Tarantino's Incarnational Theology: Reservoir Dogs, Crucifixions and Spectacular Violence (1)

By Brintnall, Kent L. | Cross Currents, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Tarantino's Incarnational Theology: Reservoir Dogs, Crucifixions and Spectacular Violence (1)


Brintnall, Kent L., Cross Currents


Writing about Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino's 1995 directorial and screenwriting debut, Manohla Dargis observed:

      A history of American cinema could be traced on the bruised,
      besieged male body, from westerns to gangster sagas to male
      weepies to war films.... [F]ilm after film features men ... at
      risk who can only find redemption through pain, theirs or someone
      else's. (2)

Whether or not these observations about American cinema are accurate, Dargis's summary most assuredly captures the spirit of the vast majority of Christian theology. The Christian theological imaginary traces quite precisely the outlines of a particular brutalized male body and the redemptive significance of the suffering that it endured. Indeed, the theological fact may explain the cinematic one: insofar as Christianity has dominated the Euro-American cultural imagination for a millenium or so, the mystery of physical brutality, and its possible redemptive power, has been in the air, ready to be scripted, interrogated, displayed and deployed time and time again. Given that both American cinema and the Christian narrative give pride of place to brutality against the male body, it seems likely that an interdisciplinary conversation about such violence may be productive.

In this article, I will explore the ethical and erotic dimensions of physical brutality against the male body as they appear in theological discourses and cinematic texts, relying on film theory to help unpack certain dynamics related to the crucifixion. With such an exploration, I hope to accomplish two things. First, I seek to contribute certain insights to Christian theological understandings of the significance and meaning of the crucifixion. By attending specifically to the figure of the brutalized body on the cross, certain issues related to gender and eroticism open up around the space of the crucifixion. Second, I seek to make a methodological intervention in the arena of religion and film scholarship. Theological discourses can benefit from taking up film theory as a full, legitimate and independent conversation partner--a form of "worldly wisdom" which must be interwoven with the faith tradition. With this article I hope to demonstrate how a truly interdisciplinary methodology between theology and film studies is both possible and productive for constructive theological discourses. In sum, this article could be read as an essay in constructive theology, as an essay in method for the study of religion and film, or--most appropriately--as both.

This article is intended solely as a starting point for both the substantive and the methodological inquiries. As an initial gesture, it invokes concerns about the relationship between religious discourses and visual culture, the ethical and theological value of spectacular violence, the erotic dimension of physical brutality, and the maturity of method in religion and film scholarship which I will not be able to address with the depth and precision that such questions deserve.

For simplicity's sake, I will keep the scope of comparison relatively limited. To examine the dynamics surrounding representations of brutality against the male body and how they relate to narratives of the crucifixion, I will focus my attention on Julian of Norwich's Showings and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Although there are a number of reasons for decrying a comparison of these two artifacts--they are from radically different historical periods, generated for different reasons, produced in disparate mediums, by "authors" with remarkably different commitments--I hope that by the conclusion of my examination the structural and thematic similarities between the texts will be sufficiently apparent so as to justify my choice.

The theological writings of the fourteenth-century mystic and visionary Julian of Norwich are justifiably renowned for their originality, their elegance, their emphasis on the limitless mercy of an all-loving God, and their description of the maternal aspects of Jesus' character. …

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