Thursday, October 06, 2005

My beef with Tarantino

The following is my response to a recent suggestion that I "hate" Quentin Tarantino, and that I should sample his oeuvre more extensively to fully appreciate his "exceptional intelligence" and "great" scriptwriting talent:

I take issue with the claim that Tarantino is a great scriptwriter, and the invitation to "indulge in the Tarantino zone of exceptional intelligence" is superfluous: I've already seen all his movies, mostly more than once. I've been searching for this mysterious realm of exceptional intelligence (which certainly exists in the cases of David Lynch and David Cronenberg) but I just can't find much intellectual sustenance in Tarantino's cinematic junk food.

I don't "hate" Tarantino, but I'm starting to dislike his pernicious influence on popular culture. I wouldn't deny that he's intelligent, or that he has exceptional talent, but his defining contribution to cinema, thus far, seems to have been to synthesise and refine (he didn't originate it) an amoral, and contagiously influential, "violence is cool" aesthetic.

Although I'm no reactionary moralistic prude (I'd much rather share a bed with Jenna Jameson and Nikki Tyler than Tipper Gore and Pat Buchanan) I concede, at least, some coherence to the view that this endemic "carnage is cool" aesthetic has contributed to, or at the least isn't helping to alleviate, the progressive coarsening of popular culture, which in turn influences the prevailing climate of dissociative, irresponsible, anti-social behaviour and the degradation of our empathic and affectionate faculties (what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature.")

I don't see too many of the "better angels of our nature" in Tarantino's work. This is one of the problems: there is no dynamic; there is no light and shade. Tarantino deals in dark and darker. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both had moments of humour, which sugar-coated the sadism, but Kill Bill was resolutely grim and Sin City (not Tarantino's film, but it might as well have been) refined the amoral aesthetic to an absurd and unpalatable level.

I can't claim that there weren't moments in Tarantino's earlier work, which I enjoyed. The scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) was a classic. Walken made that scene his own but the dialogue was razor-sharp: "You tell the angels in heaven that you never saw evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you." But even here the lingering suspicion was that the banter between them was little more than a glorified, though admittedly very well written, form of playground bravado.

Immaturity always seems to weaken Tarantino's voice. Tarantino contributed the notorious Star Trek and Silver Surfer lines to Scott's Crimson Tide, which diminished the film's credibility. Clearly the studio decided they wanted "hotshot" Tarantino to rewrite the script to appeal to the younger demographic but it backfired badly. Actors of the gravitas of Denzil Washington and Gene Hackman (ostensibly in charge of a nuclear submarine engaged in an underwater version of the Cuban Missile Crisis) just looked ridiculous and undignified arguing over the banal minutiae of popular culture as if they were school kids.

Tarantino just can't let go of this predilection for making his characters talk like geeks. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction his characters talk smart and act dumb. He plasters his intelligence all over the screen, but it diminishes his movies' credibility. Tarantino is the vainest director since Woody Allen: he's always up there on the screen, either in person (he acts about as well as John Travolta sings) or by proxy (Christian Slater was a romanticised Tarantino doppelganger in True Romance ~ the cool outlaw he always wished he was).

Now, thus far, I stuck with Tarantino because, even if I didn't always buy into his aesthetic or appreciate his modus operandi, he generally entertained me. We parted company after Kill Bill and this is why:

I went to see that movie with high expectations, and in a good mood....then the movie started. I apologise in advance for including this excerpt from Tarantino's script, as it's possibly the most offensive and shamelessly manipulative piece of writing ever to have polluted a mainstream movie.

The backstory is that Uma Thurman (the Bride) is lying, seemingly comatose, in a hospital bed after a vicious assault (on her wedding day). An orderly is attempting to pimp her unconscious body to two truckers. The concept is sickening enough but the script pumps up the amorality quotient to "de Sade on steroids" dimensions:

THE ORDERLY Now is that the cutest little blonde pussy you ever saw, or is that the cutest little blonde pussy, YOU-EVEA-SAW?

Trucker #2 (Gerald) would tend to agree,

Trucker #1 (Warren) fronts.

WARREN I seen better

CUE The BRIDE EYES WIDE OPEN PLAYING POSSUM. She can't believe she's being exhibited in this manner. A look of chagrin crosses her trying-to-be expressionless face, "I've seen a fuck load better than you, fatass."

