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Getting Medieval on Tarantino's Ass

by Guy Trenzich

I was as big a fan of Pulp Fiction as anyone. I loved its remarkable energy, and its absurdity — John Travolta’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters having the world’s most mundane conversation, about Big Macs, en route to blow someone’s brains out. I thought some of the writing — “I’m going to get medieval on your ass” — hilarious. But my exhilaration was ephemeral.  The pleasure I’d derived from the medieval-on-one’s-ass quip couldn’t stand up to my self-disgust at the realization that I could find sadism so amusing. 

Tarantino continues to find it hilarious. There’s a scene in Django Unchained in which a pair of plantation owners get their slaves to fight each other. At the end of the fight, the plantation owner played by Leonard DiCaprio gives his slave a hammer with which to put his exhausted opponent out of his misery. We don’t see the fatal blow, but boy, do we hear it. Behold the most brazenly amoral filmmaker in the history of the American cinema at his most restrained. 

David Denby has pointed out the auteur’s “love of elaborate rhetoric — the extremes of politeness, the exquisitely beautiful word, the lengthy, ridiculous argument that becomes funny precisely because it’s…entirely beside the point.” It’s exactly this, I think, that make for scenes — such as that in Django in which DiCaprio’s character and Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter discuss phrenology until the viewer loses the will to live , or, alternatively, the ability to keep his eyelids aloft — as boring as any director in the world is putting on the screen. It’s almost as though the lurid, hyperadrenalized violence in which he so delights is compensation for those scenes’ tedium, appeasement for the video game crowd.

In Inglourious Basterds, during which I fell asleep twice during endless on-screen gabfests, Tarantino asks us to get off on the prospect of a Jewish American soldier killing a Nazi officer with a baseball bat, to let our bloodlust override our sense that retaliatory brutality is only negligibly less repugnant than that to which it’s a response. He does the same sort of thing in Django. Given the inhumanity of the slave owners, don’t we revel in the inhumanity of those who butcher them? An eye for an eye, motherfucker!

What we’re to understand, the maestro tells us, is that, “violence can be cool. I specialize in making you laugh at things that aren’t normally funny,” such as things that would ordinarily make us turn away in revulsion. Hey, thanks for that, Quent. 

But maybe he isn’t the sadist he at first seems. As Johann Hari has observed in The Independent [UK], “Tarantino’s films aren’t even sadistic. Sadists take human suffering seriously; that’s why they enjoy it. Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing eheek to cheek,” the allusion being to Tarantino’s infamous description of violence as just another color on a director’s palette, like Fred Astaire’s dancing.

A Quentin Tarantino movie is in some ways analogous to a terrifying, perhaps physically discomfiting, amusement park ride. As the ride allows us to demonstrate that we’ve much testosterone coursing through our veins, the film allows us to demonstrate our hipness. The less the unspeakable brutality sickens us and instead amuses us, the more au fait we are with the cinema history Tarantino soaked up so voluminously in his days as a video store clerk. Or something.

That’s no mere gore up there, but an homage! And Tarantino sells himself short describing it as merely cool. It’s totally awesome.

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