When it comes to the Oscars and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve heard a frequent complaint levied toward the “Django Unchained” director: He lacks depth and insight. They love him; they love his films; but he’s just not Oscar-worthy. And then there’s the film elitist belief that because he ignores morality, he should be discarded. Take Armond White’s quip on Tarantino’s favorite genre, Spaghetti Western: “For intellectually lazy Americans, these films are just cool, the birth of hipster cynicism.”
I am no expert. So, let me proudly introduce myself as a simple-minded fool, one of those “Children throughout the Internet express(ing) pants-wetting anticipation.” Let me tell you, as purely a moviegoer, no more or less, why Tarantino will continue to influence cinema and how he’s taught me to be a better reader of film.
I believe Tarantino displays enormous restraint in refusing to puppeteer a character to present his own voice, in hijacking perspective, in direct commentary. He strips away morality as he has intended because it wouldn’t work within the films he crafts. Imagine a sobby epiphany in “Kill Bill.” Now, imagine one in “Django” as the titular character confronts the tyrannical Calvin Candie.
We too often transpose the world of cinema with the real world, just as we too often forget how complicated morality can be. Tarantino drops morality completely. And he invites criticism for it.
I believe he’s aware of the mess he leaves in his films. With the release of Tarantino’s two latest movies, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” I learned something about meaning: The success of those two films lies in its provocation of debate.
Tarantino knows that the dialogue of film endures beyond the theater or the car ride home. It endures in your lunch talks with friends, in the way we think, hell, in the way we write. He places enormous faith in the intellectual fiber of his audience. Pretension absent. Preaching none. It would be wrong to wonder what he’s telling us. It’s not what he thinks; it’s what the hell you think.
As for “Django,” he took a controversial subject people let die in textbooks, a topic that normally silences debate, and produced white-hot noise. And after 17 years in the business of making ultraviolent content, the filmmaker has received his fair share of ire.
I learned that the aestheticization of violence is valid. True, Tarantino has an ear for noise and verbose wit — a universally accepted staple of his repertoire — but he also has an eye for violence. He has no apologies for his blood-soaked fantasies, nor do I have any for watching them. Violence is a fundamental component of experiencing something Tarantinian.
But every once in a while, he yanks you outta your chair and sits you down in front of a mirror to look and think. Long and hard.
In “Django,” Tarantino juxtaposes comedic, even cathartic violence (a beloved trademark) with very real, very sobering violence to incredible effect. Using unreality to illuminate reality, he captures slavery in a way no straightforward historical drama could’ve done. He showed both an empowering story about a slave seizing what’s rightfully his and the pure absurdity of one of America’s most shameful pasts.
We’re left to ask: How could slavery exist? Equally important: How can we turn away from slavery?
One of the things I object to in Hollywood production — the misrepresentation, even beautification of reality which I discussed previously — gives Tarantino fluidity in his craft. He builds worlds that can only be realized in cinema, using deep intertextuality that dwarfs most film-lovers’ (read: my) cinema knowledge to reflect on American culture.
But I should mention that there are complicated problems with Tarantino. “Django” captures both his artistry and his irresponsibility, at once crackling with his glee for violence and controversial language, and demonstrating his democratic, eclectic approach to cinema. He clashes low and niche culture, such as his notable use of Blaxpoitation, with high and mainstream art. It’s a fierce aesthetic.
He gave us Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Nazi fascinated with America, then casts Waltz as his slave-liberating twin, Dr. King Schultz. And though the famed director affectionately follows the conventions of Spaghetti Western (he is indeed a Spaghetti-Western master), he puts a black superhero in a white-dominated genre.
Tarantino clashes culture together. By doing so, he forces us to question what license storytellers should have when it comes to painful histories, and he makes slavery present in a way otherwise impossible. Because what separates the past from the present is never constant, they can sometimes be unified. I saw a revenge fantasy, “Django,” break that boundary and show us how slavery is relevant to our culture, even today.
And therein lies the last lesson: American culture reveals its constraints in its refusal to confront the shameful chapters of our history. I cannot condemn a tradition out of reasons of personal taste, for those parts of our culture we shun and silence just may be our most important.