Ken Russell's wife, Lisi Russell on "Django Unchained"
(Ken Russell's wife Lisi, who grew up in the South, has been kind enough to give us her extended take on "Django Unchained" as a film historian and a white Southerner. Having worked with her husband on dozens of film and literary projects she is also the keeper of his legacy. Here she also gives us an insight to how Ken Russell would have seen the film -including his influences found within -wrapped up in her superb writing style.)
"Django Unchained. Seriously loved it. Was surprised. The essence and details of Southern history were captured so well. When blood sprinkles the cotton in the fields, only an atavistic response is possible if you have history in the South. By "atavistic" I mean a trigger for primal coding which erupts in the presence of something so welded to blood responses going back 5 generations and more for Southerners. I become the slave, the cotton, the sharecropper, the plantation idiot that was traded and was trading in souls and bodies for the sake of that piece of fluff.
My father's father picked cotton, though it was so shameful to him that he denied it as an adult, as there was no position so low in South Carolina as a picker of cotton and none so lucrative for someone else other than the picker. Back-breaking work. My father became a civil rights journalist - no surprise there. He used to say often when I was 5, "If I were a black man, I'd be blood-curdlingly angry." My father was anyway, just as a witness. The Klu Klux Klan burned a cross in our yard when I was 9. Cotton, tobacco and paper are what made the South the harborer of insane exploits, stubborn self-righteousness, self-hypnosis and repeated denials dating to the Civil War. It's genetic, the response of a Southerner to the sight of King Cotton - it hurts out loud. No matter what side you were on in the 1800's - and who knows what our past lives were then-something still throbs in the blood when confronted with a cotton field. The millions of lies that formed the foundation to prop up a society which to this day can still be overheard saying in some parts, "But they liked being slaves." All that blood and nonsense for the sake of a bud and I don't mean Rosebud. Even the sight of a field of cotton is an insult to a black or sensitive Southerner. Damn, that shot of the cotton plants with the blood spilled on them...made me crazy with the power of the image.
Yes, the Verdi and Tosca were very Ken Russell. As were the head-bagged KKK-ers. The big tooth on springs bouncing on the wagon-top was very Ken too, as (this shocked me) especially was the story of Siegfried and the dragon and Brunehilda - how many times did Ken tell the story of showing that rented silent film at 14 (during the 1930s) in his parents' garage (to his own invented soundtrack of Arthur Bliss). Oh, I love that music in Django. I didn't know Will Smith was first tagged for the role. I am so happy Jamie Foxx did it. He was so triumphant. He could play every nuance.
The hick whose English is totally indecipherable is a still-current archetype. Those men with their killer dog-posse are my personal boogeymen. The stupidity of evil. The music choices are heart-stoppingly sublime. The Southern belle is criminally accurate. The variety of responses to slavery is the kind of intimate glimpse into character Tarantino gave us in Inglorious Basterds. Imaginative, detailed, grown-up and riveting. The splurting-blood card is for me overplayed, and seems adolescent more than realistic, but the violence was apt for the subject matter and Jamie Foxx was truly magnificent and his character subtly layered. Loved the underlying, recurrent homage to Sergio Leone with the costumes, the poise on horseback and the absolutely perfect, inimitable music by Ennio Morricone. (Although the blue "valet" costume was more a Ken Russell movie.) A masterpiece, in all.
I agree there were homages to Blazing Saddles too. Anyone who has heard Ray Hicks tell his folk stories will recognise that indecipherable "Elizabethan English" language dating to slave-trading Tennessee and South Carolina on the way to Tarantino's "Candyland." (Brilliant name for a plantation; and DiCaprio was superb.) The hand cut was so brilliant. And the rubbing his bloody hand on her face was so aptly horrific. It was also Tarantino's best acting yet. Easily Tarantino's most impressive movie. Incredibly deep and rich. He should be honoured for this. It's true filmmaking. I respected the Colour Purple, but the clean, spacious and airy perfection of Spielberg's sharecropper houses irritated me.
How great was it to see Dennis Christopher from Breaking Away again. Tarantino is great at rescuing actors. Bless him! Samuel L. Jackson had the hardest role. When that sound erupted from him regarding DiCaprio (trying not to spoiler alert), that was a one-note master class in Stockholm Syndrome. You could feel their vampiric co-attachment being sliced and diced all the way to your bones. A better vocal performance than Laurence Olivier howling as Oedipus!
I didn't even notice Django was a comedy. That's how warped I am by my overly conflicted love/hate for the South - the heavy-duty programming and grooming (hate) and the literature and movements that sprang up in response (love). An image of rice would evoke nostalgia, (all Southerners eat rice and worship their ancestors, like the Chinese), but it's cotton that makes me react viscerally. Cotton makes me crazy! Why? I don't know. It's a behavioural pattern based on the memories of my ancestors and conversations with descendants of slaves. I have always wondered why Britain seems unaffected by their own slaving history - I've never even heard it mentioned. Is it that Southerners are romantic, land-bound and volatile by nature? They lost the war and are still ashamed? Unwilling to have been wrong? Or am I alone in caring in an emotionally unconscious way that says more about my childhood than about fact? The memories are inherited, if such a thing is possible. . . the behaviour in present time is a hair-trigger response to an image of slavery. Too many family stories, too many logbooks and bibles, too many dreams registering the whole bloody mess.
It was the land which made a Southerner mad with possession - that verdant, fertile landscape with its heavy-blossomed and perfumed flowers. Hence the term "land-poor" so popular in the South. That means all the money is tied up in owning land and there is no cash. But the way you relate to the land is on your knees with your hands in the soil - for North Carolina, the red clay, for South Carolina, the black loam. They call Carolinians Tar Heels - because our feet drag through rivers and get natural tar on our heels, not because of the melting asphalt in the summer which also creates tar heels on bare feet. It's all about the land - and soil - and the perfumed drug of fertility - and the hound dogs - and the way the silver is laid out - just like Tarantino showed in Django. It's still like that in many ways. Even I had a "mammy" - with my dad the hero of integration. I broke a habit of expecting 15 pieces of dinnerware at table - I have those same salt cellars as Candyland did! Nothing changes in the South. The land always wins. And the people remember, without logic, whom and what they sold to hang on to the land."