The unbearable wokeness of Tarantino’s critics

Counting the lines assigned to women has replaced serious critical analysis.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle
columnist

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Warning: this article contains spoilers

If anybody is still uncertain about the extent to which woke identity politics has corroded the arts, one need look no further than the mainstream critical response to Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I have argued elsewhere on spiked that good criticism is characterised by a balance of individuality and objectivity. Of course, we expect critics’ interpretations to be informed by their own temperaments and tastes. But we also need them to stop their ideological leanings from overwhelming their critical faculties.

I am always most attracted to work that divides audiences and reviewers, and I would be keen to read an intelligent critique of Tarantino’s latest tour de force. But for all my efforts, I have yet to find a single negative review that doesn’t favour tedious moralising over meaningful analysis. Richard Brody in the New Yorker complains that the film is ‘obscenely regressive’, ‘ridiculously white’, and ‘celebrates white-male stardom’. Matthew Rozsa in Salon dismisses it as ‘sexist historical revisionism’. Writing for the Observer, Wendy Ide mars an otherwise insightful review by expressing frustration at ‘the positioning of middle-aged white males as the real victims’.

Those critics who have become subsumed into the cult of wokeness can rarely lay claim to individuality in their analysis. The cumulative effect feels like the product of a hive mind, one that is less concerned with artistic merit than with matters of diversity, inclusivity and representation. Just as the BBC rated Game of Thrones episodes based on the proportion of dialogue assigned to female characters, Time magazine published an article entitled ‘We Counted Every Line in Every Quentin Tarantino Film to See How Often Women Talk’. And yes, the exercise is as fatuous as it sounds.

Brody’s New Yorker review is particularly egregious. It’s a well-written piece that is rendered incompetent by a myopic devotion to identity politics. ‘It’s far more revealing about Tarantino than about Hollywood itself,’ Brody remarks. One would hope so, given that Tarantino is an auteur rather than documentary filmmaker. Needless to say, Brody’s criticism would be best levelled elsewhere. His review says far more about him than the movie it purports to assess.

One of Brody’s many bugbears is the representation of Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh, who is humiliated in a scuffle with stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on the set of The Green Hornet. Shannon Lee (Bruce Lee’s daughter) has described the portrayal as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘belittling’. Former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar considers it ‘somewhat racist’. Lee biographer Matthew Polly calls it ‘inaccurate’. In reality, the scene in question is a strong comedic set piece with an impressive performance from Moh, which also happens to serve an important function in the narrative. A screen idol like Bruce Lee hardly needs to be protected from caricature, and it is surely demeaning to his legacy to suggest otherwise.

As to the question of whether or not Cliff could have bested Lee in a fight, Tarantino has this to say: ‘If you ask me the question, “Who would win in a fight: Bruce Lee or Dracula?”, it’s the same question. It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up.’ Unlike his woke critics, Tarantino understands the difference between art and reality.

It’s not a distinction that troubles film critic Larushka Ivan-Zadeh. Writing for The Times, she attacks Tarantino’s ‘sadistically violent, casually racist and misogynistic fantasies, which, he insists, are just movies, not real life’. She identifies a number of supposedly offensive instances of violence against women in Tarantino’s back catalogue, which not only reveals her ongoing struggle with the concept of fiction, but also conveniently neglects the fact that his male characters tend to fare even worse.

The most ludicrous response to the film has come, perhaps predictably, from the Guardian. Indulging in the most spurious cod-psychoanalysis, Caspar Salmon claims that ‘Tarantino’s filmography reveals a director in search of increasingly gruesome settings to validate his revenge fantasies and confer legitimacy on his bloodthirst’. Again, the charge of misogyny is made on the grounds that Tarantino depicts ‘morally repellent’ violence against women. Identity politics has turned contemporary film critics into prissy, sermonising Mary Whitehouses, determined to see artists as moral educators for those poor, suggestible plebeians who might be exposed to dangerous work.

Much of the opprobrium in the press has centred around Tarantino’s depiction of Sharon Tate (played by the brilliant Margot Robbie). Tate was an actress and the wife of director Roman Polanski. Her murder at the hands of members of the Charles Manson ‘family’, along with her three houseguests and her unborn child, provides the backdrop to the fictional story of TV and film actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Polanski and Tate’s residence where the murders took place on 8 August 1969. Many have since romanticised this date as marking the sunset of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood, and there is little doubt that Tarantino’s affection for this era is the film’s driving force.

