The 2013 Academy Awards may be history, but at least one of the movies under under consideration for Best Picture—Django Unchained—deserves more attention than it received during Sunday night's Oscar telecast.
None of the other best pic nominees took the actual craft and artistry of filmmaking more seriously than Django. In the end, it is a movie about other movies in the same way that Don Quixote is a book about other books and the madness they can cause if taken too seriously. The same is true of what I'd consider Tarantino's best movies, such as Reservoir Dogs and Inglourious Basterds, which pay homage to their filmic inspirations while revising gangster and war movies respectively. Even more important—and despite controversy over its prolific use of both the n-word and fake blood—Django Unchained masterfully revises the childish archetypal narrative at the heart of so much American storytelling, from Moby-Dick to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In so doing, Django Unchained may be one of the first truly post-racial works of art created for a mass audience.
Unlike most auteurs, Tarantino doesn't just revere past films and creators, he revisits them and recreates aspects of them while critiquing them and adding a layer of critical reflection. Where highly acclaimed directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg tend to be deferentially worshipful of film's past, Tarantino uses the past as raw material for film's future. In its depiction of stomach-churning sadism and tension that is typically aestheticized in gangster films, Reservoir Dogs effectively closed out an entire genre by refusing to turn the camera away at the exact moments when other directors would. Scorsese, for instance, would have figured out a way to literally and figuratively pull back from such moments either with voiceovers directing the viewer what to think or romanticizing violent protagonists in a way that blunts the implications of their actions. He always gives the viewer a rooting interest in a way that Tarantino doesn't (Scorsese's tendency arguably reaches its nadir in Casino, which ends with an unintentionally comic screed against the Disneyfication of casino gambling).
Inglourious Basterds is a far more interesting, smart, and uncompromising movie than the ones that inspired it. Go watch The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare or Kelly's Heroes or The Great Escape or They Were Expendable and you'll find movies that don't even struggle to rise to the level of meta-commentary on either film as a medium or war or violence; despite comic flourishes, they are earnest and plodding and utterly cliched in their war-is-hell-ain't-it perspective. Even as loopy and uneven a comedy as Kelly's Heroes expects to be taken seriously despite its threadbare messaging and utterly conventional morality. As does Speilberg's Saving Private Ryan, the ending of which is so maudlin and contemptible—Matt Damon's title character demands his family and the audience certify that he'd led a good life—as to erase the power of the film's recreation of the Normandy invasion. Indeed, one of the best ways to view Inglourious Basterds is as a sort of answer movie to the gauzy "Greatest Generation" nostalgia that ultimately undermines Saving Private Ryan.
Tarantino's movies typically pull double duty like the best art always does. Which is to say, they're both interesting in and of themselves while adding on a level of meta-commentary and criticism about how the best art operates. They thus incorporate a faithful evocation of an original while allowing—or forcing—the viewer to think about the generic conventions and cliches we use to convey supposedly unique moments of meaning. Call it the Madame Bovary effect, for Flaubert's masterpiece is ultimately a novel about the effects of novels on people. Or maybe call it The Colbert Report Perplex. Especially at the show's launch, Stephen Colbert's blowhard character was such a perfect distillation of the energy and dynamism and self-importance of Bill O'Reilly that you didn't need to watch The O'Reilly Factor anymore. You could get everything that was truly engaging about O'Reilly—and a comic critique of it—simply by watching Colbert (and note that Colbert pulled this off in large part because his character regularly reduced liberal guests to incoherence by challenging them on their beliefs). Tarantino does something similar in movies such as Django Unchained: He channels past movies but makes something that incorporates their essence while easily surpassing them (if you don't believe that, check out the movie that inspired Tarantino).
As Tarantino and Jamie Foxx explained on a TV One interview earlier this year, on one level Django Unchained is simply a classic Clint Eastwood Western with a black slave as the hero. No wonder so many people were offended, including Spike Lee, who denounced the film without seeing it to various others who were outraged by the movies prolific use of the word nigger, its historical anachronisms, or its cartoonish gun violence. It's no simple feat to reimagine the Man with No Name as a black slave and in so doing Tarantino powerfully revised one of the central plots in American storytelling, one first identified by the critic Leslie Fiedler.
In his 1948 essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!," Fiedler posited that much of classic American literature revolved around a juvenile fantasy in which white boys flee from what is inevitably figured in explicitly female terms as civilized adulthood. Again and again, observed Fiedler, at the heart of "classic" American tales, you find a white male who runs away in the company of a dark Other rather than submit to the pressures of living an engaged, responsible adult life. The result is a sort of "innocent homosexuality," or a pre-pubescent fantasy in which boys can always stay boys, having adventures out of reach of girls. The archetypes include Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick, and, of course Huck Finn and his slave companion Jim. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, Jim stays close with Huck, who at novel's end famously declares that he must light out for the territory rather than be "sivilized". What makes Jim's devotion to Huck—he sticks around even when he can easily escape from Tom Sawer's relatives who are holding him captive—even more stunning is the fact that his original impetus for escaping from his owner was a fear that he was going to be sold down the river, away from his wife who lives on a nearby plantation. Early on in the novel, as Huck and Jim plan to make landfall in Cairo, Illinois (where Jim can be free), Jim talks of working to make money to buy his wife's freedom.
Django Unchained reverses this narrative in a way particularly suited to 21st century America that is largely, though certainly not fully, post-racial. Christoph Waltz's character, the bounty hunter King Schultz, forms a pact with Jamie Foxx's Django with the explicit goal of finding and freeing Foxx's enslaved wife. Indeed, Schulz puts himself in mortal danger specifically to help Django in his quest, thus reversing the relationship of Jim regarding Huck. From a Fiedlerian perspective, the conclusion of Django—in which black man and black woman are reunited over the body of a self-sacrificing white man—can be read as a powerful sign of cultural maturation. Rather than fleeing from "sivilization" and all that in entails (first and foremost marriage), the whole point of the movie is to arrive at that very moment. The works illuminated so well and disturbingly by Fiedler's "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" literally cannot come to a similar conclusion.
No matter how entertaining or well-executed they might have been, that sort of psychological and archetypal depth was missing from the other best picture nominees at this year's Oscars.