A funny thing happened on the way to Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino, that genre stylist two decades into a career of empty - if wildly entertaining - pastiche, suddenly - and unexpectedly - made his magnum opus; his first-ever film that felt about something, that had a thematic depth beneath the glitz and flash of his highly-stylised surfaces. And the themes at play in the film didn’t just, like, exist, but they were profound, and played into Tarantino’s natural cinematic tendencies. His revionist-history fantasy of a troupe of Jewish soldiers gunning down Nazis was a study of propaganda; both wartime and cinematic. Taking to that most-chronicled of 20th-century cinematic events, World War II, Tarantino studied it as pop-cultural event, a piece of history ‘learnt’, by generations, through Hollywood entertainments; history shaped not by its facts, by its fictions. He took that idea to an audacious extreme: gleefully, anarchically flaunting any notion of historical accuracy and, in turn, mocking those prestige pictures that boast thereof.
Django Unchained feels, in many ways, like a thematic companion-piece. It’s another work of wild historical revisionism; a revenge movie whose genre pastiche - filled with encyclopaedic references to Spaghetti Westerns - carries with it a genuine provocation. It’s, in terms of its screenplay structure, Tarantino’s least convoluted tale; unfolding in a simple narrative of revenge tinged with flashback. Here, there are no chapters, nor artful shufflings of chronology; instead, there’s a determined, one-way narrative drive that pulls the film through all kinds of gleeful hells, toying joyfully with splatter and horror even as it brazenly incites critical and cultural discussions that films of far more honourable ‘prestige’ never would.
Here, Jamie Foxx is the titular hero, a freed slave emancipated by Christoph Waltz’s dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Said dentist-turned-bounty-hunter is that most Tarantino of screenwritten concoctions: an endlessly verbose linguist and murderous marksman; a man enlivened by the power of both word and gun. The pair are the mentor/protégé of countless Westerns; the wise old counsel and the hot young buck, treading the tenuous lines of the law as they shoot wanted men for cash. Here, the bounty hunters are clear (revisionist) heroes, shooting villainous figures -bumbling klansmen, vicious plantation stooges, various toothless scumbags and oppressors - as they work up towards a final target: Leonardo DiCaprio’s sadistic plantation boss, owner of Foxx’s long-lost, romantically-remembered wife (Kerry Washington).
DiCaprio’s deliciously named Calvin Candie is another Tarantino concoction; another cruel, calculating man in love with language and violence, seeing each as tools of expression, power, control. He’s also a wild caricature: a heightened, obnoxious, villainous parody of America’s hateful history; a trainer of bare-knuckle, to-the-death slave fighters, a veritable connoisseur of dark flesh, selling and peddling men as if running a cockfighting ring. DiCaprio is in the film for roughly one of its three hours, but so much of it - dramatically, thematically, cinematically - revolves around him. The character is a symbolic figure of America’s greatest shame; presented just as audaciously as anything in Inglourious Basterds. DiCaprio throws himself into it wildly, with the fearlessness of a man who falls backwards into Academy-Awarded crazy, and the tenor he hits with this cultured devil is the right mix of genial and terrifying; a charmer for whose demise an audience will, when the shit goes down, invariably yearn.
But Tarantino holds the true villain of the piece at a momentary reserve; Candie a tasty feint, a front to fool those ready for a tale of white-killin’ revenge. It serves as a reflection of the main, front-loaded, heroic narrative: at first, Waltz feels like the protagonist, the wordy white man who frees a taciturn slave and then feels duty bound to that freedom. But, just as these roles are slowly exchanged - and, fittingly, this tale of revenge shifts to the virtue of its central, black character - so, too, does DiCaprio pass the baton for the true villain of the picture. There’s a moment where Foxx, when planning a grand ruse with Waltz, must adopt the role of a black slave-trader; effectively the lowest a man can sink. And that moment of lowness is flipped into something far more vile with the arrival of Samuel L. Jackson, the longtime servant of the plantation, a happy house Negro who woops and hollers like an over-the-top, comic take on the Uncle Tom figure. But behind the gay face he presents to the white man, Jackson’s tottering old man is cruel and manipulative, fiercely maintaining his place on the social totem pole by being, himself, a figure of oppression; and the one who wants to snuff out Django’s revenge fantasy with abhorrent cruelty.
