Tarantino-a-go-go

Quentin Tarantino is a kind of mutant off-shoot in the film-making universe, like the product of some bizarre experiment, cooked up in the lab of a secret Army film school to wreak havoc on the world of cinema. With extraordinary acuity, he's assimilated the visual language, thematic quirks and atmospheric stylings of a whole slew of cinematic genres, including martial arts epics, Hong Kong crime thrillers, French ephemera and decades of Hollywood blockbusters. Appropriation ain't the half of it; he's swallowed the lot, mixed them in the blender of his own hyperactive adolescent imagination and regurgitated them back onto the screen in new, bloody forms.

But in perfectly reshaping these disparate genres in his own image, Tarantino has captured none of their essence, nor contributed anything genuinely worthy to the canon. He's absorbed the outward form of a hundred masterpieces, but failed to understand the implicit emotional depth that motivates such works in the first place. It’s a case of new packaging, old content. Tarantino is ALL surface, ALL imitation, ALL artifice, the architect of a perfect cinematic simulacrum, infinitely wide and shiny but only a hair's breadth deep. By definition, this shallowness lacks humanity. To put it simply, he hasn't written one genuinely likeable, three-dimensional character. Ever. The only film of his to feature anything resembling sympathetic human beings was 'Jackie Brown' and they were largely the work of Elmore Leonard (which Tarantino adapted from his novel 'Rum Punch'). It's no coincidence that the film he was conceptually least involved in is also his finest.

That's not to say that Tarantino isn't an accomplished, compelling director, he is. He's a gifted stylist whose punchy dialogue and idiosyncratic grasp of narrative have had a tremendous influence on a generation of young directors. He's arguably the most influential American film-maker to emerge during the 90s. He's also overrated, highly derivative and ultimately shallow and unaffecting. His movies, on repeated viewings, prove to be an empty assembly of hip glibness, flashy visuals and contrived ultra-violent set pieces. Neither are they as original as they first seemed to be in the mid-nineties flush of ‘Pulp Fiction’ mania. Anyone with a reasonable body of film knowledge will be able to spot the many influences he’s drawn on; there’s nothing wrong with being influenced of course, everyone is, but it’s hard to call someone a ‘genius’ for writing (or co-writing, as the case may be) ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ if one has first seen ‘The Killers’, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, Kubrick’s early classic, ‘The Killing’ or a dozen other key noir/crime features, let alone ‘City on Fire’. The question of attribution also raises its head: in Sharon Waxman’s fine overview of the 90s indie-scene, Rebels on the Backlot, Tarantino is revealed as a blatant plagiarist who stole ideas not only from films but from close associates, refusing to give credit where due.

Unlike most of the other significant 90s American film-makers, such as Soderberg, Russell and Anderson, Tarantino isn't interested in Life and the awkward, strange and wonderful interactions of real human beings. Amongst his contemporaries, he's almost unique in this regard. The quirky machinations of the characters of Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, however idiosyncratic, are at least conducted with enough verve to make us feel that their creators love them. Even Fincher, a highly stylised film-maker with an exceptionally dark outlook, populates his grim scenarios with characters whose offscreen lives seem possible. They are, to a substantial degree, 'real'. By comparison, Tarantino's creations are wafer thin, day-glo cartoon cut-touts whose passing we barely register, let alone mourn. It's not simply a question of the length, or the violence or depravity in Tarantino's films; 'Traffic', 'Boogie Nights' and 'Three Kings' are all sprawling, intermittently violent films where people often behave despicably. But their actions take place within a moral universe, one which bears at least a passing relationship to the one we know. By comparison, Tarantino's films are revealed to be a case not of style over substance, but style instead of substance.

Nowhere has Tarantino's spiritual vapidity been more apparent than in his charmless, vulgar and over-long two-part 'come back' film 'Kill Bill'. A shallow exercise in kung-fu revisionism and manga-styled pyrotechnics, 'Kill Bill' was even more denuded of meaning than his previous efforts, offering an aimless mish-mash of brightly-coloured set-pieces, retro flashbacks and casual brutality. Nowhere was the film's utter paucity of spirit more evident than in its treatment of children. Near the beginning of the first film, Uma Thurman, playing the chief protagonist 'The Bride', executes Vernita Green in front of her young daughter, who watches her death silently and without any response. The child's inhuman reaction is scripted - she's just a mute object there for Thurman to deliver the pay-off line to. Similarly, at the end of the second film Thurman curls up happily with her daughter in front of the TV. The fact that Thurman has just executed her father and taken her away from a life she's been happily part of for years is not brought into the equation. In Tarantino's universe, it couldn't be, because the values needed to represent that degree of human response don't exist. The child is just a youthful, nutrition-free plot motivator - a MacMuffin - for the next big fight scene. Their smiles in the final frame of the film have all the authenticity of a toothpaste commercial.

Authenticity, and what it represents, is at the heart of why I don't like Tarantino's films. Perhaps this is fitting, since Tarantino is regarded by some as the quintessentially post-modern director and I have very little time for the absurd determinism of that so-called 'movement'. The fact is that all cinema, pretty much, uses its characters and manipulates its audience, but how it uses them and why it manipulates them is all important. Scorsese's thugs in 'GoodFellas' and 'Casino' mow down innocents and torture rivals, yet they still operate within a moral framework defined by their allegiance to family and lingering, vestigial respect for the conventions of a Catholic upbringing. Scorsese's motivation in bringing these films to the screen is a personal one, in that the stories he tells reflect his own experience of growing up in an Italian American New York family in the 50s. Sin and redemption are the twin poles that his bloody epics revolve around and his connection to these themes is genuine.

Tarantino's stories, on the other hand, reflect nothing more than a childhood spent watching TV. He's absorbed life at second- and even third-hand and offers recycled, manufactured blood operas that ape the structure and content of great films as if, in doing so, he hopes they will attract the same sense of importance. Behind the funky names, groovy soundtrack and slick visuals, Tarantino's films operate with the relentless determinism of a trash compactor, the mechanics of the script as soulless as gears. Does this invalidate them as entertainment? No, of course not. Does it make them ultimately disposable, ambivalent works? Yes. They are adolescent constructions, devoid of empathy, compassion and understanding, captivating for a moment, but ultimately empty, garishly painted shells which crumble upon close, steady scrutiny.

Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:17:02

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