I’ll start by admitting to being a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. I have watched and rewatched his films so often, I can probably write a thesis on his work in my sleep. I’ll also confess that with The Hateful Eight and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seemed to me like the auteur was losing his touch. Especially since his work was never characterized by emotional range or soul – stirring substance and with these two duds, no amount of his quirkiness and trademark flamboyance seemed adequate for the task of making amends for the overriding superficiality smothered in swagger and style.
Even so, when Tarantino announced that he was making the transition from auteur to author, I was intrigued, for obvious reasons. And the man, didn’t disappoint. The book is impossible to put down and the novel format is perfectly suited to Tarantino’s love for lavish detail, verbose asides to meditate on the minutiae and making of films, tendency to digress from the main narrative for long detours into Hollywood by lanes for some shop talk and celeb worship. Unlike the movie, with its leisurely to the point of lethargic pace, he cranks it up a notch while drawing his readers by hand into the inner lives of his characters. There is Rick Dalton, the actor whose career is headed towards the rocks, Cliff Booth, the stuntman and Dalton’s sympathetic sidekick who may be a little too good at killing and Trudi Fraser, the memorable child actor who schools Dalton on method acting and expresses her aversion to being referred to as ‘Pumpkin Puss’. All of them make for intriguing companions.
Tarantino’s pen lingers on the real life figures as well – Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and his ‘lost girls’, although the attempt is less heartening. Manson, for instance he dismisses as a hack who would have sold his immortal soul, existential philosophy which was supposed to herald a new order and his adoring followers for a record deal he does not have the talent to secure. All this makes for riveting reading and turns out to be an incredibly visual experience comparable to watching and having your mind blown by the best of his films.
Tarantino has long reveled in being a provocateur, and his unapologetic audacity is his biggest strength, giving his work a raw honesty that is shorn of anything remotely resembling wokeness or political correctness. After all, he is the guy who saw fit to rewrite the history of World War II as an outrageous revenge fantasy but every once in a while, his penchant for lowbrow cinephilia and consequent creative decisions can be in surpassingly poor taste. Never has it been more apparent than in his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film version of OUATIH which had the departed superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee up in arms against Tarantino for the disrespect and blatant mockery of a bona fide legend who battled impossible odds to achieve his cult status but unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his efforts pay off. As always, Tarantino stuck to his guns, and has doubled down in his book to make a case for Bruce Lee suffering from an inflated ego and insisting he was disrespectful to American stuntmen, who he claims refused to work with Lee because he would purposely tag them in fight scenes (landing real blows with his fist and feet).
Tarantino claims he has plenty of evidence to support his claims regarding Lee but be that as it may, one can’t help but think this is unfair to Bruce Lee. The glam factory, like the rest of society has always been hard on those belonging to minority groups, failing to recognize their talent or giving them opportunities to shine and holding them to ridiculous standards while conversely, their white counterparts are literally allowed to get away with murder. This is exactly the sort of systemic racism, actors with the ‘wrong’ skin color have battled for eons now. And the decision to have Mike Moh portray Lee and his trademark mannerisms with exaggerated excess to achieve a certain caricaturist effect sticks in the craw especially if you are a rabid fan of the great martial artist (like me) even if it is to establish that Cliff Booth as a war veteran with medals of valor to prove his prowess as a killer can easily take the Dragon out. In light of the tragic fate that overcame Bruce Lee and later, his son, Brandon Lee, this whole arc is insensitive, to say the least.
It is particularly galling given how unabashedly sympathetic Tarantino is to Cliff Booth himself, who definitely murdered his wife (this scene is mined for romance and it is an outrageous flourish that is wildly entertaining and surprisingly sweet) and has killed three civilians and managed to escape the law every single time. Worse, is Tarantino’s near slavish devotion to Hollywood’s golden couple of the 60s – Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. He clearly has nothing but respect for the former and love for the latter (who is never less than a beautiful, blonde angel), evident in his treatment of both which is disconcerting with regard to Polanski. Tarantino takes great pains to pay suitable tribute to a fellow auteur (I confess to being an admirer of Polanski’s brilliant body of work myself) and establish his undeniable genius but in a departure from his garrulous style keeps mum about the Polish director’s conviction for the rape of a minor which resulted in him absconding from the USA.
Naturally, this makes one wonder why Polanski merits such adoration while Lee was hauled over the coals for allegedly being disrespectful to American stuntmen who in all fairness are more than likely to have treated him with less than the respect that was his due, since at the time Lee was a ‘Chinaman’ working as the Green Hornet’s sidekick. It just smacks of racist and exploitative overtones, given that Tarantino famously trotted out Uma Thurman clad in the iconic yellow jumpsuit Lee wore in The Game of Death, for his smash hit, Kill Bill, which was marketed as a homage to the martial arts legend.
Even more disturbing is Tarantino’s cavalier treatment of the pedophilia rampant in Hollywood. He asserts that Charles Manson used his underage girls as ‘catnip’, pimping them out to those who may serve his ends. Naturally, since he is the villain of the piece, none of this is glorified but the entire thing becomes a shade off - putting when an underage character insists on being called ‘Pussycat’. She offers sexual favors to Booth, who in an uncharacteristic move demands that she show him proof of her age before turning her down. This character then goes on to reveal that she had a sexual relationship with Charles Manson at the age of 14 and proceeded to marry someone (at the cult leader’s suggestion) and dump him shortly after, because the move would ‘free’ her to escape her parents and join him and his hippie followers. At no point, is it suggested that she is a victim on account of her age, susceptible to the machinations of smarmy cult leaders. Instead she is portrayed as a poster girl of the degenerate hippie culture Tarantino clearly despises.
This attitude of the auteur turned author becomes even more troubling when Mirabella Lancer aka Trudi Fraser, an eight-year-old actor gets her flirt on (in the book) with the much older Dalton, her co - star. She talks to him of love and marriage while going off script in an exercise to understand their characters better and later, calls him at an unearthly hour for the ostensible purpose of reading their lines together so they can kill it on the next day’s shoot. Dalton protests very weakly about the inappropriateness of it all before indulging her request. While it is apropos that the inappropriateness of it all has been stressed, it also makes the reader wonder if Booth was not speaking for Tarantino himself when he admits to liking a fictional character, who is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynist”. After all, at the end of the day, Tarantino can really be an INGLOURIOUS BASTERD of the highest order, even when he is at his dazzling best.