Director Spotlight on Quentin Tarantino, Part 2
Before we head on to Part 2, I'd like to encourage y'all to check out an excerpted sampling of comments.
Film Fatale says: "As far as his being a feminist goes, I think QT has brought some of the most intriguing female characters to life in the past fifteen or so years. . . . However, there are so many contradictory feminist statements in his flicks that it's really hard to decipher if they're truly feminist-minded or not… He's just so darn messy with his messages!"
Alexia says: "It doesn't matter to me whether or not Quentin Tarantino is a feminist. It looks to me like a lot of his characters are, and I say this as an artist - sometimes it's a wonderful thing when the characters you flesh out become something greater than what you can put into them. I wouldn't call Tarantino a feminist, but some of his characters are whether they know it or not."
Meghan writes: "Do I think he's a feminist, no. Every female he puts in a role of authority, in his genuine attempts at creativity at least, always comes of with an air of 'Cuz She's a Girl RIGHT?'"
Linda says: "Tarantino does put a lot of heft behind some of his female characters, but they will forever be peripheral and sexualized for his pleasure."
From Nicole: "None of Tarantino's films ever offended my sensibilities until his most recent, in Grindhouse. . . . Three otherwise strong, ass-kicking, drag-racing ladies exploited another woman in their attempt to chase adventure, power, and status. . . . this undermines the subversiveness of these female heroines, in my view."
Carol writes: "Beatrix Kiddo is badass and I'm sure I'm not the only one out there that wishes I could be a little more like her. . . . Is Tarantino a feminist? The answer I think is more complicated than a 'yes' or a 'no.'"
There are many more, so check 'em out and let's continue the conversation!
A Crash Course in Revenge (Spoilers ahead)
Death Proof, Tarantino's contribution to the double feature Grindhouse (2007), proved to divide feminist audiences even more than Kill Bill. Heroine Content praised it while Scottish Women Against Pornography and other activists in Britain protested the film for using violence against women as entertainment. (Tarantino was confused by the protests in Glasgow and Liverpool telling an interviewer for the Liverpool Echo in his trademark cocky style, "The protests blew my mind, because everywhere else on Planet Earth, people have been talking about how I made a movie that empowered women.")
Death Proof begins with a group of three girls in Austin, Texas who head out for a typical night of drinks and girl talk. Through the course of their evening, Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) dance, flirt, and come across an aging charmer called Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who unbeknownst to the girls has been stalking them all day. As the girls leave the bar with a fourth woman, Mike agrees to give another one of their friends a ride home in his stunt car. In doing so we discover that while his driver's seat is death proof—meant to protect him in any accident—the passenger seat is anything but. Two horrifying scenes ensue—the first, in which Mike's erratic driving repeatedly slams his passenger's bloody body against the dash board, ceiling, and door of the car and the second, in which Mike murders the women we have just spent the evening with. In the previous scene the violence is heinous, in the second it's just as shocking, but it's also highly stylized. As Mike rams his car headfirst into Julia, Arlene, Shanna, and the fourth girl, we are made to rewatch the sadistic murder four times, to refeel it four times—once for each girl.
Stuntman Mike survives and moves on to kill again—this time he targets a group of women in Tennessee. These women are meant to mirror the first, but the reflection is superficial. When Mike first sees Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Kim (Tracie Thomas) respectively a make-up artist, actress, and stuntwoman filming a movie locally, they are on their way to pick up their friend, Zoë —another stuntwoman. Zoë Bell is essentially playing herself—she was stuntwoman for Lucy Lawless on Xena, Warrior Princess, and for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and who, along with legendary stuntwoman Jeannie Epper, is the focus of the documentary Double Dare (2004).
Zoë convinces her friends to go see a vintage white Dodge Challenger that's for sale in the area—one that's identical to the model from the classic car chase film Vanishing Point (1971). She smooth talks Kim into taking it out for a test drive so that she can play "Ship's Mast," a game in which she'll ride the hood of the car. Abernathy insists she's coming along and convinces the car's creepy owner to let them take the car out by leaving their friend Lee with him as collateral.
Soon, out on the road, Zoë climbs out of the window of the speeding car and strapped to the hood, takes her wild ride. The look on Abernathy's face changes from shock to loving awe as she's once again amazed by the spectacular things her friend can do. But the moment doesn't last long.
