Monday, August 17, 2009

THE WORD ACCORDING TO TARANTINO


UPDATED 8/20 1:33 p.m.


“I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.”
-- Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Inglourious Basterds had its none-too-earth-shattering premiere at Cannes in May, and for those inclined to turn such things over in their heads (and I would include myself in this group, certainly), it’s been an interesting process observing from afar as the movie has navigated the cultural geography from perceived disappointment up the scale toward the can’t-miss status most of Tarantino’s movies have shared by the time of their release out into the big, bad marketplace. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am extremely eager to see what the director has up his sleeve this time out, and I’ve been even more eager since reading Scott Foundas’ exuberant assessment of Basterds in Film Comment last month (not, unfortunately, available online). In the past week, equally animated praise from Glenn Kenny and David Edelstein, and an e-mail from a good friend and fellow movie fiend who saw Inglourious Basterds at last week’s Hollywood premiere assures me that it is a movie worth seeing many times over. Even Andrew O’Hehir’s more ambivalent consideration of reaction to the film so far, has piqued my already active interest:

“Some of these (discussions) just concern the question of whether QT's typographically impaired World War II actioner is a subversive, genre-defying masterpiece -- as some people appear to believe -- or, say, an incoherent and brainless mishmash made by a director who has forgotten that even movies about movies should have some dim and distant connection to human life, and furthermore should not be boring. Am I tipping my hand here a little? Just a tad? Not me.”

Glenn Kenny’s prediction that the debate over the movie is going to be “a doozy” seems destined not only for accuracy but perhaps even understatement, in light of some of the moral alarms that have already been sounded. Nikki Finke has boldly led a charge of outrage against the movie-wthin-the-Basterds-movie which, unless my guess is completely wrong, is a piece intended as a parody of Nazi propaganda. Finke claims the trailer has somehow “fooled” people. (Into what, I wonder? Thinking that it’s straightforward propaganda? Curiouser and curiouser.) On much less shaky ground, Jonathan Rosenbaum has entered the fray, recommending Daniel Mendelsohn's Newsweek article "When Jews Attack" and positioning Basterds as "morally akin to Holocaust denial." (Rosenbaum has, unlike many of the detractors on Kenny's site, actually seen the film.) The doozy has officially begun.

It is, of course, good form to withhold judgment on a movie till one has actually seen the film-— not for me the vitriolic arguments for or against a movie that have been the bane of the comments columns at Glenn’s place this week re Basterds, or on Rotten Tomatoes when Armond White dared rail against yet another movie (District 9 this time) guaranteed to stir the passions of those who haven’t yet seen it. All that said, Tarantinos track record has been, for me, damned solid, and I’d be lying if I weren’t hoping against hope that he delivers again.


But what is it we hope for from a Tarantino movie? What are those who are eagerly anticipating Inglorious Basterds going to line up on Friday (or perhaps Thursday night at midnight in some theaters) to see? Eli Roth bashing a Nazi’s skull in? Third Reich scalps strung up on a line and flapping in the breeze like a fresh load of laundry? Maybe. But as the last few years of horror and action movies have proven, just about anybody can dish up the grue. But those writers who have attempted to emulate the real meat-and-potatoes of a great Tarantino movie, from Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown to Death Proof, usually fail in garishly annoying fashion. Those writers are after the teasing build-up to the explosions of violence in Tarantino's movies, the poetic choreography of people talking, enjoying equally the cascade of words and the protracted silences that often come between them, and that’s what I’m most excited about when I think about the possibilities in store with Inglourious Basterds.

Of course I’m hoping that it’s every bit the movie Foundas claims he saw in France amidst the chorus of critical indifference. But even if it’s not, I’d be silly to think that a director as talented, as obsessed as Tarantino, wouldn’t have a reason to have made the film that I might find at least compelling, if not enthralling. For me, Tarantino’s track record gets me on his side. He’s now made seven features, not a single one without its troubling aspects, but each and every one—and some more than others—I hold in high regard. I would even say that two of them-- Jackie Brown and Death Proof-- are masterpieces of their kind. His body of work has compelled me, in much the same way as did that of the Coen Brothers, to help me sideline worry in favor of enthusiasm in the anticipation of what’s coming next. The detailing of the actual reaction, as problematic or blissful as it may be, must wait.

