Corbucci Unchained: Tarantino and the Discursivity of Exploitation Cinema
This past week I attended the amazing Spaghetti Cinema academic conference and film festival, organized by Dr. Austin Fisher (University of Bedforshire).
As I presented a paper at this conference, before I revise it for publication, I thought this might be a good place to post the paper along with some pretty pictures.
Sometimes, I can be an idiot; specifically when I propose to present a paper on how Quentin Tarantino draws upon spaghetti westerns in his latest film Django Unchained before I actually get to see the film in question. You see, Tarantino’s film, while it evokes this – perhaps most famous of – filoni by its title, the actual film is much more rooted in the codes and conventions of Blaxploitation cinema than Italian westerns. As Homer Simpson might say, “Doh”! However, closer analysis of Tarantino’s film actually opens dialogue between these Italian westerns, the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, and contemporary Hollywood.
It is easy to label Tarantino as ‘post-modern’ and his films as ‘post-modern pastiche’; Tarantino’s filmmaking draws upon decades of exploitation cinema – both American and International; and Django Unchained explores how the alternative canon of paracinema Tarantino valorises, directly calls into question the myth-making predilections of the Hollywood western. Such a pretence of artificially and fusion of high- and low-culture in order to question the plenitude of the original genre, is of course, postmodernism proper. But the term has become so ubiquitous that its usage has almost drained it of any meaning, as in Kim Newman’s recent feature in Sight & Sound noted, “On the one hand, these borrowings add layers to the referentiality which is always an element of Tarantino’s postmodern genre cinema; on the other, it feels a little like cheating – shoring up an audience’s feelings for the present movie by reminding them how much they liked something else” (Newman, 2013, p. 35). For a critic like Newman, postmodernism is not much more than a game of ‘spot-the-references’ or a self-indulgent mnemonic.
In an interview which first appeared in The New York Times, Tarantino cites, specifically for Django Unchained, the influence of Sergio Corbucci; not only as the director of the Italian western which Tarantino’s title directly references but that “his was the most violent, surreal and pitiless landscape of any director in the history of the genre” (Edwards, 2012, p. 8). Based on that interview, and Tarantino specifically citing Corbucci’s influence on his latest film, this was where I decided to start my investigation.
The cinematography and over-all ‘look’ of the film is not particularly Italianate despite Tarantino’s use of snap-zooms typical of Italian vernacular cinemas, including the spaghetti westerns. Towards the end of the film, as King Schultz is awaiting the bill of sale he has just procured in his purchase of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Hildy, for short), he flashes back to an earlier point in the film where he watched an escaped slave set upon by dogs at the command of Calvin Candie, the film’s main villain. While Schultz recalls the incident, we see intercut within the images he sees in his head of the brutal reality of slavery. This use of flashback, while not unique to Italian westerns, does reflect the kind of visual poetry and economy of representation which characterize vernacular cinema.
Interestingly enough, despite the genre’s reputation of being particularly gory and violent, the hyper-violence of Django Unchained ruptures the homage rather than supports it. While the body count of the average spaghetti western is quite high, it rarely showed blood splattering in slow motion in the way Tarantino likes to use it.
Unpackin’ the Signifyin’
To begin to unpack the Corbucci references Tarantino is drawing from, the most logical place to start is with the character of Django Freeman himself. His first name obviously is an intentional allusion to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 (and arguably his most famous) film, Django. While Django inspired a lengthy series of unofficial sequels, Tarantino is not really drawing upon those films for his own. There is little comparison to make between the characters played by Franco Nero in Corbucci’s original and Jamie Foxx in Tarantino’s film. There is one ‘geekgasmic’ moment when Foxx and Nero meet at a bar and the two ‘Djangos’ are face to face. It’s a cheap gimmick, but for fans of the genre, it is the equivalent of a ‘money shot’. But the point is that there are many character names which Tarantino could have availed himself to instead of Django. Ringo, Sartana, Trinity, Sabata – all had their own serial narratives in the genre.
