There was a time when I wouldn’t dare miss a new Quentin Tarantino film.
I was in middle school when Pulp Fiction was released in theatres and, as a teenage boy, I was fascinated by Tarantino’s violent, vulgar and verbose underground universe. Soon after, I gorged myself on the complete Tarantino catalog, watching True Romance, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction time and time again. As the years went by, I have rarely missed a theatrical release of a Tarantino film – Four Rooms, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2) – each served as a guilty entertainment pleasure. That is, until Inglorioius Basterds, Tarantino’s revenge-fueled World War II film in which a group of American soldiers is sent to kill Nazis in the most brutal ways possible to rattle the psyche of the Germans. I missed that one in theatres but eventually rented it from Netflix. The little red envelope sat in my house for about six weeks before I decided to send it back unwatched.
This year, Tarantino came back with Django Unchained, just in time for the celebration of the birth of Christ (sarcasm intended). Django, starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Dicaprio and others, is the story of a freed slave turned bounty hunter set on the task of freeing his wife from a plantation owner who is known for turning male slaves into sport fighters and female slaves into prostitutes. The film was directed as an over-the-top spaghetti western and, in typical Tarantino fashion, a huge body count and wake of human carnage is sure to be left in Django’s wake. And, once again, I find myself with little to no desire to see the latest creation of my once-favorite director.
This leads me to ask – what changed? Tarantino, or me?
I’ll be the first to admit that, since I had kids (our oldest is now seven), I’ve been more sensitive to violence on the screen. Obviously, I avoid watching violent films with the children, but I’ve also found myself to be more violence-averse in my personal viewing. It has become difficult to cheer on protagonists slashing their ways through conflict. I’ve lost respect for directors who seem to revel in brutality (even Peter Jackson, to some degree, for the excessive number of beheadings in The Hobbit).
But, I don’t think that my aversion to violence is solely to blame.
There’s something that strikes me wrong about Tarantino’s decision to project his brand of filmmaking on the Holocaust of the Nazis and slavery of the American south. These two events, more than almost any others in recent history, embody the height of dehumanization and the brutal after-effects thereof. Why then, take two historical events already imbued with the height of human violence and hatred and project over-the-top, cartoonish Tarantino violence upon them?
Dana Stevens, movie critic at Slate.com, summed up her experience of the film like this:
Tarantino’s intent may have been to showcase the horrors of slavery, but there’s something about his directorial delectation in all these acts of racial violence that left me not just physically but morally queasy. His fascination with repeated acts of graphic retribution puts the viewer in the position of Calvin J. Candie, watching with a cigarette holder and a coconut drink in hand as the mandingoes fight it out.
Whether or not we’re willing to admit it, watching extreme acts of violence in the imagery of films or video games desensitizes us and calls us into the act of dehumanizing others. Celebrating and reveling in violence is never a good thing for us to do. And that’s why Tarantino’s set pieces of recent history seem so wrong to me. It’s like he’s trying, in some little way, to right the wrongs of dehumanizing history by having a violent protagonist tear through history’s villains with avengeance. But Tarantino is calling another generation into the act of dehumanizing others. And that’s where I have to get off the Tarantino train.
I’ll miss the obscure pop culture references and dark humor but rest assured that the myth of redemptive violence will, at least to some degree, die in this human heart.