Lisa Kennedy on Tarantino, Revenge and Kick-Ass Women Protagonists
Quentin Tarantino's movies have incurred the wrath of many. In Newsweek, Daniel Mendelsohn accused Inglorious Basterds of turning Jews into Nazis, arguing that the film was cashing in on the fragile nature of historical memory. Spike Lee has criticized Tarantino for nearly two decades. He went so far as to make Bamboozled, a thinly veiled satire of his arch nemesis. Prior to the release of Django Unchained, Lee said to Vibe that he would boycott it for being "disrespectful to my ancestors." His comments unleashed a fury on both sides of the debate. Amidst all of the accusations and praise Tarantino has received for his use of violence, the "n-word" and his marriage of the revenge film and self-conscious historical revisionism, where do the filmmaker's women protagonists fit within the debate?
Denver Post film and theater critic and unabashed Tarantino fan Lisa Kennedy will be jumping into the fray with Quentin Tarantino's Bad-Ass Broads, a four-part series of screenings and discussions that begins tonight. In advance of the class, we reached out to learn more about her take on Tarantino, the revenge film and his portrayal of women protagonists.
Westword: Talk about your infatuation with Tarantino?
Lisa Kennedy: I don't know if it's infatuation, but I have a deep appreciation and fondness for the filmmaker. The genres that he often borrows from are not my taste, entirely. I signed on to Quentin with Reservoir Dogs, and it never stopped. I think he's an awesome, beautiful writer. Besides his gift for composition and actual filmmaking, there is something about the writing and the language. I don't just mean how he constructs things, though I like that as well. I mean the whole thing. I like the whole package. It's challenging. It can be violent. For reasons that have to do with his intelligence and that I trust him as a filmmaker, I will follow him. I will follow him into slavery and the Holocaust and give him my attention.
For you, that's in the writing?
This is a guy that's so talented, and the better he gets the more entwined all this stuff is. There is a way, for me, in which the writing mitigates and gives a kind of distance and intelligence to his uses of violence.
Got it. For me, one of the things with a Tarantino film is that I go in with this nervousness or worry about how he's going to handle any of these subjects like slavery or the holocaust.
(Laughs) Yeah. I'm not worried. I really do trust him. But I think that's a legitimate thing. Part of it is the places that he borrows from; you just don't trust him to take on serious topics in a way that's illuminating. I think it can be. When I saw Inglorious Basterds and kind of loved it, my friend, a film critic, said, "You have a problem." I maybe do. He is a filmmaker that works for me. And I did like Django.
I did too. Speaking of slavery and the Holocaust and various filmmakers' takes on those subjects, Spielberg often worries me when I go into one of those films. When you look at those two filmmakers together, what do you make of them?
That's interesting. I would have not said that, because it doesn't occur to me to say that. I think it's a really interesting pairing. I think I'm probably a lot more anxious about sentimentality and Spielberg's sentimentality. There is a certain level of filmmaker that when they are making movies, you grade them against themselves and their own work more than you're grading them against other people. I think those two filmmakers are, in part, that.
But I remember having tremendous problems, initially, with Schindler's List, which I've grown to admire tremendously. I remember having taken Holocaust in the Cinema. Sentiment was what you didn't go for with a holocaust film. I came around to thinking it's an extraordinary film in a lot of ways. I do worry more about sentimentality than I do about Quentin. And this is very particular to Quentin. I wouldn't say, if Robert Rodriguez was making a film about the Holocaust that I'd be all happy. There are a bunch of filmmakers that are similar to Quentin or trying to take a page out of his book.
I don't know how he pulls it off, but he has a deeply original voice and therefore, I think that the distance he brings sometimes illuminates issues that we need to talk about. We know the Holocaust was all tragic -- at least, we should know the Holocaust was all tragic -- and a deep moral wound in humanity. That's what he's trying to do.
When we're talking about Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds, we're talking about revenge films. Revenge is a big thing for him. It's in Kill Bill. It's, in a weird way, in Death Proof. The revenge narrative and the revenge film is that 70s thing that he loves. And I think he's managed that in some interesting ways and kind of fills a need and has managed to say interesting things.
