Monday, September 24, 2007

Quentin Tarantino: What now?

Hello everyone. What follows is a fairly long article which I have written for but which hasn't been posted yet so I thought I'd stick it up on here instead.



This week saw the belated UK release of Death Proof, a serial killer film starring Kurt Russell. In any other situation, this would not be of particular interest to many people, however, Death Proof is not ‘just a serial killer film’, it is the fifth film by arguably the most influential film-maker of the last 20 years (more of this later), one of the most popular and well-known figures in the movie business today; Quentin Tarantino. Now, despite his frequent appearances in the media and the reverence for him amongst film fans, a new Tarantino film doesn’t roll along every year, he’s only directed five films, barring the odd ‘‘guest directing spot’’, since 1992, so this is something of an important occasion. As such, it’s a good time to look back on QT’s work to date, his influences, the influence he has in turn exerted on cinema, and what lies ahead for the video store geek extraordinaire.

A Worthwhile Failure: My Best Friend’s Birthday

Whilst Reservoir Dogs was Tarantino’s first proper attempt at directing, he first ventured behind (and in front of) the camera in 1984, when he became involved with his fellow video store colleague Craig Hamann’s independent film, on which he became co-writer and co-director. The two shot the film on 16mm cameras over four years using friends and fellow co-workers as the cast and crew. The film was never finished, however, as a fire in 1987 destroyed much of the completed footage, leaving only 36 minutes left, all of which can be seen on YouTube.

Due to the small amount of footage left, it’s quite difficult to offer any sort of detailed analysis of the film but it is worth noting because of the importance Tarantino attributes to it as a stepping stone in his career, referring to it on several occasions as ‘‘my film school’’ but also because aspects of the film resurface in his later work. A speech given by Tarantino concerning Elvis appears in a more refined form as the opening scene in True Romance, a character nearly dies after snorting something which they think to be cocaine, a plot device used in Pulp Fiction, and a number of minor details, such as character traits and radio station names crop in his later work. Even at such an early stage in his career, it is possible to see Tarantino’s obsession with pop culture, pithy dialogue and darkly humorous situations.

The Sundance Kid: Reservoir Dogs and stardom

Following on from My Best Friend’s Birthday, Tarantino became friends with Roger Avary, a fellow video store worker who was a budding scriptwriter. Avary gave Tarantino a script he had been working on, entitled ‘The Open Road’, hoping that he would be able to expand it to 120-pages, the standard length for a feature film. In the event, Tarantino delivered a 500-page script which Avary considered an amazing piece of work, if unfilmable in that form. The two worked to decrease the length and tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it around Hollywood for Tarantino to direct. This script would eventually be split in two, forming the basis for the films True Romance, directed by Tony Scott, and Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone.

At the same time, Tarantino was preparing to make another low budget film revolving around a heist gone wrong. However, Harvey Keitel got hold of the script through his wife, and told Tarantino that he wanted to star in the film, as well as produce it. With Keitel on board, the budget for the film increased hugely from roughly $30,000 to $1.2 million, and the stage was set.

The film was released in 1992 after it was bought at the Sundance Film Festival by Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax, at the time a small studio which dealt in foreign imports (My Left Foot) and films considered too arty for studios (sex, lies and videotape). The film did alright in the US, recouping its budget from its small run in 61 theatres, but it was the European release of the film that shot it into the stratosphere. Reservoir Dogs became a sensation in Britain, turning Tarantino into a star overnight, and the beginning of the rather elitist idea that people in Europe ‘get’ Tarantino’s films more than Americans do.

As with My Best Friend’s Birthday, Reservoir Dogs was notable for its pop-culture savvy dialogue but it also presented something which at the time was really unique in American independent cinema. The non-linear structure of the film, in which details of the heist are revealed after the fact and the whole story of the film is relayed out of sequence, was heavily influenced by the work of French director Jean-Luc Godard, a favourite of Tarantino’s, and it was a stylistic trait which was largely unused in American cinema. Reservoir Dogs represented a huge leap in skill from his earlier work, both as a director and as a storyteller. Whilst it was still quite rough around the edges, it was a real shock to American cinema, though not quite as huge a shock as what was to follow.

