Aaron Barlow earned his PhD in English from the University of Iowa in 1988 with a dissertation on the fiction of Philip K. Dick. He returned from the Peace Corps (Togo, 1988-1990) to found (with another former PCV) and run Shakespeare's Sister, a café and store in Brooklyn, New York. In 2001, he returned to teaching.
A specialist on the intersection of technology and culture, Barlow has written two books on New Media (with a focus on blogging) and two on film, including Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes. As a teacher, he is extremely interested in moving formal learning beyond classroom walls, integrating the university and the world, making the ivory tower a quaint, old-fashioned concept.
Trained as a printer and a reporter, Barlow edited a small monthly tabloid newspaper, Chinook Winds, for a number of years in the early eighties. He has written for a variety of venues, though he has concentrated on writing for the Internet since the mid-nineties, both as a blogger and as a contributor to online journals. Though he is a peer-reviewer for several academic journals, he advocates for a new, Web-based, open model of scholarly discussion.
Barlow is currently writing (with Robert Leston) Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children for Praeger. This is the third and final book in a series that began with his book The Rise of the Blogosphere and that was followed by Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, which he also wrote. He is also editing Star Power: Celebrity Rule in New Hollywood, a three-volume set of essays to be published by Praeger.
He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two dogs and two cats, and will start his fifth year this fall teaching at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York. He teaches Composition, Literature, Journalism, and Technical Writing. He took a break from his obviously busy schedule to speak with me by phone last Saturday morning. We talked about his latest book, Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extremes, Tarantino, violence in the movies and the current state of the ongoing debate over the influence of violence in movies.
Tell me about the evolution of this project and how you got involved.
My editor at Praeger (Dan Harmon) had been assigned to edit the modern filmmakers series. My first book with them was on the development of technology for home viewing of movies, the DVD revolution. I wanted to get back to writing about film, and I talked to Dan about what directors he needed stories on and which ones I'd be interested in. The one I was most interested in turned out to be the one he was interested in and that's how it happened.
To what degree was Tarantino involved in this book?
Not at all. I really didn't want him involved. I found out a couple of days ago that he has a copy of the book, but he's such an outsized personality. I didn't want to make the book about him. There are too many books already about him. I didn't think we needed another one of those. I was scared that if I did get in touch with him and talked to him, I'd end up writing just another book centered on him and I really wanted to center on the movies.
When QT did Reservoir Dogs, was he conscious of the technical points you've covered — or did he just make a movie he liked and it turned out to be something critics loved?
That's an interesting question and something that's relevant to almost any art. I think that we do go out and we do make things (Tarantino does, or you do, or anybody else) based on what we are liking — or we should be doing it that way. But, what makes "what we like" I think is quite complex and often cannot be easily encapsulated, even by ourselves. "Well, I really like that." Well,why? What in your background led to that? All of our experiences, all the things we weren't even thinking about when we make that judgement. "Oh I like that." — is a hugely complex statement. I think we often forget just how complicated that is; and just what that means.
How does that relate to a director who had no previous formal education in film making and the technical aspects of art?
I think that a big part of what goes on with a director like Tarantino is that he's incorporating huge numbers of cultural things that he's just absorbed and hasn't necessarily thought about. And it's possible that we "over-think" some of these things and we'd do better just to let them happen and recognize that there are all sorts of influences and we might not even be aware of them.
Have you researched the topic of violence before?
Not specifically, not in terms of art. That focus for the book came through Dan Harmon, the Praeger editor.
Did you discover something in your research that was an eye-opener for you?
As much as anything, surprising is the whole relationship between film and the perception of violence hasn't changed much over the last century or so. You'd think there would be much more of an evolution but the same attitudes towards it are around now that were around a hundred years ago. Even though the technology has changed, you know film has changed a great deal, it still remains as it was.
Which of the six movies in the book do you consider to be the most violent?
It depends on how you define violent. I think probably, the one for me that gets the greatest reaction is Reservoir Dogs. That whole scene with the dance and the ear cutting. But, the amount of violence, compared to Kill Bill, either Vol 1 or Vol 2, especially Vol 1, is almost negligible. One is permeated with the "feeling" of violence the most is Kill Bill.
Like me, I suspect many people hadn't considered the violence in Hollywood musicals.
Yeah, that's one of the things that surprises me. His (Tarantino) violence, people get very upset by it. A lot of people don't want to see it. Don't want to hear about it — don't want to watch his movies. A lot of people I know. My wife doesn't like to watch his movies. Probably have the violence sanitized in some ways, even though it's just as deadly, we're perfectly willing to watch it. That's something that still puzzles me a little bit. I wish I had a better handle on it.
Do you have examples other than the five you mentioned in the book that you point to as being at least as violent as QT's work? (I was only familiar with West Side Story.)
Oh! Certainly Oklahoma! I've been avoiding seeing that for years and years and years because I never made it beyond much of the first scene of it in the movie. That movie is awful. But, I saw the revival of it on Broadway a few years ago and I was shocked at how dark it actually is and how much violence is actually a part of the show. I didn't know it was going to be there at all. Hmmm… other musicals that would have violence. I believe Carousel, I haven't seen Carousel in years.
Talk about the acceptance of violence in other movies, such as DeMille's religious epics and certainly Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.
Yeah, it certainly had a lot of violence in it. I haven't seen The Passion of Christ – I've just read about it. He's (Mel Gibson) using violence for a whole other purpose — to talk about the importance of (I assume) suffering and salvation, and religious perseverance, perseverance of beliefs. It's a movie I've wanted to see and haven't managed to do it. To be effective at protecting his flock, mustn't the shepherd (like Winnfield) be willing to use violence?
