“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch,” once quipped director Quentin Tarantino. Judging by his films, it must be a pretty fun thing to direct, too. A recent “Vanity Fair” article, examining Tarantino’s repertoire to date, estimated the director’s kill count at about 543. That makes for an average of about 68 deaths per each of Tarantino’s eight films. Scorsese’s been outplayed at his own game.
But despite Tarantino’s comment, is “fun” really all that this renowned director’s films are about? Some seem to think so: This summer, The New York Times described Tarantino as “the master of a new, more whimsical sort of violence.” But perhaps Tarantino is saying something more, even with this very whimsy. I would like to argue that Tarantino leaves us clues, some subtle and some opaque, that his films are meant to provoke discourse concerning the effusion of violence in today’s media, a violence that leaves viewers callous and jaded.
Tarantino’s story is emblematic of ’90s filmmakers. Unlike his predecessors — Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese — Tarantino did not attend film school. “When people ask me if I went to film school,” Tarantino has said, “I tell them ‘no, I went to films.’” And lots of them. The proliferation of home video in the ’80s transformed not only the film industry’s economics but also the pathway of its filmmakers. With the works of the masters now easily accessible, aspiring filmmakers could watch and admire to their hearts’ content. Tarantino spent several years working at a video store, which might be taken as symbolic of his generation or simply as a formative push toward his future career.
The young filmmaker’s breakthrough came at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 with his first feature, “Reservoir Dogs.” Tarantino managed not only to make the film on a shoestring budget, but also to woo acting veteran Harvey Keitel and a score of other big names. “Reservoir Dogs” was not your run-of-the-mill festival fare. There were guns and there was violence. Lots of violence: A particularly painful sequence depicts a man’s ear being cut off. Audiences at Sundance were horrified. But it was a hit.
Since “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino has experimented with different characters, settings, and time periods. He has brought us to 1990s Los Angeles, World War II France and the Antebellum South. We have met “The Bride,” “The Bear” and “The Wolf.” But some things haven’t changed — what unites Tarantino’s films is their constant and unrelenting violence. Among the blood and gore of “Pulp Fiction” (1994) stand out a torturous rape scene and an accidental bullet to an accomplice’s face (a nod to an accidental shooting in “Goodfellas” (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese, a favorite of Tarantino). In “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), a packed movie theatre lights on fire. And by the end of “Django Unchained” (2012), Tarantino’s newest work, the walls of a formerly white house have been painted red with blood.
So, is this all just “fun”? Does Tarantino just like violence? A closer viewing of his films implies otherwise.
Let us first take a look at “Natural Born Killers” (1994), a film directed by Oliver Stone but written by Tarantino. The film follows Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis), a young couple who conduct a killing spree across America. Although the film’s plotline may be familiar — murderous lovers are the focus of both Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) and Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973) — what differentiates “Natural Born Killers” is its integral incorporation of the media into its very form. It is shot like a music video, integrating color and black and white, using slow motion in otherwise realistically shot scenes, and rocking to a Nine Inch Nails soundtrack. Such stylistic choices are interspersed with news footage, commercials, film clips and magazine headlines. Just as the film’s style seems to be obsessed with the media, the media becomes obsessed with Mickey and Mallory, treating them more like movie stars than confused and morally bankrupt murderers. With its attention to the media’s deification of the couple, Tarantino’s script blatantly satirizes the modern-day media, accusing it of turning emblems of violence into our heroes.
Tarantino’s films emphasize not only the profusion of violence in our modern media, but also our resulting desensitization. Tarantino makes such a point in “Django Unchained,” equating his villains’ callousness toward slavery to our own apathy toward the violence on the screen before us. Tarantino interestingly chooses to insert Mandingo Fighting — an antebellum version of the gladiator fight in which two slaves fight to the death for the entertainment of their owners — as an essential element of his plot. Although there has been much press on the matter, most sources conclude that Mandingo Fighting never really existed. So why include it? Mandingo Fighting provides Tarantino with a distinct practice of violence within the larger horror of slavery. Both Tarantino’s script and direction encourage the viewer to feel revulsion toward those who derive pleasure out of the fights. If Tarantino casts judgment on these slaveowners, censuring their reactions to such a spectacle of violence, does he not too condemn “Django Unchained”’s audience, those who might derive pleasure out of the spectacle of violence taking place on screen?
My final clue to Tarantino’s deeper interest in violence is less glaring, but definitively more pervasive than the other two. This is the exaggerated, fantastical nature of much of Tarantino’s violence. These elements, though certainly entertaining, serve the purpose of parodying the gritty gore of realistic action flicks like “Die Hard” (1988). In speaking about Tarantino’s excess, one need not look any further than the formerly addressed kill count. But his general hyperbolic tendencies stress his divergence from reality. The violence of “Kill Bill” (2003–2004) is so extreme that the film itself could be a comic strip. In “Django Unchained,” the narrative meat of the film ends after about two and a half hours. Yet the film continues for another half hour, advancing no narrative premise but merely depicting an excessive killing rampage. As the sequence progresses, the impact of each individual execution declines. The audience’s callousness is exacerbated, and indicated, to an extreme.
In addition to hyperbole, Tarantino also uses an element of fantasy to create a satirical cinema. In “Inglorious Basterds,” Tarantino presents a believable historical narrative for most of the film. But (spoiler alert!) the moment Hitler dies in that movie theatre, something changes. We are no longer in the real world; Tarantino has re-written history, taking us into a realm perhaps just as fantastic as Middle Earth. It is moments like that of Hitler’s death in which Tarantino shakes his audience, screaming in our faces: “This isn’t real! This is a fantasy! This is satire!”
Perhaps I need to believe that Tarantino’s violence is more than just for fun. In a world as violent as ours, a world in which events like the Boston Marathon explosion on Monday seem to happen almost every week, the idea of a cinema that emphasizes violence as pleasurable seems almost revolting. Yet, I enjoy Tarantino’s films, and I see him as one of the preeminent filmmakers of our time.
I believe my convictions of Tarantino’s social commentary to be more than a simple longing, more than an attempt tow alleviate a case of cognitive dissonance. Although the director may not come right out and say it, the clues are there in his films, just waiting to be discovered. Tarantino did not grow up on film school; he grew up on pop culture. Our pop culture is consumed by violence. Great artists do not merely imitate what they see, but rather comment on it. And here’s what Quentin has to say.