The Arthouse Blockbuster: Pulp Fiction

Whilst they had been working on ‘The Open Road’ script together, Tarantino and Roger Avary had talked about directing a portmanteau piece together, comprising three short films; one to be written and directed by Tarantino, one to be written and directed by Avary, and one to be written and directed by third director. When the third director failed to appear, and with Tarantino’s stock rising on the back of Reservoir Dogs and his script for True Romance, the two decided to expand their scripts, throw in some ideas they had elsewhere, and the end result was Pulp Fiction, a sprawling film comprising three inter-related stories of two hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta), a down on his luck boxer who had wronged a crime boss (Bruce Willis), and the possibly fatal relationship between one of the aforementioned henchmen and the aforementioned crime boss’ wife (Travolta and Uma Thurman).

Pulp Fiction opened in 1994 to rave reviews and has since gone on to become completely and utterly ingrained in popular culture. Though now it has become over-quoted and parodied, Pulp Fiction was one of the freshest breaths of air in mainstream cinema at the time and formed an important part of 90s culture. Everyone of a certain age (usually in their later 30s) can remember the first time they saw it, and for those of us who are somewhat younger it remains an important milestone in cinema education. If you’ve not seen Pulp Fiction, huge swathes of popular culture become incomprehensible, particular much of the Simpsons episode ‘22 Short Films About Springfield’. That it still gets referenced these days, largely in films starring John Travolta such as Be Cool and Hairspray, is a testament to its lasting appeal.

The film ended up grossing over £100 million, won Oscars for best Original Screenplay for Tarantino and Avary, and made Miramax major players in Hollywood, fundamentally altering the relationship between independent and mainstream cinema. Tarantino was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to do was an adaptation of a novel by acclaimed pulp novelist Elmore Leonard.

The Golden Boy loses some sheen: Jackie Brown

The novel in question was Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, a story about a 44-year old airline hostess who, after years of smuggling money for a gunrunner decides to betray him and hatches a plan to steal some money from him. Adapted by Tarantino, it would be renamed Jackie Brown and starred Pam Grier as the eponymous air hostess, Samuel L. Jackson as the gunrunner, and Robert De Niro as Jackson’s drug-addled friend.

Jackie Brown opened in 1997 to a muted critical response, although revered American critics Siskel and Ebert were immensely positive about it, and the box office didn’t quite match up to the success of Pulp Fiction. As such, Jackie Brown is rarely mentioned when discussing Tarantino’s films, being less popular and obviously quotable than his others, despite the fact that it is his richest, most mature and least pop-culture fixated film; whilst it did serve as an homage to blaxploitation films, of which Grier had been a notable star, the film relies less on overt references and recreation of scenes than his other films and is decidedly less violent, at least in terms of on-screen violence, with much happening outside the frame.

However, this apparent move away from some of the hallmarks of his earlier films is not where the maturity of the film comes from; it comes from the genuine emotion evident in the script and the performances. It’s clear that Tarantino felt deeply about the original novel, citing Leonard as one of his favourite authors, and it presented him with the chance to impose his style and vision onto a world which had been created entirely by someone else. As such, the film has an emotional punch to it which is lacking from Tarantino’s other work; his other films have an air of affected cool, a detachedness that comes across in the witty dialogue, self-awareness and playing with form, as well as the distanced performances of his actors. This is intentional, of course, since Tarantino has often described his films as ‘movie movies’; the movies that characters in other movies would kick back and watch to relax, so the hyper-reality of it all makes sense in that ridiculous world. Jackie Brown, however, feels much more real and the characters are easier to identify with, even if they are murders, drug dealers and smugglers. Furthermore, the relationship between Jackie and Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is the only example in Tarantino’s films to date of a real, slow-burning romance. It’s a classy film which is sadly overlooked.

