Quentin Tarantino wants to get into the heads of his heroes
There are different ways one can cut his or her way into someone’s head. You can try by cutting the ear (like Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs), shooting it through (or almost, as David Carradine in the primordial scene of the Kill Bill), scalping it, inscribing the svastika on the front or smashing it by baseball key (all in Inglorious Basterds) or, finally, as in Django, by a phrenological discourse (by Leonardo … di Caprio) that also ends with smashed scull.
What is most interesting with all these scenes is that we have not really seen them. Since they are all on the edge of bearable physical violence (for the viewer, of course, and obviously unbearable for the recipient), we naturally tend to close our eyes, when confronted with them. So they are in fact projected in the darkness of us not-watching them. But is not this situation exactly the essence of the movies: moving images, projected in the dark? It is exactly in such situations of our “eyes wide shut” that the cinema touches its own hard core – and moves us: to turn our gaze away, to use our hands (to cover the eyes – as mothers would do to the kids when their fathers were passing with their family cars by the spot of a lethal – or Lynchean, if you wish – car accident), to search other hands to hold them in the dark of the cinema theatre …
But if cinema touches its real essence in such moments, then its core is neither action nor emotion, but a purely (experi)-mental practice. Or, as French philosopher Gilles Deleuze would say, films became cerebral. The more you want to enter into the heads of your heroes, the more you want to know what is going on in your own head. And this question is the same for the film-director and the film-viewer. Film became modern at the moment when it was not conceived anymore only as a part of the dual relation between the director and the film itself, but when a special place was opened for the viewer to be an integral part of this modern “trio”. Hitchcock did it the first: you could not imagine watching Rear Window without reflecting on your own position of the Peeping Tom for whom all these seen (and unseen) images are projected on the screen (of our phantasies).
You recognize great movie directors by this eternal and insistent questioning: what is going on in our heads? How can we get into our own mind and out? Chaplin would use all kind of sounds to show what strange things can get out of our heads (from whistles sound to soap bubbles), Kubrick would create giant machines that function as brains (2001: Space Odyssey), Wenders would project son’s images into blind mother’s brains (Till the end of the world), Cameron would try to enter into memory (Titanic) or vision (Avatar), Von Trier would chirurgically follow the obsessions of her heroines (Breaking the Waves, Melancholia) – and yes, Tarantino would break some bones! It is in the same cerebral voyage that you can travel to the tiniest detail of your synapses or to the galaxy most far away.
Why is it important to start our research into Django-world-wide-west with this cerebral dimension? Because once you have grown up among video tapes (as our young Quentin did in Venice Beach, California), your only reference is not necessarily reality around you, but you can grow up an ambition that you can change the world by projecting movies into it, by injecting few new moving images into this world of injustice. You start with revenging individual injustices (Kill Bill: how can you shoot the bride on the wedding day? Death Proof: how can you kill a car full of girls for the sake of your own – sexual – phantasies?), but then you discover that movies are incredible tools to repair some greater, historical injustices. And here is where so many parallels between Tarantino’s last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, appear. If there were two major injustices in the last two centuries, then it would be the destiny of the Jews in the 20th and the one of the slaves in the 19th century. Tarantino does not restrain himself from going straight to the point: movies are here to change the history. Even if they have to do this retroactively, who cares: injustice will be repaired, justice will be done.
It is not at all about happy-ending: it is always about sad, even tragic beginning. And here his treatment of individual injustice touches upon the collective: in Tarantino’s eyes, the source of every big historical injustice is always concrete human, female being: if you put in danger Shausanna, you will burn in (cinema) hell! If you enslave Brunhilda, you will bath in your own blood! In Tarantino’s world, the revenge is feminine. No wonder! If you would be buried alive (as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill), if you would be shot at while hiding in the cellar above the floor (like Shaussanna in Basterds) or if you would be kept in “hot bath” in the heat of the courtyard of your master’s Big House (like Brumhilda in Django) – then the “Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart-Technique” is the least you would do to your master. This series (or better: sequence) of five fatal strikes to pressure points on the target’s body was something that Beatrix Kiddo learned by a legendary master Pai Mei in Kill Bill. After you receive such fatal strikes, your heart explodes in your body. In Tarantino’s own sequence of repairing historical injustices, first the heart explodes (in Kill Bill), then the movie theatre (to kill all nazi-Basterds) and now master’s mansion itself (in Django).
