Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Few Words on Quentin Tarantino

I have a confession to make.

Django Unchained, my second-favorite movie of 2012, is out on DVD and Blu-ray in just a couple of days. I can't wait to revisit it, but I know exactly what's going to happen: it's going to send me down the Tarantino rabbit hole, where I will once again work my way not just through much of his filmography, but the movies from which he borrows as well. The next weeks of my life will be spent tearing through '70s exploitation movies and listening to nothing but Ennio Morricone music. I just know it.

I was looking for something to write this week, so Adam Riske and JB suggested I do a ranking of my favorite Quentin Tarantino movies. It's a great idea, right? Except I can't do it, because as I have said in the past, my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie is always whichever one I am watching right now. A year ago, I would have said that Inglourious Basterds is my favorite, because it's his most sophisticated and has the most to "say." But then I'll be watching Jackie Brown and will fall in love with how well those characters are created, and how so few movies have ever shown as gentle and mature a romance as the one between Jackie and Max Cherry. Too bad all the people who accuse Tarantino of being a snotty recycler of B-movies and violence conveniently forget that the filmmaker is responsible for one of the best adult romances of the last 20 years, and that he managed to sneak it into a thrilling and funny crime movie.

Or I'll watch Pulp Fiction, which has been stigmatized since its release because it created such a crazy amount of hype and inspired so many terrible imitators, tainting the second half of the '90s with an endless stream of "chatty guys with guns" rip-offs. The impact of the movie has been diminished by decades of bad copies and movie snob backlash, but every time I revisit it I'm amazed at just how good it really is. If it's not in the running for my favorite of Tarantino's movies, it's only because it's not about much more than it's about. Still, it's impossible to overstate just how much that movie meant to me in 1994, and what a transformative experience it was to see it opening night. I spent the next several years chasing that high, which would explain what led me into a theatrical showing of Destiny Turns on the Radio.
Maybe I'll check out Death Proof again, which is "lesser" Tarantino (he has called it his worst movie, which I take personally even if I know what he means) but which doesn't make it any less entertaining or enjoyable. When I'm watching it, I love every second of Death Proof, one of Tarantino's most personal and political movies again passing itself off as a genre exercise. It is lesser only because it doesn't have the same scope or ambition of some of his other work, but the movie works on exactly the level it intends. Few movies made in the last five years make me as happy as Death Proof.

Or maybe it will be Reservoir Dogs, the movie that started it all. I've discussed my first viewing of Reservoir Dogs before as being one of the most impactful and influential viewings of my life. Watching that movie on VHS on Saturday afternoon in 1992 changed my life; not only did I LOVE the movie and have my eyes opened to different styles and genres of film, but it was the first movie that really made me aware of the concept of the AUTEUR. A person is responsible for these choices, I found myself thinking, and that's the person I want to know more about. Over 20 years later, that hasn't changed.

So here's the big confession: I think Tarantino might be my favorite director.
For years, that spot has been occupied by Joe Dante, who I dearly love and who has made so many movies I hold close to my heart. The two filmmakers have a lot in common, really, having both digested years and years of genre movies and reinterpreting into films that are referential but wholly original -- and, better yet, personal. Tarantino is a flashier director than Dante; his writing calls more attention to itself, his camera work more show-offy. Despite being aware of it, that stuff works on me. Plus, I can think of few contemporary filmmakers whose work is this entertaining while still being thematically rich and complex. His movies require multiple viewings to unpack, but the movies are so much fun that multiple viewings are welcome.

I've resisted coming to terms with the fact that Tarantino is my favorite (if we're even going to bother ranking and quantifying such things) because it makes me seem young and sheltered. When a 15-year old kid says it, we get it. He hasn't seen enough yet, and Tarantino's stylized dialogue and excessive violence appeal to the teenage movie geek in all of us. For some reason, a grown man naming Tarantino as his favorite director leads to a lot of conclusion jumping -- that he knows no more than the 15-year old, or that his tastes haven't evolved beyond 1995, or whatever. When someone asks you what your favorite food is, "pizza" is considered a pretty pedestrian answer. But if you've already sampled every other kind of food and STILL think pizza is the best, isn't that ok? Especially when you find someone who makes pizza better than anyone else?

