On balance, Charles Blow rejects Django Unhinged!

SATURDAY, JANUARY 5, 2013

Once more, presenting a Challenge: At best, Charles Blow seems lukewarm about Django Unchained. Here’s how today’s column starts:
BLOW (1/5/13): America has slavery on the brain these days.

There were the recent releases of the movies “Lincoln” (which I found enlightening and enjoyable) and “Django Unchained” (which I found a profound love story with an orgy of excesses and muddled moralities). I guess my preferences reflect my penchant for subtlety. Sometimes a little bit of an unsettling thing goes a long way, and a lot goes too far. Aside from its gratuitous goriness, “Django Unchained” reportedly used the N-word more than 100 times. “Lincoln” used it only a handful. I don’t know exactly where my threshold is, but I think it’s well shy of the century mark.
Does Django feature “a profound love story?” We find that somewhat hard to believe, though we only lasted forty minutes. Click here.

Regarding this new film, we will again suggest that you take The Django Challenge: Go to the movie, then read the reviews found all through the upper-end press corps.

At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir dismissed the film in a review which refers to Tarantino’s “dumb ideas” and “self-indulgent rambling.” We too were struck by the sheer dumbness of this film’s first forty minutes.

There’s no accounting for taste, of course. But we’ve been amazed to see how few mainstream reviewers wrote anything like what O’Hehir wrote.

Go ahead—take The Mainstream Press Corps Challenge! See the film, then examine this rave review in Time, in which Richard Corliss seems to praise the “brazen amusement value of the Pulp Fiction dude’s latest tribute-provocation,” which closes with “a vivaciously choreographed blood bath.”

For ourselves, we didn’t see that vivacious closing bloodbath. We weren’t offended by the level of violence found in that first forty minutes. But we’re puzzled by the worldview of a 68-year-old mainstream reviewer who closes his piece like this:

“Django Unchained may not reach the delirious heights of Pulp Fiction; its climactic crimson orgasms lack the emotional gravity of the fatal tilts in Kill Bill. But it’s undeniably, gloriously Tarantino: all talk and all action.”

Go ahead: See the film, then take The Corliss Challenge. See if you understand the thrill Corliss seems to find in those glorious crimson orgasms.

On balance, it seems that Blow did not. For whatever reason, he doesn’t praise the “orgy of excesses” to which he refers.

Why have so many mainstream reviewers heaped so much praise on Django Unchained? We can’t answer that question. That said, we couldn’t help noting these excerpts from O’Hehir’s review:
O’HEHIR (12/26/12): I realize I’m supposed to say something about Tarantino’s use of revisionist historical fantasy—making Jewish warriors the protagonists of World War II and inserting a black action hero into the antebellum South—but I just don’t think either of the movies is serious enough to make that a worthwhile topic.

[...]

I understand that for many viewers the crazily overstuffed, one-damn-thing-after-another quality of “Django Unchained” will offer a fun alternative to more predictable fare, and [I] have no doubt that some of my fellow critics will proclaim it a postmodern masterpiece, equally inspired by Jean-Luc Godard, the spaghetti western and the screen careers of Jim Brown, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and whatever other ex-NFL stars of the ‘70s made movies in which they got to kill white people. I love to make those kinds of proclamations! And that combination of ingredients sounds intriguing, in theory–just about enough for a great trailer.
In what way was O’Hehir “supposed to say” something about that revisionist history? Was O’Hehir suggesting that his fellow reviewers were working from highly standardized scripts? Later, was he pre-mocking the praise from his fellow critics, who ran, just as he said they would, to talk about Tartantino’s masterful homage to (in Corliss’ words) “the movies he learned to love as a Manhattan Beach video-store savant a quarter-century ago?”

Does Richard Corliss really believe the following things about Django Unchained? If so, what might that mean?
CORLISS (12/12/12): A pastiche that’s nearly as funny as it is long (2hr. 45min.), and quite as politically troubling as it may be liberating, Django Unchained is pure, if not great, Tarantino. At 49, after eight features, the writer-director has become his own genre, running weird, violent, maniacally elaborate variations on the movies he learned to love as a Manhattan Beach video-store savant a quarter-century ago. He honored and reconstructed the Hong Kong crime drama City on Fire in Reservoir Dogs, gave ’70s blaxploitation epics a feminismo makeover in Jackie Brown, spliced and diced a dozen Shaw Brothers martial-arts films into the Kill Bill diptych, revived the auto-eroticism and carnage of grindhouse revenge epics in Death Proof.
Corliss goes on (and on) from there, listing the various elements of Tarantino’s serial acts of homage. But can Corliss possibly think this film was majorly funny—“nearly as funny as it is long?” And in what universe could this nonsense possibly be “politically troubling?”

In the universe of scripted old men?

There is no ultimate arbiter of taste or value, of course. Is this a serious, worthwhile film? When Moses came down from the mountain, he wasn’t carrying tablets explaining how to judge feature films.

