Tarantino unchained
Tarantino unchained

Ever since he made his spectacular debut with Reservoir Dogs and confirmed his promise with Pulp Fiction, which earned seven Oscar nominations, Quentin Tarantino has become the go-to auteur every time the debate around violence and popular culture erupts in the wake of another atrocity, which is depressingly often.

And in a twist of fate, news of the Sandy Hook horror was scrolling across our screens just as the publicity was cranking up for his latest outrage, the breathtakingly brutal western Django Unchained (the premieres of Django along with several other films were cancelled after the massacre).

Other films are way more violent and exploitative than those written and directed by Tarantino (the so-called "torture porn" genre, for example). But QT, as he's known to his legion of fans, is targeted because he's a truly great filmmaker.

Tarantino doesn't just splatter the screen with blood. Rather he gets under our skin with his ingenious storytelling and clever dialogue, the beauty of his visuals and the juicy performances he gets from actors who are often washed- up veterans getting a second chance (no director in film history has been better at casting).

Indeed, Tarantino's fan base is probably not the redneck gun- toting variety who've been rushing to buy assault weapons in the face of Barack Obama's threat to have them banned, but movie buffs who adore contemporary cinema's most famed film geek for the way in which his films absorb and celebrate the history of the medium, from Godzilla through to Jean-Luc Godard.

Tarantino's cinephilia is in full cry in Django Unchained, the tale of a loquacious German dentist turned bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who teams with a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) to make money and wreak havoc in the antebellum South, an ultra-violent revenge fantasy in the tradition of the spaghetti western (Sergio Corbucci's Django is the direct inspiration).

So it is little wonder the man who views the world from a cinema seat went ballistic when a British journalist asked him yet again to comment on the connection between violent movies and the Sandy Hook shooting.

"Don't ask me a question like that; I'm not biting. I refuse your question. I'm not your slave and you're not my master. You can't make me dance to your tune. I'm not a monkey," declared Tarantino, who over and again has said he just makes movie which have no connection to what happens in the real world.

However, you wonder if Tarantino lashed out because he actually does crave a little respectability (he is, after all, on the cusp of 50) and is frustrated that critics see him as making genre homages and don't see the meaningful side of his work.

We get a glimpse of the Tarantino who does think his movies are more than mere entertainment in a recent New York Times interview in which it was pointed out that his last two movies, Inglourious Basterds and now Django Unchained are about very real things, nazism and slavery.

"I don't think it's that big of a leap for the simple fact that I think my movies are about something more than people give them credit for. You don't have to deal with the subtext of what they're about if you don't want to. But there is a lot there if you go digging," Tarantino said.

Indeed, the fact Tarantino has tackled the issue of slavery and racism is one of the reasons the film is getting rave reviews and award-season respect, with Django Unchained getting five Oscar nominations and, in one of the shocks of the Golden Globes, beating out celebrated Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner.

If you look back into Tarantino's oeuvre, from the casting of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction to his homage to the blaxploitation genre with Jackie Brown, race is one of his dominant themes.

"It's the most important subject in America, both from a historical perspective and in our day-to-day lives," Tarantino told The Associated Press. "There are a whole lot of white filmmakers that might wish to venture into this area but they're afraid. They're afraid of being criticised."

Of course, when Tarantino tackles slavery it is not like Spielberg taking on the subject in Lincoln, in which even the Civil War barely figures in what is essentially a chamber drama with America's greatest president using all of his political skills to force through the amendment to the constitution that ended slavery.

Tarantino uses all the tropes of the spaghetti western - from the quiet vengeful stranger (Foxx) through to the cheesy 1960s pop songs - and adds in his own flourishes, such as a very funny sequence involving the Ku Klux Klan and their inability to cut out holes in their hoods (methinks Tarantino has been watching Blazing Saddles) and the comically over-the-top brutal climax (Scarface by way of Kill Bill).

There are also a couple of appalling scenes drawn from the nightmare of slavery that he stages with his usual facility for brutality - an unrelenting Mandingo brawl and a slave being torn apart by a dog - and the n-word is used more than 100 times, according to one keen-eared critic.

Before the film opened, Tarantino told the Los Angeles Times he was expecting Django Unchained to be attacked much like Inglourious Basterds was criticised for its cartoonish depiction of the nazis and the scant respect it showed for historical facts (Hitler dies in an attack on a cinema).

"The Jewish community had a long time to get ready for Inglourious Basterds. The black community is not ready for this movie," Tarantino said.

Not surprisingly, the first high-profile attack on Django Unchained came from America's best-known black director Spike Lee, who has a long history of speaking out against white filmmakers taking on subject matter he feels belongs to his community (he castigated Norman Jewison for making Hurricane).

"Slavery was not a spaghetti western. It was a holocaust," Lee declared. He was backed up by other leading black figures such as Ishmael Reed: "Django is a Tarantino home movie with all the racist licks that appear in his other movies." Cecil Brown said Django Unchained was "Hollywood's n….. joke" which unintentionally "reveals how the Hollywood studio and the plantation slave institutions have exploited black people".

Others, such as black filmmaker and author Candace Allen, have leapt to Tarantino's defence, arguing that Django is "a hoot", that, if anything, Tarantino has been restrained in depicting the violence of slavery and that it would have been absurd anachronism not to use the n-word to soothe modern sensibilities.

Tarantino's gamble - the biggest in a career ensnared in controversy - has clearly paid off.

Apart from the rave reviews and awards, Django Unchained is shaping up as the biggest box-office hit of his career in the US and abroad, with both black and white audiences relishing the great Waltz waltzing through QT's cool, knowing dialogue, Foxx oozing charisma as the Man With No Name-type gunslinger and Leonardo DiCaprio sucking the marrow out of his villainous plantation owner.

The movie's success has also given Tarantino the confidence to brush aside his African-American haters and declare that Django Unchained will one day be part of their basic education (cue Spike Lee choking on his Cornflakes).

"Even for the movie's biggest black detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie. I think it could become a rite of passage for young, black males," Tarantino has said. A film history buff clearly shooting for his own place in film history.


The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West