Anticipating SCMS: Django Unchained is not Inglourious Basterds
I’ll be giving a paper on Inglourious Basterds next week at SCMS, and I’m anticipating some questions that might ask me to apply my thoughts on the film to Django Unchained. When Inglourious Basterds premiered, it became one of the most talked about and theorized objects on the Internet. Written material on Django, it seems, has far surpassed that of its predecessor, and for good reason–despite arguments over aesthetic superiority, I think it’s safe to say that Django is a far more complicated film partly because of the way it deals with history and myth.
In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler politically embody the Third Reich just as they symbolically stand in for Nazi anti-Semitism. In Django Unchained, we are offered no such historical figureheads, and how could we? The atrocity of American slavery doesn’t have its own codified villains. It’s certainly been mythicized into Manichean absolutes (it couldn’t make for a good Western otherwise), but we can’t quite ascribe those absolutes a face or an icon. If it is right to say that no single individual was responsible for slavery in the same way that no single individual was responsible for the Holocaust, the American myths of each atrocity tell entirely different stories. It is the role of myth, and the abstractions myth affords, that makes these two films fundamentally incomparable despite their apparent similarities.
If the role of myth is central to each film, I’d like to suggest that Basterds is a film that exploits an already-mythicized–that is, abstracted, distorted, and mediated–account of the Holocaust. As Jewish-American soldiers, the Basterds do not avenge personal trauma but rather retaliate against an Americanized mythos of Nazi anti-Semitism. The two European-born Basterds–those with authentic trauma–are appropriately killed off before the grand finale. Shoshanna provides the source of authentic victimhood, but it’s the eponymous Basterds, those stand-ins for a Jewish-American victim culture rather than victimhood, who provide us with the film’s vicarious retributive pleasures.
Django, though, generates its own heroic myth. With the aid of Dr. Schultz, who quickly identifies Django as the heroic Siegfried figure set to rescue his beloved Brunhild, the film establishes its own myth that is not so much anti-slavery or anti-racist but rather a myth of personal retribution, an affirmation of American individualism. After all, Dr. Schultz is really the only character who critiques slavery as an institution. But as always, Tarantino is more interested in the stories that can be told in the context of slavery, the “tales and drama and heroism and pain and love that happened during that time,” those stories that are “all American with a capital A” (Williams). But still, Tarantino sees Django as doing a social service to the history of American slavery, something he says “we should be talking about” to “get past it and get over it.” I’ll withhold comment on that last remark of his, because that’s not the discussion I want to have. What I find interesting, though, is the shift in Tarantino’s rhetoric from Basterds to Django: if Basterds was the film that everybody wanted to see, a kind of “kosher porn” for the American masses (“kosher” not just because it’s for Jews, but because it makes schadenfreude okay), Django is the film we need to see. For Tarantino, Django mythicizes itself out of sheer social duty, and pisses a lot of people off in the process; Basterds simply reaps the entertaining benefits of a history-turned-myth.
The way American myth operates in each film and in each appropriated historical atrocity should help us work through some of their purported similarities. For example, Tarantino’s “characteristic” violence is not uniform across these two films. While a number of critics conflate Tarantino’s moments of bodily violence as an easily identifiable auteurist signature, such a gesture effaces the specific ways violence functions in his films. The images of violence in Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained have often been lumped together as graphic, over-the-top, squirm-inducing blood and guts, but consider their differences. How could we equate Kill Bill’s facile decapitations and geysers of glowing-red blood with Django’s much heavier spurts and gushes? Even the respective sound effects let us hear their differing viscosities–a steady, mechanical spray versus a pulpy, organic splatter.
But it’s the difference between Inglourious Basterds and Django that really interests me, for as much as Basterds’ fiery finale revels in the massacre of bullet-ridden bodies, the moments that make us squirm are slow, close, and precise: the scalping, the forehead-carving, the defacing of Hitler’s caricatured visage. Compare this to the final shootout in Django with its emphasis on the fleshiness and meatiness of the human torso when hit from a high-caliber revolver. Violence in Basterds and Django is a matter of the face versus the body, the ideal versus the material. After all, the Basterds aren’t going after bodies , but rather the mythicized idea of Nazi anti-Semitism, forever crystallized in the recognizable symbols of the swastika, the Nazi uniform, and Hitler’s face (and I do mean symbols: at the level of myth, Hitler is not his body or his photograph, but a parted haircut and a little mustache). So when we see Aldo inscribe swastikas onto the foreheads of Nazis, it’s the symbolic “Nazi” of our imagination made flesh. And when Hitler’s face becomes progressively less recognizable from gunfire, we see the physical obliteration of an icon-made-flesh. At the same time, these moments acknowledge that violence in Basterds takes the form of warring representations: disseminated propaganda films, physically inscribed images, and the obliteration of those images.
Django’s exploding, effluent bodies, then, are subtle reminders that slavery has not and cannot be mediated by the images and symbols of American myth. There are, however, moments of subtle, symbolically charged violence–when Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is shot through the carnation on his lapel and Big John Brittle is shot through a page of scripture attached to his jacket–that ask us to imagine the symbols of slavery’s regimes of knowledge: Candie’s rhetoric of Eurocentric racial superiority and Big John’s appropriation of scripture serve as justifications of their brutality. But in the end, these moments are drowned out by Django’s explosive retaliation. We end up rooting for Django’s retributive violence as individual hero, not his critique of a pervasive economic system founded on dehumanization (or rather the dehumanization justified by a pervasive economic system).
Part of the problem of mythicizing slavery, of treating it as a humanist narrative of brutality versus righteousness, is that while the “absolute control” of slavery “permitted horrible, unthinkable brutality,” “perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice” (Reed). Built into Django is a resistance to its own status as myth. It’s a resistance that comes with our economic and social proximity to Django’s historical context, something that Basterds, the ultimate revenge narrative that obliterates the very history it feeds off of, doesn’t have to face.