Hollywood Mon Amour

It is perhaps no surprise that most (not all, thankfully) film critics have praised Tarantino's latest (9th) film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood... as a masterwork - I have seen it even called Shakespearean - a term that comes from a scene in the movie; but he is more a Jacobean Middleton. Tarantino's late career has been focused on revenge - one of the primary staples of drama and melodrama in all English literature; it is also, of course, the staple of Nicholas Cage's late career, so it is not an inherently perfect one. Violence is to Saint Quentin what bars are to San Quentin - the raison d'etre.

I cannot think of another director - not even Peckinpah or de Palma, Hitchcock or Scorsese - so cocked and aimed in one direction - that of setting up and paying off scenes and situations so that 'all hell breaks loose' and terrible violence ensues.

Tarantino has argued - often publicly and coarsely - for an art for art's sake separation between reel violence and real violence - and he points to the past attacks on comic books and popular music to show that morality codes get it wrong; in hindsight, the squares blame fun junk culture for the inherent political and social problems of lack of gun control, and so on, that actually encode and sustain violence. This is why, apparently, his recent villains have been so clearly historically-real violent killers - Nazis, slave owners, and Manson murderers - as if to prove that the sadistic and real gore visited on humans stems far more from ideologies and belief systems well beyond fiction and artifice.

I myself find Tarantino a bit naïve or disingenuous on this score. He must surely have read Literature and Evil. To suggest that art is entirely removed from the ethical realm is to remove it also from the realm of being able to truly shock, offend, or challenge, mainstream moralities. If movies are only ever innocent fun, then they can never be dangerous. But we know, from films like Triumph of the Will, or Battleship Potemkin, that movie style genius can not ever be entirely divorced from real-world implications, or political entanglements.

It is suspicious that Tarantino seeks to display very violent acts - often against young women - under cover of subjects related to historical injustices. This is a kind of exploitation cinema, and he is, as a long-time fan of Grindhouse, no stranger to the idea of exploitative film-making. This genre revels in perverse, gross, and depraved depictions of sex, violence, degradation and acts of evil, while pretending (sometimes barely) to be either concerned with socially-relevant subjects or to be about something else.

Tarantino has delivered the perverse pleasures of a sensationalist cinema in a step-change from Hitchcock, whose aim was to tantalise and horrify regarding voyeuristic desires; Tarantino instead supplies his audience with sensations, fetishes, and images they didn't even know they wanted. His superstar actors, high style, and humour, are the gateway drug - what he actually peddles is sadism and evil.

Evil is a big word, but I believe Tarantino to be an evil artist. He is not a criminal. But his art works by displaying death and suffering, and by lying about the consequences. He is not theologically evil, of course - but rather, literarily - a daemonic, Faustian figure.

Without spoiling his latest Manson-themed offering, it can be stated that several characters get away with utterly shocking acts of murder against women - and these are treated as occasions for laughs. The ultimate theme of the film is directorial power - the power to deny history, reality, and even humanity. The actors and characters in this film exist as pawns for an artistic vision that plays a game of omnipotence, and revels in the mastery.

This sadistic film style is out in the open. Tarantino cannot be accused of pretending to be anything but a violence-fascinated auteur - but unlike, say, Scorsese, there is no depth to his vision; no sense that people who are tortured, hurt, and cruelly dispatched have selves, souls, sensations. All is surface, and surface only looks cool when it dies or kills.

He is a thrill-killer movie-man. No doubt, he would argue that killing people onscreen is far superior to doing so in the real world. This raises the ultimate question - can depictions of abject cruelty ever be too obscene to show?

Obscenity was once, by definition, what we did not see. Pornography - now often reduced to a fun term for nostalgia porn, or shopping porn - is the art, or genre, of showing precisely everything required to get satisfaction for the audience members.

Tarantino is therefore a trash pornographer, revelling in his command of the big bucks.

Welles explored evil and justice in Touch of Evil in a truly Shakespearean way

I am a fan of film noir, and trashy pulp works like Gun Crazy and Welles' great Touch of Evil - which contain hidden truths about humanity. I think Pulp Fiction is a work of genius. Macabre, crazed, chaotic, nihilistic and ultra-violent art can work, and can even be inspiring. The issue is, at what price or maybe, by what means?

I am not comfortable with pretending that Tarantino's latest film is simply an artful love letter to a bygone era, or a faultless homage sans meaning, sans teeth. It is, brazenly, a celebration of a certain kind of white male privilige and bravado, licensed to solve problems with killing - an American idea celebrated in the genre his characters struggle to thrive in - The Hollywood Western. Scenes with sympathetic child actors and loving dogs are sentimental red-herrings - many dictators embrace children and animals, famously.

It remains to be seen whether, in time, the new movie is considered a clever critique of the violence at the heart of America's culture - a revisionist Western like The Misfits - or becomes noted for its Trumpian, alt-right aspects - which see minorities, women, the young, and the mentally ill - all derided, blamed, targeted and ultimately treated to their own mini-Holocaust (the film has a visual in-joke reference to The Great Gatsby at its end).

Tarantino's message is confusing - it seems to be that fiction is the best way to resolve the world's injustices; and that failing that, brutal cruelty is the next best way. In the absence of law, God, morality, social justice, compassion, or love, that might be so. His is the most bleak and stark vision of any contemporary film-maker, making the cheers and laughs at his dark onscreen beauty all the more troubling. The glamour of evil is a genuinely vital artistic theme; pandering to it is less attractive in a human soul.

This is not to say that fetishism, and obsession, need be erased or avoided in cinema - scopophilia is always going to be teased by any movie, from arthouse to grindhouse; and not all perversion is negative, as the latest critical and psychological writing shows.

In dark times, escapism thrives. It may be that over time, the charm and fun will rise to the surface, and the less palatable substratum of the director's motives and ambitions will have a depleted half-life. No one anymore blames Shakespeare for Titus Andronicus. Perhaps it does not matter what pleasures and perversions drive major film artists and writers - so long as audiences fall in love with the final result. Or perhaps, the books, films, songs, paintings and plays we most celebrate and support say something about our society, and in their own way, sustain, or attack, the best in us.

I would never want to see a bland, censored and overtly-virtuous film industry replace the current one - and I welcome directorial vision - but the responsible genius and artist is the one who takes responsibility for their creations, and doesn't pretend poems never send out men who were later shot, as Yeats wondered in verse.

I hope that Tarantino's fabled tenth and last film becomes an exploration of his alleged foot-fetish - given that Dostoyevsky, Goethe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as Dita von Tease, Marilyn Manson, Elvis and Casanova all share this peccadillo - he would have plenty of wonderful, artistic, non-Vanilla, and non-violent, material to draw from, to tell a story about desire and what we do as humans to avoid truly facing the requirements of existence.