Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy , ed. by Richard Greene

Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy (Popular Culture and Philosophy Series), ed. Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2007. Paperback $16.95. 288pp. ISBN: 0-812-69634-4.

The aim of this series is to investigate the theoretical puzzles presented by pop culture — most obviously in the edition on nothingness in Seinfeld, to the intriguing-sounding volume on the Atkins diet, which links a fat-burning ethos with the Nietzschean ego. The volumes on cinema (there have also been editions on Hitchcock and Mel Gibson) promise to generate excitingly perverse and partial readings of films. At its best, I could imagine the series alluding to new film forms based on philosophical apparatus — for instance, the reincarnations made possible by the structure of Death Proof (2007).

What I didn’t expect was that many of the writers would dive into the motives and back-stories of Tarantino plots as if they were a form of interactive fiction: Mark T. Conrad reconfigures Kill Bill (2003-4) in terms of Oedipal mythology. There is a general tendency to talk around plot points, trying out different ethical and mythological models to fit the characters. This can result in an inspired piece like Luke Cuddy and Michael Bruce’s vision of Kill Bill as a step-like process to enlightenment, or it can create arguments unrelated to the tone of the films.

Tarantino’s work certainly lends itself to philosophical implications, with its temporal twists and cycles of vengeance. The tack that several writers take is to view his world as a system of pay-offs and paybacks, a handing out of prizes: Bruce Russell observes characters “displaying admirable emotions,” while David Kyle Johnson judges “morally permissible” actions. More idiosyncratically, Bence Nanay and Ian Schnee size up a couple of options before crowning Pulp Fiction’s Jules (Samuel L. Jackson, right) as the closest thing to a Nietzschean superman. These articles look at the films in terms of synopses rather than mood. However, a close reading of gesture, movement, and tone could have uncovered numerous philosophical possibilities within the films — for instance, the Buddhist blandness of Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997), gliding along a walkway against a backdrop of blue tiles. Buddhism might inform the way that Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) works up a backlog of emotion in her anime past before bursting into a live-action present. The rectangle traced by Uma Thurman’s finger in both Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill also doesn’t get much attention, given that it’s a potential “miracle” phenomenon that jumps from film to film.

Two essays make convincing ties between Tarantino and a philosophical regime. In “Stuntman Mike, Simulation, and Sadism,” Aaron C. Anderson shows that the structure of Death Proof (right) is about “moving away from memory,” from the pained atmosphere of the first half (a moody and sexualised ambience associated with blood sports and roadkill) to the happy forgetfulness of the second. Anderson refers to the characters in the second half as “simulations” after Baudrillard — stuntpeople driven to original action — and regards the entire film as a simulacrum, an effect enhanced by the insertion of blank and faulty cells into the film.

The other piece that illuminates is K. Silem Mohammad’s work on doubt and scepticism in the Tarantino universe. This article on Jackie Brown elucidates the “pragmatic” nature of Tarantino dialogue, maintaining an impassively cordial tone even when going into absurd detail over a single line (utterly appropriate for Tarantino). Mohammad recognizes that Tarantino’s most quotable lines often relate to conversations about knowledge: characters expressing their awareness of an act, or the limitations of that awareness. When they want to indicate more than they know, they use euphony or “straight talk” as a distraction; Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) is able to persuade others of his omniscience by “just repeating stuff he’s overheard” in a neutral manner. Mohammad breaks down dialogue to its tiniest logical components, capturing the director’s voice in the process.

I would have liked to hear more, overall, about music: Tarantino’s ability to take even very ubiquitous songs and shape them into the climax of a sequence. In Kill Bill, Santana’s classic “She’s Not There” gains a new resonance when set to David Carradine cutting a cheese sandwich; it takes on the hues and floating atmosphere of that scene. For Jackie Brown, he detaches a well-known title track, “Across 110th Street,” from its source (a Yaphet Kotto crime drama), and realigns it with the rhythms of a new universe. I thought this kind of transplant might be of interest to philosophers: the displacement of a small, talismanic object from one reality to another.