Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Is, And What Could Be

Obviously, Vincent and I are huge Tarantino fans. Pulp Fiction was one of the first things we discovered we had in common; on our first date we danced to Cest La Vie (although it was in a disused sailors' home rather than a diner, and there was a third person dancing with us). We watch Pulp Fiction several times a year, the Kill Bills at least once a year, and his others once in a while. We're also huge fans of Wes Anderson. We've seen everything he's directed, most of them several times, and quote Rushmore probably more than any other film (except, in my case, While You Were Sleeping; criminally underrated script). 

Anyway, last night we watched True Romance, written by Tarantino, and while I mostly enjoyed it, I couldn't get past the completely pointless racism in the film. The worst of it came in a monologue delivered by Dennis Hopper (which didn't help), in a scene where he's being beaten to make him give up his son's location. What we already know of his character is limited; he was a cop, an alcoholic, and a largely absent father, but he's turned things around (and not too late, as far as his son is concerned), and is more or less a normal, pretty decent guy. His refusal to give up his son, and his bravery in the face of a bad bastard (Christopher Walken) with a totally impressive collection of henchmen (Spiros from The Wire, James Gandolfini) makes it seem as if we're meant to be on his side, and that he's a smart guy. And then his moment of glory comes in the form of a horrible, racist rant. Vincent and I were baffled. Tarantino frequently uses racism in his films (Reservoir Dogs was a bit too much for me), and it bothers us; we've talked before about why he does it - if it's part of characterisation (Captain Koons, Jimmy) and to provide background. (I'm not saying this makes it worthwhile.) But this rant had absolutely no bearing on any character, and seemed particularly insidious because it came from someone with whom we felt we were supposed to sympathise. And if not, then were we supposed to sympathise with his tormenter? Who was offended by the racist story, not because he objected to the racism, but because the story made him the descendant of an ethnicity he too was prejudiced against, and he felt insulted. Maybe we were being simplistic thinking we were supposed to sympathise with someone, but I honestly think we were meant to be on Hopper's side. Tarantino doesn't usually write his characters as straight bad or good, and while he isn't averse to violence simply to entertain, this didn't feel like one of those instances (that scene came later, and was pretty impressive).

We watched on, but that scene left a really sour taste in both our mouths. I was thinking about it today, and when I put on another Moonrise Kingdom playlist, I thought Wes Anderson would never have something like that in one of his films, and it made me mad at Tarantino and happy with Anderson (I do tend to write my characters as good or bad). Then it struck me that the only non-white central characters I could think of in any of his films are Pagoda and Henry in The Royal Tenenbaums, and then Margaret and Mr Littlejeans in Rushmore (although the latter two aren't central characters, and the former two barely are). Wes Anderson's stories take place in a certain sphere; the characters are privileged, and their problems usually internal, and pretty middle class. 

This has made me wonder if Tarantino's films really are more racist. His central characters are always a mix of black, white, and more recently, Asian and Hispanic. Is it worse to use the racial slurs but to write for a range of ethnicities, than to exclude those ethnicities completely? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm being over the top about this, but exclusion is racism; perhaps not in intent, but certainly in practice. I'm not suggesting every film has a character named Token, but there's no evenness, no equity in the stories being told, and as long as there isn't, there has to be some diversity in the casting of these stories. The debate over The Help now comes to mind, and the criticism Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis received  for taking their roles (remembering Mammy in Gone With The Wind), and later whether the Academy Award Octavia Spencer received was really worth anything when it is a mere symbol that won't change her acting options, or those of any other woman of colour in Hollywood. At the time I agreed with the criticism, but later I wasn't sure. Was it better that they had gotten work? I'm not sure about this either. Maybe it's not something to compare. Tarantino's films include racism that annoys me, and that I don't always believe enhances my understanding of the films. I wish Wes Anderson's casts would be more diverse, and I don't believe it would change his stories at all to cast people of different ethnicities.

I guess, whether or not it's something to compare, that racism and discrimination come in many forms, not only in explicit rants. I'd like to know what anyone else thinks. Tarantino's style is infinitely more in-your-face than Anderson's, but both deal with serious subject matter in their own ways, and both have responsibilities as artists. Art is not merely entertainment, and it's purpose is not only to reflect what is.

Now, being mindful that it is Sunday and therefore a day of rest, I'll leave you with a part of True Romance I did enjoy, and that was Alabama's wardrobe. My own wardrobe has a serious lack of animal prints that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.




Screenshots taken by me, hence the... quality.

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