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You also could read it as an act of radical film criticism, and on the whole, Tarantino seems to be aiming for the latter. In recent years, his own written criticism, which has never been published, has functioned as a prelude to his screenwriting. "I do my film writing until I come up with a story," he tells me. "[Criticism] keeps me going, keeps me investing in things, and keeps me thinking in an artistic way, and in a critical way, too."
He told The New York Times in September, "As I was working on an essay about how Corbucci's archetypes worked, I started thinking, I don't really know if Corbucci was thinking any of these things when he was making these movies. But I know I'm thinking them now. And if I did a Western, I could put them into practice."
Django also allowed Tarantino to "put into practice" the ideas that went into another private project he banged out after Basterds. It is, he says, a novella-length critical analysis of Don Siegel's and Robert Aldrich's films of the 1970s, some of them revisionist Westerns made within the New Hollywood era.
"I've always loved that [spaghetti Western] vocabulary, but just as much, [Django] is very much a '70s American Western," Tarantino tells me. "It's really violent, it's really rough. It's crazy comedic, in this gallows humor, vaguely fucked-up way, where, 'Is it OK to laugh at this?' I'm not even sure."
That kind of humor is ultimately what edges Django into greatness. This is probably Tarantino's funniest movie, but it's also unsparing in depicting the grotesque surreality of slavery. The two extremes often intertwine. Some of the funniest lines come out of the mouths of the most reprehensible characters; you laugh at a racist's joke, and then immediately recoil in guilt and horror. As the "repellent gentleman" Calvin Candie, DiCaprio is so charismatic and compelling, pushing the ironic potential of "Southern hospitality" as the gloss on murderous capitalism to the hilt, that the movie actually dies a bit when he's no longer on-screen.
At the DGA screening, when the film ends, Taylor Hackford takes the stage and introduces Tarantino. Husband of Helen Mirren and director of Jamie Foxx in Ray, he's also president of the Directors Guild. "Thanks a lot," Tarantino says to the crowd, which has risen in standing ovation. "Shucks."
Hackford sets the tone of the conversation early when he credits Tarantino as the first filmmaker "to turn the mirror on America, and how we started." Tarantino is the first to note that this crowd is not his toughest lay. After the fifth or sixth time Hackford recaps something "fantastic" that happened in the movie instead of actually posing a question, Tarantino cracks, "I've gotta say, coming here and listening to you describe my cool shots is pretty great!" Who needs Cannes? Who needs Google?
How Django will play in different rooms is still an open question, but I've now seen it twice, and while it lacks a certain aesthetic panache (to borrow a word from Waltz's character), the script and the performances place it among Tarantino's richest works. On one level, there's a lot riding on its performance: It cost more than $80 million, making it the priciest movie Tarantino has ever made. On the other hand, because Basterds was such a massive success, he's got nothing to prove.
"I made a lot of money on Inglourious Basterds — I don't need to make that much money again," he says. "I'm really happy and comfortable. And part of the reason to have success is so you can do that. So you can make the movie you want to make, and not have to be concerned about those kinds of monetary concerns."
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