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.
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.