A Tarantino Thinkpiece

I’m not really sure what I want to achieve with this, as I don’t think I have a particularly unique perspective, nor am I a talented enough writer to put it in a way that no one else can express.  I suppose it is an act of venting, more than anything.

Uma Thurman is the latest in a long line (over 80 now) women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.  While this is shocking and upsetting, her accusations went further and involved director Quentin Tarantino.  Not in the same terms, of course, but of a different kind of disregard for her body in the form of stunt driving that should never have happened.  The resulting footage – shared for the first time after Thurman’s lengthy battle to obtain it – is sickening.  Link to original article here.

Some have already questioned Thurman in terms of how long it has taken her to speak out, how she worked with Weinstein after her attack and why she couldn’t say no to Tarantino’s demands for her to take part in the stunt driving.  There’s a counter to this which often gets lost – why has it taken so long that women feel able to speak out, why Weinstein was still working when his abuse of women was an open secret among journalists and other stars and finally, why Tarantino saw fit to put someone he claimed to love in a needlessly dangerous situation.

While he has been afforded privacy (in an obscenely expensive rehab facility) to battle his demons (between barbed statements to discredit the growing numbers of women), the women concerned have found themselves in public spaces, forced to justify their every action or inaction.

The ‘perfect victim’ doesn’t exist.  In a perfect world the first young woman who Weinstein behaved sexually inappropriately or aggressively towards would have fled the room, told her story, been taken seriously and Weinstein would have been rightfully punished by the justice system.  However, there are myriad reasons for why people don’t behave that way when subjected to trauma.  There are almost certainly women who have partaken in the casting couch culture as a choice (although one has to question the weight of expectation on a young actress walking in a business meeting who finds her extremely powerful boss in a bathrobe).  What people seem to forget is that the people who willingly had sex with Weinstein are not the accusers.  The accusers were those who did not consent.

The idea that women are coming forward to join a bandwagon is absurd – what do they have to gain?  Take Asia Argento, for example, who has been roundly vilified in her native Italy.  Take Rose McGowan, who, while problematic, has been attacked for many statements and overall behaviour.  There appear to be no advantages or positive outcomes for these women – just further scrutiny.

Thurman’s revelations offer an extra layer to the abuse of actresses.  Within the interview, Thurman speaks of her creative relationship with Quentin Tarantino but tellingly, at one point refers to him as an angry older brother.  Their initial partnership is successful for both, but Tarantino seems to need convincing of the gravity of Weinstein’s problems.  However, he does confront Weinstein, which must have felt to Thurman that she still had her creative ally onside.  This is until Kill Bill, where Tarantino’s insistence that Thurman drive an unsafe stunt car is weighted by the fact that she would cost the production too much money by not doing it.  In addition, he insists on being included in scenes of violence against her where it is not necessary – something which also occurred during the filming of Death Proof with Diane Kruger.

There is no doubt that all of Tarantino’s films carry an element of fetish.  This is not just present in his inclusion of long shots of female feet or weapons, but in the overall construction of his films.  Tarantino has long made films that are collages of existing pulp culture and exploitation films.  His fetish for those kinds of films is evident and a huge part of what makes his films enjoyable is that blend of scenes clipped from other films and stitched together.  The way in which his treatment of those forgotten exploitation films allowed for the themes to be elevated into award-winning cinema and also contributed to the rediscovery of forgotten directors, films and actors from those films.  Tarantino’s French New Wave fandom, which focuses on moments, rather than narratives also contributes to spectacular, often violent sequences that have long raised the ire of critics of cinema violence.  His frequent scripting of racial slur-laden dialogue has been frequently uncomfortable.

I have never been particularly bothered by the levels of violence in Tarantino films – in fact at one point during my teenage years as far as I was concerned the more screen violence the better.  I also don’t share the idea that on-screen violence contributes to off-screen.  A few years ago, Tarantino was interviewed by Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy and when questioned yet again on the violence in his films and the impact that it has.  The resulting ‘I’m shutting your butt down’ echoed around the internet as a powerful rejection of the idea that cinema violence could influence real-life violent acts and, to me, at the time, treated Guru-Murthy’s question with the level of contempt it deserved.  Thurman’s tale of his insistence in enacting violence upon her and another actress within the context of a film when he was not the actor behind the character doing so puts rather a more sinister spin on his hesitance to discuss his use of violence.

The idea of performers needing to undergo real suffering to bring forth a good performance is all too prevalent and more worryingly, celebrated.  That is not a gendered issue – male and female actors transform their bodies and damage themselves psychologically in pursuit of either the idea of ultimate art or for award prestige.  This idea of a ‘method’ performance is also tied to the idea of director-as-auteur.  Certainly, it is possible to view Tarantino as a self-designed auteur, constructing his role and career in accordance with those New Wave guidelines.  The fact that he saw fit to insist upon a stunt which has left Thurman with permanent physical damage does not appear to have dissuaded others in the same team from working with him.  Additionally, keeping the footage away from Thurman acts as a further kind of abuse – preventing her from taking appropriate legal action or confirming her thoughts that she should not have been driving.  This is enduring physical and psychological abuse excused for the construction of a ‘good shot’ and hiding his own wrongdoing.

The auteur, it seems, acts as a get-out for all kinds of sins.  Hitchcock, Kubrick and now Tarantino have a record of terrorising actors for real to obtain performances.  James Cameron too, has been accused of putting actors in danger for particular shots – Ed Harris on The Abyss and a less than stellar account of the way his Dark Angel set treated performers as explained by WWE’s Lita to name two.  The auteur, in some cases, becomes conflated with the mad scientist – someone who transgresses all reasonable human communication and decency in a fitful search for the ‘perfect’ piece of art.  Within this space, human emotions and experience are collateral and the reward is industry praise for brave performances.  This praise adds to the pressure for the next actor to take on more physically and emotionally punishing performances for recognition.

Lastly, another issue which has recently become all too clear is that those men who are the creators and champions of empowered women in media have a great deal to answer for off-screen.  As a fan of Thurman’s Kill Bill performance and other strong women within that film it is hard to reconcile with Tarantino’s real-life behaviour.  Similarly, the revelations from Joss Whedon’s ex-wife about him describing his time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as something out of ‘Greek myth’ because of being around young women he regarded as ‘beautiful, needy and aggressive’.  Link here.  This, from the creator of Buffy Summers, a frequently-cited television role model for young girls is all the more upsetting.  This refuge in images of empowered women and accepting the label of feminist while also treating women as property is troubling.

In July 2017 Uma Thurman spoke about the impact that Kill Bill has had on women:

Women would come up to me and they would say that somehow or other – they’d share a little bit — that that film helped them in their lives, whether they were feeling oppressed or struggling or had a bad boyfriend or felt badly about themselves, that that film released in them some survival energy that was helpful, and that is probably one of the most gratifying things that I have ever experienced in response to a piece of art.

Again, the problematic nature of the film and television industry is on display within the article that this quote is taken from features Thurman talking comfortably about working with Woody Allen and Lars von Trier – two other directors who have a shadow surrounding them as to their personal and working practices.  Link here.  Many performers are currently under fire for speaking out about some abusers, while protecting those they feel close to or had good experiences with.  I’d like to return to the fact that victims do not become perfect people by virtue of something awful happening to them.  They are still capable of making questionable choices and while it might be useful to question why this is, when someone is revealing their own personal trauma feels like entirely the wrong time to have that conversation.

Representation for women is important.  In the same way that representation for other ethnic and sexual identities are important.  Empowerment comes, in at least some small part, by seeing yourself represented in culture as having agency, importance and being allowed to take centre stage and have your story told.  If those who are choosing to represent identities other than their own are exploiting those groups behind the scenes, then there really is no empowerment – just an ongoing cycle of the same power imbalances.  We cannot continue to accept empowering marketing images overshadow unacceptable treatment of cast and crew members.

As consumers of TV and film media, it is increasingly important that we make choices which champion those creative artists who genuinely believe in the messages they put out, rather than using them as marketing techniques.  Those creative artists do exist.  However, the media industry runs on public opinion and demand.  While we still passively accept the use of actors as props for directors and producers who rule sets with fear and threats of career blacklisting, the behaviour will continue.  We now live in a world governed by widespread internet access – read more about your heroes, choose producers, directors and actors who treat each other well and reject those who reveal themselves to be unpleasant people.

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