’s “Magic Whitey,” Dr. King Schultz, whose German history and mythology is reflected onto Django’s place as a new American hero, Django being for Schultz a kind of “Siegfried,” while Django’s wife is Broomhilda, like the mythological Brunnhilde.  Wotan, god of gods who set the Siegfried myth in motion by imprisoning Brunnhilde atop a mountain for her disobedience, is the god of art and culture just he’s the god of war and vengeance. He is the god who seems to inspire the genteel – though effectively lethal – Schultz, just as he was the god who, according to C.G. Jung (and Tarantino’s Basterds screenplay, where a Nazi officer is connected to the bloodline of Wotan), inspired the most lethal regime in history, filled with men who were nevertheless enormously cultured and sensitive to the arts.  

Hugo Stiglitz, whipped in Inglourious Basterds
For Tarantino, cinema and its historical representations are a murky stew of projections, good and evil stirred together, “whirled without end” so to speak. The binary is not reconciled; Tarantino’s game of good guys and bad guys, where the qualities of one's character are handed down by the Old Testament God of Wrath Quentin Tarantino, ends in blood fulfilling the transgressions of blood, eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. Like his Bride (Uma Thurman) from Kill Bill, Tarantino will sympathetically acknowledge you, with your family and children, but he still lacks compassion or mercy for your sins. In movies, the body is malleable without real world ramifications. Tarantino can sadistically carry out his vengeance as author of a fantasy. There’s cathartic release in revenge violence (“a dish best served cold,” as the Klingon proverb reminds us at the beginning of Kill Bill), where the bodies of those who trespass against us are utterly destroyed, but the symbiotic relationship between Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, about the holocausts of two powerful nations, reminds us that it’s not merely a catharsis in entertainment, but an encounter with one’s Shadow.

Charming devil: Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa
Like King Schultz, Tarantino’s white privileged audience is complicit in a national atrocity from which they are conveniently buffered by a “post-racial” mindset. The arts are Tarantino’s tools for opening our eyes and our memories, the same way a harp playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” awakens repressed traumas in Schultz (we may remember that “Fur Elise” introduced Hans Landa to us in Inglourious Basterds, Ennio Morricone style), and the same way the projected demonic face of Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent) on a burning movie screen is, for the Germans, infernal vengeance with the same cold-blooded fury that Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) quotes from Ezekiel before blowing a sinner away in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino does this at a time when Germany struggles with its Nazi memories, and white Americans cannot bring themselves to say “nigger” even in the context of socio-historical discussion, hiding behind a lovely little term, “the n-word.”

Masters and Servants

Though a period film set in 1858, Django Unchained is a relevant address to the present, and quite perfect for distempered Obama Era attitudes about race, and though not Tarantino’s best film, it’s the fulfillment of the director’s provocative racial bent, which began with Reservoir Dogs’ gangsters bickering about how black men treat their women, and the infamous Dennis Hopper monologue delivered to Christopher Walken in True Romance, where Tarantino tells us how “Sicilians were spawned by niggers.” Racial injustice became a pressing – though not overtly verbalized – issue in 1997’s Jackie Brown, where Tarantino adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, recasting Leonard’s white heroine as black, making racial distance an issue in the romance between the film’s two aging protagonists, stewardess and cash mule Jackie (Pam Grier) and kindly bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). It’s in that film where Tarantino first uses the term “Mandigo,” when arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) sees a large black man named Winston (Tim Lister Jr.) with Max in one of the bail bondsman’s office photographs. “Who’s that Mandigo looking nigger?” Ordell asks. Max answers that it’s Winston, an employee. Ordell then smiles at Max, saying, “It was your idea to take that picture, wasn’t it?” The term refers to the infamous 1975 exploitation film Mandigo, about Southern slaves who are trained to fight each other on behalf of their masters, such as we see in Django Unchained. Ordell is slyly getting under Max’s skin, implying that though the photograph portrays boss and employee – or “Master and Slave” – as equals, Max is exploiting his black employee, using Winston’s presence to both make Max appear racially tolerant, and to intimate shady customers looking for a bond.  Likeable and good-intentioned as Max is, we shouldn’t necessarily dismiss Ordell’s theory.

Max Cherry and Winston in Jackie Brown
Mandigos abound throughout Django Unchained, as Dr. King Schultz and his “valet” Django masquerade as Mandigo speculators, interested in purchasing some of the fighting property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mandigo enthusiast who hosts some grueling one-on-one fights in the most garish of Mississippi’s aristocratic chambers (such as “The Cleopatra Club” with its "Julius Caesar" room). As part of their act, Django is playing a “slaver,” the most deplorable kind of black man in his context, a "free man" who abuses and assesses other blacks for his white master. White power structures are ensured by subjugating blacks by keeping them warring with each other, in sport for the Whites’ profit, or in simple grudges. For example, Candie’s Mandigo slaves probably harbor more resentment for the mysterious valet/slaver Django than they do for Candie or his white servants.

"Mandigo" fighting in Django Unchained
Near the end of Django Unchained, the villainous Stephen screams out to remind the hero, "Candyland will always be here." And Tarantino agrees. Jackie Brown may be set 140 years later in a world where affluent white Americans aren’t shocked by the sight of a black man on a horse, but the system is no less stacked against black citizens of limited means. Ordell, the film’s fascinating and amiable villain, uses this to his advantage when conversing with his underlings. His social thesis is voiced in desperation, when Jackie foils Ordell’s plot to kill her and backs him against a wall with her a gun: “The police start fucking with your mind, they start pittin’ black against black, that’s how they do – they been doing it since the beginning—” Ordell says before Jackie shuts him the fuck up.

"I'll never be free": Pam Grier in Jackie Brown
But like a lot of what Ordell says, there's wisdom in his gripes, even though he’s only using them to his own advantage (as his girlfriend Melanie, played by Bridget Fonda, says of Ordell's gun knowledge, "He's just repeating shit he overheard." The same may be true about Ordell's words on black problems). When an “employee,” Beaumont (Chris Tucker), is caught drunk driving with a pistol, Ordell knows he has to kill him before the ATF can arrange a plea bargain. Ordell eases Beaumont’s nerves by paying his bail and telling him that there’s no way he’ll be prosecuted. “They don’t got room in the joint for all these niggers killing each other out here now,” Ordell says to him. This is a lie, and a very melancholy one of the Three-Strikes 1990s, because though they might not have the room, they certainly seem to be making more of it, continuing to incarcerate young black men. Ask Max, who has written out thousands of bonds, mostly for young African American men who run out of their chances quickly. The "habitualizing"of criminal activity is something the system encourages, and after 15,000 bonds, it's a depressing reality that simmers in Max's head when his unexpected attraction to a black woman, Jackie, begins. The system is voiced by ATF agents Nicollete (Michael Keaton) and Dargas (Michael Bowen), two hounds who badger Jackie with insults to her social status. “If I was a 44-year-old black woman, desperately clinging on to this shitty little job that I was fortunate to get, I don’t think that I’d think I had a year to throw away,” Dargas says to Jackie, a flight attendant who makes $16,000 a year, plus benefits. Tarantino scores Jackie’s early sojourn in jail, walking through caged hallways in uniform, to Grier’s own “Long Time Woman,” where the much-younger Grier sings “I’ll never be free.” Meanwhile, in court the ATF wants to set her bail high at $25,000, but we notice that the judge, who’s black (and played by Grier’s Blaxploitation costar Sid Haig), is sympathetic to her, handing out a smaller (if still sizeable) bail ruling of $10,000, and kindly addressing her with his eyes.

