Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Now, May We Talk About Quentin?

Some of us told y'all to watch ya boy.

So many folks are through with Quentin Tarantino over his vile behavior toward Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill. There is no more separating the art from the artist. That's the line, and you crossed it, dawg. If that's you, well then, get over here! Come sit with those of us who were done after we heard the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs about Madonna fucking niggers and therefore soiling herself too much to be of any use to a real man, read WHITE MAN. My own personal being-done-with-his-assness was reinforced when I was sitting in a darkened theater, giving him another chance, just to hear "Do I look like dead nigger storage?" Almost as if Tarantino could anticipate those of us in the theater looking at one-another, silently mouthing "da hell??," he delivers the line again, insisting the powerful Jules answer him, and likely informing those of us in the audience we heard him right. Samuel L. is directed to have his blackness on ten—all the way up—until Tarantino's no-acting ass deflates Jules, rendering him into a slew-footed, shuffling, deferent living nigger to the offending dead-niggers with which he continually inconveniences Tarantino's Jimmie.

The manner in which Pulp Fiction builds up Jules into a supernaturally frightening force for retribution, just to be humiliated and emasculated by a character played by the director himself is some serious hand-tipping on the part of its creator. This is before the other supernaturally vengeful Negro Marcellus is literally emasculated a few frames later. Why does Ving Rhames's Marcellus end his pursuit of Bruce Willis' Butch? On the unspoken trade that he'll keep silent about Marcellus's anal rape. His dogged determination to destroy Butch for double-crossing him is completely dissipated by the threat of everyone finding out he took it up the rear-end from another man and had to be saved by a white man he just so happens to own. Tarantino lives for putting black men in their place in the most viscerally-humiliating ways. His black women are layered, nuanced, complicated, beautiful, and deadly if pushed too far. Generally, deadly for black men. Perhaps he doesn't appear in the cast of Jackie Brown and Kill Bill because they're his proxies. I dunno. That's too hefty an analysis for writing no one asked me for.

When a director casts himself in a small but significant role, it's a statement about the consciousness the filmmaker intends to impart. M. Night Shyamalan casts himself in moments where he wants to hand us the twist before we arrive at it on our own, obviously to reinforce he's smarter than his audience, therefore we should trust him and relax. Tarantino casts himself when his black characters need to be deflated and revealed as weaker than white men. Me, I knew when Phil LaMarr's Marvin appeared what to expect. The guy's speech and mannerisms were far too white socially normative for it not to be some statement by the guy who wrote a debate about interracial relationships and white purity into the first ten minutes of his debut feature film. A debate that was a complete and total non-sequitur to the overall proceedings. Once the well-spoken, chill, affable, harmless Marvin is flat-blasted by Jules, that caricature of black virility complete with outdated Jheri curl, it's up to Quentin Tarantino himself to bring Jules to heel. I don't want to hear shit about Orson Welles casting himself instead of Joseph Cotton in "Touch of Evil," if you abide that nonsense.

Plenty of journalists made a living unpacking and assessing Tarantino's apparent anti-blackness, equally lambasting and defending his bigoted bullshit. Some of these defenders are black, in the case of Desiree Bowie, who, in a 2015 Salon piece titled (in part) "It’s not easy being a black Tarantino fan," wrote:
But I appreciated his films as much as I disagreed with his opinions. I never viewed Tarantino’s movies as anti-Black or grossly exploitative. To be honest, I don’t cringe when n-bombs get dropped in his movies because I feel as though I do understand his intentions.
Bowie musters the ability to compartmentalize Tarantino's anti-blackness because it's chiefly directed at black men and, when contrasted against his mature and admiring portrayals of black women onscreen, it's obvious his issue isn't with black folk, per say. I haven't been able to find an update from her about Tarantino's off-screen personal and professional misogyny, bullying and abuse. I looked.

