Sunday, August 30, 2009

Slicing & Dicing the Man-Child that is Quentin Tarantino

Could not have said this better myself!

(Thanks Huffington Post.)

August 27, 2009- by Johann Hari

The Terrible Moral Emptiness of Quentin Tarantino Is Wrecking His Films

Quentin Tarantino sauntered onto celluloid in the mid-1990s as a Natural Born Thriller, the boy-man who was going to stab adrenaline straight into the heart of American cinema. The movies he wrote and directed were highly stylized ballet dances of torture, hemorrhaging internal organs, and rat-a-tat-tat pop culture monologues about Madonna's vagina, the Brady Bunch, and what they call a Big Mac in France. (It's Le Big Mac.) He showed extreme cruelty in extreme close-up and -- somehow -- made the audience laugh with him through the screams. But there were always dark questions underneath the guffaws and applause -- and his new film, Inglorious Basterds, sucks them to the surface.

The story of Tarantino's rise is a film geek's fantasy-screenplay. Born to a single mother in Los Angeles, he dropped out of school at sixteen, got a job at a video store, and marinated himself in the history of film. He absorbed everything from Lucio Fulci's Italian horror-fests to Preston Sturges' one-liners to John Woo's Hong Kong shoot-outs. And as he took them in, they churned inside his brain -- and spilled out, reassembled and regenerated, into a string of his own screenplays.

The first to be made was Reservoir Dogs in 1994. Like all his films, it took an old stock genre premise -- an armed robbery goes wrong, and in the aftermath the gang tries to figure out which of them is an undercover cop -- and made it twitch back to life. He scrambled the chronology, poured hot sauce onto the dialogue, and made the bleeding after a shooting slow and real. Trapped together in a bare warehouse, the characters slowly destroy themselves. In the most famous scene, Mr. Blonde -- played by Michael Madsen -- captures a cop and tortures him to get him to give up the identity of the fink. As he dances to the old cheese-hit "Stuck In The Middle With You," he hacks off the cop's ear, and douses him with petrol, threatening to burn him alive. It's entrancing and repulsive all at once -- and one of the most disturbing scenes in cinema.

At the time, many critics recoiled, saying this was sadism served up as style. The film was even banned on video in Britain for several years. But I was inclined to defend the film: I thought this violence was more real and repulsive than the glib gore-free massacres of an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. When these characters bleed, they really scream. When they feel pain, you really flinch. Here was a director showing violence as it really is.

But since then, Tarantino has enthusiastically proved his critics right, and his defenders wrong. The moral vision of Reservoir Dogs turns out to have been something well-meaning viewers projected onto it: Tarantino really does think violence is "like, cool." He has been systematically squandering his cinematic talent ever since -- in ways that reflect disturbingly on us, the viewers.

He has turned suffering into a merry joke. From Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill, he encourages the audience to chortle at torture and mutilation and anal rape. A typical punchline is -- whoops! -- a man being shot in the face. Where there should be a gag reflex, he gives us a gag. In Inglorious Basterds, a group of Jews undercover in Germany torture and scalp Nazis, and he gets the viewer to roar with laughter as people are carved up, alive and howling.

"Violence in the movies can be cool," he says. "It's just another color to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn't mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn't mean anything. It's a color." He scorns anyone who tries to see simulated violence as having meaning. With a laugh, he says: "John Woo's violence has a very insightful view as to how the Hong Kong mind works because with 1997 approaching and blah blah blah. I don't think that's why he's doing it. He's doing it because he gets a kick out of it." Praising Stanley Kubrik's direction of A Clockwork Orange, he says, "He enjoyed the violence a little too much. I'm all for that."

In the slightly pretentious language of postmodernism, he is trying to separate the sign (movie violence) from the signified (real violence) -- leaving us floating in a sea of meaningless signs that refer to nothing but themselves and the sealed-off history of cinema.

What's wrong with this vision? Why does it make me so queasy? I don't believe works of art should be ennobling. I don't believe the heroes should be virtuous, or that bad characters should get their comeuppance. It can show deeply violent and deeply cruel people, and tell us that -- as in real life -- they can be charismatic and successful and never pay a price for their cruelty. But what it should never do is tell us that human suffering itself is trivial. It should never turn pain into a punch-line.

