Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Django Unchained Might Leave You Unhinged


Quentin Tarantino has got to be at least a little bit insane.  What else can explain the writer/director/actor’s obsession with splattering the cerebral cortexes of his movies’ characters all over the scenery?Django_Unchained_poster

I went today to see Tarantino’s latest box office magnet, Django Unchained, starring Jamie Fox.  I was prepared for a strange experience, similar to my viewing of one of my all-time favorites, Pulp Fiction.  Kill Bill, both I and II, certainly didn’t even remotely resemble a romantic comedy.

What I was not prepared for was the wide range of emotions I would run through during a violent movie that had me laughing at some of the oddest times.

Django is a slave who was separated from his wife in a slave trade. The plot has Django freed from his chains by a German-born bounty hunter who needs help that only Django can provide to capture or kill three wanted brothers who had once owned the feisty and intelligent slave.  The two become partners, mostly because Django’s skill with a firearm proves a valuable asset to the glib Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz.) In exchange, Schultz agrees to help Django go back to the plantation where Broomhilda was sent to free her.

If you are a movie buff, imagine A Fistful of Dollars (Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western) combined with Natural Born Killers – then throw in some very unexpected and royally out of place jokes. 

This movie is not for the feint of heart.  If the sound of the N-word makes your heart stop, you probably shouldn’t see this one.  And, of course, if blood and guts make you too queasy to finish your popcorn, either skip the snacks or skip the movie. I consider myself a pretty stoic viewer of cinéma vérité but when the camera watched a pack of vicious dogs turned loose against a slave who insisted he could no-longer fight in what the slimy slave owner Calvin Candie (nailed by Leonardo DiCaprio) called his fight-to-the-death Mandingo Games, I spent the next three minutes with my head buried in my hands.

Tiny little Kerry Washington (TV’s hit series, Scandal) said in an interview I watched last week that she allowed herself to actually be whipped in the scenes that Broomhilda is brutally “punished” in one scene.  It shows.  I don’t know any actress or actor alive who could manufacture that blood-curdling, primal scream as that whip flicked and licked her bare back.

What turned my stomach more than even all this, however, was Samuel L. Jackson’s award-worthy turn as an Uncle Tom Big House trusty, a slave in his 80s who was the second in command over all the other slaves on Samuel L. Jackson in Djangothe “Candieland” plantation.  “Steven” had been in service to Mr. Candie for so long, he had become familiar enough to actually argue with the Master with a unheard of amount of cheek.  His unapologetic cruelty to the other slaves made the taste of bile bubble to my mouth.

No movie I have ever seen – not even Roots – has ever come closer to depicting the reality of American slavery.  The indignities visited upon black slaves, when shown in such raw detail, had me cheering on what turned out to be a single-handed massacre by a man who had a taste of freedom, had the intelligence to embrace it and was simply not willing to take it anymore.

On the trip home, where I do so much of my thinking about the film I’d just seen, I thought this:  It’s really not hard to understand the congenital rage that young black males seem to carry from generation to generation.  The lucky ones who are born into families who have managed to fight their way toward a more middle class existence in a still-racist society generally do not manifest that rage as overtly as the street-thugs who are robbing, raping, killing on a daily basis.  But, when one of those lucky ones is passed over, wrongly accused, and kept in his place by oblique institutional carryovers from the times of slavery, you can believe the rage comes bubbling up.

If you can handle it, I highly recommend Django Unchained.

“It’s Just a Dog”



Romeo (right) with main squeeze Coqui in 2006

I’m sure we have all heard someone make this assertion, usually when we ourselves are frantic over the health and well-being of our treasured pets.  Many times, the person making such pronouncements does not own pets, or if they do, they are the “only in the backyard and NEVER in my house” sorts.

For the past six months, I have watched my next-door neighbor disprove that just-a-dog attitude.  For the past three months, I have been actively involved in the care of a failing dog who over time became deaf, half-blind, and incontinent due to renal failure.  He had a cough that racked his well-muscled, hairless little body. The veterinarian could only guess at the cause without conducting hundreds of dollars of tests. 

My friend and I began talking about euthanasia about a month ago.  She made me promise to tell her the truth when I thought the time had come to put the poor animal out of his misery.  The truth?  Does anyone really know for sure?  But I promised I would give my honest opinion each time she asked.

Although the dog’s intense anxiety kept him up at night barking at the closet door or running up and down the stairs whimpering; and although my friend is severely sleep deprived because of Romeo’s night terrors, every time she tried a new drug – Xanax, Prozac, anti-biotics --  he would improve for a day, maybe two, and she would lose her resolve.  She convinced herself that the quality of Romeo’s life was still good because he would calm down during long walks and he still had his voracious appetite for doggie treats. 

My friend was conflicted by the idea that she might be making the decision to put Romeo down, not for him, but for her own sake.  Her productivity at work was slipping badly.  She ate very little.  And she was getting little to no sleep. Just like a parent of a human child, she could not bring herself to accept the fact that things were getting worse by the day, and she refused to hear me when I told her the dog had to be in pain.

Tuesday night, Romeo was a basket case.  When morning finally arrived, my friend called the vet, made an appointment and decided, alone, that it was time.  However, when she came home early from work to get the dog for the appointment, he had once again rallied.  He wasn’t coughing,  He wasn’t pacing.  He seemed happy.  He had, however, left puddles all over the house.

I knew when she called that she had fallen into another pocket of false hope.  I knew she didn’t want to hear what I had to say, and I was determined not to be the one who made the decision for her.  It had to be hers and hers alone.

That’s a rough role to play.  I did insist she keep the appointment, and she did. 

The next phone call was gut-wrenching.  She was crying and terribly conflicted.  She wanted the vet to tell her what he would do.  Of course, he wouldn’t.  What he did say was that it was reasonable to euthanize the dog at this time; that he would refuse to do it if he thought it was too early.  On the other hand, he could do $300 worth of new tests to determine if the dog’s heart was the cause of the cough.  If so, heart medication could extend the dog’s life for around 8 months.  If not, the cough was from the lungs.  That could mean lung cancer, since the anti-biotics for an assumed respiratory infection hadn’t worked.

“Lezlie, what should I do?”

Still, she wanted someone else to make a decision.

Instead, I walked her through the pros and cons, the ifs the ands and the buts.  Then I asked if the possibility of extending the dog’s life for up to 8 months was something she was prepared to handle, because none of these tests and medications was going to do anything about Romeo’s severe anxiety.  And then I asked this question:

“What would you be telling me if the dog in question was Coqui (my dog)?”

She said, “Ok.  I think I know what I’m going to do.”

In order to try to make peace with her decision, she went ahead and let the vet conduct the tests.  These tests required sedation, and the vet had to use so much of the sedative to calm Romeo down, he feared he would die from an overdose. 

It turned out the cough was not heart-related, but there was a lot of fluid in the dog’s lungs.  The vet also determined there was pretty severe arthritis in the hind-quarters, which were indisputably painful.

When she finally came home last night, she came home alone.  She is inconsolable and unable to go to work for the rest of the week.  When I called and asked how she was doing this morning, she remarked at how surreal it was to come downstairs to an empty house for the first time in almost 14 years. She can’t stop crying.

The next time you are tempted to say “it’s just a dog” to anyone, please remember this story.