TARANTINO @ 50: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Quentin Tarantino turns 50 in March. It seems like only yesterday he was the young turk; the newest kid on the block. In the 20 years or more I’ve been writing about films (yup, I started really young!) I’ve never seen anything to compete with the phenomenon that was Tarantino in the UK in the mid 1990s. He was the only filmmaker in all that time who came close to being a rock star.
I’m not talking about Tarantino the actor of course. Although, hilariously, he did once play George Clooney’s brother, he’s definitely no pin-up, and he’s not much of an actor either (even he seems to be coming round to that view, if I am reading his fore-shortened cameo in Django Unchained correctly). But Tarantino the writer-director, that’s the guy that wowed the fans, exciting your average moviegoer as much as cinephiles and film nerds. The UK wasn’t alone in this, but we were ahead of the game: Reservoir Dogs didn’t cause anything like the same stir in the US, where it made no real impact at the box office and the critics were divided.
In Britain we went crazy for it, picking up at once on what was new and exciting in QT’s voice, even if so much of that voice reverberated with echoes from older movies Quentin loved: Hong Kong thrillers like City on Fire and The Killer; New York crime movies like The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, (yes the original, of course); French neo noir a la Jean-Pierre Melville, and Godardian eccentricity distilled through the fashionable quirk of Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch - with the collected works of Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma on top). Tarantino was a mash-up artist before the words “mash” and “up” were mashed up. He stole from everybody, but paid it all back with interest.
He understood that talk can be cheap and effective – he was an independent, let’s not forget – and learned how to write dialogue from the best crime novelists, from Elmore Leonard and George V Higgins. He took Godard’s dictim that every film should have a beginning, a middle and an end – but not necessarily in that order, and turned genre storytelling inside out with the cat’s cradle structure of Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction.
Those early films stand up – and we can throw in Tony Scott’s True Romance, too – even if the era of ironic, cool violent copycat thrillers they helped inspire is largely best forgotten (especially the mostly dire British gangster films).
And then he moved things up a notch with Jackie Brown, not his most immediately popular flick but the one that really stays with you, a crime story that’s really about rootlessness, being lost and aimless, and getting older, and the only one where the characters seem to have a life going on that extends beyond QT’s cinematic hall of mirrors.
The six-year gap between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was, well, “calamitous” is a strong word, but deeply regrettable. For five years he was a whirlwind, and then he looked up, stepped back, and didn’t seem to know which way was up. When he did return to the fray, it was in some ways a regression. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot to enjoy in the Kill Bill movies… Visually, they’re more ornate and sophisticated than anything he had done before, beautiful even, and the soundtracks are extraordinary. There are set pieces in these movies you could study at film school for a days on end.
But still, there was a massive disconnect between the pulpy revenge story and the epic scale of the telling – as if Luchino Visconti had tackled a chopsocky flick. It was (almost) too much of a good thing. And what happened to the concision and brevity that gave Reservoir Dogs its impact? His producer Harvey Weinstein is notorious for his tendency to cut – “Harvey Scissorhands”, they call him – but where Tarantino is concerned, he’s the goose that laid the golden egg (Pulp Fiction was the first indie movie to gross $100 million in the US), and no one was willing to rein him in and tell him stop, enough.
And then there was another three-year break before Death Proof – a tribute to the kind of exploitation drive-in movie Roger Corman might have knocked off over a long weekend. Tarantino pulled out all the stops for the climax, but the movie seemed both over-thought and under-nourished, as well as fatally out of touch with what audiences were interested in seeing. The movie was a bomb pretty much everywhere, UK included – and Tarantino recently admitted that he needed to ensure Death Proof was the worst film he ever makes, adding “for a left-handed movie it wasn’t so bad.”
He’s right – it wasn’t. Just not good enough for someone as talented as Tarantino clearly is at what should be the height of his career. The recent films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained reclaim much of the lost ground. Vamping on 70s Italian shlock cinema has proved a good move for him, and seizing on provocative historical subject matter – fascism first, then slavery – has put some fire in his belly. Christoph Waltz brings a lot to the table too, an old school theatrical actor who enjoys playing with words, playing against them, teasing out nuances and insinuations in a way that’s, well, foreign, to most modern movie stars.
Eight features as director in 20 years – and script credits on three more… That’s a pretty good return by any standards, and if we might have hoped for more (who isn’t greedy for more Tarantino movies?) Tarantino has no reason to feel dissatisfied as he marks his half-century. All the same, he might look over his shoulder and cast a glance at some of his peers – at Paul Thomas Anderson, for one – and wonder if he hasn’t slipped a little in the standings. Tarantino does seem caught in something of a revenge scenario rut. He hasn’t outgrown his love of genre, or violence, or grandstanding perorations for that matter. He might (we might) look back on the ending of Jackie Brown and wonder if he’ll ever achieve that delicacy or emotional depth again. He might look back instead of forwards, and wonder if the best isn’t already behind him?
TARANTINO ON LOVEFiLM INSTANT: