Argo Screw Yourself! Why Django Unchained Was the Only Movie that Mattered at The Oscars

7516django428 Argo Screw Yourself! Why Django Unchained Was the Only Movie that Mattered at The Oscars

The 2013 Academy Awards may be history, but at least one of the
movies under under consideration for Best Picture—Django
Unchained—deserves more attention than it received during
Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. ;
None of the other best pic nominees took the actual craft and
artistry of filmmaking more seriously than ;Django. In
the end, it is ;a movie about other movies in the same way that
Don Quixote is a book about other books and the madness
they can cause if taken too seriously. The same is true of what I’d
consider Tarantino’s best movies, such as Reservoir Dogs
and Inglorious Basterds, which pay homage to their filmic
inspirations while revising gangster and war movies respectively.
Even more important—and despite controversy over its prolific use
of ;both the n-word and fake blood—Django
Unchained masterfully revises the childish archetypal
narrative at the heart of so much American storytelling, from
Moby-Dick to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In so doing, ;Django Unchained ;may be one of the
first truly post-racial works of art created for a mass
Unlike most auteurs, Tarantino doesn’t just revere past films
and creators, he revisits them and recreates aspects of them while
critiquing them and adding a layer of critical reflection. Where
highly acclaimed directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven
Spielberg tend to be deferentially worshipful of film’s past,
Tarantino uses the past as raw material for film’s future. In its
depiction of stomach-churning sadism and tension that is typically
aestheticized in gangster films, Reservoir Dogs
effectively closed out an entire genre by refusing to turn the
camera away at the exact moments when other directors
would. ;Scorsese, for instance, would have
figured out a way to literally and figuratively pull back from such
moments either with voiceovers directing the viewer what to think
or romanticizing violent protagonists in a way that blunts the
implications of their actions. He always gives the viewer a rooting
interest in a way that Tarantino doesn’t (Scorsese’s tendency
arguably reaches its nadir in Casino, which
ends with an unintentionally comic screed against the
Disneyfication of casino gambling).
Inglorious Basterds is a far more interesting,
smart, and uncompromising movie than the ones that inspired it. Go
watch The Dirty Dozen or Where
Eagles Dare or Kelly’s Heroes
or The Great Escape or They
Were Expendable and you’ll find movies that don’t even
struggle to rise to the level of meta-commentary on either film as
a medium or war or violence; despite comic flourishes, they are
earnest and plodding and utterly cliched in their
war-is-hell-ain’t-it perspective. Even as loopy and uneven a comedy
as Kelly’s Heroes ;expects to be taken
seriously despite its threadbare messaging and utterly conventional
morality. As does Speilberg’s Saving Private
Ryan, the ending of which is so maudlin and
contemptible—Matt Damon’s title character demands his
family and the audience certify that he’d led a good
life—as to erase the power of the film’s recreation of
the Normandy invasion. Indeed, one of the best ways to
view ;Inglorious Basterds is as a sort of
answer movie to the gauzy “Greatest Generation” nostalgia
that ultimately undermines
Saving Private Ryan.
Tarantino’s movies typically pull double duty like the best art
always does. Which is to say, they’re both interesting in and of
themselves while adding on a level of meta-commentary and criticism
about how the best art operates. They thus incorporate a faithful
evocation of an original while allowing—or forcing—the viewer to
think about the generic conventions and cliches we use to convey
supposedly unique moments of meaning. Call it the Madame
Bovary effect, for Flaubert’s masterpiece is ultimately a
novel about the effects of novels on people. Or maybe call
it ;The Colbert Report Perplex. Especially at the
show’s launch, Stephen Colbert’s blowhard character was such a
perfect distillation of the energy and dynamism and self-importance
of Bill O’Reilly that you didn’t need to watch The O’Reilly
Factor anymore. You could get everything that was truly
engaging about O’Reilly—and a comic critique of it—simply by
watching Colbert (and note that Colbert pulled this off in large
part because his character regularly reduced
liberal guests to incoherence by challenging them on their
beliefs). Tarantino does something similar in movies such as
Django Unchained: He channels past movies but makes
something that incorporates their essence while easily surpassing
them (if you don’t believe that, check out the
movie that inspired Tarantino).
As Tarantino and Jamie Foxx explained on a TV One interview earlier
this year, on one level Django Unchained is simply a
classic Clint Eastwood Western with a black slave as the hero. No
wonder so many people were offended, including Spike Lee, who

denounced the film without seeing it to various
others who were outraged by the movies prolific use of the word
nigger, ;its historical anachronisms, or its
cartoonish gun violence. It’s no simple feat to reimagine the Man
with No Name as a black slave and in so doing Tarantino powerfully
revised one of the central plots in American storytelling, one
first identified by the critic Leslie Fiedler.
In his 1948 essay, “Come Back to
the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” ;Fiedler posited that much of
classic American literature revolved around a juvenile fantasy in
which white boys flee from what is inevitably figured in explicitly
female terms as civilized adulthood. Again and again, observed
Fiedler, at the heart of “classic” American tales, you find a white
male who runs away in the company of a dark Other rather than
submit to the pressures of living an engaged, responsible adult
life. The result is a sort of “innocent homosexuality,” or a
pre-pubescent fantasy in which boys can always stay boys, having
adventures out of reach of girls. The archetypes include ;Natty
Bumppo and Chingachgook in Coopers’s Leatherstocking
Tales, Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, and, of
course Huck Finn and his slave companion Jim. Throughout
Huckleberry Finn, Jim stays close with Huck, who at
novel’s end famously declares that he must light out for the
territory rather than be
“sivilized”. What makes Jim’s devotion to Huck—he sticks around
even when he can easily escape from Tom Sawer’s relatives who are
holding him captive—even more stunning is the fact that his
original impetus for escaping from his owner was a fear that he was
going to be sold down the river, away from his wife who lives on a
nearby plantation. Early on in the novel, as Huck and Jim plan to
make landfall in Cairo, Illinois (where Jim can be free), Jim talks
of working to make money to buy his wife’s freedom.
Django Unchained reverses this narrative in a way
particularly suited to 21st century America that is largely, though
certainly not fully, post-racial. Christoph Waltz’s character, the
bounty hunter King Schultz, forms a pact with Jamie Foxx’s Django
with the explicit goal of finding and freeing Foxx’s enslaved wife.
Indeed, Schulz puts himself in mortal danger specifically to help
Django in his quest, thus reversing the relationship of Jim
regarding Huck. From a Fiedlerian perspective, the conclusion of
Django—in which black man and black woman are reunited
over the body of a self-sacrificing white man—can be read as a
powerful sign of cultural maturation. Rather than fleeing from
“sivilization” and all that in entails (first and foremost
marriage), the whole point of the movie is to arrive at that very
moment. The works illuminated so well and disturbingly by Fiedler’s
“Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” literally cannot come to
a similar conclusion.
No matter how entertaining or well-executed they might have
been, that sort of psychological and archetypal depth was missing
from the other best picture nominees at this year’s Oscars.

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Argo Screw Yourself! Why Django Unchained Was the Only Movie that Mattered at The Oscars

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