Friday, June 19, 2015

TARANTINO'S LENS: “Revenge Is A Dish Best Served By White-Male Privilege/Why Didn’t The Oppressed Do It My Way” (SPECIAL GUEST BLOGGER CHRIS ROBISCH-ESPINOZA)

I'll never shy away from taking shots at Quentin Tarantino. I kind of live for it. There's nothing more satisfying than writing about a film that has absolutely nothing to do with him and still finding a semi-clever way to throw in something mean-spirited about him or his work (sounds immature but so are his movies so it's all good). 
But I can never bring myself to sit down and write a full-on review of one of his films because once I start writing about him I may never stop. This is where contributors come in. Making his return to the EMPIRE is turntablist/sociopolitical pundit/new father Chris Robisch to discuss a lot of the issues I have with Quentin Tarantino.


Grant me one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you! 
– Conan The Barbarian

Who hasn’t been wronged by someone and wanted to get even? Sometimes we imagine new scenarios, often wondering what it would be like to turn back the clock and step outside of our existing timeline.  It’s only human to want to take matters into our own hands, especially when we suffer a personal or communal injustice.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying getting even is ethical. Revenge, however, is something we’ve all imagined, and for moviegoers, revenge in cinema is a cathartic experience. Quentin Tarantino knows this and that’s fine. His interpretation of revenge, well, that’s severely problematic.

First, I should probably address Q’s fan boys, as they consistently scoff at critics of his work. Sure, at face value his films can be entertaining. At times the dialogue is witty and he displays a wide variety of artistic shots that harken to cinema throughout the decades. There are explosions and certainly enough cringe-worthy blood-splatter for me not to need another dose of Adderall to hold my attention. That’s not the issue though. It’s the context that his revenge narrative exists within that we should be discussing.

The Tarantino Context: Race and Gender
Reservoir Dogs

“[T]he film (via these . . . white men) can also legitimate racist folks by providing a public space where suppressed racist slurs and verbal assaults can be voiced and heard. No one seemed to worry that the film would offer white folks license to verbalize racist aggression.” – Bell Hooks

Tarantino’s films cannot escape the context of encompassing a space centered around a racialized and gendered politics as envisioned through a very white-male lens. He constructs stereotypical interpretations of black male identity and vernacular, peppering his scripts with the n-word more than most black writers/directors. He peddles new-age Blaxploitation flicks that are transfixed on marginalizing diverse expressions of identity, in particular, diverse expressions of black sexuality, womanhood, and masculinity.

For instance, the criminalization of black men is often perpetuated within Tarantino’s films. Pulp Fiction’s Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), although empowered as a leader/boss, still represents the face of organized crime.

Likewise, Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s first attempt at overtly diving into Blaxploitation, is laced with just as many, if not more, examples of the black criminal and other racist stereotypes. Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a gun-smuggler and concoction of Tarantino’s white-imagination, continues this trend of limiting the role of black actors through criminalizing characters of color.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) as a character is very limited in her own self-determination, as she finds herself trapped between the law and the abusive-criminal, Ordell Robbie. The conclusion of the film would have you believe Brown finds her empowerment by manipulating/double-crossing the men in the story, but does she really? Many would argue that she is extremely disempowered within the context of the supremely misgynoir space that Tarantino’s Blaxploitation endeavor constructs.

And we can’t forget how the rape of Wallace in Pulp Fiction reinforces heteronormative ideologies by transforming anal-sex and homosexuality into the antithesis of black masculinity. In doing this Tarantino marginalizes LGBTQ people of color by fetishizing non-heterosexual relationships through this depiction of ball-gags, The Gimp, and, ultimately, prison-rape. Wallace’s “revenge” on Zed and company also comes with Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) swearing to secrecy what he saw.

When it comes to Asians it’s not much better. Tarantino, like countless western-filmmakers, (re)produce Asian “identity” within an orientalist framework.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Kill Bill Vol. 2

From dragon-ladies, anime backstories, to ancient masters, let’s just say, Q loves to flatten and confine Asian characters within the fictive space of racist stereotypes.

And Latinas, I mean, really?! 

The Hateful 8

In short, this “great” filmmaker’s catalogue of work situates Tarantino as perceiving race from a very specific angle.

As for his film’s depiction of gender, well, that gets misinterpreted as empowering women, mostly by men I might add. Remind me again how empowered women are when they are subjected to a male-gaze that sexualizes and diminishes their role to mere objects of male conquest/dominance?

