Inglorious Bastard

I spent the better part of last Friday evening with the new Quentin Tarantino picture, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a film that anyone with even a mild appreciation of cinematic history really owes to himself or herself to see.  Like every other Tarantino project to date (only more so), this one is about nothing so much as the joy and richness of the movies themselves.  For those, like me, with a soft spot for American culture in the late 1960s, there may not be a more blissful 160 minutes spent in a movie theater this year.

That is, except for the violence against women, of which (one might say) there is slightly more than is strictly necessary.

For all his unheralded success—creative and financial—over the past quarter-century, Quentin Tarantino has always presented as a problematic figure in the Hollywood-industrial complex.  Early on, in films like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, Tarantino was taken to task for his screenplays’ rather liberal use of the word “nigger” by white and black characters alike—a pattern that led admirers like me to half-jokingly surmise that perhaps he, like Rachel Dolezal years later, is under a mistaken impression of his own racial identity and privilege.  (In fact, he identifies as a mixture of Irish, Italian and Cherokee.)

When he hasn’t been batting away accusations of racial insensitivity and/or appropriation, Tarantino has had to answer for his oeuvre’s general use of extreme, gratuitous violence as an integral part of each

film’s narrative arc—typically in the form of Mexican standoff-like confrontations involving guns, knives and the occasional samurai sword.  (Not to mention the one-off deaths caused by such things as poisoned coffee, a black mamba snake and a Pop-Tart.)

That Tarantino has gotten away with this—earning critical adulation and impressive box office returns, to boot—is due, in great part, to the knowing, witty, near-cartoonish nature of that violence.  Like country music, abstract expressionism or Boris Johnson, it almost dares you to take it seriously, ultimately earning your admiration and approval through sheer force of style.

More to the point, the dynamic of these bloodbaths is either to pit good guys versus bad guys—with the former always triumphing in the end—or to contain no good guys at all, and therefore no one to feel especially sorry for.

As such, despite the excessiveness of it all, the morality of Tarantino’s cinematic smackdowns has historically been fairly straightforward:  A band of Jewish renegades massacres an auditorium full of Nazis, say, and we cheer them on because, hey, what’s more pleasurable and cathartic than sticking it to the Third Reich?  Sure, maybe the job could’ve been done with 10 bullets instead of 10,000—plus or minus the flammable nitrate film that burns the joint to the ground, for good measure—but then who ever went to a Tarantino flick for sensibility or restraint?

Indeed, Tarantino’s sinister genius in these set pieces is to make them so perversely and deliriously enjoyable that we become implicated in them—accessories rather than bystanders, tacitly condoning the use of over-the-top carnage, against our supposedly better judgment.

Where this becomes uncomfortable—as it now has in two Tarantino films in a row—is when the carnage is visited by a strong man upon a weak woman.  In 2015’s The Hateful Eight—spoiler alert!—there was Jennifer Jason Leigh being lynched by a gleeful, chuckling Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins.  And now in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood—spoiler alert number two!—we have a set of Manson Family acolytes—barely old enough to drive—being mauled, burned and body-slammed by two of America’s most beloved movie stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

To be clear:  In context, all of those women had it coming.  By this point in their respective films, they’d already wrecked unholy havoc unto others and were hell-bent on wrecking even more, given the chance.  They are not passive, innocent victims.  They have agency and, like many of their male counterparts, are unambiguously wretched people.

It is for that very reason that the audience feels licensed to revel in their messy, sadistic demise at the hands of men who are all-too-happy to bring it about.  The net result is an auditorium full of people hooting and hollering at women being brutalized, and there’s just no way around the awkwardness of it springing from the mind of a 56-year-old man-child with #MeToo issues.

Lest we forget—as most of the culture apparently has—Tarantino owes the balance of his career to one Harvey Weinstein, the producer and sexual super-predator about whom Tarantino famously said in October 2017, “I knew enough to do more than I did.”  While the director himself has not been accused of sexual criminality—and reportedly confronted Weinstein about his criminal behavior on at least two occasions in the past—he was, by his own accounting, ultimately an enabler of a serial rapist for the sake of preserving and advancing his own career.

