Have you always believed that Quentin Tarantino makes dreadful movies? Have you always wondered how a director could be so celebrated for work that luridly depicts the abuse and degradation of women and black people, and that offers little more than exploitative ’70s pastiche?
Maybe your belief that Tarantino sucked spoke in a small, niggling voice, something you pushed down because you felt embarrassed that you couldn’t appreciate the auteur’s work. Or maybe it was louder. Maybe you even got into arguments with your film school classmates or your boyfriend about it.
Either way, this past week has likely brought a sense of grim vindication.
First, in an interview with The New York Times’s Maureen Dowd, Uma Thurman revealed details about Tarantino’s direction of “Kill Bill,” including his role in pressuring her to perform a car stunt that went awry and left her severely injured, as well as scenes in which he personally choked and spat on her in place of her acting partners.
With the spotlight now on Tarantino, news outlets are digging up other disturbing moments from his career. Thurman wasn’t the only actor he’d choked during filming ― he’d also choked Diane Kruger for a scene in “Inglourious Basterds.” Perhaps most damning, audio surfaced from a Howard Stern interview in 2003 in which Tarantino not only defended director Roman Polanski against his notorious rape charge, but insisted that his 13-year-old victim “wanted to have it.”
Though Tarantino defended his on-set behavior in a lengthy interview with Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr., and both Thurman and Kruger went on to praise his direction on Instagram, the public reckoning with his oeuvre had already begun; plenty of naysayers jumped on the opportunity to admit that they’d always hated his movies.
Like Louis C.K. and Woody Allen before him, Tarantino had become, almost instantly, the new cool entertainment dude to have always hated.
But is this … bad? Should we resist the urge to distance ourselves from the fandom surrounding a detestable creator, to declare to the masses, “I always hated that creep”?
This week, that declaration was met with the usual pushback, as critics accused Tarantino cynics of turning a serious conversation about misogyny and assault into a conversation about superior film taste:
The initial urge does seem self-serving, a way to retroactively claim credit for knowing better than everyone else. The #MeToo moment should not be viewed primarily as a plum opportunity to hipsterize disliking Louis C.K., to smugly claim, “I hated him before it was cool.”
Nor should we reflexively vilify people who loved the work of people like Louis C.K. and Tarantino. We all have problematic faves; the hardest and most vital part of changing a toxic culture is holding those faves to the same standards as artists we dislike.
But you know what? Go ahead and take this moment to tell the world you always hated a creepy dude’s art. Feel extremely free to unload on all the troubling hints in his work that he thinks of women as objects. Why shouldn’t you? We should have that conversation, too.
The #MeToo movement emerged as an urgent reckoning around sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, but it’s churned up discussions of issues beyond that ― not only sexual abuse outside the workplace, but also a broader culture of misogyny. Those discussions have revolved around the art of abusive and chauvinistic men, and how their visions have defined our culture, often in ways that harmed women. They’ve also included talk of how white critics have long taken up the air in the room; how they’ve been empowered to curate an artistic canon by and about them, while people of color, women and other marginalized groups have not.
We’re now grappling with how admiration of these problematic men became de rigueur, and how frustrating this enforced consensus was for the many people who felt exploited or forgotten by the canon.
This is not to say that only white dudes (or all white dudes) are fans of unsavory artists like Tarantino or Louis C.K. Plenty of men have been happy to note that they never liked Tarantino anyway, and plenty of women loved “Louie” and “Manhattan” and “Pulp Fiction” and have been struggling, in the aftermath of unsavory allegations, to resolve their admiration of the art with the personal crimes of the artists. (Personally, I never had the stomach for Tarantino films ― blood makes me queasy ― but I grew up on Allen’s daffy early films and liked a decent amount of Louis C.K.’s comedy.)
Still, it’s impossible to disregard the fact that an almost entirely white and male set of tastemakers (not to mention creators and investors) elevated certain male artists to the level of demigods, so above criticism that one’s dislike signaled one’s own inferior taste rather than the artists’ failings. Most critics with major platforms have long been white men; the lack of diversity in the ranks has not only stunted the breadth of conversation, but fostered the false sense that white men’s concerns are the most pressing, their opinions the most objective, and their viewpoints the most conducive to great art. Even when women or people of color dissented, their voices did little or nothing to alter the perceived consensus.
Take Allen: Pauline Kael and Joan Didion, both prominent female critics, savaged his opus “Manhattan,” which revolves around a 42-year-old man who is romancing a 17-year-old student, for, respectively, “pass[ing] off a predilection for teen-agers as a quest for true values” and telegraphing that “adolescence can now extend to middle age.”
Then-Columbia professor John Romano quickly rebutted Didion in a letter to the editor, describing her review as a result of “pique”; the letter twice describes Didion as “complaining.” Meanwhile, critic Roger Ebert had a startling take on the artistry surrounding Allen’s character’s sexual predation, writing, “It wouldn’t do, you see, for the love scenes between Woody and Mariel [Hemingway] to feel awkward or to hint at cradle-snatching or an unhealthy interest on Woody’s part in innocent young girls. But they don’t feel that way.”
As the years passed, “Manhattan,” beloved by male critics who were unbothered by or eager to explain away the movie’s troubling sexual undertones, became cemented in film canon. If Kael and Didion couldn’t get us to openly acknowledge the flaws in Allen’s work, who could? At least now it seems right to go back and examine the catastrophic failures of some critics to tease out these threads. Many critics, including the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, are now openly reckoning with the insufficiency of their past criticism of Allen’s work, and they’re right to do so.
It’s also fair to point out that some people wanted to have this conversation before the #MeToo moment, but that a patriarchal hegemony of taste served as a bulwark against it. The cultural change didn’t just begin in October. For example, when Tarantino released “The Hateful Eight” in 2016, critics explicitly called out his dicey use of extreme violence toward women in the film, questioning whether it was artistically essential or even justifiable.
#MeToo was possible in part because women in Hollywood, and elsewhere, have spent years advocating for more respect and representation.
But despite these rising questions, the classic films ― “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” ― seemed untouchable, and disliking them remained taboo. If you’ve ever told a date, a classmate, a mentor or a friend that you can’t watch Tarantino because you find his work to be exploitative of women, only to be informed that you simply don’t understand his art, the indisputable revelation this month that he’s a bona fide creep is, in a small but real way, liberating. It’s something solid to cling to, at last, evidence that you’re not overreacting or too obtuse to appreciate the aesthetic perfection of his tobacco-spit trajectories. Distaste for his work, often cast as a mental flaw or tragic unhipness, has become, in an instant, a mark of discernment.
In a tit-for-tat sense, it does seem just that artists like Louis C.K. and Tarantino ― whose reputations were long bolstered by the plaudits of critics and the reflexive hipster posturing of fans ― have now slid to the wrong end of the “my taste is better than yours” hierarchy. That’s not the point of this moment, nor should the goal of this reassessment be to simply unseat one set of white male icons, to turn the same smugly superior judgment on their fans that their detractors have experienced. It’s only human, though, to feel vindicated.
And yet, vindication isn’t the only feeling at play. There’s something about this sudden shift that’s wildly infuriating as well. Oh, NOW you’re listening? I thought recently when a writer I’d criticized as sexist ― only to have my critique neatly brushed aside by male colleagues and friends ― faced career consequences after being accused of personal misbehavior toward women. Why couldn’t you take me seriously when I broke down all the none-too-subtle misogyny in his writing?
Saying “I always hated his work” might be a cheap hipster pose, but it also might be bitterness born of long-suppressed, impotent anger. If you’ve grown used to being shamed or condescended to for caring about an ugly thread that everyone else seemed to be overlooking, the sudden shift is gratifying, but also exhausting. All the years of churn and self-doubt suddenly feel like a cruel, unnecessary burden forced on you by the people who insisted you were wrong.
So go ahead; vent your spleen. Give yourself the tiny shred of comfort that comes from claiming your long-simmering, now-validated disdain. Take the opportunity to try, once again, to have a real debate about the artistic merit of works like “Kill Bill” and “Manhattan.” It’s a first step to envisioning a world that isn’t just rid of monsters, but that actually offers everyone an equal place in constructing our culture.
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