Stuntman Mike terrorizes the women, chasing them down the road and bashing into their car in an attempt to knock Zoë from the hood. But these women know how to fight back, and disproving sexist clichés, they're better drivers.
Zoë is eventually thrown from the hood as both cars collide and stop—and in that moment Kim pulls out her gun and shoots Mike in the shoulder. As he drives off, whining and crying, Zoë pops up out of the brush unharmed. "You wanna go get 'em?" she says.
The women chase after Mike, and eventually disable his vehicle. His car may be "death proof" but Mike isn't; Abernathy, Kim, and Zoë pull him from the wreckage and pummel him. And just as we were forced to watch the previous women die from several different angles, here we get to see Mike get his comeuppance served from each of their counterparts. It turns out the stuntman is not a tough guy—not even nearly as tough as the stuntwomen.
As Bitch Blogger, Mandy Van Deven wrote in her review of Grindhouse for the Feminist Review "it's the girl, not the car, that is death proof." And as writer Sara Freeman notes in her study of cinematic conventions within Death Proof – it's a "kick ass woman's picture that has a lot to say without a lot of ways of saying it."
The first half of Death Proof, with its breathtakingly shocking violence, is meant to upset. But again, by following the revenge formula, the first part of the film serves to underscore the second and thus enhance the payoff we as an audience feel. Although the first set of girls don't get vengeance themselves, and the second set aren't consciously avenging the first—it's still part of one of the tropes that Tarantino is homaging and as some argue, subverting.
The biggest complaint of Death Proof from women, and the moment least identified with by them, was when Abernathy, Kim and Zoë leave their friend Lee behind with an obvious sexual predator. It even bothered Rosario Dawson, who told Rolling Stone: "I talked to Quentin about it several times, because I had a huge problem with leaving her there. I don't leave that girl behind – I love that girl, we're friends. And Quentin says no. I say, 'Can I throw her the keys to the car?' And he says, 'No, you can't, that's not how its going to work.' I was like, 'Damn.'"
The entertainment media we consume and critique is often filled with contradictions that force us to compromise.
Abernathy, Kim, and Zoë prevail, but only at the implied sexual sacrifice of their friend. We can be displeased with this, and should be, but we can also cheer at their eventual triumph and take visceral pleasure in their cathartic beatdown of Stuntman Mike—the man who all women fear is out there, and might someday attack us.
On the feminist activist blog, Charliegrrl, one commenter suggests that what Abernathy, Kim and Zoë do by chasing down Mike is hardly a realistic option for women facing assault. But an anecdote from Martha McCaughey in her book Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies, regarding another auteur, suggests otherwise:
"A feminist activist against violence, I shuddered during the few violent scenes in films that I didn't avoid. My usual anger at the violence changed dramatically when I watched Terminator 2 in 1991. Sarah Connor's competence with weapons and hand-to-hand combat exhilarated me. I remember driving my car home differently from the theater that day, flexing my arms as I clutched the steering wheel. That's when I realized that men must feel this way after seeing movies—all the time. My anger changed to envy; I could understand the power of seeing one's sex made heroic on-screen and wanted to feel that way more often. I realized that my own lectures on sexual assault failed to give women any feelings of strength and that this new strategy promised much for teachers and activists."
We don't all need to be stuntwomen or Samurai—but we do need to have the option of feeling powerful, skilled, and able to protect one's self. And we deserve to see images of us doing just that.
Is Tarantino is a feminist? No. His public behavior suggests otherwise. Are there elements of feminist potential and female/racial empowerment is his movies? As Kim said in response to Zoë's "Wanna go get 'em?"
Readers, so many questions remain: Considering his past works, how might we expect issues of masculinity to play out in Inglourious Basterds? Are Tarantino's male characters just as problematic as his female ones? Are his women protagonists affirmations of female power and autonomy? Or are they his fetishized fantasy? Put differently, commenter Jordan asks, "Does Tarantino make these movies because he wants to subvert traditional film images of women, or does he just have fond memories of Tura Satana's cleavage from his childhood?"
This is a great conversation question. I think an appropriate follow-up, that I also posed in the comments section, is: Do his intentions matter in our interpretation or experience of his work? Discuss away! And stay tuned for Part Three, the final segment in the Grrrl on Film Spotlight on Quentin Tarantino, coming your way this Friday. (It's a clip show!)
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