Pulp the hype on the Q.T.
Like O. J. Simpson and Newt Gingrich, Quentin Tarantino has become one of those cosmically disseminated mirages that even the most resolute ascetic living in a hole somewhere becomes aware of "through the media." For us ordinary folks who consume magazines and TV programs haphazardly, he - like O.J., like Newt - has acquired the pull of a vortex into which all conversation eventually spills. Edgy from coffee nerves, verbally diarrheic, a study in hip geekiness or geeky hipness, Tarantino's personality is on display in dozens of print interviews and talk shows, and it's the same one he gives all his characters. Like them, he's fond of crunchy breakfast cereals, cartoons, obscure movies, and disco hits of the '7Os; like them, he favors the verbal tropisms of the "interesting" digression, the aria of cultural trivia, the self-consuming monologue. More than with most American directors, he and his films seem like the same thing.
Tarantino locates hipness in the same unlovely products of American pop culture that so many foreign teenagers find endlessly marvelous. His ideal character is the kind of American who beats a path to McDonald's when visiting Paris, someone whose frame of reference instantly assimilates the Other into its own obstinately lowbrow schema - anything reachier would be pretentious. At the same time, this character comes stuffed with the most arcane erudition, permissible, one supposes, because erudition is essentially unintelligent. Like the Jim Jarmusch of Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train, Tarantino is an intellectual who enjoys playing dumb, who pumps up the assertive dumbness embedded in hipness. This gives him the kind of aerial view associated with satire, though it would be hard to say what Tarantino's satirizing other than his own saturation by old movies.
Tarantino flirts with the belief that energetic posturing will make his skin turn black, a delusion shared by white entertainers like Sandra Bernhard and Camille Paglia. In its most exacerbated form, this sentimental tic of the white hipster locates all "authenticity" in the black experience, against which all other experience becomes the material of grotesque irony. To be really, really cool becomes the spiritual equivalent of blackness, and even superior to it: there are plenty of square black people but not one square cool person. For the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction, blackness is a plastic holy grail, a mythic substance with real effects and its own medieval code. It becomes "pulped" in a number of extremely cool ways, some of them literal (the black accomplice whose brains accidentally get splattered, the Mr. Big who dominates most of the white characters' lives yet gets fucked in the ass by a psychopathic redneck). Tarantino is goofing on coolness and white ideas about blackness, pushing them over the top. But within that goof is a have-it-both-ways determination to be the coolest of all filmmakers, which costs him something in credibility.
Tarantino's subject is maleness: by repicturing cinema's rituals of masculinity in wildly exaggerated forms, he has achieved a more daring deconstruction than even directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Unlike them, though, he has trouble depicting women in more than one dimension - in the movies he's directed he has barely tried. Reservoir Dogs is an all-male, all-macho, grindingly homoerotic film, deliberately hobbled by Tarantino's refusal to picture the anal intercourse that all its characters yearn for (albeit with a firearm rather than a penis), either as recipients or givers. In Tarantino's realm of anal longing, women are almost beside the point. Mia, in Pulp Fiction, is a charming cartoon of Anna Karina; like the magic animal in a fairy tale, her narrative function is to test Travolta's loyalty to her husband, his boss. Male fealty, of course, wins out. All Pulp Fiction's other females orbit the "active" males they're paired with as if attached by Crazy Glue, in one case requesting "oral pleasure" with the languid coquettishness of a teenage catamite.
It's this director's genius to toss incompatible ingredients like a salad. His movies are formulaic but the formula is unique, a wild collision of things - the rupture of narrative time, rougher and more radical than Godard's; the layering of quotations from other movies; the characters besotted by their own eloquence; the Mexican standoff; the petty conversation carried on during horrendous violence. Tarantino can invest a cliche with breathless energy. However sketchy his people look, he makes sure they register onscreen in some indelible way - they may not have depth but they have presence. Tarantino is immersed in movies he's seen on video, which may explain why their appropriation seems somehow weightless: they're two steps removed from the primary creative process. One is always inside an artifact cobbled from other artifacts rather than from any profound experience of life. (In this, Tarantino resembles, of all people, Jorge Luis Borges, a writer entirely produced by what he'd read, whose talent was best applied, with ample irony, to genre - detective fiction, the parable, the fairy tale.) But this is also Tarantino's strength: he has an almost Bunuelian fluency with film - "has movies in his fingertips," like the hero of Alexander Kluge's film The Blind Director. This becomes especially obvious in Natural Born Killers and True Romance, two surprisingly trite movies made by other directors from Tarantino's scripts. These films only come alive during the scattered moments when Tarantino's writing survives molestation.