Sharon Tate was on the cusp of stardom when Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel – acting on the instructions of their cult leader Manson – invaded her home and butchered the occupants. Tate had appeared in Polanski’s film The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Valley of the Dolls (1967). Young, talented and beautiful, she had all the makings of a screen icon. Her death looms large throughout Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Much like the audience in a Greek tragedy, we know what is coming. Tarantino allows us glimpses of her day-to-day life. She dances to Paul Revere records in her home, goes to a party at the Playboy Mansion, buys her husband a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (another woman whose life is unjustly cut short). The inevitability of her murder adds potency to these snapshots. As Tarantino himself put it, ‘She has been defined by the tragedy of her ending. So I thought there was something special about just seeing her live life.’

So when a New York Times reporter at the Cannes Film Festival asked Tarantino why Tate wasn’t assigned more dialogue in the film, he was right to point out the stupidity of the question. The moments when Tate is alone, and therefore unlikely to be speaking, are some of the most powerful in the film. In one key scene, we see Tate attend a screening of The Wrecking Crew (1968), in which she played a minor role. She spends much of the time enjoying the responses of the audience, who laugh along at her performance. Anyone in the creative arts will appreciate the harmless vanity of seeing one’s work appreciated by strangers. It is a simple conceit, made poignant by our knowledge of the future she was to be denied. Ivan-Zadeh dismisses the scene as mere ‘masturbatory fantasy’ because, like all critics with an intersectionalist bent, she is more interested is passing moral judgements on the filmmaker than assessing the merits of his work.

For those who understand that cinema is a quintessentially visual art, and who reject the idea that a character’s impact can be measured by a quick word-count, it is clear that Tarantino’s depiction of Tate is a gesture towards the iconic onscreen status that, in reality, was thwarted by her premature death. The effect is accentuated by her relative silence. We can admire her, catch brief moments of her life and speculate about her private thoughts, but there our relationship ends. So when the Guardian’s Caspar Salmon insists that Tarantino should have spent more time ‘fleshing out the character’, he is spectacularly missing the point. Icons cease to be icons once we know them too well.

The success of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood neither stands nor falls on its putative morality. But if the woke critics are right, and movies ought to be morally pure, there is certainly a case to be made in Tarantino’s favour. In his version of events, Sharon Tate lives on, while her would-be murderers are gruesomely dispatched. For all Salmon’s handwringing about how ‘it’s rancid to stage these killings as entertainment’, the sheer extremity of the violence in the final act pivots the film into laugh-out-loud absurdist territory. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, whose excessive brutality is far funnier than many critics have been willing to admit. That the moralists have taken umbrage at a film that punishes the guilty shows the incoherence of their position. In Tarantino’s Hollywood, the golden age does not draw to a close with the screams of the innocent. Instead, Sharon Tate emerges victorious, and Charles Manson’s devotees are degraded to mere stooges of high farce. It’s surely no less than they deserve.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

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Comments

Ted Fontenot

9th September 2019 at 1:38 pm

After literally decades of being a New Yorker reader, I’ve given up on the magazine. Thurber and
White and De Vries and Updike have to be vomiting in their graves. What’s most exasperating to me about political correctness and identity politics is its sense of self-righteous intolerance. They assume conclusions and brook no rebuttals. It’s the worse part of our inheritance from 60s New Left “Liberalism”. Zombie Liberalism erumpent and dishonest to the core. And I’ve always thought I was pretty much a liberal.

carl jacobson

6th September 2019 at 9:13 pm

None of these ‘Woke” Idiot Movie Critics saw Tarantino’s earlier pictures, especially that other ‘Alternate Reality’ movie, Inglorious Bastards?

Dear God, please let this Identity Politics/Intersectionalism garbage die a quick death!

Zammo McTrotsky

4th September 2019 at 11:58 am

What a heap of bollocks. Who’s gonna take instruction on what constitutes good criticism from someone who can’t read a film?
Not noticing how long and fucking boring it is, is the first alarm bell, but not noticing, or pretending not to notice how Tarantino codes his characters is fuckin obtuse.
What his “hippies” stand for, as given away in their conversation before the attempted murders is the crude, ugly, falsely homogenising and reactionary stereotype of “the left” or “the woke”. And smashing their teeth against the mantelpiece, and setting light to them (spoiler alert, the big twist in a Tarantino film is that it’s very violent. Edgy or what?) And the hippies who spoiled everyone’s fun get killed and we all cheer, and the golden age of Nixon, Vietnam and movies where baddies lose, goodies win, men are men, women know their place and none of that thoughtful or artsy crap invades our screens with sentiments that a 14 year old boy won’t get never happens. Whoopee.

That’s the reading of the film this joker’s endorsing. It’s “Deathwish” for hipsters. And if the “morality” of a film should be totally fucking suspended in the minds of the viewers if not the film maker, then I expect to see this wanker’s glowing endorsement of “Triumph of the Will”, along with his denunciation of it’s critics as dangerous puritans. Twat.

