This past Saturday, the Globe and Mail ran a fantastic feature on Quentin Tarantino, in which writer Rick Groen makes the case that the director is actually devolving as a filmmaker. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but I think it’s a compelling argument given the evidence presented. After seeing Death Proof, Iâ€™d tend to agree with Rickâ€™s thesis, at least on some levels. While DP is quite an achievement technically, some of the dialogue and performances were so juvenile, it made my teeth ache. Anyhow, more on that when it isnâ€™t so late and I gotta work tomorrow.
In the meantime, click here to read the article on the Globe site. Or scroll down to read it and some nifty sidebars on Tarantino (all without italics and not properly formatted).
Tarantino’s pulp affliction
Before the director overkilled Bill, he did some brilliant and sophisticated work, RICK GROEN writes. So what went wrong?
“If we’ve grown up at the movies we know that good work is continuous not with the academic, respectable tradition but with the glimpses of something good in trash, but we want the subversive gesture carried to the domain of discovery. Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
– Pauline Kael, in Trash, Art, and the Movies
When Pauline Kael wrote that famous essay in praise of trash, way back in 1969, she was arguing against the residue of schoolmarmish seriousness, the tired moral tone, that still lingered in the culture. Well, nearly four decades later, Kael has won her argument a thousand times over. Today’s culture has its problems, but an overabundance of seriousness ain’t one of them. Yet Kael’s victory has turned pyrrhic. If you need proof, look no further than the life and times of ex-wunderkind director Quentin Tarantino.
His career began as a brilliant vindication of her plea for sublime trash. But it has continued as something else entirely, and now seems a dire warning about the perils of Pauline, a sure sign of her thesis badly interpreted and gone stupidly awry.
Certainly, no one has “grown up at the movies” more intimately than Tarantino. The child of a 16-year-old mother, he was a baby born of a baby (in 1963) and, together, mother and tiny son would stroll hand in hand to the local Rialto to take in the restricted likes of Carnal Knowledge and The Wild Bunch — his toddler’s diet. When 16 himself, he quit school (despite or maybe because of an IQ reputedly measured at 160) to continue his film studies behind the counter of a video store, a stint that became the stuff of instant legend when his star rose so fast and so high.
That rocketing ascent came with the release first of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and then Pulp Fiction (1994), each time in the fall of the year, and when the movies themselves seemed mired in their own grey autumn of blockbusters and bloat. From the title on down, both these pictures were knee-deep in trash, in pulp figures and pulp tropes — gangsters, their molls, over-the-hill boxers, Mexican standoffs and literally colourful aliases (Mr. Brown meet Mr. Pink). Right from the outset, no one could doubt that Tarantino was a low-down thief. But he stole discriminately and wisely — from the best of the worst (the visceral rawness of the B-movies he adores), yet also from the best of the best (from Godard, Scorsese, Kubrick). And, thanks to his eclectic thievery, he seemed compellingly distinctive — American to the bone, yes, but the bone was fleshed out with plenty of Euro sophistication and some wicked Asian energy.
Even more intriguing than what he stole was how he stole — his use of stuttered time frames to animate the plot; his witty knack for turning brutality on its pragmatic head (oops, how to wash the blood from my gore-spattered car); and, above all, his terrific ear for dialogue that could round out otherwise flat characters, that showed them yakking about, and vulnerable to, the same Madonna-saturated culture as the rest of us. My, that dialogue was rich enough to resurrect an actor’s entire career — just ask John Travolta. Yes, how Tarantino stole made his work unique, a happy revelation, and allowed him to fill Kael’s prescription to the letter — to carry the “subversive gesture” into “the domain of discovery,” to elevate trash into art (a much prouder animal than that common beast, trash that’s so-bad-it’s-good).
So you came out of those pictures jacked with excitement, high on their heady cocktail of violence and comedy and top-40 music and motor-mouth obscenities. You came out enchanted with their style and pondering their substance — masculinity in its dubious guises, sin in its shifting shades, redemption in its elusive forms.
Unfortunately, if you were an aspiring filmmaker, you also came out under the thrall of the most influential director since Orson Welles. But they didn’t steal nearly as well as their master. Pretty soon, as Tarantino-esque became the adjective du jour, every damn movie with a thug had him yammering on about Madonna. By then, even The Simpsons was quoting Pulp Fiction — already, Tarantino had swollen into his own pop cult reference.
That’s when the problems started. His next solo effort, Jackie Brown (1997), saw him treading water. Riffing nicely off the Elmore Leonard novel, the film had all his trademarks, but they came in a slightly looser and baggier package. After that, with fame proving hard to digest and his future even harder to chart, Tarantino essentially disappeared for six years. When he occasionally surfaced, on talk shows or at award fests or even in an ill-advised turn in a Broadway play, he looked in danger of becoming a badly acted caricature of himself — the chattering movie geek gone a bit nutty, a puffy mix of nervousness and bravado. The sight was (and is) more than a little cringe-making.
However, in his absence, movies in general weren’t getting any better, leaving Tarantino’s many admirers to await his second coming like the Second Coming. Each Friday’s outpouring of trash only whetted our appetite for Tarantino’s art, for his trash-transformer. We, and the culture around us, needed redemption too, in any of its elusive guises.
What we got, when the redeemer finally emerged, was the Kill Bill saga, with him pressing Kung Fu trash through his magic mill. Yet something didn’t feel quite right. Where once he was elevating trash, here he’s only celebrating it. Sure, the celebration is superb. A magnificent anime sequence that’s a whole other kettle of cartoon; a climax in the delicate winter of a Japanese garden, where death comes draped in snow and drenched in silence — no director could top that. Again, trash has provided the building blocks for a cinematic cathedral. But, this time, the place seems empty — you keep hoping he’ll throw open the doors to let some humanity in. And you walk out not so jacked up, still enchanted by the style but with nothing much to ponder — just a simple revenge fantasy elaborately tricked out.
