Review: Tarantino and Theology

Jonathan L. Walls and Jerry Walls, editors. Tarantino and Theology. Los Angeles, CA: Sideshow Media Group, 2015, 264. pps., $19.99 / £13.02.

When dealing with a creator as distinctive in style, content, attitude, and execution as Quentin Tarantino, the reactions to both the man and his works (to say nothing of their implications) is usually much like Tarantino’s approach itself: loud, colorful, passionate, divisive, and maybe just a little bit out of left field, for better, and also sometimes for worse. Be it one of these things, all of these things, some of these things, or none of them, Tarantino and Theology brings to the table an anthology of essays leading us up through Tarantino’s second-most-recent feature-length release—Django Unchained—and released in advance of his first-most-recent film, The Hateful Eight.

At large, the collection boasts a vast breadth of focus and style: perhaps in itself reminiscent of the iconic Kill Bill: Vol. 1 scene with the Crazy 88s—a veritable fountain of unending lifeblood spouting from a singular source only to soak from various angles, leaving singular splatter-patterns that still share the same crimson hue (or, in the case of the scene’s monochrome: deeply saturated grey).

Opening with Brett McCracken’s “The Incarnational Aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino,” the scene is set admirably, given that one of the few orienting principles of the collection is embodiment: the sensuous viscerality of Tarantino’s lens as a director, but simultaneously, as a cultural critic of human nature. McCracken highlights what sits in plain sight within Tarantino’s work, but is often overlooked by his trademark bombastic and gruesome imagery: the quotidian, beautiful, fragile mundanity of mortal life. Casting Tarantino’s obsession with bodily harm in the light of “a deep fondness for this world in all of its human physicality, eccentricity, and sometimes grotesque vulnerability, [by which his] films manifest a childlike awe and fascination with the smallest details of human culture, conflict, and mythology,” McCracken invites a new, more delicate lens upon the one Tarantino provides, one with the detail-magnifying purpose of underscoring the everyday drama of the body, and thereby perhaps the living soul.

41yhq3wyB2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_From long, meandering conversations around the meaningless-meaning of so much of what makes a life, to emphasis on hunger and need in the foregrounding of food—“Pulp Fiction’s Royal with Cheese scene was the sole reason for a trip to McDonald’s on my first journey to Paris, and in shaping that, so shaped myself and those with whom I shared a meal.” McCracken ties this simple, detail-oriented honesty to Biblical incarnation, paralleling the human-ness of Jesus as demonstrated in “such banal human activities as eating and drinking” as an intentional highlighting in the Gospels, and thereby reinterpreted and reimagined through Tarantino’s similar approach in theme, if not in content. He is thus emphasizing the real, gritty, unapologetic humanness of cinema—and thereby of humanity—and lending a CGI-glutted digitized society a return to the “irreplaceable beauty of life incarnate…to the glories of the fleshiness of flesh and the earthiness of earth.”

From this, Volume Editor Jonathan L. Walls takes us in reverse: opening with the question of miracles first instead of leading into a conclusion in theology with “Riddled By Bullets: The Mystery of Divine Intervention in Pulp Fiction.” Invoking C.S. Lewis’ foundational exposition of the nature and color of the miraculous, Walls outlines the Jules and Vincent paths—more and less steeped in the “belief” in miracles, respectively—and extrapolates on how Tarantino treats with the applicability and weight of what one “[believes] about God and whether (and how) He interacts with us.” It is perhaps a reflection of the subsection of the essay entitled “Caught in the Middle”, then, that the essay itself exists largely as suspending between plot summary, theological treatise, and the elusive answer to what matters, and how, in understanding the miraculous interventions (or lack thereof) by a Divine actor in the world, and how such interventions affirm or negate omnipotence and free will, by their appropriate turns.

Emma Hinds-Greenaway’s essay, “It Goes to Show You Never Can Tell: Unexpected Sounds—A Theological Reading of the Pulp Fiction Soundtrack,” follows not only with a more concrete musing (neither for better or for worse), but uniquely serves to answer a more overarching genre question for interdisciplinary and popular culture studies in religion at large, that being mainly: how does one balance two foci (or more) with equal weight, depth, and respect to each field in orchestrating a meeting of the disciplinary minds?

33e081dd-883a-45cf-8a33-8045647e2438_zpsfd1cba2eTo this question, Hinds-Greenaway provides what may well be a primer, elegantly outlining the music/music psychology lens she brings to bear, as well as cogently stating the aim for what it is, and what it is not: “the goal particularly will be to map the use of music as a transcendent ascension, elevating it beyond an aural tool to a moment of spiritual kenosis where music becomes “the interface between heaven and earth, and the sublime and banal, and is accordingly powerful….[where the] concern is less about the religious intention of the creator, but rather what is sub-created by the marriage of music and text, a unique product of its own, separate, theological potential.” Deftly, Hinds-Greenaway defines the scope of her mission, and thereby focuses the reading from the outset. From here, cues of alienation within the seemingly-strange track choices and/or matches between score and scene prime the audience to consider the depths of the scenes more openly: already strangers in a strange land via the choice of audio, they are free to wander and explore with new eyes (and ears) to encounter and experience Tarantino’s detail-oriented presentations.