The question—as it has been during the 22 months of the #MeToo era—is:  What do we do this information?  Outside of the legal system, how do we assign blame and allocate punishment for the systematic, grisly, institutionalized raping and pillaging of vulnerable women by some of the most powerful men in show business—and, in this case, for those who allowed it to happen and only apologized when they were cornered and had no other choice?

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first new movie since #MeToo began.  I must confess that, although I was aware of his negligence vis-à-vis Harvey Weinstein—not to mention his recklessly pressuring Uma Thurman into doing her own stunt driving in Kill Bill, resulting in serious injury—I had somehow put them entirely out of my mind until the moment Brad Pitt slammed the Manson girls’ heads against the wall in the film’s climactic scene.  And even then, I grew only faintly cognizant of how grotesque it was for a filmmaker with such a checkered relationship with the gentler sex—and supposedly chastened by the belated exposure of his longtime benefactor—to choose to conclude his movie by beating the living daylights out of a pair of women known primarily for falling under the influence of a powerful, dangerous sociopath.

It’s not a terribly great look—not for Tarantino, and not for the men in the audience (like me) who can so easily check their feminist wokeness at the door for the sake of entertainment—and the fact that nobody seems to give a damn suggests either that few hold Tarantino liable for the abominations committed by the producer with whom he worked for 25 years, or that #MeToo itself is on the wane in the public consciousness, as we return to the status quo ante in which men can do whatever they want and, because they’re famous, we let them do it.

 

Whodunit?

There’s an old personality test—introduced to me in middle school and lovingly preserved on the interwebs—involving a woman who gets herself killed journeying between her husband and her lover.  The “test,” as it were, centers on the question of who is most to blame for the woman’s untimely death.  Is it the bored husband who neglected to take his wife along on his business trip?  Is it the greedy boatman who refused to ferry her across the river to safety?  Is it the heartless boyfriend who didn’t lift a finger in her defense?  Or is it the woman herself for being unfaithful and blundering into the wrong place at the wrong time?

It’s a ridiculous conceit, but the idea is that how you assign blame for the woman’s murder is determined by what you value most in life.  The options, in this case, include such things as “fun,” “sex,” “money” and, my personal favorite, “magic.”

Anyway, that story’s been on my mind for the last few days as I’ve seen Donald Trump campaign events descend into violence and mayhem whenever a gaggle of anti-Trump agitators has sneaked its way into the arena.

With regards to these unholy scuffles, everyone seems to have a firm opinion about who is most at fault.  Interestingly, however—and I think you know where I’m going with this—no one can quite agree on who, exactly, that is.

Obviously, then, what we need is to update that silly game about the two-timing wife so that it applies to our own time and our own values.  With Trump—a man who stands as America’s signal Rorschach test of 2016—we can learn a great deal about how each of us thinks just by how we interpret what is happening directly in front of our eyes.

From a sampling of reactions, we find that most people trace the cause of this campaign unrest to either a) the protesters, b) Trump supporters or c) Trump himself.  To an extent, one’s opinion of these incidents is merely an affectation of one’s politics:  If you find Donald Trump generally detestable, you generally attribute all detestable acts to the man himself.  Conversely, if you think Trump speaks truth to political correctness, you find fault only with those who are preventing him from speaking.  It’s confirmation bias in action:  You see what you want to see and filter out everything else.

But of course, all of that is but the tip of the bloody, bloody iceberg.  However illuminating it might be to debate which side threw the first punch, it’s not until folks start to blame those who weren’t even in the room that the real fun begins.