And I can’t think of a better way to anticipate the new Tarantino movie that by revisiting some of the most sublime moments of dialogue his pictures have offered up to date. Ambivalent Tarantino appreciator Matt Zoller Seitz, in collaboration with the much less ambivalent Keith Uhlich, has compiled a beautiful, fizzy and funny new video essay called ”Quentin Tarantino: In His Own Words” which will have you running to your DVD racks to cue up your own favorites and prime your pump for the release of the movie on Friday. Matt has had his difficulties with Tarantino in the past, but in a nifty essay introducing the video piece, comes to terms with what it is that drives the Tarantino universe:


“Tarantino’s talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it’s the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It’s where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation… Tarantino doesn’t just explore language’s capacity to reveal and conceal motives and personality, he shows how people pick words and phrases (consciously or subconsciously) in order to define themselves and others, and describe the reality they inhabit (or would like to inhabit). Even low-key and seemingly unimportant exchanges are as carefully choreographed as boxing matches. Clever flurries of interrogatory jabs are often blocked by witty responses; the course of conflict can be shifted by deft rhetorical footwork that re-frames the terms of debate.”

The essay is proof of Matt’s contention as well as a potent reminder of the moments we all may remember even more vividly that the fate of an unfortunate cop in a warehouse, or a crime kingpin in the basement of a pawn shop. These are the real gems Tarantino offers up. Enjoy them here, and check out Matt’s new writing, as well of all of his video work, at L Magazine.



What are your thoughts on Tarantino? Is he a force for good or evil in modern cinema? Are you more looking forward to Inglourious Basterds, the movie, or Inglourious Basterds, the argument? What’s your favorite Tarantino moment that may not be included in Matt’s piece? Let the discussion begin.

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UPDATED 8/20 1:22 p.m.

Dennis Lim asks the question, “Has one of the most overrated directors of the '90s become one of the most underrated of the aughts?” in his Slate piece on Tarantino.

And kudos all around to my favorite femme fatale, Kim Morgan who gets Tarantino to sit down for a session in which they riff on Joseph Goebbels, the would-be David O. Selznick of the National Socialist Party, and UFA, the film studio under his control, wax rhapsodic on Ralph Meeker, profess admiration for Aldo Ray, and generally just hang out and talk about movies, one of which happens to be Inglourious Basterds. Read all about it on Kim’s blog Sunset Gun.

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13 comments:

le0pard13 said...

Great post, Dennis. And yes, I'll be one of those lined up to see this this weekend. Plus, I'm glad to see your appreciation of Death Proof, the second part of the Grindhouse movie that most of the interviewers or reporters point out as a 'failure'. It was simply great and IMO most missed it (and having one of my favorite actors, the underrated Kurt Russell playing the villain, was such fantastic casting).

So, to answer your questions:
• QT is one of my favorite writer/directors
• force for good
• movie first, then argument
• Jules explaining Ezekiel 25:17 to Pumpkin/Ringo at the diner is what's missing (though he did include Bill's superhero mythology elucidation)

Thanks for this, Dennis.

le0pard13 said...

Oh, and it's August. Time for my annual Jackie Brown screening. Thanks.

Patrick said...

"What are your thoughts on Tarantino?"

I saw Reservoir Dogs in '93, after it came out on VHS and before Pulp Fiction arrived, with a bunch of my friends. When it was over we sat around looking at each other. Nobody really knew what to say. Was it good? Or too intense? Or too talky? One thing we knew; it sure was different.

When Pulp Fiction arrived, I'd been fully immersed in the whole pop-culture phenomenon that Tarantino had become that year. A friend in LA saw it before me and called just to talk about it. "I heard it's funny," I said. "Is it a comedy?" "Dude, I can't even describe it," he said. "You've never seen a movie like this."

I wound up seeing it in the theater three times, a rarity for me. I dragged my dad to the third one; at that screening, and at every one since, whenever Jules points at his head and says, "Take care of her?", my dad laughs out loud.

Since then, I've been seeing all my Tarantino movies on opening weekend (that's Tarantino-directed, obviously; wild dingos couldn't get my baby or me to see Destiny Turns On the Radio). I can see the flaws - I never once believed Jungle Julia and her friends would talk amongst themselves using the words they used, for example - but the energy of the films really turns me on. Whatever film of his I'm seeing, I know that this is a filmmaker who loves filmmaking. He conveys that exuberance, and it renews my love of movies in a way reading about them or talking about them can't quite do. Come to think of it, that's why I like Wes Anderson's stuff, too.

"Is he a force for good or evil in modern cinema?"

I say good. The wannabes who trampled in his wake have fallen back below the surface for the most part, haven't they? Now we have the perspective we couldn't have a decade ago to watch and to listen. Sure he quotes from films left and right, but that sure doesn't mean he's bland and unoriginal. You'll never see a hair salon called Curl Up and Dye in a Tarantino movie, and nobody will ever say, "You're the one I never knew I always wanted."

