Has anyone else noticed that it’s just like October, 1994 all over again? For a few weeks there, it seemed like all anyone could talk about was Pulp Fiction. Now, nine years later, people you know are tottering out of the theater spent and agog after seeing the new sexy ultraviolence, and once again you’re either in the club or you’re not: Have you seen Kill Bill?
It shouldn’t be so surprising that Quentin Tarantino is blowing people away again for the first time, but somehow it is. Face it: 1997’s Jackie Brown wasn’t exactly the Pulp Fiction II for which a lot of people were thirsting. After that, the erstwhile enfant terrible seemed to drop right off the radar.
And then those first crazy previews catching us unawares this summer! New Tarantino movie? Man, it looks ridiculous! And judging from the initial audience response, it seemed just as likely that Tarantino’s big comeback would get shot to bits before it even left the trench.
Fortunately for him, critics and audiences alike have a long and indulgent memory for the Tarantino who brought them Pulp Fiction and, before that, Reservoir Dogs. For many, Kill Bill finds the jut-jawed autodidact renewing vows of style that most of us had nearly forgotten about. And when you think about it, it’s amazing that we ever could have forgotten about Quentin Tarantino, because all this time we’ve been living with the hangover of post-Tarantino cinema. Or perhaps you fancy some of the following Tarantino trademarks still bakery-fresh, long after they’ve fallen into the public domain?
Fractured fairy tales
Though he no more invented the techniques than he invented the wheel, it’s safe to say that Tarantino revitalized a number of non-linear storytelling devices in his first two films, like retrospect and chapters based on individual characters (“Mr. Orange,” “Mr. White”). Pulp Fiction is a fabulous shaggy-dog tale that fully rounds out four dimensions, getting ahead of itself, falling behind and catching up again by plaiting together its various story lines. Parts of it are overlong and self-indulgent, but the film more than compensates with its elegant narrative arc—or, rather, narrative circle.
One of the most lasting effects of Pulp Fiction is the slew of “urban coincidence”-type movies that followed, in which the knotty crochet binding strangers together through car accidents, kidnappings and other misfortunes is unraveled into its component strands. Tarantino’s films have had a tonic effect on film narrative elsewhere, reinvigorating the non-linear in all its pregnant possibilities. Though the links can rarely be proven, Tarantino evidently inspired a lot of screenwriters and directors to reassess, at the editing level, not just what was being told in a story but how and when. Some of these movies are quite good—the Australian film Lantana, for example, and the very Tarantino-esque Go!, starring Sarah Polley.
On the other hand, Tarantino’s style also emboldened countless lesser imitators to bite his moves shamelessly. Their transgressions are many, the most common being the unfortunate assumption that fractured editing, Pulp Fiction-style, can magically produce something worthwhile out of a story that simply isn’t.
Ooga ooga ooga chaka
Tarantino, you have to admit, has a way with musical montage and pairing music and image. He plunders ’70s AM with an ear for dusty gems like “Little Green Bag” and “Hooked on a Feeling” and pipelines the music, via car radio and reel-to-reel tape players, into the action in a way that makes it seem like the characters are enjoying it, too. As a happy economic side-effect, Tarantino’s eclectic tastes have also given some of these musicians a new lease on life. Link Wray, for example, must be sleeping on a pile of Tarantino money these days; it’s telling of the director’s cultural cannibalism that he prizes instrumental surf music even while professing his disdain for surfer culture in numerous interviews.
But then again, a subversive repurposing of AM gold is one of Tarantino’s most recognizable trademarks. Particularly interesting is his technique of pitting adult-easy-listening banality against squalor and sadism onscreen, as when Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde slices off a captive police officer’s ear while grooving to Stealer’s Wheel in Reservoir Dogs. Or when Mia Wallace hoovers up the wrong white powder in Pulp Fiction to the accompaniment of Neil Diamond’s cradle-robbing classic “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” as performed by Urge Overkill. But again: Pairing cheese with horror is one of the many licks in the Tarantino fake-book that started sounding out of tune and repetitive as more and more movies stole it.
Dead nigger storage
Watch Reservoir Dogs and the first thing to inflame your cultural sensitivities is probably going to be the frequent invocation of nigger. Not just the word, but also a quick primer in what niggers do—treat their women like shit and brawl with each other instead of working out mutually beneficial courses of action, e.g. after a simple stick-up job turns into a bloody mess.
It’s a naughty thrill to hear characters in Tarantino’s movie toss around no-no words with such reckless enthusiasm—more to the point, with such apparent license. Tarantino’s detractors cite this particular subcategory of gratuitousness as evidence of his latent racism, permissible (just barely) because it’s his characters who are doing the talking. Detractors would say these characters are sounding boards; others might simply see them as safety valves, surrogates for those times when you feel like locking yourself in the bathroom and saying no-no words just for the cathartic naughtiness of it.
Credible or not, you have to admit that Tarantino was pushing the limits of credibility with the exceptionally contrived-sounding “dead nigger storage” routine in Pulp Fiction—a movie that also expanded on Reservoir Dogs’ lexicon of discursively nigger-like behavior in a number of other unsettling ways. Influential ways, too: In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead—easily one of the worst of the Tarantino knockoffs that began appearing in 1995—Marcellus Wallace’s “pipe-hitting nigger” revenge-oath is “borrowed” almost word for word.
