Thoughts on Tarantino and Morals

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As I was eating dinner with friends, a casual conversation of upcoming movies led to the topic of Quentin Tarantino and his films (Django Unchained comes out later this month).  One friend, Lyndsey, exclaimed a personal love of Inglorious Basterds.  I said I hated it.  I qualified by saying it was a well-made film, however I believed it was morally repugnant.  Simply, I didn’t appreciate the way Tarantino manipulated his audience into cheering for the murders of the Nazis.

My explanation went as follows: unlike the Nazis in, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark, who were nothing more than nameless, faceless bad-guy archetypes, the Nazis in Tarantino’s film were portrayed with character depth.  Tarantino took time and effort to provide an emotional dimension to his Nazis, save Adolph Hitler, that made them quite personable and relatable as human beings.  For example, their dialogue included moments of longing for family and their anxiety and fear was made quite apparent as Eli Roth was sent in to bludgeon them to death.   Tarantino established his Nazis as people, not archetypes, only to violently and sadistically have them slaughtered to the delight of the audience.  I didn’t have a problem with punishing the bad guys, but I had a problem with finding joy in the punishment.

I pointed out that Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t without its faults either.  I’ve always had an issue with Indiana Jones pulling a gun on a swordsman.  Although the famous scene garnered laughter,  John Wayne or William Holden would have pulled the gun out and thrown it away, opting for their fists mano-a-mano.  The difference between Harrison Ford’s reaction and the hypothetical Wayne and Holden may be subtle, but the cartoonish violence of Raiders has permeated the films of today, even those films one would consider serious.  This is a problem.

Should filmmakers take into consideration the presentation of violence in their films?  Or, to put it in a more general way, do filmmakers have any moral obligations?  What a problematic question!  Defining moral standards may be a tad bit difficult for me to defend, so I won’t try.  I will say, however, that it is NOT the responsibility of the filmmaker to be aware of the effects of his or her film, as a filmmaker’s intention is not always communicated perfectly in the sender-receiver relationship.  If a filmmaker began to question how their work may be seen by a hypothetical audience, we end up going down the road of self-censorship, which would be detrimental to movies or any other artistic medium.

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A point could be made that the responsibility relies less on the filmmaker and more on the audience.  The example of me and my friends discussing Inglorious Basterds is the type of conversation people should be having about films these days.  Too many times have I seen folks simply say if they liked a movie or not and leave it at that.  Films, it seems to me, have become very disposable, yet they remain powerful tools that shape, intentionally or not, our culture.  We need a more engaged audience willing to discuss not only technical and narrative merits of a film, but also the film’s moral worth.  I admit moral standards change over time, but it is rational debate and discussion in our modern society that force those standards to progress.

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6 Responses to Thoughts on Tarantino and Morals

  1. filmhipster says:

    Hmmmm, never really thought about it that way. Very interesting topic that’s really hard to answer without sone serious thought. My initial reaction was that no director should have limitations on their work. But on the other hand, I can’t watch movies were little children are harmed in any way…It just rubs me the wrong way and I believe doesn’t work well onscreen. So I’m on the fence, the killing of Nazis in Inglorious Basterds doesn’t bother me, but what I mentioned previously does.

  2. Zac Petrillo says:

    I think it’s the job of a creator to know what they are doing with their art and consider the effects that their work might have on society. In some ways, this is censorship. But it’s also about intent and being respectful to art as a social document. I think that violence works best when it has a specific purpose. I think the problem with Tarantino is that his talent lay in style, yet lately he is attempting to feign some semblance of substance. Frankly, it’s a joke. And, as Will states here, it plays as shallow and offensive. I think of Funny Games and A History of Violence that did an interesting job of turning their violence against the audience by showing how violence exists inside us when we root for it. I’m not sure Inglouious Basterds is anything more than a gleeful (and shallow) gore-fest. That said, I actually kind of like the film. Because I can turn off the superficial “point.”

  3. DrFrood says:

    Django Unchained – first thoughts were: a bazillion tiresome blaxploitation references, which means Detroit, soul and funk.

    I didn’t much like Basterds myself, but that’s because some of the acting was woeful coughBradPittcough and the whole hahaha killing Nazis just seemed a bit overheated. Tarantino often comes across as an overexcited kid, which is part of his charm. But with Basterds, for me, he made something visually impressive that was just a bit glib. I didn’t think he was particularly trying to make a serious movie any more than his usual level.

    Finally, Basterds did introduce something worse than films Eli Roth has directed, which is Eli Roth acting. I’m basing that purely on Hostel 1-2, but life’s too short, y’know?

    PS: Jackie Brown – under-rated?

  4. jeffro517 says:

    I once read someone who said this about movies, “If you want morals go to church.” I’m not suggesting that we should allow ourselves to be subject to things outside our comfort zone while in the theater, but we should understand that film makers are not making movies to please any one segment of society, Surely that’s up to us to decide how we interpret films. I love the discussion though. We’re in an age where we are seeing more and more graphic content making it into nationally and globally released films. We do need to talk about these things.

  5. willtemplin says:

    I do agree that filmmakers should have something to say and should look for the best possible way to express that message. This is part of the creative process and not censorship. An artist’s intention, however, does not always come across. Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m more interested in the POSSIBLE effect on the audience, or what the audience COULD interpret from a film. Tarantino is by no means making serious fare, and I agree he is an overexcited kid making movies. A big kid at the controls of a medium that shapes our culture, though, seems like a precarious scenario that worries me.
    A bigger problem I see is that someone like Tarantino, or Wes Anderson or the Coen Brothers have become nothing more than industrial branded commodities that are cool and hip to follow. Essentially, you have McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s (or a better analogy for you LA folks would be the cool and hip Umami Burger). Saying the acting isn’t good is saying the lettuce is a little soggy. We the audience need to start questioning what we are given and where its coming from, not whether or not we prefer that the corners are not cut.

    PS: Jackie Brown is his best film.

  6. Pingback: REVIEW: The Last Stand | YARDS OF GRAPEVINE | Movies, Oscars + More

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