19 February 2013

"Once Upon a Time in the South"

 Quentin Tarantino's outrageous, audacious slave narrative, "Django Unchained," does not at any point tread lightly.  It stomps, it romps, it blusters, it brutalizes unblushingly; it is raucous, irreverent, low, hilarious; it lies, it steals, it cheats, it manipulates; it swaggers before your eyes for 2 hours and 45 minutes, and, finally, it explodes.

It does not tip-toe or pussyfoot through the minefield of early 21st century racial politics.  It throws a bomb in and comes striding through the wreckage. 

The film has sparked controversy from both sides and from the middle and from all other quarters.  Intelligent people pour vitriol on it and on Tarantino for being racist, here, for instance.  Filmmaker Spike Lee very publicly and very loudly declared, "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it," continuing, "All I'm going to say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors."  And you don't have to look far to find huge praise of the film, from American and foreign critics, and from the film's own stars.  Then there's wildman auteur Tarantino's own words about his work, best featured in a series of interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Root.

This constellation of controversy must be euphonious music to Mr. Tarantino's ears.  The man lives on controversy.

I'm not going to review the film aside from saying that I loved it.  You can find any number of excellent reviews of it at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.   

Django Unchained uses the style and the tropes of classic spaghetti Westerns to tell a story about slavery in the American south.  From the credits onward it looks and feels like a Sergio Leone Western, but in terms of story, it is distinctly a Southern. Tarantino has taken all of the stories and images about slavery, from Uncle Tom's Cabin and slave narratives all the way up to Roots and beyond and thrown them all into the big double-boiler of his brain and come out with this wild and oddly satisfying epic revenge fantasyDjango Unchained is to this horrific and despicable episode of American history what  Inglourious Basterds was to The Holocaust.

There is certainly much historical untruth in the film.  But it should be clear that the film is not about the historical truth of slavery, but about what we've said and thought about slavery over the years, how we've mythologized itDjango Unchained views slavery not through the history books or passed-down family stories, but by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in a funhouse mirror.

Tarantino gives us a huge hint what he is doing right at the beginning of the film.  We see a bleak sphaghetti-Western landscape.  As the credits unfold, we focus on a line of shackled slaves trudging through that bleakness.  A huge yellow title comes on the screen: "1858."  A beat later it is followed by another: "Two Years Before the Civil War."

Hah!  I laughed out loud when I saw this.  (I have to admit I was the only one in the sizable audience who did.) 

I have read at least one critic who decried this "mistake."  This critic clearly missed the point, Quentin's big signpost right at the film's opening, saying, "Hey, people, this story is not set in the real world!!"

That's what we have here.  If you read the excellent interviews with the director in The Root, you know that nothing in this film is an accident. Every scene, every image, every character was deliberately thought-out and considered and re-thought.  So, people, that bizarrely anachronistic title right at the beginning is saying in big letters "I am an unreliable narrator!" and "We are entering a strange world now, not our own!"

It is, very simply, the beginning of a fairy tale.  Such stories from all around the world traditionally begin with a line that is meant to transport the reader into a realm other than the everyday.  These vary from funny to nonsensical to enchanting.  Just a few:

Estonian: "Behind seven lands and seas there lived a. . ."

Russian: "In some kingdom, in some land. . ."

Hungarian: "Once there was, where there wasn't, there was a..."

Afrikaans:  "One day, a long time ago. . ."

More recently:  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . ."

Mostly, this has come down to us through the work of the Brothers Grimm as "Once upon a time. . ."  

What Tarantino gives us at the opening of his latest film is nothing less than "Once upon a time, somewhere in the South..."