Django Unchained & Streets of Fire


Django Unchained (2013)

To be honest, I don’t read a lot of contemporary film critics. Every now and then I’ll check out a blog, but for the most part my critical reading comes via dead tree magazines like Film Comment or, um, Entertainment Weekly. Other film critics offer a foil to bounce my own ideas off of, but occasionally they do offer some inspiration or insight. Crosscuts, a local film blog hosted by Walker Art Center, posted something of note in its discussion of Django Unchained. Jeremy Meckler offers this observation: “Like all of Tarantino’s films, this one is about film, existing entirely within the universe set forth by the pulpy B movies, Blaxploitation pictures, and spaghetti westerns that Tarantino grew up loving.

This is a wonderfully concise description of what Quentin Tarantino‘s movies are and do. From the very beginning, it’s been clear that Tarantino’s work is closer to what you may see in graphic novel than most films. His stories exist in worlds completely of his creation and his reference. This is a peculiar kind of fantasy film, closer to George Lucas’ hotrod-fuelled imagination than might be obvious. His well-drawn characters are not pulled from reality, but by their own world and the world of the films he cites, or doesn’t bother to cite, as inspiration.

Tarantino films are a sort of alternate history, history as expressed through his memory of genre. History expressed as genre. This seems to be the only way to see Django: Unchained in intended perspective. You certainly can’t take this as reality. Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a wonderful character which brings an epic scope to Django’s (Jamie Foxx) heroic crusade to save Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington). However, he brings a different kind of mythic too. In many ways, he acts as a divine guide might in other mythologies, arriving when he needs to and leaving when he must. Not quite omnipotent, but close enough. Dr. King Schultz is a creature of the past and the future, but not credibly of the time of the story. He is somehow immune to the invisible racism which Western culture is still struggling to shrug off.

Dr. King Schultz, bounty hunter. (Christoph Waltz)

Django himself is a classic hero on a classic quest. To think that he is out for revenge is to miss the point and also debase the spirit he embodies. Time after time, he is tempted by senseless violence and he doesn’t succumb to its immediate satisfaction. He reminds himself that he has to do what he must to liberate Broomhilda, but any premature action will jeopordize that. Django may appear to an angel of vengeance, but “in point of fact” he is an angel of love.

This powerful dedication is drawn into further contrast by the plentiful and cheap racist epithets, as well as the well-placed jokes about killing white people. The wounds of racism are beneath him, he must see beyond the racist world in order to complete his quest. Lesser men see Django as a slave in revolt, Dr. King Schultz sees him, correctly, as a dragon slayer.

Big Daddy (Don Johnson), the white devil.

The villains of this world are among Tarantino’s best. First Big Daddy (Don Johnson), and then Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) bring the stereotyped plantation owner into devilish relief. Big Daddy is a methodical man of cruel business. While he employs the demonic Brittle Brothers to enforce his will, it’s clear he sees himself as only following the order of business. His is a cold cruelty.

Calvin Candie (Leonardio DiCaprio) breathes fire.

Calvin Candie, on the other hand, tries to keep the genteel mask that Big Daddy wears well, but his sadism is easier to see. His pretense at refinement fails everytime his eyes catch the light of nearby violence. DiCaprio brings something terrible to the practiced grin and glee of Candie. His plantation is not called Candieland by accident. The closer Candie’s nature rises to the surface, the more sweet congeniality he has to pour on to hide it.

Saying violence is excessive in a Tarantino movie is like saying there is too much guitar in heavy metal music. Exploitation violence, neo-noir violence, and to a limited extent, martial arts violence are all elements in his director’s kit. Likewise, it is evidence of his skill and intent that one seldom falls over into the other. The tough-guy kills of Reservoir Dogs are not the same material as the fantasy blood splatter of Kill Bill and Django. Tarantino wisely uses this surreal sort of bloodletting to signal the essential unreality of his story. Again, this filmmaking is closer to comic book art than neo-realist New Wave.

Django (Jamie Foxx) brings fire and light.

Cinematography has traditionally been a weak point for Tarantino. Mood and tone are generally created through style and music, while camera and editing are frustratingly secondary. The Kill Bill films were unusually visual, but even then the imagery was set aside from the flow of the film, rather than integrated into it. Imagery should tell the story, not decorate it.

Django Unchained is a giant step toward cinematic filmmaking. Color, shadow and camera placement all serve as indicators of where Django’s quest is at. Dark woods, cold mountains and dusty towns say as much about Django’s state of mind as the dialogue around him. When the final conflict arrives and the spirit of vengeance is let loose, a hard light descends and burns everything it touches. This theatrical touch heightens the unreality of the furious gunplay it colors. This is a divine light, if not entirely holy.

“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance”

My interest in Tarantino’s filmmaking reached nadir at Death Proof. Likewise, he himself has explained that film was a dark night for his directorial work. Inglorius Basterds showed a willingness to move into more accomplished filmmaking, and Django Unchained demonstrates he is a mature director who could surpass his early films. Prior to release, he expressed doubts about making future films and instead becoming a film critic. Filmmaking is a wearying process, and I hope that after a break he will pick up where he left off with Django Unchained. Maybe it is where he intends his myth-making to end, and if so, there are worse ways to ride into the sunset.

