January 04, 2013

Terry Gross Freaks Out on Quentin Tarantino

illustration: chris cobb

In case you missed it, Terry Gross had a meltdown the other day when she interviewed Quentin Tarantino for Fresh Air. Judging from all the harsh comments on the NPR website, I’m not the only one who thought something weird was going on. But hey— who could have guessed that making a violent movie about an ex-slave getting revenge on white people would freak anyone out?

First she tried to link the recent death of the 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook with movie violence. In the process she implied he was partly to blame because he depicts violence in his films. Then she asked how he felt about those killings and put him in a very awkward position because the interview was supposed to be about his new film, Django Unchained.

But Tarantino rolled with it, saying he didn’t see the connection. Instead of accepting that answer, Gross became strident, pestering him about his personal history so she could “figure him out,” I guess, and expose him as a secretly violent person or something. It was almost as if she was trying to get him to confess to her that he liked to see people die.

What she missed, of course, is that Tarantino’s films almost always play with violent historical contexts, counterfactual or not. It’s called fiction. I would even say that Tarantino’s films are as much studies in the aesthetics of violence as they are anything else. To miss that is to miss what he does as an artist. Reservoir Dogs, for example, is essentially a study in male brutality and how it plays out in groups. I always thought someone could use it in a classroom setting to teach about the psychology of violence. In that way it resonates with other works like Yukio Mishima‘s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea or the Marquis de Sade‘s Justine, where everyone becomes corrupted in the end, no matter how hard they fight against it.

Tarantino told her:

Movies are about make-believe. … I don’t think there’s any place in a movie for real death.

Django Unchained movie poster

Yet it didn’t end there. She even started asking about his sexuality, which was too weird to discuss here. Then she peppered him with questions such as if he would enjoy watching a violent film right after the shootings of all the children. She asked if making violent films was any “less fun” after such a massacre.

Then she paused and then, laughing, said, You sound annoyed?

He replied, Yeah, I’m really annoyed. I think it’s disrespectful to … the memory of the people who died to talk about the movies. Obviously, the issue is gun control and mental health.

She also implied his depictions of violence were immoral, which I’ve never heard in reference to, say, drone who drop bombs on innocent people. Yet she said it to him here:

GROSS: So there’s a lot of violence in your movie. Slaves are being whipped and tortured, slaves forced to fight to the death like gladiators, lots of shooting and splatter. So what are your — how do I put this exactly? — what are your limits for, like, what’s your sensibility for how much splatter, how much violence, how much sadism feels like right, like it’s part of the genre, like there’s a certain, like, style to it that you’re trying to express? And what’s going to the point of, like, past where you want to go, to the point of, like, revulsion and exploitation to, you know, to a degree that’s just — I don’t want to use the word immoral but just, you know, bad? 

TARANTINO: Well frankly, I mean, you know, what happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than I show. So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me that wouldn’t be exploitative, that would just be how it is. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it.

In her defense, Gross was still clearly affected by the Sandy Hook slayings and might have just happened to have Tarantino on her interview schedule. The tragedy took a huge toll on a lot of people, and it’s understandable to want to hold someone accountable.

But why attack an artist? Why not get members of the NRA or CEOs of bullet manufacturing companies on the air? Ask them how they feel when their ammunition is used to kill children? Why not put their feet to the fire?

Because of the meltdown, NPR’s audience missed out on the chance to hear from Tarantino, who wrote, directed, and acted in the film. Having also written, directed, and acted in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds, that makes him an American auteur and definitely worth hearing from. About Django, he pointed out:

There haven’t been that many slave narratives in the last 40 years of cinema, and usually when there are, they’re usually done on television, and for the most part … they’re historical movies, like History with a capital H.

So Django may be controversial, but is it a bad film?

Perhaps to some. In the Wall Street Journal online Ishmael Reed explains how much he didn’t like the film — in 1,551 words. Spike Lee said it was disrespectful to his ancestors and that he would never see it. Terry Gross clearly didn’t get it either.

On the other hand, Touré of MSNBC said:

What else is a slave to do with the author of his evil? This is righteous violence in the service of moral justice and in the service of love. What’s more romantic than a man who’ll slog through hell to rescue his woman?

So, is it a bad film? The truth, it would appear, is complicated, or at least generational.

However people feel about it, one must admit that just making a film like this film was a huge risk. Much riskier than even his bold Inglourious Basterds. As daring as Basterds was, there have been countless films made about the Nazis and about the Holocaust, and as such there is a vast cinematic vocabulary from which to draw upon. When it comes to slavery, however, people are still fighting over who has the right to even tell the story. That question of who gets to control a narrative is the central part of the modern intellectual dilemma.

