Ben Adams, Peter Fenzel, and Matthew Wrather overthink Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, with emphasis on violence, authority, the Western, slavery, the film’s social purpose, and the importance of Paradise Lost.[audio:http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/traffic.libsyn.com/mwrather/otip236.mp3]
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Say John Cena’s name three times, and fall victim to the Five Moves Of Doom! Mwa ha ha!
Jacob Marley Unchained
This might be the best thing, ever.
How about an epic rock opera entitled Alice Unchained?
Also, I would highly recommend Jackie Brown to Pete. It’s personally my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. Also, in terms of Pete’s assertion that Tarantino always puts himself into his films to die horribly, I don’t necessarily feel that is the case. It’s probably a 50/50 thing at best.
Lastly, if any TMNT character is to be unchained, it should be Baxter Stockman.
I just realized some things about the symbolic significance of Schultz’s dentistry.
The Atlantic slave trade started with growing and processing of sugar in the Caribbean. Before, it was an extreme luxury in Europe that only medieval lords could afford to import from the East. It was used as decoration, to put highly detailed figures on tables rather than for actually eating. That was considered the highest of decadence.
The sheer volume of production made sugar synonymous with slavery, similar to how we now think about cotton-slavery. But mass cotton plantation came later. Importantly, the German states (if you don’t count the Dutch) were very late to the colonial party.
So it sort of makes historical sense to have someone who hates sugar to also lament the immense effort invested, as much as it makes sense for an anti-slavery activist to be an anti-sugar dentist, trying to repair the damage sugar does.
Or maybe he just hates decadence. Sugar is not required in out diet, but like tobacco, thee and coffee, it’s a luxury product. Also, it’s addictive and causes cavities. Luckily, there’s a dentist to save you from the pain that follows your enjoyment, pulling out the rotten teeth. Which of course mirrors his bounty hunting.
Or he hates Candy because it’s bad for your health (gives you diabetes) in which case it could be referencing German bodyculture, the obsession with health, exercise and the pure life. (Remember Inglorious Bastards and the mountainclimbing?)
Also (witing these parts while listening, so it’s kinda rambly) I have to emphasize that all this pleasure bought by pain is indeed mostly physical. This is of course the familiar “white” idea of slavery as physical constraint, punishment and torture, all for a physical pleasure. (whether or not worth it ect…)
But the “black” perspective is mostly immaterial. It’s about role play, confidence, status, respect, identity. Notice that the Unchaining that happens with Django, although it starts with a literal unchaining, is all about the teaching of skills, reading, being authorized, about the acting out of the black slaver, and finally symbolically accepting the role of a hero along with Candy’s clothes. All the stuff of a spiritual journey, that is, learning to cope with freedom.
Ok, listening again.
Enjoyed the podcast. On the question of whether we need a movie to tell us slavery is bad: I thought it was important that you found Django a riposte to Gone With the Wind. Tarantino is very self-consciously writing the history of cinema. His obsession has always been cinema itself and he’s very open about making movies about movies. I think movies like Basterds and Django are more about setting the cinematic record straight (or overcorrecting in the other direction) than about hectoring the audience with a moral theme.
In other words, we don’t need a movie to tell us that slavery is bad. But we do need a movie to portray slavery as bad because American movies have been feeble in their portrayals of slavery. The original sin of US cinema is the Lost Causer epic. He’s clearly trying to demolish GWtW as well as Birth of a Nation. Just as Basterds was a demolition of all the late 90’s ‘Greatest Generation’/Private Ryan and Schindlerian triumphalism/feelgoodism.
How does rising above feeble attempts at portraying slavery as bad contrast with the revisionist history that accompanies films like this one and Basterds?
Not sure what you mean. I guess I was just trying to point out the QT isn’t concerned as much with setting the historical record straight as much as the cinematic record. The podcast discussion mostly hinged on what he was showing us about the world, whereas I think he’s mostly interested in showing us something about movies. I don’t think he’s positing that Django and Basterds are revisionist history, but they are revisionist cinema. He’s very confident that his audience knows slavery is atrocious, but not that Hollywood really does. They touched on it when he was talking about ‘Glory’ really being about the white protagonist and the suffering of the slaves always being universalized and sanctified in Hollywood films.