"Alive" may be too strong a word, though, even in Tarantino's own movies. Tarantino's set pieces - bursts of operatic violence scored to brilliantly incongruous soliloquies and other business (I'm thinking of Michael Madsen's song, dance, and razor routine in Reservoir Dogs) - produce an amphetamine rush that often leaves a tinny aftertaste. We are thrown into a world whose particular deity extends compassion only to the hip and the violent, never to the "asshole" victims. This may pump us up with a certain Nietzschean elation, but can only be followed, sooner or later, by a bewildered sense of depletion, as if we'd been talked into robbing a liquor store or running over a dog. The director can credibly claim that the violence in his films is "unreal" - an apercu he cribbed from Godard ("It isn't blood, it's red") - but it has to be added that an excessive display of unreal violence has the same adventitious quality that wall-to-wall singing had in the old MGM musicals, which gets us not very far from "a wax museum with a pulse."
I have the feeling that Pulp Fiction looks as good as it does partly because, its formidable virtues aside, studio pictures have become more idiotic, rebarbatively predictable, and smug. A wild card like Tarantino, versed in everything that still works in the Hollywood mold and at the same time graced with idiosyncrasy, stubbornness, and uncanny energy, can deliver the goods to an audience starved for nuance but allergic to "art." It was the mistake of former wunderkinder like David Lynch to imagine the audience wanted "art" (along with some sideshow touches), or a signature style, or a lot of other things extraneous to sitting in the dark with a tub of popcorn. (Blue Velvet worked mainly because its audience had never seen Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising.) The best thing about Tarantino's movies is that they aren't "art," they just go where art goes, without being overly fastidious about how they get there.
Gary Indiana's third novel, Rent Boy, was published recently by Serpent's Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.
While all Quentin Tarantino's work so far plays around with the same themes (in regular Hollywood style), his stuff fascinates precisely because of the way each piece distinguishes itself, signifies on previous work - his or that of others. Cinematically he is a master deconstructivist. No wonder then that everything he produces has such post-Modern flavor and seduces both those who read and those who don't. When it comes to flavor he is definitely an equal-opportunity employer. Unlike most contemporary border-crossing "eat the other" culture bandits, he is not afraid to publicly pimp his wares.
Tarantino has the real nihilism of our times down. He represents the ultimate "white cool": a hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia, but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing cause none of it's gonna change, cause the real deal is that domination is here to stay - going nowhere and everybody is in on the act. Mind you, domination is always and only patriarchal - a dick thing.
In Tarantino's flicks women's liberation is just another scare, white women wanting to be let in on the deal even as they act just like that Enjoli commercial told us they would, they help "bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let you forget" they're a w-o-m-a-n. Check out the white girls in True Romance (written by Tarantino) and Pulp Fiction. Even when they are absent a la Reservoir Dogs, that little opening dialogue about Madonna says it all - a piece of the action, their share of the cut. And black folks, personified simply and solely by black men, are just into a dick thing, wanting to be right there in the mix, doing the right thing in the dance hall of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Only the black woman who has no face - Jimmy's wife in Pulp Fiction, we see her only from the back - would raise any protest.