It's a tortured metaphor, but it makes the point -- not that it's going to change many minds. Tarantino's a polarizing filmmaker, rabidly beloved by some and utterly reviled by others. Both reactions have a tendency to be a little extreme and say less about the director than about the people themselves, but such is the current state of movie fandom. I understand why some people are left cold by his movies. I do not understand the people who write him off as nothing more than the sum of his references. Those people are being dismissive and short-sighted. You do not need to like a filmmaker, but you should at least attempt to understand him or her as an artist before making that judgment.
JB has talked about his love for the classic Universal Monster movies, and that a big part of that love has to do with the fact that he just enjoys spending time in Universal Monster Land. That's as good a description of my relationship to Tarantino's movies as any -- I love spending time in Tarantino Land. It's why I loved Django Unchained, even though I was able to see that it isn't one of the director's best movies. It's why his movies have always provided an inroad into a much bigger movie landscape. Tarantino Land doesn't just stop at the borders of Django Unchained; it bleeds over into The Grand Duel and Mandingo and Drum and countless other older films, the tracking down of which often provides as much fun as the viewing. His movies are an education. They are not the final word; they only begin the discussion.

It all depends on what we want from movies. Tarantino gives me more of what I want from movies than anyone else. His is pure cinema.

Second big confession: Kill Bill has, in the last year or so, snuck onto the list of my 10 favorite movies. Not Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 each on their own -- I'm talking about the full, four-hour movie that Tarantino originally conceived (often referred to as "The Whole Bloody Affair"). No other movie puts me so squarely in Tarantino Land, and no other movie gets so directly to the heart of what makes his films so special. Every time I watch it -- and I watch it more than any other Tarantino movie -- it gets better, offering me everything I love and want from a Tarantino film. It tells a small, personal story on an epic scale. It has great performances. Great music. Incredible action. Brilliant dialogue. It's maybe the only four hour movie that I could start watching again the minute it ends. With the exception of the switch to black and white during the "House of Blue Leaves" sequence (which was a compromise for ratings purposes, and which isn't even that distracting), I love every single thing about it.

These things are all kind of meaningless, of course, and totally subjective, but can be fun to talk about on sites like this. As movie nerds, we love to rank things and talk about our favorite this or favorite that. A year from now, or in another week or even on another day, maybe Kill Bill doesn't make the list. I love so many movies and go through so many phases that any list of my "favorites" is going to be somewhat fluid. I'm much more confident in saying that Tarantino has become my favorite filmmaker, because he has finally built up a large enough body of work to warrant such a claim. There are lots of directors who have movies that I love. Tarantino might be the only director whose every movie I love.

26 comments:

  1. I am so totally with you on this one, man. Stacked up against other directors who have made a lot of movies I really love - Spielberg, Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson just to name a few - none of them hit me in all of my sweet spots with all of their movies like Tarantino does. I get all of your reservations - there is an unjustified air of immaturity surrounding his work - but for me, picking him as my favourite director is easy - no one else comes close. Picking my favourite movie of his is a little tougher.

    Pulp Fiction was certainly a movie that heightened by awareness of what movies were (or could be) about and I still love the shit out of it - I wish I could remember the exact scene (might have been at the end of John and Uma's date), but the last time I watched it I had an "exploding heart" moment because it just felt SO GOOD. For some reason it really sank in how much I LOVE this movie and it made me feel verklempt. That was a first.

    But then there's Kill Bill which, like you, I just find so fantastically watchable that it's certainly a close second - if it didn't have my sentimentality about PF to overcome, it would probably be an easy first. Christ, I wanna go watch it right now!

    And then there's the rest - Death Proof is probably the "worst" but that's like saying a 95 was your "worst" mark in high school. Kurt Russell's performance alone is enough to make me love that movie and there's so much more on top of that.

    About the only movie of his which has actually lost a bit of lustre for me over the years is Reservoir Dogs - don't get me wrong, I love it, but it's probably the Tarantino movie I find myself going back to the least nowadays.

    My sad confession: I have yet to see Django Unchained. I know, how could I love QT so much and not go see that - it just didn't work out over the Holidays and then there were some friends I was supposed to see it with and that kept getting delayed until it was out of theatres. A bummer for sure, but out of respect I have resisted the temptation to download it and EAGERLY anticipate the blu-ray release next week. Like more than any other release since Jurassic Park on VHS nearly 20 years ago. I'm only slightly disappointed to see you say it's not his best but I'm pretty sure I'll still love it - can't wait!

