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Django Unchained (2012) Film Analysis – Postmodernism

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Published: Mon, 04 Sep 2017

Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012) set in Texas in 1858, deals with a variety of issues such as race, slavery, revenge and violence. The film sparked controversy worldwide and amongst critics. Filmmaker Spike Lee talks about the film during an interview with Vibe magazine:

All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me. … I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else (2012).

Tarantino argues that although the film is indeed graphic and brutal, it does not compare to the real-life discoveries and findings from the research into this topic. The film ‘sugar coats’ the violent happenings, as it leaves out factual gory details:

We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but after you do the research it’s no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit happened (Child, 2013).

Django Unchained is a gruesome depiction of what life as a slave was like during 1858 pre-civil war Texas, as well as a glimpse of existence outside the slave industry such as in Dr. King Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) case or the wealthy Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). It is a highly entertaining film which simultaneously disturbs and thrills, while also incorporating a healthy dose of humour throughout.

The purpose of textual analysis is simply to critically analyse a piece of cinema. As a research method, it can be used to deconstruct the aim or overall meaning of the film. Focusing on elements such as narrative structure, exposition, narrative voice and editing is important when using textual analysis. Mise-en-scene, setting, colour, tone, costume, props and lighting all play important roles in the examination process. A textual analysis approach allows the text to be thoroughly studied, for example, looking for patterns/relationships, finding the key/central themes and symbolic significance, as well as the ways in which the audience engage with the text, for instance, if an audience feel sympathy or pleasure towards a certain part of the film. Monaco discusses the importance of visuals, describing that “it is useful, even vital, to learn to read images well so that the observer can seize some of the power of the medium” (2000, p.159).

I intend to examine the ways in which Django Unchained can be viewed as a postmodern text. Postmodernism is a critique of modernism, the idea that there is no set genre or structure; no absolute truth:

Post-Modernism is fundamentally the eclectic mixture of any tradition with that of its immediate past: it is both the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence (Jenks,1996).

Jean Baudrillard talks about simulation, simulacra and hyperreality. Baudrillard argues that the audience live in an artificial world, drawn in by images and media; this is not reality and leads to ‘hyperreality’:

Images are no longer the mirror of reality, they have invested the heart of reality and transformed it into hyperreality, where from screen to screen, the only aim of the image is the image. The image can no longer imagine the real because it is the real; it can no longer transcend reality, transfigure it or dream it, since images are virtual reality. In virtual reality, it is as if things had swallowed their mirror (Zurbrugg, 1997, p.12).

‘Disneyland’ is an example of this as the fine line between reality and fantasy is unclear. Postmodern cinema contains a variety of features such as intertextuality, non-linear narratives, referentiality and pastiche. Frederic Jameson talks about the importance of pastiche in postmodern films:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter (Jameson, 1991).

Django Unchained demonstrates features of postmodern theory and this is often the case with Tarantino’s work, as described by Rehling:

Tarantino is generally considered the postmodern filmmaker par excellence due to his penchant for intertextual allusions (2010, p.203).

The film follows the story of a bounty hunter (previously employed as dentist) Dr. King Schultz, who is searching for a trio of men named ‘The Brittle Brothers’. Schultz understands that Django (Jamie Foxx) is familiar with the brothers as he was once a slave to them, and realizes he must free Django for him to assist Schultz on the journey. Schultz mentors Django, and offers to pay him for his services while helping Django to live as a free man. The pair begin finding and killing various wanted men. Django explains he wishes to rescue his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), and is determined to find her. Schultz agrees to help Django on his mission to release Broomhilda, who they later discover is a slave of Calvin Candie at his plantation “CandieLand.” The two men begin their journey to CandieLand and adopt a strategy in the hope to free Django’s wife.

The film has been described as a ‘spaghetti western’ due to the amount of violence involved as well as a Blaxploitation film. The main hero of the film is Django, a black character, and this contrasts with other 19th century Western movies where the central hero is often white, such as John Wayne’s character in The Searchers. It is also uncommon for a German character to be shown as the hero in this film genre. Django’s main goal is to locate and save Broomhilda from the slave trade. Although the film is violent in nature, comic relief is used throughout, for example, when Broomhilda faints at the sight of Django after he says “Hey little troublemaker”, to which Schultz replies “you silver tongued devil, you”. Pastiche is apparent when the Klansmen are preparing for a raid. The men bicker over the quality of the masks provided for them and this allows the spectator to laugh or poke fun at the characters. Humour is used as a tool to help the audience cope with gory imagery and the overall negative themes.

