How Tarantino Plays the Audience

Christmas Day 2009: Inglorious Basterds was my family’s ‘Christmas Day film’. I didn’t know who Quentin Tarantino was, but I remembered Basterds advertised as a standard Brad Pitt WW2 shoot-em-up (like Fury would be a few years later). Hyperactive teenage me found himself watching a near three hour long movie, made up mostly of dialogue, heavily subtitled, slow-burn pacing with minimal action scenes: I was agitatedly bored and complained to my family throughout. And then the climax came: theatre burning down, audience in chaos, the Basterds bursting in gunning everyone in sight, Nazis on fire, big explosion finale. My uncle turned to me and said, ‘That enough for you?’ Indeed. That’s what I’d been craving.

Which seems to be the exact response Tarantino is looking to illicit. It’s a sort of trick (or trap). Scenes before, Nazi command watched Nation’s Pride, the fictional Nazi propaganda film, Hitler laughing hysterically at every on-screen kill, and we’re right to think he’s deranged, he deserves what’s coming to him. But minutes later the whole thing is flipped. We’re shown our own propagandist wish fulfilment (the Basterds represent amped-up American bravado). The Jews get their bloody revenge, offing Hitler themselves, denying him his ‘coward’s way out’. But this doesn’t change the fact we’re sat watching, and getting a thrill off of, a scene showing a cinema-full of people being gunned and burned to death. Tarantino has said he swapped the costumes of some of the extras playing Germans stuck in the cinema into everyday modern American clothes. Anyone taking this scene too seriously, as a triumphant ‘win’, is cheering for their side being killed too.

Since the ’90s — specifically: since the six year hiatus that bridged Jackie Brown and Kill Bill — Tarantino has played up to his reputation as maker of violent films. Which makes it easy to forget that the ’90s movies weren’t that violent. Most of the violent stuff happens off-screen: in Reservoir Dogs Mr. Blonde’s killing spree is a non-scene the movie circles around; the camera pans away from him cutting off the cop’s ear. (You’ll see more blood in the average action movie.) Tarantino once said to an interviewer, ‘You don’t go to a Metallica concert and ask them to turn the music down.’ And he’s been very happy to turn the music, in this case the violence, up in his films. Here, have as much as you want!

Online I’ve seen the case made that Basterds’ ending is Tarantino subliminally telling his audience he hates them. Or that they’re as bad as the Nazis, caught up in a hedonic voyeurism by the violent perversions on screen. Both unlikely given Tarantino’s love of violent films. Tarantino’s choice of villains is crucial — Nazis, slave-owners, the Manson family. WW2 is the simplest Good vs Evil narrative of the secular world. No wonder it’s constantly used as background fodder for action movies. We laugh at Hitler’s face being mulched up by bullets — it’s a funny image, and it’s Hitler after all, it’s not like you feel bad for the guy — but we’re still laughing the same way he did a few scenes earlier: laughing at violence because we’re inside a (cultural) narrative that justifies this particular violence. The use of such recognisable, and unquestionable, villains is it means we hardly stop to think about the violence being enacted on them.

Basterds certainly isn’t a ‘message movie’ but there’s more than the details of the plot going on here. (I think) Tarantino’s point is it’s not wrong to enjoy violent movies, but it is wrong to support the violence, to think these movies are more than just entertainment. It’s when that line is crossed that something morphs from entertainment to propaganda, and the audience is complicit in it.

(Tarantino loves to play a ‘switcheroo’ on the audience. E.g. the anti-climax of Kill Bill vol 2 following 1’s hyperviolence. His least interesting films are those that indulge in violence without also acting as a commentary on it; see: Django Unchained.)

Tarantino repeats this even more blatantly in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In scenes placed sporadically throughout the film, and mostly separate from the main Dalton-Booth storyline, we follow Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), scenes showing her getting on with life and enjoying herself. On first viewing these scenes can’t help but stand as omens reminding us of what is coming.

Besides the last scene, and a brutal beating earlier at the Manson Family ranch, there isn’t much violence. It’s a buddy movie, a love letter to filmmaking and Old Hollywood, the most carefully paced Tarantino film since Jackie Brown.

When Hollywood’s premise was first revealed many fans guessed Tate would be the one to kill the Manson Family members who killed her in real life — continuing the trend of historical characters or groups getting their fictional revenge, like in Basterds and Django. But in the film the real timeline is diverted when members of the Family decide they will kill Dalton, and whoever else is in his house, instead, having come to the realisation that their generation is so fucked up and violent because of actors like Dalton glorifying violence on TV and making it look cool.

The final stretch of the film begins with a TV presenter saying (to no one in particular, and so to us), ‘And now, what you’ve been waiting for.’ Which is of course a violent finale. And Tarantino delivers. This last scene, with an acid-tripping Brad Pitt and (crucially) his pet pit bull, is among the best scenes of cinema violence ever. It’s pure unadulterated fun. Dalton finishes things off with a flamethrower from one of his movies, aligning fiction and reality. The movie was a WW2 flick where Dalton burns a room full of Nazis: the clip of it we see earlier brings Basterds to mind, making Dalton, the actor warned about being typecast in violent, villainous roles, a stand-in for Tarantino, for whom the violence of his movies has always overshadowed everything else. But it’s not Dalton who’s the villain for playing violent characters on screen, it’s the Mansons for taking them too damn seriously. In both Basterds and Hollywood the people who take the movies too seriously are killed violently. Fictional violence ‘defeating’ the real violence.

Afterwards, Dalton goes round to meet Sharon and her guests. The title comes on screen, a big What if? — Tarantino has given us another image of filmic wish fulfilment. It’s a twisted fantasy, sure, but certainly better than the reality. It’s a happy alternate reality where Tate gets to live and have her child and keep making movies. Of course it can’t help being bittersweet, because it underlines what unalterably happened. Some critics and viewers criticised the film for using Tate merely as a plot device; she has few lines of dialogue throughout, making her seem like little but a tease for the ending. But then Tarantino doesn’t even give her her bloody revenge. He has her go to parties, go to the cinema and watch her own movie with a cheering audience, dance round the house. Even if it’s just fantasy, we’re here for fantasy anyway so here’s a nice one. But Tarantino gives us the gorefest too — because he knows us, knows we’re all too bloodthirsty and jaded and ADD to accept a movie just about an innocent woman getting to enjoy her life; and he was right, most people ignore that part of the film entirely, or think it’s pointless or unneeded, filler on the way to the good stuff, and he puts the two side by side to prove it.

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