"Are you more looking forward to Inglourious Basterds, the movie, or Inglourious Basterds, the argument?"

The movie. The talk immediately afterward won't be as thought out and therefore as rewarding until a little further down the road. Besides, things change. I still remember my annoyance at a letter to Entertainment Weekly in the middle of Pulp Fiction's run; the writer wasn't impressed, in part, because "$48 million [the film's US gross at the time] is not that much money."

"What’s your favorite Tarantino moment that may not be included in Matt’s piece?"

One I referred to in the last quiz - Jules's "Well, I'm a mushroom-cloud layin' motherfucker, motherfucker!" speech in Pulp Fiction. Not just for the dark laughs, but for the utter consternation on Samuel L. Jackson's face as he says, "In fact..." You really get the feeling that he's not only just realizing something, he's realizing it makes no sense. Excuse me - no motherfucking sense.

Question for you, Dennis - you call Jackie Brown and Death Proof "masterpieces of their kind." Not Pulp Fiction, though. Why?

Patrick said...

Oh - and does it bother anyone else that during Bill's secret identity speech in Kill Bill, he doesn't consider Wonder Woman? Like Superman, her secret identity is a plainclothes disguise, only her alter ego of Diana Prince isn't half the milquetoast Clark Kent is...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Patrick: Pulp Fiction may in fact be a masterpiece—I know I certainly thought it was when it came out. It seemed at the time not only a formalist breakthrough for Tarantino (and Roger Avary) in terms of its time-shifting structure, but also in terms of what an audience was willing/able to follow in order to constitute a huge (and unexpected) popular hit. The movie asked things of its audience that they were unaccustomed to being asked, and I’ll always value it for that and myriad other elements, including just about every actor who shows their mug in it. If two or three years go by without having seen the movie, I always expect to come back to it and be ambushed by how it suddenly doesn’t work anymore, how time has not been kind to it. Yet it always feels alive, juiced by the ability to surprise, even if you’ve seen it, as I have, 10 or 12 times.

Maybe it’s simple elitism on my part that makes me hesitate in thinking of it as a masterpiece. Maybe it’s the fact that, as populated with extraordinary characters in stories told with sequential flair and utter confidence as it is, it still has the air of stunt work, a high-wire act about it that keeps me at a slight distance. Humanizing elements such as Jules’ moral conversion, or even Willis’ retreat back down into the pit to save Marsellus, go a long way toward making the movie breathe for me, and I would never suggest that Pulp Fiction is anything less than riveting, goose-pimply entertainment, the rare coming-out party for a filmmaker who provided a generation of filmmakers with a template for an approach to dialogue-driven stylistics in the pursuit of art. That they could never match him on that playing field, or that they consistently misunderstood what it was that truly made his movies sing, is no blotch on Tarantino.

Perhaps because Pulp Fiction is the most easily imitated gives an insight into what I perceive to be its relative shallowness compared to richer movies like Jackie Brown and Death Proof that, even though they are on one level tributes to genres and specific stylists themselves, feel like films that no one else could have directed—in their engagement with Elmore Leonard, blaxploitation and Crown International backyard drive-in action pictures, they emerge in all unlikelihood as originals, Tarantinos. Of course, Pulp Fiction is without a doubt a Tarantino too, and incredibly it’s just as electric today as it was in 1994. It’s a brilliant, one-of-a kind film, but it just doesn’t sing to me the way those other movies do. I probably could have included it on the short list of masterpieces from this still very young director, and maybe next time I will. But at this time in my life, the adventures of Jackie and Stuntman Mike and Zoe Bell constitute a universe in which everything makes perfect emotional, formal sense, and right now that’s enough for me.

bill r. said...

Oh man, I don't have time to write as much as I'd like, but the short version is that Tarantino is definitely a force of good, although Death Proof seriously disappointed me. But I think Jackie Brown and Kill Bill are masterpieces, both being wonderfully patient genre films that highlight one of Tarantino's greatest -- if not his single greatest -- talent, which is his ability to let a story unfold. He talked about this on Charlie Rose's show, back when Pulp Fiction first came out, saying that American films used to be great at this, and now (in 1994, or whenever it was) they're not. He wanted to get back to that, and he did, and he did it best and most patiently with a goddamn kung fu spaghetti western.

