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Understanding Screenwriting #105: Django Unchained, Amour, Banjo on My Knee, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #105: <em>Django Unchained</em>, <em>Amour</em>, <em>Banjo on My Knee</em>, & More

Coming Up in This Column: Django Unchained, Amour, Banjo on my Knee, Life Begins at Eight-Thirty, Casablanca, Restless, but first…

Fan Mail: One note before you even ask. Yes, I have seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I am collecting information (not via torture, I assure you) about it from various sources that I want to have before I write about it. Rest assured it will dealt with in #106.

On the fan mail front, it was just another day at the office with David E. and me agreeing yet again on something, this time Tony Kushner. Yawn.

Django Unchained (2012. Written by Quentin Tarantino. 165 minutes.)

Lotsa stuff, including our ideas of history, blowed up real good: You may remember from US#32 that I liked Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) a lot. As I said in that column “Like many American screenwriters, who are after all part of the American storytelling tradition, he wants to tell a tale. And as much or more than any other American screenwriter, he wants to tell off-the-wall, wildly entertaining stories.” One thing I liked about Inglourious Basterds is that Tarantino was not just ripping off other movies. In his own freewheeling way, he was taking on history as much as other movies, and he was focusing on characters. He was also finally accepting the fact that violence can hurt people, not only those who are victims of it, but those who perpetrate it. All of those elements are back in Django Unchained, and in a year in which many big-budget movies played it as safe as they could, it is nice to see a movie that plays it anything but safe.

The subject in Inglourious Basterds was killing Nazis during World War II, and here it is pre-Civil War slavery in the South. Nazis are dead and buried, but the issue of racism is still a very live wire in America, which has caused splits among the audiences for the film. Some viewers, both black and white, love it and some hate it. Some both love it and hate it. The split may come from treating the storyline as very, very dark comedy, with the usual violence found in Tarantino’s scripts. The predominantly white audience I saw the film with seemed to like it, and like the white audiences forty years ago for black exploitation films, they were rooting for the black underdog getting revenge against The Man. As for the complaints that you cannot treat a serious subject as dark comedy, come on folks, it is nearly fifty years since Dr. Strangelove (1964). Some people complained about Strangelove in the same tone they now complain about Django.

Tarantino very quickly establishes the world in which we are going to live in for 165 minutes. A couple of hunters of runaway slaves are leading a group of captured slaves through the desert (my beloved Alabama Hills) and the woods when they come across Dr. King Schultz, a former dentist driving a wagon with a large tooth on it (see, what did I tell you in US#99). Within a few minutes the slavehunters are dead or dying, and Schultz has freed Django because he needs him to identify the Brittle Brothers. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and soon pairs up with Django. We are in the South and the West, and the spaghetti-western music tells us that there is going to be a lot of blood spilled before our adventures are done. Tarantino’s homage to Italian westerns is one of the few remaining references to old movies that appear in this film, and it is really unneeded because the film is compelling enough without it. There is the additional irony that rather than filming in Spain, where the Italians filmed, Tarantino has filmed in American locations like the Alabama Hills, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and Louisiana.

King Schultz is one of the greatest characters Tarantino has created. He is German, a former dentist, and speaks better and more elaborate English than anybody else in the film. Tarantino has created him for Christoph Waltz, who is even better here than he was as Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately, while Tarantino is great at dialogue (duh), he does not provide a lot of dialogue or especially reaction shots for Django. I mentioned in my item on Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino gave Shosanna a great reaction, but then cut the shot short. Here he does not give Jamie Foxx enough to say or do to stand up to Waltz’s performance, and I think it hurts the film. Maybe another draft of the script was called for just simply to work out reactions, although I have heard that the script was constantly undergoing revisions as they filmed it.

After some bounty-hunting action (more than they really need after two major sequences), Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda. That name got a laugh from a couple of people in the audience I saw it with who obviously remembered the comic strip witch, but you find out later why Tarantino has given her that name. Broomhilda was sold to another plantation and that gives Tarantino the opportunity to show us how brutal slavery really was. We are not in The Birth of a Nation (1915) or Gone with the Wind (1939) territory here, and I say, “About bloody time.” And this being Tarantino, it is very bloody and very brutal, unnerving in exactly the way it is supposed to be. And yet Tarantino does bring in humor as a counterpoint. After Django and Schultz kill three men working as overseers at a plantation for the bounty, the plantation owner and his friends go out to try to track down and kill them. And to protect their identity they wear bags over their heads. One of the men’s wives spent all day cutting eyeholes…that aren’t quite big enough. In a scene where Birth of a Nation meets Blazing Saddles, the men complain about the bags. It is a very funny scene…and almost did not make it into the film. In the editing process, Tarantino thought about dropping it because the film was running long. Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures, which is co-releasing the film, told him that was the one scene that made her want to be involved with the film. They had a preview with the scene and it played better than anything else in the picture. Thanks Amy.

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