We might start with the Donald himself, who has fingered Bernie Sanders as the main culprit for the madness, saying that the party crashers at his gatherings are on direct marching orders from the socialist from Vermont.  It is noteworthy that Trump bases this claim on no evidence whatsoever, while he has simultaneously blamed other outbursts on ISIS—yes, that ISIS—due to a YouTube video that was swiftly exposed as a typical Internet hoax.  As Trump explained on Meet the Press, “All I know is what’s on the Internet,” reminding us that he is apparently the one person in America who believes, with all his heart, that if it’s online, it must be true.

Farce that this undeniably is, such behavior nonetheless offers real insights into Trump’s personality and that of his fellow travelers.  Strongest among these, perhaps, is the value of “truthiness,” a.k.a. believing something to be true simply because your gut tells you so.

In fact, Trump’s entire movement is dependent on truthiness, since at least 80 percent of his campaign’s major claims are demonstrably false and his promise of “restoring America’s greatness” is one big fatuous smoke-and-mirrors routine containing nary a whiff of substance or honest reporting.  If all presidential candidates engage in hyperbole, Trump is unique for engaging in absolutely nothing else.

The real problem, though, is how sinister that hyperbole has been for the last nine months and how deeply it has metastasized within the GOP.  While this week’s outright physical violence might be relatively new, the truth is that Trump and his flock have been blaming other people for America’s problems for his entire presidential run.  Like any seasoned demagogue, Trump has invented most of this blame from whole cloth, while at other times he has even managed to invent the problems themselves.  (Who would ever know, for instance, that net immigration from Mexico is actually negative over the last five years, or that U.S. military spending increased from 2014 to 2015?)

Which leads us, as it must, to the most disturbing personality quirk of all:  The one that blames all of this turmoil on African-Americans and views the entire American experience in terms of white supremacy.

While it would be irresponsible to peg every Trump voter as a white supremacist—or, specifically, a Nazi or a Klansman—the point is that Trump rallies have become a safe space—if not a veritable breeding ground—for white people who think that punching, kicking and spitting on black people is their God-given right as members of a privileged race.  For all Trump’s claims that the protesters are the true instigators of these melees, most video clips suggest otherwise:  Largely, we just keep seeing groups of young, mostly black people nonviolently holding up signs and chanting cheeky slogans while white guards and white attendees proceed to manhandle them with the greatest possible force—egged on, every single time, by the candidate himself.

You see pictures like these—paired with people like Mike Huckabee calling the protesters “thugs,” a word that Republicans only ever use to describe African-Americans—and you realize all that’s missing are the dogs and the fire hoses.

Among the many sick ironies of Donald Trump is his supposed fidelity to the First Amendment, which he claims the dissenters at his rallies are attempting to suppress (as if Trump has ever lacked an outlet for expressing himself on a moment’s notice).  Historical ignoramus that he is, he doesn’t seem to realize that, when it comes to muzzling free speech, few things are more effective than riling up a large gang of angry white people by telling them how to mistreat a small gang of dark-skinned antagonists.  (And then, of course, pleading ignorance when those same white people do exactly what you suggest.)

Even if there were nothing at all race-based in Trump and company’s behavior, we would still be left with this profoundly dangerous idea that all problems can, and should, be solved with physical violence.  To hear Trump talk, you’d think his were the first-ever campaign events to feature any sort of disruptors and that there is no rational response except to treat them like enemy combatants.  (How long before Trump recommends waterboarding?)

The relevant terms here are “escalate” and “de-escalate.”  As any honest police officer knows, whenever you are faced with a potentially explosive situation, it is your moral responsibility to try to de-escalate tensions and not make matters worse.  Indeed, for anyone who wields authority or influence over others—not least in politics—the obligation to lead by example and get your minions under control is absolute and non-negotiable.

Donald Trump has failed that charge over and over again.  In so doing, he has revealed which values he holds dear and which values he does not—if, that is, he can be said to possess any values at all.

It proved quite prescient that Trump opened his campaign while riding an escalator in Trump Tower in Manhattan:  As it turns out, he is an escalator.