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The Auteur of Fuck Racism

Essay
Astral and Spendo

The Auteur of Fuck Racism

Quentin Tarantino’s career can easily be broken into two halves, with a line drawn between Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Deathproof. Artists create to express or communicate something eating away at them, but sometimes once they’ve expressed it they’ve got nothing left, and all the work after their magnum opus comes across deflated, lackluster, and directionless. Scorsese still produced masterpieces like The Departed and Wolf of Wall Street during his late period, but Melville never even brushed up against Moby Dick, and while David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy tried to match the profundity of Infinite Jest and Blood Meridian in their later career, they merely produced pale imitations without offsetting them with great works. Quentin Tarantino’s late period amounts to some confused amalgamation of all of the above. Tarantino, however, adds one factor that these other artists avoid: ideology. Tarantino’s late work is defined by ideology, and his considerable talent as a director is overtly put to use in service of a particular ideological message.

Tarantinos’ magnum opus was the Kill Bill duology, essentially one movie that the studio made him break into two. Comparing it with his later works, it’s easy to see that all lack the comprehensiveness, coherence, novelty, and artistry of Kill Bill. From Deathproof through Inglorious Basterds to Django Unchained, the “message” of these films supersedes the content. Hateful 8 may have been fun, but it was ultimately a throw-away reimagining of The Thing. Only Once Upon A Time in America regained some of the directorial greatness he was known for, and while it is certainly tarnished by some of the weaknesses on display in the prior films, he ultimately redeems his career with a capstone film that puts his maturity and vision on full display.

One of Tarantino’s strongest talents is crafting a perfect scene, a stand-alone diorama in which every element is exactly right: costume, dialogue, set, tension, mood, lighting, etc. Without a strong enough story and a charismatic central character to drive the narrative, a collection of well-crafted scenes make for an episodic movie whose final conflict-resolving climax either falls short, or must resort to spectacle in an attempt to provide the needed catharsis to resolve the story. This perhaps best characterizes the failure of his later career, in which Tarantino creates a series of trademark scenes that fail, ultimately, to hold together in a satisfying narrative. Rather, in service to his ideological message, his considerable talent leaves us with episodic snapshots grafted on to parodically bad acting and a glamorized violent climax that amounts to a cheap imitation of Tarantino’s trademark final showdown.

The best stand-alone scenes of Tarantino’s career, perhaps in all of 21st century Hollywood, occur in Inglorious Basterds. The infamous “enemies of the state beneath the floorboards” and “fighting in a basement” scenes are arguably the pinnacle of Tarantino’s talent, and of course owe quite a lot to the masterful, show-stealing acting of Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender. Sadly, these scenes are juxtaposed with the ridiculous performance of Brad Pitt (his worst?) and the comically-bad cartoon violence against the evil Nazis. By the time we watch what appears to be the intentionally funny death of Hitler, the film has already fallen apart, and the climax serves as little more than some pandering genuflection at the altar of Hollywood’s eternal resentment towards the evil German. The violence itself was served to audiences like microwaved left-overs of the gourmet violent climaxes of his earlier films, the two best of which – Natural Born Killers and True Romance – it should be noted, were handled by other directors. The focus of the violence however, against Hitler himself, rather seemed to be for an entirely different audience than the one watching the film. It’s almost as if Tarantino was delivering this revisionist history schlock to Hollywood itself.

By 2009, the American public had got beyond the glut of Holocaust-porn from the 90s, and Inglorious Basterds felt like a belated, almost farcical throwback to the age of the blockbuster action of Saving Private Ryan, the fantastical sentimentality of Life is Beautiful, and the harrowing emotionality of Schindler’s List, all of which captivated the entire nation. Suddenly, we have the guy famous for over-the-top violence, retro-noir, and witty dialogue trying to contort his whimsical craft into some holocaust memorial, taking revenge on Hollywood’s most hated figure for crimes that have no direct connection to him personally. The cognitive dissonance is so palpable as the film reaches its forced conclusion, one may have wondered, what happened to Tarantino?

The answer becomes clear when considering Deathproof and Django Unchained in light of the book Tarantino supposedly wrote and published last fall, Cinema Speculation. “Supposedly” because so much of the book reads like pure negrolatry and worship of the longhouse one wonders if Tarantino related some personal stories to a team of HR harridans who wrote out some woke fantasy version of his life, then ran it through the processing mill of a team of Hollywood lawyers before it went to print. Originally, the book was only going to be the first and last chapter, and in those two alone he hits every woke talking point you can imagine: his girlboss single mom and her black best friend, the horror of politically incorrect language in old Hollywood movies, the appalling homophobia in Dirty Harry, and the derelict homeless black man named Floyd (sounds familiar…) whom he knew – for one year – and who of course served as his surrogate father. If this book is to be believed, it becomes clear that Tarantino’s wokeness is baked into him as a man, and was there from the start.

