Any release of a new Quentin Tarantino film is a chance to talk about Tarantino’s predominant M.O.-—violence. While I must confess to not having seen Grindhouse yet, there’s really no doubt as to the aesthetic of a movie that features machine-gun prosthetic legs, murderous stunt-car drivers, and bloodied half-naked bombshells in its trailer. The film’s website is an almost clinical study of directorial ego: While it doesn’t feature Richard Rodriguez’s Planet Terror on its main page, it describes Death Proof as “the latest masterpiece by director and Academy Award–winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino” and claims to “recharge the exploitation film genre and drive it straight to the 21st century.”
Tarantino has earned his place in film history, but since Kill Bill, he stopped using violence as an organizational tool and began focusing on violence for the sake of violence. What bothers me most about Tarantino is that he is not recharging any genre: Exploitative, trashy cinema is as strong as ever. This decade has given us two (soon to be three) Resident Evil movies, Mel Gibson’s thinly veiled snuff films, and the entire oeuvre of Uwe Boll. What’s lacking from contemporary cinema is quality screenwriting, and despite his strength in that department, Tarantino has sacrificed his gifted screenwriting instinct for mindless plots and empty one-liners that merely serve as stopgaps until the next brutal death.
Violence for the sake of violence has always been a touchy subject in film, and it’s easy to confuse sadistic thrill for aestheticism. When Luis Buñuel and Salvidor Dali made the violent experimental film Un Chein Andalou in 1929, Buñuel lamented, “The crowd of idiots found beauty and poetry in what was basically just a desperate, impassioned call to murder.” Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was the first film to popularize violence as an aesthetic, and upon its release Pauline Kael noted, “This picture plays with violence in an intellectually seductive way. And though it has no depth, it’s done in such a slow, heavy style that those prepared to like it can treat its puzzling aspects as oracular. “
Kael also warned of movie viewers being desensitized to violence through contemporary cinema. That was in 1972, and the concerns of the leading film critic of her generation were not enough to stop 35 years that featured three (soon to be four) Die Hard movies, fourHannibal Lecter movies, 14 Bond movies, and countless forgettable B-movies that don’t have Tarantino’s name attached to them.
Another one of Kael’s concerns was that in arguing against movie violence “there seems to be an assumption that if you’re offended by movie brutality, you are somehow playing into the hands of the people who want censorship. ” She spoke at a time when the tides were pushing against the right, and now, in an era when they push against the left, arguing against movie violence has the stigma of being an overreaching campaign of northeast liberal mothers of America.
The fact still remains that right now in America, the act of creating life is exponentially more controversial than the act of destroying it. While a half-second flash of a pasted-over nipple caused television to reverse nearly 40 years of censorship standards, no one seems upset about the hundreds of deaths you can find on primetime network programming every week. The only real taboo form of violence, sure enough, is sexual violence—you will almost never see a rape performed with full realism on primetime.
When a culture gets desensitized to violence, it escalates the level of violence needed to seem shocking. Often, implied violence is more effective than actual violence. The most chilling scenes on 24 have been threats of torture and violence toward characters’ families. Never mind the fact that the thousands of people who have died in the show’s six day narrative span all had families of their own. In fact, this year the creators of 24 announced they would stop using torture as a plot device, since the act has lost its impact. Have we really gotten to the point where our society has become numb to a fate worse than death?
I’m not arguing for the end of movie violence, or even a reduction. What I’m saying is that Kill Bill looks a lot less pretty when you imagine someone you love very dearly in the place of any extra who blasély has his or her eyeballs gouged, arms severed, or spleen pierced. Movie violence can still be used effectively if it’s directed toward some other goal; but this has become harder to do. Two of 2006’s best films were also two of its most violent. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men used overpowering, brutal violence, often in single shots, to fully convey the dejection and hopelessness of an infertile, dystopian future. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth used extemely disturbing violence of both realistic and fantasical nature to make a child’s sense of horror understandable to adult viewers. Movie violence isn’t going anywhere soon, but at some point, we have to stop confusing sadism for art.