That same year, Nicole Silverberg's piece in GQ titled "Maybe Skip What Quentin Tarantino Said to The New York Times" parsed all the ways QT plays himself out in bold-headed paragraphs such as 'TV is shit,' 'Tarantino is a Culture Savior,' and 'Backlash from black critics is annoying and doesn't matter.' Under that last tidbit, she writes:
"Though I'm sure Ellis would despair at my use of that word as part of the "language policing" he so detests, the truth is that Tarantino is coming just one step short of crying "reverse racism." He's doing the equivalent of "but why can't I say the n-word?" except that, oh wait, Tarantino has his characters say it 110 times in Django Unchained. Tarantino is saying, "Well, if I end up making movies that only white people enjoy, oh well!" and that sucks."
Sucks to be sure, and thanks for bringing that up, but why skip what he said? Why do we skip evidence he's that dude? Why do we forgive his anti-blackness to uphold his genius? Why doesn't the quality that compels his fans and admirers to shrug off the ways he uses his films and platform to arrest and antagonize black folk and excoriate his limited view of blackness not help him achieve exoneration over his abuse of Uma Thurman? I haven't been able to find anything from Silverberg covering this new flap against Tarantino. The indictment should most certainly stick. Physical harm, intimidation, and abuse of the trust she gave him is nothing short of dehumanization. I just wasn't the least bit surprised. I'm also not surprised many of his defenders and apologizers aren't writing follow-ups.

Tarantino's resentful bigotry and anti-blackness played out for all to see. Doubled and tripled down upon in all his interviews. Its pathologies played out on screen and in print to much acclaim.  Once Uma Thurman finally told the truth about his vile behavior, folks are shocked. Betrayed, even. But why? He kicked your neighbor, right in front of you. Time and again, he tipped his hand to his urge to dehumanize and marginalize others. There wasn't a black man in Pulp Fiction that wasn't broken by him. Why would he spare Uma? Sorry, but oh yes it is the very same thing. It is not a different problem. It's the underbelly to the overall problem, akin to the extreme metaphor of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, who trapped and mutilated small animals as he worked his way up to trapping and mutilating small humans. In this case, Dahmer's small animals are the fictional black men Tarantino created just to torture and humiliate. Seems like he was working his way up to torturing and humiliating an actual human, who is blonde and beautiful and powerful and kick-ass. Just like Madonna, who had absolutely nothing to do with the plot of Reservoir Dogs, but an ad-libbed debate about her making love with Big Daddy Kane somehow made its way into that modern classic.

Perhaps now I don't have to walk out of the bar when peers bring up Tarantino's brilliance at the next writing conference. Perhaps we finally understand the folly of deferring exemplified bigotry as a problem that doesn't affect everyone. I mean, sure one can, but when we learn about the Uma Thurmans, we wonder why and how.

Then someone like me, for whom his blackness is a mounting inconvenience to his peers, points out the Madonna debate in Reservoir Dogs gave us every indication what QT holds in his psyche for blonde white women of personal power and self-determination.

Those of us who refuse to resolve and excuse his bigotry in order to enjoy the zeitgeist-influencing pop culture moments of his films weren't surprised at his misogyny and abuse. Bigotry isn't a personality quirk. It's an indicator of the risk of deeper depravity. Perhaps we're all finding a way to come to terms with the truth that separating the art from the artist sets us up for these letdowns. We ignored, excused, and justified his abject racism, eventually praising him for his uncompromising insistence upon doing what he wanted. We watched his depictions of black Americans and listened as he told us to go to hell if we don't like it. If you weren't black, it wasn't your problem. If you were black, but you loved being in with the in-crowd, you subordinated your problem and went to see those films anyhow. Maybe even wrote about them. As a result, he became more popular, and more powerful, eventually leading to his injustice against Uma Thurman. In fact, I find it completely upends the image of women's empowerment she worked so hard to give us. I can't think of The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo without thinking of what happened behind the scenes. It undercuts the value of the portrayal when the performance was wrenched from someone rendered so powerless.

I wonder if now I won't have to find a way to slink off to other environs when conversations turn to Quentin Tarantino at this year's crime fiction conferences. I'll save that energy for when I have to dart away as James Ellroy's shit is laughed off and explained away as lunacy and LA Confidential is upheld as a hallmark of modern film noir. Where I'm from, bring it up and you'll get "Oh, you mean that flick where they put the gun in the young black man's mouth like he's sucking on something big and black in order to get him to confess to a crime? That one where the brothas are in a cell crying and begging for mercy so the white LA cops can get a jones? Dood from Gladiator was in it back when he wasn't fat? Naw, I ain't watchin' that shit."