THE ORDERLY Yeah, in a movie - maybe. But I know damn well this is the best pussy you ever saw you had touchin rights to. The price is seventy five dollars a fuck gentlemen, you gittin your freak on or what?
The Truckers pay the bill of fare. As The Orderly counts The Truckers' money, he lays out the rules;

THE ORDERLY Here's the rules; Rule number one; no punchin 'er. Nurse comes in tomorrow an she got 'er a shiner - or less some teeth, jig's up. So no knuckle sandwiches under no circumstances. And by the way, this little cunt's a spitter - it's a motor reflex thing but spit or no, no punchin. Now are we absolutely positively clear about rule number one?


Now, for all I know, there could be a small constituency of perverts who like to fuck comatose, hospitalised women, but I do know that I'd rather not know. Assuming they do exist (and they certainly exist in Tarantino's imagination; I just wish he hadn't felt obliged to introduce them to mine), I didn't feel it was necessary to embellish this, already sufficiently, sordid scenario by having the orderly stress that "No punching" was "Rule number one." There is very little hope in Tarantino's milieu, but when you're clinging to the flickering embers of optimism that there just might be an underlying code of "honour" amongst rapists of the comatose (that beating up their victims isn't, strictly speaking, necessary) then you know you're in the wrong cinema in the wrong part of town. The amoral glee with which Tarantino emphasises that no such minimal level of courtesy can be expected from this perverted sub-culture aspires to eloquence only as a consummate expression of artistic immaturity.

This scene serves no purpose (beyond a heavy-handed, Deliverance-style, parody of those stereotyped cinematic bêtes noire: southern-fried freaks) and is merely a gratuitously offensive pretext for Uma to eliminate the orderly and the truckers. It's another of those crude Tarantino moments (improbable dialogue, the director's cack-handed cameo appearances), which conspire to undermine his movies: you know you're being crudely manipulated into empathising with the elimination of these perverts ~ it's like watching a second-rate magician at work: his amateurish attempts to misidirect our gaze, as he artlessly smuggles his assistant out of the back of the box, are laughable. The crowd in the cinema practically cheered as they were slaughtered, but the gasps of shocked amusement and laughter accompanying the preliminary discussion between the orderly and the truckers were equally disconcerting.

I really wish I could turn back the clock and leave that Kill Bill cinema queue. After that scene, Uma's stylish slicing 'n' dicing of the rest of the cast held little interest: spring-cleaning my synapses and disinfecting my cerebral cortex seemed like the only conceivable response to the script's litany of atrocities.

Sin City took Kill Bill as a template and upped "the atrocity ante." It is little more than a witless procession of perverts, cannibals, paedophiles, rapists, sadists and serial killers, and we, the audience, are crudely manipulated into applauding the atrocious acts of vigilantism and revenge. If Kill Bill put a dampener on my weekend, Sin City spoiled my entire week. Child abuse is an extremely emotive issue but Sin City exploited it for shock value only: just another manipulative substitute for authentic emotional resonance. Shooting cheap, degraded junk such as this straight into the audience's central nervous system is calculated to induce that signature "Tarantinoesque" narcotic buzz of violent transgression. David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was an infinitely more sophisticated, and empathic, treatment of the subject: Lynch is a serious artist and, in TPFWWM, he addressed the psychological consequences of abuse from the victim's perspective, but Tarantino and co. don't dwell on the messy detritus of the psyche, or bother with deconstructions or critiques of violence; these gleeful ambulance-chasers are far too busy speeding off to the next scene of, consequence-free, carnage.

The Cinema of Barbarism has reached it's sell-by date. After Sin City it has nowhere left to go. It has been rendered redundant by the real atrocities that we witness, almost daily, on CNN. The Cinema of Barbarism cannot hope to compete with the Age of Barbarism.

It's time Tarantino developed a more sophisticated sensibility than his signature "Pump Up The Violence" shtick. Pulp Fiction's pyrotechnic postmodernism proclaimed the arrival of a exciting auteur, but formulaic fare such as Jackie Brown, the Kill Bills and Sin City do not attest to a maturing talent. My beef with Tarantino is that he confines himself to the genre-specific ghetto when he's clearly capable of transcending such moribund milieux. And I'm weary of wading through the directorial detritus deposited at my local multiplex by imitative hacks such as Ritchie and Rodriguez.


