10/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Quentin Tarantino and Morally Responsible Cinema

Many bloggers and readers have gotten into a debate on whether or not the violence in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is morally responsible and whether or not Tarantino's film (and entire body of work) has anything to say about violence, atrocity, or anything at all, for that matter. There have been thoughtful posts by Johann Hari, Michael Judge, Michael Jones, and Tom Matlack, to name a few. This is a valid discussion, but why is this limited to Tarantino? I understand that his film is brand new and all, but what about all the other films and filmmakers whose depictions of violence suggest a "moral emptiness"?

Sure, there's Griffith and Riefenstahl, but those are too easy. What about the glorification of violence in Michael Bay's work, which treats destruction and death as something to be marveled at with slack-jawed wonder? Or Independence Day, which even surpasses WWII-era films in its jingoistic celebration of each exploding alien spacecraft? Or even in the revered opening to Saving Private Ryan, which, while a virtuoso piece of visceral filmmaking, seeks to wow us with its unrelenting devotion to piling up bodies (each wiped out in a unique and visually arresting way, kind of like slasher films do) for our vicarious thrills? Or last year's The Dark Knight, whose ultimate justification of violence, torture, spying, and self-loathing resembles Dick Cheney's approach to the War on Terror? And this is just a list of the first few films that pop into my head. Are these all that different from what Tarantino's doing?

Tarantino's been the whipping boy for this kind of critique ever since Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde cranked up the Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs 17 years ago. Since then, each of his films has offered up at least one scene of violence played for laughs: the "I Shot Marvin in the Face" scene in Pulp Fiction, De Niro shooting Bridget Fonda mid-bitchy nag in Jackie Brown, the scene where Lucy Liu decapitates a man in Kill Bill, the hysterically lurid car-killings of Death Proof, and now the Nazi-scalping of the Inglourious Basterds. Of all these, only the scene in Reservoir Dogs is played somewhat seriously. The rest get a big laugh or a sharp stomach twist, seemingly dividing audiences into those who "get it" and those who don't.

Tarantino gets singled out as being morally vacant because he makes violence funny, and he's successful because he's really good at it. I know that there should be nothing funny about the "I Shot Marvin in the Face" scene and its extended comic aftermath, but I laugh anyway. Every time. And yet I'd like to think I'm a rather well-adjusted individual, even though I can quote most of that sequence from memory. Why is it so funny? How does Tarantino make us laugh at acts that should make us puke?

Tarantino's brand of violent comedy works because he foregrounds his films in the world of cinema, not the world of reality. He never expects to be taken seriously. Other films, like those of Michael Bay or Spielberg, insist on a level of verisimilitude and "reality" that Tarantino simply isn't interested in. Inglourious Basterds is the prime example of this. Just compare it to Saving Private Ryan. Private Ryan shoves its commitment to detail and realism down our throats; its shock and awe is that it is "so, like, for real." Tarantino's film, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about reality. Just look at its climax, where WWII ends in the most improbably and historically inaccurate way possible, a sequence so over the top that it slips into parody not only of itself but of cinema as a whole. In fact, the only aspects of history attended to in Basterds with any sort of care for accuracy is the history of Ufa studios -- in other words, the movies.

It's this self-conscious disconnect from reality that provides viewers with a "safe" place to root for (and laugh with) killers, drug dealers, and sword-wielding assassins. Just as there was no all-Jewish death squad, there are no killers anything like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, nor any ex-all-female gang members who not only wield swords but also dress like Bruce Lee in Game of Death in reality. But they do exist in the movies in abundance, and the movies often seem to be Tarantino's only frame of reference. His characters speak in overly crafted, hip "movie" dialogue that is often spoken for its own sake rather than to "say" anything, his scenarios are crafted more for their relationship to other movies than for their resemblance to reality, and what politics he has are more focused on Madonna lyrics and failed TV pilots than they are on foreign or domestic policies. In fact, he's not even interested in personal politics, because his characters are not people but characters in a movie.

The apotheosis of this sensibility may be in the Jack Rabbit Slim's of Pulp Fiction, which could easily serve as a metaphor for Tarantino's entire body of work. In the same way the restaurant immerses the patron in a hyperreal 1950s diner, Tarantino places the viewer in a hyperreal cinema world, a world in which the only thing that exists are the movies -- all movies, every movie, brought to life in the same place. People get killed, people's lives overlap in "chance" run-ins, people's backstories are told in anime, and people shoot at people standing five feet away from them and miss. In a world like this, violence is a device and blood is little more than a color. Tarantino himself has said as much. This amounts to a celebration of the image, a revelry in our biggest cultural export and the most universal of languages. If cinema can be compared to a candy store, then Tarantino is the kid on an all-out binge, cramming as many brightly-colored packages into his bag as he can afford on his allowance, without giving a thought to any of its nutritional value. It's all sweet and he wants to drown himself in it.

But still the big question remains: is this morally responsible? Is treating blood as a color reckless? Hell yes. And so are the vast majority of movies that contain violence. The fact of the matter is that cinema has always been very good at making violence look cool. The old Hays Code may have required films to say that crime doesn't pay, but the films always did so as an afterthought. Sure, Scarface (either version) gets gunned down at the end, but that doesn't cancel out the ninety minutes (or three hours) the film has devoted to lionizing his reckless life in specific detail.

It's no coincidence that most bloggers have called attention to the film that explores this issue the best: Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The film also happens to be the most notoriously violent, so-called "morally objectionable" film of the last 50 years, but that is because the attitude of its hero is mistaken for the attitude of the film. What Kubrick offers in this film is a sophisticated examination of our relationship to image and to reality. The film is dangerous because Kubrick refuses to simplify this debate, or even to comment on it as it happens. Instead, he puts it all in the viewer's lap. The film gives us a morally empty hero and chronicles his actions with little overt affect, leaving the viewer to sort through the "meaning" of the events by examining his/her own reaction to them. This is very complex stuff, and the problem is that we as a culture do little to educate ourselves on how to read such visual material, so the film gets read as a celebration of violence and banned when it should be used to teach people about violence and its representation.

In many ways, we're still stuck in the same mindset of early cinemagoers who watched trains approaching the camera and ducked under their seats. While we know now that the train will not hit us, we do still have trouble separating cinema from reality. This is at the center of the Tarantino debate and any debate over whether or not cinema should be "morally responsible."

Demanding that cinema be morally responsible or socially redeeming is asking art to continually affirm the status quo by indoctrinating us on how to live, discrediting the viewer's own intellect and free will. Pushing that line too hard will lead to a kind of reactionary censorship that will make the Hays Code look radical. After all, didn't Nazi Germany think Triumph of the Will was morally responsible?

Perhaps this is one of the things that is good about Tarantino, regardless of what you think of him: his films have the potential to advance discussion of the relationship between cinema and reality. That is, if we really want to talk about it with a clear head. But if we're really going to get into a full-on knee-jerk condemnation of the moral irresponsibility of his work, then we'll have to pack a lunch because then we'll be required to take on just about every R-rated film there is, and that could take all night.