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So it’s pretty much accepted that Tarantino is his own genre at this point, right?  This isn’t a knock.  More often than not, reaching that point exhibits having a singular vision, the culmination of a style the director(s) has been cultivating from the beginning.  A few near-contemporaries I can think of that have arrived at their own genres would be the Coen brothers who, no matter what ostensible genre they attempt, manage to infuse their works with idiosyncratically delivered dialogue dictated by region and rather esoteric diction which pinballs around the darkly comic entanglements of their plots.  Paul Thomas Anderson, likewise, has mostly discarded the Altman/Scorsese influences which defined his early features and appears to be populating a filmmaking style in no rush to hit plot points or resolve themes, allowing outsized personalities and ideals to be generated in, and then actually inhabit, their often desolate, consistently contemplative surroundings.

Though while someone like Anderson is certainly, as I’m sure cineastes can quickly point out, still borrowing from past masters, it’s hard to watch something like There Will Be Blood or The Master and immediately make a 1:1 comparison.  Those movies are definitely Anderson’s in style and tone.  Where I feel Tarantino differentiates himself in this sense is that his influences remain as immediately recognizable as ever, arguably even more so, as his style crystallizes.  Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction heralded him as a film historian with a pop sensibility, blending high art with low-brow trash in accessible and stimulating ways.  This remains very much the case, though with more overt strategies and, in my opinion, diminishing returns.  Watching Inglourious Basterds it would be nearly impossible to not detect Tarantino as the director.  As the movie chugs along all the primary tallies are registered:

  • Non-Linear / Chaptered / Segemented narrative: Check
  • Use of Morricone-esque instrumental pieces: Check
  • Overt allusions to older movies within said genre: Check (Aside from the obvious title-related one, the “all our rotten eggs in one basket” line is lifted wholesale from The Great Escape)
  • Intense, cartoonish violence: Check
  • Crucial use of pop song in tracking shot: Check (An inspired David Bowie choice, to be sure, but none the less there it is)
  • Mexican Standoff (Again, incredibly well done, but been done): Check

I’m sure there are more, but the point is made.  And I really like Inglourious Basterds, reacting somewhat lukewarmly to it in theaters but in subsequent viewings appreciating the story much more.  Django, to me, falls into the category of when directors make pretty much the same movie on the heels of a huge success.  (Ridley Scott: Gladiator/Kingdom of Heaven; Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas/Casino; Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris/To Rome With Love).  Inglourious Basterds is a genre-mashing, historically set revenge story which celebrates colorful, serpentine conversation, uses anachronistic musical cues and provides a bombastic finale; all of which can just as easily describe Django.

Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave the audience meets right away trekking through a wintry Texas evening chained to a number of his brethren.  He is freed when Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist, peacefully then otherwise forces the hand of the traders and acquires Django – insisting on an official bill of sale.  From there Schultz explains how Django can assist him in killing (since the reward is the same either way) the Brittle brothers by way of verbal confirmation of their identity, as Schultz has no sketch.  Upon completion of this assignment, Schultz will provide Django with his freedom.

The mission transports Waltz and Foxx into the company of a number of memorable characters with a flourish for unique phrases and circular logic.  Don Johnson is great as a plantation owner who comes around to dealing with Schultz when the money is right and must make the awkward though crucial (to him) distinction to one of his slaves that, though Foxx is free and not to be treated as a slave, he is not to be treated the same as a white man. (1)

In the midst of finding and eliminating the Brothers Brittle, Schultz takes a moment to explain to Foxx the mythology associated with the name of his captive wife, Broomhilda.  Essentially, Waltz explains that Broomhilda is a Disney-esque princess laying in wait for a man (Sigurd/Sigfried) to rescue her. (2)  It’s at this point that some of the coincidences of the movie begin to, if not frustrate, test the already sizable suspension of disbelief which accompanies a Tarantino movie.  Foxx explains that his wife’s owners were of German descent and taught her how to speak German, which Schultz naturally speaks.  Alright, I’ll buy that she had German owners, and they gave her a name from German (though really Norse) mythology.  So, Schultz tracks down Django to help identify the Brittle Brothers, and over enough time comes to appreciate that he loves his dear wife and pines for her, and he becomes pals enough with him to offer his services in helping a man he is presumably only using to kill people for money to buy his wife from whatever plantation owner she happens to currently belong to, and oh yeah, since she can speak German, Schultz can now talk with her in another language in key scenes?  Sure.