    Great article Patrick - I guess I haven't really asked myself (lately) who my favourite director is, but the answer was there all along!

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  2. As someone that loves Tarantino and pizza, I enjoyed the hell out of this "confession".

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    1. Frankly I'm a little suspicious of anyone whose favourite food ISN'T pizza. Like what, you think your shit doesn't stink? Because after a double-pepperoni mine sure does!

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  3. It truly is an impossible task to accurately choose a favorite Tarantino movie. Every one of them has a heap of things to enjoy about them. I think I said this in my Oscar predictions last year, and it definitely bears repeating for this column. Not only does Tarantino know how to direct the movies he makes extremely well, but he is also one of the most brilliant writers in the business. You talked about falling in love with the characters in Jackie Brown, specifically, but I think Tarantino's knack for creating interesting and engaging characters spans his entire filmography, up to and including Django Unchained with Dr. King Shultz, Calvin Candie, and Stephen, all played by well cast actors. But I think part of what makes those characters interesting and well played is what is there to work with in terms of the dialog. An extension of Tarantino's skill as a writer is his ability to craft awesome dialog for his awesome characters to speak. These things, combined with the fact that the images he creates are fun to watch and the music and other films and film genres he references are all amazing and diverse, mix together to produce one hell of a film artist.

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  4. I am prepared to be dragged through the coals for what I am about to say but here goes.

    I will say first off, I like Tarantino and admire him as a director in many ways. I once read a piece where he listed his top twenty or so favorite films. I had seen nearly all of the films he listed and would also rank them as enjoyable films, some of which would make my own top ten. Reading that list made me feel even more connected to him as we shared many of the same interests. To that point I am also a huge fan of Asian cinema, so while watching Kill Bill I am like, oh this is basically a retelling of “Lady Snowblood”, that shot is from “Sanjuro” or “Yojimbo”, oh he took that from “Lone Wolf and Cub” etc. The entire film is an homage to the work he loves and appreciates from Japanese and Hong Kong cinema.

    That said, for me the thing about Tarantino is that much of his body of work are remakes of older films. He just cuts together things he loves about older films and puts them into a new package. To somebody who does not know the source material it all seems very fresh. To someone who does know the material he is a cover band playing the old song differently. He does play them very well however they are still the old rhythms and beats. I don’t think Tarantino is a hack director, I think he is pretty great but I do wonder, when is something homage and when is it a director being a hack?

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    1. I get where you're coming from. For me, the difference is in what a director does with those influences/homages. Tarantino does do a lot of referencing, but even when I'm able to spot them all I still feel like he repurposes the sum total into something new and original. Kill Bill has more to say than just "aren't these movies cool?" even if it's the most referential of his work.

      It's the difference between The Simpsons and Family Guy. The Simpsons references stuff all the time, but does so with the purpose of creating something new and worthwhile. Family Guy references stuff just to say "Remember this?"

      I don't want to turn this into a debate about Family Guy. Calm down, anyone who likes Family Guy. It's great that you like it. But the point still stands.

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    2. That's a pretty damn good point, Tom. I have seen NONE of the movies you mention so I can't say for sure but I can certainly see how being very familiar with the works that influenced Tarantino MIGHT dampen one's enthusiasm for his movies. Especially if that familiarity came first. Having no prior experience, I'm imagining that my love for QT's movies would ENHANCE my first-time viewing of say, Lone Wolf and Cub - does it work the other way around? Obviously for you it doesn't, but maybe for others it does? I'd be interested to hear JB's take as, unlike Patrick (I'm guessing based on age), his encyclopedic knowledge of films came before his exposure to QT...

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    3. I think the comparison of Family Guy vs The Simpsons is very valid and a great example to point to. I know you said you didn't want to turn this into a debate, but they approach references in completely different ways, and one is clearly superior (in my opinion) and more meaningful.

      Overall, I think it's true that homages are okay and great as long as they are used to make a new and unique statement. It's kind of like the horror movie remake topic. Those are only good if they aren't direct retellings, but rather creating something fresh and relevant to modern society and the issues therein.