19 comments:

Terrence said...

Much of what you said here has needed to be said for a long time. Congratulations, my friend.

Holly West said...

Way to start with a bang, Danny. This is a fantastic, thought-provoking post.

Thomas Pluck said...

Thank you, Danny.
I won't pretend to be all woke. Reservoir Dogs was big for me, I was 18 when I saw it. Pulp Fiction blew up, but was already indulgent. And the Jules and Jimmy scene was fucking weird even to my lily-white Jersey boy self.
However, I was pissed that he took the title of one of my favorite movies, Inglorious Bastards, and took out the Fred Williamson character. Can't have a black man killing Nazis! That's silly... but you can kill Hitler and end the war. Hmmm....

Some crime fiction authors bought into the superpredator myth and perpetuated that, too. Stories matter. Some might call that PC. Call it what you want, when you write about crime from a comfortable position of middle class privilege, you'd better do your research and not rely on your own prejudices.

Lola Scarpitta said...
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Lola Scarpitta said...

As an artist daughter, grand daughter and great grand daughter of all artists this punch to my head hurts! I was always taught to separate the art from the artists. That somehow the bad boys or the crazy ones had right to be judged solely on their work IF the work was amazing. Degas left us his nasty sentiments about class and Jews but he also left us those paintings. Arghhhhhh!!!! The QT problem is fraught with all that you wrote about. So here’s where I say to myself that I’m not that in love with his art to dismiss the spiritual boils in his work and the treatment of his co-creators. But then I’m left with the awful gut wrenching thought that one day I will love someone’s work so much that I will dismiss his horrible persona.... like Degas. There’s a special place in hell for artists that make us have this torture of conscience. Damn.

Dana King said...

Damn. Talk about hitting the ground running. I’m half afraid to comment because I’m writing off the top of my head and you’ve spent years thinking about this, but that’s what writers do, so here goes.

Tarantino has long been a difficult issue with me, even before the Uma Thurman revelations. As an artist, I think much of what I’ve seen since Jackie Brown shows him to less interested in making good movies than he is in making Quentin Tarantino movies.

The scene you referenced with Jules and Jimmie always struck me as a little off. Part of it was that the accidental shooting was played for laughs. Another part of the “dead nigger storage” line you mentioned. For a long time I wondered if that was my growing sensitivity about racial slurs pricking me. I can’t rule that out altogether, but you’ve brought up what really sets that scene wrong: based on everything we know about him to that point, Jules would have whipped Jimmie’s ass. Tarantino gave himself a free one there.

I do have a different take on LA Confidential, which has become my favorite crime movie. (I’ve seen it at least four times in the past six months.) To me the scenes you referenced are more about showing the racism in the LAPD than in putting down the black characters. That’s something about which reasonable men can differ, I suppose. I never thought of it the way you have, but I have a different point of view, growing up in semi-rural Western Pennsylvania.

(Full disclosure: I am not above having my characters use abusive language. My intention is always to characterize.)

david james keaton said...

good point about his groaner cameo in Pulp Fiction. I remember thinking in the theater "no way Jackson stands there for that." don't remember any racial overtones/slurs in his queasy Madonna monologue tho - not that Reservoir Dogs doesn't throw them out left and right later on, of course!

S.A. Cosby said...

