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Tarantino’s Empty Heroes

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

By: Zach Morgenstern

If you ask two socially-conscious film-fans about Quentin Tarantino’s legacy, you may very well get starkly contradictory answers. Some see Tarantino as the epitome of the white-man child; one eager to spout the n-word and wallow in violence. For others, by contrast, Tarantino is a champion of the oppressed. In the words of Greta Gerwig “he makes movies as if movies can save the world…kill[ing] Hitler, free[ing] slaves and giv[ing] Sharon Tate one more Summer.”

Tarantino’s investment in giving power to the disenfranchised becomes quickly apparent to those who give his filmography even a cursory glance. Perhaps the best illustration of this commitment is Jackie Brown. In that film, Tarantino tells the story of a middle-aged, black , flight attendant who, sick of being pushed around by the cops and criminals alike, violently takes her fate into her own hands. The director notably cast Pam Grier in the role, an actor whose star had faded, but whom, Tarantino admired due to her historic work in blaxploitation films.

Jackie, Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, Death Proof’s Sailboating Trio, Inglorious Bastards’ Shoshanna, and Django Unchained’s Django when combined put a pretty massive dent in the most reductionist anti-Tarantino critiques. Nonetheless, the emancipatory quality of Tarantino’s films has its limitations. Those limitations are best illustrated by the fact that only two actors have won Oscars for their roles in Tarantino films: Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.

Pitt won his Oscar for portraying Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Booth is a stuntman who lives humbly, in contrast to his friend, star actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). While Booth’s working-class hero persona is somewhat consistent with Tarantino’s emancipatory streak, it is briefly and flippantly suggested that he may have murdered his wife.

Cliff Booth is an ambiguous figure. Christoph Waltz’s character, Hans Landau, is not. He is literally a Nazi.

A cultured polyglot, with a constant smirk on his face, Landau may be the most historically-telling character Tarantino has ever written. Part of the tragic absurdity of the Holocaust is that Germany, both today and a century ago, is understood as one of Europe’s more cosmopolitan countries; not a likely candidate for anti-semitic genocide. Landau embodies this contradiction perfectly. In his opening scene he describes Jews as “rats,” but quickly clarifies that he does not see this word as an insult, but rather a means of framing Jews as clever and worthy victims. For Landau anti-semitism is fashionable and, indeed, a career opportunity, but he doesn’t go so far as to actually believe in racist pseudo-science. Landau, as it turns out, is the kind of figure who would be equally happy in liberal America as in Fascist Germany, a characteristic which makes the dramatic irony of his final fate so fitting.

Landau, in short, is horrific. But he is also fascinating and charismatic. Who, by contrast, are the Jews that resist his oppression? Only one, cinema-owner Shoshanna, rises to prominence in the film. There’s also Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, hardly a major character. Shoshanna and Donowitz are representative of Tarantino’s proclivity to have the underdogs fight back. The problem is that’ all they do: they are one-dimensional vengeance seekers. Only one of the film’s resistors, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), matches Landau in the charisma department, and his character is (implicitly) not Jewish.

That Tarantino has given Jews, African Americans and women the chance to fight back may be powerful for some viewers. I might even accept this version of empowerment if it were displayed as provocative t-shirt art, but when it comes to films, more depth and nuance is needed. For a character to make a viewer feel empowered, it is not sufficient for that character to be powerful. Rather, the character must show that that power exists alongside of a relatable form of “weakness.”

Jews are often stereotyped as unathletic, neurotic intellectuals. And while, needless to say, such generalizations can be offensive, I am sure I am not alone in identifying more with this caricature than I do with the nominally Jewish badasses in Aldo Raine’s fictional army.

When Tarantino’s “marginalized” heroes fight back, they do so with swagger. They send out their fists and guns without a second thought. As I see it, characters like Jackie Brown and Shoshanna, therefore, might as well not be marginalized. Surely a key part of what renders peoples vulnerable to marginalization, is that their default existences are more peaceful, reserved and decent than those of their oppressors. Jackie and Shoshanna do not come across as bastions of good victimized by evil, but as morally-neutral vessels victimized by historical accident.

So what could Tarantino do in his next film to address this deficit in his approach to emancipatory storytelling? The answer may lie in Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Joker, like Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained and Jackie Brown, is a tale of violent, emancipatory rage. Its protagonist, Arthur Fleck, is a mentally-ill man who falls victim to a combination of economic-austerity and bullying within the world of standup comedy. When he sees his happiness as beyond saving, he adopts his iconic Super-Villanous persona.

What sets Fleck apart from Tarantino’s protagonists, is that he is not a natural-born killer. He is timid, physically frail, and attempts to be friendly. When he finally strikes back at his tormentors, it is because he has cracked. It is because injustice has forced him to stop being the man he once was. While Joker was demonized by some liberal commentators for glorifying “white male rage,” I would argue that it is far more disturbing to see figures like Jackie Brown (let alone the vast majority of white male action-movie heroes) fight back with a casual grin, than to see Arthur do so with a broken, tear-stained smile.

The odds that Quentin Tarantino’s next protagonist will be non-violent are next to none. But Tarantino’s formula is not inflexible. Characters like Arthur Fleck, and the even gentler Gloria, from Nacho Vigalando’s Colossal, illustrate that characters can engage in powerful resistance, without losing their vulnerability. Tarantino has mastered the craft of writing villains from Jules Winnfield to Hans Landau to Stephen Warren. Christoph Waltz was a deserving Oscar winner, but Tarantino owes his underdog heroes the same chance to shine.

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