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  5. Well said. I think sometimes I get too caught up in the noticing "homages" thing that I lose sight of the whole. With Tarantino that is probably my failure as a viewer. But, I also get annoyed with Tarantino's lesser fan-boys who don't realize fully what he is doing. I remember when Zhang Yimou's "Hero" was released here in the States it was billed as "Quentin Tarantino presents Hero". People who knew I was into Asian film were coming up to me and asking if I had seen Tarantino's new film Hero. Being the film snob/a-hole I am I had to explain Tarantino just helped it get distributed in the States, it was several years old by that point, and actually directed by a Chinese master of filmmaking. In retrospect I am sure the whole "Tarantino Presents" thing was the idea of the publisher.

    But as to everything you said, that's a great way of looking at his filmmaking as a whole.

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    1. Sorry the above was to be posted as a reply to Patrick.

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  6. A guy/gal who likes movies: "my favorite movie is Pulp Fiction"

    A guy/gal who loves movies: "my favorite movie is Jackie Brown"

    (With the disclaimer of everything Patrick just said)

    Max answering the phone at the end. "No dude. You deserve her. Go! ... Damn it. "

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  7. Great article, Patrick. I love QT with all my twisted black heart. In fact, in celebration of Django Unchained being released on video I have been revisiting Tarantino's previous films. One thing I notice is how easily and quickly I sink into the world he is creating. It's like when I read a Stephen King novel - the atmosphere is set so perfectly.

    Regarding the comments about QT being nothing more than a talented guy who just regurgitates his favorite films, I would respond by drawing on my love of musical theatre. One of my favorite composers is Stephen Sondheim. And one of Sondheim's great talents is his ability to write "pastiche" numbers. These are numbers that deliberately evoke a previous style of writing. Thus, his musical Follies is loaded with songs that deliberately reference famous composers of American music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. And his musical Assassins references popular musical styles from the varying times when the historical events take place. But these songs are not there just for the sake of nostalgia. Every time Sondheim is making a specific point, which is important to the story he is helping to tell. For example, there is a song in Assassins called "Unworthy of Your Love," sung by the characters John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme to their great "loves," Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. The music and style could come right off a Carpenter's album. The song is not only commenting on Hinckley and Fromme, but also on that whole genre of "love" song that enshrines obsessive infatuation. Sorry to ramble on here, but I feel strongly that to dismiss QT as a "homage" freak is to miss the larger point of his method.

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    1. Yes! Thanks, Steve. I feel like a lot of critics wrote off Tarantino early on, because Pulp Fiction is that thing that he is so often accused of making -- a mashup of things he thinks are cool (the fact that it's an AWESOME mashup is a different discussion). But later-period Tarantino does a lot of what you're talking about -- he uses homage and pastiche (two words I hope to never use again) as a way of commenting on those things. Inglourious Basterds is a great example of this.

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  8. This was an awesome article! I would, at this point, also consider QT my favorite filmmaker. 'Inglourious Basterds' sits comfortably in my top 5 while 'Kill Bill' and 'Pulp Fiction' would be in my top 20. He never missteps (depsite what the internet, and to a lesser degree QT, thinks of 'Death Proof') and always delivers. I never get tired of watching his movies. I could put on, as you said Patrick, 'Kill Bill' and be invested from the opening shot of the 4 hour movie!! But even, as stated above, 'Inglourious Basterds', a 153 film that i never get tired of and have watched, maybe, 12-15 times. So yea i'm totally with you and can't wait for the 'Django Unchained' blu-ray.

    P.S: Speaking of 'Django' Patrick, have you read the original script online and if so, what did you think of, say, the last 30 or so pages which is pretty different from the finished film?

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    1. I have read it! I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say that while I'm thankful for the "new" sequence in the movie (because it's pretty awesome), I think the structure of the script makes more sense. The finished movie has one too many climaxes. It is still great.

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    2. Totally agree.

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  9. One thing I like about Tarantino is the way the movie gets to where it gets to. It's more often than not going to stop where you think it will but the way it gets there is always surprising and better than you would have come up with yourself.

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  10. I try to stay away from sites and podcasts that put up snobby little rules about what it's okay to like and not to like and what a REAL film fan can and can't do (which is why I've ended up here at F This Movie, where we like what we like), so I didn't realize that there was a contingent of people who feel like Quentin Tarantino is not okay to love or be anyone's favorite. I thought he was universally revered, especially by our generation.

    Quentin Tarantino is awesome and his movies are smart and unique and I feel like he keeps reinventing himself. Each time I see a new QT movie, I know it will feel exactly like a QT movie, but it will have its own charms and uniqueness.

