Ideology versus aesthetics is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this past week in the wake of a 24 hour barrage of criticism hurled at Quentin Tarantino because of a piece I wrote about him and whose innocuous opinions were re-interpreted into a sexist-racist screed that wanted to portray both of us—subject and writer—as white privileged cisgender mutants based solely on our aesthetic opinion and not any kind of ideology—and this was troubling, for everyone including Tarantino and myself, troubling for the filmmakers Tarantino had opinions on and which I shared, and troubling for social justice warriors who said simply if you don’t like those movies you are a sexist racist—not even thinking for a moment that someone might not like something because of their notions about art. It was an example of how the ideological narrative of social justice warriors distorts simple aesthetics and the opinion of individuals. And I was thinking how the narrative of an artists life and their problems and their opinions and their ups and downs can form a false narrative about the artist’s work. Look at the art, not the artist, is something Bruce Springsteen said in an interview about 30 years ago and has stayed with me ever since—that the art should stand as the truth of the artist—and the person themselves: meh, who really cares, you’ll probably be disappointed—so just look at the art—let the art speak. Though that might be a resolutely antiquated idea for someone my age—we are in a very different world now. And I, myself have felt the changes that have occurred about how we respond to an artists identity first hand. And I’m bringing this up because of this short piece, really just an appreciation, I wrote about Tarantino for The New York Times.
I was approached by the New York Times last summer and asked if I wanted to profile Tarantino. The last time I had done a celebrity profile had been over twenty years ago when I happened to be in LA for a couple of months drifting through pre-production on a film project that never happened and Details magazine asked me if I wanted to profile Val Kilmer who was on the Warner Brother’s lot shooting the new Batman movie, Batman Forever, and because I was bored and because of the outrageous amount of money Details was offering to write the profile (by the way—that outrageous sum—doesn’t exist anymore for anyone) I took the assignment even though I didn’t find Kilmer particularly interesting and this was and wasn’t proved over lunch at a sushi bar off of Mulholland, in his trailer on the Warner’s lot in full make-up and Batman regalia while he lolled about and I fumbled with my recorder, on a drive from the Warner’s lot to Culver City late that night where I talked to Kilmer while he was in a chair in a trailer doing make-up tests for his upcoming role in Michael Mann’s Heat, which was shooting near-by. The Val Kilmer piece had come out okay but the fights I had gotten into with the editor over cuts and omissions just wasn’t worth it—fighting over a Val Kilmer profile because I hadn’t written more about his sex life and the various women he dated was, well…is this where I’m at? I’ve gotta get back to New York, and I did, soon after. Since then I’ve turned down various assignments to profile celebrities, mostly actors, and as much as I like hanging out with actors, writing about them and getting quotes and not freaking them out and wishing they would be more transparent and less afraid of their publicists, is a task I’d rather leave to someone more capable than myself.
The New York Times clarified what they wanted: the T magazine supplement was doing an issue called The Greats—various writers on cultural figures who were hovering around the center of the culture in this moment: Rihanna, Jonathan Franzen, the filmmaker Steve McQueen, Karl Lagerfeld, and Tarantino—and I said yes because I’m actually interested in Tarantino—interested in his films, and in a Gen-X sensibility that we both share, and in the man himself who seemingly knows more about film history than any other middle-aged American auteur and I love him in interviews where he is fearlessly opinionated about current actors, directors, movies and television—and I hate saying fearlessly because it shouldn’t be THAT fearless dissing Oscar-bait movies, saying you don’t care for Cate Blanchett or found the first season of True Detective boring after only watching one episode. But in our current emotionally-stunted childlike snowflake culture, all bothered and twitching about a grown-ups negative opinion about something, it is becoming fearless to say you don’t like something, it’s not for me—yes, we’re living in a neutered corporate culture where the grown-up negative opinion or joke is considered blasphemy, sooo insensitive, you’re such a meanie, take that back, apologize, because I’m a child, I’m a child and I can’t take it and I’m covering my ears up with my little hands. There was a moment where you could have opinions and make them public and they weren’t always positive and people discussed them. In the corporate culture we live in—run it seems by over-sensitive children, so fearful of discourse and in thrall to upbeat group think ideology—a harmless opinion about an actress, a female director, a black female director becomes an opportunity for the social justice warriors to launch their attacks which they did once the Tarantino piece was posted by The New York Times online a few weeks ago.
