27 July 2013

Django - The D is Silent

A conflict of interests.....

Jean "Django" Reinhardt was a Belgian guitarist of Romany descent. The nickname "Django" in Romany dialect means "I awake." At the age of 18 in Saint-Ouen, in France, Reinhardt was injured in a fire that destroyed the caravan he shared with  his first wife. He received serious burns over half his body; his right leg was paralysed and the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand were badly burned. 

His brother bought Django a new guitar and he relearned his craft and played his guitar solos with his first two fingers, using the third and fourth injured digits only for chord work.  He became one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, but died in 1953 at the age of only 43.

In 1966, working in Spain with Italian actor Franco Nero, Sergio Corbucci directed "Django," one of many "spaghetti westerns" that he and his friend Sergio Leone became famous for.  With his trademark handheld camera in action scenes, terse, almost cryptic, dialogue and some extreme violence, "Django" became a cult classic - refused a licence in the UK until 1993.  A particularly grisly ear-cutting being the most shocking scene.

Django is a drifter, dragging with him a coffin, and seemingly out to revenge the murder of his wife.  He becomes embroiled in conflict between Mexicans and a kind of Ku Klux Klan, partly because he rescues a young woman from a brutal flogging.

The sparkling blue eyes of Franco Nero and his speed and accuracy with his pistols give the character a charisma that almost makes a hero of him.

And when it is discovered that his coffin contains a Gatling Gun (a metaphor for death) he almost becomes a war hero, justifying his military overcoat and hat, as he mows down hordes of red hooded mercenaries.

But then he falls foul of his Mexican 'friends' and his hands are maimed, first by being smashed by a rifle butt, and then by being ridden over by the bandits.  This is where the link with Django Reinhardt is established, as Franco Nero goes on to pull the ultimate trigger despite his ruined fingers.

This highly successful film led to almost a hundred imitations, with about thirty using the name Django in the title.  The spaghetti western genre only lasted about ten years, though, and Corbucci turned his hand to comedies (often with Adriano Celentano) and TV before his death by heart attack in Rome in 1990.  He was 62.

Then, on Christmas day, 2012, the recording of Rocky Roberts's warm tones again gave voice to Luis Bacalov's title song, and even the title font was unchanged as 'Django' became 'unchained' in Quentin Tarantino's most recent blockbuster, grossing over $423 million worldwide, so far.

But this time Django is a slave, who has clearly been whipped across the back.  He doesn't drag a coffin, he doesn't wear military clothes, and his wife is alive.  It is 1858, in Tennessee, ten years before the Ku Klux Klan was founded (and well over a hundred before Mandingo fighting was heard of in film).  Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz), a dentist and bounty hunter, frees Django because he needs him to help track down the Brittle brothers.

Ace Speck is shot in the face

The film proceeds with a number of set pieces, filmed with characteristic visual flair;

Bang!  Sheriff Bill Sharp is shot in the stomach

certain humorous touches which would not have been out of place in "Blazing Saddles;"

Precursors (by ten years at least) of the KKK find their vision impaired by mis-prepared flour bags

energetic extremes of violence, defused perhaps by the curious dialogue;

Jamie Foxx dressed as "The Blue Boy"

the glamour of Kerry Washington, as Broomhilda Von Shaft, Django's wife;

and overloaded squibs of blood as high velocity rifles pick off their victims.

No doubt.  'Tis Ellis Brittle.  

[Some coincidence perhaps?  In John Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" John Wayne plays Sergeant Nathan Brittles.  Not the most common of names.....  But then this film displays Quentin Tarantino's geeky knowledge of Hollywood and the history of film - although that did not help him avoid the anachronistic use here of a Sharp's 1874 Buffalo rifle.]

Dancer, and Prancer, and Django and ......  By the way that is Jamie Foxx's own horse.

There has been much praise, and honour, given to this film, and it has pretensions to explore the subject of slavery which Hollywood is not renowned for using as subject matter.  However, the essential attraction is in the violence, the pyrotechnics and special effects.  

A Crashing Bore

Practically everyone dies in the film, from Monsieur Calvin J Candie, (Leonardo di Caprio) to employees of The LeQuint Dickey Mining Co. (which include Quentin Tarantino with a strange antipodean accent). And they die spectacularly, with movement, blood spatter and streaming light.  Whether shot through the chest:

Blood everywhere!

or in other regions of the corpse:

Pistol to Bardolph

Or, as in the case of Quentin himself, as a result of wearing a corset of dynamite (which actually had not been invented in 1858).  

Mr Tarantino explodes

In one sense the above image is symbolic of where we are in Quentin Tarantino's career. His successes (and failures) have been roller coaster rides of sharp dialogue and death by violent acts, but he has perhaps careered from enfant terrible to a bloated Mr Creosote (from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life") who has grown up on a diet of cinema, and who has become morbidly obese on cinematic trivia.  The brilliant wafer thin mint of Corbucci's "Django" is the trigger that causes this catastrophic explosion. There really is nowhere else to go.

Within Tarantino's film Franco Nero plays a cameo part (Amerigo Vessepi - or Vassepi) who is an Italian slave owner. He encounters the unchained Django (Django Freeman) at the bar (the original Django wearing white gloves nb) and asks him to spell his name.

The 'D' is silent

Franco Nero's response to this information is, "I know."  It seems perhaps that this knowing is a feature of Tarantino's world.