Closely related to the PC-baiting is Tarantino’s relish for loading up dialogue with cult movie references, brand-name comparisons, trivial asides, crank theories and pet rants. In any Tarantino movie, the viewer is treated to at least three pocket treatises on issues that seem more of interest to Tarantino himself than to anyone else in the movie.
For the viewer with a passing interest in the pragmatic aspects of criminal culture, movies like Reservoir Dogs also provide a wealth of interesting tidbits wrapped up in tough-guy dialogue. It’s a little like reading the field-tested sex tips in magazines like Maxim: There’s a feeling of power that goes with being privy to classified information—even if some of those trade secrets are grisly enough to make you wish they hadn’t been passed on to you.
But those subversive thrills also lost some of their appeal once the post-Tarantino landscape started getting crowded with pretenders. Once again, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is to Pulp Fiction as Creed is to Pearl Jam—an imitation so shoddy that it even takes some of the luster off the original. The 1995 movie is little more than a tedious attempt to outstrip Tarantino in gratuitous talk, if not action, to the detriment of nearly everything else. The whole “buckwheat” thing in particular (if you haven’t seen the movie, you don’t want to know) made it extremely difficult to concentrate on the love story.
Mostly, though, Tarantino’s movies are unique for their level of pop-culture saturation. Characters are conversant in TV pilots, international parlance for various types of fast-food hamburger and the hidden meanings in Madonna songs. It was funny for a while—until it became apparent no post-Pulp Fiction movie could be released that didn’t include at least one tedious dissection of sexual subtext in Smurf Village or Gilligan’s Island. Richard Linklater (Slacker) is probably as much to blame for this trend as Quentin Tarantino, but Tarantino deserves special mention for his cameo in Rory Kelly’s 1994 Sleep with Me, in which he buttonholes a hapless partygoer with an elaborate exegesis of homoerotic allegory in Top Gun.
Typecasting Samuel L. Jackson
Pulp Fiction revived the film careers of Bruce Willis and John Travolta. Good for them. Jackie Brown brought Pam Grier and Robert Forster out of mothballs, which was even better.
But how about the careers of frequent Tarantino collaborators like Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken? For a while, there, Jackson could have read names from a phone book and fans would have swooned. The marvelous, sadistic scene in Pulp Fiction where Jackson’s hit man toys with Frank Whaley, nibbling his hamburger and polishing off the rest of his soda before shooting him, is practically the Rosetta Stone of Jackson’s acting career. It’s all right there.
But eventually things got to the point where Samuel L. Jackson was basically appearing as himself in Tarantino mode, regardless of who was making the movie—as Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown, Hejira Henry in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. He became a predictable quantity, a stock typecast—show up, lay a heavy rap or two, add credibility, collect paycheck. And now he’s Mace Windu in the awful new Star Wars prequels. Go figure.
Christopher Walken was just as marginalized. After his menacing performances in Pulp Fiction and the Tarantino-penned True Romance, all a movie had to do for a piece of Tarantino credibility was land Christopher Walken in a small part as a scary crime boss or something similar. Walken’s roles in True Romance, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings, Excess Baggage and at least half a dozen other films (most recently 2003’s Kangaroo Jack) are in many ways interchangeable. Sure, you could argue that Walken was doomed to a career of playing brooding weirdos from the moment he appeared in Annie Hall, but Tarantino projects have probably done the most to calcify his career—though not necessarily in a bad way.
It needs to be mentioned that not all directors who obviously idolize Tarantino are left with uniformly horrible movies to show for their admiration. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is a good example of what can happen when a director whose style has clearly been informed by the Tarantino oeuvre infuses that same garage-band aesthetic with local color, in this case the criminal underworld with a cockney soundtrack. Tarantino has even acknowledged a kind of cross-town rivalry with Barrels director Guy Ritchie, wryly observing (after Ritchie married Madonna) that he would probably have to marry Elvis Presley to get even.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that the global movie village could eventually boast of a British Tarantino, an Italian Tarantino, a Mexican Tarantino, a Russian Tarantino—even a “black Tarantino” from South Africa! A lot of these appellations probably just reflect a critical need to pigeonhole, but it’s probably also true that there’s a world of Tarantino-inflected cinema out there awaiting discovery. Thanks to the director’s own Rolling Thunder Pictures, you can also check out hand-picked Tarantino favorites like Chungking Express and The Mighty Peking Man.
By way of closing, here’s another recommendation: If you like Quentin Tarantino at his chop-sockiest, check out anything you can get your hands on by Takashi Miike, the self-described “rabid dog” of Japanese cinema. In 1999’s Dead or Alive (available from Kino on Video: www.kino.com), a hooker plunges to her death with a fistful of drugs, a tryst in the men’s room erupts in fountains of blood, a shotgun blast eviscerates a Japanese crime-boss, and a stripper sheds her kit while writhing around on a pole. And that’s just the first 10 minutes. It’s more Tarantino than Tarantino, and for once that’s a good thing.