Sid Haig in Jackie Brown
The fantasy in Jackie Brown is that of a struggling individual’s escape from the grueling destiny of growing older and working to no end without promise of advancement. Ordell’s dream is to make $1 million in gun running, then lead a life of clean spending, but in the meantime, he’ll play the slaver role, making exorbitant profits off "niggers" who just want to be like their favorite action stars, and shooting “employees” like Beaumont in the head “and ten niggers look just like him” to keep his dream afloat.   Jackie, meanwhile, is reminded how she doesn’t have any time to start over, and if she’s prosecuted for carrying someone else’s drugs (two ounces of coke, placed in Jackie's bag by Ordell's partner as a gift for Melanie), she won’t be able to afford a good lawyer. “They call that shit ‘intent,’” Ordell tells Max about Jackie’s two ounces. “The same thing happen to a movie star, they call it ‘possession.’” Again, Ordell is right. The disparity between privileged “movie stars” and working people, who are stuck with jail time and fines they cannot afford, is reinforced elsewhere. In addition to promising Beaumont a lawyer who "kicked Johnny Cochran's ass" (an allusion to O.J.), we see Tony Curtis being interviewed on television. “My pleasure of living demands that I be with a good looking woman,” Curtis says. “I couldn’t go out with a woman old enough to be my wife.” The scuzziness of Curtis’ words is very powerful in this film about class and aging (particularly sensitive to a woman’s aging), yet speaking on Beaumont’s television, he embodies what the aimless poor aspire to. Struggling to save themselves, Ordell, Jackie, perpetually stoned Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and Ordell's new “nigger” and old cellmate Louis (Robert De Niro), tumble together in cycles of duplicity and betrayal as they reach for a place where they would have no masters. Max, sickened by the system's cycle of habitualizing people of a certain race and class, similarly wants to just quit and get out.
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) and Max Cherry (Robert Forster) talk dreams and aging.
Granted, that’s a basic premise of any heist movie, but the film’s racial components and social sensitivity give it a deeper punch. Recalling his youth, surrounded by African Americans (he went to predominantly black schools, and has fond memories of his mother’s black friends and boyfriends, who were surrogate father figures – one of them telling him the "How Sicilians Were Spawned" story featured in True Romance), Tarantino speaks of a kinship between the poor blacks and the poor whites, who were certainly more similar to each other than they were to prosperous whites.  Both Jackie Brown and Django Unchained function not only as racial observations, but also as class dramas. In Django, there is a funny moment when the slave girls of the Col. Sanders-styled plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson) don’t know how to treat the free Black valet, Django. Big Daddy’s quick to say he’s not to be treated like a white person, but has trouble finding a good comparison. He brings up “Jerry,” a “peckerwood” kid from the nearby town, whose mother labors at a wood factory. So the freed Django is to be treated the same as a poor white person. In a fantastic online discussion regarding Django Unchained between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone, both of whom are black, Henderson brings up the “Jerry” episode, which rang true for him. “[These] rich ass landowners had both race AND class problems. The only reason that poor, redneck cracka Jerry isn't picking cotton for Big Daddy is that Jerry's not Black. He exists in some kind of classist limbo--too good to be a Nigra but not good enough for much else. The same holds true today; I truly believe that if working class Whites realized that ‘redneck’ is the same as ‘ghetto,’ that is, to the rich politicians who use race to scare them into voting, they're just as broke and niggerish as we are, there would be a true class revolution in this country. A Tale of Two Cities would have nothing on the moment poor Blacks and Whites tuned out the noise and found this common bond.”

The genre of gangsterism, around which Tarantino’s first three films revolve, shows the shadow side of the American dream, of prosperity and freedom, of self-reliance and equality in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, away from "regular job-type jobs," as Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) calls them in Reservoir Dogs. Illegal enterprises present a juicy cut for guys on parole or out of prison, like in Reservoir Dogs, where a jewel heist (and an LAPD undercover operation to apprehend the thieves after the heist) are undone by unseen contingencies. Pulp Fiction makes the eerie, almost supernatural component of the American “Shadow Self” more effervescent with its mysterious “666” suitcase holding a glimmering and hypnotic mystery that transfixes those who behold it.  Jackie Brown unpackages the underbelly of America's systems, exposing the inequities of race and class, a social blight obscured by the privileged conveniences Tarantino’s audience experiences in a mall, a central setting in the film, with its smart business suits, food court, and movie theaters. 

Tarantino’s recent historical films may be seen as lumbering pastiches where the director has a wank while tackling big genres (the war film; the Spaghetti Western; Blaxploitation). But, as with Jackie Brown, he’s using genre to go deeper into his country’s repressed "Shadow," displaying deeply suspicious social malignancies in our history and art, using broad brush strokes.  Tarantino's approach  empowers victims, but also condemns privileged viewers' ignorance. It’s a loaded statement to say that “we are the Nazis” in Shosanna’s movie theater, but for Tarantino, I think that’s the truth. This may contradict Tarantino’s statement that there is “disturbing violence” and then there is “fun and cathartic movie violence” (listen to Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" interview with Tarantino here). The distinction is easy to make in some cases, but other times I’m marveled by how Tarantino leaves me unnerved. In Inglourious Basterds, Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) explains to a Nazi officer that seeing Germans get clobbered to death, courtesy of Donnie Donowitz's (Eli Roth) baseball bat, is the closest the Basterds get to going to the movies. But when the beating happens, it’s particularly horrifying to see the Basterds yelping euphorically (as many members in Tarantino’s audience undoubtedly are).  Eyes for eyes making the world blind, the ring of genocide and terror, splayed out as spectacle, never ends: the coincidental African slave metaphor of King Kong, the parodic reversal of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation clansmen as bungling, blind-riding idiots, a “Nation’s Pride” (the title of Goebbels’ big production in Basterds) being a righteous and armed assault on faceless uniforms, pawns whose borders tear them away from a private innocence with their wives and children and dictate them as guilty, who scatter helplessly below.



In Django Unchained, King is "using" Django, as Tarantino is, admitting that he’ll use this “slavery malarkey” to accomplish his task of identifying the Brittle brothers, three wanted men, but he still feels guilty. Through King, Tarantino is probably apologizing in advance for his white privilege, having his cake and eating it too (the director even has a couple cakes in his movie; one King and Django eat, while the other they turn down). Nevertheless, Dr. King is a stranger to America. He’s a kindly wanderer and logician, a rationalist who formulates his plans based on all foreseeable contingencies. Though based on other characters in Spaghetti Westerns (I've heard reference to Klaus Kinski’s bounty hunter in Corbucci’s The Great Silence), there’s some irony to how this German is working through the tense and disjointed United States on the eve of the Civil War, as his own nation, fractured for so long, was undergoing similar struggles to become a republic in the 1840s. The liberal-minded King was perhaps one of the many Germans who immigrated to the United States from 1849-1855, as revolutionaries were being court martialed and executed.

Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) needs the eyes of Django (Jamie Foxx).
The storied tumults in Germany and America have contributed to what some people see as grave, collective “complexes” in their respective national characters. Germany’s prolonged unification allegedly contributes to an inferiority complex, erupting in terrifying ways throughout the 20th century. America, constructed of immigrants, refugees, and revolutionaries, is built on a distrust of government and a pathological clinging to “property,” whether that property is guns (such as we’re seeing now) or people (slavery). As Germany characterized itself as a rogue nation in Europe, America is the unilateral hegemon in the global network, not giving a shit if every other nation has outlawed slavery, acknowledged climate change and evolution, or sees going to war on suspicious grounds as a bad idea.  There’s something too characteristic about German megalomania and isolationism, and American paranoia and lack of remorse, as if both nations have been infected with related parasites that feed off the masticating appetites of volkgeist.

Siegfried and Brunnhilde
This is why the reference to the god Wotan is interesting in the context of Django Unchained. Django tells King his plan to rescue his wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who was sold separately from him as punishment for their marriage and flight from a plantation. Her name gets King’s attention. He immediately understands that her original owners must have been German, and, like a film or literary critic recognizing an allusion, ties Django’s story to Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Django listens with great interest to King’s outline of the myth, which follows a basic formula of a hero slaying a dragon to get a girl.  Siegfried feels no fear, King says, “because she’s worth it.” King will not only give Django his freedom, but will help his protege find and save Broomhilda. Django asks why King wants to help him. “When a German meets a real-life Siegfried,” King says, “that’s kind of a big deal.” It’s the positive side of mythology in action, demonstrating how a cultural/racial (Aryan) mythology may leap between backgrounds and blood.

The Siegfried myth was put to music in Wagner’s Ring cycle, and as such it took ahold of darker energies in the German character, closing itself off as a private myth and inspiring Nazi ideologues. Tarantino’s screenplay of Inglourious Basterds alludes to this, as the author describes the unfortunate – and uncompromising – Nazi officer who’s doomed to be clubbed to death, as a man of Wotan's bloodline. The god Wotan, who imprisoned his daughter Brunnhilde on the mountain and would eventually come to recognize Siegfried as a worthy hero in a restoration of balance to the universe, is a god of two natures: the god of wisdom and of war. In 1936, Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung identified a “Wotan complex” in the German people, seeing it roused collectively by Hitler. He had spotted it earlier, in 1918, writing of “the blonde beast… prowling about in its underground prison, ready at any moment to burst out with devastating consequences.” Wotan’s precedents and peers in mythology are interesting: Odin, Dionysus, Mercury, Hermes, Merlin, and for Christianity, the devil (though he’s also been tied to how we remember St. Nicholas – or Santa Claus).  