Terry Gross did an interview with him recently and he said he was very bored by historical films that aim for accuracy or have pedagogic intent. He likes his revenge trilogy because they are ‘fun’. And they’re fun to the extent that you walk in already thinking that the Bads are bad and you enjoy seeing them get their just desserts. He shows the bads being bad, but doesn’t need to belabor the point because he trusts you’re already on side with that view. Iotw, he doesn’t feel a real need to re-educate us about the evils of slavery.
The podcasters were spot-on with the observation that part of what he was pointing out was that the ante-bellum world was irredeemable and needed total destruction. I think he views his own work that way relative to the cinema world. Pitt said in a pre-release interview that after Basterds, ‘no one will be able to make a WWII movie again after this’. That seems right to me in that demolition is a big part of QT’s aesthetic project. Using retro genre and lurid bad taste as a strategy to accomplish this is very effective.
“…historical films that aim for accuracy or have pedagogic intent…”
Are these things not achievable alongside good storytelling and ‘fun’?
not according to QT. he gets bored. so he says.
I think the issue of “fun”, or of pleasure generally, is important to the conversation we were having on the podcast and that we’re continuing here.
I started the podcast by invoking the idea of authority as power coupled with legitimate social purpose — and suggesting that the film was engaged directly in the question of legitimizing the use of power because of its focus on documents.
Maybe living most of my life in LA I missed the sentimental, rose-colored nostalgia for a bygone south; if I’d grown up elsewhere it might be a more deeply-ingrained historical fiction that needed revising. So I’ll just stipulate — without being fully convinced — that there is either a historial or a film-historical narrative having to do with American slavery that needs to be corrected by movies like Django.
My argument later on was essentially that both the aesthetic and the visceral pleasures of a movie like Django eclipse the film’s moral project — that is to say, much of its power is in fact not coupled to the legitimate social purpose of correcting the alleged Southern apologia. In some sense, it’s too pleasurable for that.
If you do not see it as coupled to a legitimate social purpose, might you interpret it as a “Bastard” of that social purpose? Perhaps a “Basterd,” ‘natch?
A natural child, at any rate.
Documents…didn’t the first Brittle brother to get killed have Bible pages pinned to his shirt? Were they Bible pages?
Also, does anyone have a theory on the semiotics of the Tooth Wagon?
So, two things:
One, in this cast I don’t see “history” and “the history of cinema” to be different. We’re talking about discourses of power — not necessarily what people, investigating empirically, think happened, but how they tell the story of what happened. The latter is far more important than the former in determining how we respond to it and its place in our contemporary social and political discourse.
In other words, movies are such a big part of where people get their ideas about slavery that something that is about slavery movies is effectively also about slavery.
And two, this is responding repeated further down, with all due respect to Mr. Tarantino, whether he thinks of his films as pedagogical has nothing to do with whether they are pedagogical. Making a movie is different from watching a movie, the author is dead, and the purpose with which an art object was made does not necessarily have bearing on the purpose for which it is used once it is being interpreted by an audience.
Although to refine the thought a bit, I’m not saying he is _wrong_ — I think he is being correct and honest about the impulse that drives his art. Tarantino has a highly refined taste for what he likes that has blossomed into a strong misreading of his predecessors and an expansion of his art form. His taste for what is fun is what makes all this possible.
But artistic impulse is a funny thing. It’s speculated that the impulse that drove Shakespare to write Hamlet came from the death of his son — and yet to interpret Hamlet as about parents grieving for sons seems way off base given how people generally experience the play.
I’d speculate further from my own experience writing and performing that riding that artistic impulse lands you in a blender, and the artistic act brings about an intraversible discontinuity between the impulse that created the art and the thing as it exists to an audience — and that you can feel this as an artist as a form of loss.
Although I’d add that when Quentin Tarantino says he is bored by historical movies that try to be pedagogical, he’s not talking about a very broad definition of pedagogy — any form of teaching about anything.
He’s talking about a specific kind of historical movie that carries a self-conscious debt to a consensus understanding of past events, which is coded into the fabric of a movie in a whole bunch of ways.
He’s talking about movies that end up engaging the conversation of history similarly — movies like Glory, Patton, The Longest Day, Michael Collins — we’ve all seen them.
And while I don’t think Tarantino’s movies are strictly non-pedagogical, they are totally different from the kind of movies he’s talking about, and I can’t think right now of a more precise term for them that would fit in a reasonable conversation people would have with their voices.
