Thursday, January 21, 2010

Guest Blogger Part Two: Tarantino and Peckinpah, Auteurs of Revenge Violence

The following is part 2 of Monday's post. Here inaugural guest blogger Dell Smith discusses violence in Quentin Tarantino's movies.

Pupil Tarantino tweaks Peckinpahís vision of revenge ethics so that dilemmas are never black and white. Tarantinoís rogue characters operate in a contemporized moral gray area. In his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, a band of robbers is hired by a third party to pull a heist.

After the robbery, the band meets in an abandoned L.A. warehouse where each character introduces personal codes that fuel his behavior. For example, Michael Madsonís Mr. Blonde likes to torture cops, and Harvey Keitelís Mr. White is an old-school criminal in it for the money. Mr. White also has a gooey moral center that does him in by the end when he discovers the robber heís been protecting turns out to be an undercover cop.

In Pulp Fiction's moral universe, Butch the fighter (Bruce Willis), through a series of random events, helps his nemesis, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), out of a tight spot. Butch and Marsellus are tied together by double-cross and revenge: Butch was paid to throw a fight which he did not. Marsellus lost big money and wants Butch gone. Saving Marsellusí from the clutches of a couple of L.A. racists will more than square Butch. Butch is generally honorable, so watching him liberate Marsellus is entertaining and satisfying.

In Kill Bill 1 and 2, Tarantino serves revenge as the main course, and turns in over three hours of Uma Thurman's wronged Bride as an ass-kicking samurai warrioress bent on completing the titular task. Itís almost a let down when Bill is finally killed with a low-key martial arts blowótame compared to the mayhem that precedes it.

With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino revises WWII for a new generation, this time as a revenge-fueled fantasy pitting American and French Jews against Nazis in German-occupied France. Audiences gave two thumbs up to the movieís hard R-rated violence, perhaps suggesting Americans are collectively tired of fighting unwinnable wars and amorphous foes. Maybe we want to relive Americaís last genuine win.

The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds extends for about 20 minutes. Presented in real-time, the scene sets up many things: weíre in Nazi-occupied France and are in the company of feared Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter. During an extended dialogue scene in a farmhouse where he sweats a farmer for information, Landa determines that the cellar below them is the hiding place of a Jewish family. When German soldiers kill the family, a girl escapes.

This sets up what must be the most outrageous revenge fantasy ever filmed. Tarantino revises history to suit his purposes of conflict, tension, and revenge. Seeing a theater-full of Nazis, including Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, die at the end of the movie was a little bit of heaven on a rainy September afternoon. For decades the Holocaust has been the subject of movies that were sometimes of questionable taste. Finally a filmmaker cuts to the chase and shows us what audiences have wanted all along.

Where does violence in movies go from here? What else is there for these aging outsider anti-heroes and their directors to do? Peckinpah, for his part, tackled oncoming old age by asking the macho old-man question: how do you grow old without getting done in by modern ways? The essence of Peckinpahís aging moral outrage can be reduced to a moment, a sentence, when during The Wild Bunchís opening bank robbery William Holden shouts to one of his Bunch: ìIf they move, kill ëem.î

Tarantino, now in his mid-to-late 40s, shows no sign of changing gears. As he said in the August 2009 GQ, he has already made his character-driven, mature work about getting old, Jackie Brown. ìAnd itís as much of an old-man movie as I ever want to make.î Tarantino will eventually pass the torch to another generation of revenge-violence filmmakers, but it sounds like heís not going quietly out without a cinematic fight.

The opening bank robbery from The Wild Bunch:

Need more? To see an 30-second distillation of Reservoir Dogs performed by animated bunnies, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Dell! Given my own squeamishness regarding movie violence (or horror), there was little likelihood that I'd be able to start this conversation! I'd be interested to hear from readers of this blog what their views are on how violence in movies plays with (or not?) the viewer. Does it make us complicit? Does it realize our revenge fantasies?