Friday, April 3, 2015

Tarantino's Plateau

Infantile, loudmouthed American film director Quentin Tarantino in 2012. 

In this post I will explain why I am underwhelmed by Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 work. Now I know that many people, including mainstream Hollywood and even several critics I respect, really love Tarantino's films, and I know there is no way I am going to disabuse anybody of their Tarantino fandom by writing this expose. That is not my aim here. My goal is simply to articulate why I do not share that fandom and to enumerate the reasons why, because:

(1) I am quite tired of telling people that I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a "great" filmmaker and having them stare at me disbelievingly, and

(2) I am convinced that a goodly chunk of Tarantino's current fan base is unaware of the genres and films that Tarantino's work draws upon, because when I try to explain that QT's films consist almost entirely of elements borrowed from the work of 1970s filmmakers, I often get blank stares.*

My hope is that this post will serve as both an explanation for my ho-hum feelings about QT's recent work and as a quasi-resource for fans and non-fans alike who might wish to further explore the films and filmmakers that have made QT's work what it is.

Since Tarantino's popularity and reputation is the main reason I'm writing about him, let's start with a truthful assessment of why Tarantino's work is popular. There are three main reasons:

(1) His ability to write appealing, snappy dialogue. In this interview, QT comes right out and admits that his main strength (or at least main interest) is writing -- discussing what he'll do when he retires from film directing, he says:
I'll probably just be a writer, or I'll just write novels, and I'll write film literature and film books and subtextual film criticism, things like that.**
This makes sense to me. Tarantino started out as a video store clerk and giant fan of the movies, and in many ways I suspect he would make a better screenwriter or film critic than he does a director.

(2) His involvement with the Miramax-era indie director star system. Tarantino's fame rests to a large extent upon how effectively he has marketed himself -- and how aggressively Miramax has marketed him -- as the "indie" poster child of the 1990s. Thanks to the runaway success of Pulp Fiction, he became the biggest director-star of the decade, and Miramax built their business on doing business with QT. In Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind's history of the 1990s independent film sector, Biskind calls Miramax "the House that Quentin Built," writing that:
Pulp Fiction became the Star Wars of independents, exploding expectations for what an indie film could do at the box office. By raising the bar, changing the rules of the game, Pulp caused Miramax gradually to lose interest in the kind of dinky, uncommercial films that are not amenable to big-money studio marketing strategies, that is, the kind of classic indies that maverick filmmakers liked to make.*** 
Once Pulp hit big in 1994, Tarantino became the vehicle through which Miramax commercialized and widened the audience for "indie" films, backed by Disney, their corporate parent. Yes, you read that right: by the time Miramax acquired and released Tarantino's second film, Disney wholly owned the "indie" distributor. Disney financed Pulp Fiction.

(3) Many of his fans may not be familiar with the works from which QT borrows his cinematic techniques and tone. Tarantino is primarily a highly skilled and culturally savvy postmodern recycler -- his visual and tonal playbook is almost entirely borrowed from 1970s filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Hong Kong action directors too numerous to mention.

For example, Pulp Fiction may have broken commercial barriers in terms of introducing a slickly packaged version of the Miramax/Sundance "indie" sensibility to mainstream audiences, but aesthetically and thematically the film is what you'd get if the 1970s filmmakers mentioned above collaborated on a hip color remake of The Set-Up (1949) and/or The Killers (1946) with QT writing the dialogue.

Of course, Tarantino is not the only pastiche artist working in Hollywood today nor over in its history, and I do not mean to say that pastiche or sampling other people's styles is an illegitimate artistic strategy. But I am very tired of hearing QT's work trumpeted as boldly original and visionary by fans unfamiliar with the works he replicates. I cannot know what QT's reputation will be going forward, and I know his fans love him, but his reputation as a "visionary" or a "pioneer" rests more upon how he has been marketed and promoted than upon sober assessment of his work.

Believe me, I get that QT is a postmodern filmmaker, and as such he should not be expected to produce deep works of startling emotional resonance or thematic impact. I do not judge him alongside other filmmakers (like Cronenberg or Holofcener or McQueen or Bergman or von Trier) who actually have something palpable to say in / with their work. I get that he is more like Soderbergh or Korine or Refn, that is, someone whose main aim in filmmaking is surface play, inter-textuality, and "sampling" or reworking pop-culture elements that have come before. No, my central complaint about Tarantino is simply that he does this sampling less well than any of the filmmakers I have just named, that his debt to his influences is so clunkily obvious that his films function as ciphers or hyperlinks pointing me back to other, better films by Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Alejandro Jodorowski, Gordon Parks, etc. As Timothy Dugdale writes,
In the Tarantino funhouse, you've seen it all before yet never in such quicksilver and audacious assembly. [. . .] In no Tarantino film are emotional demands made on the audience, except for self-congratulation in catching all the cinematic allusions and artifice of emotional intensity.†
While I would dispute the final clause of that first sentence, I agree that there isn't much to cling on to in Tarantino's work except the cleverness of the assembly of the borrowed parts and, of course, the snappy dialogue. So when that assembly is tight, as in his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), the movies are at least pleasurable to watch, though for me they don't have much repeat-viewing value. However, when a Tarantino film sprawls unnecessarily (as in Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2 and Django Unchained) or is constructed badly or messily (as in Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds) the end result is a movie with really enjoyable scenes but not much holding it together as a whole movie. And this is the core of my critique of Tarantino's work: that he has not made a coherent whole movie since Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown, my choice for Tarantino's best movie. 

