Why Quentin Tarantino is a Shithead

(And No, It’s Not Mostly About the N Word)

In a recent article about The Matrix, I mentioned that basically, Quentin Tarantino is a shithead. I don’t think most leftist film fans would disagree, at least not those who aren’t in the “progress is for WHITE MEN” camp, but a huge amount of criticism of the dude falls on his use of the N-word, both as an actor and in the mouths of his characters. That is most definitely part of what makes him a shithead. But (inception noise) we need to go deeper. Like the ideologies of racism and genocide and murder his films interrogate — often quite intelligently — Mr. Tarantino’s shitheadery is insidious and kind of subtle.

What freaks me out is, I think he knows this. I think he banks on it, and I think he thinks that the fact that he knows his movies are genius works of film which are also propaganda for racism, white saviorism, vigilantism, misogyny, and arguably even slavery and the Holocaust makes that okay, because they’re so genius.

The first film by Tarantino I ever saw was Kill Bill. Like most femsploitation films it used rape as a plot device tastelessly, and it reveled in cruelty — some of the fates the Bride’s victims suffer unsettle me even now. Honestly though I’m not sure it really gets too much worse than if someone let Joss Whedon make an adaptation of The Killing Joke *gets phone call* *face goes ashen* They’re letting Joss Whedon make an adaptation of The Killing Joke, fuck everything.

The first Tarantino film I saw that I took seriously was Inglorious Basterds. I have to say the ending was a shock to me on the level of getting to watch The Empire Strikes Back unspoiled (which I did). It was the same year as Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, in which a failed attempt on Hitler’s life is depicted fairly accurately. I assumed that Basterds would end similarly. Of course I wanted to cheer at the ending, and one of my first papers in my PhD program was a critical analysis of Basterds — while my family is in small part Jewish, we’ve never practiced and I’ve always wanted to convert, something I’m currently finally pursuing. Working with my late adviser, James Arnt Aune, a devout Jew, and another friend of mine who was also Jewish, I attempted to ascertain whether the Holocaust revenge fantasy of Basterds was abhorrent or offered something of value. Neither Dr. Aune nor my friend had anything conclusive to say, and reviews from the Jewish community were similarly divided, with some folks seeing it as making light of a tragedy that can’t be made better by imagining we got to kill the guy who died two years later anyway, when he had already been murdering Jews for a decade, and others feeling the revenge fantasy offered a catharsis that Jewish folks are often denied in Holocaust tales.

I come down, with the admission that I’m not religiously Jewish yet so I can’t be a decisive authority, on the side of those who feel the film was tasteless, and here’s why: in the film’s climax, Shoshanna, the only survivor of Nazi officer Hans Landa’s murder of her family, sets a movie theater aflame containing Hitler and the bulk of Nazi leadership, including those responsible for masterful Nazi propaganda. (The film is littered with references to Nazi era filmmakers like Riefenstahl and Pabst, whose work I show at times in my classes to show just how deeply Nazi filmography techniques have survived and propogated themselves in our popular culture.) The fire Shoshanna sets is literally propogated by explosive film feels — a statement about the power and danger of film — and Hitler and company die with Shoshanna lecturing them on screen about Jewish vengeance. All of this feels very satisfying — but the point is essentially "Jews could have stopped Hitler if they were better at filmmaking, which I, Quentin Tarantino, am good at." It’s a celebration of Nazi culture, disguised as a Jewish revenge film. And the key problem is that what Tarantino admires is not Jewish revenge, but Nazi filmmaking — filmmaking which was actively promoted as “genius perverted to evil ends” to redeem the careers of Nazi-collaborating filmmakers post WWII.

It gets worse, and more obvious, in Django Unchained, aka “what if we did Basterds but with SLAVERY IN AMERICA????!!” But I think Unchained really contains the clearest demonstration of why Mr. Tarantino is a shithead of any of his work: because the film isn’t really about “wouldn’t it be cool if Jamie Foxx escaped slavery and killed Confederate sons of bitches,” but “I am Quentin Tarantino and I made my career off of being a false ally to black people and profiting from it. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to stop doing it.” You see, the real character arc in the film isn’t Foxx’s Django, or his wife who is raped repeatedly and stripped of her cultural identity by uncaring slavers, or the poor slave D’Artagnen — more on him in a moment — who is eaten alive by dogs. Rather, it’s Christoph Walz’s character — and just as in Bastards, where Walz plays Colonel Landa, the performance is admirable.

Walz’s character IS Quentin Tarantino, or his career, summed up. The first thing he does is rescue Django and some other slaves — but only provides aid to Django himself, leaving the others to fend for themselves, much as Tarantino has made a star of Samuel L. Jackson but done far less for other actors of color. Walz’s character is intellectual,sympathetic, and says he abhors racism. I believe him, too — but he abhors racism because he wants to be one of the Good White People. He tells Django he hates slavery but won’t free Django until he’s helped him with some bounty hunting. Then, out of his sense of guilt,he agrees to help rescue Django’s wife from the abhorrent clutches of Calvin Candy, played by Leonardo diCaprio, who notably did not take pleasure in depicting his character’s racism as Tarantino’s nigh universally N-word spewing cameos do, but rather had to be coached to even say the N-word.

Here’s the thing: a lot of critics have praised the way that Walz’s arc plays out. After seeing D’Artagnen, the aforementioned victim of being eaten by dogs, suffer this horrible fate, Walz helps Foxx secure a deal in which his wife can go free. The only catch is diCaprio’s character’s southern “honor" — he demands to shake hands on the deal. Walz asks if diCaprio is aware that the character D’Artagnen, from the Three Musketeers, for whom the deceased man was named, was created by a biracial Black man. Then, instead of shaking hands, he shoots diCaprio dead and is promptly gunned down himself, leaving Foxx’s character to rescue his wife and destroy the plantation himself.

Many critical responses see this as a recognition of how important it is that minority characters be given the opportunity to save themselves, rather than relying on guilt ridden majority group saviors. This is in fact part of what Tarantino meant to convey. But what’s being missed is that the entire film is a microcosm of what Walz’s character does: he fucks over a black man and his wife for the sake of becoming a martyr for white allyship. Everyone in the movie would have been better off had Walz accepted that he was a white man and he had to make a deal with a racist to help his friend. Instead — senseless violence, leading to his friend’s torture and sexual assault.

Quentin Tarantino knows he has built his career, like the bounty hunter who serves as the true main character of Unchained, off of the labor of black men and women. And he made an entire movie to acknowledge this.

I’ve got nothing against cathartic revenge fantasies. Tarantino even does center those who are truly victimized by that which the revenge is being exacted for more than many — Unchained is no Free State of Jones or Schindler’s List. But when I see revenge films by members of marginalized groups, like The Matrix — a transgender revenge story at its heart — dragged for being problematic, and when black and Jewish filmmakers basically never get the opportunity to make films of Tarantino’s profile, I think making a film where the point is that you’re a racist shithead and you feel bad for it qualifies you as an official racist shithead.

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