The fun thing about Tarantino's films is that he makes that shit look so ridiculous you think everybody's gonna get it and see how absurd it all is. Well that's when we enter the danger zone. Folks be laughing at the absurdity and clinging to it nevertheless. This happens first with Reservoir Dogs, which takes the hardcore white patriarchal dick thing and shows it for the vampire culture it really is. And when the white men have eaten each other up (cause Tarantino would have us all know that when there are no white girls and niggers of all colors around, white boys are busy fucking each other over), it would be hard work for any viewer to see this as gleeful celebration of madness. Reservoir Dogs has a critical edge that is totally absent from Pulp Fiction, where everything is farce. Yeah, like it's really funny when Butch the hypermasculine phallic white boy - who has no name that means anything, who has no culture to be proud of, who comes straight out of childhood clinging to the anal-retentive timepiece of patriarchal imperialism - is exposed. Yet exposure does nothing to intervene on this evil, it merely graphically highlights it. As the work progresses little Butch is still doing it for daddy - a real American hero.
Tarantino's films are the ultimate in sexy cover-up of very unsexy mind-fuck. They titillate with subversive possibility (scenes that are so fine you are just blown away - like that wonderful moment when Vincent and Mia do the twist in Pulp Fiction) but then everything kinda comes right back to normal. And normal is finally a multicultural world with white supremacy intact. Note that even when the black male arrives at the top, as does Marcellus in Pulp Fiction - complete with lying cheating lapdog white child-woman wife - he is unmasked as only an imitation cowboy, not the real thing. And in case viewers haven't figured out that Marcellus ain't got what it takes, the film turns him into a welfare case - another needy victim who must ultimately rely on the kindness of strangers (i.e., Butch, the neoprimitive white colonizer, another modern-day Tarzan) to rescue him from the rape-in-progress that is his symbolic castration, his return to the jungle, a lower rung on the food chain. No doubt had John Singleton, or any homeboy filmmaker, shot a scene as overtly gay-bashing as this one, progressive forces would have rallied en masse to condemn - to protest - to remind moviegoers that homophobia means genocide, that silence equals death. But it's fine to remain silent when the cool straight white boy from the wrong side of the tracks offers a movie that depicts the brutal slaughter and/or bashing of butt-fuckers and their playmates. If this isn't symbolic genocide of gay men, what is? Yet everyone has to pretend there's some hidden subversive message in these scenes. HELLO! But that's the Tarantino message: everybody is in the corrupt jungle doing their own sweet version of the domination dance. This is multiculturalism with a chic neofascist twist.
Let's have a new world order in cinema: i.e., flashy flicks like Tarantino's, which kinda seem like the American version of Hanif Kureishi's stylish nihilism, so well done in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and less well done in the rather tedious London Kills Me. Here most anybody can get a piece of the action, every ethnicity can be represented, be fucked and fucked over, cause in the end it's all shit. The real democracy, as True Romance tells us loud and clear, consists of a world where everyone has equal access to eating shit. Mind you some folks come out of the shit smelling like roses, like our death-dealing white gender-equity couple in True Romance, who take their nuclear family values to a warm place in the third world and relax cause that's their way of getting away from it all. But when Jules (Samuel Jackson), our resident black male preacher/philosopher death-dealing mammified intellectual (he does pull out the tit and feed knowledge to everyone in Pulp Fiction - magnificently I might add - a stunning performance - particularly that closing monologue), decides he wants OUT of the rat race, he doesn't get to leave the plantation with riches in hand. John Travolta's Massa Junior makes it clear he must go his way destitute. Cause in the real plantation economy, no matter how many borders are crossed, no matter how many cultures are mixed and how much shit is appropriated (the everybody-is-a-nigger version of "We are the World"), when it comes right down to it Jules as our resident enlightened dharma bum has nowhere to go - no third world playground he can retire to.
No doubt that retro hairdo he sports throughout the film keeps him from charting a new journey. It's his own signifying monkey. No matter how serious Jules' rap, that hair always intervenes to let the audience know not to take him too seriously. That hair is kinda like another character in the film. Talking back to Jules as he talks to us, it undermines his words every step of the way. Cause that hair is like a minstrel thing - telling the world that the black preacher philosopher is ultimately just an intellectual arty white boy in drag, aping, imitating, and mouthing intellectual rhetoric that he can't quite use to help him make sense of his own life. Well in steps the interpreter of dreams, Vincent "Lone Ranger" Vega, who has no trouble spelling out in plain speech to his beloved Tonto, alias Jules, that there will be no redemptive future for him - that if he leaves the white-boy setup and abandons his criminal destiny he will just be another homeless black man on the street, a bum. In the new world order Tarantino creates in Pulp Fiction, dead white-boy star-culture bandits live again, and like their ethnographic counterparts know black folks better than we could ever know ourselves.
Well as Tarantino's work lets us know it's a sick motherfucking world and we may as well get used to that fact, laugh at it, and go on our way cause ain't nothing changing - and that's Hollywood, the place where white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy can keep reinventing itself, no matter how many times the West is decentered. Hollywood is the new plantation, getting more chic with the times. That Tarantino can call it out, tell it like it is, give the ultimate "read," the on-the-down-low diss, is part of the magic. It's deconstruction at its finest - all dressed up with no place to go. That is unless you, the viewer, got somewhere you wanna take it, cause this is the new crossover model the new multicultural survival kit. It can be all things to all people. Like you can choose to come away from Reservoir Dogs thinking, Later for white supremacy, racism, and fascism cause when that shit is on display anybody can see how funky it is. Or maybe you could even catch that moment in Pulp Fiction when Butch and Marcellus are boy-bonding, with the tie that binds being their shared fear of homosexual rape, and think, Doesn't Tarantino just name the homophobia of our times - calling out the way patriarchal homosocial bonding mediates racism? (I mean Butch and Marcellus they end up like brothers.) But if you choose to look at it all from the right that's okay too. Cause the shit smells the same whether you are liberal or conservative, on the right or the left. There is no way out.
If you don't get the picture check out the fate of our cross-race boy-bonding team Vincent and Jules. Throughout the movie we admire their cross-racial funky solidarity, their shared cool, but this difference don't last: they don't end up as "brothers" cause they are both ultimately disloyal to the structure they should uphold (Vincent by taking a break and reading, i.e., sleeping on the job, Jules by wanting to retire into nothingness). The film takes no note of Vincent's death by showing Jules either grieving or seeking revenge. Like all the meaningful emotional ties in the film (Vincent and Mia), this one doesn't count for shit. In the end loyalty sucks. Betrayal delivers the goods.
Well as the preacher man told us at the end of Pulp Fiction the tyranny of evil does not disappear just because we change the channel. Tarantino shows us in his films that a good cynical read on life can be compelling, entertaining, find downright satisfying - so much so that everyone will come back for more. But as the poet Amiri Baraka reminds us, "Cynicism is not revolutionary."
Interior: a room of ambiguous dimensions and location - part surveillance center, part boudoir. UMA THURMAN sits in front of a monitor and a mike, flanked by a makeup mirror. Ignoring all this, she bends over a paperback. Enter PATRICIA ARQUETTE, Throughout the scene, the camera suffers from attention-deficiency syndrome, sporadically drifting off from the speaker. A radio is tuned to white noise. PATRICIA [squinting at monitor]: Who's out there? UMA: Quentin. He got very excited about us changing places like this - me in here watching. Every once in a while I give him an order to keep him happy - you know, like "Keep your paw prints off the fetish figure or you'll be stuffing rags up your furniture polish for a month." That satisfies him for a while and he whimpers "Oh, Mr. Wolf!" appreciatively.
By the way, why in heaven's name are you dressed in that bleached-blonde white-trash mode?
PATRICIA: I'm a working girl. Jobs are hard to come by. My mantra is "I'm so cool I'm so cool I'm so cool." Quentin thinks it'll work. UMA: Does it? PATRICIA: Well, it's a bit depressing, you know - 'm the consolation Marilyn for this clown Clarence, who, when this True Romance opens, is sitting at a bar, literally between twin peaks - Elvis, on TV, and another replicant Marilyn, who refuses to go out with him to see Sony Cheba's The Streetfighter, mouthing demurely that it's not her cup of tea. I mean, you know? She won't go to a nasty flick with him but I get to meet cute as a prostitute in a movie house. I'm like third-generation-removed from Norma Jean - not my cup of simulacre tea - and I don't even have the good taste and sense of the second ersatz Marilyn, whose brushoff nixes any screwball blessing. Meanwhile, I'm the Jane who doesn't come between Tarzan and Cheba. UMA: The buddy system has a long and distinguished history. PATRICIA [pointing at UMA with extended forefinger and cocked thumb]: Pretend this is that fine centerfold bitch and you're you. I know I'm pretty but I ain't as pretty as her tittles. Like a bunch of niggers - always talking about killing each other. Looks like she fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. You'll know what it feels like to be a woman. You wanna fuck me?