But it would be much too easy to mock Tarantino’s historical simplicity (or a-historical details that are placed in Django’s cinematic time long before their real historical appearance) by picturing him as an action-movie-freak that likes to explode the world (including himself, as a member of Le Quint Dickery Mine crew in Django). In order to break into the heads of his hysterical heroes and to repair major historical injustices he literary invents his own cinematographic style by combining some of the most interesting narrative procedures of modern cinema. He would not be able to break into cerebral dimension of the movie process itself without breaking some of the traditional rules of the classical cinema.
Tarantino likes to say in his interviews that he conceives his movies as novels and that he likes to put the answers before the questions. But one should add to this that he has incorporated two major lessons of the 20th century novel in his movie-novelism: the stream of consciousness (and how to get it out of the heads) and the radical temporal heterogeneity of the narration itself (the time is not one but there are many).
In more general overviews of his work, Pulp Fiction is usually considered as the first clear example of this multiplicity of times. This concept should not be understood only in the way that you cut a temporal line into fragments and then change their order. It is much more complex: by doing so, you open specific windows and gaps in time and space whose nature becomes much more ambiguous. Classic example is the Vietnam story of the Butch’s (Bruce Willis) father’s watch in Pulp Fiction, but if we watch closely, already Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, has several moments of pure cinematographic magic. Magic happens when something non-existing is brought into existence, when, in almost god-like manner, words create acts and places out of nothing, ex nihilo. When (undercover) policeman Tim Roth is preparing for the scene to persuade his future gang-friends about his criminal past, he is so persuasive that he really opens a new space with his speech: not only a space on the narrative line, but new topographical space as such (toilet on the train station where he is confronted to four L. A. policemen and a German shepherd). Such new spaces can literary become the spaces of freedom (like the incredible speech of Christoph Waltz in front of the saloon with which he saved his and Django’s head in front of the whole army of armed men or the final story that sets Django free).
By talking and projecting a virtual reality into the “real reality”, you are able to change this reality itself and engender spaces of real freedom in it. Deleuze would call such acts “flagrant delit de legender”. It is not about escapism, it is about liberation (as Liberation front during the World War II, as liberation of the slaves in 19th century). And yes, in the world of Quentin Tarantino you always need a warrior to get rid of the armed basterds.
When we discover such “liberated zones” of fiction inside reality, it is not the usual story about the fictional background of our reality (which should be discovered or dismantled), it is on the contrary the basic lecture on the reality of the fiction itself. Once you treat fiction as such – as the real agent of transforming reality – you believe that you can change the world: by closing all bad guys in one movie theatre and “putting out the fire with gasoline” (as David Bowie sings – after Cat People – over the grandiose finale in Paris movie theatre in Unglorious Basterds) or by declaring the war to every bad guy in the slavery world of the Wild (West) South.
What arms does our warrior have to win his war? If his heroes like to reach for all kind of arms (from guns and knives to Hattori Hamza swords and baseball keys), then in his virtual world of cinematic justice Quentin Tarantino reaches for genres as one would reach for different tapes on the shelf of the local video (once VHS, today DVD) store. To beat the Nazis, he combines war movies with film noir, confronts Leni Riefenstahl propaganda with German expressionism and mixes action-splasher with French Nouvelle Vague. In order to chase slave masters once for all from their land (and state-of-mind), he travels from spaghetti western (Ennio Moriccone, Franco Nero) to Wagner and from Roman slaves peplum movies to contemporary rap.
When, in our contemporary world that tries to balance the values that simply should not be, you see how liberators from WWII are compared with quislings and occupators with the occupied, you are often tempted to call for Tarantino and some of his heroes to tell the world who were bad and who good guys (and girls). Brad Pitt would have something to say to the current political debate in Slovenia that tries to compare red stars with nazi svastikas – and I guess Django would have something to say to KLA-wariors who have to defend themselves why they wanted to unchain from “niko neće da vas bije” master. (And you could easily guess who in such ahistorical perspective plays the role of the German dentist with a Rule of Law mission in Kosovo today.)
I have found the last example of paradoxical Tarantino’s modernity in repairing historical injustices in a recent link to some Bosnian web portal which was quoting Tarantino from Vanity Fair explaining that his third part of the revenge-trilogy would be a partisan movie featuring Mirko and Slavko and their famous exchange of replikas: “Mirko, pazi metak! – Hvala, Slavko!”. Although completely false, this information could not be more true, because it concentrates in two bullet-sentences the whole magic of Tarantino’s world: people talking and helping to each other, knowing who the good guys are, not forgetting historical injustices, not killing but avoiding to get killed.
So, if you are tempted to say something to your masters, you’d better show them film instead of a finger. And if it doesn’t help, you can always take a camera in your own hands and – shoot them all.
This article was written for Priština’s daily newspaper Zeri and was also published in Albanian on their web page: http://www.zeri.info/