She complied. Then she proceeded to crash the car, resulting in what she says is permanent damage to her neck and “screwed-up knees.” Thurman’s recollection of her “dehumanization to the point of death” was part of a larger story that included coercive, violent encounters with “Kill Bill’s” producer and Tarantino’s chief champion, Harvey Weinstein. Her experience provides yet another glimpse inside a particular brand of toxic masculinity: a deference to auteur-worship that, as Thurman’s case demonstrates, can have literally deadly consequences and is just as unhealthy on-screen as off.
Since the accusations of harassment and criminal sexual abuse against Weinstein and the ensuing cascade of similarly unsettling allegations broke last fall, filmgoers have been invited to consider — and reconsider, and re-reconsider — how or whether to separate the art from the artist. But Tarantino’s alleged behavior on the “Kill Bill” set for two specific scenes, during which he also reportedly spit in Thurman’s face and choked her with a chain, suggests we’ve been asking the right question in the wrong way. The problem isn’t separating the art from the artist, but the compulsion to conflate-and-inflate the two, accepting weak, substandard and otherwise objectionable films simply because they bear the signature of filmmakers garlanded with awards, consensus critical esteem and the respect that accrues with an established oeuvre.
Actresses have been subject to abuses of power virtually since the invention of cinema, a medium invented by men photographing other men doing things and women looking beautiful. During Hollywood’s Golden Age, it was the studio heads who held the most power over actresses’ careers; with the advent of writer-directors in the 1960s through today, it was the mostly male directors — romanticized as temperamental, demanding, uncompromising and brilliant — who could make a female star, even while breaking her at the same time. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s pathetic attempts to bring Tippi Hedren to heel (and his sadistic response when she resisted). Or Brett Ratner implying that sexual gratification could be traded for speaking roles, as female featured players on “Rush Hour 2” have alleged.
Since the “auteur theory” was imported from France to the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the term has earned value as a marketing hook, not just for movies but for the men who make them: The mystique of Terrence Malick has prompted name actors to work on his films for relative peanuts, just for a chance to work for him — even if they risk ending up on the cutting-room floor. Up until now, Woody Allen has used a similar business model based on reflexive adoration, not just from actors but also loyal audiences who can be relied upon to see whatever movie he makes, even if it’s a tired rehash of his cardinal themes of death, moral culpability, sexual insecurity, alienation.
Whether it’s Malick and Allen or David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, auteurs count on their audiences to internalize the filmmaker’s anxieties, fetishes, fears and appetites, and take them on as our own. As often as not, those preoccupations are benign — and can be illuminating and provocative when they’re artfully plumbed.
What Thurman’s accusations against Tarantino reveal is how willing too many filmgoers are to go along with those impulses, even when they take a more pathological turn. As Jessica Chastain tweeted over the weekend, “How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’?” The answer can be found in how men created a medium in their own image, with their ideas of what’s attractive and interesting and sexy and morally serious — commonly called “the male gaze” — becoming canonized as epic and cinematic, while women’s experiences were marginalized as niche and inconsequential.
Critics own our share of the blame: How many of us have accepted Tarantino’s stylized savagery against women (not to mention his opportunistic use of racist epithets) with the same self-flattering chuckle with which we’ve greeted his winking references to grindhouse pulp and obscure martial arts flicks? It’s not that Tarantino isn’t capable of great filmmaking: He deployed his syncretic cinematic language to surprisingly substantive effect in “Django Unchained,” for example. But all too often, Tarantino’s glib cruelty-as-cool aesthetic is given a pass, chalked up to “Quentin being Quentin” rather than interrogated within the context of each new film.
As grievous as Thurman’s narrative is, this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino problem. It’s a critical thinking problem, with an elite group of acknowledged masters — mostly white, mostly male — continually given the benefit of the doubt on even their laziest, most repetitive and intellectually bankrupt work while underrepresented visions and voices go unseen and unheard. As “Mudbound” director Dee Rees told me last fall, films should always be judged on their own merits, not as extensions of the filmmaker’s persona and personal biography. “Love the work first, and then be excited about the maker,” she said.
She was referring to the dangers of pigeonholing writers and directors according to their gender and ethnic identities, but the same holds true for filmmakers whose vaunted reputations too often obscure the fact that they’re making one movie at a time: some good, some bad and, yes, some great.
When “Great Men” insist on voyeuristically reveling in female suffering or using rape as a convenient inciting incident or hyper-sexualizing their actresses (or, in turn, reducing them to monotonously neurotic harridans), viewers don’t have to accept those images as “edgy” artistic signatures or “deep” recurring themes. We can reject them — offensive or damaging, simplistic or banal, ugly or shallow. Like Thurman, we can listen to our best instincts. And, unlike her, we can always choose to get out of the car.