Tommy Peters

2nd September 2019 at 2:20 am

Folks, another Krishnan Tarantino chat is in order. Krishnan, rather Doyle, is the key to Tarantino’s caricature.

Krishnan placed a spanner in the persona of Tarantino who went off the rails when probed by a correspondent whose job description is to probe; and Downey too who scurried off his BBC set compared to the Pharell and Jackson interviews, both of whom stood up to Krishnan’s incessant probing, not to mention Ayoade who had the anchor on the ropes with his mental muscle in stitching those critters from his vocabulary ranch into a baseball bat.

Point is Tarantino, as in Pharell, Jackson and Ayoade, does not need protection from caricature, “and it is surely demeaning to his legacy to suggest otherwise.”

Brian Q

29th August 2019 at 12:26 am

This is so right on. Brody also wrote an irksome review for Roma which was similarly excruciatingly woke. For the most part, painstakingly politically correct art is complete crap. The world is complex and ambiguous and great art reflects this. Film criticism is hardly the only place excessive wokeness is afflicting the arts though, there’s also the plague of nitwits protesting museums and art galleries. A for instance: with all the dire problems in this world is protesting the fact that some dude on the Whitney’s board is an arms dealer a worthy cause for which to expend your reserve of outrage? Seriously?

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 11:11 pm

Mandy Mohel.

My ideological leanings inform me that you’re a fey-gay. You can’t stop bitching about other leftists.

Mitch Davies

28th August 2019 at 4:06 pm

As a pedantic pointer, Tate did not have a ‘minor role’ in the Wrecking Crew, she was the female lead and on screen with Dean Martin through most of the second half of the film. Decent article, a tad one-sided, but much to agree on I guess.

Fraser Bailey

28th August 2019 at 3:16 pm

Crikey, what a lot of fuss about what is probably a pretty bad and pointless film if it is like the vast majority of Tarantino’s other work. The Guardian’s film crtics have been nuts for years, pretty much anything coming out of Hollywood has been been complete crap for years, and anything coming out of the ‘arthouse’ arena has been what I call ‘polite crap’ for years.

MEL MEL

28th August 2019 at 9:00 am

“A screen idol like Bruce Lee hardly needs to be protected from caricature, and it is surely demeaning to his legacy to suggest otherwise.” ~ He was also a man, real flesh and blood, with members of a living mortal family, along with countless fans and close friends, now made to suffer at the expense of crass, redneck, Tarantino-style, Hollywood frat-catting. MEOW.

Ven Oods

28th August 2019 at 2:17 pm

“[Bruce Lee] was also a man, real flesh and blood, with members of a living mortal family, along with countless fans and close friends, now made to suffer…”

Why would they suffer over a fictional incident involving a made-up character?

Jimboy Clapper

28th August 2019 at 1:20 am

Saw the film. Fell in love with Sharon Tate. Pitt and Decaprio were terrific. The movie will win Best Picture. Don’t care about “wokeness”, “identity politics”, or whether the LGBTQWERTY community is offended. All of that stuff means nothing to anyone who matters.

mark kavanagh

27th August 2019 at 8:21 pm

Well said, Mr Doyle, but it also struck me that there is a positive view on men put forth against the ‘toxic masculinity’ accusations; Cliff refuses the offer of sex from the under-age girl and later he takes a risk to check up that the ‘George’ character is doing well. Rick is shown as being very emotional in regards to his acting. On the other hand QT shows the hippies as dumb, dirty and dangerous, and damn heck, one is even Lena Dunham!!!

Jim Lawrie

27th August 2019 at 6:22 pm

No spoilers. Do you remember when that was part of the critic’s craft?

Now they want to enjoy their first viewing, spill the beans, and rubbish anyone so childish and unsophisticated as to regard the suspense as part of the fun.

Then on to the matter of real import, them and their agenda.

James Knight

27th August 2019 at 6:21 pm

Philistines.

Ashley Giles

27th August 2019 at 5:20 pm

Thank you Mr Doyle for your thoughtful balanced analysis. Thank goodness there are still articulate people standing up to the authoritarian woke identitarians.

Ronan B

27th August 2019 at 3:08 pm

Terrific article, it really hit the nail on the head. I miss the days when journalists simply gave their opinions on a film without the obligatory virtue signalling. I thought the film was great, especially the ending which had me stitches.

Jim Lawrie

27th August 2019 at 12:26 pm

“So when a New York Times reporter at the Cannes Film Festival asked Tarantino why Tate wasn’t assigned more dialogue in the film, he was right to point out the stupidity of the question.” So the reporter, unable to discuss the content of the film, asks questions about what was not there. How can Tarantino, or any of us, be called to account for the vastness of what he did not do? That would be never ending.

