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'Django Unchained' Inspires Riveting Press Debate: Tarantino on Fresh Air, Boffo Box Office and Best Writing

Thompson on Hollywood By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 4, 2013 at 12:09PM

One thing that distinguishes this award season is the riveting debates over not only "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" but Quentin Tarantino's slave western "Django Unchained." The writer-director recently gave an engaging, articulate interview on Fresh Air covering all things "Django," including the trajectory of conventional slave narratives onscreen, the western as a mirror of social concerns, and that now-ubiquitous catchphrase "the 'D' is silent." Highlights from the interview below, plus a roundup of other interviews, box office reports and the best critical writing on the film.
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'Django Unchained'
'Django Unchained'

One thing that distinguishes this award season is the riveting debates over not only "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty" but Quentin Tarantino's slave western "Django Unchained."  The writer-director recently gave an engaging, articulate interview on Fresh Air covering all things "Django," including the trajectory of conventional slave narratives onscreen, the western as a mirror of social concerns, and that now-ubiquitous catchphrase "the 'D' is silent." Highlights from the interview below, plus a roundup of other interviews, box office reports and the best critical writing on the film.

Check out the December 21 Charlie Rose interview (below) with Tarantino; he reveals when he abandoned acting (girlfriend Mira Sorvino egged him on)and how dead-serious he is about making his mark on cinema as both writer and auteur director.

Fresh Air interview highlights:

On the few slave narratives we usually see onscreen:

"There haven't been that many slave narratives in the last 40 years of cinema, and usually when there are, they're usually done on television, and for the most part ... they're historical movies, like history with a capital H. Basically, 'This happened, then this happened, then that happened, then this happened.' And that can be fine, well enough, but for the most part they keep you at arm's length dramatically. Because also there is this kind of level of good taste that they're trying to deal with ... and frankly oftentimes they just feel like dusty textbooks just barely dramatized."

On what Westerns from different eras reflect about social concerns of the times:

"The Westerns of the '50s definitely have an Eisenhower, birth of suburbia and plentiful times aspect to them. America started little by little catching up with its racist past by the '50s, at the very, very beginning of [that decade], and that started being reflected in Westerns. Consequently, the late '60s have a very Vietnam vibe to the Westerns, leading into the '70s. And by the mid-'70s, you know, most of the Westerns literally could be called 'Watergate Westerns,' because it was about disillusionment and tearing down the myths that we have spent so much time building up."

On "the 'D' is silent":

"People would read the script [and say], 'Oh! D-jango Unchained. OK!" And people would say it all the time. Frankly, I considered it an intelligence test. If you say D-jango you're definitely going down in my book."

On the box-office front, "Django Unchained" looks to be the strongest of the holiday openers going forward, only losing the top spot to "The Hobbit" by a small margin on New Year's day -- $9.2 million for "Django" versus $9.4 million for Peter Jackson's Middle Earth tentpole. Meanwhile, African-American audiences (not including Spike Lee) are turning out in substantial numbers for the film; Christmas day box office reports a 42% black demographic, with the following days consistently pulling in 30%.

However, the film is a point of major contention across racial communities. Check out this piece at TheWrap looking at the film's defenders and dissenters -- particularly surrounding the much-discussed use of "the 'N' word."

Over at Criticwire, Matt Singer has rounded up some of the best writing on the film and its social impliciations. Highlights below.

Bilge Ebiri:

"Despite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that 'Django Unchained,' in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage."

Alyssa Rosenberg (SPOILERS):

"Like long-term abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens’ decision, on the floor of the House, to moderate his stated views on the equality of black Americans to win support for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in Spielberg’s film, a crucial moment in 'Django Unchained' comes when German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a newer advocate of equality, is offered an opportunity to avoid violence and advance the cause of equality with social moderation -- except that in this case, he chooses purity, radicalism, [and] violence."

Andrew O' Hehir:

"I recognize the moral argument that is hypothetically percolating below 'Django Unchained:' Tarantino is suggesting that white Americans who benefited from a slave economy were guilty of historical crimes whether or not they personally owned slaves, just as he implied in 'Inglourious Basterds' that German soldiers were guilty of atrocities they did not personally commit. But give me a break. In both cases he’s just pretending to raise these so-called questions in order to create the framework for an emotionally arid, ultraviolent action movie whose characters and audience seem to be emotionally stunted adolescent boys. For Tarantino, history is just another movie to strip for parts."

Jason Bellamy:

"The list of filmmakers who have line-crossing in their auteurist veins is longer than a typical Tarantino monologue. Oliver Stone, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier and QT's good buddy Spike Lee, just to name four off the top of my head, have made careers out of attacking our delicate sensibilities -- and even our not so delicate ones. What's unusual about Tarantino is the way in which he crosses the line: with the calculating indiscriminateness of someone who has spent so much time on the other side of the line that he seems to forget where he last saw it. If guys like Stone, Haneke, von Trier and Lee are akin to graffiti artists who zero in on a target and make their mark, Tarantino is more like a guy who leaves muddy footprints on your living room carpet because he decided long ago that refusing to take off his boots at the door was part of his identity."


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.