Welcome back everyone. Yesterday I took a look at the first two films of Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction and talked about the working class and Progressive ideas and themes I find in them. Today I’ll be talking about his next two movies, where he starts to add a strong pro woman aspect to his work.
What it looks like it’s about: A down on her luck flight attendant gets arrested for smuggling, and with the help of her bail bondsman manages to set up the cops, and the criminal she’s smuggling for resulting in a huge payoff.
What it's really about: Until Death Proof, this seemed to be Tarantino's least popular movies. Now of course his "least popular" would still make a lot of film makers drool with envy. However for people who were expecting more of the gloriously over the top antics of Pulp Fiction, they were disappointed because Jackie Brown was a much quieter picture. Personally I think this film was the definitive statement that Tarantino is someone who will never repeat himself. Whatever he does, it will always be something fresh and new and unique, even while it will have familiar elements. In some ways you could say that "Definitely not more of ‘That’" is as much his mission statement as it is mine.
Jackie Brown is once again, say it with me now, about work. Jackie is a woman who essentially is working two jobs with two very demanding bosses. On the one hand she has to deal with skeevy gun runner Ordell (played with relish by Samuel L. Jackson) who cares absolutely nothing for Jackie's problems, except as they relate to him getting his money. On the other hand she has the high strung ATF agent Ray (Michael Keaton in what may be one of his last really good performances) who likewise cares nothing for her problems, except as they relate to him getting his man, in this case Ordell.
In the midst of all this is the bail bondsman that Ordell employs to bail Jackie out, Max Cherry. Max is the very epitome of the working class hero. He is honest and decent to a fault. His morality is not based on externals but on an internalized code. This is what allows him to help Jackie in doing something that while technically illegal, he does not view as immoral.
Tarantino also returns to another of his recurring themes, the idea that money does not buy happiness or security. Rather it really only seems to buy a whole world of problems. Ray Nicolette, while he might be a tool, is shown to be a lesser villain in Tarantino's world because he rejects the temptation of wealth and hews to the working class ethos that puts the value of a job well done over getting rich quick. Ordell and his cadre of pathetic losers are shown to be perpetually in a state of agitation as they try to get rich without working. (The movies Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco are also excellent explorations of similar ideas. The mafia goons in both movies work harder at crime than most people do in legitimate enterprises).
Progressive themes: Women in Tarantino's first two films were kind of a touchy subject with some Progressive film goers. They are completely absent in Reservoir Dogs, and in Pulp Fiction they are largely shown in weak, passive, and submissive postures. From the clingy high strung Fabienne, to the shallow and juvenile Mia Wallace, to the female half of the cafe robbing couple who threatens to fall apart the instant there is an unexpected problem. But now with Jackie Brown begins a celebration of the strength, power, and agency of women.
Jackie doesn't waste one single minute crying about her situation, or waiting for someone to save her. She doesn't whine about how unfair it is that she got busted smuggling for Ordell. She also doesn't sit back and bat her eye lashes at Max. She is the instigator, she is the one who crafts the plan and then asks him to get involved. At the same time she is no unrealistic ice princess. She freely admits more than once during the movie that she is scared. But she does not let her fear stop her from doing what needs to be done, for even one instant.
Tarantino also in that quiet way of his brings up the idea of the way society in general and men in particular exploit women for their own ends and then dispose of them when they become inconvenient. This is seen most blatantly in the character of Melanie played by Bridget Fonda. A stoner surfer girl she largely exists as eye candy for Ordell. She hooks up with Robert Deniro’s recently released ex con character Louis and when she becomes to much of a bother to him, he coldly shoots her and leaves her body.
Ordell as an exploiter of women is also seen in the ignorant young black girl he is "keeping" that he uses as an intermediary in the part of Jackie's plan that she makes known to him. This is also seen in his treatment of Jackie herself.
Likewise, although not to the same degree Keaton’s ATF agent is an exploiter, caring nothing for Jackie’s personhood, but rather merely her utility.
The one person who is shown to be truly good is Max, and unlike some films which would present Max as a desexualized "enlightened" male, in many ways the character is a throw back to the hard boiled detectives of the Bogart and Cagney films. But Max is a modernist in that he is not only able to acknowledge Jackie as his equal, but to deal with her on that level as well. He realizes that she is smart and capable, and has a better handle on the situation, so he demonstrates no problem at all following her lead.
And now Tarantino will as he always does take on the new themes presented in Jackie Brown and build on them in bringing us one of his most emotionally complex and longest pieces of work. Although the wait for it would be incredible for his true fans.
What it looks like it’s about: A female assassin awakes from the coma her jealous lover put her in, and proceeds to seek vengeance against the people who put her there.
