Tarantino’s style is often hailed/decried as a gratuitous aestheticism of violence. In many ways, this assessment is spot on.
However, explanations as to why that may be fail to grasp that although Tarantino’s stylized depiction of violence remains consistent throughout his career, his understanding of violence and the purpose it serves evolves in his work.
From his earliest work, turning blood spattering into Pollockian painting and murderous sprees into highly choreographed dance is what made Tarantino’s signature style so popular. Much of his genius, however, lies in turning a literary sub-genre into cinematographic art.
Indeed, his first films are in subject matter, in tone, and – in the case of Pulp Fiction – even in title a historical reference to a template for popular literature of the 1950s. Until the release of the eponymous film, pulp fiction referred to the type of cheap fiction that was published on even cheaper wood-pulp that the newly literate masses would read for distraction. Much to the distaste of the cultural elites, these novels would often tell tales of crime, vice and seduction that guaranteed its commercial success and its categorization as “improper reading material.”
Tarantino’s first films – Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – are directly inspired by the cultural output of these unremembered yet widely read authors of the 1950s. His chief accomplishment, however, was to draw from a genre broadly categorized as inartistic – and even anti-artistic for its most vehement critics – and create films acclaimed first and foremost for their aesthetic value.
In a sense, Tarantino’s earliest films are not only creating a style and ambiance that later productions were to feed from, they are also a brilliant demonstration of the artistry inherent in all forms of popular culture – although it may go unrecognized at the time of its conception.
The revenge of the underdogs
The more recent productions released by Tarantino explore history more fully. They are still built on his immediately recognizable atmosphere and style of photography which derives from 1950s pulp fiction, but they also address deeper historical issues.
The condition of women, the Holocaust, Slavery – the great injustices of the past are thrown under Tarantino’s lens in his latest cycle of films which include Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Depicting the revenge of a group of feminists, the revenge of a platoon of Jews and the revenge of an African-American slave, Tarantino’s last three films may fall under the heading “the revenge of the historical underdog.”
Taking liberties with history, Tarantino’s cinema goes in line with much of historiographical attempts to memorialize the past – and particularly a violent past – and then far beyond traditional attempts at memorialization. The first half of either of these films offers an accurate – and often crude – depiction of history as it occurred. Once the stage is set, Tarantino redistributes the historical cards and casts the victims in the role of avengers.
Filling an emotional and historical gap through fiction – allowing the oppressed to deliver justice to themselves – Tarantino not only creates a highly effective narrative device, he also offers a form of cathartic violence which can de-victimize the victims. The underlying argument is that while historical accuracy and memorialization is important, it is a task that ought to run parallel to a cultural healing process, restoring agency and thus creating more effective role models within groups memorialized as victims.
Importantly, the gratuitous violence of the first films which were a reference to the violent and immoral literature of the 50s is replaced in his later works by a historically cleansing violence. In order for the victims of the injustices of the past to make a full recovery and reclaim the status of equals which they were denied, the wrongs which they suffered must be projected on the screen but so too must the retribution, delivered by the hand of the victim him/herself. Nothing short of setting the historical score straight, for Tarantino, can assure that the errors of the past have been amended.
Historical change in Tarantino
As all amateurs of blood and gore, Tarantino knows his history. Beyond offering a post-revisionist reading of the plight of women, Jews and African-Americans, a subtle account of historical change is also discernible in his work.
In particular, his films Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained both rely on the magnificent performance delivered by Christoph Waltz. The fact that the same actor impersonates SS commander Hans Landa in the former and bounty-hunter Dr King Schultz in the latter illustrates Tarantino’s nuanced understanding of history.
Indeed, the characters Landa and Schultz are two sides of the same actor and two sides of the same historical coin. Without the former – the “Jew Hunter” as he is referred to in the film – the latter would not have been possible. Crucially, the interpretation of both roles by Waltz highlights the fundamental impact on the birth of the Civil Rights movements that was induced by the hypocrisy of a segregated American force sent to fight a racist regime in the Second World War.
The racism that was fought and killed in Europe gave the impulse for broader liberation from racism at home in the aftermath of the war. For Tarantino, good can therefore come out of evil – but only under the right conditions. The point is not that Landa resurrected as Schultz is a liberator for the slave Django. Rather he is an enabler, giving Django the skills and material he needs to fight his own battle and succeed.
This understanding of violence adds a further layer of complexity onto the highly stylized violence of the earlier films produced by the director. Violence in Tarantino’s can be good and serve to rectify the wrongs that have been committed in the past. But even violence that is purely evil can create a ripple that will yield a good outcome in a different place, at a different time.
Violence in Tarantino’s films
While Tarantino’s depiction of violence has remained very much in the line of his earliest films, Tarantino’s understanding of violence has considerably altered throughout his career. In fact, competing notions of violence and the purpose it serves are delivered through his work.
The earliest Tarantino films correspond to the gratuitous definition of violence that has become synonymous with his name and which sees violence as neither good nor bad – merely aesthetic.
The later Tarantino films explore the conception of illegitimate violence and the cleansing effect of corrective violence both as strong narrative devices and as part of a cultural healing process to run parallel to a broader historical memorialization.
The final conception of violence which Tarantino offers and which can be seen between his two latest films is more nuanced. It sees violence for unjust purposes somewhere as potentially serving a just purpose everywhere. The weapons used to combat illegitimate violence in one struggle are transferred and re-purposed to other struggles against illegitimate violence elsewhere. In this way, for Tarantino, resisting injustice somewhere implies standing up against injustice everywhere.
Violence in film a remedy for violence in real life?
A recurring question for Tarantino to address in the media has been that of the supposed correlation between violence in film and violence in real life. This question surfaced particularly strongly in relation to his portrayal of historical victims in the role of historical agents, repaying illegitimate violence “blood for blood.”
What is particularly disturbing with the definition of violence offered in Tarantino’s latest work is that violence, given the right circumstances, can actually be a valid means to a just end – unlike his original definition of the concept as neither good nor bad. In a particularly tense interview given in the context of Tarantino’s promotion of the release of Django Unchained, the director flat-out refused to address it.
His point has always been to defend the separation of cinema or fantasy and reality. Justifying the violent character of his movies, Tarantino alternates between talking about the entertaining and fun aspect and the fact that it actually makes for good cinema. No one can deny the pure thrill and satisfaction the audience feels from the fantasized justice-bearing endings Tarantino adds to tragic histories.
Yet the role-models that Tarantino creates are fantasy. The fact that they can and do exercise violence that is just and that is fantasized is a security valve for violence in reality. In a sense, by enacting the historical violence on film, it satisfies a thirst for vengeance that no longer needs acting out in the real world.