Thursday, September 26, 2013

Double Feature: DJANGO UNCHAINED (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)/BLAZING SADDLES (Mel Brooks, 1974)

I like the idea of double features: two movies having a conversation with each other.  But on the occasion of this double feature, something that should have been very obvious, and yet which had never occurred to me, became apparent: that conversation is going to be dominated by whichever film speaks first.  My first instinct was to program this with Blazing Saddles first, but we ended up watching them in the opposite order, and I think that was the right decision: there is more to be gained from watching Blazing Saddles through the lens of Django Unchained than vise versa.

These two films do interact in interesting ways.  Some of them probably don't mean anything (both, for instance, feature a German character saying "Auf wiedersehen"), others may mean quite a lot.  One contrast that interests me is their different approaches to racism.  In the climax of Django, Leonardo DiCaprio's character gives a lecture on phrenology, the pseudoscience that was one of the many ways white supremacy was (is?) justified.  It's nonsense, of course, but Calvin Candie seems to believe it thoroughly: black people are simply inferior to whites.  And Christoph Waltz's character, Dr. King Schultz, is not that far from Candie in the beginning.  There's a scene late in the first half of the film where Django expresses to Schultz how his love for his wife, Broomhilda, drives him.  I can't remember exactly what was said, but Schultz responds "I'm just beginning to understand that."

Dr. Schultz is an enlightened, progressive white man who despises the institution of slavery.  He believes that owning black people, and the cruelty and brutality that is inherent in such a system, is morally wrong.  Of course he does, he's a decent human being.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that he believes that Africans are fully human, in the same sense as Europeans.  Slavery rests on a foundation of racism that extends far beyond the South.  But Schultz's exposure to Django as a friend begins the process of unraveling that racism.

Tarantino is interested in the extremes of brutality in slavery, but Mel Brooks seems more interested in the banality of racism.  In the first scene, slavery is explained very clearly: an underling informs his foreman that the railroad they're building may pass through some quicksand.  Should he send some horses ahead?  No, horses are expensive!  Send a couple niggers.  (Reportedly, coal mining companies would not send mules into a dangerous mine, because mules were valuable.  Miners?  Not so much.  So there is some historical veracity to this scene.)  When Bart and his friend end up sinking in quicksand, the company comes to their rescue: they save the handcart from the quicksand, leaving the drivers to die.

I appreciate this raw, capitalist explanation of slavery.  Slavery (and racism--Blazing Saddles takes place after the Civil War) exists because it's profitable.  Of course, these two views are not mutually exclusive.  They complement each other.  Candie's phrenology bullshit exists to prop up Hedley Lamarr's profits.  In fact, if you want an explanation of how the institution of slavery survived for 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, or how a man like Thomas Jefferson could have kept his slaves until his death when the institution was so clearly opposed to his morality, Tarantino explains it all in an early scene where Schultz tells Django that he's only going to grant him his freedom after their mission is ended.  "Even though I find the institution of slavery morally repugnant," he says (I'm paraphrasing, as I don't have the disc in front of me to reference), "I must admit to the convenience of having a partner who is obliged to follow my orders."  Well, there you go.

I've been saying that I think Django is Tarantino's worst movie, and after a second viewing, I'll stand by that.  Part of the problem for me is that it's straightforward structure lacks much of what I find so enthralling about his movies in the first place: surprise.  Django has a great concept, but then it just follows that set up from beginning to end, rather than confounding expectations.  And the end is really as straight a Hollywood climax as you can imagine, not to mention being pretty much the ending of Inglourious Basterds: the villains all get killed, then they get blowed up real good.  A lot has been made of the controversial subject matter of the film, but it seems to me that there's little cause for controversy: his last two films have used the most hated villains of history, Nazis and slave owners.

The moment where I think it really fails is in Django's final confrontation with Stephen.  When Stephen finally abandons his phony limp and shuck-n-jive voice, looks Django in the eye and says "I count six bullets, nigger," it's a fantastic moment.  Django has underestimated his opponent.  The fact that this moment comes to nothing, rushing through the death of what should be one of the all-time great screen villains, is disappointing to say the least.

One final note: I find the reactions to Django interesting.  My own reaction is a bit mixed: I don't find the film offensive myself, but...well, I can totally see how it might irk some people to see this white guy dressing himself up in the suffering of black people.  I think W. Kamau Bell offered the best (and funniest) critique of the film, although there's a great 5-page takedown by Stanley Crouch in a recent issue of the Oxford American.  But I want to share another link that I find totally fascinating.  On this call-in segment to Film Week, people weigh in on the subject, and there's an interesting generational breakdown.  Now, obviously, this is anecdotal and broadly generalizing, but from the segment, while older black people (from either the civil rights generation or the hip hop generation) find the film some shade of annoying or offensive, black millenials love it, precisely because it's so irreverent, and so different from the "black history month" presentation of slavery that they are constantly being forced to be all somber about.

As for Blazing Saddles, I was kind of struck by how deep fried in the catskills style humor it is.  Maybe it's more noticeable now because that style of comedy isn't in vogue like it was in the 70's or even the 80's, which is in itself an interesting phenomenon.  At the same time, it's a little shocking how directly it confronts racism.  The old lady saying "Up yours, nigger" really hits you.  But then again, I'm not sure that was really considered all that shocking in 1974.  I mean, people want to forget this, but white people (including white liberals) in the 70's said nigger.  I recall seeing this film for the first time on broadcast TV.  I wish I could remember whether they bleeped that word out.

Blazing Saddles was co-written by Richard Pryor, and Mel Brookes had originally wanted to cast him as the sheriff.  I can't talk shit about Cleavon Little, I think he's hilarious (and anyway, I've been watching him in this film since I was like 12), but man, how AMAZING would it have been if Richard Pryor was the star of Blazing Saddles?  (He also wanted John Wayne to play The Waco Kid, which I have more mixed feelings about.  It would have been cool to see him spoofing himself, but the idea of an early Pryor-Wilder collaboration, on a much better movie than the ones they actually made together, is also a tempting fantasy.)  On a recent Marc Maron podcast, Mel Brookes told Maron that he (Brookes) had written most of the racial jokes.  Pryor just wrote stuff like "Mong only pawn in game of life."  How interesting that it's the white guys who are most interested in exploring that stuff (although, to be fair, Mel Brookes grew up at a time when Jews weren't exactly considered "white").  I don't know what that means.