That said, our country has been taking an unusual Challenge in the past forty years. Tarantino is one part of that Challenge. Here’s how that Challenge has gone:

Not so very long ago, citizens were exposed to a rather narrow range of tastes and ideas. As many fans have noted in comments, there was a time when Tarantino couldn’t have made this movie.

Somewhat similarly, there was a time when Don Imus couldn’t have gotten on the air. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh. In those days, Americans were exposed to Cronkite and Brinkley. In those days, it was actually somewhat hard to hear crazy batshit ideas.

It’s also true that Maureen Dowd couldn’t have gotten a column in the fairly recent past. If she had gotten a column, she wouldn’t have been allowed to discuss the silly crap around which she’s built a rather large franchise.

The Dowdism never could have crept. It wouldn’t have gotten in print.

Today, crazy and/or dumb ideas are pretty much all around us. Increasingly, you can’t get on the air without them. Especially in a world where so many journalists fawn in such obvious ways to power, are we as a people able to separate the wheat from the chaff?

In many ways, our ancestors weren’t exposed to The Crazy. As our discourse keeps tumbling down a long hill, do we know how to spot it?

Can Andrew O’Hehir say that: In his review of Django Unchained, Richard Corliss goes on and on about the various acts of homage which help define Tarantino’s career.

Andrew O’Hehir isn’t buying. Instantly, he says this:
O’HEHIR: You could claim that he’s “quoting from Sam Peckinpah” with those slapsticky water balloons full of blood, except that that’s not quite it. It’s more like he’s quoting from crappy ’70s drive-in movies that were quoting from “The Hills Have Eyes,” which was quoting from something else that was quoting from Peckinpah. (I may be missing an intermediate stage there, such as a cannibal film that was dubbed from Italian into Spanish and projected once, with the reels out of sequence, at a downtown Los Angeles theater in 1983.)
O’Hehir’s says those 70s films were “crappy!” In a world where every damn fool can get on the air, can Andrew O’Hehir say that?

58 comments:

  1. I say this as a great admirer of your work and the intellectual precision you bring to your media critiques about politics and education:

    On this subject, you are making a total ass of yourself. It's embarrassing. Stop. Please.

    You are acting almost as bad as Glenn Greenwald; criticizing a movie you haven't seen and then cherry picking reviews to back up your beliefs.

    It's like if you walked out after the first 20 minutes of "The Godfather" and complained that it's just a stupid movie about a wedding.

    Not that Django is that good, but you don't know that. You have only a few clues from the first few minutes and second had reports which you very selectively read. You're just guessing, and worse yet, guessing in much the same way so many of those you regularly lampoon guess about political issues.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have to agree with the previous poster - when your blog is primarily about people in the media who are either uninformed or who fail to inform their readership, the soapbox against a movie you didn't finish watching is hypocritical. The challenge to readers to see the movie in full is in that range too - if you didn't make it all the way through, why are you challenging readers to do more due diligence than you did?

    You're even pitching reviewers against each other, mocking the ones that seemed to like the film, as if film criticism is conducive to the same sort of analysis as political journalism. You're seriously bringing Maureen Dowd into a discussion about a film.

    Give it a rest. I haven't even seen this film, I have no opinion on it, but you're making me WANT to defend it.

    Look at it another way: "A Clockwork Orange" is, to many, a film classic. But there's absolutely no way everyone will like it. Not everyone SHOULD like it. It's fine for people to hate it, even find it loathsome and reprehensible - that's film for you. But some people not liking it doesn't mean that others can't consider it art. There isn't an objective standard involved.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bob, count me among those who look forward to and rely on your work everyday to help shape my opinions. I'm curious about what you saw in particular that caused such a visceral distaste for this film? Nail it down. If I had more details about what in particular galled you, I might enrich my view. I used to think Bukowski was an important writer at a point in my life, I'm open to reason. Did I think the film was great, or did it elegantly state some meaningful social message? No. The KKK scene was definitely a discordant note. To me, the comedy didn't seem to fit. I don't know what was offensive about it, other than it was dumb, which gets back to taste. It certainly didn't strike me as offensive as a movie like "Falling Down" for example. I'd like to hear where you draw the distinction between taste and offense. Regardless of how overrated Tarantino may be as a filmmaker, he certainly doesn't do as much damage to our culture as Limbaugh or Imus.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I read your remarks as directed more toward the reviewers, who, like their political counterparts, seem somewhat scripted. Conventional wisdom is that Tarantino is great so they twist and turn to make it so. That said, they probably aren't as damaging to our discourse as the political media, except in the general dumbing down sense.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Having watched the film through, because I had an obligation connected with business and business comes above all for me, the film was disgusting, simply disgusting.

    Disgusting is what Tarantino is all about, but I know how to say "great film" for the sake of business.

    As for the Bigelow film, that is immoral trash but cheers for America are in order and I know when to cheer and how to cheer.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tarantino is just a naughty boy, a sort of antidote to Lucas and Spielberg's wholesome cheesiness. Maybe anyone who tries to find depth in any of their films is missing the joke? cares?