[Close-up of UMA'S face, looking like it's been rhythmically kicked] UMA: What the hell are you doing? PATRICIA: Running lines from the films. UMA: Girl, who do you think you are? One of the guys? PATRICIA: I just thought ... maybe somebody gets sick, breaks a leg. UMA: Forget it honey, it'll never happen. Those characters don't want to let us be; they want to be us. PATRICIA: Yeah, funny isn't it? That pieta with Mr. Orange and Mr. White dying? They are so divas-in-love. UMA: Actually that was way cool, because it was so out of control. PATRICIA: Mothers still loom large for Quentin. UMA: Well, he's only a teenager - what do you expect? He missed his chance to restructure masculine identity. I guess his stuff does point up some of the illusions of masculinity, but what is this male-adolescent habit of using brutality to get attention, and then when they get it - and they always do - they go all sentimental, full of redemption and grace? Soon Quentin will be trying to portray women "sensitively." PATRICIA: Well, maybe not. And what about the fact that Quentin has Clarence shot in the eye, leaving me as Jocasta? UMA: Uh-oh. Look at that. [Into microphone] Okay, Quentin, leave Mommy's handbag alone or someone will kiss you deadly for real. [Swiveling back] God, any portmanteau will do for Pandora Brown. PATRICIA: You shouldn't infantilize him like that. [The radio's oceanic hiss drifts into the Stones:
"She blew my nose and then she blew my mind"]
UMA: Only catering to his tastes, dear - look what he did to Maria Madeiras! At least I hope it wasn't her idea to lisp like a baby, cower, and be grateful to Bruce "The Boxer" Willis. You just know Judge Ito's gonna face another prior-spousal-abuse decision when Pulp Fiction comes to trial. She never has a clue.
PATRICIA: Yeah, at least in my True Romance I'm not as dumb as a I look. I got my dignity, you know; I got a little agency.
[Aretha warns: "You better think, think about what you're tryin' to do to me."]
UMA: And what about Quentin's wife in Pulp? She's the mom-who'll-make-the-boys-pay-for-this-mess-when-she-gets-home. He puts her in a uniform and makes her black, because, as one of the dogs in the reservoir puts it, "Black women aren't the same as white women ... black women won't put up with as much." And then he only shows us the back of her head.
[Aretha crescendoes into "O-o-oh freedom! fre-eedom!" The camera circles 360 [degrees] around Patricia]
PATRICIA: So you're saying that by making a black woman signify purity and righteous revenge, Quentin is resolving his guilt about his dialogue's disgust with blacks and women? For their absence from his universe, black women get the compensation of sainthood? Like he makes Samuel Jackson the black killer turned evangelist. But at least Sam gets a prime part.
But surely Quentin is only joking here.
UMA: And that's the only time a woman of color appears - to make a joke about white guilt? It's like the only women in Reservoir Dogs are the two drivers who get carjacked, so Tim Roth's undercover cop has to shoot one of them and sully his innocence: it's all the bitch's fault.
PATRICIA: Don't you love that word? Why isn't there an equivalent one for men?
[Camera slowly pulls back until the two women can barely be seen]
UMA [in reverie]: To be fucked by Elvis - the greatest desire and the greatest fear.
PATRICIA: Give Quentin credit for knowing that at least.
UMA: But not for knowing what to do with it.
PATRICIA: He frames things nicely though, ever vigilant on that perimeter of self-reflexiveness. All the characters auditioning - Roth for his undercover role in Reservoir Dogs, Laurence Mason for a TV part in True Romance. I even think that business with the brains in the car is really a question of, How the hell can I write a tidy denouement for this vehicle?
