Quentin Tarantino needs to come clean about what happened on the set of “Kill Bill.” He needs to speak out, to fess up and tell us what, exactly, he was thinking. Because that could be one small yet meaningful step toward repairing what’s sick and broken in our entertainment culture — and our culture, period.
In a bombshell interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Uma Thurman, who for 10 years, beginning with “Pulp Fiction” (1994), was Tarantino’s movie-star muse, details what she went through at the hands of the predatory Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein: the sexual coercion (hotel rooms, bathrobe, compliant assistants — the whole gruesome Harvey bit) intertwined with threats of career derailment, all of which she bravely resisted. But, of course, we have now heard these skin-crawling Weinstein stories many times. Thurman’s testimony, courageous and important as it is, adds up to one more horrific chapter in the saga of Harvey the unspeakable.
The every bit as jarring news in Thurman’s account is what transpired between her and Tarantino. In Mexico, nine months into the shooting of “Kill Bill” (the film had yet to be sliced into two volumes), just four days before the picture was set to wrap, Tarantino, filming a crucial sequence — the heroine’s ride to vengeance — asked Thurman to step into a rickety blue Karmann Ghia and cruise down a sandy rural road at 40 miles per hour. She didn’t want to do it, and said so. A teamster on the set had informed her that the car was faulty; the sequence, from every indication, needed a stunt driver. But Tarantino wanted Thurman in the car — he craved the cathartic cinematic realness of it. And once he insisted, she gave in.
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She drove and drove, and wound up losing control of the vehicle, which slid off the road and crashed into a palm tree, seriously injuring Thurman’s back and her knees (injuries she suffers from to this day). She considered suing Miramax, but wasn’t able to get hold of the accident footage captured by the camera mounted on the back of the car. Weinstein, the lawyers at Miramax, and — yes — Tarantino knew the footage was actionable, and kept it from her. (They’d relinquish it only if she signed a waiver releasing them from liability.) She has the footage now, though, and has made it public. Watch the video, and you’ll see that every bit as disturbing as the car crash is the casual, all-in-a-day’s-work way that Thurman is hoisted out of the car (with Tarantino hovering), as if to deny the damage of what just happened.
So how could it have happened? The answer — or much of it, anyway — resides in Quentin Tarantino’s head. That’s why we need to hear it. And reflect on it. And judge it.
In the four months since the #MeToo revolution was launched on the wave of the original accusations against Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Toback, and others, there hasn’t been a lot of call for men to speak out. The accused, of course, have had nothing to offer beyond limp pro forma apologies and barely contrite silence. Other men have voiced impassioned support and belief in the movement — and, on occasion, they have struggled to reframe the argument, only to learn (as Matt Damon did) that this is a time for listening rather than parsing.
But Tarantino presents a different situation. He’s not accused of sexual harassment — but he was, of course, very close to Harvey Weinstein, so the question of what he knew and when he knew it, and what responsibility (if any) he holds for enabling Weinstein’s behavior, remains relevant. Tarantino has already spoken out on these matters, in an October interview with The New York Times that seemed, at the time, to keep the world at bay. He may now have to say more.
He certainly needs to address the “Kill Bill” car scandal in a far more detailed and confessional manner — because he’s in the murky middle of it, obviously, but also because Tarantino is in a position to shed light on how the vertiginous power dynamics of Hollywood operate, and how they might now change.
An honest question: Is the revelation of Thurman’s “Kill Bill” story a #MeToo moment? There’s no denying that the car incident didn’t just happen out of “negligence.” It was the result of a recklessness, an arrogance, a so-ingrained-it’s-taken-for-granted pattern of unchecked aggressive male dominion in the film business. Seen against the backdrop of #MeToo, against the pileup of accusations and a landscape that’s shifted, overnight, to a policy of zero tolerance, the “Kill Bill” incident looks, perhaps, like a second cousin to harassment: the cold exploitation of talent by those who surely knew better.
Some are calling it an act of misogyny, and are quick to lump it in with what they view as the misogynistic undercurrents of Tarantino’s films. But I would afix a not-so-fast! warning to that assessment. The cinema of Quentin Tarantino is a pop dreamscape in which the imagination — and, yes, the anger — of women has been portrayed with an audacious hellfire exhibitionism. “Death Proof,” the one-half of “Grindhouse” that he made after “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” is a parable of vengeance that, in fact, features a horrific female car crash, with bodies smashing through windshields and limbs flying. Yet taken as a whole, “Death Proof” is a virtual parallel of #MeToo: It’s all about women rising up to say that they’ve had enough, giving the men who’ve abused them a toxic taste of their own medicine. In both halves of “Kill Bill,” Uma Thurman’s The Bride is beaten down, bedraggled, and left for dead, but she’s also a slashing samurai-hellion with a whiplash gleam of empowered elegance. She’s a victim-turned-crusader, and nobody’s fool. The film is masochistic, and sadistic, and misogynistic, and feministic. That’s the Tarantino brew. More to the point, that brew is a heightened version of everything the movies have been for 100 years.
It’s telling that the Karmann Ghia sequence that Tarantino was shooting, if you watch it at the beginning of “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” is a deliberate echo of Janet Leigh’s night-drive-through-the-rain in “Psycho.” Leigh’s Marion Crane was, of course, on her way to the slaughter, and Thurman’s Bride faces terrors nearly as extreme, though she, unlike Marion, turns the tables and triumphs over them. But the parallel brings out the underlying Old Hollywood side of Tarantino. Thurman’s interview with Dowd includes accounts of how, during filming, it was Tarantino, off camera, who was actually spitting on her (instead of the Michael Madsen character) or pretending to choke her, just as it was Hitchcock who held the knife during certain set-ups in the “Psycho” shower scene. With that in mind, the “Kill Bill” car incident raises the question: Did Tarantino, like Hitchcock, feel as if he somehow had the right to subject his actors to the torments — or, in this case, the risks — that he chose, all in service to the gods of cinema?
That’s a question that only Tarantino can answer, and I truly hope he does. The fact that Thurman felt like she couldn’t say no to Tarantino is the most painful aspect of this story. You can see how refusing to get into that car would have meant, for her, upending the whole looming power structure. And that starts to sound very familiar. Yet what took place on the set of “Kill Bill” raises issues that extend beyond the parameters of #MeToo: How often, in the shooting of a movie, does this kind of risk take place? And how much does it happen to women vs. men? These questions will start to be answered in the days to come. For now, though, one can’t escape the feeling that the “Kill Bill” incident represents an assertion, and a circling of the wagons, by a testosterone-driven culture of scandalous entitlement. Even — or especially — if it doesn’t think of itself that way.