While Pulp Fiction depicts whites acting black because blacks are “cool,” and Tarantino’s use of hard-R in the film is meant to show that he’s “down” (note his Kangol hat in press appearances), the film still depicts the races seamlessly integrated into the plot in a way that allows race to remain inconspicuous and secondary to the story. Not so with Django. While Inglorious Basterds was ten years late to the Hollywood Holocaust party, Django was dead center in the revival of the True American Victim. The 2010’s saw a rash of films not celebrating black culture or the black American experience, but veritable grievance lists depicting blacks as the victim and subjects of wicked and cruel violence at the hand of white abusers. Many of these films depict a hero overcoming, and in the case of Django Unchained, taking revenge for these historic crimes. Within five years of Django, Hollywood also released 12 Years a Slave, Get Out, and Moonlight, two of which were Oscar winners, not to mention several other minor films. Quentin Tarantino has to be considered central to this revival, and in his book, he credits the character and story of Django to a never-produced script dreamt up by Floyd.

Previously, the violence in his films was wanton, revelrous, and cathartic if nihilistic. He took some of the elements of action that played well in previous generations like with The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Bonnie and Clyde, and Taxi Driver, and stylized it, made it fun. But with Deathproof and Django, the violence served a very specific purpose: to depict women and blacks as victims of white male cruelty and sadism. The first violent scene in Deathproof, where Kurt Russel runs over an oncoming car full of women, was hilarious and extreme in a way that recalled Evil Dead or other splatter-fests, but by the end of the film the women – a black woman, specifically – are the ones having the fun, and the bad guy is left squealing like a weak coward in the final scene. Conversely, much of the violence in Django is intentionally brutal and hard to watch, particularly the beating of Django’s wife and the gladiatorial fight between two slaves. Now the violence is in service to the victimization of women and blacks at the hands of whites, unambiguously so in the scene with the white slave-owner played by Leo DiCaprio, who watches coldly and cheers exuberantly as one glistening sweaty slave brutally mutilates and murders another. The whole scene, in fact the entirety of both movies, amount to a punishment of the collective White Man, the great perpetrator, and audiences are supposed to squirm with guilt for our past crimes. By the time we get to Django, the “fun” in Tarantino’s trademark violence has completely evaporated, and Jamie Foxx’s hardened, angry visage as he watches the gladiators serves as a religious icon of resentment and retribution, the patron saint of black victimhood whose stare imbues the audience with a collective sense of culpability for crimes of the past.

 

Tarantino the Hipster

The hipster is the archetypal man of the modern American metropolis. He embodies mainstream fake masculinity to his core; facial hair, tattoos, piercings, drinks craft beer, demands his whisky served neat. If he’s lucky he’s a well paid bartender or tattoo artist. Always in the gig economy and usually some gradation of fat but not morbidly obese, ally to some current thing. Every one of them owns a “Fuck Racism” T-shirt.

Well, Tarantino is the auteur of Fuck Racism. The pieces come together while reading Cinema Speculation, in which we discover that his identification with blacks and women shaped his identity from an early age. Tarantino was the veritable prototype for the hipster of the 2010’s, and his “fuck racism” posture is present in his work from the beginning, though over time it becomes more and more overt.

From the age of four onwards, Quentin experienced many of the best movies of the New Hollywood movement as it emerged in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Various adults brought “Little Q” along with them to the movie theater, most notably, his mother, step-father, and several black boyfriends and acquaintances his mother had, the most important, of course, being Floyd. At a time where double features were a common occurrence, he consumed the motion picture the way it was intended to be seen, in a crowded theater, with full attention on the film.

Tarantino makes it clear that audience reaction is of the utmost importance to him, and in the book and in interviews throughout his career, his central concern is how his scenes, particularly the violent ones, play in real time with audiences. Whatever he may have been doing with the violence in Django and Inglorious Basterds, it was intentional.

As an aspirational film maker, he was certainly in the right place at the right time. If there were a program designed to mold postmodern writer-directors, Tarantino’s upbringing would be the Ivy League version. When one reads of his formative experiences with black adults and black cinema, it appears inevitable that Little Q would grow into Quentin Tarantino, a household name of American pop culture. He’s the paramount postmodern baby of American boomer culture. His subconscious permanently stamped with imagery and associations born from the silver-screen – larger than life antiheroes, hyperreal violence, cool-with-the blacks vibe – these things eventually spilled out from his films into American culture at large. As we’ve seen, however, this celebration of violence and interraciality got twisted by some guilt complex into a collective penance, and what was fun in the 90’s became a punishment in the 2010’s.