UMA: Haha. So Mr. Wolf is the script doctor for Quentin as well as the deus ex machina for Sam and John Travolta.
PATRICIA: I do wonder, though, what all this recession and offstage business is about.
UMA: The elusive problem of sexuality, of course. He never really confronts it; it's hedged against with what the French critics call "bavardage" - babbling, endless talk, always a denial of death.
[The women jitterbug to Little Eva's "Do the Locomotion." Cut to Quentin's p.o.v., staring intently at a blank wall and straining to make sense of the feedback on the P.A. system. Eventually he hears -]
PATRICIA: Films are my seen, my primal scene.
UMA: That's why everything is diverted, diversions - a joke, an avoidance.
["We'll I think you've got the knack," sings Eva]
PATRICIA: Speaking of diversions, you know what line appears in 81 percent of all feature films between the '50s and the '80s?
PATRICIA: "Let's get outta here."
Jeanne Silverthorne is a writer and artist who lives in New York.
There should be a dozen youngish American filmmakers as inspired as Quentin Tarantino. Then it would be easier to designate him a quirkily brilliant minor director, which is what he is. But even with his rather glaring limitations - stagey archery-pal characters, short- and long-term memory problems, a lazy visual sense - there's so much finely tuned energy in his films compared to most of his contemporaries. Tarantino really is one of the few post-Martin Scorsese directors capable of bona fide cinematic magic. He isn't in a class with, say, serioso experimentalists like Jon Jost and James Banning, but, like them, he is fascinated by Scorsese and his obsessions (the intricacies of male angst). Scorsese is deep, and his best films are girded with emotional and spiritual scars. Tarantino gives terrific surface, but in a Ted Kennedy kind of way - he makes you feel like you're in the presence of greatness, even if the charisma is essentially inherited.
Tarantino can do great scenes, and his films' residual narrative drift is busy and clever enough to keep the momentum going. His forte is exquisitely rendered horror: the young drug dealers blown away and Urea Thurman's OD and lifesaving adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction; the cop torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Dennis Hopper's execution by Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted (but not directed) True Romance (1993), the slaughter in the diner that opens Oliver Stone's semi-Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers (1994). Before he became overly enamored of emptily gorgeous spectacle, Bernardo Bertolucci constructed similarly mind-boggling mid-film epiphanies, albeit scenes less triggered by literary games than by massively repressed homosexual longing, almost always by a man for a boy: the adolescent junkie's seduction by a father look-alike in Luna (1979), a child's spontaneous shooting of his pedophile suitor in The Conformist (1971), the upper-class boy's horrendous murder by his working-class molester in 1900 (1977). Bertolucci's films have a strong political outlook, are versed in 20th-century philosophy, and are obsessively concerned with and painfully befuddled by their characters' hidden motivations. By comparison, Tarantino's films are pointedly thrill-seeking and apsychological.
Tarantino does one thing with absolute brilliance: he boxes talky, neurotic, bright but half-articulate, schlumpy characters into parallel orbits around an agreeable, slightly flammable, usually trendy topic - Madonna, TV chat shows, kinky sex, etc. The conversations he constructs are so superficially systematic that when one character grows frightened of a commitment to the interchange, separates, and unleashes some private insanity on his or her companion, the effect is nightmarish. In Tarantino's view, contemporary humans are something on the order of walking-talking issues of Details magazine, addicted to MTV chat and tabloid trivia. A verbal scrim unites his characters but quarantines the aspects of their psyches they cannot articulate - sexual attraction, emotional involvement, spiritual interests, etc. As a result, his characters are continually jittery, but the psychological reasons for their jitters are never specified, probably because Tarantino is afraid to know them.
