Quentin Tarantino and desensitization to violence

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There seems to be a sentiment among moviegoers that cinema presents us with a completely apolitical experience. The word “entertainment” is often thrown around in defense of movies with tenuous moral premises. People say, “It’s mere entertainment,” or, “It’s just fun.” Seen in this light, movies are an escape from politics — a two-hour period of freedom in which we withdraw from the hardships of our normal lives and enter into a pure fantasy world.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out that such a view depends on a very limited conception of what politics are. To some, the term just means elections and everything that happens on Capitol Hill. In reality, almost every decision we make, including which movie to see, is political. This fact becomes apparent when one considers that our taste in film is clearly informed by the social and material conditions we live in and that to even purchase a movie ticket requires an amount of disposable income that many lack.

If you’re willing to accept that “The Godfather” is a gangster film that critiques corporate capitalism or that “Get Out” wasn’t just a standard horror film, but rather one with biting commentary on phony white liberalism, this point may seem obvious to you. But it still seems like an argument worth making, given the defenses of Quentin Tarantino we often hear from moviegoers, film buffs and critics alike. They seem to have forgotten that depoliticizing violence and calling it “entertainment” is itself a political statement.

“Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Makes Holocaust Revisionism Fun” was the facetious headline of J. Hoberman’s glowing 2009 review. In Tarantino’s film, a Jew who survived the Holocaust kills Hitler in a movie theater, and a group of Jewish soldiers led by an American lieutenant (Brad Pitt) carve a swastika into the head of a Nazi officer (Christoph Waltz).

But in the Holocaust, Hitler wasn’t locked in a burning building; Jews were locked in gas chambers. And as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out in his excellent Newsweek piece “Tarantino Rewrites the Holocaust,” Jews didn’t carve swastikas into Nazis; Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis.

Some see it as a revenge fantasy. But to Mendelsohn and others, the real effect is that Tarantino has made a movie that essentially turns Jews into Nazis — a movie in which the oppressed become the perpetrators of unimaginable violence.

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When I discuss the film with people, I’m usually alone in arguing that any film presenting an ahistorical vision of the Holocaust, or of fascism, is morally bankrupt. But to Tarantino fans, no topic is off-limits for an exciting, feel-good slaughterfest, whether it’s the genocide of Jews in Europe or of Black people in America, as in “Django Unchained.”

Clearly Quentin Tarantino can’t be blamed for desensitization to violence, but it’s this country’s extreme lack of empathy that makes his films watchable. The grotesque brutality of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” played off as hip in-jokes for ironic audiences, would be unthinkable in the mainstream movies of the 1950s. To quote Jonathan Rosenbaum again, “It’s possible that we’ve lost something.”

This isn’t to imply that the ‘50s were some kind of moral utopia, as Ronald Reagan and perhaps Donald Trump would have us believe. It just seems to indicate that our cultural attitude toward violence is going in a strange direction.

“Inglourious Basterds” made $321.5 million at the box office. “Django Unchained” made over $100 million more. Both critics and audiences seem to adore Tarantino, and yet very few find it problematic that he has advocated for widespread use of the N-word by white people, or that he once remarked that 9/11 didn’t affect him because it reminded him of an action movie. We recently learned from Uma Thurman that on the set of “Kill Bill,” Tarantino insisted that she do a stunt herself in a shoddy car, causing lasting physical damage to her neck and knees. Last year, he admitted to knowing about Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual assault for years without doing anything about it, and recently, a recording surfaced in which Tarantino defended Roman Polanski, who was arrested and charged with raping a 13-year-old.

But many seem unconvinced that this sociopathic lack of empathy could be in any way related to the affectless violence of his films.

Perhaps part of the problem is that those who reject the hyperbrutality of American mainstream film are regarded as prudes, squares or even advocates of censorship. Pauline Kael’s enlightening review of “A Clockwork Orange” is worth quoting at length: “There seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. But this would deny those of us who don’t believe in censorship the use of the only counterbalance: the freedom of the press to say that there’s anything conceivably damaging in these films — the freedom to analyze their implications.”

Tarantino lovers tell us to ignore his films’ moral tastelessness. It’s just entertainment, after all, so shut up and enjoy the bloodshed.

Contact Jack Wareham at [email protected].