Quentin Tarantino is the rare filmmaker whose films spur widespread analysis before they’re even released. Case in point:
Tarantino’s latest effort, opening on Christmas Day, is Django Unchained, a Civil War-era film in which an American slave (Jamie Foxx) is auctioned off to a German bounty hunter and, together, they set out to rescue the slave’s wife from a ruthless plantation owner. The official trailer sets a light-hearted, stylish tone, resembling Tarantino’s previous work. We can safely assume that Django will be wickedly violent, also like Tarantino’s other work. It shouldn’t take deep and serious personal reflection to see the potential pitfalls in a wealthy white filmmaker using American slavery as fodder for a pop culture revenge flick.
Not to mention that Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, also used the historic plight of an ethnic minority in a not-so-serious fashion. What this may be adding up to is a dynamic wherein we’re bearing witness to one of America’s most celebrated and impactful filmmakers evolving into a giant hack.
This is a situation that warrants perspective. Starting from the beginning, the filmmaker’s personal history is the stuff of legend: High school dropout turned video store clerk and diehard cinephile, Tarantino was ready to shoot his first film on 16mm with friends in starring roles until the script found its way to Harvey Keitel, who agreed to both star in and help fund the film. This was Reservoir Dogs, an honest-to-goodness watershed moment for American cinema and, according to Empire, the greatest independent film of all time.
Tarantino’s next film, Pulp Fiction, was even more pivotal and perhaps the most influential American film of the last 30 years. Like its predecessor, Pulp Fiction is nihilistic and brazenly violent but also good-humored and hip, taking the deconstructive principles of the French New Wave and postmodernism to one of their inevitable conclusions: In Tarantino’s cinema, people in the movies aren’t real people but Icons, and their fates hinge on symbolism, rather than humanity. Extreme violence in this context is more tolerable than it might be in a conventional picture because, in being dehumanized, it’s stripped of its real-world consequences. This even 20 years later remains conceptually progressive and influential.
Next, Tarantino used his new-found cultural currency to make genre pictures Jackie Brown and Kill Bill and to lend his name to a series of other comparable projects. While he never matched the impact of those first two films, he remained critically adored, a great defender of the art of cinema, and an object of fan worship.
Then came 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, one of Tarantino’s most celebrated works. It, like Django Unchained, imposed Tarantino’s brand onto a relatively recent moment in world history, in this case World War II. Bravely, insanely, Inglourious Basterds recasts the war: The Germans are elegant and wicked; Hitler is a snivelling dick; American Jews are crazed, righteous murderers; and, famously, the war did not end with German surrender but rather with the assassination of Hitler and the leadership of the Third Reich at a theatre in Paris.
This was an incredible and thrilling undertaking, to use the power of cinema to literally reframe the historical context of a subject that has served as the backdrop of countless other films. And not only that, but Tarantino dares place cinema itself at the center of the plot, with a film critic, a movie star, and a premiere event playing pivotal roles in the progression of events. Cinema reshapes history on multiple levels.
The unfortunate shortcoming is that Inglourious Basterds, while perhaps forever altering our image of Adolf Hitler, did not prompt public discussion about anything other than its most cartoonish elements. Is Tarantino the wrong figure to challenge this level of thinking? Or did the film just fall short? Critical accolades aside, initial feedback was not good, and Inglourious Basterds felt at times like a long-winded Tarantino impostor more than Tarantino himself.
But no, this would be to let him off the hook, because ultimately Inglourious Basterds is a film that dramatically builds one early scene to an apparent payoff where someone called the Bear Jew beats a captured man to death with a baseball bat… and marvels at the ordeal. This is adolescent acting out, like a teenager screaming curse words because he’s not supposed to, and then citing freedom of speech. There is a thread of brilliance in Inglourious Basterds, but ultimately, it indulges too many of its most primitive urges to be taken seriously.
In this context, Django Unchained will serve as a critical juncture in Tarantino’s career. Wading into the subject of race is perhaps even bolder than Basterds, given Tarantino’s issues with race in the past and prior backlash from some prominent African-Americans. Stars are predicting controversy. Tarantino is walking a fine line here, willfully marginalizing dark and devastating moments in our recent history in what is ultimately a for-profit enterprise. This is not simply an issue because so many Americans are excruciatingly stunted in their attitudes about race, just as Tarantino’s willingness to flout political correctness does not make him a de facto hero. Defiance is not necessarily useful in and of itself, even when the subject warrants defying. In short, this better be going somewhere.
Tarantino blew the cinematic landscape wide open 20 years ago. While culturally less significant, he remained at home in genre pictures for the decade that followed. Now, he is reaching for greater impact, and while the commentary of Inglourious Basterds is hefty, one can’t help but glare at the dubious merits of translating real-world suffering into fetishistic cinematic exploitation. Tarantino’s dehumanized cinema remains avant-garde and culture-shaping, but it is also unhinged and borderline pathological, and as a rare act of defiance in an otherwise flaccid and compliant artistic landscape, inspires reluctance and despair.