The eccentric Russian intellectual Mikhail Bakhtin, writing on literature and semiotics from around 1919 until his death in 1975, had this crazy idea: Stories talk to one another. Bakhtin theorized that authors cobble narratives together from various “languages,” combining and juxtaposing familiar motifs, images and tropes from other stories as well as cultural associations, history and even clichés to tell a new tale. An active “listener-reader,” to use Bakhtin’s term, simultaneously senses many levels to each story – the characters talking to one another within the story, the narrator telling us the story and the author speaking through the story. These levels engage in dialogue with one another, and the listener-reader constructs meaning by eavesdropping on their conversation. The different levels also address the artworks and narratives from which they have been created. They talk back.
In many stories, the author, like a magician, tries to hide his or her hand. But Bakhtin’s ideas prove especially helpful in talking about stories where the author’s presence comes through strong – like the movies of Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino makes no secret that his movies converse with cinematic history – his appropriations, homages and collaging of disparate elements from other movies — elements as specific as shots that he re-creates or as general as a name, costume or song that he recycles — make clear his references. He never borrows haphazardly; he works thematically. In “Kill Bill,” Tarantino mixed tropes from westerns and Samurai films, revealing the relationship between the two genres, a symmetry of lone warriors, experts with particular weapons, who fight outside the limits of the law for justice against selfish and cruel gangsters.
A key concept of Bakhtin’s dialogic theory is that a contemporary work of art can change one’s evaluation of a past piece of art, and Tarantino demonstrates this in his latest film, “Django Unchained,” in a restaging of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” where masked Klansmen charge down a hill on horseback, intent on a lynching. Whereas Griffith lionized the Klan, Tarantino has the Klansmen ridiculously unable to see out of their eyeholes, a problem they pull over to discuss with a Southern gentility so extreme it comes across as effeminate. The bit plays like a skit from “Chappelle’s Show,” and it makes it impossible to view D.W. Griffith’s movie in quite the same way after – Tarantino has subverted its imagery completely.
Even Tarantino’s casting choices play to, or against, the audience’s cinematic and cultural expectations. The actress Pam Grier, famous for her roles in blaxploitation films, drew a direct connection between those movies and “Jackie Brown.” At the same time, she bucked type. In the 1970s, Grier played badass tough girl Foxy Brown, an action heroine who goes after pimps and drug dealers. As Jackie Brown, Grier’s a middle-aged stewardess trying to fight her way out of a gangster’s employ using only her wits.
Often Tarantino places television actors in major roles, most recently putting Don Johnson, famous for his cool white suit and sunglasses in the 1980s series “Miami Vice,” in “Django Unchained” as Big Daddy, a plantation owner and racist who is clad, of course, in a white suit. There’s a level of wry humor in this choice, a wink at the audience. At times, Tarantino’s plucky casting works so well it resurrects the career of the actor, as it did for John Travolta after playing an aging, clinging-to-hipness gunman in “Pulp Fiction.”
What’s becoming more apparent is how Tarantino’s movies talk to one another, and in doing so, banter with his more attentive fans. Like William Faulkner, who set many of his stories in fictional Yoknapatawpha county, in Mississippi, or Stephen King, who did the same with the town of Castle Rock, Maine, Tarantino has created a pretend world, work by work. Some characters appear in several films – Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) appears in “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Kill Bill,” as well as “Death Proof” and its “Grindhouse” double-feature, the Robert Rodriguez–directed “Planet Terror.” Other characters have inter-filmic relationships both literally and figuratively: Vincent Vega (John Travolta) from “Pulp Fiction” is the brother of Mr. Blonde, Vic Vega (Michael Madsen), in “Reservoir Dogs.” In “Pulp Fiction,” Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace has acted in a show about an all-female assassin squad called Fox Force Five; her character, the Bride, in “Kill Bill” is part of just such a force.
Tarantino has suggested that there is a movie universe within his movie universe. He imagines films like “Natural Born Killers,” Kill Bill” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” to be ones that the characters from ”Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown” and “Reservoir Dogs” would go see. So it could be that in “Kill Bill,” Uma Thurman is playing actress Mia Wallace playing the Bride! The mind reels.
Tarantino extends this intertextuality even beyond his own films. Michael Keaton plays the character of Ray Nicolette in Tarantino’s ”Jackie Brown” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” both based on Elmore Leonard novels. Tarantino’s film came first, meaning Miramax owned the rights to the character, but Tarantino convinced the studio to allow Universal to use Keaton as Nicolette because he thought it would be cool. Similarly, a scene featuring the RZA character of the Blacksmith, from “The Man With the Iron Fists,” was planned for “Django Unchained,” but scrapped because of scheduling problems.
These relationships are simultaneously fun — puzzles for fans to piece together — and a marketing device, fuel for online forums and discussion boards. But they also make explicit the overarching themes running among Tarantino’s films. All deal with issues of power, in particular the triumph of the underdog, often by means of subterfuge in which he or she plays a role, and so is underestimated, and then prevails, usually violently, over the powers-that-be, whether that authority be the law, a gangster, or, in his past two movies, Nazis and racist slave owners. (For a more dramatic summary of Tarantino’s themes, recall the monologue spoken by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules, in “Pulp Fiction,” about the path of the righteous being beset “by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.”)
