The other day, on the short walk to my office from the car lot where I park, it struck me that both Quentin Tarantino and Martha Stewart are twenty-first-century Frankenstein monsters.
Oh, they might look a little less frightful (at least Martha does, anyway), but Quentin and Martha have a lot of common with the creature who was the embodiment of Dr. Frankenstein’s wish: they are all examples of what happens when good intentions, talent, and formidable intellect are pushed too far and go horribly awry.
The thought first occurred to me when I passed a movie theatre and saw several disturbing full-color posters advertising the latest orgy of gruesome violence that passes for cinema these days.
Thanks, Quentin, I thought, with just a touch of guilt. Thanks a lot.
The twinge of guilt came because I have to admit that I loved Quentin when he first hit the big time with Reservoir Dogs. I mean, didn’t we all?
At first I resisted watching the movie, even though everyone told me that cinema’s new wonder kid had somehow managed to make violence palatable. But they were right: when I finally screwed up my courage, I was astonished to find myself chuckling and singing along to “Stuck in the Middle with You” during the torture scene.
Afterwards I felt exhilarated. The juxtaposition of violence and humor was like nothing I had ever seen before! It didn’t bother me at all! Clearly I still had the edge required to absorb and enjoy cinema that pushed the envelope.
Honestly? I felt never more cool.
I wasn’t alone. Quentin Tarantino became celebrated as the most original filmmaker in years and proceeded to churn out violent, blood-spattered movie after violent blood-spattered movie. And he soon spawned imitators who pushed the envelope even further, though increasingly without his signature rapid-fire and admittedly witty dialogue which cleverly referenced cinematic classics from around the world.
Fifteen years later, Quentin Tarantino’s legacy is one I have lamented before  in this space: a never-ending parade of torture-porn crap like Saw and Hostel (which he executive-produced) that is less about cinema and more about how much graphic human suffering (mostly young male) theatergoers can dare each other to sit through.
So what does this have to do with Martha?
Well, just past the movie theatre is old building which once apparently housed a shop specializing in upscale Italian fixtures for the home. It is vacant now in these recessionary times, but in an elegant and delicate script, outrageous slogans still beckon from the windows …
“It’s not just a tile, it’s your style,” and, “Your home is your style statement.”
To which daily, I respectively and emphatically reply: Yes it is, no, it isn’t, and when the hell did everyone start thinking that homes were supposed to be style statements?
Because they’re not. Or rather they weren’t before Martha got started on us.
Martha’s revolution seemed just as innocuous to me as Quentin’s when it first started. Many years ago when she first introduced the concept of gracious living to the great unwashed, I thought it was perfectly lovely. She was bringing into fashion the notion that people like me could and should take pride in their domestic activities.
Honestly? I felt never more posh.
But years later, I think that Martha Stewart and her legacy has become just as monstrous as Quentin Tarantino’s.
Ultimately what Martha Stewart did was not about helping people live better, but about commodifying people’s lifestyles in order to move product and make sales. She, and her increasingly craven imitators, helped usher in the belief that gracious entertaining was less about treating visitors with courtesy, respect, and affable kindness, and more about designer cutlery and fancy table settings.
She, and a thousand others like her, made a fortune by fooling people into thinking they could quite literally buy style, rather than develop it on their own, and that class was personified by the exhibition of superior cooking and decorating skills as opposed to the exhibition of poise and dignity under difficult circumstances.
Before Martha Stewart rose to fame, the belief that class or style was related to the kind of floor coverings one purchased was merely an Achilles heel of the wealthy, chattering classes, not a widely held belief amongst the middle class. Today the economy and millions of North Americans are trying to recover from the misguided belief that style involves buying things you can’t afford and impressing dinner guests with leased china.
I think society has created and fed more than a few monsters over the last several years and I’m sure it will create and feed many more in the years to come.
But the next time I make the trek from my office to my car I’m going to think about Martha Stewart and rampant consumerism and Quentin Tarantino and the proliferation of graphic human suffering as casual entertainment and I’m going to be careful what I wish for.