Sunday, 27 January 2013

Subversive Black Camp

I've just seen Django Unchained and it's a hoot, combining comedy and terror, like a Jacobean tragedy directed by Mel Brooks. In the opening scene, a slave trader is left pinned beneath his horse after the latter is shot through the head, echoing the scene in Blazing Saddles when Mongo punches a horse unconscious. The scene ends when the freed slaves take a shotgun and blast the trader's head off, producing a blood-filled waterbomb effect that you know will be a recurring motif. At the film's end, the first credit assures us that no horses were injured in the making of it. I laughed like a drain.

Superficially the film is a comedy of manners. The precise diction of Christoph Walz's German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, is contrasted with the ornate speechifying of the slave owners. Despite being German, Schulz is clearly a representative of the North. His liberal values, including an aversion to slavery, do not detract from his hard-headed capitalism: he kills men for money. Calvin Candie (the owner of the Candieland plantation, played by Leonardo Di Caprio) represents not just the South, but a bad capitalist. He is unworthy of his prudent forename. He destroys his wealth by killing his slaves through staged fights and vicious punishment. He is waste personified, an Ancien Regime fop, yet his pretensions to French culture only serve to highlight his incompetence (he is unaware that Alexandre Dumas was part black). The other featured plantation owner, Don Johnson's Big Daddy, is a hypocrite motivated by money. A whited sepulchre in his linen (Miami Vice-style) suit.

Manners were central to the ideology of the Old South, not to mention the post-bellum zombie of the Lost Cause, expressed through the notions of hospitality and gentility and the sexually-fraught idolisation of women. This suited both apologists for slavery and their opponents. The apologists could point to the gulf between white and black cultures as evidence that the races were irreconcilable, much as Candie uses phrenology in his attempt to prove the negro's innate servility. The opponents could point to hyper-sensibility and psychotic decorum as a metaphor for denial and the corruption within, much as the superficially pretty Candie's stained teeth hint at halitosis and perhaps worse (syphilis can ruin your teeth, and Candie is clearly a regular user of bed-slaves). He repeatedly kisses his sister, who is obliged to wear the perma-smile of the southern belle, one time full on the lips. Di Caprio's turn is so good you can almost smell him.

The film's central plot device is the location and exploitation of commodities, both criminal bounties (though historically this is a post-Civil War business) and slaves (tracking escaped slaves, as well as trading them, is shown as central to the economy of the South). Tarantino's films are full of commodities, themselves made hyper-real either as mysterious McGuffins (the suitcase in Pulp Fiction), improbable props (the meerschaum pipe in Inglorious Basterds), or by the use of his own invented brands, like the Big Kahuna Burger. This is a postmodern take on alienation in which an obsessive interest in the commodity ("a Royale with cheese") represents anxiety and usually heralds violence. Weapons are often personalised craft objects, hence the reverence for the Japanese katana sword in Kill Bill and oddities like the baseball bat in Inglorious Basterds. In Django Unchained, a spring-loaded hidden hand pistol features prominently, while the titular hero naturally does the classic learning how to shoot with bottles routine, but this time inserted into an obliging snowman.

Tarantino's films rely heavily on distancing devices: comic book violence, heightened language and discursive dialogue, anachronism, non-linear narrative, improbable coincidence, an ironic soundtrack and blatant invention (Hitler's been burnt to a crisp!). All stress the artificiality of what you're seeing. The influence of Brecht, via Godard and the French New Wave, is obvious (as it is in Blazing Saddles' hilarious breaking of the fourth wall), but the needs of modern PR mean that popular criticism generally struggles to get beyond the n-word-count and the precise volume of fake blood. The criticism from Spike Lee and others is that the film trivialises the historic black experience of slavery. Some even see Django, played by Jamie Foxx, as a reductive symbol of black violence, Shaft avant la lettre (Django's wife's name is, of course, Broomhilda Von Shaft - pure nominative determinism). This ignores two salient features, one of the film and one of Tarantino's work more generally.