More interesting than any of this, I think, and more unique, is that Tarantino seems to be using his movies to talk back to his critics. This isn’t a farfetched idea – in his spare time, Tarantino writes film criticism; he’s obviously aware of what people say about his work. After critics took issue with the limb-decapitating, orange-blood-spurting, eye-popping carnage of “Kill Bill,” Tarantino presented a fantasy of violence in “Inglourious Basterds” that few could take issue with: a Jewish avenger gunning Hitler to bits. And, in fact, few did.
In “Django Unchained,” Tarantino takes on an issue that surfaced in the aftermath of “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”: his representation of race and, in particular, his use of the word “nigger.” Though Tarantino appeared as the famous movie director QT in Spike Lee’s “Girl 6″ (another dialogic gesture), Lee later criticized Tarantino for using the N-word 38 times in the dialogue of “Jackie Brown.” There, mostly in the mouth of the gangster Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), the word was used in the contemporary sense: one black man speaking of another, or himself. In “Django,” both white and black characters use the word in the historical, gender-neutral sense: to refer to a black human being as property. The power dynamics encoded in the language may be uncomfortable for American audiences, but are critically defensible – how could Tarantino fully convey the suppression of blacks by white slave owners without it?
Yet as before, Lee, along with other black entertainers and intellectuals, have taken issue with Tarantino’s use of the word and with his drawing on spaghetti western tropes in concocting his story, which Tarantino calls “A Southern.” In part, the negative response stems from the audacity of Tarantino’s goals in “Django,” and here again, Bakhtin’s ideas prove useful. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino constructs his alternative history around the Holocaust without having to depict it – other pieces of cinema, most famously Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” portrayed the horrors of the Third Reich. In this way, Hitler made for the perfect villain, as Western culture recognizes the Holocaust as one of the 20th century’s most wicked genocides. To see Hitler subjected to murder most gruesome arouses Western audiences’ cultural consciousness in a visceral, compelling manner.
No such document exists in our popular culture regarding slavery, and so Tarantino must be more explicit for the emotional impact of Django’s revenge to resonate. The choices Tarantino made have been placed under a microscope by intellectuals and historians of all colors, arguing the veracity, for example, of Mandingo fighting, in which two slaves battle to the death with their masters betting on the outcome. The emotional impact of that scene, the dynamics at play, seem far more significant than whether that particular event ever really happened. (It didn’t, historians say. Rather, Tarantino pulled it from the 1975 Richard Fleischer exploitation film “Mandingo.”)
This criticism feels unfounded as, even more so than in “Basterds,” Tarantino makes clear that he’s in fantasy mode. Django (Jamie Foxx), freed from slavery by his bounty-hunting partner and mentor King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), embarks on a quest to rescue his enslaved wife Brunhilde (Kerry Washington) from the sadistic Monsieur Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) – a plot set in motion by the Germanic tale of Brunhilde and Siegfried in which the hero rescues the fair maiden by overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles like slaying a dragon. In other words, Tarantino took a myth central to American cinema – the stoic gunslinger – and grafted it onto a still raw, horrible period of American history, affixing it with some German fairy tale.
A German fairy tale told by the same actor – Christoph Waltz – who hunted Jews in “Inglourious Basterds.” In “Django,” Waltz plays nearly an identical character. Both Hans Landa, the World War II Jew hunter, and King Schultz, the pre-Emancipation bounty hunter, traffic in corpses. But in “Django,” Tarantino gives Waltz, and perhaps the German people, a break after revisiting their country’s shameful past. Schultz, with the eyes of an outsider, finds slavery in America hideous and ultimately can no longer stomach it. He seems to be speaking for the director himself when, after shooting the odious Monsieur Candie in the heart, he says apologetically, “I couldn’t resist,” and unleashes a cathartic blood bath.
Hitler’s assassination in “Basterds” and Django’s destruction upon the Candyland plantation in “Django Unchained” demonstrate what popular cinema does best, which is not to reflect history with a documentary level of truth – because how truthful are historical facts once they’ve been bent to the service of story and re-created on sound stages? – but to project our dreams and fears onto the screen. Tarantino is more adept at this than most because he speaks the language of cinema history on many levels simultaneously, talking back to movies, fans, the audience’s expectations and even critics at once. The more you unpack these various conversations, the more pleasurable his work becomes. At the heart of Tarantino’s work is a love of movies and film culture.
To criticize the veracity of his films, even when they have historical subjects, is to miss the point; he’s operating in movie-land, and to watch a Tarantino movie is to take a freewheeling road trip through this mythic, made-up place, crossing genre boundaries at whim. Tarantino knows, more fully than most directors working today, that Americans don’t go to the movies to learn history but to escape into their imaginations and dream with their eyes wide open.
And as a dream opens doors onto the ugliest parts of our psyche, “Django Unchained” casts light on an aspect of America’s past that most would rather not talk about or consider. Perhaps some of the critical response to these images says more about our culture than it does about Tarantino as a filmmaker or person.
Brian Gresko is the editor of "When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood" (Berkley Books/Penguin). His work has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail, and on The Huffington Post, Salon, TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Beast, the L.A. Review of Books, and The Rumpus. He lives in Brooklyn with his family, and you can find him online at briangresko.com.