I hope this is the conversation we'll get into in the class, to some degree, is the notion that these fantasies fill a need. And what is that need? We could do a class about Quentin's originality, but that is not as interesting as talking about why he works for the people he works for and why he alienates the people he alienates. I think that's a more interesting thing. And yes, I probably get much more nervous about Spielberg making The Color Purple than I do about Quentin making Django Unchained.
Read on for more from Lisa Kennedy.
Let's talk about where you are with Tarantino's women protagonists as eroticized and objectified constructions?
(Laughs). I hate to think it changes hour-to-hour and day-to-day. I don't think it does entirely. I think part of what I like is that there is usually more than one woman and more than one strong female character. You're not getting the one that you then have to argue for the greatness or the objectification or the terribleness, right? When you have this assassin, you have a bunch of different female characters, and they all are hotties.
Female beauty--it's not like you're going to get me all cranky that the women in Quentin's films or action films, in general, all look like models. We can have that conversation, but it doesn't seem like the best place to start or end, which doesn't mean that I don't think that women are objectified. I also think that men are becoming more objectified. You can probably track some of this through the late-70s onward--not that men are objectified, always, but eroticized, in ways that make their variety less and less interesting.
How many guys have those six-pack abs, and how easy is that to get or is it not so easy to get? If you look at the numbers, male anorexia is rising a little bit. We live in a time that demands a kind of perfection that's not really available.
I'm trying to figure out how to have a conversation about Quentin's women that isn't entirely documentary. These are fantasies, in a lot of ways, and they're so fantastic, but why? Do they change? Does the Broom-Hilda legend change because you have a slave named Broom-Hilda? That's a really interesting moment, to me. Quentin is really, more than most directors, about storytelling in a meta fashion. That's why we dig him.
I'm not sure I addressed your question. I'm probably being evasive, because I'm like, "Well, I like to see kick ass women kicking ass, and if they're pretty, that's cool too."
That's my sort of immature teenage boy in me. I have it, and I kind of honor it in some way, which doesn't mean that these are movies that can change the inequalities and the salary gap. I do trust him more with women.
I think Quentin inhabits a lot of his characters. It's a little bit of a fantasy--that they are Quentin in drag, that Uma Thurman is his feminine alterego, but I think that's a complicated objectification. I'm not sure it's objectification when the director is really able to inhabit the character. That doesn't mean that's a real woman. But that's a male director that believes in a strong female character. He's not just trying to distance himself and control her. It's more interesting than that.
Within the construct of the revenge film, there is a political tidiness to that. No matter how bad things get, they work out. Where do you stand on that?
Where I stand on that is that revenge films serve one kind of need that is not at all appropriate for the world's business. I think that may be the truth. You're looking at stuff and we can talk about Crips and Bloods, what's going on in the world, all the sectarian violence that's going on in our newspaper today and people's lives right now. Retribution doesn't seem to be a particularly helpful way of moving through the world and even dealing with evil, as much as we'd like to. But again, what is the function of fantasy?
For me, I try not to justify every pleasure, but I try to understand it. I do think revenge films and the stuff that was going on in the 70s, the politics of it, were really funky, especially the racial politics of it were really unpleasant. The gender politics were unpleasant, to a certain degree, because it meant that the only people that could protect women were men who hadn't protected their wives and went back and exacted a kind of revenge. We have that running through our cinema in some ways.
I like these films because we have other valves for our animal feelings. Then we get to go back into the world and say there's this thing called diplomacy and all these other tools. But in cinema, I think it's okay to have the notion of payback. I think? I wish I was certain of that. I wish I wasn't necessarily being an enabler.
Personally, I have a lot of angst and am trying to figure out how to have safety valves for that. To me, watching football is one of them, maybe, and enjoying a Tarantino film where revenge is part of the language is another. It's kind of interesting, if that makes sense.
Do you think his films take a moral stance on the concept of revenge?
That's great. The first time you asked me the question it was more in relationship to the world at large. But I think a film can have its own moral universe, potentially, without us having to figure out what it means for Secretary of State John Kerry.
We're looking at Flight 17. Payback is not an option--at least, not the kind of payback where you open a can of whoop ass. That doesn't work. It doesn't work in the real world. But I think a film can create its own sort of moral universe.
The class begins tonight at 7 p.m. and runs Mondays through August 25 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Tuition is $150, or $125 for Denver Film Society members.
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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