While it's easy to recognize his characters' transgressive impulses - which are more savvily up to the minute than authentically personalized - their transgressions have no resonance. In fact the violence in his films would have a pornographic effect if it wasn't for the way he manipulates the viewers' morality. This moralistic fascination with the amoral, which is shared by David Lynch among others, may be the main reason why, apart from their poetic gift of the gab, Tarantino's films are more compelling than, say, neorealistic "streetwise" TV series like NYPD Blue, but less absorbing than a docuaction series like Cops, which focuses, with similar irony but less agenda, on a similar social register (disenfranchised lower middle class).
The thing is, Tarantino is such a talented writer, and his neuroses feel unusually emblematic of the general cultural malaise circa the early '90s. His p.o.v., frequently attacked for its cheap shots at the powerless, is actually, albeit selectively, compassionate -strangely innocent and guileless. Tarantino tends to rescue and recontextualize unintentionally sublime scenes from the skid row of B-movie history, like some post-Modern Florence Nightingale with a soft spot re cultural trash.
Tarantino's writing is so pure in its own weird way that it misfires when he isn't in the director's chair. If it weren't for the prettiness of its script, True Romance would be a misshapen and aimless action flick for the MTV set. Its ugliness is too ugly, its cleverness too paved over by technical competence, its p.o.v. too blandly disapproving of its protagonists. Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino partially scripted and now disowns, has its technical charms, but Stone's cinematographic overdrive flattens the dialogue's obsessive machinations. Tarantino isn't such a great director either (or not yet anyway) - he's just a carefully skillful, sincere one. But it's hard to imagine a better look to go along with his scripts. He may be an artist on the order of songwriter and fellow ironist Randy Newman, whose complex yet simply crafted songs function only in his own clunky, amateurish renditions. Both men's talents are just a little too idiosyncratic and fueled by unconscious drives to survive an out-of-body experience.
Tarantino's possibly doomed to be an imperfect maverick filmmaker, not what some would like him to be - the new Robert Towne or Paul Schrader, pre-directorial pre-tensions. While the hype around his skimpy, samey output may strike some as too much too soon, it's not especially surprising. Two or three films down the road, Tarantino's little tricks could well be schtick; in fact I'd lay money on it. For now, though, his peculiar talent feels real, and obviously life is short.
American culture generally enjoys cleverness: it is so much easier to grasp than real intelligence, so much less challenging and dangerous. Cleverness doesn't disturb, it keeps people happy, gives them "kicks," it', all slick fun. And Americans are supposed to be happy - isn't this the land of equal opportunity, so if you're not happy it', your own fault, there must be something wrong with you. Cleverness helps you to forget that things might be different, might be better, that a struggle for change might be desirable and necessary: sure the culture's shot to pieces, but it's still good for a laugh if you look at things in the right, the c/ever, way. Cleverness feeds on and nurtures cynicism and nihilism. Pulp Fiction is a work of phenomenal cleverness and no intelligence whatsoever.
Cleverness assumes a special function in an age of economic collapse and moral, emotional, and psychological confusion and desperation. In the land of the free and happy, despair cannot be ideologically countenanced. There are two antidotes: an abrupt swing to the right, involving the restoration of the Good Old Values (capitalism, patriarchy, the nuclear family), underpinned by a revival of the more debased forms of religion; and, as an alternative refuge, the resurgence of cynicism. The one offers the comforting sense that if you follow the Bible you'll go to Heaven, and people who don't will go to Hell; the other offers the equally comforting sense that if everything is hopeless and change is impossible, all you can do is have as much fun as possible.
How long will Quentin Tarantino (and the Tarantino craze) last? Pulp Fiction and its companion piece, True Romance, which Tarantino didn't direct but wrote, do not strike me as representing the kind of creativity that can sustain itself for long. A brief blaze followed by an abrupt fizzle, like those other comets of post-'70s critical hysteria David Lynch and the Coen brothers? Lynch has already sunk below the horizon, and the Coens are sinking even as I write. Creativity cannot survive for long on a diet of cynicism and nihilism, even with the support and encouragement of contemporary critical "taste." Pulp Fiction has given critics exactly what they wanted in 1994, just as Blue Velvet did in 1986, and Tarantino will doubtless thrive briefly on their adulation - until the next comet appears.
