Roundtable: NOW critics discuss #MeToo and Tarantino

Will movements to end violence against women have a wider impact on Hollywood culture?

There are rumours that Quentin Tarantino’s next movie is at risk in the wake of a February 3 New York Times interview with Uma Thurman, in which the actor revealed she was injured in car crash on the set of Kill Bill.

The untitled 1969 anthology film will reportedly focus on events in Los Angeles in the late sixties, including the Charles Manson murders. But in the wake of the Thurman story, many are wondering whether we need Tarantino’s take on Hollywood culture.

The Pulp Fiction director has admitted he knew his biggest benefactor, mogul Harvey Weinstein, was allegedly sexually assaulting and harassing women, but he kept working with him. And the Thurman interview has raised questions about working conditions for female actors – a subject in sharper view thanks to the Time’s Up movement.

Moreover, Tarantino was forced to apologize to Roman Polanski’s rape victim Samantha Geimer after an old Howard Stern interview resurfaced. Tarantino said Geimer, who was 13 at the time, was not raped because she “wanted to have it.”

Long celebrated for his sharp dialogue and nerd culture references, Tarantino is a rare filmmaker who continues to do what he wants irrespective of box office. He hasn’t been accused of sexual misconduct, but his attitudes towards women – on and off screen – are now under a microscope.

NOW writers Norman Wilner, Susan G. Cole and Chris Rattan sat down with Senior Culture Editor Kevin Ritchie to discuss Quentin Tarantino and abusive behaviour in Hollywood.

Kevin Ritchie: Do Tarantino’s films hold up? He was considered a pinnacle of 90s culture, but what’s valuable about his work in 2018?

Chris Rattan: I watched Tarantino in the 90s, the classics like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But I stopped around Jackie Brown. He’s been problematic in the Black community thanks to his excessive use of the n-word – I’ll use that designation. I’ve had problems with his defense of using it. Is he relevant? The question is to whom? As a Black woman I don’t find his films relevant. As we get to the discussion of the #MeToo movement and how his films will be reassessed, I’ll assess them the same way I did in terms of how he treats the Black community – negatively.

Norman Wilner: The constant problem I have with Tarantino since Death Proof, above and beyond everything else, is his movies don’t relate to the real world at all. They relate to the movies he’s seen. His understanding of Black culture is through Blaxploitation films, which were mostly made by white people. Django Unchained is just him jerking off to his memories and congratulating himself on how progressive he’s being. He’s an enabler who thinks he’s an ally. As much as I love Reservoir Dogs and I really like Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies, by Death Proof all of his characters started to sound like Quentin. He’s boxed himself into this little place where no one challenges him, every idea is brilliant and he can do whatever he wants because he had Weinstein backing him for years.

Susan G. Cole: That is true of so many directors so often and in so many ways. There’s two parts of the discussion: one is the content of a film and then there’s what happens on set. Tarantino is not unique. The stories of Hitchcock are legion. Michael Haneke is pushing back at #MeToo and, believe me, he has a reason to be pushing back. He feels somehow the movement is going to get in his way, artistically or personally.

Tarantino was interesting in his early films mostly because of the dialogue. It was baroque in the way the characters would go on and it was entertaining. But is [escaping criticism] not something that happens to every artist?

NW: No, he’s uniquely protected. Grindhouse was a huge flop and his section, Death Proof, was godawful. It was 90 minutes of monologues about Vanishing Point and muscle cars and violence all committed towards women until the end when they kill the guy. But he was so protected from that film’s failure that he was allowed to recut his own work into a two-hour version and take it to Cannes. That’s how valuable he was to the Weinstein empire. Other filmmakers take advantage of actors and cross ethical and moral lines, but he’s never been held accountable for all the stupid shit he’s done or said in interviews for 20 years because he thinks it sounds cool. How long have we waited for this [Uma Thurman] story to come out?

SGC: How long have we waited for #MeToo? It’s quite stunning that the #MeToo movement would have this impact so fast on so many people. What I’m getting at is movie culture in general. The extremes that you’re talking about, there’s variations on those things. It will be interesting to see whether people would go see his next movie.

NW: Tarantino has always been willing to ride over whatever was in his way. The sequence with the most n-words in Pulp Fiction is the sequence where his character says them. He has the speech about “dead n-word storage.” He gave that to himself. He’s always been that guy. He doesn’t think very deeply about these things. This 1969 project is a terrible idea because he doesn’t understand the real world.

CR: I agree with Norm. His depictions speak to an audience that wants to align themselves with a certain cool. In his films that deal with the Black community, he’s speaking to a young college audience that wants to sidle up to how cool it is to be Black and say the n-word. It’s the same with women. He’s built a career on films in which violence against women is used almost exclusively as a catalyst for their empowerment. Jessica Chastain tweeted something in regards to that. He depicts extreme violence against women and by the end of the movie he wants to be exonerated by the fact that the women get their vengeance. It’s not a narrative that we need right now. We need to move on.

SGC: Some of the criticisms of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for example, have come from women working to end violence against women who are critical of male artists using the issue to further their own careers. Plainly so in the case of Tarantino. But there’s  a wider thing going on around how these stories are being told and who is telling these stories. I think that is going to change quite profoundly in the future. I’m expecting to see an explosion of female filmmakers.

KR: So will revenge stories still be a thing?

SGC: Revenge is a guy thing. Somebody does something to you and you go out and kick ass. That isn’t the way women experience sexual assault and their process of dealing with it. You can barely go to court, for fuck’s sake, let alone get a gun and shoot the perpetrator. That was my problem with Paul Verhoeven’s Elle.

NW: You just didn’t buy any of it. But with Elle, I wanted to ask you: doesn’t the fact that Isabelle Huppert is one of the greatest actors working today mean there’s something in it that she connected to?