Hyperreality is evident in Django Unchained as the film mimics a fictional world. Schultz tells Django about the famous German myth concerning a princess named “Broomhilda” who is held in captivity by a fierce dragon, until she is finally saved by her hero. This relates to Django’s main objective to free his wife and adds to the fairy-tale notion. Calvin Candie’s estate is referred to as ‘CandieLand’ which has rather positive connotations however the harsh reality is that CandieLand is where Broomhilda and other slaves are kept as prisoners. Another aspect of postmodernity within Django is the intertextuality used, such as the reference to other films. The 1966 film Django is referenced firstly with the film’s title and actor Franco Nero (1966 Django) plays a cameo role. During Django and Schultz’s time within the Candie mansion, Nero asks Django how he spells his name. Django replies that the letter “d is silent”, to which Nero replies, “I know.” It then becomes evident why Nero’s character is important and his presence may spark curiosity in the viewer. In addition, Broomhilda Von Shaft is a reference to the Blaxploitation film ‘Shaft.’ The soundtrack within the film is somewhat mismatched, combining a variety of different genres, and this seems unusual due to the historical period when Django is set. Costume design stands out greatly, especially during the scene were Schultz encourages Django to pick his own clothes. His first ‘freedom outfit’ is extravagant and the blue suit imitates to the famous painting The Blue Boy (Gainsborough, 1770). This mimicking effect encourages a postmodern feel, and the notion of bricolage or that nothing is infinite; everything in existence is a copy of itself.

Gender in cinema is significant and Django Unchained represents gender in different ways. Laura Mulvey (1975) talks about the male gaze:

The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey, 1975, p.62).

Mulvey’s theory can be applied to Django Unchained as the female characters do not have demanding roles or are depicted as damsels in distress. Mulvey talks about “woman as image, man as bearer of the look” (1975, p.62) implying the notion that female characters are admired by a male audience solely down to their physical appearance.

The male characters keep the film moving forward as Django and Schultz lead the story, while supporting males are crucial to the plot such as Calvin Candie and Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). The viewer may appreciate the visuals provided by the female however can relate more to the male characters:

Voyeuristic visual pleasure is produced by looking at another (character, figure, situation) as our object, whereas narcissistic visual pleasure can be derived from identification with the (figure in the) image (Smelik, 2001, p.9).

Throughout Django, the female image is displayed in soft lighting, encouraging a sense of beauty and romanticism. During these moments, for example, the hallucinations Django has of Broomhilda, the viewer appreciates the imagery and momentarily shifts away from the narrative, as the female character’s appearance “tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey, 1975, p.62).

Although Broomhilda is incredibly important to Django, her character alone is not of importance. We witness Broomhilda being whipped and beaten however it seems we are not so concerned about her wellbeing but more so the way in which this affects Django’s actions. There is an underlying notion that the women in the film are the property of the male characters (Broomhilda belongs to Django, Lara Lee (Laura Cayouette) belongs to Calvin Candie, etc.). The female characters have little dialogue compared to the male characters, implying the idea that they should be seen and not heard. It can however be argued that Broomhilda is strong and independent, due to the fact she has endured endless torture and suffering since Django has been apart from her. In addition, she has attempted to escape CandieLand without the help of Django.

Mulvey describes female objectification:

Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire (1975, p.62).

At CandieLand, Schultz asks for “alone time” with Broomhilda due the fact she is fluent in German. Django had predicted earlier that she was being used as a “comfort girl” (a slave for sex). There is the suggestion that Schultz is expecting a sexual encounter with Broomhilda and this view is held by everyone at CandieLand aside from Django. It becomes apparent that the women are sexual objects for men and this should not be questioned but rather expected. Schultz realises that if he does not pretend this is indeed his intention with Broomhilda, there may be suspicions about him and Django’s presence. We see Broomhilda being removed from the ‘hot box’, as she is naked and continues to scream. This contrasts with the next time Broomhilda is seen; she has been dressed up to appear beautiful and presentable for Schultz – emphasising the idea that her purpose is only to be looked at and her performance from earlier is unacceptable. Lara Lee is shown in a similar way, as she often appears doll-like and attractive, wearing elaborate dresses. She acts elegant and polite around the male characters, as though to impress them. Laura Lee’s behaviour relates to the idea of ‘fetishism’ and the notion of these women being ‘hyper-polished’:

Fetishizing the woman deflects attention from female ‘lack’ and changes her from a dangerous figure into a reassuring object of flawless beauty (Smelik, 2001, p.11).

Sadism is introduced in the film; this is the belief that the woman should be punished or forced to seek forgiveness within the narrative. An example of this is during the scene when Broomhilda is asked to undress and reveal her scars to the group of men in the room. Candie is determined to remind Broomhilda of her place at CandieLand, ensuring she and those in the room understand that Broomhilda belongs to him. He has branded her physically with these scars, and she has evidently been punished through such torture. She is also continuously being punished through the fact she must show herself to these men.

