Quentin Tarantino’s New Kind of Violence

If you’ve seen any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you know he earned a reputation for depicting violence in both gratuitous and necessary ways. What do I mean by that? The violence of his movies was both integral to the characters and the plot but also, some would say, extreme, stylized, over-the-top.

I will admit that I have never been his biggest fan, although certainly I have enjoyed some of his movies. My favorite was Pulp Fiction until Inglorious Basterds came out. I hated Kill Bill Vol. 1 and didn’t even bother with Vol. 2 because I didn’t see how any amount of brilliance in the second could make up for the ridiculous trash that the first one was.

Yesterday morning something happened that doesn’t usually: my husband called me on the phone to ask me on a date. He thought Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood would be a pretty fun movie and suggested we go see it.

“I’d love to,” I said, enjoying the novelty of the formal invitation. The trailer had made the movie look like interesting Tarantino fare without giving away the whole story. What we hadn’t realized is that the original trailer we’d seen––and even the synoptic blurb for the movie––really doesn’t tell you much about the movie at all that you don’t learn in the first fifteen minutes.

This film has violence, yes, including some of the bloody and incredible violence that we have come to know Tarantino for. But in this film, he’s experimenting with a different kind: emotional violence based on the audience’s expectations, targeted at a subset of the audience that is likely above a certain age. If you don’t fall into that subset of the demographic, it’s possible you won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. It’s possible you will have seen this movie and found it to be an entertaining romp, an occasionally funny look at some marginally likable characters, a meta story about a past-his-prime actor and his equally near-washed-up stunt double played by two actors who were hot leading men in their prime but who have clearly moved on past all that now. And there’s nothing wrong with that if this is your perception of the movie; it’s a fair read.

But if you’re like my husband and me, closer to fifty than we are to forty, if you know about pop culture history and the darkest stains of humanity that were left on it, if you have a sense of what Tarantino is capable of and was very wont to do in the early days of his career, then this movie might have made you stop halfway through and think, Oh no, this is the worst date movie ever.

Spoilers follow. You have been warned.

Margo Robbie as Sharon Tate

In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an actor, Rick Dalton, whose roles have dwindled to being the “heavy,” a consistent and dependable bad guy itinerant all over the TV Guide listings whose subtextual purpose is to give new leading men a career victory over him. Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who is also his employee and best friend, who chauffeurs him around and hangs out with him and watches his house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills and is generally cheerful about accepting whatever dregs jobs Rick maneuvers for him. Next door to Rick live Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie and arguably the most appealing character in the film, aside from one precocious little girl who is awesome.

Julia Butters is The Bomb.

For about the first half of the movie, there are multiple story threads that feel somewhat random, somewhat disconnected, but Tarantino is no slouch and we can expect that all these disparate threads and sketches of Hollywood circa 1969 will come together and mean something. And then they start to, when a hippie rings the doorbell at the Polanski home, and you realize where and when and who all of this is, and if you’re up on your mid-late-20th-century American history, you make the assumption that the stranger ringing the doorbell is Charles Manson.

And that’s when the movie becomes violent. Not in a literal, Kill Bill kind of way, but in an emotional, anxiety-riddled kind of way. Suddenly you realize that this movie has a long way to go, and it was made by Quentin Tarantino, and you know what happens to Sharon Tate because you remember what happened to Sharon Tate in real life in 1969. And then every part of you silently freaks out and you say to yourself, Oh shit. Suddenly this movie has become the worst date movie ever, and you’re stuck with it.

The movie then goes on to toy with your expectations further on a number of levels.

First, when Cliff ends up at Spahn’s Movie Ranch with the group of hippies and everything in their commune is Just Not Right, but he’s a stunt double who can fight and isn’t afraid of a bunch of teenage hippie girls being all weird, he goes in to find his friend George who works there, and you expect him to head down that dark and decrepit hallway and find either a dead body or a booby trap, but instead he finds George, in exactly the state the hippies said he would be. You breathe a sigh of relief.

But that’s not the whole experience, because you know that “Charlie” isn’t there and that spectre of who he really is reinforces the trauma you know is coming. From that point in the movie on, everything is tinged with this expectation that the end of the movie is going to hurt you. And that anxiety is what I mean by Tarantino’s new violence: anticipatory emotional trauma, a trigger warning of the worst kind — that comes too late — because the rest of the movie is actually good enough that you don’t want to stop watching it. Eventually, you begin to wonder what the hell Tarantino was thinking and why on earth is he doing this? Because you know what he’s capable of, and you still haven’t forgiven him for the awfulness of Kill Bill.

But remember what I said about defying expectations? This whole movie he’s been doing that, because it hasn’t been a literally violent film. It’s been hard to watch, maybe, filled with the grotesque. Seeing DiCaprio and Pitt as kind of gross has-beens defies your expectations. The crest and plummet of the suspense in some parts defies your expectations. The non-linear storytelling defies your expectations. And finally, what happens to Sharon Tate does too.

