The moral vision of Reservoir Dogs turns out to have been something well-meaning viewers projected onto it: Tarantino really does think violence is “like, cool.” He has been systematically squandering his cinematic talent ever since – in ways that reflect disturbingly on us, the viewers.
Violence has particular power on film precisely because it involuntarily activates our powers of empathy. We imagine ourselves, as an unthinking reflex, into the agony. This is the most civilising instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers. (It competes, of course, with all our more base instincts). Any work of art that denies this sense – that is based on subverting it – will ultimately be sullying. No, 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.
Tarantino’s films aren’t even sadistic. Sadists take human suffering seriously; that’s why they enjoy it. No: Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing cheek-to-cheek. He sees violence as nothing. Compare his oeuvre to the work of a genuine cinematic sadist – Alfred Hitchcock – and you see the difference. Precisely because Hitchcock enjoyed inflicting pain, the pain is always authentic, and it is never emptied of its own inner horror.
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