Quentin Tarantino: surfaces with a sting

Submitted by Matthew on 22 December, 2009 - 9:55 Author: Clive Bradley

Four Rooms bombed with the critics, but Quentin Tarantino remains hot property. According to Paul Schrader, writer of such Martin Scorsese movies as Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and director of — among others — American Gigolo, and Mishima, Hollywood is desperately trying to remould its output on Tarantino-esque lines, but can’t work out what they are. Schrader sees Tarantino as a watershed in American film, ending the tradition of what he calls ‘the existential hero’. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver is seeking to shape a place for himself in the world, however warped; Tarantino’s characters simply exist, with nothing beneath the surface.

Tarantino is responsible for four and a quarter films, aside from productions he has lent his name to. The quarter is his bit of Four Rooms; the others are True Romance, for which he wrote the script, Natural Born Killers, for which he wrote the original script, so altered in Oliver Stone’s film that Tarantino took his name off the credits; and the two movies he has directed, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. On the strength of this alone he has already had more written about him than most other directors ever have.

There is no doubt that Tarantino’s work is radically different from most American movies. For one thing there is a great deal more dialogue, and hardly any of it is the ‘functional’ dialogue long typical of Hollywood. The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, focused around the hidden meaning of a Madonna song and whether to tip waitresses, is longer than the average action sequence, never mind the average movie conversation, and it has almost nothing to do with the story. Most Hollywood script analysts would have cut it. Indeed, the whole film bears an unusual similarity to a stage play. Commentators have suggested that this has helped the recent revival of Shakespeare in the cinema — audiences have got used to more talking.

Structurally, too, Tarantino’s films bear no relationship to the standard ‘three act’ format of most movies. Rather than the usual pattern — disruption of equilibrium, development, equilibrium restored — both Reservoir Dogs and (especially) Pulp Fiction shoot off in all directions. Action does not take place in sequence.

And again, both these films are ‘ensemble’ pieces, without a single central character, without a single (or clear) antagonist. They are ‘character’, rather than ‘plot’ driven. This is less true of his earlier screenplays, True Romance or Natural Born Killers (which was written before Reservoir Dogs), although here too there are departures from convention: consider the scene building up to Dennis Hopper’s death at Christopher Walken’s hands in True Romance, which includes a lengthy dissertation on the ethnic origins of Sicilians unlikely to be found in any standard Hollywood movie.

Yet these features alone do not mark Tarantino out. Dialogue-heavy American films are rare, but not unheard of (Moonstruck springs to mind), and it is anything but unusual for European film to be heavily verbal and character-driven; the average scene in a European film is twice as long as in an American one. Hollywood may go for visual stimulation above character and dialogue, but American independent film (think of Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth or Stephen Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, or John Sayles’ magnificent Matewan) can often manage both. There are plenty of structurally-innovative films — Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, for example.

What does mark Tarantino out is that he is an independent film-maker who has managed to be vastly more successful; he is therefore ‘independent’ no longer.

The uniqueness of Tarantino — and what is controversial — is his amoral humour, and in particular his use of violence as a way of getting a laugh. Post-modernists like to speak of reality as merely ‘surfaces’, and that sums up Tarantino’s work very accurately. His films could be taken as satires on the collapse of all life into its media-saturated surfaces. The hero of True Romance is a comic-book obsessed ingenue who falls in love on a first date because that’s how love is supposed to be, and murders his new wife’s pimp because that’s how heroes are supposed to act (She agrees: ‘That’s so… romantic,’ she declares, upon hearing of the pimp’s dispatch). They embark on an adventure because the only mode of existence they can imagine is one borrowed from trash-culture.

Tarantino’s original script of Natural Born Killers is focused much more than the eventual film around the character of the sleazeball TV presenter who runs a show about serial killers. A long sequence concerns a ‘documentary’ about Micky and Mallory which includes scenes from a movie made about them (departing drastically from ‘fact’, naturally). Tarantino’s script is about the media which makes heroes of psychotic murderers, turning morality on its head. (The inferences, in Stone’s film, that people are naturally violent, and the bizarre section with the insightful native Americans, are entirely absent from Tarantino’s script).

Pulp Fiction is famous for the obsession of its characters with hamburgers and other commercial trivia as they go about their business of shooting people. When the Samuel L Jackson character decides to give up being a professional killer, there is little suggestion that he has questioned his career morally; even his religion is just another surface.

Yet in fact, Tarantino’s concerns are less satirical, less political, than this interpretation suggests. This is not to say that the interpretation isn’t valid — film like any other art form doesn’t necessarily work only on its intended level. But Tarantino’s concerns are much more ‘self-referential’ than that. True Romance is self-consciously an ‘homage’ to Terence Mallick’s Badlands. Pulp Fiction is stuffed full of movie references: the sequence in which Harvey Keitel is brought in to clean up the hitmen’s brain-spattered car is less about the dehumanisation of violence than a joke about Mafia ‘cleaners’ in films. The episode of ER he directed for TV even has visual references to Reservoir Dogs.

Rather than satires on the superficiality of contemporary culture, the films are tongue-in-cheek celebrations of it. They are not about ‘surfaces’; they are designed to be, so to speak, just another surface, one product of popular culture cross-referencing others. They are, in other words, thoroughly post-modern in their whole conception. Tarantino is not criticising trivialisation, moral inversion and the rest: he is saying, this is how reality is, and isn’t it funny?

It seems to me that what makes Tarantino’s work nevertheless of considerable value is that by highlighting how funny it is, he does, whatever his intentions, indict it. You might watch John Travolta accidentally blow someone’s head off and laugh (I did), and you might think, a la Beavis and Butthead, that it’s ‘cool’ to be like John Travolta. There is no doubt that lots of people do think so. But it isn’t cool at all, in reality, and by depicting the ‘surface’ so vividly, Tarantino exposes it to anyone who wants to see the truth. Doubtless, many viewers of Reservoir Dogs find the violence merely entertaining (although in truth there is more blood than actual violence). But buried in the story is an old-fashioned Hollywood tale of ‘crime doesn’t pay’, if you want to see it (even if that’s just another movie-buff joke).

Quentin Tarantino is a writer and director of outstanding talent: his dialogue alone is breathtakingly virtuosic. (If Hollywood does start churning out movies full of assassins blithely discussing French hamburgers I think this point will be proven). If he has shaken up the lame formulas of mainstream American film, that can only be good. He is the ultimate post-modernist in film, and suffers from everything that is bad about post-modernism - flippant, soulless, form and style over content. But the end result rises above these limitations, puts the soullessness under scrutiny and exposes it. The joke has a sting in its tail whether it was meant to or not.

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