by Henry A. Giroux
Social Identities 1:2 (1995): 333-354
Violence, Race, and the Politics of Realism
I have no more of a problem with violence that I do with people who like bedroom comedy versus slapstick comedy. It's an aesthetic thing. -- Quentin Tarantino
Extreme violence in Tarantino's films represents a central element in his cinematic style. Tarantino first generated a great deal of controversy through the comic-book style of torture in Reservoir Dogs, gruesomely played out by Michael Madsen who cuts off a hostage policeman's ear and then holds it in his hand while talking to it. Pulp Fiction continues the tradition of hyperreal violence, for example, when Jules just for effect shoots a defenseless college kid. This act of sudden violence is not aimed at some wooden, Hollywood gangsta. On the contrary, the victim is a scared kid and his random murder is senseless and disturbing. Of course, the effects are no less shocking when Vincent accidently blows off the head of a black kid who appears to be barely 17 or 18 years old. These are disturbing representations of violence, endorsed by a director who appears to have "turned murder into performance art."
Tarantino makes no attempts cinematically to rupture or contest the patterns of violence that his films produce or claim to represent. On the contrary, he empties violence of any critical social consequences, offering viewers only the immediacy of shock, humor, and irony as elements of mediation. And none of these elements get beyond the seduction of voyeuristic gazing so as to demand critical involvement. In this sense, the facile consumption of shocking images and hallucinatory delight that is provoked undercut the possibility of educating audiences to "comment on the image instead of allowing it to pass," there is virtually no space in which the audience can unsettle the "`moment of violence' [to allow it to] resonate meaningfully and demand our critical involvement."
Tarantino employs cruelty, humor, and postmodern parody to parade visually his extensive knowledge of film history and to rewrite the dynamic of repetition and difference. For example, the male rape scene in Pulp Fiction does homage to the classic film, Deliverance (1972), but in the end Tarantino's use of parody is about repetition, transgression, and a softening the face of violence by reducing it to the property of film history. In this case, aesthetics is about reordering the audience's sense of trauma through a formalism that denies any vestige of politics. This is violence with an escape hatch, one that suggests that violence is a "force over which we have no control" based on a aesthetics that promotes the false assumption that "violence can be distanced from reality through its apparent autonomy of signs." This is what Tarantino suggests when he claims that:
Violence in real life is one of the worst aspects of America. But in movies-It's fucking fun! One of the funniest, coolest things for me to watch. I get a kick out of it-all right?
Tarantino's comments reveal more than a hip aesthetics that infantalizes violence by reducing it to an arid formalism and slapstick humor, it is also about a cinematic amoralism which separates the representation of violence from real life. His films offer no language for rendering ruthless violence dangerous in its ability to numb us to the senseless brutality that has become a part of everyday life, especially for children and youth. Tarantino justifies his graphic representations of violence through an appeal to realism. He argues that his violent depiction and deceleration of pain is about "stopping movie time and playing the violence out in real time. Letting nothing get in the way of it and letting it happen the way real violence does." But "real" violence comes from somewhere; it is neither innocent, nor does it emerge outside of existing historical contexts and social relationships. More fundamentally, representations of violence, regardless of how realistically they are portrayed, do not rupture or challenge automatically the dominant ideologies that often justify or celebrate violence in real life. An uncritical appeal to realism does not allow audiences to think imaginatively about ways to disrupt conventional patterns of violence. Tarantino's celebration of realism does not offer any normative grounds on which to challenge violence or to resist power that is oppressive and brutal; on the contrary, the aesthetic of realism serves pedagogically to justify abstracting the representation of violence from the ethical responsibility of both filmmakers and the audience to challenge it as an established social practice.
Tarantino's view of violence represents more than bad politics, it also breeds a dead-end cynicism. His films are filled with characters who have flimsy histories, are going no where, and live out their lives without any sense of morality or justice. In Tarantino's celluloid world, the pursuit of happiness is a bad dream and violence is one of the few options for exercising any sense of human agency. Tarantino acknowledges that his own twenty-something sense of the world was informed less by the social and political events of the `60's and `70s than by French thrillers and Hollywood gangster movies: "The attitude I grew up with was that everything you've heard is lies." In the end, violence for Tarantino submits to the demands of a publicly celebrated, stylized formalism, but the price that is exacted exceeds instant notoriety. What Tarantino ends up with are films in which ultra violence serves as a gateway to sadistic humor at everyone's expense, a chance to depict brutality while assuring the audience that its own complicity and involvement, whether in symbolic terms or in real life, can be avoided.
Tarantino's fame, in part, is due to his willingness to substitute an aesthetic radicalism for a political and moral one. For all of his technical, cinematic virtuosity, he cannot escape the surfacing of his own politics and values conveyed through his storytelling and the dialogue he gives to his characters. What betrays Tarantino's attempts to render the underbelly of society on its own terms is the overt racism that informs his films, evident on a number of registers. First, there is the racist language that streams forth from his characters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Racist slurs and verbal assaults abound in these films, especially in Pulp Fiction. There is a disturbing quality to this language, especially in a film that represents a cinematic tradition that Amy Taubin calls a "new acceptable white male art form." The use of supposedly naturalist, racist language aimed largely at white audiences appears to have a jokey quality about it, a kind of porno subtext that suggest that as whites "we're saying something really nasty and really evil, and let's share this secret thrill." This form of verbal racist violence did not escape Allen and Albert Hughes, the black film directors behind Menace II Society , who challenge Tarantino's repeated use of the word "nigger" in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has defended himself against the use of racist language in his films. He response is worth quoting at length:
My feeling is the word nigger is probably the most volatile word in the English language. The minute any word has that much power, as far as I'm concerned, everyone on the planet should scream it. No word deserves that much power. I'm not afraid of it. That's the only way I know how to explain it.
What Tarantino fails to acknowledge is the history that informs the term and how the power of the word "nigger" is tied to the power of white dominant groups who traditionally control how meanings are produced, circulated, and rewarded. The point being that the term is powerful for a set of complex reasons that cannot be left unexplained. Moreover, the use of the terms by different groups of whites and blacks has different connotations. The rapper, Ice Cube, makes this clear in his comment "Look, when we call each other nigger it means no harm, in fact in Compton [CA] it is a friendly word. But if a white person uses it, it's something different, it's a racist word." Similarly, as Robin Kelly points out in Race Rebels the word "nigger" has multiple meanings in black history and in the current context of black popular culture. Unaware of the complex nuances associated with the different contextual uses of the word "nigger," Tarantino parades the term unself-consciously before audiences for whom the signifying power of the term is far from open-ended. For many whites, the word "nigger" is deeply inscribed in their memories and minds less as a term of cultural resistance than as an expression of their support for racist discourse and values. Bell hooks captures the racist implications of the use of the word nigger by white men in films such as Pulp Fiction. She writes:
Yet the film (via these...white men) can also legitimate racist folks by providing a public space where suppressed racist slurs and verbal assaults can be voiced and heard. No one seemed to worry that the film would offer white folks license to verbalize racist aggression.
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