I had met Tarantino only twice before—strange perhaps since we have so many acquaintances in common—once after the premiere of The Last Exorcism over drinks at the afterparty in the lobby of the ArcLight where we talked about the film critic Pauline Kael and Tarantino’s interest in Less Than Zero, and one other time at Soho House here in LA when both of our parties overlapped. Knowing Tarantino was heavily into editing The Hateful Eight, opening in December, and also knowing that this was not going to be a full-blown profile—roughly 2500 words—and that it was essential for the magazine to have the writer spend some time with the subject before writing the piece even if the piece was basically just an appreciation they still wanted some added face time, some movement, some flair, so I ended up talking to Tarantino for about two hours and then the two of us went to the movies at the revival theater he owns here in LA, the New Beverly, to watch a Chaplin movie I—yes I had never heard of and referred to, foolishly, in the article as an “obscure” Chaplin movie called The Circus—it was the one Chaplin film neither Tarantino or I had seen and I didn’t feel at the time it was crazy to refer to it as “obscure”—but the cinephiles in social media correctly took me to task for that. After the movie Tarantino wanted to get a bite to eat—but it was nearing 11 and I was tired and had to get up early the next morning for a meeting so we said our goodbyes and I took an Uber home. I really liked Tarantino a lot: generous, friendly, good-natured, approachable, so smart about film, the history of film, and his genuine love of film is infectious when you’re hanging out with him and he’s also a clear-eyed tough critic and I like that about him too. The interview was actually, ultimately, just a conversation we had, not a hard-hitting journalistic expose, not an investigation, not a grilling, just a few soft-lob questions, a couple of things I wanted to ask over a bottle of red-wine by the lit pool in his backyard—super mellow, super pleasant. Ultimately I actually gave the Times a 5000 word piece, double what they asked for, and of course, they only ran the half that they preferred. Admittedly, I took a look at the edit they presented to me and though I was aware enough to know that his monologue on black critics might push a few buttons—it seemed so benign, but I said yeah it’s fine, it’s part of the Quentin narrative, I would have preferred the paragraph where he talks about his now-complicated feelings for his hero-crush Godard and especially QTs take down of Hitchcock, who he never really liked, in-fact preferring Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho over the original. THAT to me was the most shocking thing in the transcripts.
So when the piece was posted what were the two things that QT said that were so appalling, so blasphemous, so disrespectful, so sick-making, so sexist and racist, so newsworthy that social media erupted with thousands of butt-hurt souls calling for QTs head on a platter? One was in reference to Inglourious Basterds losing to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker at the 2010 Oscars for picture, directing and screenplay, and the not-so-hidden idea, at least out here and by out here I suppose I mean the academy of motion picture arts and sciences and Hollywood in general, that there was a bit of token-ism on display when Bigelow won the first female directing Oscar ever, and that this was discussed widely among people out here at the time, it was in the air everywhere, we have to give it to Bigelow, we have to prove that we aren’t horrible sexists, if we give it to Bigelow it’ll prove something to the world even if the movie wasn’t best of 2009—I even had a conversation with one of The Hurt Locker’s producers at the Equinox gym in West Hollywood about this, who, when the topic came up, agreed that “Yeah, that probably is the case” and this is the supposedly horrible thing Tarantino said in response to losing best director and best picture to Bigelow and The Hurt Locker and I’m quoting it verbatim: “The Kathryn Bigelow thing—I got it. Look, it was exciting that a woman had made such a good war film, and it was the first movie about the Iraq War that said something. And it wasn’t like I lost to something dreadful. It’s not like ET losing to Gandhi.” End-quote. And on Ava DuVernay’s supposed Selma snub—which again Out Here not many people liked the movie all that much for aesthetic reasons—not ideological ones, snowflakes, but aesthetic ones, the conversation turning on the fact that it seemed more like a TV movie, and whether you agree or disagree with that assessment, it was the assessment out here (and if anyone really cares to listen to my deconstruction of the supposed Selma snub you can listen to this at the beginning of the Alex Ross Perry podcast from earlier in the year). Here is the absolutely horrible and sexist and racist and appalling thing Tarantino said about Ava Duvernay and Selma: Ready? Here we go. Brace yourselves. It’s twelve words. I hope this doesn’t trigger anything: “She did a very good job on Selma, but Selma deserved an Emmy.” Did, um, everyone survive hearing that? You all, okay? Just want to make sure you’ve recovered before I continue. Tarantino was parroting the typical response in Hollywood, just as the Bigelow tokenism response was also typical out here. That’s it. Tarantino is not against women—throughout the conversation Tarantino gave his honest feelings about various male filmmakers as well—and though some of them were cut from the piece they were not all favorable. But these were opinions—NOT prohibitions. Unless you wanted to make them one.
