As you may have noticed, I’ve largely refrained from commenting in this blog about the ongoing revelations about the full scope of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood. This is intentional, and there are a number of reasons why. I don’t live in Hollywood, for one. I don’t have stories to tell about this, nothing I’ve directly experienced. And that being the case, I really don’t have any business spouting off on this subject, distracting from the voices of people who actually have stories to tell.
I’m breaking that rule today, in order to amplify one of those stories. I probably don’t need to – it appeared in the New York Times this weekend, so it’s not exactly obscure. But if you haven’t already done so, you really need to read the lengthy interview with Uma Thurman, detailing abusive behavior by Harvey Weinstein and frighteningly reckless behavior by Quentin Tarantino. Seriously, go read it right now. The link’s here. I’ll wait.
Finished? Good. Astonishing, isn’t it? At this point, we’ve heard so many disgusting allegations about Weinstein that we’ve become inured to them, but that takes nothing away from awful lucidity with which Thurman lays everything out. But the real shock comes from the account of the car accident on the Kill Bill set, in which Tarantino demanded Thurman do a piece of stunt driving, in an unsafe vehicle on an unstable surface. It’s a completely senseless abandoning of basic safety protocols and a horrifying power trip that’s sickening to read about. Even with the overwhelming number of accounts we’ve heard over the past few months, this is a singularly compelling narrative. Heck, if you have a certain kind of mindset, you might say it could make a great movie itself.
Here’s the problem. A movie about this has already been made. By Quentin Tarantino.
Death Proof, for those of you who haven’t sat through the Grindhouse double feature, is about a murderous stuntman stalking and killing women. His weapon of choice is a car specially rigged for stunt driving – exactly like the one Thurman drove in the Kill Bill scene that almost crippled her. In much of the movie, he kills by crashing into other cars – however, in one scene, he gets into an accident knowing that it will kill the woman in the less protected passenger side of the car. That woman, by the way, is played by Rose McGowan of all people – the actress whose accusations set off the current avalanche of revelations. Remember when she alleged “my ex-boyfriend sold our movie to my rapist?” That’s a reference to Planet Terror, the Robert Rodriguez movie which joins Death Proof on the Grindhouse double-bill. And she’s wearing a blonde wig in Death Proof which makes her look disturbingly like – wait for it – Uma Thurman.
So, does that make Death Proof some sort of bizarre fantasy recreation of Thurman’s crash by the director who caused it? Surely, if it is, it’s some sort of apology or act of atonement, right? After all, the villain of Death Proof is ultimately and spectacularly taken down by another group of women he’s trying to kill? Problem is, the final scene in Death Proof is so stylized, so hyperbolic in its 70s-exploitation aesthetic, that it turns the whole moment fetishistic. That’s the thing about Death Proof – it’s one long fetish object. And apparently, it’s fetishizing the moment where a reckless director almost killed his leading actress and closes friend on the previous film he’d shot.
Now, here’s the thing. The thought that it’s based on a real incident doesn’t automatically invalidate Death Proof as a movie. You can absolutely mine the worst parts of your own life and your own psyche as raw material for art. In fact, you kind of have to if you want it to be any good. But if you do that, you need to be honest. With yourself, if nothing else. And if your instinct is to fetishize, or rationalize, or create a self-aggrandizing or self-pitying justification, then you’re not being honest. In all likelihood, the art you create as a result won’t be any good. (Seriously, Death Proof is not good Tarantino.) And that’s the best case scenario. If you’re enough of a craftsman to create an effective piece of art out of dishonest material, you’re liable to create something with a pernicious effect, as movies from Birth of a Nation onward can attest.
Apart from the simple human toll of the stories we’ve heard these past few months, that’s been one of the most sickening things to realize – just how many of the movies we enjoy have such profound dishonesty at their core. (Every movie Woody Allen has made in the last 25 years leaps to mind). And those of us who tell stories need to resolve to be better than that. The stories we tell don’t have to be comforting, they don’t have to conform to current fashion or even current morality, they don’t have to tell us what we want to hear. But above all else, they absolutely need to be honest.
They’re useless otherwise.