ChrisWoznitza said...

Hi I´m Chris. Greatings from Germany Bottrop !!

Daniel said...

Seems to me you would agree with British Renaissance literary theorists who held that art is meant to teach and delight. How narrow-minded.

eugene ionesco said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eugene ionesco said...

Your assumption is unwarranted. You missed my point. I don't believe Art is "meant" to do anything. No such purposive obligation is incumbent upon artists. Art is merely a vehicle of expression/means of communication. If Art "teaches and delights", then that's merely an ex post facto interpretation imposed from the subjective point of view of the consumer, independent of the intention of the artist. Art is equally capable, inter alia, of provoking, amazing, offending, entertaining, annoying, entrancing and infuriating.

The lack of purposive obligation incumbent upon the artist does not imply that there is not a purposive burden imposed by the consumer. Needless to say, Art has to be fit for the purpose, or purposes, of the consumer to have any utility. Tarantino's art doesn't fit any of my purposes, so it has little or no utility for me, though it may be useful for others.

In my view, Tarantino produces bad art. His work is, from my perspective, aesthetically displeasing, crass, manipulative, heavy-handed and overwrought. Of course, as a proponent of artistic freedom, I regard his right to produce it as inalienable, just as I would defend your right to consume and enjoy it.

Daniel said...

You make a good point. But the reason for my assumption is this: "I wouldn't deny that he's intelligent, or that he has exceptional talent, but his defining contribution to cinema, thus far, seems to have been to synthesise and refine (he didn't originate it) an amoral, and contagiously influential, "violence is cool" aesthetic."

That remark implies that you disagree with an "amoral...'violence is cool' aesthetic." You seem to want art which is didactic. What is wrong with being amoral? If, according to your later reply, you don't need art to be didactic, then what does the remark I quoted mean?

eugene ionesco said...

Some of the best art is amoral, and art's capacity to shock, surprise, reconfigure our assumptions and expectations, subvert prevailing societal norms and effect cultural and even political change is a testimony to its vitality and importance.

Of course I'm an elitist hypocrite: I'm a Burroughs fan and "Naked Lunch" makes "Kill Bill" seem like "The Waltons." Maybe I just didn't like the formulaic, genre-specific, nature of the "Kill Bill" flicks. With "Pulp Fiction", Tarantino threatened to become a major artist, an auteur to rank alongside David Lynch, but "Jackie Brown" and the "Kill Bill"s were evidence of a talented director treading water (Tarantino-lite). Drearily derivative movies replete with ironic signifiers, slickly produced soundtracks and highly stylised ultra-violence do not constitute artistic progress. His imitative ilk have already ensured that this kind of movie is "business as usual" in Tinseltown. Like 50 Cent and the legion of formulaic "gangsta" rappers mining a rich seam of MTV-mediated paydirt, I'm bored with the prevailing paradigm.

Maybe what I really want to see is Tarantino throw off his hipster shackles and take a risk again.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, Tarantino is a sociopathic film geek. I actually met him before he even made Reservoir Dogs. He exhibited none of the intelligence and savvy accredited him by deluded film critics or the general public. He was a motormouth film obsessive; nothing more, nothing less.

ALL he does is regurgitate scenes from other peoples' films, because he has no life; ALL he does is watch films and then rework them into his own fetishized, misogynistic, repressed homsexual worldview and get paid a lot for it.

His only true claim to fame is that he rode the same 'badass nigga gangstaspeak' wave of fame (or infamy) as many of the current worthless rappers (50 Cent, ad infinitum, ad tedium) anticipating, by pure chance, the fascination of bored white suburban youth with black male idiots who swear a lot and kill people.

Tarantino's films are not human. they are cartoon sociopathic pieces of worthless amoral shit. He has no clue about real life, it's obvious; all he knows about is making shitty fetish films where characters wank over Uma Thurman's feet or want to be fucked up the ass by a black man. Quentin spent a night or two in county jail. Why do I get the feeling he made a new black friend or two?

Tarantino is NOT an artist; never has been, never will be. He has made some mildly amusing films. He is through. Forget him and move on. He's worthless.