The other night while driving home from New Orleans, I heard Quentin Tarantino getting fairly pissy with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. The reason for said pissiness? She asked him a question he’s sick of being asked. Specifically:
Terry: Is [movie violence] any less fun after a massacre like at Sandy Hook elementary? Do you ever go through a period where you lose your taste for movie violence? And movie violence is not real violence, I understand the difference. But still, are there times when it’s not…a fun movie experience for you?
Quentin: Not for me.
Terry: So it’s so completely separate, that the reality of violence doesn’t affect your feelings about making or viewing very violent, sadistic…characters?
Quentin: When you say after the tragedy, what do you mean by that exactly? Do you mean on that day would I watch The Wild Bunch? Maybe not on that day. [Terry clarifies it could be simply while it's still fresh in people's minds] Would I watch a kung fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre? Maybe, because they have nothing to do with each other.
Terry: You sound annoyed…I know you’ve been asked this a lot.
Quentin: I’m really annoyed. I think it’s disrespectful to their memory, actually … of the people who died…to talk about movies. I think it’s totally disrespectful to their memory. Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health. (…) I’ve been asked this question for 20 years. And my answer is the same, it hasn’t changed. Obviously, I dont think one has to do with the other.
Is Quentin Tarantino justified in being this defensive and nasty about this question? Or is the stern absoluteness of his answer born out of necessity? Could it be that if he allowed for any possibility that violent movies fed into a larger American culture of violence, any moral grey area at all, that he would no longer be able to make the (admittedly great) violent movies that he does? How much indirect responsibility would culture have to have for senseless acts of violence for it to be worth sacrificing something most gatekeepers of the arts deem valuable? I think these issues are worth discussing.
Interestingly, he says that the only type of violence that bothers him in movies is when real deaths occur:
The only thing that I’ve ever watched in a movie that I wished I’d never seen is real-life animal death or real-life insect death in a movie. That’s absolutely, positively where I draw the line. And a lot of European and Asian movies do that, and we even did that in America for a little bit of time. … I don’t like seeing animals murdered on screen. Movies are about make-believe. … I don’t think there’s any place in a movie for real death. You can say ‘oh, Peckinpah shot the heads off the chickens in Billy the Kid but it’s okay because they ate the chickens afterwards’…you can justify it in that way because people eat chicken and I eat chicken, so I’m good…I don’t wanna see real death, that’s the problem. I don’t wanna sit down and watch real death when I watch a movie. I don’t even wanna see an animal terrified.
For Tarantino, the line is clear: movies are pretend, and that’s the talent and the art of it all; real death belongs in real life. But is the line between culture and society really so impermeable? I understand why he’s being so defensive, as the implications of a more complex answer could be pretty bad, but I think Quentin Tarantino is smart enough to realize that it’s not as black and white as all that. Maybe someday he’ll feel comfortable enough to have a real conversation about it.