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.

The Forgotten Cowboys (documentary)

Justified: Cut Ties

In the latest episode of Justified, we gather that Boyd’s fist fight with Raylan in the previous episode was primarily a way to get Boyd into prison—and in close vicinity with Dickie Bennett, with whom Boyd has a score to settle. Raylan figures this out as well, and changes his statement to see that Boyd gets released. Boyd, as we might expect, turns out to be resourceful.

Justified also returns to making western allusions in this episode with Art Mullens waxing poetic with fellow Marshal Bill Nichols about old West sheriffs, including his favorite,  Bass Reeves. Marshal Nichols works for WitSec, and he is working with a witness who has moved from New Mexico. In the conversation with Art, Marshal wonders how he would stand up against those old West marshals. Given the circumstances of what follows, probably not too good. With Nichols off the board, the witnesses are divided up for protection.

Raylan leaves behind a pregnant Winona to go off with Assistant Director Goodall, someone whom he has had a relationship with in the past. AD Goodall is pretty awesome.

Art gets a chance to spend some time in the field as well, and, as things turn out, he’s not adverse to departing from protocol when it comes to interrogating prisoners.

There’s quite a bit of shooting before the episode comes to an end.

For the first two seasons, Justified has emphasized Raylan’s difference from his fellow law enforcement officers. He’s presented as an anachronism, his fast-draw justice in contrast to modern policing, a throwback to the days of the old West. This episode departs from that central set up of the show. Art, who spent most of last season at odds with Raylan because of his tendency to step outside accepted procedure, in this episode beats, tortures, and threatens to kill a suspect. Art’s reference earlier to African American Old West sheriff Bass Reeves (he thinks “Denzel” should look into the character as a movie role) also seems to set up what happens later in the episode. African American Marshal Rachel Brooks coolly and calmly shoots a gunman in the head at point blank range. The reference to Bass Reeves seems to be suggesting that Rachel could certainly measure up to her law enforcement predecessor. When Raylan asks Rachel afterwards how she’s doing, she reports that she’s fine, just another day at the office. Killing, when it’s justified, seems to come to Rachel as easily as it does for Raylan.

This seems like a shift in emphasis from the way the show was originally conceived. Raylan as an anachronism at least suggests some critical distance from the genre western, some commentary on the western’s celebration of violence as itself anachronistic. That doesn’t seem to be the case so far this season, as everybody in the Marshal’s service now seems like Raylan, and I guess the fantasy of the series is that we really are in the new Old West, and that justifies whatever violence the lawmen (and women) think is necessary.

Hell on Wheels: Revelations

Last week,  Hell on Wheels consisted of a series of negotiations.  In this week’s episode, “Revelations,” rather than negotiations, we have a series of showdowns. Lily Bell confronts an obnoxious relative of her deceased husband at a memorial service. The relative “draws” first, making several comments about how Robert’s death was all Lily’s fault and derisively referring to her as the “golden maiden of the west.” Lily sets her straight, her detailed account of how she killed the man who killed her husband accompanied by a ringing slap to the face. Lily wins this showdown.

Durant has his own showdown—with Senator Crane. Although Crane is trying to manipulate Durant by holding his knowledge of misappropriated funds over Durant’s head, Durant figures out that his real game is to capitalize on knowledge of where Durant plans to build a spur to get his railway connected to New York. After a show of (feigned) reluctance, Durant reveals his plan to connect to a particular existing line. Crane sinks all his money into stock, hoping for a big return when Durant announces his plans. Instead, Durant announces a connection to a different line, and Crane is nearly ruined. “Here’s a bright shiny new penny,” Durant states as he tosses it on Crane’s desk and turns on his heels and walks out. Durant wins his showdown with the Senator.

Meanwhile, racial tensions at Hell on Wheels continue to escalate. The Irish workers, frustrated in their desire go after the Cheyenne, go after Elam instead—with, it seems, the blessings of the Swede (who thinks it will let them blow off steam). As Durant’s head of security, one wonders what the Swede is really up to, as he’s absolutely awful at the job. It’s difficult to see how any work on building the railroad is going to get done if the workers are continually trying to kill each other—more often than not, set at it by the Swede.

In one of the best scenes in the series, Bohannon rides his horse into the tent where the Irish are in the process of lynching Elam. Gun blazing, he saves Elam, and they take off on the lam away from Hell on Wheels. The annoyed Swede sends the Irish workers along with two of his men off after them. By the end of the episode, the members of this posse (or lynch mob), including one of Durant’s walking bosses and several of his workers, are all dead. There may be a labor surplus at the end of the Civil War, but still, this seems like no way to build a railroad.

Bohannon and Elam set up an ambush, and Bohannon takes care of most of the mob with his rifle. Elam chases his nemesis, Mr. Toole into the woods, where we have the final showdown of the episode, and the most traditionally western of the episode’s showdowns, as the two men fire their pistols at one another until, as Elam realizes, Mr. Toole has used all his ammunition. Elam shoots him in the mouth. A nice gruesome touch is when we see smoke from the gunshot drift out of Mr. Toole’s mouth. Elam wins this showdown.

