Critical Perspectives: Django Unchained and the Post-Modern Question

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About Critical Perspectives: 2012 was a good year for film -- especially Hollywood. The Academy actually managed to produce a diverse and interesting list of nominees. In the weeks leading up to Oscar night, I hope to start conversations about the various films honored. Please share your thoughts by commenting below!

When I encounter someone who expresses even a cursory interest in film I feel compelled to ask them to name their favorite directors. "Quentin Tarantino" is usually one of the first names rattled off, accompanied by an expectant up-shift of the eyes and the self-satisfied expression of a schoolchild proudly delivering an answer he knows is correct. Though I arrive at this conclusion by means of anecdotal versus statistical evidence, I would venture that Tarantino is the most common "best director" pick for cine-literate young(ish) adults. This is largely because his films possess the holy trinity of movie virtues: commercial success, critical respect and the ever elusive "cool" factor. He manages this feat using a basic formula that's served him well throughout his twenty-years of filmmaking (the only significant change being his mid-career shift from crime films to revenge sagas). The trademark ultra violence, pop-culture laden dialogue and salutes to films as diverse as Breathless and Mandingo remain the same. As Tarantino seems able to pull off this formula with greater success than his legions of imitators, it is undeniable that he is imbued with some special genius. Having said this, the element I believe responsible for (almost universally) seducing critics is the ease with which he appropriates obscure influences and synthesizes them in his oh-so-clever post-modern concoctions. In this way he congratulates his audience on their grasp of his esoteric film vernacular.

Whether the supposition "there is nothing new under the sun" be true or not, in the world of recent popular criticism (music criticism is the worst), there is an obsessive drive to break down each work into its constituent influences. This method of critique serves to boost the critic's cache more than anything and reduces every piece to pastiche. In many cases this process of reduction fails to say anything of substance -- while the material building blocks (aka "influences") may be apparent, the soul of the work remains unexplored; thus the critique reads like an embellished laundry list. However, Tarantino's films were made for this method of critique.

When I watched Django Unchained, I could not help but wonder what the uninitiated would make of it. If one had never seen or heard of westerns, blacksploitation, or minstrel shows, would any of the proceedings make any sense? What would this film look like through naïve eyes? (My meaning is not to strip the film of its cultural context but merely its artistic context. Obviously any work viewed entirely outside of any cultural context would appear absurd. My point is: if one possessed only cultural knowledge, in this case the history of slavery and racism in America, but no film-specific knowledge, what meaning could be divined?)

The reality is that many of the millions who have seen this film lack Tarantino's or a critic's cinematic vocabulary. In particular, what did they make of the Samuel L. Jackson character, Stephen -- an Uncle Tom by the most pejorative definition? When we (myself included) laugh as his character's near constant use of the word "nigger" to impugn and mock his fellow slaves, what are we laughing at? Does the humor come from some complex system of irony, in which we are laughing at an anachronistic caricature? Or are we laughing for the same reasons people laughed at the old-fashioned Dixieland minstrel shows (I hope not, but I'm just sayin'...)? While I don't want to descend into a self-righteous rant on political correctness, I can't help but question the implications in an America that is anything but post-racial (as this last election year has shown in high relief).

In the end, I find it difficult to say decisively what I take away from any Tarantino film, as I never know when the irony ends and meaning begins. If enough disparate bits are assembled, do they equate to a meaningful whole? While I respect his talent, he never stands a shot of topping my list of favorites -- I have always preferred the sincere to the cool and the thoughtful to the clever. I like to believe this makes me at least partially immune to his spell and able to view his works through a more critical gaze. While he is riding high on the post-modern wave, I wonder what his legacy will be when all of his signifiers are forgotten or obsolete.

Tags: Django Unchained, Oscars, 85th Academy Awards, Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson

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