Dr. King Schultz as the restless German wanderer and magician.
Jung writes, “Wotan is a restless wanderer who creates unrest and stirs up strife, now here, now there, and works magic. He was soon changed by Christianity into the devil, and only lived on in fading local traditions as a ghostly hunter who was seen with his retinue, flickering like a will o’ the wisp through the stormy night.” That description evokes Dr. King Schultz, riding alone in the dark wilderness, working his “magic” (his wagon seems leftover from a circus, and even advertises itself as the property of "The Amazing Dr. King") when obtaining Django and killing the Speck brothers, then directing the other slaves to the North Star.  Jung adds, “In the Middle Ages the role of the restless wanderer was taken over by Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, which is not a Jewish but a Christian legend. The motif of the wanderer who has not accepted Christ was projected on the Jews, in the same way as we always rediscover our unconscious psychic contents in other people.” Here, Jung is describing Tarantino’s modus operandi, of legends and motifs emigrating between different races, a colonialism of storytelling, a theme even more compelling when we consider Django Unchained and how it evokes Uncle Remus and the B’rer Rabbit stories, images and tales that were rendered tidily for white audiences in Walt Disney’s Song of the South.

Hans Landa, the Nazi as the negative side of the Wotan myth.
For Jung, the archetypes have two natures, one pointed towards a higher nature, the other to primitive or bestial. He identifies “Wotan’s dual nature as a god of storm and a god of secret musings.” Writing about Jung’s investigation into the Wotan complex in a paper titled “The Eruption of the Shadow in Nazi Germany,” Michael Gellert looks at Florence Miale and Michael Selzer’s book The Nuremberg Mind, asking how the Nazi leaders, such ordinary and well-educated people, could surrender to wicked means and ends. Gellert writes of a psychological transformation happening, and how “in a social, collective context…[individual] values and behaviors became warped beyond recognition.” 

The Nazis occupy a movie theater.
Jung recognized the spirit of Wotan in Nietzsche, who through Zarathrustra at least recognized that it was an archetype breathing through him. Jung cites Nietzsche’s poem “To the Unknown God”: “I shall and will know thee, Unknown One, Who searchest out the depths of my soul. And blowest through my life like a storm, Ungraspable, and yet my kinsman! I shall and will know thee, and serve thee.” For Jung, Nietzsche understood and recognized what the German collective didn’t. This collective ignorance, joined with what he saw as Germany’s inferiority complex and one-sided rationalism, left Germany vulnerable to a demonic frenzy they couldn’t recognize.  Notice how in Django Unchained, Dr. King’s commitment to logic fails him and when he’s forced to shake hands to Monsieur Calvin Candie, who is also something of King’s Shadow. He apologizes to Django, admitting that he couldn't resist giving into his fury, and a bloodbath begins. 

"The story of the Negro in America." King Kong
King is wise, indeed he is as the film’s “Magical Whitey,” a fulfillment of the Wotan variant of Merlin, but when his script doesn’t play out according to his designs, he loses composure. It’s after submitting to Candie’s demands and being humiliated that King is so affected by the harp playing “Fur Elise,” the music that introduced Waltz’s Hans Landa in another life, once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. It’s like an uncanny future memory transmigrated to the past. In his mind, we see flashbacks of one of Candie’s Mandigos, D’Artangan, being torn to shreds by dogs, an act that both King and Django allowed to happen in order to gain Candie’s trust and comes closer to acquiring Broomhilda. But in another nation and time, D’Artangan may just as well be a concentration camp victim. Tarantino continues to tie various holocausts and cinematic images together: the Negro slave (King Kong, the Mandigo), to Jew, the Apaches who gave Aldo Raines his insurgent strategies, and, through viewer response to the metaphor, "terrorists" fighting against what they see as imperial powers, be it America, Nazi Germany, or Israel.

Gellert identifies the Jungian prescription for the afflictions of the Shadow: “We need to see evil within ourselves instead of projecting it onto someone else.” Django Unchained’s interest in a German man, who is open to sharing his myths with a “poor devil” of a different color, must be appreciated alongside the charm and power of that man’s complementary self, the Nazi Hans Landa. Django Unchained whispers that we should inquire about the contradictions coexisting in our ancestry and nationalities. Thomas Mann, who wrote of Germany’s Shadow in his Nietzschean and metaphorical novel Doctor Faustus, rejected notions of a “good” and a “bad” Germany, saying that his explanation was “that the bad was at the same time also the good, the good gone astray and in a condition of doom.” In 1936, Jung (a man who had a complicated relationship with German fascism and anti-Semitism) saw the storm brewing, though he was still ambivalent about what direction it would go. He writes, “I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all [economic, political, psychological] factors put together.” For Jung, the archetypes of the collective unconscious were the most powerful players in influencing people. Tarantino grew up in a dreamy den of mythic representation, the movies, similarly filled with coexisting gods and heroes, devils and angels.  The gods were Jung’s intermediaries between people and life energies, and the mythopoetic vehicle, necessary for what a Jungian may see as necessary for the human psyche’s well-being, is for Tarantino in cinema – highbrow and low.

Right for the wrong reasons; wrong for the right reasons: Reservoir Dogs
We could go back to Reservoir Dogs, where one criminal, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), is wrong about the wounded Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) – an undercover cop – but for the right reasons. The other criminals in the final Mexican standoff, godfather Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn), are right about Mr. Orange, but for the wrong reasons (Joe’s logic is that Mr. Orange works for the LAPD because he just “wasn’t sure”). White and Orange hold each other closely in the closing minute, the cops surrounding the warehouse. We see noble compassion and principle in White, and Orange responds by being honest: “I’m a cop.” His logic betrayed, White begins to whine incoherently. As the cops enter and point their guns, the camera pushes close onto his face. He presumably shoots Orange in the face before he’s also gunned down.

Mark of the Beast: Pulp Fiction
Did the devil make him do it, so quickly after the angels of his nature held him as the film’s most likable character? Gellert writes of the Shadow, “The devil might have made us do it, for evil is not only a given principle, it an autonomous principle, with a life and will of its own. Yet in the end it is we who do it, who consent to it, consciously or unconsciously. It is only consciousness that can help us in our battle with evil.” In Pulp Fiction, evil is whatever’s in that 666 suitcase, and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are its emissaries, stealing it away from doomed frat boy thieves, and then enduring some “strange shit” before delivering it. Evil is a ring, as we note how time circles back on itself, as they deliver it to Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) at the beginning of the film’s first titled chapter. 

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction
But Jules and Vincent make different choices after delivering the 666 suitcase. The question relates to “Divine Intervention” after they remarkably survive the full rounds of a "goddamned hand-cannon." Did God stop some motherfucking bullets so that Jules and Vincent could make a choice and leave the 666 Beast? Jules effectively quits the life, his “eyes wide open,” and resolved to no longer be a “blind man walking with the shepherd.” Conscious of himself, and of his words (which were originally just some theatrical scary shit to say to a motherfucker before killing him), he understands that he is “the tyranny of evil men,” and will walk away to a new life of “Kane from Kung Fu”-styled adventures and enlightenment. Bearing the voice of Old Testament Yahweh, the original Bad Motherfucker, Jules has his “moment of clarity,” even suggesting a way out for Honeybunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth), the two fast-talking romantic restaurant thieves who open the movie and hold disdain for “day jobs.”

Vincent (John Travolta) eats pork, poops, and reads in Pulp Fiction
But Vincent, the practical logician, rejects Divine Intervention. Even after experiencing miracle after miracle (be it bullets fired at him, the mercurial handiwork help of Harvey Keitel’s Wolf, or Mia Wallace’s unlikely resurrection after an overdose), he remains committed to gangsterism. He decries Jules’ decision to walk away because, as he says, “you’ll be a bum.” The breakfast conversation between Jules and Vincent regarding pork is hilarious, but also revealing in how the two men differ. Jules doesn’t eat pork, not because of religion, but because “pigs are filthy animals” who eat their own shit. “But bacon tastes good, pork chops taste good,” Vincent answers, in probably the greatest line-reading of John Travolta’s career. “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I wouldn’t know because I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfuckers,” returns Jules. Vincent loves his drugs and the pleasures crime affords him because, like bacon, it’s “good” for his appetites. He even would have tolerated an asshole keying his car just so he could have caught the vandalizer and had the pleasure of punishing him. Vincent, whom we notice spends an awful lot of time in bathrooms (spending an excessive amount of time debating whether or not to do anything sexual with Mia Wallace, and eventually even dying in front of a toilet, a copy of Modesty Blaise beside him for poop-time reading), is content in his world of dressed-up shit: $5 milkshakes, Douglas Sirk “bloody as hell” steaks, Royale with Chesses, etc. For Jules, shit is shit, no matter how you dress it up. He walks away. Vincent is killed – ironically by palooka Butch (Bruce Willis), a man heroically trying to save a gold watch, an object representing noble principles between brothers-in-arms that has nothing at all to do with “pleasure.” It’s an “uncomfortable hunk of metal” that was heroically preserved by being shoved up the dysentery-afflicted asses of Butch’s late dad and Captain Coonts (Christopher Walken) in Vietnam – for years. 