For a film as utterly loaded with racial politics as Django Unchained, it’s no surprise that it has been reduced, somewhat stupidly, by various parties. Spike Lee refused to see it because of genre prejudice: “Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, it was a holocaust,” the grumpy old man on his lawn sniffed; which means it’s apparently okay to make a tedious holocaust movie about past tragedy, but nothing that exchanges tasteful and respectful for wild and provocative. Others saw it as a fantasy of virtuous white male transgression, in which Waltz buys a slave his freedom and buys that slave’s wife his freedom; black liberation not an inalienable right, but something to be bequeathed by the holders-of-power; the film a revenge-fantasy designed to assuage white guilt. The fact that Waltz, DiCaprio, and Tarantino have been the awards-show mainstays - and not Foxx and Washington - has only added to the loaded racial minefield. But all this virtuous condemnations, misreadings, and reductions miss the fact that Tarantino, in all his arrogance and bluster and fanboyism and nigger this and nigger that, has stoked discussions that others wouldn’t; his distaste is far greater spur than good taste.
For a country that makes thousands of filmed entertainments every year - and that has turned the holocaust-movie into just another empty genre - the subject of slavery is rarely explored, ever, on screen, and certainly never with this much provocation. The coincidental release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (in which slavery is an internal ideal, its actual practice out-of-sight for the abstracted Northern politicians depicted) and the due-late-this-year production of Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave suggests that the subject may be back on the cinematic table. But, mostly, Hollywood has - aside from empty, closure-seeking, Oscar-bait nothings like Amistad - run scared from this most troubled piece of history; turning away, as people do, from the shame they cannot confront. Tarantino’s astonishing move is to, almost dickishly, amplify that social smear into a riotously-over-the-top genre movie; coming after buried shame with all the subtlety of a terrier down a foxhole. And, thus, just as DiCaprio plays a wild parody of white America’s shame, so, too, is Jackson a frightening figure of black American shame; a hideous, distorted, grotesque wraith of self-loathing (and Jackson, so long a shorthand for cinematic ‘cool’, undertakes a performance that so many will underrate, and even more misread). He has to be slain, symbolically, at the end; the ultimate monster of Antebellum America’s monstrous, unconscionable past. And slain he is: Django Unchained ending not with some reassuring notion of ‘closure’, but a giant fucking explosion.
Though there’s little initial comparison to be made between Juan Antonio Bayona’s prestige-picture tsunami drama, The Impossible, and his 2007 horror-movie debut, The Orphanage, the two distinct pictures show Bayona as a filmmaker that understands genre not as stylistic prison or storytelling straitjacket; but as symbolic archetype, a vessel to use to explore greater ideas of human existence and emotion. In short: after making a haunted-house movie a portrait of cultural guilt and complicity, here he uses the form of a disaster-movie to smuggle what is, essentially, an outright weepie onto the plates of unsuspecting viewers. In short, he’s performing an interesting study of usual modes of movie-making masculinity; wiping away the vicissitudes of marketing that, so often, equate genre with gender.
And The Impossible is certainly a disaster-movie by form: it begins with a family, happy; has the cataclysmic at-of-God intervene; and, then, chronicles the fight to have them reunited; the human spirit invariably triumphant in the face of death and destruction writ on a grand scale. And the scale of The Impossible’s tsunami sequence is grand indeed; a hugely impressive feat, especially in the fact that it avoids CGI shortcuts; its brown, muddied, torrential surges of sweeping water so often made from actual water. It’s ironic, of course, that scenes shot in a giant studio tank could be praised for their ‘realism’, but the digital-imaging era has created nostalgia for old-fashioned effects; the tactual qualities of scale-models, for example, now seen with a romance for the fact they actual existing, in physical form. But, as Bayona mixes and matches old-world and new-world effects, it’s hard to doubt the sensory surround of the all-consuming tsunami sequence; a wave that washes through the film and leaves nothing, thereafter, the same.
Criticisms will come in, of course, for taking recent, real-life tragedy and turning it into popcorn fodder; of fashioning a narrative of life out of an event synonymous with death; of making a heroic based-on-a-true-story story when so many other true stories had no such heroism, no happy ending. But, anyone wanting to explore, say, the corrosive aftermath of the tsunami on Thai society has elsewhere to turn; Aditya Assarat’s twin studies of post-tsunami life on coastal locales, 2007’s Wonderful Town and 2011’s Hi-So, fascinating portraits told from a local, auteurist perspective. The Impossible isn’t that, and shouldn’t be judged by such standards. It is the inevitable internationalist production, the obligatory piece of near-exploitation cinema that the global marketplace invariably demands. A heroic tsunami movie was always on the cards; it should only be judged by how well it meets its own modest goals. And The Impossible meets them well: staging its showstopper natural-disaster sequence, and then swelling towards the big emotional climax. Along the way, Bayona -perhaps, in one instant, befitting his prior picture - touches on body-horror, human frailty, and self-conceived complicity; but mostly the film is about the indomitable human spirit, about shared humanity arising in the face of the forces of nature. It’s, in short, Inspirational; an old-fashioned weepie that’ll have ’em crying in the aisles.
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