“Ultimately, everything belongs to the actors – we just manage the situation.” – Abbas Kiarostami on directing, 2005 interview with the Guardian
“I’m shutting your butt down” – Quentin Tarantino when asked about the violence in his films, Interview with Channel 4 News
In Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent film The Act of Killing (2013), we are led through the world of members of a Sumatran death-squad, gangsters and murderers who are idolised in their country for killing communists. Anwar Congo, one of these killers and the main focus of Oppenheimer’s film, recounts how they would go to the cinema and watch an Elvis movie, how it would define their style and their image of themselves. Congo and his gangster friends would come out of the cinema dancing and whistling at girls. They would dance all the way across the street to a small office building where communists were being “interrogated”, and after a while they would wrap a steel cable around the necks of these men and strangle them to death.
Congo states quite explicitly that their methods of murder were influenced by the movies they saw. The strangulation was lifted straight from the movies because when they simply beat the men to death there was too much blood. The argument about movie violence and its relationship to real violence is as old as the medium itself, but a film like The Act of Killing demands the attention of those who show violence in their films.
Violence and Self-Obsession
Quentin Tarantino is an egotist. His films are completely and absolutely about nothing but Quentin Tarantino and like all egotists his creative temperament remains squarely in the realm of the adolescent. Since Kill Bill (2003) every film he has made has had the exact same premise and trajectory, without variation. The Kill Bill films are about a woman whose child was taken away from her seeking revenge against people so sinister that they would murder a pregnant woman on her wedding day, Death Proof (2007) is about women seeking revenge on a woman-killer, Inglourious Basterds (2009) is Jews taking revenge against Nazis and Django Unchained (2012) is slaves revenging against slave owners. That is the last ten years of Quentin Tarantino’s cinema summed up in half a paragraph.
Compare any of these films to the Revenge Trilogy by Korean director Park Chan-wook. The noble glory that comes with murder in a Tarantino film is over-powering at times, because he is such a competent director when you see a slave-owner being whipped to death by an ex-slave or you see Hitler’s face being shot off with a machine gun it feels liberating. You see these acts of violence and you feel good. Park on the other hand offers a different vision of revenge. In Lady Vengeance (2005), a child-murderer is wreaking havoc through a Korean town. This character is every bit as despicable as the villains in Tarantino’s films, but when he is caught there is a scene in which the parents of the dead children line up outside a room where he is being suspended, weapons in hand, waiting their turn to torture the murderer of their children. But it is not a triumphant moment. His screams are echoing through the hallway where they wait and it is profoundly disturbing and unfulfilling, an honest and adult alternative to Tarantino’s representation.
The Palette of Violence
The difference here is between a filmmaker who thinks about the themes he is working with and a filmmaker who thinks only about himself. Tarantino apologists after the above-quoted interview in which he “shuts down” the interviewer’s questions about violence in his films state the fact that Tarantino has answered this question in press junkets for his previous films, so he shouldn’t have to do it again. However, if The Act of Killing tells us anything it is that a director needs to be surgical and methodical in how they represent violence in films, or more specifically they need to be absolutely certain that every single time they use violence as a method of story-telling in their films that they are completely aware of how an audience will react to it. Tarantino should be made to answer specifically and directly for every single moment of violence that occurs in each of his films, not just once to cover the whole oeuvre. His reaction proves that he either isn’t aware of how films influence people or doesn’t care.
Michael Haneke is a well known critic of Tarantino’s cinema, although no stranger to violence in his own films you get the impression when watching them that he has considered them thoroughly. One of the most famous moments in his films comes in Funny Games (1997) when two baddies of the Tarantino- caste hold a family hostage and emotionally and physically torture them. The audience is told right at the start of the ordeal that this family is going to die, and that by watching we are complicit in their death, as mongers of gore. So after much of the film has progressed the woman eventually manages to grab a shotgun and shoot one of the invaders full in the chest. The sense of relief you feel as an audience member is exactly the same as when you watch Hitler’s face being machine-gunned or the slave-owners being whipped, but as punishment for this feeling, which the film has been preaching against, the other invader rewinds the film to before his companion was shot and stops the woman from killing him. The torture continues.
This is violence in cinema when it is being considered, when its place in the art-form is being questioned. We feel relief and pleasure at watching the invader die, but when that action is reversed we are frustrated, forced to question why we feel this way. For Tarantino his unwillingness to engage is obvious in his manner and his films and while the stupidly obvious retaliation to any criticism his apologists give “movies didn’t invent violence” is clearly true, who’s to say that a Tarantino film has never influenced a person to kill? How do we know that a person who watched Hans Landa get a swastika carved into his head didn’t associate the thrill Mr. Tarantino obviously intended the audience to feel to the act of violence rather than manipulation by the director? How many lives is one Tarantino film worth?
“Come on, what are you suggesting? That everyone who walks out of a Tarantino movie is instantly going to be morphed into a blood-thirsty killer? I’ve seen every one of his movies and I’ve never even thought about killing anyone.” This is the response of a middle/upper-class individual who lives in a fairly stable society. Tarantino’s films show in parts of the world where civilisation is not quite how it appears when you look out your window. What happened in Indonesia in 1965 as recounted by The Act of Killing is not an isolated incident and in a society like that, where even today the mass-murder of people considered unsympathetic villains is widely praised, the jump to murdering someone need not be so great.
A Film About Me
Why does Quentin Tarantino cast himself in his own movies? Why does he say things like “people are talking seriously about slavery for the first time in 50 years because of my movie”? Why does he gloat about his scripts like he has been granted divine inspiration from God to write them and make his actors stick to them like gospel? He’s popular because he’s entertaining. His interviews are fun to watch, his movies are big dumb cartoons that are easily digestible and don’t tax any part of the brain and he just happens to have something that people enjoy. But he can never be considered a great artist. His films have consistently gotten worse and less interesting since Kill Bill. Gone is the moral ambiguities of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), now you don’t have to feel anything, just “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.”
Compare Tarantino and his lack of engagement in the effect cinema can have on people with Abbas Kiarostami’s stance on the matter. Kiarostami’s film Close-Up (1990) follows the true story of a man who pretended to be Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and promised a family that he was going to make a film about them. As a person interested in cinema as an art, Kiarostami was obsessed with the idea of this man so influenced by the films he saw that he would put himself at risk of allegations of fraud without any pre-meditated goals of extortion or burglary. By mixing documentary elements and fiction, getting the people who this actually happened to to reenact some of the key moments in the story, it is a fascinating and thorough portrait of a man with an obsession. Kiarostami’s film is focused on the idea that cinema has a profound effect on people, both the man who pretended to be a famous film director and the family who opened up their home to this stranger because he promised to make a movie about them.
Where Tarantino is present in every frame of every film he has made, Kiarostami, a true cinematic artist, has the complete opposite intention. In his filmmaking master-class 10 on Ten (2004) he describes his method for the film Ten (2002) in which he simply stuck two digital cameras on the dashboard of a car, one pointing at the driver seat the other at the passenger seat, and let the actors work. For Kiarostami the role of the director is to simply guide the film, and to let it develop of its own accord. He makes notes, rather than writing screenplays. In a way he is Tarantino’s complete opposite and their careers started only a few years apart so their respective trajectories and obsessions – one with people, the other with himself – is fascinating to compare.