Vincent consents to the 666 Mark of the Beast (at least as a gangster; we should note that he finally seems resolved to not do anything with Mia Wallace, a triumph of his loyalty). He’s less interested in saving Mia from her overdose for her sake than for saving his own ass. This contrasts to the insights of Jules, who lets Honeybunny and Pumpkin free with their lives (and the wallets they’d already stolen), and Butch, who makes the decision – probably guided by the story behind the gold watch in Vietnam – to turn around in Zed and Maynard’s antique store, and save the Beast himself, Marcellus Wallace, who’s being sodomized by rednecks. His decision evolves from sadistic satisfaction (Vincent’s pleasure principle) to noble representation, as his choice of weapon moves from hammer, to Brian De Palma’s baseball bat (The Untouchables), to Tobe Hooper’s chainsaw (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), to, at last, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai sword.

Divine Intervention
The choice between good and evil would seem less murky in Inglourious Basterds, where the bad guys are Nazis, and Django Unchained, where the bad guys are slave traders. But the devil is there in Shosanna’s laughing face over burning bodies. The devil’s there as Django stays committed to his character, and two Mandigos beat each other to death, one of them plucking the loser’s eyes out (before finishing him with Butch’s first rejected weapon, a hammer handed to him by Candie), or when D’Artangan is killed by Candie’s dogs. He’s there when Donny Donowitz beats the hell out of the Wotan-guided German officer who refuses to talk. He’s there in the suicide explosives tied to the Basterds’ legs. Indeed, Tarantino’s brilliant use of David Bowie’s “Cat People” as Shosanna prepares the Nation’s Pride premiere is fitting, as it comes from Paul Schrader’s remake of Val Lewton’s Cat People, a great suspense story about the primal and bestial Shadow Self taking over.

The powerful language of film: Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) in Inglourious Basterds
Maybe Tarantino’s point is that the devil is more powerful if people do nothing and are lulled by their lazy refusal to see and act – their sin of omission, or to quote Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick of the devil was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Vincent isn’t going to debate Jules on divine intervention; instead he raises his finger and says, “I’m gonna take a shit.” In Jackie Brown, Max finds himself living a depressing existence of bad faith, dropping off minorities to jail and picking another minority up; he won’t let “white guilt” make him forget that he’s running a business. Do all the Germans wearing Nazi uniforms in Inglourious Basterds deserve to die, their corpses scalped and immolated by the Basterds? Not for me, but they also refuse to deny an ideology bent on eradicating a race (I can't wait for Tarantino's sequel to Compliance). For Tarantino, as recent interviews regarding Birth of a Nation reveal, Leni Riefenstahl’s artistic distance from her subjects as Hitler’s favorite filmmaker make her as complicit in Nazi violence (which one seems to feel observing Shosanna's regard for Riefenstahl in Basterdsas young John Ford was complicit in American institutional racism by showing up for a half-day’s shooting in Birth of a Nation as a clansman (yes, that’s a false equivalency). The lure of evil, as shown when Hans Landa gradually gets Monsieur LaPetite to cough up the Jews he’s hiding through the skill of his charming rhetoric, is hard to overcome, not necessarily because the riches it offers (the content of that 666 suitcase), but rather the comfortable complacency offered in believing in nothing. Recall Natural Born Killers, written by Tarantino (and rewritten extensively by director Oliver Stone), where Malory’s mother (Edie McClurg) is burned alive in her bed. Though not a “bad person,” she is complicit in the incestuous abuse Mallory (Juliette Lewis) suffers at the hands of her father (Rodney Dangerfield), this world rendered by Stone as the kind of feel-good sitcom into which carefree TV viewers escape. “You never did nothing,” Mallory says before setting fire to the bed.  This early screenplay anticipates the revenge killings of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

"You never did nothing." Mallory's mom pays for her apathy in Natural Born Killers
In his noteworthy reaction to Django Unchained, Steven Boone notes how the sister of Calvin Candie (Laura Cayouette), always wearing a mask-like smile of absolute comfort and grace, is cartoonishly blown away by Django: he fires his gun and she quickly flies back out of the frame, “weightless as her convictions.” That weightlessness is the greatest enemy to the good, and something an audience hoping for two and a half hours of bought escapism is invited to ponder.  Django’s motifs of seeing, blindness, hearing, and silence are not accidental, but connect to the problems of a nation (Germany, America) coming to terms with its past. You can accuse Tarantino of grandstanding when he refuses to answer journalists’ questions about his use of “nigger” when they themselves only say “the n-word” (“If you can’t say it, you can’t talk about it,” Tarantino says), or how he takes credit for reigniting a national conversation about race, but, outside of his interview persona, his point is well taken, particularly after the 2012 election cycle where paranoia about “Voter ID” mirrored images from Birth of a Nation’s white anxiety. It’s clear that even though we have a Black president and a holiday named for another Dr. King, race still matters.  It’s there, but silently curbed away, like the “D” in Django’s name.


Flesh and Words

Tarantino begins his saga by reaching out for Corbucci’s Django theme, the beat working in a perverse unison with some slaves, including the titular Django, being led through heat and ice by callous slave exporters, the Speck brothers (James Russo, James Remar). The filmmaker is taking the words from another director, of another language and culture, who was in turn borrowing from American mythology about the West; in his credits, Tarantino even has the amusing European credit for an actor’s special appearance (“and with the friendly participation of Franco Nero” – the actor who played Corbucci’s Django in 1966). The opening exchange continues the problem of dialogue between cultures, the foreigner in fact being more adept at the vernacular than the rough natives.

The importance of speech is indicated in the squeaky tooth on Dr. King’s wagon, which is drawn by King’s horse Fritz. It is reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ recent Western, True Grit, where Rooster (Jeff Bridges) comes across a wild dentist on his travels, the Coens’ film being very much about how language and speech relate to the handling of human corpses, commerce, and even race (Blacks and Indians are disallowed speech in the film). King was a dentist before turning to bounty hunting, the government-sanctioned collection of bodies for profit. There is a clean and direct approach to his speech and manner, his transactions being performances that he seems to direct, and we might well compare his progressive stances in mouth – and in mind – to what he encounters at Candyland, the huge plantation over which the yellow and brown toothed Calvin Candie lords, and where bowls of candy fill every room, Candie meanwhile delighting in sugary alcoholic drinks (a “Polynesian,” a coconut drink that so gives Candyland undercurrents of colonialism) – while King himself doesn’t partake in sweets.
Big Daddy (Don Johnson)
“I wish to parley with you,” King says to the Specks, who respond by saying, “Speak English!” King explains that he’s looking to purchase one of the Specks’ slaves, Django, whose eyes can help him identify three fugitive brothers. When King speaks up close with Django, the Specks angrily protest, “Stop talking to him like that!” “I’m simply trying to ascertain—”  Speak English!” A slave has no right to engage in dialogue, and a white man has no right to even begin that engagement – while at the same time, citizens who have speech rights don’t know how to talk (“ascertain” is not in their vocabulary). Ironically, when the doomed Speck brother finds himself surrounded by the slaves ("poor devils") who’ve been liberated by King, he cries, “Let’s talk about this!” Mortality makes speech an issue: in Tarantino’s world, flesh is speech, much like, as the Supreme Court has made clear, money is speech. As bounty hunters deal in corpses, slave traders deal in docile bodies for work, transactions amounting to what is done to human flesh. It’s extended to absurd ends, as when King demands a “bill of sale” for Django from the whimpering and swearing Speck, who only has a short time left to live.  Later on, with a town full of guns drawn on him, King delivers a lengthy explanation of why he’s just shot the town sheriff, Bill Sharp (Ed Stroud). Sharp, King elegantly informs us, was a former outlaw who’s taken a new name with his profession in the law. A criminal wanted dead or alive, King has brought along the government paperwork to support his claims. He concludes by saying to the Marshal (Tom Wopat), who can’t deny the veracity of King’s words, “In other words, you owe me $200.” Elsewhere, with Big Daddy, Schultz has “5,000 things” that could make the plantation owner respectably negotiate the acquisition of some slave girls, and they’re not 5,000 words. The same strategy of money as speech works on Candie, as it’s King’s offer of $12,000 for one of Candie’s best Mandigo fighters that makes the Young Southern Prince hospitable and, as he says, “curious.”
Storytelling in Django Unchained
There’s clockwork certainty to King’s mastery of language. He brings his newly acquired slave Django into a saloon for beers, anticipating the panic of the bartender who will, “as if on cue” in King’s words, bring the sheriff.  And it’s from King that Django learns how to operate in the tricky terrain of language, beginning with simple questions regarding word definitions, like “bounty” and “positive.” When the pair examines the Wanted poster of one of their quarry, it's indicated that King has also taught the younger man how to read (to say nothing of storytelling, as Django sits rapt wanting to hear King talk about Siegfried and Brunnhilde). This may be troubling for some progressive viewers, who see Tarantino’s story of “Black Empowerment” being tainted by instruction of the Magical Whitey, but the filmmaker is probably feeling it’s analogous to how he learned his grammar in cinema, his masters in the American genre of Westerns being Italians like Leone and Corbucci.