What it's really about: Will you hit me if I say it's about work? 'Cause, well it is. Especially it's about someone who was working class albeit barely and left that life, and who now despises it. Despises it so much that it drives him to punish his ex lover for daring to leave him for a return to it. One of the important things to remember though is that at no time does Tarantino romanticize the world of the working class. Rather he simply shows that being rich and powerful does not exempt one from having problems. One of the best moments in all of his movies up to that point comes in Kill Bill part two, where Budd (played with exquisite soulfulness by Michael Madsen) has to sit there and suffering abuse and humiliation by his coke head asshole of a boss, quietly seething, knowing that there was a time when he could have slit the mans throat without a second thought. Who among us has not been emotionally in exactly that place? Being excoriated by someone who is our titular superior, but factual inferior, thinking that if it weren't for the need to keep our job we'd speak up, make them sorry for the abuse they're heaping upon us. Tarantino with the help of Madsen and Larry Bishop (son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop) capture the reality of what so many working class people go through regularly that you cannot help but feel for Budd. Suddenly what he is, (a murdering sociopath) and what he's done, doesn't matter. Because he’s not Budd, but instead is an avatar for everyone of us.
Then there are the relationships. What was a small but important part of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, now becomes hugely important. There is of course Bill's relationship to both The Bride (Uma Thurman's character) and to the other assassins working for him, including and especially his brother Budd. But there is The Bride's relationships to these people as well. Like real relationships, some are filled with hissing tension, some with barely hidden contempt. And some like her relationship with master swordsman and sword maker Hatori Hanzo are filled with incredible tenderness.
Progressive themes: If Jackie Brown was about the power and agency of a woman, then Kill Bill is a resplendent celebration of it. The Bride from the moment she awakens ceases to be a victim, with her first act being to kill the man raping her comatose body and the nurse who has been pimping her out. From there each scene shows her growing stronger and stronger. There is no stopping to weep over the horrible wrong that has been done to her. Instead she simply figures out who she has to kill and goes about it. Admittedly this is a character that could come off as a one dimensional killing machine, but Uma Thurman fills her with such luminosity that at almost no time do you not feel the full weight of The Bride's humanity, and the anguish for her lost life and the child she believes she lost. But she is not the only strong female character. Frankly there are no true victims in this story. While Bill may be a bit of an exploiter, he comes by his nom de assassin of "Snake Charmer" honestly. While he may not treat the people in his employee quite exactly as equals, his respect for them as people and professionals is quite apparent. Uma Thurman’s Bride is matched by incredibly strong performances by Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, and Darryl Hannah. These women are nobodies playthings or victims, and you treat them as such at your own peril.
But of course it would not be a Tarantino film if he were content to merely reprise or expand upon themes introduced in previous films. So now in Kill Bill we have something entirely new. Parenthood. Tarantino not only gives us the emotional realities of it, but also uses the minutiae to great effect. One of the funniest moments is when The Bride and Vernita Green are forced to stop mid-fight by the arrival of Vernita's daughter. The awkwardness is palpable as the two women try to pretend that everything is normal for the child's sake. This should feel familiar to anyone who has been in a heated confrontation with someone that you despise and are trying to pretend everything is fine for the sake of some uninvolved third party.
Another idea made explicit in Kill Bill that was merely implicit in Pulp Fiction is the counter action of the demonization of single parents. Bill while he may be a manipulator and a cold blooded killer, is also shown to be a thoughtful doting father. Taking great delight in his relationship with his daughter, who is a sweet, intelligent, utterly fearless little girl. Bill as a person may be of questionable virtue, but Tarantino makes it clear that his suitability as a parent is above reproach.
One other significant theme that is really present in all of Tarantino's movies but is made most explicit here has to do with art. All of his films tend to be celebrations of what many would consider junk (slasher films, chop socky cinema, blaxploitation cinema, junk food, kitsch culture etc) elevated to the status of art. But with the opening to Kill Bill Tarantino sends an unequivocal message, that he not only stands firmly with those who revel in pop culture and find value in it, but that no one should be ashamed of loving what they love. He does this by offering a well known quote, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” And then following it with the attribution "Old Klingon Proverb". In that moment he makes it clear that he will engage in, nor entertain no snobbery of any kind. He will not put on airs pretending that one kind of art is more worthy of appreciation or emulation over another. He will reject the false classification of some things as "art" and others as mere "pop culture". That is the central theme in many ways of Kill Bill. He takes everything he has ever loved, and crafts a movie of incredible power and resonance, proving once and for all that there is no such thing as “Junk art” in the hands of a true artist.
Well that's it for today. Tomorrow I'll be wrapping up by looking at one of Tarantino's least popular movies, Death Proof, and finishing off with a look at what is arguably his most popular, and the one that inspired these articles. Namely Inglourious Basterds. Until then….
Keep The Faith My Brothers And Sisters!
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday compared President Obama’s handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolph Hitler.