Christopher Tookey compares Tarantino's films with Evelyn Waugh's novelsby Christopher Tookey / July 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In the past 12 months, I must have browsed through dozens of articles “celebrating” 100 years of cinema. Most read like funeral orations. They express either nostalgia for a vanished era of Hollywood elegance, or lament the demise of a promising art form.
One name is used, again and again, to signify everything that has gone wrong with modern movies: Quentin Tarantino. He has replaced Arnold Schwarzenegger as the iconic figure of the “new brutalism.” His films are slammed for plundering the ideas of others, for hiding within genre rather than confronting real life. Tarantino’s affection for sleaze is denounced as “trash chic” or, in France, as “Le cin?ma du Big Mac.”
But the anti-Tarantino backlash is falling on deaf ears. Readers of Empire, Britain’s most popular film magazine, have just voted Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction the greatest movie of the last 100 years. A Robert Rodriguez-directed, Tarantino-written “gorefest” From Dusk Till Dawn was slammed by most critics one week, number one at the British box office the next.
Tarantino is often dismissed as someone who worked for too long in a video store, but one legacy of that period is that he’s immensely cine-literate and not bound by film school assumptions.
Those who know only of his taste for the violent Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo may be surprised that Tarantino’s production company is called A Band Apart (in tribute to Jean-Luc Godard’s film Bande ? Part) and that Tarantino is an enthusiast for the actionless, super-humane films of Eric Rohmer.
One important aspect of his work is that he trained as an actor; and, whether or not you think he has anything to say, he has undeniably reintroduced long speeches to American movies. Tarantino has brought to mainstream cinema other elements of David Mamet-style theatre-Reservoir Dogs takes place in real time, mostly on a single set, with mounting tension and characters who aren’t able to leave.
He doesn’t steal from old films. He takes clich? movie situations, populates them with larger-than-life but recognisable characters, then takes them in unexpected directions.
The violence in Tarantino’s movies may be brutal, but it carries an emotional charge, and it’s always in character. The most disturbing thing about the ear-lopping scene in Reservoir Dogs is not so much the act itself (which is implied more than depicted) but Michael Madsen’s gleeful dance, which makes us complicit in his enjoyment.
Although Tarantino’s films are frequently described as being about the “banality of evil,” they are really about how attractive such evil can be-an understandable and even proper preoccupation, given the Holocaust and “ethnic cleansing.”
When commentators criticise films such as Pulp Fiction for being “cold” or “amoral,” they are right in one sense-they are not warm or comforting. But it is unsurprising, when cynicism in public life is rife, that young filmmakers shy away from making the kind of preachy, do-gooding films which usually do well at the Oscars.
But the underlying morality of Tarantino’s films is, in fact, quite conventional. Harvey Keitel’s career gangster in Reservoir Dogs is redeemed by his vestiges of compassion. Pulp Fiction ends with hitman Samuel Jackson walking away from a life of crime. From Dusk Till Dawn carries overtones of religious fundamentalism. A murderous and seemingly irredeemable criminal develops a belief in heaven as a result of battling creatures from hell. A theme in Tarantino’s films is the humanity of bad people.
It is true that his gangsters are no more realistic than the ones in some Frank Sinatra heist flick. They’re more like actors than criminals. Tarantino acknowledges this when he makes Tim Roth “rehearse” his life of crime before going on the heist in Reservoir Dogs. But then Cyrano de Bergerac is hardly an accurate portrait of a French military man in the age of Richelieu.
Tarantino’s gangsters are iconic figures designed to illuminate a larger truth: even those who pride themselves on being masculine, professional and in control of their own destiny are pawns of fate. They may think they are men, but really they are like little boys playing with guns-desperately trying to clear up messes before mummy comes home.
Tarantino’s vision of a sadistic fate is as darkly comic as that of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. “Organised” crimes go wrong and end up with the organisers killing each other. A boxing match “fixed” to go one way, goes the other. A badly timed visit to the lavatory results in the death of John Travolta. A pothole in the road causes someone’s head to be blown off.
His references to pop culture are more than affectation. It is no accident that the most memorable dialogue in Pulp Fiction is a discussion of burgers, or that the most quoted set-piece in Reservoir Dogs is an argument about tipping. Tarantino is fascinated by the universal experience of being a consumer.
He is one of few filmmakers to have realised the huge impact on the world of pop culture and American film culture. He understands that 100 years of cinema have had lasting effects on the way we live and think about ourselves. We’re more self-conscious. We’re more individualistic. And yet, in real life, we’re as reliant as ever on the whims of others and the vagaries of fate. In short, we’re becoming more like jobbing actors.
Tarantino is sometimes guilty of an over-infatuation with style, and a callous enjoyment of violence. But Pulp Fiction is as important a landmark in the 1990s as Citizen Kane was in the 1940s. The work of Tarantino and similar filmmakers is part of the reason I enjoy being a film critic, and why I look forward to the next 100 years of cinema with enormous enthusiasm.