The trickery of film language, and its relationship to spoken language, means a lot to Tarantino, who demonstrated this relationship of manipulation in Inglourious Basterds, with its deliberately misspelled title that nevertheless gets the point across, its title also coming from a movie directed by an Italian, Enzo Castellari (significantly, and with immense humor, when the Basterds operate undercover during the Nation’s Pride premiere, they masquerade as Italians, Aldo Raines not trying too hard while saying “Bon-jorno”). As Monsieur LaPettite is lured to a comfortable place by the rhetorical mastery of Landa, so are Tarantino’s viewers manipulated by editor Sally Menke’s arrangement of a scene. SS hero and actor Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) might be uncomfortable during his movie premiere because the dramatization of his own violent experience troubles his conscience. The Nazi, who told us earlier he's "more than just a uniform," is suddenly sympathetic. But the following moments show that he’s probably just irritated by his attraction to his lovely French exhibitor, Shosanna. When Shosanna shoots him in the projection booth, Tarantino’s use of music, and cutting between the dying Zoller and his tormented visage on screen, rouses compassion in Shosanna – and again the audience – for the poor, handsome soldier and movie star. But the film grammar is another trick, as deft as Landa’s abilities to get under his prey’s skin. Zoller reveals his Luger and shoots Shosanna. The two mass-killers, Aryan and Jew, die side by side, their projections of death and murder preserved and filmed in close-up.
Learning to kill, learning to speak: Django likes the way the Brittles die
Django adopts King’s theatricality, and with that mastery of performance comes his ability to assert himself violently. The Brittle brothers (M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame), who abused Django and Broomhilda at their old plantation, are identified as Big Daddy's farmhands. Django stands tall in his Blue Boy costume, whipping the hell out of one of the Brittles, and shooting another (Gainey). Significantly, the brother played by Gainey has a shirt with Bible pages attached to it, Django's bullet piercing one of them, and staining it with Gainey's blood. The brother held his Bible close and recited it when Broomhilda was whipped. The Bible, much like other texts (the Constitution?), is wielded by those in power to control other people, in spite of the intelligence or intentions of the author (we’ll see this resolved furthermore in Candyland’s library).  Django’s empowerment doesn’t just turn the gun on the oppressor, but also the page.
Riding blind: D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
This leads to what is already Django Unchained’s most notorious scene, the farcical Clan raid on King and Django’s wagon, where Big Daddy’s legion of antebellum buffoons display Monty Pythonesque absurdity in their squabbling about their masks' inadequate eyeholes.  This central scene has struck viewers in various ways. The sequence, like a colorized Birth of a Nation, opens with Verdi’s Requiem Prologue (a nice choice, possibly drawn from the Japanese film Battle Royale, one of Tarantino’s favorite films and about a nation in Civil War, just as Django Unchained’s America is preparing for one), hooded clansmen riding the hills and encircling King’s wagon.
The Negro Congress in Birth of a Nation: chicken, whiskey, and feet on desks
Though the KKK was not a significant force in the South until the 1870s, their placement is perfect for Tarantino’s antebellum epic, where D.W. Griffith’s anxieties, of “a White South under the heel of the Black South” (an image drawn from a Birth of a Nation title card, and something we see in the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, also a reaction to Griffith), are present with Django’s bloodletting on the Southern aristocracy. Actually, the scene plays like a "KKK Demo," as if some good ole boys are just trying this new idea out. In Birth of a Nation, we see the enrollment of the Negro vote, rich whites being disenfranchised, and a South Carolina congress filled with blacks drinking whiskey and eating chicken, their bare feet on desks.  Meanwhile, Silas Lynch, “the social lion of the new aristocracy,” a mulatto horn-dog and protégé of Pennsylvania abolitionist Austin Stoneman (himself based on Thaddeus Stevens, whom Tommy Lee Jones portrays in Spielberg’s Lincoln), aims to legalize interracial marraige, ensures that whites must salute Negro officers in the street, and has whites publically whipped.
"I can't see fucking shit!" The clansmen in Django Unchained.
The turn Griffith’s film takes is an interesting one, particularly when we watch it nowadays in an era of superhero “origin” stories. Griffith’s central character, “The Little Colonel,” is inspired by watching some black children scared by a woman hiding in a white sheet. Griffith’s card reads, as the Batman-like inspiration develops, “The Ku Klux Klan, the organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule, but not without the shedding of more blood than at Gettysburg, according to Judge Tourgee of the carpet-baggers.”  The KKK, in Griffith’s epic, is a predecessor to Tarantino’s vengeance seekers and Hollywood superheroes, leaving corpses at Silas Lynch’s house, and embracing wrathful Shadow personae (the white costume – a twisted superhero outfit if ever there was one) to do battle with a growing Negro militia.  This is, Griffith tells us, “a common defense of their Aryan birthright.” Scoring the KKK’s climactic battle against Lynch’s Negro Empire, at least in the version of The Birth of a Nation that I’ve seen, is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (sung by, jeez, Brunnhilde), again showing how Tarantino is setting up his epic as a negative celluloid reflection to Griffith’s.  And though order is restored at the conclusion of Griffith’s film, where North and South exist in a state of Brotherly Love, it is on the terms of the whites, where a system of masters and servants remains tidily in place (one of the stipulations is how the blacks are disarmed).  This is unacceptable for Tarantino, where Django and Broomhilda, after exacting spectacular vengeance on Candyland and its inhabitants, are no doubt destined for a life on the run.

Tarantino’s Clansmen are, much like King and Django, performers. Though they can’t see through their slim and uneven eye slots, their leader, Big Daddy, reminds them it doesn’t matter. In a raid, it’s the spectacle and fearsomeness of the act that matters: if the horses can see, good enough. We might think here about how Django’s characters' relationships to their horses. While King and his loyal horse Fritz, who nods on introduction along with his master, are united, as if the German and his animal self are neatly assimilated, the Southern racists, in so many ways linked to the next century’s Nazism (their ideology would serve as stateside padding for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fermenting global anti-Semitism and support for whatever Hitler was doing), are carried away by the menacing beasts of their nature.

For Jung, this is what happens when a person doesn’t have any insight into him or herself. And accordingly this is what happens when a nation doesn’t have the will to look at its history and motivations. “I can’t see fucking shit!” is said repeatedly by these buffoons, and it's quite funny stuff, but with these blind riding jokers “fucking with the eyeholes,” Tarantino is demonstrating how mob mentality makes people absurdly go forth into committing heinous acts. That they spend so much time rationalizing it also hits home at a time when the ideological descendants of these nightriders have kept the United States behind the rest of the world in regards to gun control, healthcare, and prison sentencing.

It’s a nice joke having Don Johnson’s Big Daddy play the leader of Tarantino’s KKK. He's riffing on his similarly white-clad undercover cop Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice. On that show, Crockett shared the screen with an African American partner, Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), who was nevertheless second fiddle to the more accessible and glamorous white cop (there's a very Crockett and Tubbs dynamic going on with King and Django, something from which the younger man breaks free).  With some more fun intertextual irony, Don Johnson’s Big Daddy meets his demise courtesy of the Jamie Foxx, the actor who played Tubbs in Michael Mann’s artful 2006 feature-film adaptation of the 1980s’ TV show.  It's a perfect comeuppance for an industry dominated by whites, its grammar and prejudices related to Birth of a Nation, to say nothing of wreaking fantastical cinematic vengeance on the KKK. 