The best efforts Tarantino has made in this area are his debut, Reservoir Dogs, which coheres quite well within its episodic structure, and Jackie Brown, his best movie bar none. However, ever since 1997's Brown, his career has plateaued and he has been unable to produce another film as coherent and impactful as his first three efforts. Kill Bill flows okay but is overlong and too thinly premised.††  Inglorious Basterds is, in terms of overall narrative structure, an uneven mess.††† And even by QT's own admission, Death Proof is totally fucked, like two totally different films with different premises hastily grafted together. This would be okay if it were more artsy or "deep" or did something interesting with its structure (like David Lynch does in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive), but no, it's just a pretty decent first half clumsily affixed to a drawn-out, if visually breathtaking, documentary about a death-defying stunt by Zoe Bell.

Interestingly, while Basterds is Tarantino's second-worst film in terms of overall coherence and structure, it contains a couple of his best-ever scenes, particularly the basement bar sequence. This is the paradox of Tarantino's work: pretty great in the particulars, but pretty sloppy, even lousy, in the big picture.

My overall position on Tarantino aligns closely with that of popular British film critic Mark Kermode, who shares my esteem for QT's early work and breaks down "The Tarantino Situation" in this succinct video:

As Kermode says, Tarantino is "a much better filmmaker than we've had any reason to believe recently." Or as he puts it in another more recent video review, "It's like watching someone still playing with the same set of toys as when they first started out, but originally he was constrained by time and by budget, and he is a really talented director [. . .] but why can't he do it in a more disciplined way?"

Or, as Doc Benway put a bit more bluntly it in a fairly recent Facebook discussion:
I was recently considering the line from Pulp Fiction, "Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead" often interpreted as a reference to Nick Zedd, which seems quite plausible considering Tarantino's arrogant flaunting of his cinephilia. But it's interesting how this intertextual reference works within the narrative. Really, this line encapsulates the reactionary impact of Tarantino on American cinema. At one fell swoop, he reduces the tradition of subversive American experimental cinema to a homophobic caricature, shoots it in the gut, and steals its energy (in the figure of the chopper). To me, Butch is the perfect stand-in for Tarantino - a washed up hack and misogynist with a daddy complex whose "cool" is supposed to magically position him as the loveable protagonist.
Benway glancingly refers to Tarantino's tendency toward public arrogance, which I admit is a contributing factor in how I feel about the man's films. I don't want to dwell too much on QT's seeming egotism and I want to make clear that I don't know if he is truly arrogant in real life. I'm merely talking about his loudmouthed, grating public persona here. Suffice to say that I have a hard time feeling comfortable with or supportive of a director who thinks it's okay to do this, even in jest.

As the second list entry linked here elaborates,
[Tarantino is] never one to shy away from praising Quentin Tarantino, whether he's cockily telling an interviewer that "Inglorious was so good, I don't know how I'm going to top myself," or just generally acting like a total fucking lunatic at awards shows, you don't have to look too far to find examples of douchechill-inspiring Tarantino-isms.

I recently re-watched Reservoir Dogs, my second-favorite Tarantino film after Jackie Brown, and was a bit shocked by the seemingly casual racism and sexism of practically all its characters. The film opens with Tarantino himself (in a cameo as "Mr. Brown") discussing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" by describing violent, penetrative sex that is painful to the woman involved. This constitutes an abrupt, harshly misogynistic cold open for QT's debut film, and while I am NOT saying that QT is racist or sexist just because his characters are, nevertheless it gets tiring and un-pleasurable to sit through ninety minutes of pervasive, violently misogynistic and racist chatter, however cleverly written. At least that's how I felt on this re-watch.

That said, I must admit that the camera work and visuals in Dogs are top-notch; QT and his team can frame up eye-popping, iconic compositions with the best of them.

The visuals in Tarantino's films are well-composed, catchy, and iconic.

Whatever else happens, at least we'll always have those first three films: Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. These constitute a tight little trilogy of mostly great Tarantino-ness (though I find the basement rape scene in Pulp to be disturbing in what I assume are unintended ways). And there are many enjoyable moments to be found in the later films too -- hell, I enjoy about 60% of Death Proof and probably 75% of Django Unchained if I'm being honest.