Another way to look at his body of work is his depiction of the masculine, something that mutated over time in the last 50 years of Hollywood from the bravado of Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (an era Tarantino speaks of with disgust) to the feeble neuroses of Jesse Eisman and Michael Cerna. What’s masculine to Tarantino is the result of the movie-star system, art-house films, and black entertainment. This concept of the masculine was born from pure consumption of product combined with a lack of male role models growing up. Look no further than the title character in Jackie Brown, who is based on his mother’s roommate, to get a lens on his home life during his adolescent years and what the image of a hero is for him . Tarantino states explicitly, in several places, that he’s looking to subvert Hollywood tropes with his films, so it’s no coincidence that his depictions of masculinity quickly invert themselves into a string of girlboss films with female, and often black, “heroes.”

While this subversion doesn’t seem evident in The Hateful 8, the movie isn’t quite a return to form after the three prior films, in which subversion is central. Rather, The Hateful 8 maybe could’ve been “Pulp Fiction in the Wild West,” just like Guy Ritchie (a Tarantino imitator if ever there was one) might’ve made King Arthur a “Snatch in Medieval England.” But in both cases, the director was clearly too self-aware, trying too hard to have witty “on-brand” dialogue, “hip” characters, and engaging action sequences integrated into a well-written story. Instead, we get over-the-top violence out of sync with the grittiness of their earlier work, convoluted plots that lose you three-quarters of the way through, and plug-in characters from their other work that seem to be in the wrong costumes.

If Tarantino ever had a return to form proper, it was with Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. It wasn’t quite as fresh as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, as tight as Jackie Brown, or as sprawling and engaging as Kill Bill, and the plot was so meandering that by the end it felt like you’d watched two different movies. Still, Tarantino’s greatness is finally on display once again. While his first two films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) showed he could push the medium in both form and content, with Hollywood, he’s showing the world he has mastered the finesse of a seasoned artist and embeds these things onto the screen with a more subtle hand. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we finally get to see Hollywood Boulevard and beyond, Tarantino’s backyard growing up, reimagined through his own lens and the budget required to deliver his vision in its totality.

Tarantino effectively stamps his trademark style on perhaps the most significant era of Hollywood (the ascension of New Hollywood) for his own autobiographical purposes, Hollywood as a historical entity and a metaphor for American society writ large. The references to other films, television shows, celebrities, pop-culture artifacts and iconography aren’t simply a part of the soundtrack, production design, or off-beat dialogue – they are the DNA of the entire film. Films within the film take on part of the antihero journey. The streets, theaters, billboards, restaurants, and bars are the veins that give the film its blood. The heavy-hitter cameos and cultural references are the entire spine of this thing, and the gas that powers Rick and Cliff’s Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio play characters that are original and unique to Tarantino’s oeuvre and not just plug-ins of the same type over and over again, which defined most of his career. With this novelty, Tarantino offers a new sort of masculinity never seen before in his catalog, and totally absent elsewhere in contemporary Hollywood. Instead of the stylized fantasy “masculinity” of Michael Madsen, Christian Slater, or Bruce Willis’ admittedly superb performances, we get a revival of a long dead “everyman” masculinity from the Steve McQueen/Paul Newman era, which of course died with the Manson murders.

While seemingly derivative of the iconic Hitler moment from Inglorious Basterds, the ending does so much more than wrap up the film with a loud, guttural laugh – no easy feat and the ultimate prize of comedy, something he pulls off here but failed at with Inglorious Basterds. What this ending also accomplishes is giving conspiracy-obsessed Gen. Xers, naive zoomers, and boomers who lived through it a magnificent feeling of victory and an unspoken what if?

What if New Hollywood and beyond was dominated by people like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth? What if Dennis Hopper, Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson, and all their groupies, had their shit kicked in? What if the hippies were tarred and torched? Could Bruce Lee in his prime really take on Hollywood’s best stunt-man? What if Sharon Tate had her baby – in other words – what if Rosemary had an actual beautiful baby boy?

Tarantino has honed in on the moment Hollywood lost the divine masculine, and made it part of his world. He’s managed to introduce a new type of character to his body of work and show America what was lost in the insanity of the 60’s and 70’s. DiCaprio’s descent into irrelevancy is the symbolic depiction of the death of the true American man, while Brad Pitt never falls for the hippie bullshit for one second. In the end, Tarantino actually achieves the catharsis that he so abjectly failed at in Basterds and Django. The ending is a call to action, Tarantino’s declaration that men are the ones who let this happen, and men are the ones who can stop it. But are there any men left to put these psychos to the torch?

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