Tarantino gives us his characteristic over-the-top blood and gore when the Manson family killers show up on Cielo Drive. The documentary style kitsch of the filmmaking at that point mimics those true-crime TV shows. You feel every dreadful thing coming. And then, it comes in a different way. A bloody and crazy and even at times funny way.

A revisionist history way that you think might have been a better ending for the real story.

And then you sit through every last second of the credits to make sure Tarantino doesn’t take it back.

You call your kids on the drive home and make sure they’re okay. You tell yourselves, Wow, that could have been really bad. You remind yourself, Wow, in real life it actually was really bad. You don’t go to sleep immediately when you get home.

I won’t say that I loved this movie, or that I even liked it as much as Inglorious Basterds, which was absolutely incredible. But it was, on balance, a good movie. One worth seeing. A movie that might kick you in the chest like Bruce Le does to Cliff Booth. (Okay, that scene was really funny.)

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

This Ish Just Isn’t Fun Anymore

“You’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.” – Gimli, The Two Towers

***

The thing about porn is that at some point––unless you’re an addict––you have to stop and say, okay, I’m done with this nonsense.

Last night I reached that point with what has become for many people a Sunday night ritual of torture porn, The Walking Dead.

It took me about five seasons to become a regular viewer of this show, and now that habit, I think, is purged. I’ve never been a fan of zombies; unlike vampires or werewolves, they’re just not my monsters. My husband has been with it from the beginning, and though I didn’t like it because inevitably there’d be zombie nightmares involving our children each night I’d watch it, I used to enjoy his humorous recaps of each episode’s highlights. When I first asked him what the show was about, back in the first season, he told me it was a zombie show, yes, but it was also, like most good stories, about the Human Condition.

“It’s about these survivors’ attempts to maintain their humanity in the face of the end of it all around them. It’s a story about whether they will stay human or become zombies, yes, but also about whether they will retain their goodness in the face of other survivors’ becoming monsters.”

Hey, an exploration of humanity in the face of an inhuman threat––sounds like some good science fiction, doesn’t it? It didn’t take long to realize that the true threat of the zombie apocalypse isn’t zombies, who can be stabbed or shot in the head by a kid with enough practice. (And the implications of that detail, in and of themselves, are horrifying to contemplate.) The true threat, of course, is the people who turn on each other. The ones who care about nothing other than power in whatever corner of the world they have left. The ones who aren’t really any better than the bad actors we have in real life, and who aren’t even any worse, they just have more clout in their respective spheres of influence.

This could have been a show about rebuilding society in a way that improved over the calamity of the past. But then I guess it wouldn’t have been horror.

I think one of the problems I have with certain movies and television shows is the lack of creative problem-solving. I’m not learning much if anything from a lot of these stories. I liked The Matrix and even the sequel, but the third movie made the whole trilogy worse. I just felt hollow after watching the end of that cycle, as if the people who had conceived of this fantastic science fiction plot and these engaging characters who could literally bend reality couldn’t come up with anything better than resolving their dilemmas with guns. I liked Daredevil really well until the characters couldn’t get along and everything was just ultra-violence: the first season was compelling; the second one, at times confusing and insensible. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was great for a while, but now it takes longer and longer for a season to get good while half the characters––the ones who get the most plot time––stagnate in a soup of poor choices. The Jason Bourne movies––which have devolved into a cast with only a couple of women (both of whom are caricatures), long masturbatory car chases, and a brooding spy who never answers the question of will he or won’t he––haven’t been good for a while now.

And the violence––good grief, the violence. Probably by now you’ve read a bunch of the commentary on why people are leaving The Walking Dead in droves after last night’s last straw. There was no real character development; no one did anything that wasn’t predictable. And Negan? Seriously? What the fuck is that guy? He delivered on the promise of the last season’s finale, but worse. I suppose, in retrospect, we couldn’t have expected that he wasn’t going to be this way. The episode last night was just a confirmation of our worst, stomach-turning dread, executed in the most unnecessarily assaultive ways. I’m not sure things could have been worse if Lucille had gone after Maggie in her stomach and then her face. I’m really tired of the cheap shock, of the tug on my heartstrings that doesn’t have any heart in it. If a story wants to upset me, it doesn’t have to attempt to be the most brutal, most bloody, most creatively grotesque gore we’ve seen yet. Believe me, I don’t find that stuff creative. Tedious? Yes, sometimes. Insulting? All too often. It’s like they don’t even care that human beings, people with thoughts and feelings and relationships, are in the audience watching.

Dictionary.com defines porn as “television shows, articles, photographs, etc., thought to cater to an irresistible desire for or interest in something.” Yes, we all know it first means this in a sexual context. But we now have food porn, disaster porn, and torture porn (among others, no doubt). I love food but don’t really care about seeing everyone’s dinner on Facebook. I used to love my superheroes and their big-budget action films, but I’m tired of the stakes always being world-calamity-high. I don’t feel connected to those stories anymore, because they no longer feel like they’re about people, not really.