Streets of Fire (1984)

While I was watching this mostly forgotten cult film, I couldn’t help but think that someday film fans will look at it the same way we see the pyramids; unable to understand how or why the film was made they way it was. Not quite science-fiction, not quite fantasy, this film relies on elaborate production design and practical sets in a way which is becoming more and more uncommon.

This shift to digital sets and mattes isn’t a bad thing, it will lower budgets and decrease boundries to imaginative filmmaking like Streets of Fire. The cost will be that we will lose the charm and spirit that practical sets can provide. Computer imagery has fewer limitations and that is what make it less interesting, less magical, for many people.

There are other things about Streets of Fire that are difficult to comprehend. Dreamt up during the production downtime of 48 Hrs, this was a dream project of Walter Hill‘s in which he could use all the elements of his own childhood fantasies in one single movie. He would create a world in which fifties era bike gangs would co-exist with neo-noir tough guys, all the while listening to 80’s era rock-and-roll and post-Motown soul music. On paper it looks like a big budget David Lynch movie, but Walter Hill’s style tends toward a more classic narrative. He drapes his idiosyncratic dreamworld around a well-worn plot.

These streets are on fire!

Tom Cody (Michael Pare’) rolls into his working class district after a long stint in the army. Upon return he learns that Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), his former girlfriend turned pop star, has been abducted by a delinquent bike gang run by a man named Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe). At the urging of Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenberg), his sister, he reluctantly sets out to rescue Ellen from Raven’s clubhouse in the Battery district.

Cody (Michael Pare) is all out of bubblegum.

Interestingly, the rescue of Ellen isn’t the climax of the film. This helps the film become more than an indulgent cliche. Not willing to accept defeat at his own clubhouse, Raven returns to re-capture Ellen and threaten all of the Richmond. A street battle between greasers and workers becomes likely and Cody must return to the Richmond, once more, to save it from Raven and his thugs.

Yep, still creepy. Raven (Willem Dafoe) is not happy.

Streets of Fire is fun to watch. Shot by Andrew Laszlo, the images are drawn from noir movies, Edward Hopper paintings, and iconic rock and roll symbols. Neon and illuminated color is an essential part of the atmosphere, so much that comparing this to Blade Runner (1982) makes perfect sense. Both films also share a rain-drenched urban landscape. In some ways the film also foreshadows work done on films like The Dark Knight that feature retro design alongside modern fixtures. While there too many visual icons at play in this world, Dafoe does look like an eerie sort of psychopath, and Ellen Aim looks like a real early eighties pop star. The rock shows look and sound like real concerts.

For that matter, Cody himself, with his trench coat and laconic tough guy manner, isn’t too different than Deckard. Unfortunately, Cody seems cartoonish and one-dimensional as a result. At first the tough talk feels like a gimmick, but as the style of the film seeps in it becomes less artificial. Then, it becomes less interesting and limits Cody to speaking in empty tropes. He’s not much more than a tough guy we’ve seen before, an empty homage for the sake of homage.

The film poster advertises a “Rock and Roll Fable” and this is accurate. There’s plenty of live performance by real bands (as opposed to fakey movie bands), a driving soundtrack by Ry Cooder, and a conflict which is at the heart of many rock and roll stories. Cody has a rival for Ellen’s heart in wealthy band manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), even though Cody doesn’t seem really interested in getting together with Ellen. Ellen enjoys her fame, but she wants to keep her soul and connection to the Richmond, her working class neighborhood. Cody has a problem with authority, and will do what he thinks is the right thing with or without the law.

Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) sings about being young.

None of the characters really rise above the superficial level. Likewise, none of them really find any answers to the problems that come with their type. Things happen in the plot, but nothing really changes for anybody in the film. No redemption, no catharsis, and the only resolution for the film is that everything is the way it was at the beginning. Maybe in this alternate universe of Walter Hill’s things never change, but most fans of narrative film expect something to happen. Maybe it’s a big budget art film, but I suspect this is just the result playing to close to genre and not letting a real story emerge from the material. Maybe they should have spent more than nine or so days on the screenplay.

Streets of Fire was a box office bomb, a fate which often befalls films that are solely based on the whims of a particularly narrow vision. You can’t blame Universal Pictures for imagining how the film might be a hit. George Lucas‘ and Steven Spielberg‘s childhood obsessions defined what a blockbuster was. Francis Ford Coppola‘s single-mindedness gave the world Apocalypse Now and The Godfather. Walter Hill produced Alien, so the creation of new worlds was not outside of his reach as a filmmaker.

There’s no reason why Streets of Fire had to be a popular failure, but had as much attention been paid to character and story as imagery and design general audiences would have had more ways to engage with the film. Many directors believe the only way to make a good film is to make a film they would want to watch, this film proves that it doesn’t mean they should make a film only they would watch.

Yes, that is purple rain.

This is the difference between Django Unchained and a film like Streets of Fire. Tarantino wisely populates his filmcentric worlds with characters that will engage and charm audiences. As much as his characters are homages, they are living homages and exist beyond the superficial tropes that inspire them. The collision between genre and original storytelling fuels the wheels that move Tarantino films forward. At their best, these films offer more than fulfilling the obsessions of a lonely film geek, they are a glimpse into a creation that may be a distortion of reality, but often offers a much clearer view.