Johann Hari has written a very perceptive piece in today's Independent about the problems with Quentin Tarantino's use of violence. He quotes Tarantino's evaluation of screen violence:
“Violence in the movies can be cool,” he says. “It’s just another colour to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a colour.” He scorns anyone who tries to see simulated violence as having meaning. With a laugh, he says: “John Woo’s violence has a very insightful view as to how the Hong Kong mind works because with 1997 approaching and blah blah blah. I don’t think that’s why he’s doing it. He’s doing it because he gets a kick out of it.” Praising Stanley Kubrik’s direction of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, he says: “He enjoyed the violence a little too much. I’m all for that.”
As Haris points out, to see violence on screen in these terms is to trivialise all violence and human suffering by making it merely something to entertain. Screen violence, he says, 'involuntarily activates our powers of empathy' which is 'most civilising instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers'. And that shouldn't be treated quite so lightly. To do so, to make it something which is about mere style or which is just to generate a laugh, is to minimise the importance of this instinct within the human heart. Every time it happens the instinct is weakened a little, the reflex blunted a fraction more. Hari is not arguing that violence on screen causes violent behaviour: 'I’m not saying it makes people violent. But it does leave the viewer just a millimetre more morally corroded. Laughing at simulated torture – and even cheering it on, as we are encouraged to through all of Tarantino’s later films – leaves a moral muscle just a tiny bit more atrophied.' He gives the chilling example of Quentin Tarantino's unfeeling response to 9/11 because he'd seen something similar on screen.
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Hari's verdict on Tarantino is, as far as I can see, spot on: 'Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing cheek-to-cheek.' He insists that there is a 'moral conflict underpinning the aesthetics; by denying it is there, Tarantino is wilfully misunderstanding the effect of his films on their audiences.'