When I think about The Walking Dead––and I’ve thought about this for a while now––I don’t know how much longer the series can go on. At this point the zombies are hardly even a character anymore. The cycle of find a place, meet another group who are assholes, fight that group, find another place, meet another group who are bigger assholes, fight them in an uglier way, lather, rinse, repeat––I just can’t. I no longer care whether that world survives; I’m no longer sure it should. And the thing is, I don’t know what disturbs me more: the content of last night’s episode or the show’s enduring popularity.

Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in our culture right now? If so, then you are probably aware that real life is pretty badly screwed up in a lot of ways. It’s –isms as far as the eye can see. I’m not looking to escape into worse violence when I turn on the television. It doesn’t make me feel better about my own situation; it makes me feel worse about the human race. What’s happening on some of these shows we’ve been watching turns my stomach, but what bothers me more is that I’m not having the zombie nightmares anymore. Even after last night’s episode, which literally nauseated me––and by the way, blood does not make me squeamish––I didn’t have those dreams. This tells me I’m becoming desensitized to it, even if only a little. And that tells me it’s time to pull out while I can.

Game of Thrones, you’re officially on notice. You’ve still got Peter Dinklage and amazing costume design going for you, and I’m genuinely curious to see how a world full of matriarchies plays out, especially since only two of the leaders of the various regions or clans appear to be psychotic––a significant improvement over the life art purports to imitate.

But pull any more sensationally cruel and insulting stunts like the Red Wedding, Sansa’s wedding night with Theon and Bolton’s bastard, and Princess Shireen, and you and your lack of taste and storytelling prowess will probably lose me, too.

***

For another really interesting post about giving up on The Walking Dead, check this out.

12 Days of Christmas Music That Won’t Turn Your Brain to Goo (Day 7)

Unless you’ve been living under a boulder the size of a bantha or have eschewed all mention of pop culture anywhere, then you know why I’m posting this song today.

Maybe you’re not a fan of the movies, the books, the universe that is inspired. My fandom doesn’t require that you be.

Episode IV was the first movie I saw in a cinema, and it had a profound impact on me. Not just because it was a movie and I hadn’t seen one on the big screen before. Not just because Princess Leia was the kind of strong woman that I think my mother wanted me to become. Not just because the special effects were groundbreaking for their time. All those things, yes.

But also? Because my father in his youth was a comics and sci-fi fiend. I saw all the big movies with him — the Star Wars films, Star Trek, Superman, the list goes on — and he read me Spider-Man comics at bedtime. As he got older, his fandom subsided under the weight of his adult responsibilities, and this thing we shared became something of a fond memory.

But today, later this morning, I will be at a cinema with him. And with my mom and my brother (who’s home for a few days from Hong Kong) and my sister and my husband and my children. We will share this awesome thing again.

I hope the movie is good, I really do. But even if it’s not as great as I hope it will be, I will probably love the experience of being there with my family, and that, for me, is enough.

Enjoy.

 

12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck, 2014 Edition (Day 8)

So don’t hate me for today’s post.

The first time I heard this song was in a movie, and I assumed it was a song written for the movie. It was a movie I really, really enjoyed (and highly recommend), and the scene where the song appears is crazy-charming and filled with warm fuzzies. I loved it.

Fast forward a year or so, and I hear this song on the radio. It’s being sung by someone whose music I don’t generally listen to. But I still love the song, and I like her version, too. I know this song annoys a lot of people — and I know this is in part because of who’s singing it — but I think it’s really fun in a way that lots of older carols just aren’t anymore. Maybe in a few years I’ll be tired of this one, too.

Just a spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie Love Actually but are planning to, watching this scene is going to spoil some of the ending for you. Bear that in mind before clicking play, if you care about that sort of thing.

 

Looper? Um…Not So Much…

I cannot deny that the acting — all of the acting — in the new movie Looper is good.  It is.

I cannot deny that the prosthetic make-up used on Joseph Gordon-Levitt to make him look like a young Bruce Willis is both subtle and effective.  It’s excellent, as is his mastery of Willis’ smarmy smirk.

I can’t even deny that the story is interesting and, at times, clever.  Check.

But I really didn’t like this movie. Continue reading “Looper? Um…Not So Much…”

The Dark Knight Trilogy: How I Learned To Quit Worrying And Love The Bat (Again)

My relationship with Batman is complicated. But then, that’s the only kind of relationship Batman ever has.

First, some backstory: I was fortunate enough as a child to be raised on comics and science fiction and fairy tales just as much as the literary classics. The first book I ever read on my own, at the age of four, was Continue reading “The Dark Knight Trilogy: How I Learned To Quit Worrying And Love The Bat (Again)”