Because of all that, Tarantino has managed to provoke a lot of discussion. We can now ask, for example: can white Hollywood continue to make films like The Conspirator or Lincoln, which have only a few, minor black characters in them? If Tarantio can make Django, maybe now it’s possible to tell the story more fully. Omitting major black characters from films about the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation just won’t fly now.

Who would dream of making films about the Holocaust but never having any Jewish or Russian characters? At least Django the slave becomes Django the hero. And as Touré said, he literally goes through hell to rescue the woman he loves. His character is fictive, but his story is ancient.

In a conversation with Charlie Rose last week, Tarantino said he rewatched all eight episodes of Alex Haley’s Roots. He told him about how at the very end of the last episode, the main character is given the cruel slave master tied to a tree. With a whip in his hand the main character is expected to whip the hell out of the evil man, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t seek revenge because he feels he would be just as bad as the slave owner.

Tarantino remarked how absurd that ending was and that it was unfair to have all of those generations of characters go through slavery and when given the chance to get closure, they didn’t get it. Tarantino is a serious student of cinema and felt the audience got shortchanged by that ending. But I wonder how well a film about slaves getting revenge would have been received in an era when white people were still afraid of the Black Panthers. Maybe now, in the age of Obama, moviegoing audiences can handle it without freaking out like Terry Gross did?

In Django, of course, the main character whips, shoots, and stabs slavers and overseers again and again, getting symbolic closure for himself and for others who, while they would never be violent like that, could at least feel some kind of cathartic pleasure from seeing something that is almost never shown in film. In that sense Django does become Siegfried, and he does become Spartacus, two heroic figures that at least Western and white audiences can understand. As I mentioned earlier, it appears we are experiencing a tide of films revisiting the topic of American slavery, but so far it’s been mostly white filmmakers communicating to white audiences. That’s a huge story in itself. Terry Gross missed all that, and it’s too bad.





Comments (13)

  • The Internet is one amazingly great an awful thing. I have such a hard time believing anything I read that has any minuscule amount of opinion in it. If in fact you have listened to any serious interviewer or journalist before without a biased opinion, you haven’t done so here. I would really hate to think someone’s opinion of terry gross could be formed by reading this article. You actually ended up doing just as much of an injustice to Terry Gross’ as you did to Quentin Tarantino. Unbelievable. I sincerely hope anyone who forms an opinion of either person based on this piece, listens to one other terry gross interview and watches one other quentin tarantino film.

  • Howard Barnett says:

    so Tarantino, maker of grotesque pointless and pointlessly violent films, finally used that mode of filmmaking and theme to make a point?

  • Howard Barnett says:

    so Tarantino, maker of grotesque pointless and pointlessly violent films, finally used that mode of filmmaking and theme to make a point?

  • Terry Gross has been accused of racist comments several times in the past (see her interviews with LeBron James, Jay-Z, ect.)–and I think these criticisms are not unfounded. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gross felt like she needed to go after Tarantino to try and keep her non-racist street cred. Especially since Django took so much criticism for how it handled American slavery. To be clear, I’m not saying this was her sole reason for going after Tarantino, just a contributing factor.

  • Good for Terry Gross. I think that referring to Tarantino as an artist debases the term. I find his films to be filled with gratuitous gore and crudeness; his appeal as a director has always eluded me. Gross is not going to ask the canned, softball questions that most interviewers do. She has real conversations with her guests; let Tarantino stay away from Fresh Air if he can’t handle being challenged about the impact of his work on the culture.

  • Scott Voelker says:

    Chris, I hardly think the media is giving the gun industry a pass. In fact the drum beat is steady, even if it is for the “train wreck” effect.

    I am happy to admit that I booed, laughed, and clapped all the way through the Japaneese vigilante movie ‘Machine Gun Girl’ It was so over the top that nothing seamed out of line.

    It is a powerful medium, film and the written word. I am turned off when a writer takes the easy way out and uses very basic motives to create good and bad. But I believe that the first sex scenes allowed in cinema were in fact rape. Throw in a murder too and bam, you’ve got yourself a bad guy we can all hate. Shoot it in 28 days and make a ton of money, “Show me the Boobies!” But I’m not ten anymore, I have developed higher standards.

    Numerous police tv shows have nurtured our basic instict to be right. It takes advantage of this instict that I feel is primal, akin to the concept of ‘prey drive’, which encompases why a Labradore Retriever can play fetch for hours at a time.

    I liked your example of hard writing, using the monster sceries Roots. I was born in 1970, and the series was way too boring for me at the time. But my parents never missed a show. That series gave a rising culture redemption that opened the perhaps closing eyes a working class america. Maybe now, 30 years later, we can say it worked.

    So what do we stand to gain today? It seems to me that there are two or more groups out there. Of those, one group is hiding behind the First Amendment And they are pointing to those hiding behind the Second Amendment; and vice versa.

    I moved out into the country to get away from all of them.

    Thank you for the discussion, Scott

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Paul, I have heard her do good interviews in the past and that is the very reason I was put off by her line of inquiry. She’s a professional, she knows what she’s doing. It’s o.k. to criticize her, as she herself is a social critic.

    For more insight into the film though, and perhaps where I think the real concerns are – I would refer you to an excellent article in Mother Jones by Adam Serwer. He tells why Django functions best as a form of film criticism because it inverts traditional film roles. He asserts that Django is actually an attack on the Western genre, where the heroes on horseback are always white and almost always ex-confederates. He also notes that the violence toward slaves did not seem unrealistic (thus, not sensationalistic), and that, “Django kills white people like he’s trying to make up for a century of on-screen genocide in Western films.”

    So in that sense, this may have been the best of the Tarantino films in regards to violence, whereas before it had been more abstract and about spectacle, here it is purposeful and proportionate.

    P.s. Since when has Terry Gross asked a gun manufacturer about their early sexual development and its possible connection to their love of violence? I’ll tell you when – never.

    Serwer’s article:
    here: http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2013/01/tarantino-django-unchained-western-racism-violence

  • Paul Ledesma says:

    Regarding Chris Cobb’s assertion that Terry Gross gives gun manufacturers, bullet manufacturers, drone manufacturers, and the military a complete pass, this is not true. Some of Gross’ best interviews have been with journalists and policy makers regarding domestic and foreign policy. Consider her interview with CJ Chivers, author of the Gun or Tom Ricks who has written so critically of the military. Interviews like these represent some of her best work and why, despite the occasional clunky line of questioning to a temperamental filmmaker with vested interests, she is still among the best interviewers around.

  • Paul Ledesma says:

    I was surprised by Terry Gross’ persistence with her questioning on this topic. We should expect Tarantino to say nothing other than what serves his film and his industry. For that reason, I thought her continued questioning was unnecessary. As for the filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino’s greatest contribution to his art might be how he is redefining the aesthetics of cinema violence. The alternate use of extreme violence that is based in the real world (violence towards slaves) and extreme “make believe” violence — novel, colorful, and over-the-top. But is the alternative use of these two modes of violence a good thing? I agree with Tarantino that most people can distinguish between the two modes — assuming your audience is rational. But, could it be that what Terry Gross’ was trying to get at is that this basic assumption of rationality may no longer be a safe one to make?

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Scott, I completely agree. However, what I find particularly egregious is that the media will give gun manufacturers, bullet manufacturers, drone manufacturers and the military a complete pass, but artists, artists must be held accountable! Worse yet they are all too often expected to answer for their works of fiction when the fiction isn’t realistic enough, or is too real.

    And I agree that her attempt to connect the real and the imagined was a good effort, but in the end she missed the opportunity to really explore the topic, when the interview degenerated into a psychoanalysis of the filmmaker.

    In case anyone forgot, in 1978 Alex Haley was sued by another author, Harold Courlander, for plagiarizing his work. Haley settled out of court for $650,000 and a public admission of copying passages from the author’s book, called “The African.” But this was a fight nobody wanted. ROOTS was an iconic work and reached a much broader audience than Courlander’s ever did – yet there was plenty of evidence that Haley had borrowed substantially from “The African.” Part of the deal was that Courlander keep quiet about the settlement, which Courlander did, until his death in 1996. That situation is interesting, and very postmodern, because it is an example of how a work of supposedly nonfiction was compromised because it plagiarized from a work of fiction.

    The degree to which material was copied has always been contentious, but it just goes to show you that writing is a powerful art form and you really, honestly can’t do it well if your main goal is to make everybody happy.

  • Scott Voelker says:

    I heard the interview yesterday and was pretty proud of Terry for having the guts to make a connection between real and make believe. There was obviously tension in the air, and that can make a passionate topic difficult to deconstruct. It would not surprise me if Terry would like a do over. It is relevant to ask the question again, does life imitate art or otherwise. We have developed a violent culture via film, tv, music and video games. It didn’t happen in a year, if we were to put a number on it I would guess 75 (yrs).

    Remember the 70’s, Peace, Love, and Charles Bronson?

  • As I said in my first paragraph, the comments in the comments section for that NPR episode are harsh, so it’s not just me. There are currently 244 comments robustly debating whether the interview was a fail or not. As such, I hardly feel I am getting any extra “hits” on my column, which by the way does not matter, as this is not a commercial site and so does not make money from page views.

  • Ah, no, Gross did not “freak out,” or have a “meltdown.” She asked him a question, somewhat impish, actually. Tarantino did not “roll with it,” either. He said he was annoyed – that’s hardly rolling with it. I know you don’t know me, but do yourself a favor and don’t exaggerate to get hits on your blog.

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