Asking Richard Viladesau’s question—“Is musical experience merely the emotional analogue of sacred experience so that it works exclusively by association, or can music and art in themselves be an experience of the sacred?”—Hinds-Greenaway weaves theological, musical, philosophical, and filmic understandings and insights to eventually mirror Jules’ outline offered to Vincent: “Look, you want to play the blind man, go walk with the shepherd, but me—my eyes are wide fucking open”, which leads Hinds-Greenaway to conclude “to a certain extent we choose what we desire to hear or receive from the movie, just as we ultimately chose what image of God we live by.” And if music is or is not in itself an experience of sacrality, it is still an invitation into what is unknown—a place of faith of one brand or another.

On “Death Proof: A Discussion About The Ethics of Watching Aesthetically Excellent But Super-Violent Movies (featuring a cameo by Quentin Tarantino),” Philip Tallon’s playful offering on the oft-raised question of whether certain forms of art and entertainment that may express or embody tenets and themes antithetical to Christian beliefs are, in themselves, something bordering on the heretical (and therefore, should be avoided at best, or denounced at worst), provides a unique and readable entrée into said conversation. Providing accessible representatives of both poles of the argument, as well as a middle-grounder to volley the argument and maintain momentum, Tallon even features a cameo by the Creator Himself (Tarantino, who for his movies is perhaps one form of a god or another—as is later expanded upon by Josh Corman), who largely summarizes the moral of the scene: aesthetics are a matter of subjective opinion, and to be put off, offended, or ushered from one’s comfort zone is often the point—if only (though rarely only) to inspire the deeper contemplation of the issues at hand and their significance beyond the screen.

KillBillLawson G. Stone invites film and theology to dance with Homer’s Iliad and the epic poem Beowulf in “The Old Testament and Kill Bill: A Dangerous Liaison?” While the crowded field of players at times feels much more suited to a larger venue—and at points reads underdeveloped/underexplored versus its full potential as a result (or more as a history than a piece on popular culture and theology)—the idea of the biblical author of Judges as reminiscent of the same lone warrior of personal conflict, relishing in the embodied energy of liminal transition and its oft-unavoidable violence, opens doors to an intriguing thesis: “into [the] liminal, disordered, unstable universe comes one axial point of order: the hero.” Underscoring the hero across these contexts not as the first-blush impression of shock value blood-bath harbinger, but instead as usher of a Reckoning—or rightening—rather than merely of revenge, or “even-ing”, invites further musing on the depth of the conflicted, morally-grey hero across various contexts and in conversation with a myriad of perspectives and texts.

In “Seeing Red: The Significance of Blood in Tarantino’s Oeuvre of Violence,” Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran serves impressively fleshy imagery that is befitting of her thematic aim: the exposure of the body as awe-inspiring, and the idea of such exposure as analogous to exposure of truth. Likewise, posing the question as to whether blood is more about life or about death, Ver Straten-McSparran explores many of Tarantino’s scripts with this orienting inquiry, leading into the deeper intention and impact of blood-soaked scenes to asking what blood envisions, elicits, and perhaps celebrates or mourns. By outlining mimetic violence and providing concise insight into the human desire for intensity of ever-exceeding degrees, Ver Straten-McSparran underscores the way in which Tarantino deftly articulates and demonstrates “fragile peace” between violence as a spectacle that induces sacrifice and violence as an intimate plea for empathy with the victim. In this, he raises Eucharistic themes to emphasize that, regardless of where it spills or from whence it comes, blood is inextricably linked to life in the present, death in the flesh, and the idea and/or promise of life everlasting beyond death: an endless, paradoxical melee of red.

Not unexpectedly, we see references to C.S. Lewis again—more intentionally, now—in Ben Avery’s “Jackie Brown’s Four Loves: An Exploration of the Characters and Relationships of Jackie Brown Through C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.” Ambitious in scope and the apparent disparity of the connection, Avery outlines the Four Loves—storge ,friendship, eros, charity—and draws the appropriate connections between the films characters and the happening and unfolding of relationships of various shapes and sizes—as well as life-spans. While the sketch is largely broad, using soft and shallow strokes, it paints the picture the author intends, which is to follow Lewis’s own example in referencing the popular culture of his own time to explore and expose a common “neighborhood” of reference, and to highlight the ways in which art is reflected in life, is reflected in art in a universally-applicable manner.

“I Like The Way You Die: Retribution, Restoration, and Rewritten History in Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds,” Josh Corman’s provocatively-entitled contribution, styles Tarantino as a “kind of celluloid deity”, and explores the implication of Tarantino’s repeated tendency of rewriting the historical record to his own liking in order to right injustice.