Oh Quentin you self- indulgent creepy crafter of scintillating dialogue and powerful monologues who really really wants to be "cool" enough to talk down to the brothers.
Growing up in the South the N-WORD was a point of no return. It was the coup de grace of playground confrontations. Once you said it expect to spit some teeth. It was axiomatic in my life.
Then NWA dropped. And I was confronted with a moral quandary. I couldn't very well run around punching every young white boy singing along to Fuck the Police..so I developed a thicker skin to the N- Word... It still made me uncomfortable and angry but society was changing...to this day it still elicits a visceral response from me. Now Quentin's issues go much deeper than just a word but this was the mind set I had when I watched Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction for the first time... I tried to work around the N-WORD...but man Quentin made it difficult. He's the one who dresses down Jules... Marcellus is the one who gets raped...The whole conversation about Maddona... watching those films I knew that when black people aren't around some people use the N-WORD like it makes their teeth white ( to paraphrase Paul Mooney) and that is reflected in some of his work my I also realized having lived through that I didn't need to see that reflected so prominently on film. By the time we get to Django you can see Quentin giving black people a strange backward apology by having Django kill a BUNCH of racist but still taking his agency by having Christof Waltz kill Calvin Candide instead of Django.... Quentin has an obvious love hate relationship with Black masculinity but that hasn't been a part of the conversation.. it's only now that Uma has spoken out that he has come under scrutiny. That says as much about him as it does the film industry... personally as a writer I try to reflect my own experiences and be as honest as I can to give my characters weight and complexity..
So no one is dropping the N-word at a hundred beats a minute but it does come up...
And I make sure the person who says it eventually spits some teeth...
Quentin never accepts that moral imperitive. To quote Rachel Weisz in the Mummy his assholes very rarely get their commupence. I posit the Gimp scene in Pull Fiction would have been more powerful if Marcellus had rescued Butch. It would have been a chance to do the human side of Marcellus Wallace.. and allowed the men to forgoe their animosity...and he could have still " gotten medeival" on their asses...
But QT never looks to balance the moral equation...
But I grew up around guys like Maynard and Zed... that game of eeny meeny miney moe was never going to end fairly...

John McFetridge said...

Thank you, I’ve waited twenty-five years for this. Really we should have seen the bullshit from the beginning. I ask everyone who tells me they love Pulp Fiction to explain why it’s not in chronological order. No one ever has an answer.

Manuel Royal said...

That moment in Pulp Fiction always baffled me. It undercuts the significance of Jules' character, and is just awkward. I don't mind "nigger" if it makes sense for a character to say in a given situation, but it just seemed like a bizarre affectation there. I've never thought Tarantino's dialogue was as good as he thinks it is, but he definitely could've written that scene better. Putting those words in his own mouth, forcing a powerful black character (well, verging on caricature) like Jules to just stand there and take it, can't be ignored.

With "Kill Bill", I waited through both movies thinking, at some point, there'd be, well, more. Some point. And when I learned how obsessively QT will copy an existing work, then slap random bits of American tv from the '70s onto it, I decided I'd rather just watch the original Asian and European movies he drew from.

Manuel Royal said...

S.A. Cosby -- that's actually a great idea (Marcellus rescuing Butch). Or would've been.

Merrick Hanson said...

You can go back and forward on whether Ellroy is a racist or just an attention seeker, but writing off the film L.A. Confidential as racist is silly, and actually undermines everything else you've said here.

Jack Getze said...

I saw L.A. Confidential as depicting the racism of the day, not racist itself. But as I write that, I wonder. :) My skin is white. I don't know how that N word feels. My father was a reporter for the LA Mirror and then the LA Times in the 1950s and 1960s and said this movie was almost a perfect depiction how the police in L.A. were back then. He covered hundreds of press conferences at Parker Center.

Thomas Pluck said...

Sometimes you can separate the art from the artist. Degas didn't paint Jewish people getting murdered, but Woody Allen stories are mostly about old men having sex with young women, and QT puts his transgressions right in the art. There's a difference between writing Lolita as Nabokov and Humbert Humbert publishing his diary. (See also Louis CK's movie) On the other hand, Christian Piccolini, a former racist skinhead, wrote a memoir where he explains how he was radicalized and apologizes to every victim. That I read, without guilt.

And I have no problem with stories depicting racism. It's in the air we breathe. Not every story needs to be about power structures in our society, but I grew up in a diverse area where race and power are intertwined, and overlooking that would be accepting the status quo. So I try my best to depict it with verisimilitude.

Michelle Isler said...
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Joe Clifford said...

Damn, Danny, that is some powerful writing, my friend...

Filmatelist said...

Great post but it's unfortunate you get a basic fact wrong in your first paragraph. Black men aren't evoked at all in the "Like a Virgin" monologue, but rather explicitly John Holmes (literally) and Charles Bronson (metaphorically). So size is the order of the day in his interpretation, but race isn't. On point on everything else though. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Well, nobody better start to support QT at the writers con I'm going to this month. So over the Genius Can Do Whatever, shit. He's not a genius either.
Laurie Hernandez

Jessica Mork said...

Excellent writing. “Bigotry isn't a personality quirk. It's an indicator of the risk of deeper depravity.” So true.