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A Bloodier and More Profane E. M. Forster: Part of My Love for Tarantino Movies

I would rather a masterpiece be generous than perfect: I want some scruffiness to them, some five o'clock shadow, some cheese, some seams, some sense that the artist has in at least a place or two loved not wisely but too well.  Sometimes I think flaws in art work the way they do in people, giving you an entry point to love rather than just admire.  Generosity is more indispensable.  Don't be stingy with your sympathy, don't be stingy with your fun.

No one is less stingy with his fun than Quentin Tarantino, and few are less stingy with sympathy, and those are two of the reasons I respond so much to his movies.

The fun is alive in every frame--there's never been a Tarantino movie where I felt, even momentarily, that he was exhausted or dispirited by the process of movie-making.  I doubt anyone would claim that: if anything, the criticism tends to be that he enjoys himself too much, that he indulges in the talkiness of the first act of Death Proof or in the quarts of blood on the floor in Reservoir Dogs.  The sense of joy gets to me through the screen, though, whether it's in structural play or discursive conversations or enthusiastic homage.

But I find the sense of sympathy just as crucial and just as striking.  I said a while back that the critical opinion on The Hateful Eight seemed split between people who didn't like and people who liked it because they thought it said something important about America, and that I liked it while thinking it didn't really say anything important about America, and didn't even want to, that Tarantino's movies are all about the lie of the impersonal.  He isn't a political filmmaker.  When the characters have ideologies larger than themselves, they're still personal--they're the Jewish-American guerilla fighters in Inglourious Basterds--and the mistake comes from thinking that they're not, that when push comes to shove, they'll be dispassionate for the sake of the cause, when really they're never dispassionate at all.  Nothing's business; it's strictly personal.  That isn't always optimistic--too much blood gets shed for that--but I find it hopeful, and sort of sweetly, quintessentially American.  In Tarantino's films, on an individual level, when people want to, they mostly get through to each other, even if it doesn't save their lives.  (One of the reasons I like The Hateful Eight so much is how unlikely it is that Major Marquis Warren, black Union soldier, and Chris Mannix, former Rebel Marauder, will bond, and yet how believable it is, and how good their rapport is, when they do.)  The conversations are a mark of that.  They're discursive, built on shared references, enjoyable.  They allow for back-and-forth; they allow for perception.

It's striking to me, given that, how the most dangerous, intractable villains in Tarantino movies are the ones who don't know how to have a conversation.  Hans Landa never asks a question he doesn't know the answer to--his talk isn't dialogue, it's a demonstration of his own proficiency, the biggest confession he nets as a detective comes only as a series of nods, confirmations of what he'd already guessed.  (One of my favorite examples of this is when he blatantly toys with Bridget Von Hammersmark and the Basterds--undercover as Italians--at the film premiere, teasing Von Hammersmark about how she "broke" her leg and making the Basterds repeat their undercover names multiple times, urging them to do it "with feeling.")  Mr. Blonde says there's nothing the cop he's torturing can say to save himself, and even duct-tapes his mouth shut.  Stuntman Mike's garrulousness is just a trap, a way to lure his victims closer, and he gives up on it as the movie progresses and chooses to strike from a distance and engage even less.  It's maybe the most damning thing about them, that they take no ordinary pleasure in human society, that they can't surrender to give-and-take.

All of which makes Tarantino, for me, a bloodier and more profane E. M. Forster: "only connect."  I like that kind of thing, and I like that it's a fundamental impulse that partly redeems his characters but can't always save them, that tragedies still happen, but this lends those tragedies weight and meaning.  Certainly I am the biggest softy who ever loved so many bloody-minded things--but if I am, I'm in good company.

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Noir is a Mystery Where the Woman is the Crime