Citing the sheer scope of these endeavors as what sets Tarantino apart from those peers who might dabble in extra-historical narratives, Corman proposes that an element of Tarantino’s appeal is the fact that he takes what N.T. Wright notes as the natural impulse in Western philosophy for justice, an “answer to the question” of evil, and what God can/will do about it.

django-unchained-2012-05A messianic/deistic Tarantino provides, then, what theology sometimes lacks, and “makes right” on a level at least paralleling the sacred via his artistic offerings. Corman opens the door, in this way, to further querying as to the true scope of the power of art and creativity within theological contexts; he warns, however, that while such filmic interpretations of justice can be satisfying on the surface, “true justice, restorative justice that offers hope and a true solution to the problem of evil, cannot be achieve by taking aim with our guns,” be they in the physical or the celluloid world.

Kevin Kinghorn touches on the oft-overlooked theological implications of comedy in “No Laughing Matter: Tarantino and the Theology of Humor,” where he outlines four uses of humor in Tarantino’s films that serve “Godly” purposes: moving past awkwardness into collegiality, expressing humility in appropriate situations, easing pain across various contexts, and prioritizing concerns by “making light” of that which does not merit dwelling upon. This last purpose is Kinghorn’s operant intention, in that he proposes a comprehensive consideration of Tarantino, specifically in the larger context of theological studies, calls for a reflection on his work, and on a larger scale upon art as a whole, in defining, shaping, and ordering the priorities of the community of God—for better, worse, or a neutral space in the middle.

Addressing a lesser-known Tarantino venture—not one he directed, but merely wrote—“Love and Mexican Standoffs: The Truth in True Romance” uses the oft-referenced assertion that “God is Love” to orient a reading of the film within a theological hermeneutic. Likening the relationship between romantic partners to the relationship between humanity and God, author Jeff Green follows this parallel through to the assertion that the love of a marriage is “an opportunity to mirror Christ’s love for the Church.” By dwelling meaningfully on the less-than-perfect, not-a-romcom elements of human relationships and love, he acknowledges that the parallels are not precisely equitable, but ultimately indicates that “without marriage pointing to something bigger than itself, we are likely to be disappointed and not find ultimate happiness in it.” While it seems a missed opportunity to include many types of relationships within this comparison, and at times the essay reads as an essay on marriage and the Church that only treats with Tarantino for the sake of convenience, Green rightly highlights the idea of a volume such as this embodying the way that media at large is “filled with theological ideas”—ideas that bear various kinds of fruit upon exploration that, in turn, provokes novel rumination toward new insights and understanding.

1431662892_001John McAteer’s “Three Stories About One Story: Postmodernism and the Narrative Structure of Pulp Fiction” offers an unabashedly philosophical exploration of the pervasive ambiguity of the film, using a postmodern understanding of art to interrogate the roles of characters, the linearity, and the overall intelligibility, and by extension meaning, of narrative at large. These elements of the unknown in narrative and meaning-making as brought into conversation with the idea of a Divine Plan that is in motion, that will end “happily” in the end, but in the meantime is created and “co-authored” by the participants in play. By shifting the generally-accepted nonlinear-but-singular story interpretation of Pulp Fiction into three disparate, linear short stories, McAteer emphasizes the part of the character, the lens of the interpreter, in making one’s chosen meaning of a filmic narrative, just as one makes one’s chosen meaning of life events.

Exploring the nature and impact of sin within the context of masculinity, Russell Hemati’s ‘Like a Man: Reservoir Dogs, Augustine’s Pears, and Masculinity’ explores the ways in which the power of sin works within relationships to undermine goodness, and specifically the way that this occurs within the cultural mores and expectations attached to understandings of masculinity for “pack” approval and displays of suitability—and among that, supremacy—within community. Drawing connections from Augustine’s Confessions about the particular emptiness of sin that is not about the aim of the sin (such as stealing a thing) but more about what the sinful act conveys within relationship. Such relationships, Hemati highlights, are toxic by nature, and unlivable in the long term.

Finally, Abernathy McGraw’s “Life Lessons from Kill Bill (and Other Tarantino Films)” is a well-chosen closing installation, in that it is shaped entirely around the idea that “life lessons” in the context of the collection are less about instruction than about teasing out the places in which art—Tarantino’s specifically, in this case—prompts meaningful reflection. Noting his own personal points-for-pondering, the ideas of performativity (all the world as a stage), injustice (and responses to it, including the “deservedness” of vengeance), the significance of family and community (“Humans are social creatures. Beasts and gods live alone.”), the limited capacity for satisfaction in revenge, and the ultimate cost of redemption on the “way out” of a life that calls for it being sought are treated with, in particular. Not only does this enumerated musing hearken to various essays that precede it, closing the volume with some degree of continuity, it ends of a note of multivalent relevancy, speaking to what preciousness entails—specifically in the form of grace as it operates within and between these points, but arguably at large, as well—in that it is not only costly, but also priceless.

And it is this kind paradox that may best encompass Tarantino and Theology as a whole, for its strengths and pitfalls alike. Wildly variegated, but at time lacking focus as a completed volume; passionately engaged, but at points without a clear intent or orienting principle; intriguingly opened, but—by some ends—left not-quite-wrapped. And yet, perhaps this in itself is more worthy of Tarantino: while chaos sometimes reigns, there is substance to be gleaned, and meaning to be made, and it is the audience (or reader) on whom the onus of that making stands.

Then again: perhaps even that is missing the blood-soaked point.

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