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  7. What Chuckling said.

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  10. My wife wanted to go to the movie tonight and cited a number of good reviews but I was like- how long is it, so we're going to pay the sitter for over three hours? and she was like- haven't you noticed that all movies except comedies these days are upwards of three hours, and I was like- you mean this isn't a comedy? At which point we went out for Sushi. I'll see it on cable. About Dowd- totally agree with you, Bob, as always! Nice job. Knew you'd be able to squeeze her in your commentary somehow. But what about Maddow? Didn't catch her name in there. You're slipping.

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  12. First, if you are going to go to a movie these days, arrive late enough to skip the ads and previews, they wear your tolerance down, and you are more likely to walk out once the thing finally starts.

    Spaghetti westerns, even the "classics" praised by critics, were silly movies from the get go. So QT is paying homage to a form he is right at home in. Again, WHY would someone not know what to expect going into this movie?

    Bob look at the past in tinted in rose. There were always dumb "political" jocks, Imus is just a triumph of effective syndication. I have always suspected that if someone took a real serious backward glance he would find Jimmy Carter was gored.

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  14. Today, Sunday, January 6, 2013, Maureen Dowd produced a column for the Times that actually shows insight about how Obama, Biden, and the Congress (may) get things done.

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  15. I had planned on going to see Django with my wife, but I kept thinking about you walking out on it. At the last minute I suggested we go see "Silver Linings Playbook" instead. It was fabulous, so that turned out well.

    As for the reviewers, I wish more of them would adopt John Simon's approach of considering a film as a work of art and judging it accordingly. I'm sure that's one reason he had so few positive reviews. But when he really liked a movie (like "The Dreamlife of Angels"), you knew it was actually good.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Wandering off the topic, but the only good thing about "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" was the music score, and it was good to see Lee Van Cleef again. Rowdy Yates was and is a wooden actor and the "Dollars" movies were just boring. I think that's the joke that Tarantino is playing on us, but it's wearing a bit thin. "Jackie Brown" was a dull reminder that the main reason we loved Pam Grier was that she was pretty-much guaranteed to take her top off.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Pam Grier. Not only was she the lead in arguably the greatest Blaxploitation film ever, "Coffy", she also starred in the greatest Women in Prison film ever, "The Big Doll House".

      Agree regarding the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Then again I never cared for Clint Eastwood. Sergio Corbucci's original Django is a fun movie, and another Corbucci film, "The Great Silence" is, in spite of it's flaws and bleak outlook, the best of the Spaghetti Westerns. All have great trailers that can be seen and are worth a look-see on YouTube.

      Delete
  17. tarantino does suck. he has sucked for a long time. why he is a media darling i do not know. his movies tend towards racism and misogyny. his dialogue is way, way overrated - his dialogue is boring. he thinks his audience is stupid.

    i heard him on NPR the other day. what a snot-nosed lame pretentious character he is. and it is somehow politically incorrect to point these things out. dunno why.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Bob, I'm a huge fan of yours, but I have to ask this: if you didn't need to see the full movie in order to significantly contribute to the present discussion of Django Unchained, but can do so on the basis of a partial viewing and an analysis of other people's reviews, then why was it wrong for so many in the media to deliver their verdicts about Susan Rice without referring to the full transcripts of those October Sunday shows?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are not following the Golden Rule: do what Somerby says, not what he does.

      Delete
  19. I have not seen the film yet, but probably will, and will probably like it without admiring it. Last Friday TMC showed "The Creature From the Black Lagoon," "Tarantula," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," and "It Came From Outer Space" in succession, and I sat through every one of them, just as I sat through Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot" marathon a few days ago, proving again it is eminently possible to enjoy schlock while being fully aware you're consuming schlock.
    Tarantino is an immensely talented filmmaker seemingly incapable of making a truly great film, as if he had all the tools of Orson Welles but none of the taste. I eat up the verbose dialogue, the kitschy soundtrack and all the other familiar Quentinisms yet come out thinking I've just seen some great filmmaking from a great technician but not a work of art. I get a similar feeling from just about anything by Aaron Sorkin (a mere writer, so maybe apples and oranges here). I'm sucked in totally but wind up resenting the feeling of being had by an artistic con artist.

    ReplyDelete
  20. "Django Unchained" is one of the most powerful and insightful portrayals of the sickness and psychosis of racism I've ever seen. It's also good, ultra-violent, radical, vindictive fun.

    I highly recommend it, and found AO Scott's review informative and insightful.

    God help any critic --- or anyone, period --- who doesn't share Bob's opinion. The same Bob who chastises us when we don't respect...other people's opinions.

    Bob's double standards and apparent lack of self-awareness are becoming the stuff of parody.

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  21. Wait, how are we supposed to take Blow seriously if he's praising Lincoln for its subtlety.

    I liked Lincoln, but subtle? Not quite.

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