Amelia Cantor

27th August 2019 at 11:21 am

Counting the lines assigned to women has replaced serious critical analysis.

A ridiculous comment. Counting the lines assigned to wombyn IS serious critical analysis. So is counting the lines assigned to BAME folk, the LGBTQIA+ community, and so.

What could be more serious than addressing and repairing the toxicity of under-representation? When the voices of wombyn and BAME communities are shut down from the media and arts, sexism, racism and other toxicities are not challenged.

Toni Pereira

27th August 2019 at 1:40 pm

You’re joking right?

Ven Oods

28th August 2019 at 2:22 pm

“You’re joking right?”

Unfortunately, he/she/it/they is not (as you’ll learn if you stick around here).

Neil McCaughan

27th August 2019 at 5:56 pm

Few women have anything interesting to say.
You have nothing.

Amelia Cantor

28th August 2019 at 10:48 am

yawn. The more wombyn say, the more your white male fragility is triggered.

mark kavanagh

28th August 2019 at 1:23 pm

Amelia, go and make a movie which puts forth your own ideals. be constructive, not destructive, and that way you can create your own power.
Create what you want in the world rather than destroying what you dont want, that way everyone is happy.

Bill Hamilton

5th September 2019 at 12:45 pm

Gays shut out of the arts? BAME a community? Wombyn? Parody? Satire? Millie Tant from Viz! LOL

John Millson

27th August 2019 at 8:47 am

This extraordinary film has turned me from being a mere film enthusiast to a full-on nerd. (With my new found confidence I can pronounce: ‘surely, it was too long’? ‘messy’? For sure needs to be re-seen and critically appreciated more.)
To me all the despatchings were ‘comical’ because they were absurd, yes.
I am with Tarantino though, in his repulsion, as I see it, of any kind of communitarianism. Always, in every example there will be a creepy Manson type leading, with the moronic followers ready to pull down those who criticise the leader. Cults are always dangerous.

Jerry Owen

27th August 2019 at 8:41 am

Tarantino himself is a ‘woke’ never Trump advocate, so really this article is quite funny as Tarantino is getting caught out by his own ‘woke’ beliefs.

John Millson

27th August 2019 at 9:15 am

So everyone who criticises Trump is ‘woke’?
This binary, deterministic mentality is lamentable.

Jerry Owen

27th August 2019 at 12:36 pm

He is both woke and anti Trump. Is that your best shot ?

Hana Jinks

28th August 2019 at 5:31 am

I’m gonna take my time with you, oven-bitch.

https://youtu.be/Q954LxEzyY8

(Phuckwit city = the guardian…where you belong.)

I’m in that film clip, btw.

Melissa Jackson

27th August 2019 at 11:30 am

Tarantino is a rather eccentric individual in many ways and has lots of viewpoints I’d consider odd. Of course this is partly why his films feel unique and different.

To use Trumpiness as a barometer for someone’s whole career is, frankly, ridiculous. You don’t have to agree with the man to like, or dislike, his work.

Jim Lawrie

27th August 2019 at 12:21 pm

Unfortunately, Melissa, a lot of lazy, small minded, and envious people choose to belittle the achievements of others via personal attacks. At the risk of virtue signalling, it occurred to me that I didn’t even know what Tarantino looked like, when he was born, or anything. Such traits, according to his critics, should limit his subject matters.

The above article describes the process whereby we have arrived at the blandness on our screens, as committee quotas stult creativity.

The crime noir that used to come out of Scandinavia is now mind deadening TV by numbers. Unsurprisingly, the female characters still have moronic lines, but brand new stereotypes.

Jerry Owen

27th August 2019 at 12:39 pm

M Jackson
Don’t put words into my mouth . I don’t like his work, I also don’t like the politics I have heard him speak over the years. Rather like the trans mob eating one another i find it somewhat funny to follow.

John Millson

27th August 2019 at 1:07 pm

Jerry Owen, eh?
(Of course it’s all ‘relative’.) The point is he’s not ‘woke’, any more than he is an aware, non-racist, enlightened individual. Apparently, some of the critics of the film are displaying crippling ideological ‘wokeness’.
(And I’m not saying all Trump supporters and apologists are unaware, racist and unenlightened.)

Stephen J

27th August 2019 at 7:41 am

On the contrary Mr Doyle, not being a massive fan of Mr Tarantino, finding some of his output somewhat gratuitous, take these “woke” reviews as a recommendation that this time as with Pulp and some others, he has made a good’un.

Jim Lawrie

27th August 2019 at 1:19 pm

Are you referring to Quentin Tarantino, private individual, or to his public work? To what is in his work or what is not in it?

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