Death Proof

Oh, and how about the so-called femme fatale archetype, oft loved by Tarantino? Turns out, they are simply the “fighting fuck toy” – a term coined by feminists to describe the deadly and hyper-sexualized hero/villain.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Before I go too far down the rabbit hole of Q’s, to put it plainly, fucked-up racial and gender politics, I’d like to discuss revenge, especially within the context of Tarantino (a white-male) creating revenge narratives about historically oppressed communities (women, Jews, and enslaved Africans in America).

The Tarantino Context of Revenge: Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds & Django Unchained

Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that must be saved from a burning building.
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2), Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained are all films in which Tarantino fetishizes the suffering of oppressed individuals/groups, repackaging their revenge as a tool towards their liberation. I place Kill Bill within this list due to the fact that it is undeniably part of Tarantino’s evolutionary process in the fetishization/exploitation of the revenge of historically oppressed peoples, defining their liberation, speaking on their behalf and silencing them.

Seeing that we know his track record with race and gender I’m left wondering, who is really experiencing the catharsis of revenge when it’s defined by someone who can be classified as part of the oppressive/dominant group?

Likely the most telling aspect of all of this is how Tarantino seems to create these fictional/reimagined narratives of oppressed peoples, with this smorgasbord of offensive visual tropes and stereotypes, these twisted-carnivalesque revenge stories that incorporate his signature genre-bending (Spaghetti Western, Kung Fu, Blaxploitation, Grind House etc.) filmmaking style, solely to cleanse his own frustrations with the limitations of historical-fact/fiction cinema. Consider Tarantino’s own words:

“When you watch all the different Nazi movies, all the TV movies, it’s sad, but isn’t it also frustrating? Did everybody walk into the boxcar? Didn’t somebody do something?”

Situate this statement within the context of his already offensive understanding of race and gender, and you have a framework that wishes to reimagine the past, not as a cathartic or cleansing experience for those who suffer(ed). Rather, Q is producing these stories to address his own frustration in films depicting oppressed peoples not doing enough to fight back, as he later says films like Defiance  “don’t go far enough.” What he doesn’t seem to take into account is the “frustration” (or rather brutalization) that real people felt while actually living under these systems. That said, I see his revenge films as bloody communal offerings to appease his and audience member’s white-male privileged souls—I’m aware women, Jewish folk, and people of color are fans of his work, and that’s fine, I’m just critical of his privileged-imagination run amuck.  

Secondly, Tarantino’s reductionist approach towards the contemporary- and historical-trauma of women, and women/men of color leaves many audience members wondering: “Why couldn’t that have happened?”

Certainly I’m not demonizing films that question events of the past—I’m all for deconstructing historical narratives, disempowering hegemony, and challenging normative perspectives through film. But we know this isn’t what Tarantino is attempting to accomplish. He has an “artistic vision,” one undeniably fixated on distorting, exploiting, consuming, and defining identity through a white-male lens, all the while selling it under the guise of the revenge film.

Kill Bill: Beatrix/The Bride Survivor of Physical & Sexual Violence

The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. 
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Some might question how Kill Bill fits into all this. I mean, isn’t it just Tarantino’s attempt at a kung-fu revenge film centered around a white “empowered” woman? On a superficial level, sure, but at its very core, the nuts and bolts, at the absolute foundation of what makes this narrative move is violence against women.

At the opening of Kill Bill Vol. 1 we see The Bride/Beatrix (Uma Thurman) pleading with her off-screen assailant, Bill (David Carradine). Her disfigured and bloodied face fills a black and white screen as a lone hand takes a handkerchief to her cheek, exposed is the name “Bill” stitched in the corner. A self-described masochist, Bill cocks his gun and pulls the trigger just before Beatrix can finish telling him that the baby she’s carrying is his.

This sets the stage for the subsequent scenes that follow. This abused and nearly killed woman somehow survives, awakening from a 4-year coma only to realize she’s lost her child and has been raped (presumably numerous times) by an orderly. After killing her rapist she is driven by the desire to, well, kill bill.

What is so clearly disturbing with Tarantino’s context of revenge is that it completely fetishizes that which it may (or may not) be critiquing, namely, violence against women. It revels in it, from the brutality Beatrix experiences to the proceeding fights throughout Vol. 1 & 2. It muddies the waters of any sort of nuanced critique about abuse/rape when Tarantino glorifies the bloodied and abused bodies of all women in Kill Bill.