I've been with him from the beginning, seeing Reservoir Dogs in the theater, based on my then-burgeoning love of the crime genre, and a brief description of it in one of those Summer Movie Preview issues of either Premiere or Entertainment Weekly. It sounded interesting, so off I went, and I was knocked cold. I think, of course, that the film hasn't aged immensely well, nor has Pulp Fiction, but I still enjoy both very much. However, until Death Proof, I could honestly say that each of his films has been better than the one before it, and the enthusiasm for Basterds I'm seeing from Glenn Kenny and others has me incredibly excited for this. Friday night, I'm at the theater.

The Fiji Mermaid said...

Great post. This is my first time to your blog. Good stuff.

Yeah I think Tarantino is great. I love the dialog, there isn't a movie of his I dislike. I heard lots of people say "Death Proof" is slow or not that great, but I disagree it's fantastic.

Anywho, Basterds looks like it will be just as great.

joshua said...

I love Tarantino unapologetically. For me, an individual (and he is most certainly that, regardless of what some say about his "regurgitative" tendencies) who brings me so much joy as I sit in the theater seat could never be classified as a force for evil. I look at the millennial currents of Hollywood, where it seems two of every three films that get studio support is a sequel, a remake, or a rehash, and I cannot understand how a writer/director with as clear and broad a grasp of every facet of international film history and theory, someone who can mine that wealth of information and so effectively take from the old to make it new again, with such gleeful abandon, can be considered a harmful influence in terms of modern cinema such as it is.

But more than anything else, I just have such a terrific time watching his movies. I think that exhilaration of the audience is his primary intent each and every time he sets out to make one, and I think his technique is brilliantly effective in that respect. Most assuredly, I am more looking forward to the movie, the experience, than the discussion.

My favorite Tarantino moment excluded from the video would have to be Dennis Hopper's brilliant Sicilian speech from 'True Romance'. Despite only being written by Tarantino, I have a hard time leaving that film and its dialogue out of any conversation about the man.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you generally, Tarantino's batting average is amazingly high, so I look forward to seeing the new one. My favorite of his movies is probably still Reservoir Dogs, followed by Pulp Fiction, followed by the two Kill Bills. Jackie Brown had enough good things in it that I'm glad I saw it, but it has some major problems for me as well. In the same way that Casino is an empty shell next to Goodfellas, JB pales a bit next to Pulp Fiction. (Though to be clear, JB is at least a good movie, while I found Casino to be an utter failure.) Neither Samuel Jackson nor DeNiro is particularly compelling compared to Jackson & Travolta in PF. And Death Proof I feel is Tarantino's one bad movie. The last 20 minutes did what it could to redeem it, but almost everything before that was pointless and worse, boring. Death Proof also has the most self-indulgent dialogue of any QT movie. I didn't for a second believe any of the dialogue about Vanishing Point or obscure British Invasion bands was anything other than Tarantino having his characters be a mouthpiece for himself.

But, Death Proof aside, I've enjoyed all his movies, his dialogue (usually), his kinetic direction, the chances he's willing to take, the enthusiasm of his actors.

(btw, I can only think of 7 movies. Does Four Rooms--which I haven't seen--count as the 8th?)

-Kirk

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Kirk-- I miscounted. I did not count Four Rooms as a feature, so you're right. It is only seven. I have corrected the blunder in the body of the post. Thanks for the eagle eyes!

As for the Death Proof dialogue, I think on one level you're right-- Tarantino is prescribing his interests and putting them in the mouths of these babes who would, at first blush, seem unlikely types to share his obsessions. But beginning with the compare/contrast of Sydney Poitier on the couch to the Brigitte Bardot poster on the wall above, Tarantino is positioning his world as one in which cinematic influences mean as much for the characters-- on varying levels -- as for himself, in much the same way that cinematic icons became signposts for Godard's characters. He grounds this conceit, I think, by setting the movie in Austin, Texas, which is, in the shadow of the Alamo Drafthouse, the Fantastic Fest, Richard Linklater, and even Ain't It Cool News, somewhat of a ground zero for modern film geekery, so it becomes (for me, anyway) not such a wild stretch that some 'tude-laden female DJ hanging out with her buddies would zing the villain of the piece-- who has his own connections to the movie world, after all, albeit ones that are obsolete and meaningless to most of the Austin bar crowd he encounters-- by calling him Zatoichi.

You know, it works for you if it works for you, and it did for me. Death Proof is far from a bad movie, but it's pretty baaaaaad.

The Rush Blog said...

I haven't seen all of Tarantino's work, but I recently saw "INGLORIOUS BASTERDS". The entire story turned out to be a bit of surprise and I thought it was a well paced movie for two-and-a-half hours running time.

Joy Reed said...

Tarentino is very twisted, but that is what makes him famous.

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