Django Unchained

January 24, 2013

In Inglorious Basterds (2009) Tarantino burns celluloid and explodes cinema. In Django Unchained (2012) he explodes himself. Along with the medium, so too burns on-screen history and the physical, tactile imprint of the past. And now, a return to ‘the death of the author’.

Whilst it might be beyond accepted and indeed popular to call Tarantino an auteur, Django marks a new distinctly new direction for the writer/director. To re-examine his oeuvre is to discover a fascinating trajectory from voice to image. Rather than expressing a world-view through his work, Tarantino presents, re-invents and interpolates. From homage, to self-reflexivity, postmodernist practice, pastiche and back again, Tarantino presents images and ideas from the past, present and future together; blending aesthetics and history until it becomes a pulsating palimpsest on screen.

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Or at least that is how his films feel as though they are communicating. But if viewed as myriad instead of tapestry, Tarantino ceases to be cinema’s contemporary enfant terrible, presenting instead of connecting, and perhaps someone to be seem as a type of cinematic decouper.

Tarantino details who, where and when for the audience as if context were an object to be decorated. These details are written in words rather than read through images. That cinema’s abilities to ellipse time and space has long been a central distinction between it and other art forms matters little to Tarantino. For him, these details become the permanent, unmovable object around which to create. Everything else within the picture is decoration; fluid and itself subject to semiotic ellipse.

We begin; “1858, 2 years before the Civil War, Somewhere in Texas”. Context firmly and as literally as digital can, painted onto the screen. The only thing we can be certain of in this establishing sequence is where and when we are. What happens next is decorative addition; through history, myth, legend, collective memory (and here too through the construction of popular mediums such as film, where Tarantino gives his audience a game of film reference bingo), and of course aesthetics.

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In fact, it is largely in the aesthetic that Tarantino’s departure from pastiche and movement towards a more decorative mode of filmmaking can be located. Where some of his earlier films including Jackie Brown (1997) and Inglourious Basterds, but most specifically here, Death Proof (2007), went to great technical lengths to ensure they worked within historically specific aesthetic forms (rendering the form a choice rather than a given and in doing so rescued themselves from postmodernism), Django not only ignores historically specific aesthetic form but goes out of its way to show how it is not important for the film. For the most part Django‘s aesthetic is contemporary; mixing a range of styles to create a non-specific “look”, one that can simultaneously encompass the deep South and the far West. There are too flashback images to the ‘past’ (within the narrative), given a grainier quality and colour washed with a yellow hue. The tint (or taint) of the past is intensified and heightened with intent to highlight artifice and to negate any quality of aesthetic historical authenticity. Moving away from pastiche, Tarantino demonstrates a very deliberate fluidity in style, but also in story, and one that might for some achieve a disharmony between visual spectacle and the narrative imaginary.

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No doubt there are moments of historical truth in Django, but mine is not to discover what is and is not subject to that o’erbearing harbinger. My questions is, if Tarantino presents himself as absent from this linear, causal narrative film, and if everything except context is added decoration, whose story is Django?

Story too changes and moves with fluidity throughout the film, passed from character to director to viewer and back again until all ethical viewing becomes sutured into the story in really a most fascinating and arresting way.

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The deep South, ‘afore the Civil War, a foreigner, and a freed slave become our object, decorated by Tarantino with great effort and gusto, gorgeous and gaudy at once. The “story” then belongs to us all. Beyond pastiche, we are presented with a burden and a beauty, shared.

Django Unchained (2012) is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 24, 2013.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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