But the issue may not be quite so simple. I have not yet mentioned Reservoir Dogs, and Reservoir Dogs, although discernibly by the same artist as Pulp Fiction, is another matter. The essential difference between the films is epitomized in the two, superficially similar torture scenes: that in Reservoir Dogs is genuinely appalling, while that in Pulp Fiction is clearly offered as funny. (The entire Bruce Willis episode in Pulp Fiction, Christopher Walken's brilliant monologue aside, strikes me as the low point of Tarantino's career so far.) The earlier film's relative modesty and discipline, combined with its force, tautness, and precision, suggest an underlying seriousness of purpose - an underlying intelligence that Pulp Fiction fritters away in adolescent self-indulgence.
The distinction of Reservoir Dogs lies not merely in its formal perfection (the intricately nonchronological narrative structure) and the single-minded rigor with which its thesis ("reservoir dogs" end up eating each other) is worked out, but in its very particular relation to the contemporary crisis of "masculinity." The threat to masculinity represented by the growing emancipation, independence, and activeness of women has evoked a range of responses in the culture that are mirrored in Hollywood cinema. There has been the attempt (almost invariably compromised and recuperative) to depict strong, "liberated" women, and the corresponding attempt to define a new version of "Mr. Nice Guy," the sensitive and caring male. The alternative response is the hysterical overvaluation and exaggeration of masculinity represented by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Norris (often spilling over, at least in the case of the first two, into knowing but uneasy parody that allows us sophisticates to indulge ourselves while not taking it all too seriously). Reservoir Dogs carries this almost to the point of a kind of mass psychosis, the characters (not one of whom remains alive at the end) destroyed by the very drives that make them so destructive.
Women scarcely appear in the film, and are violently treated when they do. the references to them in the dialogue define them exclusively as sex objects. The men's inability to relate to women on any other level has two inevitable consequences: the total repression of their own femininity, and the constantly lurking threat of homosexuality. Tarantino's films, and for that matter his interviews, are shot through with homoerotic reference, and sometimes by its converse, homophobia: see, for instance, his celebrated riff on Top Gun in his cameo appearance in Sleep with Me. This becomes most explicit - indeed, to the point of obsession - in True Romance (which was directed by Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun): within the first five minutes we are regaled with the hero's fantasy of fucking Elvis Presley, and from there the references recur pervasively.
The men of Reservoir Dogs, conditioned not to love women, are evaluated in terms of their ability (or in most cases their inability) to love each other. The poles are represented by Michael Madsen's Mr. Blond and Harvey Keitel's Mr. White. The former is the film's explicitly psychotic character, incapable of relating to anyone except by violence. When he slices off the cop's ear with a razor, his immediate taunt defines the act's essentially sexual nature: "Was that as good for you as it was for me?" The moment is "answered" at the end of the film by the erotic tenderness with which Keitel cradles the wounded undercover man (Tim Roth), who responds to this sudden and intense intimacy by confessing his identity - whereupon Keitel shoots him. It's the one moment in Tarantino's work so far where he discovers a sense of the tragic; it's also the climactic moment of the film, its culmination and its "point." Keitel provides Reservoir Dogs with the moral center that Pulp Fiction so conspicuously and disastrously lacks.
When Pulp Fiction appeared, a few reviewers, while frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm, expressed a fear that Tarantino might be "spoiled" by such swift success. To me, the film seems the work of someone already spoiled, but reseeing Reservoir Dogs gives me pause: a far more distinguished debut film than those of either Lynch or the Coens, it suggests (as theirs do not) a kind of creativity that might survive and develop. In fact there are areas of interest in Tarantino's work out of which creative development might be possible. One would entail confronting and resolving the implications of the obsessive homoerotic references. Another, which might at first glance appear contradictory, arises out of the commitment to a wildly romantic amour fou that is the main impetus of the screenplays for both True Romance and Natural Born Killers. After all, Gregg Araki fused the two in The Living End, an even more remarkable debut than Reservoir Dogs.
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|Title Annotation:||director Quentin Tarantino|
|Author:||Wood, Robert Paul|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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