Although it cannot be said at first blush, nor without due consideration thereafter, it’s become more and more evident that Django Unchained is one of the more autobiographical works in all of Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.
I know that, on paper, this is nothing but odd for a white filmmaker whose personal statement centers on a freed black slave. This is not to imply he’s casting himself in some bizarre instance of taking up arms directly for slaves — the actual case is quite different than that. Just as Tarantino is the man responsible for Django Unchained’s own existence, it’s through the domineering and manipulative Dr. King Schultz, organizer of nearly the entire plot, that we have a direct onscreen persona for the filmmaker himself.
Which is not a brand-new gesture on his own part. More to the point than just fun cameos in his own work — you might have (ahem) noticed his latest appearance — a role such as the easygoing comic shop employee of True Romance, after all, is a none-too-subtle nod to his origins as a video store dork. But these past ten years have seen the writer-director extend such efforts to greater, richer and more personal extents. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the more important reasons which lay in the bifurcated structure of Inglourious Basterds, a film which is so clearly Django’s spiritual predecessor it almost goes without saying. In creating two central leads, Tarantino also created a dual instance of this insertion: Aldo Raine, a Tennessee gentile who compiles a group of Jews to kill Adolf Hitler, and Shosanna Dreyfus, the enforcer of cinematic power as a means of ending World War II.
As the caring white man who frees a slave, gives him power and guides this new free man on a direct journey of revenge, it is only right to think of Schultz as the next logical step in this auteurist trait. Looked at even just the tiniest bit closer; it’s nothing but tickling in just how bald-faced Tarantino is when playing with the idea. Seemingly half of it is spelled out through dialogue and action; after all, it’s more often than not that Schultz’s role in Django Unchained is, when put under this lens, the diegetic incarnation of what’s (for all intents and purposes) the non-diegetic position of director. As channeled through Christoph Waltz, the character is as much of a storyteller as Tarantino himself. And it’s not just the (rather clear) mythical presentation of what conflict Django must endure to retrieve his beloved Broomhilda — communicated, memorably, with a campfire-esque recounting of the German folktale — but narratives spun during nearly every encounter with someone new. This is who we are, this is why we’re here — the kinds of things any good storyteller is meant to present to an audience.
It’s also in scene after scene where Schultz introduces Django to a new member of the so-called “audience,” telling others where to go, suggesting what they do — e.g., “get the sheriff, not the marshall,” a scene which pivots on him getting everybody “on cue,” anyway — instructing Django in his form of dress, and even commanding people on how they should react in given situations. Just as Jamie Foxx is told by Quentin Tarantino to play a slave, Django is told by Dr. King Schultz to act under the guise of a black slaver; and just as Schultz gets himself out of impossible scenarios by excusing himself as a customer conducting a transaction, Tarantino (depending on who you ask) gets away with absurd choices because, in making said choices, we come to fully understand who he is and why he’s going this route in the first place. It’s only a simple — though, perhaps, not readily-identifiable — case of cinematic reflection amongst artists and creations. Taken together, Aldo, Shosanna, and King come to form a strange mixture of white man’s burden and, I suppose, ethno-free personal strength enacted through extreme action on a path to justice.
(I’m sorry to raise something which never actually made it into the film, but can it be such a coincidence that Tarantino once had considered playing the role of Pai Mei himself– i.e., the man who trains [in that sense, creates our image of] Beatrix — in Kill Bill? It’s the exact same performance as what would later be done with Aldo Raine or Dr. King Schultz.)
Maybe this long-form onscreen representation, from True Romance to Django Unchained, says more about Quentin Tarantino, evolving artist, than anything else in the actual films. Once the geek going on a road trip to sell some drugs, now the enabler of oppressed peoples. And some have the gumption to claim he’s never really grown up.
Yet this two-film, three-pronged exercise in self-appropriation is not even the strongest connection shared between Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Stylistically, for one thing, they do hold a kinship. After twenty years, it goes without saying that Tarantino’s features are drenched in the influence of cinema — whether it’s more explicit to the text, as with Basterds, or simply in the way people speak, where music stems from, etc.; again, goes without saying — and remarking that Django follows suit is almost unnecessary, too.
But it has a more peculiar spot than anything he’s made beforehand. After all, we’re talking about his first pre-movie movie — i.e., this is a world without the same kind of cultural infatuation almost all his other characters have shaped their personality around. Being set in 1858, the world of Django Unchained’s would have to wait about 55 years until Edwin Porter would make the first real cinematic western, and roughly one-hundred until the likes of Leone and Corbucci brought a touch to the genre that Tarantino has chosen to adopt.
Not that this renders Django Unchained any less of a “movie-movie” than Inglourious Basterds. While its setting makes that same type of cinematic influence outright impossible, Tarantino finds a tether between 1940s Germany and 1850s south by, in one brief instance, molding a second diegesis within Django. The act is not just a replication of the purpose which lies behind Basterds’ climax, but also what, after two viewings, I’ve come to fully believe is a sort of Rosetta Stone to reading the film.