Without doing too much damage to their uniqueness, I think it’s safe to label his movies are genre movies that (among a lot of other things) are also satires of the solemn, pious, historically accurate, hypocritical realist movies of the kind you mentioned.
What so exhilarating about them is that he’s pointing out, or…let’s kill the author then…his movies demonstrate what Wrather said: that the ‘vulgar’ pleasures of genre can be a more effective artistic strategy for delivering the truth of an historical situation and our relationship to it than realist historical movies. So they end up teaching us a lot without explicitly doing so even while wildly distorting the historical record. A moral project is thus fulfilled via thoroughly immoral means.
While he’s going through the genres, I wish he’d try Sci-Fi. That would just be too amazing for words.
Although I think he poked at it in that one brief shot of the mouthbreathing idiot playing with the stereoscope. That was unquestionably a diss of 3D.
I read somewhere QT saying he would have done Kill Bill in 3d if the tech was out at the time.
You could argue that because the person was distracted by it is why they got shot, but then the scene also would be against bathing because someone gets shot in the tub.
@fenzel and josh – The movies named by fenzel; “Glory, Patton, The Longest Day, Michael Collins”, that supposedly fit into the categories that josh mentioned; “solemn, pious, historically accurate, hypocritical realist”, though labeled as such, there has not been one film to fall into that rather broad category that has ever accomplished the feat of being historically accurate in order for satire to be made of them. What is it called when a medium satirizes another medium for being true, by exaggerating and stretching reality, when the satirized medium does not even hold up to the litmus test of portraying history correctly to begin with?
That’s exactly the object of the satire though. His movies don’t satirize the realist movies for being true, but for presenting themselves as true when we all know that they aren’t.
He’s not “satirizing the movies for being true” he’s resisting their style because they are boring.
But that gets to the heart of it — “This movie is true” is never a statement of correspondence to reality and always a statement of stylistic choice. It’s a choice rooted in self-importance and pretention to quasi-scriptural authority by artists. We know what it looks and feels like — those movies I mentioned are not examples of “correct” movies — they are movies that “claim correctness.”
Whether a movie presumes to be accurate and pedagogical is important to this discussion. Whether it is actually accurate or teaches anything useful is mostly irrelevant.
Great Show, even if I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet, I knew enough about Tarantino to enjoy it.
Anyway, I think Django Unchained really should be an O’Reilly book about the Python Framework. It could have a funny animal as well, but I’m not funny enough to think about one.
Around the 20 minute mark, one of you commented that it seemed unearned that Django made a big point to come back to the manor and punish Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, when he (Django)basically just executed Candie’s sister.
my almost verbatim in response to similar questions regarding treating Samuel L. Jackson’s character as the Big Bad [TM] at the AV Club:
Part of the problem is that Tarantino really skimped on showing rather than telling, but house slaves were given power and authority at a time when few black people had either, and the view was widely that they would be more diligent in observing the “wrongs” of other slaves and reporting or punishing. The threat of Jackson’s Stephen in the movie is that he watches Brumhilda and Django, whereas Candie only sees Django’s hostility towards the slaves on the trek into CandieLand and the actions of Schulz. Stephen is responsible for Hildy being in the hot box when we meet her, he stops Candie from potentially selling her for $500 rather than $12,000, and he identifies the punishment that should have caused Django months of torment rather than a disfiguring death that only lasts 20 minutes. Stephen was always going to be the villain, but the story shown by the film fails unless you already have an extensive background understanding of the conditions experienced by slaves (extensive compared to typical modern public school discussions in elementary school during the month of February). Assuming facts not in evidence (but hinted at, strongly, by the way Django explains the dislike of house slaves), it makes sense to act as thought Stephen were the boss behind the boss.
With luck, the deleted twenty or so minutes QT reportedly removed from this cut will flesh that out in a satisfactory way.
Sorry if it wasn’t clear — the point I had meant to make was that it was especailly important that Stephen get his, because his complicity in the rotten system made him a traitor.
A more nuanced understanding than this film intended, of course, should recognize Stephen’s unique plight; yes, he enforces the systemic oppression of his fellow slaves, but he didn’t make the system and has no way of changing it.
One customary and very effective tool of oppression is to create internal strive among the oppressed. That way, they spend all their time fighting one another instead of rising up.
It strikes me just now that websites use a similar strategy with commenters. ;) You should rise up against us.