Violence has particular power on film precisely because it involuntarily activates our powers of empathy. We imagine ourselves, as an unthinking reflex, into the agony. This is the most civilizing instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers. (It competes, of course, with all our more base instincts.) Any work of art that denies this sense -- that is based on subverting it -- will ultimately be sullying. No, I'm not saying it makes people violent. But it does leave the viewer just a millimetre more morally corroded. Laughing at simulated torture -- and even cheering it on, as we are encouraged to through all of Tarantino's later films -- leaves a moral muscle just a tiny bit more atrophied.

You can see this in the responses of Tarantino himself. Not long after 9/11, he said: "It didn't affect me because there's, like, a Hong Kong action movie... called Purple Storm and they work in a whole big thing in the plot that they blow up a skyscraper." It's a case-study in atrophy of moral senses: to brag you weren't moved by the murder of two and half thousand actual people, because you'd already seen it simulated in a movie. Only somebody who has never seen violence -- who sees the world as made of celluloid -- can respond like this.

Tarantino's films aren't even sadistic. Sadists take human suffering seriously; that's why they enjoy it. No: Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing cheek-to-cheek. He sees violence as nothing. Compare his oeuvre to the work of a genuine cinematic sadist -- Alfred Hitchcock -- and you see the difference. Precisely because Hitchcock enjoyed inflicting pain, the pain is always authentic, and it is never emptied of its own inner horror.

And yet, and yet... I have to admit that part of me loves Tarantino's films. The scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance the twist in a 1950s-style diner, and later when he has to stab adrenaline into her heart after she ODs, are burned onto my brain, even though I have refused to watch the film for more than a decade. There are scenes in Inglorious Basterds of perfect tension. This man knows how to make a scene work more than almost any director working today. But I can't forget -- it sees the Holocaust as just another spaghetti Western, and one where the suggested solution is more torture, coming from the victims this time.

Can you love a film even while you are repulsed by its moral vision, or lack of it? This is a question that goes right back to the birth of cinema (and beyond). The three greatest silent films are all explicit hymns of praise for totalitarianism. The Birth of a Nation champions the Ku Klux Klan, Battleship Potemkin hymns for Bolshevism, and The Triumph of the Will is a paean to the Nazis. They are ravishing and repellent all at once -- and I defy anyone to watch them and not get swept up in their power, even as your frontal lobes yell: "Stop! Danger!"

But aesthetics and the rest of life are not entirely separable spheres -- and anybody who claims they are is simply posing. We don't leave our moral senses at the door when we go to the movies, or pick up a novel, or go to a gallery. We feel such tension in Tarantino's movies because the good and sane part of us doesn't want the violence to come -- while the debased part of us is cheering it on. That's a moral conflict underpinning the aesthetics; by denying it is there, Tarantino is willfully misunderstanding the effect of his films on their audiences.

The artists who have claimed their work was purely aesthetic were either frivolous, psychopathic, or lying. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov -- who I love -- claimed in the introduction to Bend Sinister that, "Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of 'thaw' in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent." He was writing in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he and everybody he knew came within a few hours of dying in a nuclear war. How could he be "supremely indifferent" to that prospect? How can you revere aesthetics and not mind if every aesthetic object you love is incinerated? The answer is, of course, he wasn't indifferent. If you read his letters, you find he worried about these issues at great length. Similarly, I suspect Tarantino has deeper instincts beneath his life-is-a-grindhouse-flick pose. He knows what he is saying isn't -- can't -- be true.

The tragedy of Tarantino is that he could have been so much more than the Schlock and Awe merchant that he has devolved into. If he had stopped mistaking his DVD collection for a life, he -- to borrow a phrase from a real film, etched with real pain -- could've been a contender. When I remember the raw force of Reservoir Dogs, I still hope that he will. It's not too late. He could do it. How about it, Quentin? Step out into the big world beyond celluloid, and use your incredible talent to tell stories about it. As Mr. Blonde says, "Are you going to bark all day, little doggie -- or are you going to bite?"

Friday, August 28, 2009

Actor Steven Weber's Ode to Republicans

From the Huffington Post I found this little gem from American actor (and self-confessed "wise-ass") Steven Weber, I think its got Wings!

Posted: August 27, 2009 12:13 PM

It's a Love/Hate Thing

I love God.

But I hate government.

I love something that sounds like I wanted my father to be but is really much, much better and lives nowhere near me. I love something that has lots of rules for everyone but ones that I am allowed to break. I love something that requires no logic or facts but which I can profess unyielding faith in.

