When last we visited Quentin Tarantino, he was in the "killin' Nazi bidness," and bidness was indeed boomin', to paraphrase Brad Pitt.
His "Inglourious Basterds" violated all known rules of decorum regarding Holocuast art, and this seemed to bother no one -- the movie attracted Oscar nominations and made $100 million.
Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel have warned artists against any treatment of the Holocaust that denied its inexorable nihilistic reality. Tarantino sidestepped all that to give us a garish fantasy of a Jewish avenger burning Hitler alive in a movie theater -- the fire starts in a spool of film, so Hitler is literally killed by movies.
Never mind that movies didn't stop Hitler or the Nazis -- soldiers did. And never mind that nothing has done more than movies to preserve the seductive allure of Nazism. The proof of this can be found in the aftermath of "Basterds." Who won the Oscar? Christoph Waltz, for embodying the seductive allure of Nazism.
Now an emboldened Tarantino has taken his gonzo pulp sensibility and waded into another of history's horrors -- he's made "Django Unchained" a movie that makes American slavery the meatball in his spaghetti western (it's loosely modeled on Franco Nero's "Django," and Nero makes an amusing cameo).
Scene-stealing "Basterds" breakout Waltz stars as Dr. Schultz, a Euro gunslinger who starts a bounty-hunting business with freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx), who's an eager study.
"Killing white people for money?" Django asks. "What's not to like?"
(You mean apart from the 21st-century construction of that sentence?)
Schultz and Django ride from Texas to the pre-Civil War South, where Django means to free his wife (Kerry Washington), kept by a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) so evil that he forces slaves to fight to the death just to wager on the outcome.
The movie is sure-footed and funniest during the road-movie journey East and South. Don Johnson has a cameo as a Klansman, and as he rides down on Django and Waltz, he and his gang (Jonah Hill among them) find they cannot see out of the small holes in their hoods, leading to a wonderfully comic moment. Other early scenes tip their hat to "Blazing Saddles" -- Django rides through a Texas town, and the white citizens look with astonishment. In point of fact, Texans would not have been surprised to see this. Ranch slaves were among the best ropers in the territory. Escaped slaves rode with renegade gangs all over the frontier.
But Tarantino's joke is more a nod to Mel Brooks than to 19th-century history.
Just as "Basterds" was more about war movies than WWII, "Django" is about westerns and movies about the old South, and the way they whitewashed slavery and the presence of blacks.
Tarantino has been given credit for being cinematically honest about slavery in a way that other movies have not. We see slaves horribly mistreated, and Washington's character has a particularly bad time of it here.
But is this really some new form of cinematic honesty, or an exploitation filmmaker setting us up for the grand-crackerpocalypse that closes the movie?
The movie's bloody conclusion matches the body count of "Inglorious Basterds" and inspires (in buzzkills like me, anyway) the same ethical queasiness, for the same reasons Levi has set down.
Slavery was an implacable evil. There was no avenger to ride in on a horse, free all the slaves, shoot all the overseers and blow up a plantation. Slavery persisted for centuries and smothered fantasies of escape and retribution.
Of course, Tarantino doesn't think in those terms. He's a post-modern filmmaker, making a movie about the history of movies, trying to restore balance there (although again, I know Tarantino is enough of a movie buff to know that Woody Strode was a dynamic presence in American westerns).
I get it, and I laughed at many of Tarantino's crazy riffs. But I take issue with widespread suggestions that his movie is "daring," or that it risks alienating white people. (Matt Drudge is offended? So what? He's offended for a living.)
A movie that asks self-satisfied contemporary audiences to feel superior to antebellum racists risks nothing. In truth, the movie is not designed to discomfit, but to pat us on the back for hissing at someone who tortured slaves in the 19th century.
On that score -- the movie's true villain isn't even DiCaprio, it's Sam Jackson's house slave, a man so warped by captivity and co-option, he turns informer. A more ambitious artist would have tried harder to understand this character.
That's hard work, though, and outside the parameters of a reheated spaghetti western.
Blowing up caricatured racists and slavers is easy, and more fun.
Tarantino might put it another way.
Make a movie that reduces ugly history to a kicky cartoon and get paid for it?
What's not to like?