SPOILERS FOR Django Unchained, I guess
I suppose I can see complicity as an offense, but Tarantino doesn’t treat it that way in the rest of the film. Stephen is active, not merely accepting. Saving Django from having his manhood removed or from hanging in favor of being sent to the mining company was an evil of a different nature than “I was just enforcing the rules we normally have for treating slaves.” Schulz is complicit in the evils of slavery when he buys Django, but in the next minute, he suggests (illegal, but moral-ish) that the remaining slaves free themselves, so we know he really hates the system he has to live in.
Stephen, by contrast, presents himself as a slow moving and doddering old man, a victim rather than a threat, until he’s alone with, respectively, Hildy, Candie, and DJango. He’s strong in the scene where he asks Hildy if she knows the man out at the dinner table, because she keeps looking at him. A complicit man has no need to report on, or to expose, that interest, to his masters. Candie, we’ve established, would not have noticed, because he, in fact, did not notice. With Candie, he looks years younger in the library scene, losing his stutter, articulately presenting his reasons for believing Schulz and Django are in Mississippi for a nefarious goal, and basically bringing hell down on them. With Django, both in the shed scene and during the final confrontation, he appears stronger, younger, and more sinister, transformed as he drops the cane, and the disguise of an old victim. He may not have been truly in charge at Candieland, but again, we’ve seen him use his power in a way that arouses hatred, where the other house slaves fear him, and Candie’s own “1 in 10,000” discussion regarding Django implies that Stephen must be as formidable as Django is when set about a task.
If we were supposed to believe Stephen had redemptive or sympathetic, surely QT could have spared time for a scene like the ones in both Kill Bill movies. We don’t know why Cora, complicit in the delivery of Hildy to Schulz for a presumed evening of passion, and Sheba, taking her ease while two slaves are forced to fight to the death, receive the treatment that seems earned in your second paragraph, if there isn’t something truly evil and worse about Stephen’s behavior.
This was not supposed to be so long.
addendum: I don’t mean to be contrarian here, by the way. I’ve been thinking about the Stephen issue for two weeks, and none of my friends have seen Django, and my best girl is not well enough versed in black history to read it as anything other than a revenge fantasy against slavery in general.
I kept envisioning Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as you were talking in the beginning about “a shredder”…
But Fenzel WAS talking about “The Shredder” from TMNT at the beginning during the “Who would you Unchain” discussion. Or were there other mentions of shredder that I’ve missed that didn’t have anything to do with TMNT? I’m confused!
Crap, let me rephrase: I pictured Shredder shredding, as in playing the guitar ala 80s hair band. Whoops.
(Caveat: I have not seen Django Unchained yet.)
I see this film as part of an ongoing process about just what slavery was. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, slavery is depicted as a state of depravity and anarchy, not the courtly, ordered civilization of the South’s self-image. Stowe was speaking to the new cult of domesticity, arguing that slavery made impossible the kind of nuclear families and home centred life that produced good and decent people. Slavery was strongly associated with rape and violence, and Stowe used pulpy tropes from Gothic novels and captivity narratives to make her point.
Decades later, “Birth of a Nation” was in part the antithesis of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” with black men threatening white women. A few years after that, in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”, Scarlett O’Hara casually dismissed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as nonsense dreamed up by a woman who had never been south of the Mason-Dixon line. The way the famous film version almost never mentions the word “slave” continues this erasure.
Django, going by the description, is firmly in the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” camp, though slavery is grafted onto a Spaghetti western revenge narrative rather than a Christian redemption narrative.
On a Blogginheads.tv, two African-American academics were talking about QT’s films and particularly Django and Basters. One of them, who had taught history in Russia, said that the Russians really hated Inglourious Basterds. The Russian narrative of WWII is that *they* won the war and stopped Hitler by dying by the millions on the Eastern front. They view Basterds as just more Americans overstating their importance in the war and erasing who really bled to stop Hitler.
The same podcast also had one of the academics wondering if they would have to “unteach” “Django Unchained” for the next five years when teaching classes on slavery.
Finally got around to seeing this movie today. Great movie, great podcast, and great discussion in the comments.
One thing that I didn’t fully understand about the movie: the abrupt end of the winter bounty hunting segment. They bring in their haul to a US Marshall, go inside for a coffee break, and then suddenly, there’s a title card that says they had a “profitable winter” and were off to Mississippi. It felt like an awkward transition and that it was trivializing the preceding segment of the movie.
Can anyone explain what Tarantino was trying to do with that transition?