Interestingly, and thinking about Hell on Wheels as involving a story specifically of the African American West, we see Elam’s transformation in the first seven episodes from a former slave whose story follows the conventions of the slave narrative (as an object of white violence whose efforts to truly be a free man are continually thwarted) into a story that follows the conventions of the western. He begins “Revelations” as the victim of a lynch mob, but he ends the episode as a western hero (or western outlaw—at this point, it’s not clear how he and Bohannon will be considered), winning his showdown not because he’s the best shot, but because he keeps the coolest head. In the final shot of the episode, we see that Elam has thoroughly become part of the western story—as he and Bohannon ride off into the sunset.

Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger

This is an interesting clip from a documentary called The Legend of Bo Diddley (filmed in 1966) on singer Bo Diddley, one of the African American performers who most evokes western themes in his music.

There’s a brief excerpt of the song “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger” with shots of Bo dressed as a gunslinger and carrying a pistol.

An excerpt from the lyrics of “Bo Diddley’s a Gunslinger”:

Bo Diddley’s a gunslinger,
Bo Diddley’s a gunslinger,
Yeh, ah-ha,
Yeh, ah-ha,
I’ve got a story I really want to tell,
About Bo Diddley at the O-K corral,
Now, Bo Diddley didn’t stand no mess,
He wore a gun on his hip and a rose on his chest.

And to close out the post, here’s a link to a YouTube clip of life performance of the song (with Bo Diddley and Ron Wood, from 1988):

Justified: For Blood or Money

The most recent episode of Justified,  “For Blood or Money,” continues to hint at trouble to come between Raylan and Mags Bennett, although it focuses primarily on a stand-alone episode involving Marshal Rachel Brooks and her brother-in-law Clinton, who goes to all sorts of trouble to deliver a present to his son on his birthday. The trouble includes beating up a parole officer, leaving his mother-in-law bound and gagged, shooting a drug dealer through the hand (much to the dismay of Flex, the drug dealer, who has been learning to be a magician by watching how-to videos on YouTube and who is distressed that his sleight-of-hand has been compromised).

Although we don’t know exactly the nature of the trouble in the past between the Givens and Bennett families, we get some hints of it—Mags comments that her boy Dickie who “hasn’t walked right in 21 years” since the “trouble.” I guess we’ll find out more as the season continues.

The most interesting part of this episode was the focus on Rachel, a character that the creators have thus far struggled with. Clearly, as an African American woman, Rachel might run into some difficulty as a law enforcement officer in rural Kentucky, but her characterization thus far has been based on little more than those two facts, that she’s black and a woman. In “For Blood or Money,” we finally get some back-story for her, as her own past history comes back to complicate present events.  Her brother-in-law, we’re told early in the episode, killed her sister (and exactly how and under what circumstances that death took place is slowly revealed).  At the end of the episode, she joins Raylan and Tim in the Chief Deputy’s office for a shots of whiskey and an exchange of insults, and it’s good to see her invited to join in for a change—although she did have to kill a man (I won’t say who) to make it into this inner circle. At any rate, I’m glad to see the series start to explore the character of Rachel as something more than a vehicle for racial commentary, to see her begin to be fleshed out as a complicated character with a history that is uniquely her own.

Four episodes in, the new season of Justified continues to be less explicit than season one in making references and allusions to the show’s roots in the genre western. In part,  that’s because Raylan is shooting less, negotiating more, as a way of resolving conflicts. However, there was a nice “western” scene in this episode, one that neatly encapsulates the series’ playful relationship to the genre. In “For Blood or Money,” we have our first shootout in an Old West saloon (complete with swinging doors), but it’s in a children’s restaurant called Billy the Kid’s (or something like that) that’s decorated with a western theme (servers in cowboy outfits, a manager with a big tin star badge, lamps shaped like cowboy hats hanging from the ceiling)—a nice joking way of reminding us of Justified‘s western roots.

Sammy Davis: Singing, Dancing, Shooting

In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Sammy Davis, Jr., appeared in numerous film and television westerns. In part, that may be because of his fast-draw and gun-spinning skills. I came across this clip recently of Davis singing a song called “Bang Bang” (sample lyrics: I love The fun of reaching for a gun / and going bang bang. / I come alive. / Each time a forty -five./ Begins to bang bang.)

The lyrics for the whole song suggest the gangster genre more so than the western, but the set of the performance, a sort of saloon/casino, suggests a combination of western and gangster films.The clip comes from the 1964 film Robin and the Seven Hoods, and the primary reference point is 1930s Chicago, but there are a lot of western elements visible in the number.

Davis’s guns are not the classic western six-shooters, but his fast draw and spinning (which he does while tap-dancing!) are certainly evocative of the western.

Whatever we call this performance, it’s high energy and highly entertaining.

See also Sammy Davis: Fast Draw Demonstration