The following is an exchange between one of my students and I, broadly made on the topic of psychoanalytical approaches to film analysis. Her contribution attempts to describe and explore the nature of representations in Django unchained (Tarantino US 2012), which my response attempts to take these ideas in to the realm of how audiences engage with these representation and what I believe to be the true intended meanings of the film makers, based on the experience of their oeuvre.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (US 2012) both entertains and unnerves the audience by placing America’s complex history with slavery at the centre of attention in the intense setting of the pre-civil war West. Tarantino juxtaposes his unique mix of humour and irony with the horrific contextual violence of the film in such a way that allows the viewer to not be overwhelmed by the film’s violence, or to be lead to a state of denial of the seriousness of the subject matter due to its comical tone.

By using characters that pursue their desires ruthlessly, Tarantino aims to make the viewers feel almost morally violated in order to convey the gravity of the subject of the film as it pertains to a particularly painful part of American history.

Sadism is a prevalent theme in this film and represents an ongoing feature of human nature. Therefore, Tarantino implies that no matter how far away from the present his characters may seem, their drives to succeed are ours as well, at least in an unconscious, repressed sense.

Tarantino also depicts society as trapped in a Darwinian state; human nature showing humans as only as capable of succeeding in life as their genetic makeup allows. An example of this can be seen in a rather disturbing scene of the film in which the cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie, claims that all blacks are inherently submissive due to three depressed marks that somehow characterise the structure of their brainstem.

My response to this was as follows

I would say that Sadism is a motif rather than a theme, and reflects the ideas of institutionalised cruelty and conscious injustice. However, I think that what QT does in this film is to represent the cruelty and violence as cool and comic, and has thus made an exploitation film. There seems to be no pause for reflection on the injustices inflicted on African Americans nor the rather adolescent violent responses these motivate (violence without emotional or psychological consequence), which are futile within the historical context of this continuing episode of US (and world) history.
But it must be a little more sophisticated than this.

I think that by adopting his ubiquitous comic book approach in representing  violence QT has ‘positioned’ the audience cheering along with it. Not appalled enough by the institutional venality and cruelty of slavery nor shocked by the violent vengeance running counter to this.

I think if he has a point it is similar to Michael Haneke’s in “Funny Games” (Austria 1997). Where the audience is ‘positioned’ as complicit, through voyeuristic pleasures taken in the violence and cruelty, and thus implicated within the institution of slavery.

Although if this is the case I believe he’s been less successful than Haneke in this intention. He seems to fetishise the violent vengeance of the Django character without exploring the impact on his psyche, in a similar way that the original character from the Django exploitation films of the 1960’s (Django dir; Sergio Corbucci, Italy 1966 Italy) fetishised vengeful violence, from the sixties and to a lesser extent Sergio Leone’s ‘man with no name’.

This may have contemporary resonance in some instances of outrage at the apparent injustices against (stereotyped) African American youth in a predominantly white judicial system in the cases of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri.