Quentin Tarantino sauntered onto celluloid in the mid-1990s as a Natural Born Thriller, the boy-man who was going to stab adrenaline straight into the heart of American cinema. The movies he wrote and directed were highly stylized ballet dances of torture, hemorrhaging internal organs, and rat-a-tat-tat pop culture monologues about Madonna's vagina, the Brady Bunch, and what they call a Big Mac in France. (It's Le Big Mac.) He showed extreme cruelty in extreme close-up and -- somehow -- made the audience laugh with him through the screams. But there were always dark questions underneath the guffaws and applause -- and his new film, Inglorious Basterds, sucks them to the surface.
The story of Tarantino's rise is a film geek's fantasy-screenplay. Born to a single mother in Los Angeles, he dropped out of school at sixteen, got a job at a video store, and marinated himself in the history of film. He absorbed everything from Lucio Fulci's Italian horror-fests to Preston Sturges' one-liners to John Woo's Hong Kong shoot-outs. And as he took them in, they churned inside his brain -- and spilled out, reassembled and regenerated, into a string of his own screenplays.
The first to be made was Reservoir Dogs in 1994. Like all his films, it took an old stock genre premise -- an armed robbery goes wrong, and in the aftermath the gang tries to figure out which of them is an undercover cop -- and made it twitch back to life. He scrambled the chronology, poured hot sauce onto the dialogue, and made the bleeding after a shooting slow and real. Trapped together in a bare warehouse, the characters slowly destroy themselves. In the most famous scene, Mr. Blonde -- played by Michael Madsen -- captures a cop and tortures him to get him to give up the identity of the fink. As he dances to the old cheese-hit "Stuck In The Middle With You," he hacks off the cop's ear, and douses him with petrol, threatening to burn him alive. It's entrancing and repulsive all at once -- and one of the most disturbing scenes in cinema.
At the time, many critics recoiled, saying this was sadism served up as style. The film was even banned on video in Britain for several years. But I was inclined to defend the film: I thought this violence was more real and repulsive than the glib gore-free massacres of an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. When these characters bleed, they really scream. When they feel pain, you really flinch. Here was a director showing violence as it really is.
But since then, Tarantino has enthusiastically proved his critics right, and his defenders wrong. The moral vision of Reservoir Dogs turns out to have been something well-meaning viewers projected onto it: Tarantino really does think violence is "like, cool." He has been systematically squandering his cinematic talent ever since -- in ways that reflect disturbingly on us, the viewers.
He has turned suffering into a merry joke. From Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill, he encourages the audience to chortle at torture and mutilation and anal rape. A typical punchline is -- whoops! -- a man being shot in the face. Where there should be a gag reflex, he gives us a gag. In Inglorious Basterds, a group of Jews undercover in Germany torture and scalp Nazis, and he gets the viewer to roar with laughter as people are carved up, alive and howling.
"Violence in the movies can be cool," he says. "It's just another color to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn't mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn't mean anything. It's a color." He scorns anyone who tries to see simulated violence as having meaning. With a laugh, he says: "John Woo's violence has a very insightful view as to how the Hong Kong mind works because with 1997 approaching and blah blah blah. I don't think that's why he's doing it. He's doing it because he gets a kick out of it." Praising Stanley Kubrik's direction of A Clockwork Orange, he says, "He enjoyed the violence a little too much. I'm all for that."
In the slightly pretentious language of postmodernism, he is trying to separate the sign (movie violence) from the signified (real violence) -- leaving us floating in a sea of meaningless signs that refer to nothing but themselves and the sealed-off history of cinema.
What's wrong with this vision? Why does it make me so queasy? I don't believe works of art should be ennobling. I don't believe the heroes should be virtuous, or that bad characters should get their comeuppance. It can show deeply violent and deeply cruel people, and tell us that -- as in real life -- they can be charismatic and successful and never pay a price for their cruelty. But what it should never do is tell us that human suffering itself is trivial. It should never turn pain into a punch-line.
Violence has particular power on film precisely because it involuntarily activates our powers of empathy. We imagine ourselves, as an unthinking reflex, into the agony. This is the most civilizing instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers. (It competes, of course, with all our more base instincts.) Any work of art that denies this sense -- that is based on subverting it -- will ultimately be sullying. No, I'm not saying it makes people violent. But it does leave the viewer just a millimetre more morally corroded. Laughing at simulated torture -- and even cheering it on, as we are encouraged to through all of Tarantino's later films -- leaves a moral muscle just a tiny bit more atrophied.
You can see this in the responses of Tarantino himself. Not long after 9/11, he said: "It didn't affect me because there's, like, a Hong Kong action movie... called Purple Storm and they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a skyscraper." It's a case-study in atrophy of moral senses: to brag you weren't moved by the murder of two and half thousand actual people, because you'd already seen it simulated in a movie. Only somebody who has never seen violence -- who sees the world as made of celluloid -- can respond like this.
Tarantino's films aren't even sadistic. Sadists take human suffering seriously; that's why they enjoy it. No: Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing cheek-to-cheek. He sees violence as nothing. Compare his oeuvre to the work of a genuine cinematic sadist -- Alfred Hitchcock -- and you see the difference. Precisely because Hitchcock enjoyed inflicting pain, the pain is always authentic, and it is never emptied of its own inner horror.
And yet, and yet... I have to admit that part of me loves Tarantino's films. The scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance the twist in a 1950s-style diner, and later when he has to stab adrenaline into her heart after she ODs, are burned onto my brain, even though I have refused to watch the film for more than a decade. There are scenes in Inglorious Basterds of perfect tension. This man knows how to make a scene work more than almost any director working today. But I can't forget -- it sees the Holocaust as just another spaghetti Western, and one where the suggested solution is more torture, coming from the victims this time.
Can you love a film even while you are repulsed by its moral vision, or lack of it? This is a question that goes right back to the birth of cinema (and beyond). The three greatest silent films are all explicit hymns of praise for totalitarianism. The Birth of a Nation champions the Ku Klux Klan, Battleship Potemkin hymns for Bolshevism, and The Triumph of the Will is a paean to the Nazis. They are ravishing and repellent all at once -- and I defy anyone to watch them and not get swept up in their power, even as your frontal lobes yell: "Stop! Danger!"
But aesthetics and the rest of life are not entirely separable spheres -- and anybody who claims they are is simply posing. We don't leave our moral senses at the door when we go to the movies, or pick up a novel, or go to a gallery. We feel such tension in Tarantino's movies because the good and sane part of us doesn't want the violence to come -- while the debased part of us is cheering it on. That's a moral conflict underpinning the aesthetics; by denying it is there, Tarantino is willfully misunderstanding the effect of his films on their audiences.
The artists who have claimed their work was purely aesthetic were either frivolous, psychopathic, or lying. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov -- who I love -- claimed in the introduction to Bend Sinister that, "Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of 'thaw' in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent." He was writing in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he and everybody he knew came within a few hours of dying in a nuclear war. How could he be "supremely indifferent" to that prospect? How can you revere aesthetics and not mind if every aesthetic object you love is incinerated? The answer is, of course, he wasn't indifferent. If you read his letters, you find he worried about these issues at great length. Similarly, I suspect Tarantino has deeper instincts beneath his life-is-a-grindhouse-flick pose. He knows what he is saying isn't -- can't -- be true.
The tragedy of Tarantino is that he could have been so much more than the Schlock and Awe merchant that he has devolved into. If he had stopped mistaking his DVD collection for a life, he -- to borrow a phrase from a real film, etched with real pain -- could've been a contender. When I remember the raw force of Reservoir Dogs, I still hope that he will. It's not too late. He could do it. How about it, Quentin? Step out into the big world beyond celluloid, and use your incredible talent to tell stories about it. As Mr. Blonde says, "Are you going to bark all day, little doggie -- or are you going to bite?"
Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here . You can email him at johann -at- johannhari.com
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