What’s most sad about the Jackie Brown situation, though, is that it seemed to drive Tarantino back towards the childish, cartoonish tendencies of his other films and brought them to the fore. Part of this more openly ridiculous Tarantino had already appeared in the 1996 vampiric crapfest From Dusk To Dawn, which Tarantino co-wrote with director Robert Rodriguez, who Tarantino had met and befriended at Sundance in 1992, when Rodriguez was showing his legendary debut feature El Mariachi, but seeing as that was a film he co-wrote with someone who was already known for silly, excessive films and since it was a film they made for fun more than anything else, it probably didn’t indicate anything of where he wanted to go next with his own films. However, following the relative lack of success of Jackie Brown, it would be 6 years before Tarantino would return with another feature, and the film he returned with signalled a definite return to the realms of silliness, pop-culture references and overt cinematic pillaging.

Arrested Development: Kill Bill

Rewinding for the moment, we briefly return to 1994, and the end of production on Pulp Fiction. Tarantino and Uma Thurman are sitting around one day and they start toying with an idea for a film. A film about a woman named The Bride, martial arts, and revenge. Tarantino likes the idea, and says to Thurman that they’ll do it one day. Nine years later, that dream comes to fruition in the form of Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, a film focusing on Thurman as The Bride, a female assassin who, after being betrayed by her fellow assassins on her wedding day, vows to seek revenge against those who wronged her, including the eponymous Bill, the leader of her former organisation.

Originally intended as a single film, Tarantino’s script expanded and the film was eventually split in two for theatrical release, something which didn’t hurt the box office, Volume 1 grossed over $180 million and Volume 2 grossed $150 million, but did seem to damage the critical standard of the two parts.

Since Volume 1 detailed the attack on the Bride and then followed her on her quest to rehabilitate herself before facing off against her enemies, it got most of the plot out of the way early on and could focus on the business of revenge and allowed the film to end on a huge, beautifully orchestrated fight sequence involving the Bride and eighty-eight masked swordsmen. Volume 2 had to pick things up afterwards, lead to the final confrontation against Bill, and tie up all the loose ends. In the end, Volume 1 was praised for its energy, action and pace, and Volume 2 was accused of being self-indulgent, overlong and lacking in action, with a final scene that was unnecessarily melodramatic. Critical opinion has since levelled out, and Tarantino has announced that Kill Bill will be released on DVD as a single, four hour film, entitled Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, at the end of the year.

Whilst the entire Kill Bill saga is a hugely enjoyable one, it also represents the regression of Tarantino to being someone who just makes fun movies. On one level this is not a bad thing, since Tarantino's fun films are just that, fun. However, his regression from the more mature and accomplished fare of Jackie Brown represents a sort of intellectual cowardice on his part; just because his first foray into a different kind of movie for him failed, he abandons that style and returns to his juvenile, blood-soaked fantasies. However much fun it is to wallow in his self-indulgence, it is still a shame that he probably won’t expand on the more subtle style of his one grown-up film.

Hurtling into a brick wall at 100mph: The Grindhouse debacle and Death Proof

After finished work on Kill Bill, Tarantino was screening a double-feature in his private screening room for Robert Rodriguez when Rodriguez noticed that Tarantino had the same poster for the 1957 double feature Dragstrip Girl/Rock All Night and told Tarantino that he had always wanted to do a double-feature. Very quickly the two had decided that they would each direct a segment in an homage to 70s exploitation cinema. And they would call it Grindhouse.