SGC: I agree that Huppert is one of the greatest actors working today. The performance itself is excellent but so is the filmmaking, which only infuriated me further. There’s something about European artists’ relationships to all of this stuff that is very different. What’s interesting is they wanted to make that film in America and they couldn’t do it because they couldn’t find a female actor in America who is bankable to do it.

KR: The actors are required to do a lot of heavy lifting in these films. In Rose McGowan’s book, Brave, she writes about the scene she filmed for Death Proof. Her character is the first to be killed and she felt that, because of the way the character was written, all the onus was on her to bring humanity to the role so the audience wouldn’t think of her as disposable.

SGC: In the wake of the Soulpepper situation here in Toronto, I’ve had long conversations about what’s required to make authentic art – the conflict and intimacy that is required. In theatre, not only do you not show your actors how to kiss, it is considered not cool to do so. So that when a director, as allegedly Albert Schultz did it, already that’s a no-no. Doing a line reading for an actor onstage is not done. Plainly film culture is very different.

KR: In addition to the car crash, Tarantino has been criticized for choking Uma Thurman and spitting on her to get certain takes. Should actors endure that treatment for the sake of art?

NW: It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to be in the shot that way. Mel Gibson is very proud that his hands are what you see hammering the first nail into Christ in The Passion Of The Christ. If Tarantino was demonstrating a choke-hold, no one on set would bat an eye, except maybe the actor who knows how hard he’s squeezing.

CR: My question is why do we have a film culture where no one would bat an eye at that? From my understanding, Tarantino choked both Uma Thurman and Diane Kruger to get shots in different movies. There was an interview in Deadline called “Quentin Tarantino Explains Everything.” Thank you, we didn’t understand it until you explained it, Quentin Tarantino. He claimed he can tell when it’s fake strangulation and he wanted the real effect he wanted the eye bulging and the veins popping so he choked these women. He said he didn’t understand where the fucking problem is and that’s where I had to stop [reading]. In this vaunted director-actor relationship, why have we normalized this and why does the director feel they can take that role? He’s not a medical expert. He doesn’t know the impact of strangulation. It’s deeply problematic that he has a special licence to do that because he’s the auteur.

SGC: It’s important we use the term “male director.” It’s really a combination of male entitlement as well as the power of the director as auteur that we’re talking about here. It’s a male-dominated culture where men make more money than women. Most of the directors are men and they have a lot of power and glory – and it’s not a good combination.

NW: The other person we can lump in here in terms of people who exist in their own bubbles thanks to Weinstein seeing them as profitable is Kevin Smith. Chasing Amy has not held up very well.

SGC: Well, boys shouldn’t make movies about lesbians! No good can come of it! [laughing]

KR: There is a wider issue of working conditions and things that women are expected to do and sometimes willingly participate in. I keep going back to the Rose McGowan book, but she writes about how she thought of herself as this badass and was scornful of women who wouldn’t do difficult stuff. It wasn’t until she was injured that her attitude changed. That speaks to the complicity of this world – it’s so contained. You’re so deep in this bubble of the set that you do things you come to regret later on.

CR: Susan made the comment that boys shouldn’t make films about lesbians and that was the issue with Blue Is The Warmest Color. You had what was revealed to be a controlling relationship between the director Abdellatif Kechiche and the two lead actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. After the fact, Seydoux made comments that it was such a pressured environment. Kechiche is a revered director and he would tell her he needed to control her schedule because that is what was needed to realize the film. And she went along with it. And it wasn’t until she was removed from that situation that she thought, “No, I didn’t feel comfortable.”

NW: As long as you have that mystique of people willing to sacrifice for this permanent moment on film – which is the opposite of theatre – you can capture this moment of greatness. If you’ve been working on something for weeks or months you believe it too, and that’s awful. That is hopefully one thing that comes out of all the professional stories that we’re hearing now is people will feel safer in saying “No fucking way, I’m not doing that.”

CR: The fact that Uma Thurman said yes or that Rose McGowan thought she should prove herself, that’s being used as evidence that this behaviour is okay. There’s this muddled conversation about consent: “They said yes, so it’s not an issue.”

SGC: And that’s exactly what’s going on with the entire re-examination of sexuality and how it unfolds in general. It’s very emblematic of that.

NW: It’s what you tell yourself versus what you say out loud. It’s what they tell themselves versus what they say out loud. As we’re seeing over and over again, there’s a line and you know when you cross it and you know when it’s being crossed on you.

KR: Is boycotting the answer? I’m thinking of Woody Allen here.

NW: The culture will not change until the money is at risk. It comes down to movies not making money – that’s the only thing that’s taken the wind out of the Woody Allen problem. The prestige associated with his films is going away, but he’s just chugging away. Nothing is going to stop him until there’s no one putting up the money.

SGC: It’s worth mentioning that Time’s Up is not only designed to raise money for people in entertainment but all kinds of organizations trying to improve women’s conditions. But is a boycott the right thing to do? I entertained this idea in a piece for NOW that maybe it’s time we stopped reviewing these films or giving them attention. What do you think about boycotts, Norm?

NW: I don’t know because for every Woody Allen movie there’s five or six really good performances. There are people in there doing the work.

SGC: I think a lot of actors are now asking themselves whether they’ll be doing that work. Some are saying they’ll never work with him. The pariah effect – maybe that’ll be successful?

CR: I’m for the boycott because the formula is simple: if it’s not a box-office hit, the future project isn’t going to get green lit. There’s been this whole debate about whether we divorce artists from criminal acts. And again it’s placing these individuals in this rarified realm. We’re going back and forth and we’re just treading water. We find the acts of this individual unacceptable so we’re not going to support their work. It needs to be more definitive. Hit them in the wallet. | @nowtoronto

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