I hate something that I can touch and that can touch me. I hate something that I must immediately answer to if I screw up. I hate something that can turn against me if I turn against it. I hate that everyone can vote for things I might...hate.

I love money.

I hate people.

I love brute force.

I hate mercy.

I love being a Republican.

I hate you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

What Ed Said: The NDP & "What's in a Name?"

It's no secret that I am no fan of Manic Jack Layton. As a national political leader I find him wanting. He's too churlish, too petulant, and his contrived outrage wears a little thin at times. Everything he says seems to be calculated. To be geared to creating a media stunt. He's just too damn slick by half and, sadly, often running on empty.

Yet, as a voter I pine for a day when the NDP will abandon its absurd machinations, preening pretensions, and ill-advised ranting outrage at media ops and finally say what it means, what it believes, and what it stands for and let the chips fall where they may.

This is a good start:

One of the things that's irked me about this silly talk about changing the name of the party is we're not a democratic party, we're a social democratic party, the core value of which is equality.

Too bad Jack will probably shy away from this sound advice from his elder. But Ed Broadbent is right. Its time this party stopped pussyfooting around, looked in the mirror and called a spade a spade: The NDP must become a true Social Democratic Party that stands for equality - for if it not that- then it is doomed to remain a perpetual nothing.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

WaPo's Editorial: Obama's Health Insurance Scheme:

It's nice to see that amid all the vitriol and vile partisanship currently surrounding the Obama Health-Care plan in the US that some are actually making an effort to reflect sanely on its import.

Washington Post - 08/09/09

An Unhealthy Debate: Rhetoric and distortion imperil the opportunity to fix the American health-care system.

WHEN IT comes to health-care reform, August is shaping up as the loudest month. Angry protesters, spurred by conservative groups, shout down Democratic lawmakers at meetings to discuss reform, with congressional Republicans cheering these "recess roastings." Congressional Democrats lash out at what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described as "villainous" health insurers making "immoral profits."

These are unfortunate, unnecessary and counterproductive developments. No one, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, should be happy with the current system, which spends too much to cover too few. Insurance is increasingly unaffordable. Even those with coverage are at risk of losing it, being denied needed care or being locked into jobs because of preexisting conditions. Rising health-care costs threaten the economy, while entitlement spending consumes a growing proportion of the federal budget.

The moment is ripe for a responsible fix, which is what makes the current eruption of smackdown politics all the more depressing. Among serious lawmakers of both parties, there is more agreement than during the Clinton health-care battle of 1993-94 about the need for an overhaul. The hard-edged opposition of interest groups that helped kill the Clinton plan has softened; sensing the inevitability of change, insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and hospitals have been trying to position themselves to cut the best deal possible rather than to kill reform outright.

If this moment is squandered, it will be a sad indictment of the political system -- and there will be plenty of blame to go around.

Republican lawmakers and conservative activists have fanned the flames of uninformed opposition with familiar warnings about government-run health care and socialized medicine and irresponsible new twists, such as the suggestion that the proposals under discussion would strong-arm seniors into euthanasia.

Democrats, with polls showing increasing nervousness about health care, have resorted to vilifying the health-insurance industry. No doubt, insurers engage in rational but disturbing practices under the current system: They angle to attract the healthiest customers, refuse coverage to the riskiest and seek to avoid paying claims. But the insurance industry of 2009 is in a far different place than it was 16 years ago; it has agreed to accept all applicants and generally charge the same amount, in exchange for a requirement that all individuals obtain insurance.

So it is disappointing, to say the least, to see Ms. Pelosi and other Democrats revert to round-up-the-usual-suspects demagoguery. President Obama has been more restrained but hardly more accurate; in a news conference last month, he inaccurately complained about insurers making "record profits, right now." In fact, among U.S. industries generally and other parts of the health sector in particular, insurers are not particularly profitable. The latest Fortune 500 ranking of most profitable industries has pharmaceuticals third, medical products and equipment fourth, and health insurers down at No. 35. Drugmakers reported a 19.3 percent profit margin; insurers, 2.2 percent.

More fundamentally, the Obama administration is peddling health reform as an everybody-wins scenario in which no one, except perhaps the wealthiest of the wealthy, has to sacrifice anything. We recognize that selling dessert is easier than selling spinach, especially when the other side is falsely claiming that your food is poisonous. But if health reform passes and starts bringing down costs, it is going to pinch some patients who have become accustomed to getting every test or procedure they want. At that point, Mr. Obama might wish he had done a little more to prepare people for the changes.