Once Django’s identity is discovered, he wakes up to realise he has been tied upside down. A man enters, explaining he is to be castrated using a hot knife. This scene stands out as the man reveals he has received these orders from Lara Lee. This highlights male fears around the female presence; the woman is viewed as a danger or threat as well as male anxiety regarding castration.

Classic cinema solves the threat of castration in one of two ways: in the narrative structure or through fetishism (Cook & Bernink, 1999, p.354).

The black male characters are objectified in Django Unchained, for example, during the Mandingo fighting scene. Candie demands these black slaves to fight one another, for his own pleasure. The men are dressed with little clothing and like the females, do not have any dialogue in the film nor are they given names. They are simply there to be looked at; for Candie to witness them fighting. The men often grunt throughout, implying the notion that they are animals or beasts used only to fight, as though they are being trained like dogs, which also dehumanizes them. The audience observe the fight from Candie’s objectifying point of view with minimal flashes of Django or Schultz’s reactions, to restore the understanding of how cruel this act is. Within Candie’s dining room, a marble statue of two naked men fighting can be seen. Once Schultz meets Broomhilda and explains the escape plan to her, Django appears at the door however he is filmed in a seductive manner. The camera begins at Django’s feet and slowly moves upwards, scanning over his entire body. This allows the viewer to look at Django and examine him closely before dialogue is heard, and technique is unusual as it would normally be used for a female character:

There is, in other words, a specific and even ritualized form of male objectification and eroticization in Hollywood cinema (Weems et al., 2010, p.83).

There may be a somewhat homoerotic relationship between Candie and his loyal and oldest house slave Stephen. Stephen always supports Candie and appears desperate to please him or win his respect. Stephen is not afraid to disagree or argue with Candie, which is evident when Django arrives and Stephen is appalled that he has the same rights as a white man. Candie states that he “grew up in a house full of niggers”, which portrays that Stephen has perhaps raised Calvin and a further reason behind their closeness. Within CandieLand, Stephen has not suffered or been tortured in the same way other slaves have, and thus sees Django as a threat to his position. It can be argued that Stephen may be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or has simply become brainwashed as his life at CandieLand is all he has ever known.

To conclude, Django Unchained is a well written film which deals with an array of issues throughout. The film is evidently postmodern in nature, as it presents aspects of postmodern theory such as intertextuality. It can be argued that Mulvey’s argument relating to the ‘male gaze’ is apparent due to the representation of female characters in Django, and the way in which they differ from the male characters, for example, having little dialogue or action/purpose within the film’s narrative. Male objectification however also manifests itself in Django, and thus the sexualisation of both genders is noticeable.

References

Bealer, T. (2013) Did Quentin Tarantino’s Feminism Take a Step Backwards in Django Unchained? [Online] Available: http://www.genderfocus.com/2013/01/07/did-quentin-tarantinos-feminism-take-a-step-backwards-in-django-unchained/ [Accessed: 9 March 2017].

Child, B. (2012) Django Unchained Wins Over Black Audience Despite Spike Lee Criticism. The Guardian. 3 January. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jan/03/django-unchained-spike-lee [Accessed: 8 March 2017].

Cook, P. and Bernink, M. (1999) The Cinema Book. 1st ed. London: British Film Institute.

Doyle, H. (2010) Gender, Sadism, and Masochism in the Works of Wilkie Collins. [Online] Available: http://vc.bridgew.edu/undergrad_rev/vol6/iss1/34 [Accessed: 7 March 2017].

Gainsborough, T. (1770) The Blue Boy. [Oil on Canvas 178 x 112cm] Henry E. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino.

Haastrup, H. (2014) Storytelling Intertextuality. Film International. Vol.12(1), pp.85-97.

Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jencks, C. (1996) What Is Post-modernism? 4th ed. Michigan: Academy Editions.

Monaco, J. (2000) How to Read A Film. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mulvey, L. (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen. [Online] Vol.16(3), p.62. Available: https://www.asu.edu/courses/fms504/total-readings/mulvey-visualpleasure.pdf [Accessed: 9 March 2017].

Rehling, N. (2010) Extra-Ordinary Men. 1st ed. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Smelik, P. (2001) And the Mirror Cracked. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tarantino, Q. (dir.) (2012) Django Unchained. [DVD] The Weinstein Company. 166 mins

Weems, C., Berger, M., Wallis, B. and Watson, S. (2010) Constructing Masculinity. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, p.83.

Zurbrugg, N. (1997) Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact. 1st ed. London: Sage.


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