ESSAY: How Should Jewish Feminists Relate to Tarantino?

When I'm not overthinking popular culture, I study art history. It's been my passion since I was ten years old, and it hasn't abated over the years. I first fell in love with art history as a potential discipline when I was given a short guide to five artists of the Italian Renaissance, and immediately was captivated not only by Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, but by the men themselves and the times they lived in.

Several years later, I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, the highly fictionalized "biographical novel" about Michelangelo, which traces his life from around age fourteen until his death. For me, the attraction wasn't just about Michelangelo's incredibly passionate and deeply humanistic paintings and sculptures, but about how these works told us so much about the man himself -- about his thundering temper (memorably captured by Charlton Heston in the film adaptation of the book), his stirring love for God and mankind alike, his fascination with the (male) human body, his self-critical nature, his inability to be satisfied.

For those of us who study art history, especially historical art history, learning about great works is more often than not accompanied by familiarization with the person who made those works, because in many cases, separating art from the artist, as the dictum goes, leads to a fractured decontextualization of the body of work. When you treat works of art (or any media, for that matter), as divorced from the person whose mind, heart, and body conceived them, treating them as if they simply dropped from the sky, fully-formed, into our laps, something important is lost.


Of course, it's easy to say that when the artists you study are long dead. Artists are human, and humans often do awful, inconceivably horrible things to one another. To name a few: Picasso was a misogynist, Degas was an antisemite, and Balthus is an entire can of worms that other people have covered in more depth than I ever could. We can't pretend that knowing information about art-makers whose actions horrify us in the twenty-first century doesn't change how we see their art, because it likely informs how the art came to be.

In general, when it comes to the depiction of women in art, it's really difficult to keep both thoughts in your head at the same time. The naked woman as an object has been central to the idea of art, and of visual pleasure in nearly all forms, for centuries. So when we look at beautiful nudes, no matter how lovingly depicted, we know and understand today that these artists were thinking of their women subjects as objects, to be used at their whims and disposal, and not people with their own wants, thoughts, and agendas.

When the artists are long dead, opening them up to critique and deconstruction doesn't have the deleterious effect of censorship, or of potentially ruining their lives. Postcolonial critique of artists like in the canon has made the discipline of art history much more robust; the re-evalutation of the fetishitic nature of Paul Gauguin's Tahiti pictures has kept discussion of the artist, and the role of the artist, ongoing. For the most well-known creators, erasure is arguably impossible. Even if no art institutions opened a show about Picasso for five years, in the name of not wanting to honor behavior we see today as reprehensible, it's not as if Picasso would disappear from our consciousness. Refusing to honor ill-behaved artists will not destroy their works nor delete them from history.


And yet.

And yet--it's messier with artists who are still alive, who are still working and creating, and actively exhibiting and parading the red carpet and giving interviews and accepting awards. And thus able to offend again.

Since my focus of study and general interest has switched from Old Masters to contemporary art, as well as film, television, and other forms of visual media, it's really, really hard, and often downright painful, to hold these two conflicting thoughts in my mind at the same time: that a person who creates a beautiful work of art can also be, in my eyes, a bad person. And so it's easy for me to say that perhaps we shouldn't continue to worship flawed people even though the things they've made seem above human capacity when the artist is dead, but again, that ignores the very fact that--to paraphrase Maya Angelou--"people tell you who they are."

After all, as other people have said and written for quite a while now, Woody Allen showed us who he was in his films--his obsession with having barely-legal girls fall head over heels for guys in middle age or higher. He showed us exactly who he was, and how he thinks not only of women, but of girls and children in general, for decades--not only in his films, but also by embarking on a relationship with his adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn while she was barely legal.


And so we come to Quentin Tarantino. Specifically, knowing about Tarantino's violent actions towards Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill--allegedly forcing her to do a dangerous car stunt that resulted in multiple "permanent" injuries--doesn't put his filmography in a whole new light, because his filmography is filled with instances of violence against women. And it would be easy for me to take in the scope of his films, and say, "well, I'm not going to watch anything he made, because we can't allow his behavior to go unpunished." Except for the fact of Inglourious Basterds, the Jew-centering, Nazi-killing revenge film nominated for multiple Academy awards in 2010.
It's incredibly violent, almost fetishistically so. A lot of it is arguably in poor taste. And yet Inglourious Basterds satisfies and excites the part of me that wants to see Jews kicking ass and taking names against Nazis--not pure victims of evil aggression perched on the moral high ground, but physically and viscerally taking control of their destinies in a world that seems senseless and winning. The fact that Tarantino isn't Jewish both helps and hurts the case for the film. A Jewish writer-director of a Nazi revenge fantasia might have cut down on the gleeful cartoonishness of the affair; yet Tarantino's emotional and spiritual distance from the Holocaust perhaps allows him to envision Jews kicking ass and taking names in exactly the same way as we see in classic revenge films, without falling into common tropes of Holocaust victimization.

