Django Unchained

I must admit to admiring the audacity (or perversity) of opening Django Unchained on Christmas Day, as Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-violent blaxploitation spaghetti-western-homage is about as unlikely a holiday movie as I’ve ever seen.  True Grit, which was a Christmas Day western gift a couple of years ago,  had some imagery and themes consistent with its holiday release day (even if Rooster Cogburn was hardly a typical holiday movie character).  With excellent performances by Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz as the film’s bounty hunter heroes, and a delightfully crazed and comic turn by Leonardo DiCaprio as villainous slaveholder Calvin Candie, and a filmmaking style that is so over the top that you can’t even see the top that the film is way over because you are up so high, Django Unchained is certainly one of the more interesting westerns to come out in a while, and one that is brave enough to cast an African American hero at its center, and brave enough as well not to gloss over the brutality of slavery in the way that so many other “southern” westerns have. And unlike other “southerns,” Hell on Wheels among them, Django Unchained is not so enamoured with the cowboy with romantic southern roots as to make him the hero (even as such westerns simultaneously play up the southern roots and downplay the connection to slaveholding). The southerners in this western are not the heroes, and that is a revision that the western has long needed to make.

There are 6 quarts of blood in the human body. Each time someone is shot in Django Unchained, it seems like the full 6 quarts comes flying out and splashing around the movie screen. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he wanted to bring an “operatic” style to the violence, and, I suppose that might be the case if Herschel Gordon Lewis were an opera director.

One of my favorite parts of the film is the wagon that bounty hunter King Schultz—disguised as a dentist—travels in, topped as it is by a large human tooth on a spring. As the tooth wobbles back and forth, the spring squeaks in a rhythmic way, and I suspect this is an homage to the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West, with its squeaking windmill (and, indeed, Tarantino may even have lifted that sound from Leone’s movie as the source of his squeaking tooth noise). Another reason that I love that tooth is that it seems to comment on what I’ve started to referring to as the “dental revisionism” of the contemporary western. As we all know, the perfect teeth of contemporary actors have little in common with the teeth of the 19th century characters they play in westerns, and there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to “correct” the dentally inaccurate portrayals in earlier generations of westerns. They have been doing so by using dental prosthetics to reflect the poor quality of dental care in the Old West. And, in every film that I’ve seen, the revisionist corrections done in the name of realism have been anything but realistic. My first thought on seeing an actor smile to reveal enough moss to make an “Old Manse” feel jealous is not, “wow, what an attention to realistic detail,” but, “wow, that looks really fake.” The giant tooth bobbing up and down atop the wagon is a more realistic looking tooth than most of the prosthetics that I’ve seen. And if Tarantino didn’t then indulge in the same sort of dental revisionism via prosthetic teeth that I’ve seen in far too many movies, I might suspect a sly commentary on the practice.  To Django Unchained‘s credit, the prosthetics show more restraint than almost anything else in the film, and none of the mouths quite reach the absurdity of Walton Goggins’s ridiculously bad teeth in Cowboys and Aliens (which remains my nominee for the Prosthetic Teeth Hall of Fame). (See Cowboys, Aliens, and Prosthetic Teeth.)

Although the civilized and educated King Schultz is in many ways just the opposite of Rooster Cogburn, he fulfills somewhat of the same role as Cogburn in True Grit. As a gun for hire, or a lawman for hire, Cogburn suggests that there’s a fuzzy line between a Marshal and a bounty hunter. Schultz plays the experienced bounty hunter to Foxx’s Django, who takes on the Mattie Ross role, learning the ropes from Schultz. Among the differences, the path that Shultz and Django take moves from one frontier to another, from the story of western bounty hunting into the world of plantation slavery, one with which Django (a slave whose freedom is purchased by Schultz) is intimately familiar. As the film shifts in its second half from the bounty hunter story to the infiltration of Candie’s plantation (“Candie Land”), Foxx shifts roles in a way that Mattie does not—as he is the expert on negotiating this particular violent frontier.

With its two bounty hunters (as well as its revenge/rescue plot), Django Unchained reminds me a little of For a Few Dollars More, which I watched again fairly recently, and was somewhat surprised by the high body count in the film (especially when many of those body’s are loaded onto a wagon at the end to be carried in for their bounties). I don’t know of anyone has done a body count yet for Django, but it would probably take more higher math skill than I have. The question may finally be: which is higher? the body count or the number of times America’s most popular racial epithet gets used? As I said earlier, whether it’s the blood or the bad language, Django Unchained is a very unlikely holiday film. It is nonetheless a good action-packed western for those of us who prefer a showdown or two (or six) in our holiday films.

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WLA at MLA (CFP)

MLA Western Literature Association Session “Global Art, Western American Context” 300-word abstracts, 6 Mar 12 to max.despain@gmail.com

Chicago, the 2014 MLA conference location, inspires thought about the individual experience of works of art, and, as the Chicago Art Institute describes: “the irreplaceable embodiments of the creative impulse from all times and areas,” within the specific context of the American West. From elaborate collections found in museums such as the Chicago Art Institute to the somewhat simple act of reading Shakespeare in a small Western town, how does experiencing art removed from its original context and placed in an utterly different location and time influence original Western American artistic production?