King Schultz gives Django a surname, something none of the Italian directors do; as now that Django is effectively bought by Schultz (and it was common practice for slaves to take the surname of their owners), he gives him the name ‘Freeman’ to indicate his freed-man status. Schultz buys Django because, as a bounty hunter, Django is able to identify the wanted Brittle Brothers and Schultz needs Django’s help in identifying them. The bounty hunter theme is a particular trope of the Italian westerns (Bondanella, 2009, p. 341), and, as I discuss below, prevalent in the Corbucci’s films. The two men hit it off and hit the road as bounty hunters, at least as long as it takes for them to find where Django’s wife, Hildy, has been brought and plan her rescue. While rescue plots are less prevalent in the spaghetti westerns, the vengeance plot is everywhere (Bondanella, 2009, p. 342). La vendetta is somewhat reflected in Django’s identifying the cruel taskmasters he remembers from his earlier servitude, the Brittles, but only in a minor way. Vengeance spurs Django on as he returns to the Candieland plantation after Schultz has been killed, but he is equally motivated by the desire to rescue Hildy once and for all. So although we can read la vendetta in some of Django’s actions, unlike Corbucci’s anti-heroes – Navajo Joe, Silence or even his Django – it is not his primary motivation. But it does function as a useful plot mechanism to allow Django to become a bounty hunter.
As both a freed slave and bounty hunter, Django operates in the shadow world of 19th Century America, in those grey areas of legality (particularly in the ante-bellum South). Django inhabits a world where Caucasian-Americans are in control, and prone to killing a black man, legally or not. Big Daddy and Calvin Candie, both plantation and slave owners, are the law in their respective communities. Django, riding in on his horse alongside Schultz in his cart, are viewed as provocations to these racist landowners. It would not be entirely inappropriate to see Tarantino’s Django as a trickster figure, much like the B’rer Rabbit figure from African-American folklore; Django is able to talk himself out of most situations, as he does with the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees. Tarantino has shifted the Django character, quite specifically, away from the spaghetti western themes and into the world of Blaxploitation, where ‘stickin’ it to the Man’ (in this instance both Big Daddy and Calvin Candie can be seen as ‘the Man’) and being a fast-talking trickster figure are the norms. While not central to the genre, a few Blaxploitation westerns were made; if Blaxploitation was hybridizing and (post)colonizing traditional American genres like the crime film, the gangster film, and the horror movie, why not also (post)colonize the western? Films such as The Legend of Nigger Charley (Martin Goldman, 1972), The Soul of Nigger Charley (Larry Spangler, 1973) and Boss Nigger (Jack Arnold, 1975), all starring Fred Williamson, weren’t the most popular of the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, but at least these filmmakers were trying any and all hybrids imaginable. I digress with this only to arrive at Take a Hard Ride (1975), a western which featured a Blaxploitation dream-cast of Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Charles McGregor but directed by Antonio Margheriti and also featuring spaghetti western superstar Lee Van Cleef. This digression was to suggest that the inclusion of an African-American cowboy within a spaghetti western, while not common, is still in keeping with the aesthetics of spaghetti westerns in general. Tarantino’s Django, in fact, has much in common with Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (played by Burt Reynolds); a Native-American out for vengeance against the blood thirsty White men who massacred his village and killed his wife. Corbucci’s Django is also bent on revenge for the murder of his wife. And like Joe, Tarantino’s Django is hung upside down by his ankles and tortured. Not beholden to American archetypes, the spaghetti western filmmakers were free to provoke and exploit the genre by featuring racially Other anti-heroes.
I’ve already mentioned that Tarantino’s Django is motivated by his love for his wife and quest to rescue her (like Siegfried to Brunhilde, to which the couple are compared); while this is not a common theme in the Italian westerns (despite how bloody this quest turns out to be), Tarantino doesn’t appear to know what to do with this particular female character. She is loosely based on Pauline, from The Great Silence, played by Blaxploitation leading lady Vonetta McGee (in her first role). Again making that connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation movies.
Dr. King Schultz is a different case altogether. While the casting of Viennese actor Christoph Waltz as a German dentist on the frontier is in keeping with the Italian western’s international casting obligations (due to the complex international investment in these films), most notably Klaus Kinski in several. The character of Schultz appears to be a fusion of Kinski’s villainous bounty-hunter, Tigero, in Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Franco Nero’s Swede in Corbucci’s Compañeros. From the latter, Schultz is suave, polite, and overall good humoured, and sporting some truly impressive facial hair. The combination of Schultz and Django also echoes the teaming up of the Swede and Vasco. From Tigero, Schultz too is a bounty hunter, but both men also store up the bodies of those they kill until they can collect the bounty on them. I’ve already alluded to Schultz as a man of conscience, particularly when he has had a bellyful of Candie’s crass degradation, and breaks his and Django’s cover by shooting the plantation owner in the carnation over his heart. Such a shot is also how Jack Palance’s Curly is killed in Corbucci’s The Mercenary (1968) (Frayling, 2000, p. 236).