The internet exploded and by mid-week in hundreds of social justice warrior think pieces, and so many dumb tweets from people who should know better, Tarantino was considered an outrageous sexist and uninhibited racist. What was so disturbing about the sentimental narrative about Tarantino’s innocuous thoughts was in the overreaction to someone having an opinion that was not supporting the corporate ideals of inclusivity and positivity, who had opinions that were in many ways against the sentimental narrative of the group-think, who was above the overly emotional reaction to criticism and opinions (and personally I think he’s way too nice to The Hurt Locker)—there was the overwhelming suggestion that ideology—just because she’s a woman or she’s a black filmmaker—she needs to be protected from these opinions. And what this outrage toward Quentin Tarantino does is that the social-media outrage turns Bigelow and DuVernay into victims—which is just so deliciously gratifying to Social Justice Warrior mentality. Tarantino was just giving an opinion on two films—the social justice warriors turned Bigelow and DuVernay into martyrs, which is the real thought crime. And there isn’t that much difference between Social Justice Warriors and members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—sometimes they overlap. The Academy has certainly given awards, not to the deserving party necessarily, but to wrongs they feel the need to right—whether it’s Scorsese winning for The Departed, Pacino winning for Scent of A Woman, Julianne Moore winning for Still Alice—the list goes on and on. In-fact I had dinner last week with a woman who is an Oscar-nominated producer and member of the Academy and a self-professed proud Hollywood liberal who got a little miffed by Tarantino’s words about Bigelow and DuVernay and when I started to defend the words and that I agreed with them and that I hope she was not going to say that ideology trumps artistic merit—she closed her eyes and her voice rising over mine, exclaimed, “They get a free pass! They get a free pass!” which lead to a drunken semi-exhausting conversation about aesthetics versus ideology and Hollywood’s horrible sexism problem, that I hope to never have again.
Tarantino painted as something he’s not because of his opinions is where we’re at now—even though it lasts only 24 hours on social media—and this is essentially a corporate culture where everyone gets so emotional over a dislike—and pissed at a person who instead of following the upbeat status quo remains idiosyncratic—the upbeat status quo is an expansion of Facebook culture, posting about your best self, making yourself a little friendlier, a little duller, playing a fake noble you in a fake show—this is what’s turning everyone into a clockwork orange, and what is really at stake here is: stamping out the non-conformists. I hope the reaction to Tarantino and the piece don’t take away from his achievements as a filmmaker but sometimes we seem to be getting dangerously close to extolling an emotionalism about an artist—that in this reality-culture moment who cares about what they create—who cares about their art in this democratized DIY universe—instead it seems as if the crowd is shouting I just want you to notice me, me, me, and hear my story, my story, my story—and if you do this then I’m much more interested in your story as well. But not if it’s different than mine. Not if it doesn’t conform to the group-think narrative. This is the childlike narcissism at the heart of corporate culture and the social justice warrior mindset as well. The fact that social justice warriors are even more conservative than corporate culture is something to be mindful of…