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“It all started with the ear.
In retrospect, there couldn’t have been a more fitting note for Quentin Tarantino to begin his career on. Horrified contemporaneous reviews of his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs queasily attempted to tip-toe around describing the now-famous scene in which Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) saws off the ear of a bound and gagged cop. Even though you don’t see the actual severance on screen — a pan serves to do the work of covering your eyes for you — critics were stunned. “One of the most aggressively brutal movies since Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs,” gulped The New York Times. Variety warned that “a needlessly sadistic sequence … crosses the line of what audiences want to experience.”
Twenty-seven years on, Tarantino is still dancing gleefully across that line, poised as he is to upset audiences’ stomachs on Friday with his already-controversial Manson murder extravaganza, Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood. Despite the nearly three decades that have passed since “the ear” hullabaloo, though, Tarantino’s excessive use of gore remains the emotional crescendo of his filmmaking — and isolates the unique, affecting abilities that filmmaking has over all other arts.
Unfortunately, nothing brings out America’s moral banshees quite like the endless, ongoing debate about violence in film. By the time Tarantino was working on Kill Bill in the early 2000s, the wailing over his enthusiastic use of gore was already growing stale. “He knows now, from bitter experience, that if he indulges in flamboyant, over-the-top violence, American audiences and critics will talk about that more than about almost anything else: it will be taken seriously, as a ponderous moral issue,” The New Yorker wrote in a 2003 profile.”
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