The final observation I want to give you is suggested by Christopher Frayling’s identification of the key theme in Corbucci’s The Hellbenders (1967), “the erosion of Southern chivalry” (Frayling, 2000, p. 42). While slavery in the ante-bellum South is not going to be glorified, particularly by a director with such an affinity for African-American culture as Tarantino, he evokes the venal, ruthless, violent and often the stupidity of White Southerners. The sequence in Tarantino’s Django which features Big Daddy’s proto-Klu Klux Klan (listed in the credits as ‘Bag heads’) attack on Django and Schultz draws its inspiration from Corbucci’s Django, wherein Major Jackson’s own klan of ‘bag-heads’ try to gun down our hero. Despite the pseudo-French affectations of Calvin Candie, his true nature is revealed by his hobby of buying slaves as fighters for competition; notably ‘Mandingo’ fighters (the toughest of the tough). This practice is also the centre of Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo (1975); another film which, not unproblematically, has also been aligned with the Blaxploitation genre.
The Blaxploitation-spaghetti western connection was also made concurrently with the films themselves. The Black Panthers were understood to be particularly fond of these movies for their anti-Imperialist/anti-American positions (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). In Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) goes to see Django at the Kingston Rialto and sees the film as defining his own struggle against ‘the Man’. It is the film which plays in his head as he is finally gunned down by the Jamaican police.. As Austin Fisher observed:
… that the militancy expounded in some of the Italian films found an apt bedfellow in the very milieu of grindhouse cinema mentioned above. In the ‘blaxploitation’ genre, violent action similarly rubbed shoulders with belligerent ideological discourse in independent film aimed at audiences marginalized from mainstream culture (Fisher, 2011, p. 181).
The connection between spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation is not a particularly new one
Despite the title of his film being a direct invocation of the spaghetti western, Quentin Tarnantio’s Django Unchained is equally rooted in Blaxploitation cinema. Due to the production context outside of mainstream Hollywood, the Italian westerns were able to explore darker themes and grittier narratives which directly challenged Hollywood’s own myth-making heritage. As J. Hoberman noted recently, the spaghetti western filmmakers had “been weaned on [Hollywood] westerns and to have internalized every genre cliché” (Hoberman, 2012, p. 38). Tarantino, a generation later, was weaned on the spaghetti westerns, as well as the other genres of the grindhouse, including Blaxploitation. He too internalized all the clichés of those genres and in his own films, is able to use these exploitation colours for his palate. The irony is that the exploitation filmmakers’ reaction against the ownership of these symbolic codes is now being slurped back up by Hollywood hegemony through Tarantino’s work. Hoberman’s suggestion that the spaghetti western’s inherent anti-American or anti-Imperialist perspective (Hoberman, 2012, p. 40) is potentially echoed in Tarantino’s rejection of the semiotics of Hollywood culture for the culture of the grindhouse. And yet, despite Tarantino appearing to reject American imperialist cinema, at the same time is equally part of that same cinema he appears to reject. How very postmodern.
Bayman, L. & Rigoletto, S., 2013. The Fair and the Museum: Framing the Popular. In: L. Bayman & S. Rigoletto, eds. Popular Italian Cinema. Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, pp. 1-28.
Bondanella, P., 2009. A History of Italian Cinema. New York: Continuum.
Edwards, G., 2012. Quentin Tarantino: Film-Maker. The New Review, 30 12, p. 8.
Fisher, A., 2011. Radical Frontiers inthe Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris.
Frayling, C., 2000. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: I. B. Tauris.
Hoberman, J., 2012. In Praise of Da Pasta: The Subversive Sadism of the Spaghetti Western. Film Comment, 2012(May-June), pp. 36-43.
Newman, K., 2013. Trail Blazer. Sight & Sound, 23(2), pp. 34-37.