Stephen, Django's Shadow

The most troubling aspect of Django Unchained is Django’s "Shadow" Self, one of the things from which he, as a cinematic representation, is trying to unchain himself.  Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is the central supporting performance of the film, and one of the greatest inventions of the filmmaker, a figure who is both funny and frightening, who, much like Inglourious Basterds’ spectacle of movie theater carnage, gives us what we want while also reminding us – and condemning us for – who we are. The wobbly 76-year-old Stephen has a familiar lineage of amusing Black faces: Amos and Andy come to mind, Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, and Birth of a Nation’s crotchety old Southern house slave, who remains committed to his Master after the Civil War (and how about Tyler Perry's Madea?). Do we laugh along with Stephen, as when he describes a great Mandigo as “Niggales” (like “Hercules”), or do our socially responsible consciences muzzle us?  Tarantino is pointing to an oppressive evil in this character, even while he's ebulliently laughing along with what he's created. With his makeup and cold stare, Jackson looks unnatural, a malformation of our "Magical Negro"/Uncle Tom preferences. On the one hand, he's Caliban, and on the other he's Iago and Lear's Edmund, an enigma and force of nature, a puzzle of mastery and servitude, the most problematic character in Tarantino's body of work, and probably the most interesting of screen villains since Hans Landa in 2009's Inglourious Basterds.(Actually, maybe Stephen is Tarantino's Shylock).

As an antagonist, Stephen can't be defeated through through strength or even wits. It's through the power of representation, as a film image, that Django must defeat him. The symbiosis between the two opposing characters, Django and Stephen, begins when they first see each other in Tarantino’s slow and steady introduction to “The Big House,” the center of Candie’s plantation, where Broomhilda is a house slave, and Stephen runs the day to day operations (we first see him signing checks: black servitude keeps the cash flowing). Set to Jerry Goldsmith and Pat Methany’s music from 1983’s Nicaragua-set Under Fire, which enforces an atmosphere of exotic and fascist third-world power, colonial interference, and unrest (and that King and Django are definitely behind enemy lines), Tarantino holds Stephen in a close-up.  He stares at the young black man on the horse, as if he's been expecting him for years, distrust and resentment quaking through his face. At this moment, we recognize that its Stephen, not Calvin Candie, who is the arch nemesis in Django's story. The Other is not our opponent, but keeping with the Jungian schema, the opponent is the "Shadow" within ourselves. Accordingly, King's adversary is Candie - much like King's other adversary is his intertextual "Shadow" Hans Landa. Stephen has been contorted by the institution that conquered and constructed him, and that had been working on conquering Django. They are both part of a race colonized in its own country, placating masters while gladly enforcing strictures against their own people. We learn that in Candie’s absence (Candyland is probably several hundred square miles, its own enclosed empire), Broomhilda attempted escape and has been duly punished by Stephen, who’s placed her in “the hot box,” where she’s to lie naked and suffocate in the Southern heat for ten days.

Playing a fool, Stephen is Calvin Candie’s eyes and ears, catching sight of how Hildi looks at Django, her eyes betraying her: “You got big eyes for him,” he says.  Stephen calls her on it, and his suspicions escalate, and Django and King’s plans appear more involved than two men trying to pay handsomely for a good Mandigo fighter, where Django does the “eyeballing” and King does the “money.” As if to use Django’s eyes as a giveaway, Stephen is all too eager to support Candie in showing off Hildi’s scars to King and Django, which Candie describes as “a fine painting.” Mauled flesh as visual spectacle, a motif throughout Tarantino’s work, marked the conclusion of Basterds, where Aldo Raines, perhaps voicing Tarantino’s regard for his own work, cuts a swastika into Hans Landa’s forehead and remarks that he’s made his “masterpiece.” Reader the body language between Django and Hildi, Stephen will interrupt the polite parley of negotiations between Candie and King, apologizing by saying, “My ears aren’t worth a damn these days,” then mumbling “I’ll be in the library” to Candie. He’s an expert reader of signs and bodies, and will lay the truth on the table for Candie in a room filled with words, words, words, that the ignorant Francophile (who speaks no French) reads but doesn’t comprehend. It’s in the library where Stephen’s mask as crotchety servant comes off (his hand holding a cognac is perfectly still and speech has changed), and King and Django’s duplicity is unveiled.

Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)
Bodies, the marker for commerce, trade, and speech in Django Unchained’s web of slaves and corpses, are tied to art, like the “painting” of flogging scars on Hildi’s back, or how Candie’s prized Mandigo D’Artagnan, whose mauling is burned into King’s memory, is named after a character from The Three Musketeers, which we can assume is a favorite novel of the Francophile Candie. Words are one thing (King says that he and Hildi only “exchanged words” in his guest room, when it was assumed that they would sleep together), but sight, the avenue of having something exposed to your mind through the eyes, another. Earlier, though King calls Django a “silver-tongued devil,” it was probably the sight of Django that made Hildi faint.  And though some viewers have been critical of the character of Hildi, Tarantino’s mutest female character in some time, those scars reveal her willingness to rebelliously act.  Django’s love for her is based on visual memory, more powerful than words, which in Tarantino’s world is a helpful tool, but secondary to the spectacle of cinema: optical language.  It seems that Kerry Washington doesn't have a lot to work with, but her lack of speech is deliberate.  Both she and Django have been raised in a world where their speech was controlled (even though Django tells us that "she's good with talking," regarding her knowledge of German). On the other hand, the mouthy Stephen spouts the kind of Uncle Remus content that amuses his masters (and Tarantino's audience).  With King, Django's tongue has been freed, and making himself outspoken leads to Stephen's verbal assault, "I'm not goin' to take lip off this nigger!" 

As it turns out, Stephen wants to keep Django alive. He prevents Candyland’s heavy Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) from castrating the bound Django, and instead reminds Django of his fate, to work for a mining company. The company will take away his name and give him another, and if he speaks out of turn, they’ll cut out his tongue. The process of work is simple: taking big rocks, and smashing them into little rocks, all day, from dawn to dusk, for the rest of Django’s life. Significantly, with Django bound and gagged, naked and upside down, Stephen is looking directly into the camera, and so addressing not only us, but as Steven Boone notes, the Black Man in America, referencing perhaps the inequality of American prisons (which Tarantino has called a modern-day slave trade) or inner-city crack dealing (smashing big rocks into smaller rocks). There’s sadness in Jackson’s face while he hands out Django’s fate, especially since what we think is the movie’s violent climax has already happened. Instead of freedom, it’s 150 more years of servitude, a fate that ends with a whimper. Stephen is not addressing Django/the audience as a character, but as an energy, as a god – as Django’s Shadow, complicit in a white system of oppression, loving power though denying empowerment for his brothers, finding modern day embodiments in Clarence Thomas and Alan Keyes.

Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington)
Django has learned to use his wits, however, and like B’rer Rabbit, he fools the Aussies and mining company officials, who are leading Django and his brethren to a live of servitude. He adopts the script he learned from King, rhetorically devising a method to turn around and collect the bounties on some bodies left behind at Candyland. Armed, he kills his escorts, including Tarantino himself, playing an Aussie, who’s obliterated in a dynamite blast. Django, in other words, has assumed control of his own film, and is now liberated by the strictures of an author or form.

The messiness of Django Unchained is pronounced during this final, unexpected act, which leaves the picture feeling uneven, and perhaps spoiled by the requirements of delivering something under three hours. Tarantino’s original cut was apparently over 200 minutes, and may have very well played more consistently in a stretched out, free-flowing form. As the film ends with a blazing guns shootout, it’s unfortunate that, aside from Stephen (who doesn’t handle a gun), the chief adversary would be Billy Crash, a character who fails to make much impression on us, other than being a hateful redneck. This probably stems from cut material, and also how the perils of the film’s troubled production, as Billy was apparently a rewrite of a more substantial character who was supposed to be played by another movie star, Kevin Costner, and then Kurt Russell, before being cut completely. The other racist villains who come under Django’s wrath, the Candyland trackers, don’t make much of an impression, even though some familiar faces portray them (Robert Carradine, Zoe Bell, Michael Bowen, Ted Neely, Tom Savini).  The rushed density of the otherwise exciting proceedings made me think of Martin Scorsese’s similar, Weinstein-funded “Western,” Gangs of New York, which is believed was also heavily trimmed in the editing room.  But films exude awesomeness, but also sloppiness and unevenness, though their virtues - more so with Django - outweigh their debits.

