Tarantino is a 1990s icon whose films are both delightful and dismaying. Anthony Julius decodes their appeal, saves the director from himself, but worries about his futureby Anthony Julius / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Tarantino’s films derive their force from a combination of elements which both surprise and delight and shock and dismay. I have in mind representations of violence which combine the murderously uncontrolled with the balletic; or his hoodlums, reflective brutes who kill and yet speak a language of moral discrimination; or the power of the films to affect us strongly-indeed to be direct assaults upon our sensibilities-and yet also to achieve a powerful allusive resonance. They disturb and cite; we cower and make connections. Tarantino can take pleasure both in the traumatising of his audiences and in their “creativity and ingenuity.” His films make victims and critics of us.
The choreographed shoot-outs in True Romance and Reservoir Dogs, these three-way stand-offs, place the combatants in triangular order, momentarily frozen at starting positions as if in readiness for some rule-governed contest, only to slide into unregulated murder. The films’ narrative lines converge with similar order, the convergence sparking destruction, not resolution.
There is then a comic combination of the controlled and the chaotic; there is a similarly comic combination of civility and viciousness at play in the films, especially in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Debates on the etiquette of tipping or the propriety of a foot massage precede a heist or the humiliation and killing of young drug dealers. This sensitivity to the nuances of social behaviour and indifference to whether people live or die, this attention to manners and disregard for primary ethical obligations, is so troubling that it has to be comic.
Occasionally, Tarantino will invert this order and thereby achieve pathos in place of comedy. In True Romance, Clarence’s father, Cliff, pressed by the mafioso Coccotti to rat on Clarence and Alabama, first denies that he has seen them, then denies that he knows their whereabouts, then-certain that torture will force an admission-provokes Coccotti into killing him outright. “I don’t know if you know this or not,” he says, “Sicilians were spawned by niggers.” And so he goes on until Coccotti puts a gun to his head and shoots him. Thus does a father lay down his life for his son, not with sweetness and decorum, but with a speech of the grimiest racism, and thus are we both drawn to, and repelled by, Cliff, whose racism is more than tactical but whose willingness to die for Clarence is admirable.
Consider, too, the combination of the allusive…