But I will always lament the Tarantino that could have been, the director who could have taken more risks since 1997 instead of continuing the same generic routine ad infinitum. But as the most well-known director to emerge from the 1990s Sundance scene, maybe it was foolish to ever expect any other outcome than the one we got. Tarantino's work has achieved widespread commercial success, so why change the product or vary the brand? Hollywood is not fundamentally a risk-taking business, and post-1997 Tarantino is a risk-averse director. If he were willing, as he did when making Jackie Brown, to take real artistic and ideological risks with his films, rather than simply posturing publicly as if he had, I would be much more interested in his work.

UPDATE 8/1/2015: See also item #1 on this list.

UPDATE 10/23/2015: A friend just sent me a link to this brilliant piece, in which Noah Berlatsky argues that "Tarantino, in his films, is fascinated with the idea that those on the margins of the American political economy can get around, or sidestep, America's racial hierarchies. Black and white thug life becomes one." In short, Tarantino imagines himself, and the world, to be post-racial, which it sadly but most assuredly is not. "For Tarantino, then, [Johnny] Cash is an embodiment of that fantasy—a totem of whiteness so tough and knowing that it transforms into blackness."

UPDATE 11/29/2015: Breaking news on the "Quentin Tarantino is a sexist, racist, immature, ungracious asshole" front!

UPDATE 6/20/2017: This "Oral History of Quentin Tarantino as Told to Me by Men I've Dated" is spot-on and, in a hilarious way, gets at many of the things I find off-putting about Tarantino's persona and work.

* As I will make clear throughout this post, the one major exception to my contention that QT is not very original or interesting is in his ability to write snappy, compelling dialogue. Tarantino is a superb writer of dialogue, no doubt about it. His first two films excepted, he does not write compelling screen stories very well, and he has almost no ability to self-regulate or make wise choices in the editing room, but I will never deny that he writes fabulous and very funny dialogue.
** Here's the link to the full, uncensored interview.
*** Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures (Simon & Schuster, 2004) p. 195.
† From "The French New Wave: New Again" in New Punk Cinema (Ed. Nicholas Rombes, Edinburgh UP, 2005) p. 62.
†† For the record, I am okay with straight-ahead genre films and do not mean to dismiss Kill Bill simply because it is a straightforward revenge thriller. Its problem is that it feels spread too thin, its pacing is off, and it drags on way too long. In this sense it is a harbinger of much of what is to come in Tarantino's subsequent mid-career works.
††† Try this simple exercise: answer the question, "Who is the protagonist of Inglorious Basterds?" Let me know if you ever figure that out; I never have. I have a friend who suggests that it's actually Hans Landa, and that makes more sense than any other answer, but still isn't satisfying.

1 comment:

  1. Carter!
    Thanks for your comment on my impulsive list of "23 OF my Favorite Movies" on FB.
    I remember you saying something re: your opinion of PULP FICTION but I couldn't remember what it was exactly, so I checked your blog here for some memory jogging. Interesting post and a lot of interesting links I'll have to check out more in detail.
    I think I've mentioned this before, but a slight re-hash: I've been a fan of QT since RESERVOIR DOGS and then a big fan after PULP FICTION. PF made a big impression on me. Two of the biggest elements that resonated was the non-linear structure and then the character arc Samuel Jackson's character has in the final story, especially him thinking out loud his new considered way of life in his discussion with Travolta ("walking the earth" like David Carradine in KUNG FU) which is wonderfully simplistic, to a more mature, seriously considered one-way discussion with Tim Roth at gunpoint as he thinks out loud about his famous scriptural monologue before executing hits.
    My best friend Steve who went to film school to pursue screenwriting always had issues with QT (and not necessarily incorrect) and I'd wind up "defending" my fondness for him, up until DEATHPROOF. With DEATHPROOF, I had my first disappointment with QT, and ever since, I seem to keep having issues with parts of his films. Since then, I've also heard about how RESERVOIR DOGS is actually a "remake" of an Asian film. The other stuff you talk about re: PULP FICTION is new to me, I'll have to pursue this. But, proceeding blindly and compartmentalizing my original love for the movie and the impact it had on me inspirationally is something I probably won't let go of, the same way I still love Woody Allen's early movies and his writing of short humorous pieces (Without Feathers, Getting Even, etc.) while conveniently not considering his whole relationship with his wife/daughter.
    And yeah, KILL BILL is indulgent like my blog posts are indulgent, they both go on way too long. When an action-revenge film has to be told in two whole films, that's probably an indicator, haha! But, I'll admit, I like both parts of KILL BILL, but it makes sense that QT's hanging on to this blatant use of dividing his films into chapters (at least he did so with BASTERDS and HATEFUL. Haven't seen DJANGO). KB 1&2 is perhaps composed more of scenes that go together than one smoothly flowing piece. KILL BILL is made of many parts. But I still think of KILL BILL as a more successful Grindhouse film than DEATHPROOF, just focusing on martial arts sources.
    Oh, it's always so complicated!