Monsieur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Yet the fractured nature of this last chapter also feeds into the sense of how Django has liberated himself from his parent narrative, becoming an autonomous individual, King having hitherto slain his "Shadow Self" in Candie, and Django killing a host of Candie’s other soldiers during a shootout, stopped by his lack of ammunition and Billy Crash’s threats to kill Hildy unless he relents.  But Django will not submit to his own film's Aristotelian progressions. Django creatively assumes his own narrative, like Kubrick’s Star Child. He takes hold over the image. Django absorbs what he can from the author that had been leading him (Tarantino, who is quite literally leading Django during this interim period), kills the trackers, castrates the rapacious Billy Crash with a bullet, and finally sets his gun on Stephen, who straightens himself out with dignity as death looms, his walk revealing that his limp was purely an act.  Django cripples the oppressive Shadow Stephen, exits the Big House (a euphemism for a prison, and so an appropriate resting place for Stephen’s negative black image, who remains engaged in the white system and refuses to leave), and makes his creation of carnage and revenge a pure spectacle, like how King describes Siegfried’s rescue of Brunnhilde. Though Aristotle values "spectacle" the least in drama, Django takes cue from King's rendering of the Siegfried myth, and makes his conclusion a fireworks display, even dancing with his horse. In front of the exploding Big House, Django puts on his sunglasses, while Hildi covers her ears: the power of Sight and Sound, identity sculpted as cinematic myth, is explosively laid out for an author as his own audience, looking upon the things he’s made.

As apathy, omission, or the inability to see and hear the reality of a situation, are probably the greatest evils for Tarantino’s universe of “Good Germans” and “Good Americans” (and other than the kindly sheriff who offers King and Django some “pretty good” birthday cake, I can’t think of a “good” American in the film), Django Unchained sees the greatest good in human creativity. King, for example, is an artist, a Prospero calling the drama while it happens.  One of Tarantino’s central moments involves Calvin Candie giving a dinner table lecture on the pseudo-science of phrenology, or innate, biologically determined qualities of different races, which men like Candie would use during the 19th century to justify slavery.  Candie takes out the skull of “Old Ben,” the Candyland house slave who raised three generations of Candies before expiring.

Calvin Candie with Old Ben
Significantly, Old Ben’s skull is missing a jaw (referencing his lack of speech or creative expression), and Candie tells us how certain dimples pronounce themselves differently on Ben's skull, than they would on a white man's. If Candie split open Django's skull, he goes on, the dimples on the two black men's bones would be identical, and near the area of the brain associated with Submissiveness. You see, those dimples tell us the nature of the person, and according to this science, "Submissiveness" and "Civility" are the dominant traits in blacks, while "Creativity" is read in the skulls of whites: Old Ben, Candie remarks, is "unburned by genius." This is why the blacks don’t “rise up” and “kill the whites,” such as we have in the motion picture fantasy of Birth of a Nation, or present day paranoia about President Obama being a Mugabe-type anti-colonial African avenger (see 2016: Obama’s America; or don't see it, and just trust me).  As we see elsewhere in this film, bodies communicate, like art and literature (the “painting” on Hildi’s back).  The phrenological argument means that you can’t change who you are. Whites are creative, while blacks are submissive.

Texts in dialogue: Tarantino's Django (Foxx) meets Corbucci's Django (Franco Nero)
It’s a disturbing notion, because throughout the film we see characters whose appearances and performances are at odds with their essences. Sheriff Bill Sharp is in fact an outlaw, his badge and new name being a respectable mask for a murderer named Bill Peck; the Brittle brothers operate similarly as wanted outlaws operating as farmhands for Big Daddy (also a nickname) under different names, the Schaeffers (they are accordingly undone by Django’s sight); the KKK looks fearful as a horde of masks, but these are blind-riding uncoordinated idiots; the Mandigo “Eskimo Joe” isn’t an Eskimo, but the name has stuck anyway; Calvin Candie can’t speak French, but wants to be called “Monsieur”; the funniest examples are Django in his Gainsborough outfit, and Tarantino with his awful accent.

"I Got a Name": Django and King
But it’s ignorance and complacency, not essence, that stifles the creative will to assume an identity and wear it proudly. King’s understanding and friendship gives Django a leg up, and one of the film’s most stirring sequences, so easy to take for granted, is a montage of the two men riding through the winter wilderness, Jim Croce’s song “I Got a Name” playing. Croce sings, “I got a name, and I carry it with me like my daddy did, but I’m living my dream that he kept hid.” As we look at Django embody these lyrics, played with such firm resolve by Foxx, the sentiment is the most poignant thing Tarantino has captured in his career. At the conclusion of the montage, Django and King deliver some bodies for Sheriff Gus (Lee Horsely), who calls Django by his name, offering some cake inside.  Django takes his name, the myths and rhetorical skills given to him by chance, and assimilates what’s happened to him to outwit his enemies, weaving his own magic and spectacle, the same way King was able to, directing his enemies “as if on cue.”

Alexandre Dumas
King appreciates this power to create, and this is how has satisfaction with Candie in the library. Defeated and struggling with his guilt, King asks if Candie named the unfortunate D'Artagnan after Alexandre Dumas’ hero from The Three Musketeers, a book that’s in this library.  Of Candie allowing his dogs to kill D’Artagnan, King asks, “What would Dumas think of that?” Candie doesn’t know. To say Dumas would approve "would be dubious at best,” King says.  And why? Not because, as Candie suggests, he's a soft-hearted Frenchie, but rather because “Alexandre Dumas was black.” And Alexandre Dumas, adored by so many racist people who would never suspect his origins, was a master of creativity, overcoming his social limitations as a man of mixed racial lineage through his novels, which portrayed individuals heroically overcoming great odds.  Django, strapped and exported to the LeQuint Mining Company, is a variation of the Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo,  that novel being a perfect metaphor for any group or race imprisoned by the powerful, who must use creative will to transcend their circumstances.

It’s in the story behind the mythmaking creator, Dumas, that Candie gets his checkmate against the ignorant Crown Prince of Complacency and the status quo, and though the stories are fantasies and unrealistic, their qualities as touchstone narratives gives them power, the same way King projects his Siegfried onto Django, and the same way that any audience member, black or white, can aspire to the mythical projection in a time of great economic inequality. Tarantino’s heroes don’t submit to the narrative, but assume it as creator and interpreter, as Tarantino takes the mantles from Corbucci and Leone (and hosts of others), or as Django "paraphrases" King's bounty hunter philosophy to get his dirty work done.  This is what Jules does with his Ezekiel speech in Pulp Fiction; what Jackie does, skidding between cops and criminals in Jackie Brown; and Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds, who takes Nation’s Pride and inserts herself into the text, her black boyfriend (Jacky Ido) taking his cue, directed by her, setting a mountain of celluloid on fire.

Tarantino's Musketeer and Count of Monte Cristo
Django is self-liberated from the strictures of the clean narrative arc of an imprisoning “movie,” where other, more verbose players have previously overshadowed him.  Django, as a symbol of black empowerment, confronts and destroys the alternative cinematic image of blackness, the servitude of Stephen, whose very nature as a literary/cinematic figure is a manifestation of oppression more powerful, perhaps, than the plantation that created him.  Where Stephen would keep the black hero earthbound and in shackles (working for a mining company, to be specific), Django becomes transcendent of the text and of his given role.


"They Are All Equal Now."

Tarantino wants us to enjoy his movies, but also wants us to actively engage with them, watching them creatively. My seeing of Django Unchained is, maybe, part of Tarantino’s grand design for the audience, where the filmmaker himself is transmuting the motion picture images and motifs that built his sensibilities into his invented scenarios. Though unschooled in many of his cited influences (the Sergio Corbucci spaghetti westerns, for example, are still mysterious to me), I create my own subtext through this encounter. In recent interviews, Tarantino addresses subtext, regarding his unpublished writing on Corbucci. He sees themes aplenty regarding fascism and racism, but then asks if Corbucci himself wrote these ideas into his pictures, and Tarantino admits that he’s unsure. “But I see them there,” he says, and for him that’s all that matters. That kind of cavalier reader-response attitude is reassuring for a critic, whose vision might be as stunted as the clansmen Tarantino hilariously shows bickering, their eye-holes too small for clarity during the botched KKK rally.

