Tonight is Oscar Night! The Academy of Motion Picture Arts will be handing out their coveted awards amongst their ever expanding fraternity … expanding in the sense of both local and global diversity! But has this community really moved on from the gratuitous whiteness of D W Griffith’s seminal Birth of a Nation?
This year Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is up for 10 awards including, Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay. Unlike the rest which one could say are more self-contained or technical, these awards go to the heart or ethos of the film, of its author and of its financiers. Tarantino broke new ground in the cinematic arts with his brand of relentless pastiche, irreverent parody and fanboy reference. His films have always seemed to be racially offensive, misogynist and even misanthropic … and yet he has managed to negotiate a place for himself in the pantheon of American movie directors. I suggest that he has done this because he has convinced his audience, myself included, that his was a meta-cinema, a cinema about cinema itself. When he has had his magnificently African American lead Samuel L Jackson say his N words with panache, and his leading ladies doing his sado-masochistic bidding with apparent ease, I have given him licence as I have believed that Quentin’s art, if not his heart, was in the right place.
Yes, I believed that Quentin was true to his cinema, which is afterall, the art of making an ‘afterimage’ of cinema itself. As I have said before, I have forgiven Tarantino many a pretentious flic on the basis of my faith in his art and in his humanity. With his gratuitously degrading portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,however, I have lost my faith. Instead of giving us a reference to the old hollywood stereotype of the ‘Chinaman’, he seems to have produced an unnecessary one all by himself. The deep irony of this scenario is that Tarantino’s earlier homage to martial arts films, the Kill Bill diptych, has David Carradine indexing his own role in the iconic TV series Kung Fu. Carradine got the role, in an era in which a Chinese actor could not play the lead on American screens. A further irony is that there is a suggestion that Kung Fu was plagiarized from a scenario that Bruce Lee had developed and presented to studios as a vehicle for himself. In any event, it was Bruce Lee who, very soon after the launch of Kung Fu, smashed the ‘Chinaman’ type with his blockbuster Hollywood production, Enter the Dragon.
The ‘quality’ of the directing and screenwriting of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and the ethos of the work are exemplified in its ‘gratuitous’ Bruce Lee segment. I, for one, can not see it as art. I can not give this film either the grace of irony or the respect of commentary, and must now review all racial slurs, misogyny and violence in Tarantino’s oeuvre in this new light. An Academy Award in any one of these three categories – Best Picture, Best Director or Best Original Screenplay, would, for me at least, index an institutional ethos that aggrandizes the gratuitous self expression of its auteurs, regardless of their ethics or of their art. The Golden Globes have already fallen in my esteem (oddly the film won in the category of Best Musical or Comedy – NOT FUNNY!), let’s hope the Academy survives!