The plantation owner in question turns out to Leo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a francophile dandy who wants the entitled respect of sophistication without ever learning the basics. Candie’s interest at the moment is mandingo fighting – neo-gladitorial death matches between slaves.  Under the guise of being a Mandingo expert (Foxx) and a potential buyer (Waltz), the duo is escorted back to DiCaprio’s plantation (Candyland) to examine his specimens.  While uneasy and tense, the counterfeit negotiation progresses rather well until Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) brings Calvin aside with an important interjection.  Jackson is mesmerizing as the twisted, self-loathing right hand man to Calvin, choosing instead to protect the child he has raised since infancy than his own racially oppressed counterpart.  After this sidebar, the discussion turns sour with a long, now-standard monologue by DiCaprio highlighting the intellectual capacities of blacks and whites and why nature simply manufactures them for different purposes.  From here, the dialogue heavy second half gives way to a spectacularly violent melee which plays like Kill Bill meets The Wild Bunch. (3)  There’s nothing wrong with the choices made during this sequence, it just screamed of the movie theater climax of Inglourious Basterds.  Tupac and Rick Ross invade the 1860’s much the same way David Bowie did the 1940’s, though this time taking me out of the action instead of heightening it.  Tarantino’s always been a “notice how I’m doing it as I’m doing it” kind of director, though the more I see how the sausage is made the less appetizing it becomes.

It makes sense to not mess with the formula.  The Strokes made Is This It? pt. II with Room on Fire, and I love both.  But there’s consistency with evolution (Pixar) and there’s spinning one’s wheels (How I Met Your Mother).  In no way do I think Tarantino has checked out or disengaged himself from his work, in fact it’s because his filmmaking is so alive that it’s becoming a bit tedious.  After enough barrages of stylized panache and references, I’m left wanting to find out what he has to say rather than how many different ways he can cobble together what others already have.

(1) At this point in the movie, Tarantino’s dialogue dredges up and really begins to revel in the use of America’s sorest racial epithet.  I’m not going to get into its use one way or the other, because the absolute truth of the situation is that it is a term which was used without hesitation in this time period, and it is used probably around 200 times or something in the movie.  One side can argue authenticity, the other insensitive, potentially racist exploitation, and neither would be really wrong.

(2) Between Ariadne in Inception and now Broomhilda, using names from mythology that no one in their right mind would actually bestow upon their child is getting annoying.  The reference is shallow and implausible, and worse asks that the viewer award the movie they’re watching greater narrative heft because an earlier, more revered work is alluded to.  Furthermore, in no way does a tale of racial tension having a character named “Dr. King” qualify as a coincidence, and so what is the purpose of assigning the title of a revered proponent of non-violence to a bounty hunter?

(3) My final curmudgeonly issue with the movie is not that it actually suggests – because the coincidences and circumstances and actual events are simply too cartoonish and staged to be taken seriously – but, by way of the characters we meet, presents us with a world where no free American really thinks ill of slavery.  With Inglourious Basterds there were many, as there were in the world at the time, who recognized the atrocities of the Third Reich and resisted.  In Django, the only white man who feels a sense of moral reprehension towards the custom is a European, and Django’s violent evisceration of an entire plantation (whose guilt and justification for death is, I guess, assumed?) is applauded by the moviegoers because hindsight is twenty-twenty.  I just have a hard time getting behind a movie, fun though it is, where the harsh realities it claims to address are sidelined because the plot has invaded somewhere entirely fantastical.  There was realism to much of Inglourious Basterds, injecting deserved tension.  With Django, unfortunately the plot is so absurd from the start that any meaningful stakes are almost immediately abandoned.