Though Tarantino’s own subtextual assertions might be a little goofy or ill-advised (take his haughty attitude regarding John Ford and Birth of a Nation, a theory which works as a gauzy myth, but is, taken realistically, terribly unexamined), I still believe the dynamic of image representation and audience projection, individual or collective, is what’s at the core of Django Unchained. Not simply in how this Southern epic relates to cinema, be it other prestigious historical pictures, Blaxploitation, or Westerns, but how it examines our collective “national” identities, outside the theater, engaging with a world some allege as being post-racial and Enlightened.  In choosing to tell Django’s journey with a German co-protagonist, who invokes the same myths for positive adulation and identification that were used by his race to systematically murder millions of people, Tarantino draws an eerie parallel, and so a warning to the passive audience, of a nation’s collective unconscious, the dual nature of a nation’s Self.

Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon
There are many allusions that you can read into Django Unchained, as written out here in a great skeleton key by Bilge Ebiri), but what was unexpected for me was finding Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon there.  To be fair, my perspective is skewed, because Barry Lyndon is, I believe, the best film ever made.  I’ve seen Barry Lyndon elsewhere, in just the past year, in Moonrise Kingdom, Magic Mike, Lincoln, and Amour.  The world Barry Lyndon represents, 18th century pre-Revolution Europe, seems removed from Tarantino’s pulpy universe of exploitation movies and unbridled genre-busting gusto. I recall in 1994, when Tarantino was asked if he’d ever make a movie like the one his influence Martin Scorsese had just made, The Age of Innocence (itself influenced by Barry Lyndon, one of Scorsese’s favorite films of the last 40 years), released the previous year, he replied that not only did he have no desire to make a costume drama, he didn’t even want to see one.

But Barry Lyndon is there for me in Django Unchained: the pipe being smoked by Candie which so reminded me of what Barry smokes after his marriage to Lady Lyndon; the scenes of quietly awkward German dialogue between King and Broomhilda, much like those between the AWOL Barry and a young German girl, or during Barry’s attempted infiltration of the Chevalier de Balibali, before the young spy collapses in grief upon recognizing the Irish kinship between them; Schultz and his adopted valet Django masquerading through the antebellum South, much like Barry and Balibali hitting Europe’s best gaming tables, Django even wearing some Gainsborough garb (Gainsborough being one of Kubrick’s key visual models); Candie leading on Schultz and Django, before accusing them of duplicity, much like the Prussian Captain Potsdorf does with Barry (“You are a liar!”); and then of course those beautiful candlelit interiors, the cinematographic innovation of Barry Lyndon that Tarantino and Robert Richardson use to great effect in several scenes.  There are late 18th century drawings at the pub where King and Django drink, and the same kind of strict, aristocratic formalities at play in the simple setting of a table at Candyland, Tarantino's own Castle Hackton. 

The Chevalier and Barry, masquerading through a European aristocracy as King and Django go through an American aristocracy.
I’ll grant you all that is merely incidental or accidental.  It’s me, the Kubrick obsessive, projecting and identifying things that aren’t there with a perspective every bit as jaundiced as those yellow glasses Bruce Dern’s malicious slave owner wears in Django Unchained, plainly stating in a brief flashback that he has no use for “a nigger with sand” before selling Django cheaply.  But I can’t avoid what I see, and built on that creative dialogue between Barry Lyndon and Django Unchained, there's something that attaches Kubrick to Tarantino’s musings on the human body, and the ornaments and titles adorning the body before death.

Specifically, I think of Kubrick’s final epitaph, drawn from the Thackeray source novel: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforementioned personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”  The great equalizer referenced in this opulent panorama of European aristocracy is Death, the “grim, invincible enemy” with whom the best doctors cannot contend, taking hold of bodies suddenly, like that of the gasping, heart-seizured Sir Charles Lyndon, the mortally crippled child Brian, or rows of doomed soldiers marching headlong into gunfire, or gradually, like the rest of the film’s players whose bodies have surrendered to the historical chopping block with time. Death takes everyone and fixes once regal lives as lifeless masses of matter to erode and scatter.  They may have had castles, noble titles, and great works of art, but Barry Lyndon rivals Kubrick’s 2001 in how we feel the excruciating, awesome weight “the infinite” making squabbles and sorrows of the “aforementioned personages” insignificant. And instead of being a misanthropic or detached resonance (such as the film was/is often accused), with Barry Lyndon I feel a substantial meaning for the present, conveying the gaping canyon between now and then, and then crystalizing all time together in a raindrop.  The breadth and weight of so much time makes me shiver.

Tarantino’s epic of racial barriers and oppression, where antagonists spew pseudo-science phrenology and draw class lines alongside racial ones, reminds me of Kubrick’s equalizer, looming Death, the blunt bottom line of the human body, living (slaves) or dead (bounties), being herded for profit and perpetuating inhumane systems of government and commerce. The body, here abused, pummeled, and during the climax pronouncedly used as a shield from explosive gunfire, might take us back to that dictionary definition opening Pulp Fiction, where “pulp” refers to both a material substance and a literary genre. The body is adorned with cash, labels, ornaments, and names (the literary “fiction”), but, as with Barry Lyndon’s heroes who “are all equal now,” it finally amounts to soft, moist, and shapeless masses of matter.

Calvin Candie’s phrenological speech on Old Ben cannot help but evoke Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the encounter with Yorick’s skull with the gravediggers. The irony is that whereas Candie makes excuses for innate inequalities between the races, Hamlet perceives the most essential sense of equality, parallel to Barry Lyndon’s epilogue.  “Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’ th’ earth?...To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?...O, that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!”  Like Hamlet, Django Unchained is all about the masses of words swirling around characters, as characters assume roles in little plays, after which they amount to, like Polonius, guts to be lugged about.  Words are light and plentiful, but bodies are heavy, and it’s in docile or dead bodies that institutions profit. The shoot-out, soon after the phrenology lesson, won't stop reminding us how much the body matters, getting in the way of bullets, blood painting those walls, the way that bought and sold labor built this empire.

"They are all equal now."
Barry Lyndon’s haunting power comes from the way Kubrick brings the past to us. Watching it, I feel like I’m time travelling, and everything I’m watching, Ozymandias-like, is already dead, a worn and eroded vestige removed from its immediate freshness. But that makes the past eerily more alive and significant.  Tarantino doesn’t only do this with his world of 1858, but with his antique Columbia Pictures logo and his appropriated techniques from the genres and films that influenced him, he does it to the world of movies.  It’s a form of storytelling not only evocative of how we dress “pulp” up with fiction, making diamonds out of a shit-hill (or commercial, B-grade trash, as Tarantino does), but how that grainy celluloid holds and fixes our attitudes and beliefs as a steady and flickering monument, degrading and changing with time, a celluloid unconscious of Heroes and Shadows. We encounter the Other there, in addition to Ourselves. In the blood splatter and material reality of the Body, as opposed to texts used emptily to control other people, Tarantino aspires to show the essential equality between Ourselves and that distant Other.  It's an impossible goal, and from Tarantino's vantage as a white man, he probably recognizes that. But Django Unchained wants us to at least see more clearly, ourselves and our history. Our vision is always obfuscated by unrecognized prejudices, but I appreciate and applaud how Tarantino's fucked with our eyeholes anyway.

For a greatly abridged version of this blog, essay, whatever you want to call it, go to L'ETOILE MAGAZINE. I realize you probably have better things to do than read all of this stuff, and as one commentator noted, this essay is the punchline to a joke asking what happens when you put nine straw men in a room without an editor. Much as I would try and defend myself, I can't deny they have a point. So go to l'etoile, or skim this for the sexy parts. 

Ideally, I would have written six or seven short pieces on this one film - and there's a wealth of great pro and con writing already out there. Django Unchained is a messy film, but after seeing it three times, I appreciate it more. As a friend told me, it's as if Tarantino just put all of himself into it, almost throwing himself up, not giving a shit as he cooked this hybrid stew. I'm convinced time will be kind to what he's made here, what I believe is his most romantic and strangely moving film (I really shed a tear during the Encora Qui sequence on the last viewing). Some have complained this film doesn't have a "Cat People" moment, like in Basterds. Fine. Neither did Kill Bill (which is probably becoming my least favorite of Tarantino's works). On the flip side, "I Got a Name" works just as well in a different way.

Order your copy of Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, published by Cascade Books, here. 


  1. I love reading your blog. I first started when you wrote some pieces on Terrence Malick, who you aptly compared to Walt Whitman. Ever since then, I've been following your work.

  2. random question, sry, but if i remember correctly, the scene where the blood of the overseer is spilled on unpicked cotton is straight from the japanese samurai movie lady snowblood right? or am i thinking of another movie?