The people most caricatured in Django Unchained are the poor whites. If language and verbal felicity is a badge of virtue in Tarantino's films, their inarticulacy is a massive flaw. From the slave traders who don't like fancy talk ("speak English" they demand of Schultz when his greater vocabulary confounds them) to the incomprehensible trackers (one of whom sounds like the Gimp out of Pulp Fiction), this is a depiction of idiot rednecks common from Tobacco Road through Who Kills a Mockingbird to Deliverance. Even the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees, who are a step or two up from white trash, display their stupidity through a confusion of accents (Tarantino's, in his obligatory cameo, shifts unsteadily between Aussie, South African and Cockney. His decision to drop acting and take up screenwriting/directing has been a win-win).

Tarantino's themes are invariably betrayal and vengeance: the hunt for the traitor in Reservoir Dogs, the double-cross of Jackie Brown, the wronged woman (who just happens to be an assassin) in Kill Bill, the Jewish death squad exterminating Nazis in Inglorious BasterdsDjango Unchained is explicitly about financial transactions for people, both dead (bounties) and alive (slaves), and its dramatic centrepiece is a negotiation that is actually a betrayal, which in turn triggers the final cycle of vengeance. Schultz and Django attempt to con Candie into cheaply selling Broomhilda, Django's wife, as a side deal while negotiating a too-high price for a fighting slave, a deal they have no intention of following through on. Stephen, the malevolent black major domo, spots the sting and briefs his master in a scene that shows their true power relationship. They meet in the library (normally barred to slaves), where Stephen sits in a chair cupping a brandy he's helped himself to, for all the world like the chairman of the board explaining the ways of the world to a naive executive. Candie has his revenge, using the simple threat of asset destruction - killing Broomhilda - to persuade Schultz and Django to pay the excessive price for Broomhilda alone. His insistence on Southern manners, a handshake to seal the deal, which is an attempt to rub Schultz's nose in the dirt, directly leads to his own death. The last example of his incompetence.

Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen is the pivot of the film. His intervention sets in train the destruction of Candieland. The facial prosthetics give him the look of a blank, terrifying African mask. He isn't an Uncle Tom so much as a criminal overlord - a point made clear in the library scene's debt to The Godfather, itself an influence on blaxploitation films of the mid-70s. He is introduced to us in a scene where he questions the propriety of Django riding a horse. This was obviously a no-no at the time, even for a freed slave, because it meant a black man being physically superior to a standing white man. In the negotiation scene, where the white characters are seated at the dinner table, the rules are inverted. The standing of the black servants signals their subservience, while Stephen modifies his position by leaning in on Candie, both eminence grise and Greek chorus (faithfully repeating his master's words and commenting on the action). When Django is later trussed and hanging upside down, saved at the last moment from being castrated (a parallel in some ways with the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs), Stephen sits down so that their heads are nearly level, the better to tell Django that his fate will not be a quick death but the slow torture of being worked to death by the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. Stephen explains that this is his idea, the whites being too stupid to think of anything beyond a lynching or a maiming. Stephen is a connoisseur, and not just of brandy.

The Renaissance literary critic Jonathan Dollimore, writing of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, a key work of Jacobean theatre, asserts the play is best understood as “subversive black camp” insofar as it “celebrates the artificial and the delinquent; it delights in a play full of innuendo, perversity and subversion ... through parody it declares itself radically skeptical of ideological policing though not independent of the social reality which such skepticism simultaneously discloses". The use of the adjective "black" here is obviously different, but it remains a summary that would apply just as well to Django Unchained. And as for camp, you just need to see Django at the end of the film, following the mass bloodletting among the classical architecture of Candieland (echoing Greek as well as Jacobean  tragedy). Dressed in his newly-looted burgundy duds, with dark glasses and cheroot, looking for all the world like AndrĂ© 3000 on a night out, he playfully puts his horse through some dressage steps (perhaps a sly dig at Mitt Romney).

Where Django Unchained ultimately reconnects with Blazing Saddles (with which it also shares a love of deliberate anachronism, absurd names and fatal shots to the groin) is that tragedy is avoided by a tacked-on and frankly incredible happy ending. Like most westerns there is death, and many people are sacrificed along the way, but American optimism survives European cynicism and the hero and his true love ride off toward the far horizon and a better tomorrow. Blazing Saddles was a bit gayer, not to mention mixed-race, but that's progress for you.

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