It’s fairly early on. As Django spots one of the three Brittle brothers and is only moments away from killing them, we get a flashback to an instance wherein his wife, Broomhilda, received a punishment by whipping as Django begged for mercy. It’s at this moment when Django Unchained makes a notable jettison of its distinct visual palette, a smooth design entirely eschewed for some crude build that’s not at all unlike the work of… actually, not at all unlike the work of a grindhouse filmmaker. This sudden halting of fast-paced, witty banter is most notably marked by three elements: the image has an extreme blue filter which, even slightly, recalls some bad cable transmission; the employment of grain is amplified, often darkening an image to the level of poorly-preserved celluloid; and angles are canted in an intentionally too-lurid attempt at instilling great unease within a viewer. And, just a minute later, we have the hero replicating a villain’s line and act of violence.
Put under the lens of Inglourious Basterds’ concerns with screen violence, the scene is inversely proportional to Django Unchained what the Joseph Goebbels-directed Nation’s Pride was to the WWII picture. Now, Tarantino has reversed the effects of reaction — i.e., what we’re enjoying is tainted with the light of reality — by compartmentalizing film-within-film construction without, anachronistically, resorting to a character watching something on a screen. In contrasting intended entertainment of his own devising with a different example of formal representation — this one, while no less facile than spaghetti western techniques in terms of “reality,” is a far more believable idea of what occurred during this era — Tarantino has put his audience in something of an odd position.
As much as we were meant to question mirrored reactions to a bloody massacre inside Shosanna Dreyfus’ theater, on their screen and in the “reality” created by Tarantino’s cinema, Django Unchained’s decision to follow this brief film-within-a-film with a clearly similar example of violence — whipping and “I like the way you [beg / die], boy” included — people are now asked to question at what moral cost we can watch. It’s the same idea, really, and the immediate call-backs aren’t meant to be subtle in the least. That it comes earlier and in a different form than Inglourious Basterds does, nevertheless, make it harder to capture.
But I think it’s also the point where Django Unchained has its greatest reconciliation between spaghetti western stylings and the hard truth of history. While Quentin Tarantino has made a film meant to open old wounds, this is one which, paradoxically, is as much about cinema’s own attempts to cover ugly truths with glitz and glamour. Up until that point, just about everything has been pivoted for entertainment: violent murder, racism, the behavior of slaves. (Look toward the brief, comic interactions on Big Daddy Bennett’s plant.) It’s all the more important that these collide in the most head-on manner with Django’s first big act of violence, itself the first sign he’s capable of retrieving Broomhilda. Every gunshot traces back to that spark; although we’re back in Tarantino’s spaghetti western land, it’s only now allowed to continue because of a) the horrors that occurred under Django Unchained’s historical surface, and b) the horrors that refuse to completely dissipate.
Further to the point is a late moment of reflection for Dr. King Schultz, Tarantino’s own representation inside the picture. As he’s sitting in Calvin Candie’s office, waiting for a deal to finalize while Beethoven is plucked on a harp, the scene’s glossy dimensions are, suddenly and without warning, cut through by a flashback to an injured Mandingo fighter being eaten by a pack of wild dogs.
It’s in this diametric opposition — entertainment intended to be afforded by the sequence and the truth of what, actually, was happening in this place and time — that Django Unchained becomes a form of retroactive criticism. Tarantino is not merely homaging the films he loves and the craftsmen behind them, but punctuating these tips of the hat with moments of pure brutality and ugliness — what he feels the genre has elided for several decades.
The writer-director’s own attempt at atonement comes, of course, through the positioning of a black protagonist freed by the character who I’m fully convinced is Tarantino’s stand-in (but you probably get that point by now), and is the conduit which allows Django Unchained to take this stance, the gusto of anachronism is what forms the ultimate stab at stylistic reconciliation. One will notice that much has been made of soundtrack choices on Tarantino’s part; some even regard the inclusion of rap music, especially during a climax, as a little too easy or expected. Yet it’s grossly reductive to say he’s simply playing a mash-up of 2Pac and James Brown during a violent gun battle because it sounds “cool.” (No matter how much you might enjoy that moment for yourself.)
In fact, it’s during the first of two climaxes — what I’d consider the film’s Kill Bill moment — when Tarantino has made his greatest bind between false history and factual culture. Just as Shosanna Dreyfus was given the image of an absolute titan via the immense, fiery power of David Bowie’s “Cat People,” Django’s rap-scored vengeance positions him as the great transposition point between the film’s two conflicting forms — the revenge fantasy of “what could have been” and the compromised state of “what really is.”
Make no mistake about it: we have more at play than cinematic pleasure when that song, Rick Ross, or John Legend make their soundtrack appearance. With such music piping out as a) Django kills a series of slave owners, b) finds himself on equal footing with Calvin Candie’s operation, and c) has finally become the conduit of business agency Dr. King Schultz trained him to be, Tarantino has merged these never-enacted images of black historical power with the fully-enacted sound of black cultural power.
And, so, it is with Django Unchained that Quentin Tarantino has used cinematic flairs of anachronism to liberate the bound. I’d argue that says as much about the power of the medium as an explosive conclusion inside a movie theater.