The only other Tarantino film I've ever seen is Pulp Fiction. But Inglourious Basterds was, for a while, the first and only film. A piece of art tells us a lot about the person who dreamed it up. After enjoying Inglourious Basterds, I was in the position of believing that Tarantino had some understanding of the importance of marginalized people seeing themselves triumph over their oppressors--and being glorified for doing so.

Guiding the action of the film and commanding the crack commandos that are its namesake, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt) is a parochial and honest Nazi-killing American soldier, and transparently Tarantino's authorial stand-in. And that fact makes Tarantino come off pretty well. Raine, much like Tarantino, is a gentile eager to see Jews kill Nazis. Aldo Raine doesn't have a personal grudge against Nazi Germany, and he's not fighting in World War 2 because of some jingoistic America-versus-Bad Guys fantasy: he understands the Nazis as evil and incapable of being reasoned with, and knows that what the Nazis hate most is Jews rising against them--and defeating them. Aldo Raine provides the excuse, and the means, for the Basterds to unleash their rage and fear in the context of righteous fighting; Tarantino, by writing and directing Inglourious Basterds, creates the context in which the Basterds exist and provides Jewish watchers with an embodiment of that ultimate violent fantasy: Jews killing Nazis, and, specifically, a Jew killing Hitler.


This reading is a perfect encapsulation of the dangers of loving a work of art, and identifying its politics with that of its creator: because Inglourious Basterds resonates with me so intensely, I obviously want to assume that Tarantino is a genius, a champion of the oppressed. (I have often joked that Aldo Raine demanding "One! Hundred! Nazi! Scalps!" is now my standard for people who call themselves allies to the Jewish people.)

At least, I wanted--and still want--Tarantino to be Aldo Raine. I wanted Tarantino to see himself as a righteous gentile willing to do some heavy lifting in order to give Jewish filmgoers something they hadn't had before, and on the surface, Aldo Raine's character parallels that mindset if we can assume the best of Tarantino's intentions.

Yet the revelations about Tarantino's on-set behavior towards Uma Thurman--not to mention how he knew more than he let on regarding Harvey Weinstein, potentially putting hundreds of young actresses at risk--raised the painful, sickening question in my find: how can someone seem to understand this need for a revenge fantasy, of the oppressed triumphing over oppressors, in his filmmaking, but completely miss the point in real life, going so far as to physically and/or psychically harm the actresses who depend on him for their careers?

Reframed by his off-screen behavior, Tarantino's insistence on acting out the violent scenes he'd written with his actresses increase my sense of unease and betrayal. It's not Christoph Waltz's Oscar-winning hands strangling Diane Kruger in Inglourious Basterds, but Tarantino's; he also reportedly took the same tack with Thurman in Kill Bill, although reportedly she asked to be choked to achieve a more realistic performance.

As a Jewish woman, then, I'm torn when I think about Inglourious Basterds, feeling as though the Jewish and female parts of my identity have been sliced apart and placed at odds. Can I enjoy that magnificent movie theater sequence at the end of Inglourious Basterds, where secret Jew Shoshanna burns down the building with Hitler and other top Nazi officials in it, knowing that merely minutes earlier, Tarantino voluntarily stepped in for the movie's villain as he commits a heinous, violent act against one of the movie's heroines? That even as Tarantino gave me the ultimate vicarious act of Jewish revenge, he simultaneously felt the need to embody the role of the undisputed Nazi bad guy, to exert his complete control over the process of crafting the film by being the one to play-strangle Diane Kruger?

The power, then, the Tarantino exerts is multilayered: the power to create the movie, the power to say and do whatever he wants in the context of the movie, the power to abuse actors on the set and endanger actresses through negligence, and the power to get away with it in Hollywood. And the best I can say is that perhaps having to grapple with this kind of uneasy realization--that a great work of art can be made by a person who hurts other people; that being an artist doesn't mean you're magically a superior being free from sin; that what we love and hate about an artist are often intertwined; that the truth is often put fully on display if only we pay attention--is ultimately a gift.