And I can’t forget the whole, “what if?” scenario that manifests within this privileged-dude’s exploitation of abuse and rape survivors. In Kill Bill, this "what if" is the cinematic equivalent of those who blame-victims of abuse and rape. Those politicians who say, “what if she had a gun?” “What if she hadn't been drinking?” “What if she didn't wear that?” Kill Bill and all of these questions are cut from the same vein.  Only instead of a gun it’s a sword. Tarantino makes a visual representation of these arguments, constructing them as entertainment. It's offensive and it undeniably (re)produces patriarchy, rape culture, and the objectification of women (refer to fighting fuck toy archetype mentioned above).

Kill Bill, then, is an experiment in cathartic revenge that’s less about the abused and more about a male’s vision of women-getting even. That is to say, it’s liberation on Q’s terms, not on theirs.

Inglorious Basterds & Django Unchained: The Clown Runs Systems of Repression

What stands out about Inglorius Basterds & Django Unchained wasn’t the dialogue, characters, nor the classic Tarantino genre-bending. None of that was relevant once I walked out of the theater. In fact, what was most apparent were the vocal masses discussing how they wished history had favored Tarantino’s vision of events, or that slave rebellions, assassination attempts against Hiller, and other uprisings against oppressors didn’t go far enough (sound familiar?). Had Tarantino understood this he wouldn’t reduce the real world suffering of millions of people, denigrating their experiences, struggles, and victories by constructing a narrative that “goes far enough” by Q’s standards—a standard, mind you, done simply for white-entertainment’s sake.

The effort to comfort and amuse White viewers, to favor their feelings and desires, resonates throughout Hollywood's long and erratic treatment of the Black experience. Perhaps no filmmaker's career provides better evidence of this than Quentin Tarantino. –David J. Leonard, Django Blues

What I also think goes uncritiqued by so many is how the revenge of historically oppressed peoples, in this case Jews under the brutal Nazi regime and enslaved Africans under American white supremacy, is not only written by the imagination and voice of an extremely privileged individual, but is also designed to portray the oppressor as a joke/fool.

In Inglorius Basterds, the man responsible for conceptualizing the evils of the holocaust, who inflicted incomprehensible atrocities against the Jewish people of Europe is transformed into a clown like caricature.  While Tarantino may have done so to disempower Hitler it comes off as implying that those caught up in this system of repressive terror are the bigger fool, especially when audience members question why no one attempted to stop this mad man.

Tarantino continues this line within Django Unchained during the infamous KKK scene, a moment reminiscent of Monty Python or Benny Hill. Serving as comic-relief, white supremacy is reduced to the product of ignorance. However, this approach to white supremacy denies the very intricate system that created “scholarly” work to justify the brutalization of people for centuries. While the audience is introduced to scientific racism much later in the film, the juxtaposition of the foolish KKK members and pseudo-scientific systems that reinforced white dominance are presented as the product of ignorance instead of a racist ideological system that gave birth to eugenics (an idea that Hitler borrowed from the US to construct his genocidal system), forced sterilization of black people, and much more. This allows many white Americans to say, “white Americans during slavery were simply ignorant”  (an argument rarely, if ever, applied when it comes to Hitler/Nazis). It creates an understanding that racism today is also the result of lack of knowledge or ignorance, and doesn’t provide space for the subtle forms of (systemic) racism that exists today, such as contemporary police brutality, racial profiling, and the overall realities of racism within mass incarceration.

Basically, it acts as if the system of slavery, with all of the dehumanizing brutality, rape-economy, and every atrocity attached to it can be forgiven based on the simplistic argument: “white people just didn’t understand what they were doing.”  Let’s be real though, the genocidal practices of Nazi Germany and white supremacy in the United States were both evil. 

Finally, the “clown-ification “of systemic oppression/repression presented by Tarantino creates a sense that these “foolish” people could be overthrown as easily as portrayed within Tarantino’s 120-minute(ish) films. So audience members walk-out of theaters feeling cleansed of anti-black racism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. They have their “what if” conversations, praising Tarantino on another “cinematic masterpiece” all the while digesting the liberatory vision of a white-male bent on exploiting communities that have experienced historical oppression. Rinse. Repeat. And all is right in the world.

Only all is clearly not right in the world.

Go ahead, watch his films, I know I will. Just remember the context of the lens he’s shooting with.


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