Rodriguez settled on the idea of a zombie film named Planet Terror, in which a chemical released into the atmosphere turns innocent people into shambling, disintegrating monsters, complete with schlocky effects, scratched frames and missing reels and the end result was an enjoyable and messy piece of popcorn entertainment. To act as a counterweight to this lighter film, in much the same way as double-features had done in the past, Tarantino settled on an altogether darker film that was rooted in something at least vaguely resembling reality. After learning that stunt drivers ‘death proof’ their cars so that, should the worst come to the worst, they could walk away unscathed, Tarantino developed the idea of a stuntman (Kurt Russell) who kills women by getting them to sit in the unprotected parts of his car, then crashing it. The end result was Death Proof, a film that is part intelligent twist on the serial killer film and part celebration of the heyday of movie car chases, when real cars would travel at extreme speeds, jump in the air, and risk the lives of all involved. Both halves of the film work extremely well with Russell making a suitably menacing antagonist and some of the finest car chases seen in recent films. The only problem in the Grindhouse version that I saw was that the dialogue seem really rather lacking. Whether it was the bored performances of those involved, or maybe just the fact that the dialogue wasn’t very good is unclear, but it seemed strange that a director who built his reputation on the sparkle of his words should falter so noticeably.

The films were put together, along with fake trailers by the likes of Eli Roth, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie, and released in the US on April 17, 2007. Whilst audience reactions were very good, attendance wasn’t, and Grindhouse opened to $11.5 million, half what Tarantino's and Rodriguez’s films generally open to, and the film failed to make back its budget during its theatrical run in America. Blaming the failure of the marketing department to ‘sell the experience’ of Grindhouse, a controversial decision was soon taken to split the film up for release in all other territories where it had previously been expected to open as one film, such as Europe and Australia. Though Tarantino and Rodriguez have since stated that they wanted to release separate versions of the films anyway, complete with missing reels in place, they also hoped that the Grindhouse experience would be shown first.

So now we in Europe get Death Proof, the extended, recut version, and one which, according to most reviews, is an improvement on the original, at least in terms of plot; the original plot, whilst straightforward, also didn’t make much sense at some points since events relating to the relationships between various characters were left out intentionally. Whether or not it makes the often inane and boring dialogue of the characters any better remains to be seen.

Back and Forth: Inglorious Bastards and the influence of Tarantino

All through this article I have spoken of Tarantino’s influence in terms of American cinema and his role as probably the most important film-maker of his generation. I feel it is necessary to clear up what I mean by this and explain why I think he is so vital, despite my misgivings about his recent work.

On one level, Tarantino is the most influential director of recent times because of the sheer number of films made since 1992 that have tried to imitate his style. Some carry it off and are very enjoyable (Guy Ritchie’s first two films) and others have been, well, crap (Guy Ritchie’s fourth film). However, to focus on these aspects would be to miss what is crucial about Tarantino’s success.

Quentin Tarantino was a video store clerk with no technical training in directing but an encyclopaedic knowledge of film, he was one of the first of the so-called ‘VCR Generation’ to become a success and make films which were thrilling and original, despite being heavily indebted to the films he took ideas from. He was followed by the likes of Kevin Smith and P.T. Anderson, and provided an inspiration for anyone who thought that they couldn’t make a film just because they didn’t know how. Admittedly not everyone who is a fan of films can actually direct, most notably Uwe Boll, but the sheer quality of those that do realise their potential just about outweighs the crap. Just.

The impact that Tarantino had on the film industry is also quite startling. The success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction helped transform Miramax into a major player and brought independent cinema into the mainstream in a big way. Films that may otherwise not have found an audience were given a chance by large studios and the setting up of ‘independent’ offshoots like Fox Searchlight shows that independent cinema has become big business. This is not necessarily a good thing since many would argue that independent cinema has been co-opted and watered downed as a result. For good or ill, Tarantino had a hand in this major change.

Tarantino has announced that his next feature will probably be his long-gestating World War II epic Inglorious Bastards, a film that will no doubt push Tarantino as directing the swordfights in Kill Bill or the car chases in Death Proof did, and which will no doubt be hugely entertaining, as all his films to date have been in one way or another. You can accuse him of being a plagiarist, an adolescent fantasist, the saviour and/or the destroyer of independent cinema, but you can’t accuse Quentin Tarantino of lacking ambition.