This is something that my background as a Quaker that bothers me at this point about Quakers. I think that Quakers avoid the fact that there are shepherds protecting them. That leads to a certain hypocrisy. It's easy to be non-violent if you have somebody taking care of all the violence for you — and out of your site. One of the things Tarantino does and Mel Gibson is doing is rubbing your face in it and making you recognize it, and making you deal with it.
Maybe that's what some people object to.
That may be. That may very well be what people object to. To me, with Quakers it's a little ironic because my parents became Quakers after I was born. They're both from Appalachia and my mother has Scots/Irish background. The Scots/Irish would use "borderers" to keep violence away from other people both on the Scottish border and in Pennsylvania. The Quakers and Germans sent the Scotch and Irish out to where the Native Americans were and let them fight them. They'd be nice and peaceful back in the towns.
Ebert: "Movies affect the way people behave." "They can have a negative effect on society to the effect that they glorify mindlessness and short attention spans." What's your take on violence in the movies vs. violence in real life?
I came into it [this project] not knowing where I would go in terms of my feelings. I came out of it feeling that movies are, if anything, simply an amplifier. They do not make people do or feel a particular way, but they can amplify feelings that people already have. Somebody can come out of the theater who's got a violent bent and then want to go and commit acts of violence. Whereas somebody could see the same movie and not want to. It's interesting, I just glanced at that article you sent me, and they are saying, "It keeps people from being violent by having them eat popcorn in the theaters." Well you know that may be, but that doesn't keep them from being violent after the movie. That sort of panacea only works to a limited degree and only at the particular time of viewing. You can't rely on that to change society or to change people. I'll have to read the article more carefully, but what I've seen so far, it seems almost as though they missed the point.
Two movies I was surprised you didn't mention: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Rollerball (1975).
I'd love to do more with A Clockwork Orange. That movie and Rollerball, too, they've become such formalized and stylized violence. Another movie I'd like to do something with is The Warriors. It's a gang movie in New York. It's a very stylized New York. They go from Coney Island to the Bronx for a meeting of gangs. They're accused of killing the leader of all the gangs. So they have to try to get back home while all the other gangs are trying to kill them. The movie is about them going home and none of it is at all realistic. It's all pretty absurd, but it's a lot of fun to watch. It's extraordinarily stylized just like A Clockwork Orange and Rollerball. They are stylized in a different way from Tarantino. I think Tarantino (and maybe Mel Gibson, too) is trying to get his audience to actually engage with the violence itself and have a real visceral reaction to it. A lot of the things that happen in A Clockwork Orange remove you from the violence itself, through the framing, through the clear artistry of the whole thing. You can say, "It's only a movie." in ways that sometimes you can't with Tarantino's work — except in Kill Bill. The whole House of Blue Leaves, it's so absurd and stylized and it becomes meaningless at the same time. Is absurd violence more like cartoons? Is it more like dance? What's going on when that happens? Is violence [like in cartoons] OK, when the victim can get up again?
How do you hope your book will influence readers?
I'm interested in the possibility of a whole new type of intellectual engagement. You caught on to some of this in the way you started your piece. We've filled our discussions of art of any type with the popular sort of reviews like, "This is good. This is bad. Go see this — or don't. Here's what the plot is and that's all you need to know to make your own decision." Then there's the scholarly work that is often absolutely unreadable. It can be a little difficult. A lot of the things that are written now are ten times worse [the first three chapters of his book]. They're absolutely impossible for anybody to get through unless they are a fellow specialist. They're written for very small audiences and those audiences talk back to each other and anybody else doesn't know enough to be part of the conversation. Well, their opinion isn't worth anything. We used to have the whole concept of the public intellectual, going back to John Dewey and William James, the belief that anybody can be a part of almost any discussion. People loved stuff like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those things were about four hours long and huge crowds would come and listen, then stay there the entire time, and then discuss and take part in things. We've lost that. If it's simplified too much, it makes it almost where only specialists can be involved in the discussion and that's a big mistake. So, with just about anything that I do, I want to try to bridge that gap to some degree. I don't always succeed, but that's my real goal, to make something that's accessable without dumbing anything down.
Do you see a difference in writing for blogs and writing for print media?
Yes. I find I have a very difficult time being a really good blogger because I grew up in a print media and started writing for print something like forty years ago. It's a different type of writing and a different way of writing. I tend to be too dense for the blogs and too long. I don't rely enough on links. I'm used to incorporating references into what I'm writing and not let that go and hope that people will follow the links.
A closing comment for our readers?
Movies are about people. And violence is about people, too. That's one of the reasons you can't take one away from the other. There's a lot of things that go on in our lives that aren't very pretty. We need to find ways of dealing with that. Often the movies we like, the movies we see help us do it. We're people, too, and we're in the context of the discussion. Movies are a part of life. In the book, I mention that people have accused Tarantino of making movies about movies. No, he's using the language of movies to talk about life, as I think we all do at times. Watching movies is part of that discussion — of life. It's not removed from life. It's like back in the eighties, a lot of people who were involved with technology talked about "cyberspace" as if it were a separate world. Something really divorced from reality, where people could go in and create their own avatar, their own being, and have a separate existence. We've discovered recently that if you really believe that, it's going to come around and boomerang and hit you in the back of the head. People who post a lot of things on Facebook think that there's no danger in that. It's on the web and not in the world; they're finding that it is in the world. All these things are a part of the world — you can't divorce one from the other.