Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Another Bloody Take on Tarantino

Brilliant. Confounding. Groundbreaking. Underachieving. Audacious. Predictable. Transformative. Overrated. Incomplete.

Given the kaleidoscopic pastiche of ideas that comprise any one Quentin Tarantino film, let alone his entire body of work, it shouldn’t surprise that a smorgasbord of adjectives, and even antonyms, come to mind in trying to describe him and assess his career to date.

Before my thesaurus and I continue on with an off-the-cuff analysis that is sure to be quite meandering, let me Cliff Note this for the skimmers by saying that my opinion of Tarantino is predominantly positive. In order of theatrical release, this is how I would rate the films he has written and directed (except where noted, he has always done both), on a @@@@@ scale:

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
True Romance* (1993)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
From Dusk Till Dawn** (1996)
Jackie Brown (1998)
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)
Death Proof*** (2007)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

*Screenwriter only. Directed by Tony Scott
**Screenwriter and lead actor. Directed by Robert Rodriguez
***Originally released as part of Grindhouse, with Rodriguez writing & directing the other feature-length segment. Available separately on DVD.

Although his oeuvre is imperfect, chronologically top heavy in merit and may not quite place him in the very top rank of all-time filmmakers, I will stipulate up front that he qualifies to be called a “great director,” if based only on the brilliance and influence of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

But while keeping in mind that Tarantino will turn just 47 on March 27, and should be able to considerably augment his filmography, does he deserve a free pass to eternal canonization, seeing how—in my eyes, and not just—he has never come all that close to replicating the groundbreaking originality of his first two directorial efforts? Although, to be fair, the legendary stature of Fellini, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas is based on careers that are similarly front-loaded in terms of their very best films (though not necessarily referencing just their first two features).

I Wonder What My Neighbors Thought

…over the past 2-3 weeks as I held my own Quentin Tarantino Film Festival within the confines of my condo. With floorstanding speakers and the volume pumped to be heard over the heat running, I’m surprised no one called the cops given the propensity of profanity and gunshots as I revisited Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (Vol. 1&2) and Inglourious Basterds, and watched Death Proof and From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time.

While I have never had a celluloidic memory when it comes to clearly recalling plots or dialogue from movies I last saw years--or sometimes even months--ago, let alone how much I liked a certain film or the precise reasons why, I was a bit surprised at how closely the re-viewings reiterated my recollections of the quality & virtues of each film.

Most of the movies I had initially seen in theaters upon their release, except for Reservoir Dogs, which in ratio to Pulp Fiction is a lot like Nirvana’s Bleach to Nevermind, in that only after the second release blew everyone’s mind did most real people get hip to the first. Even though I was living in Los Angeles when Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992, I didn’t see it and really don’t recall any hype about Tarantino being the new wunderkind.

In fact, while Reservoir Dogs has likely become nearly as revered and influential as Pulp Fiction, it opened on 19 screens nationwide, never played (in its first run) on more than 61 screens nationwide per week, and grossed $2,687,008. Not awful for an independent film with an estimated $1.2 million budget, but not exactly a blockbuster.

But regardless of its initial box office, Reservoir Dogs remains a remarkable artistic achievement, especially for a first-time director who not only didn’t go to film school, he never finished high school. (Just for circumventing the traditional path to the director’s chair, Tarantino is to be admired. As the former video store clerk once said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them 'no, I went to films.'")

It’s interesting to read now that back in October 1992, Tarantino said that he was basically making a heist movie along the lines of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Having recently watched this 1956 classic myself, as well as other old caper flicks like Rififi and Touchez pas au Grisbi, it becomes clear that the heist itself is usually the least interesting part of the movie, far less engaging than the planning or repercussions. So Tarantino had the brilliantly original (as far as I know) idea to make a heist film without ever showing the heist. Even after parodies on The Simpsons and elsewhere, it holds up wonderfully.

So does, to a bit lesser extent, True Romance, which was the first full script Tarantino finished and sold. Watching it in 2010 for the first time in years—far after Tarantino’s influence has changed what movies look and sound like—it didn’t feel quite as “new” as it might have when released in 1993, but it is quite fun, particularly with a wonderful cast that includes Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Michael Rapaport and Tarantino favorite, Samuel L. Jackson.

Sometimes in measuring a work’s, or artist’s, merit in retrospect, it can really hard to properly gauge originality, innovation and freshness in comparison to what came before. Whether the creation predates your awareness or has blended into the background of an era gone by, it’s easy to lose track of something (or someone) being truly ahead of its time.

While I certainly don’t claim to be a film scholar, and won’t broach much here on things like subtext and symbolism (as to paraphrase Mark Twain, I’d rather be thought a fool than open my mouth and prove it), I do recognize that influence—on an art form or even culture as a whole—is one of the greatest barometers of artistic achivement. It’s easy to imagine a 16-year-old listening to Bob Dylan, even his early stuff, and not being wowed by his nasally voice or seeming linguistic overload. But “not liking” something on a surface level is a whole lot different that realizing how different popular music sounded before and after “Like a Rolling Stone,” or how enduring “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are-A Changing” remain almost 50 years later.

With this said, while still completely marvelous in numerous ways, Pulp Fiction didn’t blow my mind in quite the same manner as when I first saw it. But since that’s largely due to all that it has spawned, it really should be taken more as a compliment than a criticism. I remember first seeing it in 1994 and really being thrown, and ultimately dazzled, by the non-linear narrative. Watching it now, after time shifting has become fairly commonplace and “Tarantinoesque” has become part of the vernacular--due to dozens of imitators yet few who have really replicated his essence; as a playwright friend of mine once said, "Stringing together a bunch of swear words doesn't make you David Mamet"—the circular structure didn’t seem nearly as revolutionary as it once did.

But beyond his inclusion of a “brick” cell phone—and I’ve noticed that old school cell phones unfortunately date many of his films—Pulp Fiction holds up remarkably well, even if the novelty wore off long ago. Two Tarantino staples, compelling dialogue and wonderful use of music, are at their very best here, and it’s easy to forget how dead John Travolta’s career was before Tarantino resurrected it. (Along with Christoph Waltz, who just won the Oscar for Inglourious Basterds, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and the late David Carradine are among those who should forever thank Quentin for putting them on, or back on, the map.)

While I have read about a lot of films that influenced Pulp Fiction, and many homages are front and center—including to a bunch of movies I’ve never seen—in watching this time around, I couldn’t help but reflect on one I recently watched but have never heard referenced in regard to Tarantino: La Dolce Vita. There are no obvious allusions to Fellini’s 1960 masterpiece, at least none that I could discern or have read about, except that both movies weave together seven scenes, or episodes (although in La Dolce Vita’s case, there are really 14, seven day and seven evening episodes).

But while a film’s technical merits usually have to so superlative as to slap me in the face, in order for me to acutely appreciate things like cinematography, in both La Dolce Vita and Pulp Fiction I was truly enchanted just by how gorgeously composed every frame of film was. Viewing La Dolce Vita helped me realize that sometimes style can be the substance, and I think beyond the language, structure, characters, story and even violence of Pulp Fiction, what really resonates is simply how amazing it looks.

From Travolta dancing with Uma at Jackrabbit Slims (slyly referencing Saturday Night Fever) to Travolta & Eric Stoltz reviving Uma by punching a needle in her chest (though, just like we never see Madsen actually cut the guy’s ear in Reservoir Dogs, we never see the needle hit her) to Bruce Willis spotting the gun on the kitchen counter, each scene is fascinating and every shot within a work of art.

So Then What Happened?

It’s no embarrassment that Tarantino has never again matched the brilliance of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, as very few filmmakers ever have. And not only can I cite several examples of directors whose best work came during their “early years,” I can say the same thing about many rock bands, playwrights, authors, athletes and other creators & performers.

The blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown, was actually pretty good. Kill Bill started kind of simplistically in Vol. 1 but wound up generally solid, and almost endearing, by the end of Vol. 2. Death Proof was a surprisingly strong take on an allegory so simple I got it (or so I think). And Inglourious Basterds was impressive in its ambition and had plenty of imaginative moments, but for me (as it did earn Oscar noms for Best Picture and Director) fell far short of true glory. A film buff friend said it was more about war films than war, but I'm not sure what Tarantino was really trying to do in re-writing history, or more exactly, why.

If nothing else, every Tarantino film is eminently watchable, even enjoyable, and with more than a few true clunkers from nearly every notable director with a substantial output, that’s saying quite something. But during the ’00s, I think Quentin has become analogous with lead guitarist who is a wizard at playing white hot solos but neglects to write truly great songs around them. Even virtuosity gets boring if it seems like one is just showing off, but not really growing.

While I see Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as artistic visions that also manage to dazzle, Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds feel more like artistic exercises by an extremely talented filmmaker, but one who isn’t reaching quite as high as he could. I know this may seem contrary to my "style is the substance" statement earlier, but that only applies when the style is truly groundbreaking and extraordinary. While I enjoy a good kung fu scene, a truly great movie needs to be more than an action sport.

(I'm not sure if this is an official poster, and kind of doubt it)

Who knows what Quentin has up his sleeve next. While IMDB lists three films as “In Development,” only Kill Bill, Vol. 3 is listed as “In Production” under his Director credits, and is cited as a 2014 release. I sure hope he gives us something before that. I won’t harp on his relative lack of productivity, for his 7 directorial features between 1992-2009 equals Scorsese’s output in the same period and is only 1 and 3 behind contemporaries like Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers, respectively (although Steven Soderbergh has directed 14 in the same period, according to IMDB).

As I said many paragraphs ago, I think Quentin Tarantino is a great director. He made at least one, if not, two movies that rank among the best ever. He made movies a lot more naturalistic in language (i.e. profane, but that’s only part of it), vivid in violence and fun to watch, and inspired much that followed, and not just in cinema. He put his stamp clearly on all his films, in doing so paying homage to his love of movies, and can fairly be considered an auteur.

But sitting here, on March 9, 2010, I think he still has quite a way to go if he wants his career canon to truly rival that of the all-time greats, such as Scorsese, Spielberg, Hitchcock, Coppola, Wilder, Hawks, Kubrick and Fellini. And given the stellar work of late by Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, the Coens, Spike Jonze, Ramin Bahrani and others, he might be a good ways down the list of top directors working today.

I guess the verdict is still out, or as the song (by the Stealers Wheel) says in this immortal (albeit grisly) scene, I'm stuck in the middle.

via videosift.com

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