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Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction

The argument for ‘cancelling’ Quentin Tarantino is often reductive

Directors are not beyond critique, but people on both sides of the debate can pollute the topic with absolutism

This week, the ramshackle crew of film reviewers, programmers, blu-ray-heads, and Timothée Chalamet stans collectively known as the anthropological category ‘Film Twitter’ erupted into one of its perennial brouhahas. Following the publication of a Guardian opinion piece calling for the “immediate cancellation” of Quentin Tarantino, and in the wake of a claim by the film scholar Ira Madison III that Martin Scorsese and Tarantino are “white male film nerd franchises”, people on all levels of the argument took up arms. Everybody got stuck in – well, everyone who wasn’t exhausted right down to their very bone marrow by the perpetual, ill-informed Twitter spats to which the film world keeps subjecting itself. Now, as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is released to the usual chorus of acclaim and dissent that Tarantino elicits, it seems important to maintain a sense of perspective. 

The argument about the misogyny and social politics of two adulated auteurs – if argument is the right word for the collection of feverish memes, quote-tweets, and “legendary shuttings-down” that appeared on the timeline – would appear to be between revisionists seeking to question the oeuvre of two revered filmmakers, and protectors of the aforementioned masters and their legacy. In reality, this fails to give an idea of proper tendencies in film thinking right now, and of the way people on both sides of the ‘debate’ can pollute the topic with their absolutism.

It’s a thin argument to suggest that Tarantino is a pure misogynist – his work on Jackie Brown, which offers a sensitive and beautiful portrayal of a woman, counters that accusation fairly handily. Similarly, it seems odd to say that Scorsese is merely a filmmaker for white male film bros, when Scorsese’s contribution to the advancement of non-white world cinema, through the work of the World Cinema Foundation, which he founded, is undeniably enormous. At the same time, it is also the case that neither is above reproach. As always, the petty recriminations, along with the restricting parameters of Twitter, have obstructed what might have been a healthy and even welcome debate. 

“As always, the petty recriminations, along with the restricting parameters of Twitter, have obstructed what might have been a healthy and even welcome debate” 

In a thrilling interview with the Guardian a few years ago, the actor Marianne Jean-Baptiste took issue with being asked why she doesn’t get offered more roles as a person of colour. “I can’t tell you why I’ve not been invited to a party. You need to go to the host and say, “Why didn’t you invite her to the party?’” she exclaimed angrily. But is anybody asking Scorsese (for instance) why he doesn’t invite women and people of colour to his party? The question is worthwhile. Many years ago I read an interview with Jodie Foster, who worked with Scorsese in Taxi Driver, in which she said that she would love to work with him again, but that he didn’t seem to be interested in creating roles for women. This is self-evidently the case, and it is a totally serious and valid stance that asks whether it is a flaw in his work that, since The End of Innocence, his compass has been so totally masculine. 

I would go one step further and argue that in films such as Goodfellas and, especially, The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese is besotted with the charismatic villainy of his alpha-male protagonists to a point that it is detrimental to the films. But, again, these criticisms must be matched with a due consideration of his work that takes into account his more contemplative pieces, his spirituality, and his formal accomplishments in such films as Silence or Kundun - rather than reducing him to a gangsters ‘n’ crime caricature. 

Likewise, it is surely essential – at least in this critic’s view – to address the persistent, immature bloodthirst and lust for vengeance that bedevils so many of Quentin Tarantino’s films. Does that need to be done through the lens of ‘cancellations’? Of course not – and I say this as someone who loudly decried the violent misogyny of Lars Von Trier in Cannes last year.

“We owe it to filmmakers to think holistically about their work: in that sense, it seems inarguable that the heroines of Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill films are strong women”

We owe it to filmmakers to think holistically about their work: in that sense, it seems inarguable that the heroines of Jackie Brown and the Kill Bill films are strong women, presented as richly as, or more so than, any male character. It is so much more of a powerful argument to suggest that superficially conceived characters such as Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda, in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, do a disservice to the work of a man who has proved he is capable of better. It also seems odd to “cancel” Quentin Tarantino for supposed onscreen misogyny, when he was likely abusive towards Uma Thurman and almost certainly knew about Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. 

Ultimately, these conversations, which will be increasingly relevant and needed in years to come as new generations of film writers come through and – as is only right – decolonise the film canon, are badly served by cliched, reductive phrases (“cancel” on one side of the argument, “wokeness” used sarcastically on the other). It’s also a disservice to the rich legacy and history of film to suggest that people sticking up for it are necessarily ‘gatekeeping’. If the film world wants to move forward, and protect its history while cinema stands at a crossroads, then it is vital to have a grounded understanding of film before seeking to redress its wrongs.