Monday, March 18, 2013

Mandingo vs. Django Unchained: Food vs. Regurgitation

I have always been interested in seeing Mandingo, but only just got around to it tonight. Directed by Richard Fleischer in 1975, it turns out to be a vastly entertaining and idea-rich film, chronicling all manner of  perversity and corruption among the white slave owners on a Southern plantation, portions of which are paid homage by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained (especially the "Mandingo fighting," which is lifted pretty much wholesale from the earlier film, and apparently has no known historical precedent). Having finally seen it, I can appreciate the irony that Roger Ebert, reviewing Mandingo in the year of its release, called it "racist trash" and gave it zero stars, while he describes Django Unchained as "a brilliant entertainment" and gives it four stars in his journal (his official review appears to have gone AWOL). 
I don't mean to be too hard on ol' Rog. After all, he also gave zero stars to such remarkable films as The Devils and Death Race 2000, appearing at various points to see himself as a guardian of public morality - a strangely prudish role for a man who wrote Russ Meyer movies! So giving zero stars and waxing indignant about Mandingo isn't too different from what we might expect from the younger Ebert; perhaps his differing reactions to Django Unchained reveal primarily that he has matured as a critic, become far more open-minded as he's aged, which is, after all, a good thing, which should not be held against him.
Still, the question is raised: would Django Unchained even exist without films like Mandingo? Is Mandingo any more (or less?) perverse or violent or exploitive or provocative than the Tarantino film? It does have more sex in it, I'll grant, but it serves a serious purpose: the white male slave-owner's attitude towards taking female slaves as "bed wenches" (then selling off their babies, charmingly referred to as "suckers," to be slaves themselves) is contrasted with what happens when a white woman beds a "buck," thus pointing out double standards and white male privilege in the world of the Southern plantation, as well as rampant irrationalities and contradictions in the racist dread of miscegenation. Still, there is nothing of exploitation in its depiction of sex; it's not in the slightest pornographic ....though I wouldn't have minded had it been; I mean, I admire the hell out of the late Marilyn Chambers for her big Behind The Green Door white-on-black fellatio scene, which doubtlessly had political impact when that film was made, three years earlier, in 1972; imagine had a similar scene occurred between Susan George and Ken Norton! There is a moment where Behind the Green Door practically LEAPT into my mind, perhaps deliberately cued by Fleischer - I can't be the only viewer who went there. I would have LOVED the movie had they showed Susan George taking Norton's (we would hope) meaty manhood into her mouth... though of course it would not have been possible to do such a thing in a mainstream film.

Anyhow, I greatly enjoyed Mandingo, and recommend it heartily - especially to people who thought Django Unchained was such hot stuff. I mean - Tarantino's newest is not a terrible film, I suppose, but I'm growing more and more irritated by a viewing public so ignorant of cinema's history, so attached to the "new," so unwilling to DELVE that it fawns over every single remake, reboot, and "English language adaptation" that gets made while existing in complete ignorance of the originals. I wonder, for instance, what percentage of movie watchers think Straw Dogs is a film made in 2011, starring James Marsden - or who have only seen that version? Certainly if you go by your average store that sells DVDs - a few still exist - most of them will now only have the 2011 version on the shelves; it's less like the film has been "remade" than that it has been "replaced," at least as far as the marketplace is concerned. Tarantino has been, perhaps, a bit less offensive than most in his various recyclings, thefts, and "homages", but Django Unchained has become his most irritating movie, for me, since it borrows so shamelessly from other films, does so little that is original or inspired (other than maybe the inclusion of a Jim Croce song on the soundtrack), is in fact so much LESSER than films like Mandingo - which was, in 1975, TRULY a bold and original movie, by comparison - that it really doesn't deserve all the attention its gotten. It stands in relation to films like Mandingo very close to the relation between the Gus van Sant version of Psycho to its source text - it is more regurgitation than it is home-cookin', as fed to people who apparently cannot tell the difference; yet its still on the screen three months after its release, was nominated for various academy awards (and won one!), and is Tarantino's highest-grossing film to date... Gimme a fuckin' break, folks! (And take a look at Mandingo!)
Addendum: it does my heart good to see that Jonathan Rosenbaum describes Mandingo as "one of the most neglected and underrated Hollywood films of its era," and says in his capsule review of it that it "was widely ridiculed as camp in this country when it came out. But apart from this film and Charles Burnett's recent Nightjohn, it's doubtful whether many more insightful and penetrating movies about American slavery exist." I wonder what Mr. Rosenbaum made of Django Unchained? I think I have some reading ahead of me.
Addendum 2: apparently Robin Wood, in Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema - excerpted here, if the link works - describes Mandingo as "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood." It's so nice to know that critics I admire - Rosenbaum and Wood are two of the finest to ever write about film, in my opinion- share my esteem for Mandingo

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