June 16, 2024

OPINION: Righteous spectacle

Lost in Scene

Recently, I was able to have a movie night with a few friends and their friends and watched two modern Tarantino movies, the triumphant western “Django Unchained” and the stormy and dramatic “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Both of these were movies I have seen before, but I got to witness first-time reactions from the audience, which are always a pleasure for Tarantino movies.

What I find fascinating were the reactions of the violence in these movies, which can range depending on someone’s familiarity with movies. Some were horrified, and some guffawed at the often ridiculous violence.

Witnessing or documenting violence in the real world is always horrifying, but in fiction that can change. I would argue most depictions of violence in fiction are equal or mirroring in the brutality that would be found in the real world. Violence as a creative tool can be quite effective at building horror as a smashing of social boundaries and decency.

However, when does violence stop being horrific? The entire action film genre has existed as a moneymaker with the express commitment to desensitizing violence to a spectacle. Can violence simultaneously be horrific and fun?

This leads to “Django Unchained,” which I feel is one of the best films that is able to walk this line of violence. It’s one of Tarantino’s specialties, although it’s one of his most divisive. “Django” is a movie almost completely about audience pleasure, wearing its more ridiculous aspects as a ringmaster inviting the audience to the circus.

“Django” is a western dipped in the context of slavery, with the titular Django, played by Jamie Foxx, being a freed slave working as a bounty hunter. Already, we’ve found multiple elements of romanticized history, which I’m not saying is a bad thing, far from it. In order for violence to be fun, it needs heroes, with Django thriving in that role.

Bounty hunters as depicted by Django and the German mentor who trains him are inherently heroic, trekking the Deep South to plantations to take out the world’s worst human beings. Django’s chance to change history itself is spectacular, it’s something that must be cheered for.

When these slavers are killed, goopy red explosions of blood burst out of them. In larger gunfights, a red mist is permeable through the film grain. It’s a joy to witness, not for the act of violence, but because it’s what the slavers, American history’s most disgusting creatures, deserve. No sympathy should be made for them.

This is one end of the spectrum of violence in “Django.” The other end is where “Django” can prove its use of violence as a tool.

Slavery was not a kind practice, it’s one of history’s most horrific acts of indecency. “Django” depicts the violence performed on slaves far differently from the slavers, as real horrific acts. Two slaves forced in gladiatorial combat as “Mandigos” gruesomely fight each other to the death. A runaway slave is ripped apart by hunting dogs. Slaves are whipped, verbally demeaned and physically scarred.

There can be no joy found in these types of depictions, and further contextualizes the slavers as inhuman monsters. They’re shown as inept in a scene mocking the Ku Klux Klan, as pushovers when mentioning any form of money and misguidedly stupid when describing the dumpster science of phrenology.

Even as a free man and a bounty hunter, Django still has to abide by the laws and social surroundings of the world he’s supposed to be free in. The big realization of the film comes from this reality, that no matter what, he’ll always be a black man in a prejudiced world. When he’s finally unchained, there’s glee in watching him mow down incompetent racists who never deserved power in the first place.

Spectacle finds its way to worm into seemingly minor scenes as well. The legend of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character smashing his hand on a small glass, real blood profusely spilling out of his palm but still continuing the scene has become one of that decade’s most insane commitments to acting.

That is where “Django Unchained” finds it’s biggest strength. It’s not exactly a smart movie, but you don’t need it when the spectacle feels so righteous. When Django finally chooses to right the world that has consistently wronged him and his skin for so long, that is when he becomes the heroic gunslinger that most westerns couldn’t hold a candle to.

There’s no shame in still disliking any depiction of violence. However, to say that any depiction of violence is wrong in fiction is a misjudgment of how it can be used as a tool in the first place.

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.