POC: Max Despain, max.despain@gmail.com

 

Love in Western Film and Television

A new book forthcoming from Palgrave-McMillan:

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This collection of ground-breaking articles examines problems romance presents in the American Western. Looking at cinematic masterpieces and cult classics, this book offers readers important and challenging insights into the complicated (and often conflicted) nature of love and the versatile frontier narrative that address key social, political, and ethical components of the Western genre.

Virgins, Widows, and Whores: The Bride Pool of John Wayne’s Westerns; H.M.Lewis
Just a Woman After All? Gender Dynamics in the Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck; A.P.Nelson
Violence, Vixens and Virgins: Noir-like Women in the Stewart/Mann Westerns; D.B.Cutshaw
From Whore to Madonna: Female Subjectivity in Once Upon a Time in the West; A.Gazzaniga
Reverse Transvestism and the Classic Hero: The Ballad of Little Jo and the Archetypal Western (fe)male; V.Piturro
‘Wild’ Women: Interracial Romance on the Western Frontier; C.J.Miller
Paladin Plays the Field: Have Gun Will Travel and the Erotic Domestic of the 1950s; E.L.Mock
The melancholy couple in Winchester ’73; P.Falconer
Outlaws, Buddies, and Lovers: The Sexual Politics of Calamity Jane and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; F.Pheasant-Kelly
Horse Power: Equine Alliances in the Western; S.Hockenhull

A French Unsettlement of the Frontier: Love and the threatened American dream in Heaven’s Gate; L.Cox
Saddle Pals Eurostyle and the Absence of Love in the Karl-May Westerns; R.Spindler
‘When you side with a man, you stay with him!’: The Importance of Philia in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; S.Matheson

Truer West (CFP)

American Literature Association Annual Conference, 2013Western Literature Association-affiliated panel

“Truer West: Western American Authenticity Ten Years On”

Ten years after the publication of Nathaniel Lewis’ Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship, western, post-western, and critical regional studies still grapple with the problem of authenticity in the American West. If, as Lewis playfully suggests, the “very struggle over authenticity [is] perhaps the only ‘true’ condition of the western cultural imagination,” then how might this struggle have altered the tone of Western literary and cultural criticism in the last decade? What does the poststructural, postmodern distrust of authenticity do to encourage fresh analyses of texts previously heralded for their authentic portrayals of the West? How do scholars account for this struggle in works that place no claims on authenticity or were once excluded from older paradigms of Western authenticity? Is there even an imagined, authentic West for which these artists struggle? An inauthentic one? Or an a-authentic West?

We welcome presentation abstracts on these and related questions. Possible topics include but are not limited to:

·      Affects, bodies, and authenticity
·      Authenticity and environmental narratives of the West
·      Western pop culture and its use of the authentic
·      Authenticity as commodity or fetish
·      Minority Western narratives and “other” authentic Wests
·      Photography and its (in-)authentic representations of the West
·      Tensions between multiple Wests

Submit a 250-word presentation abstract and brief C.V. to Kiara L. Kharpertian (klkharpertian@gmail.com) and Andrew Husband (andrew.husband@ttu.edu) by 20 January 2013. Indicate any A/V requirements.

The American Literature Association’s 24th annual conference will meet at the Westin Copley Place in Boston on May 23-26, 2013 (Thursday through Sunday of Memorial Day weekend). For further information, please consult the ALA website at www.americanliterature.org or contact the conference director, Professor Olivia Carr Edenfield via email (carr@georgiasouthern.edu) with specific questions.

Dave Brubeck (obit)

A westerner who influenced the world of jazz died yesterday. Before he discovered music, he wanted to be a cowboy: Dave Brubeck. Rest in peace.
http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-dave-brubeck-dies-20121205,0,5143972.story

CFP for Collection of Essays on Charles Bowden

We are now accepting abstracts for a forthcoming collection of essays entitled, Memories of the Future: Critical Essays on Charles Bowden. We are open to all critical approaches, including feminist, Marxist, critical regionalist, hemispheric, narratological, postcolonial, and ecocritical perspectives. Potential proposals may include, but are not limited to, the following topics:

• The Apocalyptic Southwest

• Connections between Bowden and other writers (Abbey, McCarthy, Silko, etc.)

• Environmental beauty and destruction

• Genre tensions between the essay, the memoir, crime reporting, gonzo journalism, and history

• Literary journalism in the Southwest

• Globalization and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

• Interplay of text and images in the trilogy of Inferno, Exodus/Éxodo, and Trinity, and/or Juárez: Laboratory of Our Future, and/or Dreamland

• Bowden’s collaborations with Jack Dykinga

• Mexican North and the American West

• Human detritus/”waste” as nature

• Police state(s) vs. anarchism

• Relationships between narcotraficantes and the war on drugs

• Representations of the Mexican Army and/or the U.S. Border Patrol

• Transnational social justice

• Versions of El Sicario (film, articles, and books)

This volume appears almost certain to be the initial scholarly foray into Bowden, and we have already received interest from a major university press. E-mail abstract proposals with a working title and a brief biography or CV by January 15, 2013 to David Cremean (nialmccruimmen@gmail.com) and D. Seth Horton (dshorton@umd.edu). The deadline for final papers will be July 15, 2013. Send any questions or other inquiries to the same emails.