With his latest, the Death Proof half of the Grindhouse double bill, the regression continues. Trash’s elevation, which gave way to celebration, has now dwindled to imitation. Technically terrific imitation, but no more than that. In fact, it’s really just a movie about B-movies, where the characters are themselves movie stunt persons or movie makeup artists, and where even the cars in the car chase are duplicates from movies past. His snappy dialogue, largely absent from Kill Bill, is back, but the women who speak it sound like the same old men in better-fitting T-shirts. And when one of them smacks her lips over a “tasty beverage” and a “Big Kahuna burger,” it’s clear that Tarantino has gone the way of all those hacks from the nineties — he’s taken to imitating himself.
In Death Proof, his childlike glee in transforming trash has shrunk to a childish penchant for reproducing it, right down to the imitation scratches on the imitation bad print. Here, Kael’s “subversive gesture” is just a gesture, a raised finger that points back at its owner — trash for trash’s sake. Watching it, witnessing a superior merely aping his inferiors in a superior fashion, deprives you of any surprise, of the thrill of discovery — unless, and this is a big proviso, you’re young enough to think that the grindhouse is something new.
Hollywood, of course, is built on that proviso. Its recycled formula flicks depend on the enthusiasm of the young, who are seeing the formula for the first time, and on the conditioning of the rest of us, who find comfort in convention. In that sense, Tarantino has imprisoned himself in the mould he once broke. The man who reinvented the movies is now in the same dull recycling business as the rest of the industry and dependent on the same audience to forgive his repetitions and praise his gifts.
Maybe that was inevitable. All art, but especially pop art, is less about invention than reinvention, rejigging the stale pieces into a fresh pattern. Fine to say, hard to do. To sustain that level of imagination is awfully difficult — aesthetically, it’s a lot easier to be a responsible borrower than a creative thief. That’s why artists, and the cultures they form, tend to repeat their good habits until they become bad — too earnestly serious in Kael’s time, not serious enough in ours. And that’s why artists, and their cultures, often end up swallowing their own tails. These days, Quentin Tarantino has quite a mouthful. The boyish saviour, the one who resurrected the careers of many an actor, has arrived at his middle years facing every saviour’s toughest challenge — to resurrect himself.
Hits and misses
Domestic U.S. box office for films directed by Quentin Tarantino
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) $66,208,183
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) $70,099,045
Jackie Brown (1997): $39,673,162
Four Rooms (1995) $4,257,354
(segment “The Man from Hollywood”)
Pulp Fiction (1994) $107,928,762
Reservoir Dogs (1992) $2,832,029
10 things . . .
. . . you didn’t know about Quentin Tarantino (unless you’re a pop-culture geek like him)
1. Hollywood birthright: Quentin Jerome Tarantino is born March 27, 1963, in Knoxville, Tenn. His 16-year-old mother loves TV westerns. Quentin is named after Burt Reynolds’s character, Quint, on Gunsmoke.
2. School days: At age two, Quentin moves with his parents to Los Angeles. He spends boyhood afternoons busing to triple-bill cinemas in bad parts of town. There, he learns to “write and speak American” listening to disgruntled Nam vets and off-the-meter hookers provide droll commentary to D-movies like Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary and Jailbait Babysitter.
3. Pulp Friction: Tarantino quits high school at 16, befriending Flin Flon, Man., native Roger Avary at a video store. The duo later collaborate on Reservoir Dogs and win an Academy Award for the screenplay of Pulp Fiction. Then they have a falling out. “I’ve never been more betrayed by anyone I was close to,” Tarantino laments.
4. An innocent abroad: In Paris for Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino visits McDonald’s and is astonished to find the French seem to have a different word for everything. He tells a reporter, “They don’t call the hamburgers Quarter Pounders because they have a metric system there: Le Royale with cheese!” The sentiment finds its way into Samuel L. Jackson’s mouth in Pulp Fiction.
5. Always kidding:Tarantino turns down a chance to make a film version of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, explaining the book is too grown up for him.
6. Bear with him: A connoisseur of pop-cult ephemera, Tarantino is an admirer of the seventies Canadian rock band Edward Bear. After hearing a medley of the group’s hits on the in-flight music channel on Air Canada, he asks a Toronto journalist, “Are Edward Bear like regarded as the Beatles of Canada?” Hearing this isn’t the case, he grumbles, “Well, they should be.”
7. Stumbling in the dark: Tarantino acts, though not as well as he directs. His worst reviews come in 1998 for an off-Broadway production of Wait Until Dark. “He was better than I was led to expect,” The New York Post comments. “He was merely terrible.”
8. Doesn’t get the credit he deserves: Tarantino never receives a screen credit for rewrites of It’s Pat, Crimson Tide, The Rock and Hostel.
9. Vr-Uma: While his latest, Grindhouse, is a demolition derby of seventies Dodge Chargers and Challengers, Tarantino rides in a vintage yellow and black Mustang in tribute to his beloved muse, Uma Thurman, who wore similarly coloured togs in Kill Bill.
10. A loss at the Casino: A fan of Ian Fleming’s 007 spy novels, Tarantino makes it known he is interested in directing the next instalment, telling a reporter in 2004: “I would like to do the original Casino Royale book and do it more or less the way the Ian Fleming book is.”
Bond producers take Tarantino’s advice but not his offer to direct. The filmmaker claims Bond’s people told his people, “We’re afraid Quentin’s going to make it too good and [screw] the rest of the series.”
– Stephen Cole