    Rarely has "pizza" ever been so carefully and creatively constructed to please on so many different levels. It's great pizza.

    My official favorite is Jackie Brown because I love the Elmore Leonard connection (and we've talked about how there are so few good adaptations of Elmore Leonard), but unofficially my favorite QT film is whichever one I happen to be watching at the moment. They're pretty wonderful.

    Back to these people saying you can't name Tarantino as your favorite director...Patrick, what I'm saying is if you give me names and addresses, I'll make 'em disappear. I'll drown them in the river...IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.

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  11. Here's a little trip for you.

    When I saw Pulp Fiction the first time, I didn't like it much. I knew it was a well made movie, I just didn't dig it. However, some people I knew really liked it, and they encouraged me to watch it again. So I did, and I had this "Okay, I see what you're saying, but I'm still not thrilled." But I gave it another viewing a year or so later and my reaction was "Actually, this is okay." and each time I've watched it I've liked it a little bit better. It's got to be a marker for his skills that I was willing to see the movie as many times as I did, and allowed it to grow on me like it has.

    That's been every Tarantino movie for me. Some I liked right away (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown) some I found a little lacking at first (Pulp Fiction, Death Proof) and some I didn't like at all (Reservoir Dogs). Every time I re-watch one though, I like it more than I did the last time.

    Every time I've watched any of them though, I find myself liking it more than I did the last time. I can't explain it, but there it is. The ones I like, revisiting them gives me the same feeling I had watching it the first time. The ones I didn't like, I discover that the things that didn't work for me last time are working now.

    I've seen a lot of the movies he's taking things from, but I end up feeling like I've been served the best fusion cooking in the world while listening to a carefully made mash-up of three of my songs.

    I'm still not gaga about Reservoir Dogs, but I do admit it's a well made movie and has more going on than the direct to video rip-offs it and Pulp Fiction helped create.

    So yeah, the guy makes a damn fine pizza. He's like Dashiell Hammett for me. Pulpy and popular, but I'd rather spend the afternoon with them and neither one made something I didn't like.

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    1. Stay tuned for our group list tomorrow! It's going to speak right to you.

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  12. Nice article Patrick. I am definitely a fan of Quentin Tarantino but not quite at the same level as a lot of the other folks here in the comments. The thing that I really do like a lot about QT is the energy he brings to all of his movies. Even in movies of his that I am not a huge fan of (Death Proof is a very mixed bag for me, the first half with the girls seems to take FOREVER) he always seems to have a great energy behind each of his scenes, whether they are action scenes or Michael Madsen just getting a reprimand at work in Kill Bill.

    The thing that keeps me from putting Quentin at the top of my fav director list is that his movies don't always seem to have a lot of heart. Kill Bill in my opinion has the most emotional resonance with me and is my favorite work. Jackie Brown at the time I saw it didn't do a whole lot from me but I may need to revisit that one.

    Right now QT is definitely in my top 5 director list but for me my fav director is still Steven Spielberg. His stuff isn't perfect (I am looking at you Hook!) but overall the amount of awesome characters, action set pieces, and dramatic moments he has taken me through in my life puts him in my top spot. I will say this though if QT can keep up his pace for a few more years he may climb to the #1 spot in my eyes. As for right now Steven Spielberg is my Pizza Hut and Quentin is my Domino's, both are awesome but only one has my favorite breadsticks.

    Also to touch on the Family Guy vs Simpsons real quick. A lot of the time Family Guy is just a bunch of random jokes selected by manatees but on some rare occassions they will do some character based stories that can actually be quite amusing. American Dad does that a lot more often and is in my opinion the better show (behind The Simpsons of course).

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    1. Do you have "Do the Bartman" as your ringtone?

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  13. No I don't but then again my phone is so old when I turn it on I still hear someone say "what number please?" before I get connected to my party.

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  14. What I like so much about Tarantino is the conflict he has within himself as a filmmaker.

    He wants so deeply to be an exploitation genre director, but the writer in him won't let him be. His talent is so great that it won't let him just make a rough and tumble, sleazy, grindhouse type of film.

    This conflict between his wants and talent helps to produce a thrilling complexity.

    Even his "C.S.I." episode is pretty incredible.

    BTW, his worst film is still his "Four Rooms" segment.

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