The controversies surrounding this film may bring with them more spectators, but they may also distract the viewer from its strengths.  It is spectacular.  It is a film (and not a history lesson).  But it is also over-long, and the plot lacks convincing coherence when all is said and done.  It may be that the death of Tarantino's former editor, Sally Menke, in 2010, meant that some of the crisp focus and slickness of earlier films is missing, but it may also be that Tarantino's stature as Superstar has led to his being too "knowing" and that others are unable to offer criticism?

However, Tarantino himself may be aware that his time at the top will be limited.  As he himself said in a Playboy interview:

I just don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker. I want to stop at a certain point. Directors don’t get better as they get older. Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end. I am all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones…But if I stop at 10, that would be okay as an artistic statement.

I suppose he must have been thinking of Sergio Corbucci?  

100 Westerns - BFI Screen Guides - Edward Buscombe
ISBN 1-84457-112-2

Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the hip, by Wensley Clarkson
ISBN 0-7499-1555-2

18 July 2013

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Brighton - scrapbook of a perfect day!

You can see it in their eyes. There is nothing like it. An ice cream. The sunshine. The pier. The sea. It doesn't get much better than this.....  

I was brought here as a little lad, in flannel shorts (soon stripped down to underpants to avoid getting more oil on my school trousers!) by my grandfather.  The stone pier here and the scrambled pebbles will always remind me of that magic day.

But perhaps your man above is thinking of the another era, when Mods met with Rockers for bank holiday congress here on the esplanade. Perhaps, for my friend here, things are not the same, even though the merry-go-round still churns round despite the years?

Today the only Vespa you will see in Brighton is in the museum, and echoes of the Who's Quadrophenia belong to the long lost world of post war tribalism, when young people had little to gain and little to lose, although they certainly had ideas of identity.  

Naturally, I suppose, there are modern versions of this need to make statements about identity, from the young lady below:

To this slightly canned example of a young man enjoying himself, with three lions on his shirt:

To the bevies of young women that parade to celebrate the oncoming matrimonial bliss of one of their kind:

Or this aspect of the police force which not only portrays them as young but also as very friendly:

Yes, Brighton is colourful, from pink front doors and drainpipes:

To the clear blue of private shops:

To the startling jazz of vivid graffiti, brightoning up the brickwork:

On a sunny Saturday in summer, the trains down from London are packed to the gun-whales, the teeming plat-formers at London Bridge being the most desperate, several deep for twelve carriages long (even though they rarely seem to run more than eight and these are already full), but tempers are cool, as holiday mode prevails. Then, on arrival, there's a controlled exit from the station, all eager to get to the beach or the pier, though not frenzied enough to fight with the traffic.

Most head straight down to the beach to claim a square metre of pebble heaven, to absorb the UV and get to grips with the real matters of life, like this:

Or like this, perhaps:

Or to experience the refreshment of an unscheduled dip in the briny:

Or a plastic pint of warm beer:

While others make a bee line for the Pier, not the West Pier, of course, as that became derelict in the 1970s and then was destroyed by arson in early 2003:

A cruel fate for a splendid example of Victorian extravagance. This cost £27K in 1866 and was for over one hundred years a marvel of engineering and a joy to the promenaders. Even now it is the most photographed building in Brighton.

But the Palace Pier (1899), now Brighton Pier, is the only one of three such Victorian constructions to survive, (the Chain Pier was destroyed in a storm in December 1896), seen here in the distance:

Or seen here on the deck:

Or here upside down:

Or here on a smartphone:

Or here in the frame:

Or here on the wing:

But there is more, much more, to Brighton, than the seaside.

There's been a settlement at least since the Norman invasion, and it began to become fashionable in the days of the Prince Regent (who became George IV),

though the real boom started once the railway connected her with London (1841) and taking the sea air, or even exposing oneself to the salty waters, became popular. The population grew rapidly, peaking at 160,000 and being just short of that today.

Today the Royal Pavilion (built by John Nash as a palace for the Prince Regent in the early 19th century and modelled on oriental architecture) is one of the sights, though next door (and free) is the Brighton Museum, which also incorporates the Brighton Dome, and which is almost as exotic.

There is also, in the Quarter, the Fishing Museum, which offers a most intriguing window on a very different world.

Then the Lanes, or Laines, also draw the crowds.  These narrow and curious streets were laid out and built up in the late 18th century.  Today some are residential, but many have quirky and attractive shops, with bric-a-brac and curios heading the list.

Though there are also some fine pubs and eating places, some of which are modern and funky, while others keep a traditional air.

Some corners are quiet:

Some are colourful:

And some are being developed:

It can be tiring, with the sun beating down, and the crowds jostling along the prom, so one place to retire to is The Grand Hotel, built in 1864, and partly destroyed in the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, when Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped the IRA bombing.

Brighton is like a race track, like Derby Day. It attracts all sorts, from the possibly dodgy, who perhaps have their roots in Brighton Rock:

To the peaceful ancients:

To the heavy tourists:

To the curious individuals:

To the shy:

To the careless:

To the absolutely carefree:

Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside
I do like to be beside the sea!
I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!

Where the brass bands play:
So just let me be beside the seaside
I'll be beside myself with glee

And there's lots of girls beside,
I should like to be beside
Beside the seaside!
Beside the sea

And then the sun begins to slip, and the heat eases off, and the gulls swoop lower and lower, emboldened by hunger and by human laziness.

And later the air is darkened by the electricity of the sideshows, the brightness of the lights.  All the fun of the fair is there, and night becomes it, glittering after the gauze of the day.  The carousel turns, and turns.....