Friday, April 20, 2007

Tarantino Discourse

On the film blogging circuit, I have encountered a number of great discussions/commentaries about Quentin Tarantino and his new film Death Proof. Though I have yet to see Grindhouse, I am deeply familiar with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. And since the recent discussion about his artistic merit explores many larger and necessary issues in cinema studies that desperately require attention - such as originality and reflexivity in cinema - I was compelled to engage some of these perspectives.

Over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlrich have put together another wonderful point/counter-point about Quentin Tarantino, discussing everything from his notions of violence, East vs. West narrative structure, and his reflexive quotatations of the films and film styles that influence his films. One of the most interesting segments of the article is Seitz's comparison of Tarantino to The Simpsons:

"My daughter is really into The Simpsons, which in a strange way I think has a sensibility that's closer to Tarantino's than that of any single filmmaker. There's a scene in this one episode where the Schwarzenegger muscleman character, Ranier Wolfcastle, appears on Springfield Squares, and they introduce him by having him talk about his latest film, which is about a businessman who goes to his old college where his son is now enrolled and is horrified to discover that his son has become a nerd. The host, the newscaster Kent Brockman, says, "That sounds very funny," and Wolfcastle says, "It's not a comedy." My daughter laughed at that, then she said, "Dad, why is that funny?" And I thought: Wow, now I've got to explain seven or eight different things to her. I've got to explain Hollywood Squares, the idea of Kent Brockman the newscaster doubling as a game show host, the whole subgenre of back-to-college movies and the obsession with nerds in the 1980s, and the entire career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, just for that one joke. The Simpsons is probably going to outlast all of the things it's making fun of, and in making fun of them, it's going to preserve their memory.

I wonder if Tarantino's movies aren't serving a similar function. He's like a one-man Smithsonian of schlock. The Kill Bill movies in particular are like a widescreen pop culture equivalent of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," a museum of 20th century genres. For a lot of college students studying English literature, their exposure to certain early and pre-20th century events, ideas and works of literature comes about because they had to read "The Waste Land" and research its footnotes, not because of initial exposure to that which inspired Eliot."

Matt raises a keen point in highlighting the spectator's relationship to Tarantino's films and influences. While this issue may be getting away from focusing on the images of the films themselves, but it's interesting to note that Tarantino's legion of fans by and large understand the cinema and culture that Tarantino evokes in his movies through Tarantino's presentation of them. Obviously, not all of Tarantino's admirers fall into this category, but I have no doubt that Tarantino's status over the last 15 years as a bona fide auteur (one of a very chosen few to emerge within that time span) is evidence of his appeal to the new generation of "independent" filmmakers and film viewers. However, I sense a great disconnect between Tarantino's passionate reconstruction of these cultures of cinema's past and the manner in which that is interpreted by his admirers. Which is why the Simpsons comparison strikes such a strong chord.

Even though Tarantino has only made a handful of feature films, his filmmaking career is now taking shape to the extent that there appears to be an growing divide between early Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and to an extent, Jackie Brown), and present Tarantino (Death Proof, Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2). While early Tarantino no doubt was influenced heavily by Scorsese, Allen, DePalma, Leone, Asian Cinema, etc., such influences were less reflexive and less an active part of his filmmaking in the sense that they are much more so now. For all their style, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are strongly character-based. They seemed fresh and vibrant when they were received because Tarantino made them at a time in which more films were playing it safe and were nicely pre-packaged into categories such as "blockbusters" or "serious adult dramas." Tarantino is often thought of as one of the auteurs to kick-start the independent scene, and these two films could not have been more appropriate, offering a fusion of various influences, overt expression of style, and subtle interaction and compositions.

His newer films, some would argue, feature a more open embrace of these influences. Kill Bill and (from what it seems) Death Proof are films in which he makes the viewers blatantly aware of such styles and influences. This has spurned a recent discourse about Tarantino focused on an idea of originality and how artistically valid these films are. How can a filmmaker that makes his own work (at least recently) so blatantly full of homages to other films call himself original? It's a tough issue, one that needs to be talked about more in-depth on a critical level. Getting back to Matt Zoller Seitz's comments, I would argue that viewers who are deeply aware of cinema history and its practices are more likely to understand Tarantino's work not so much as empty pastiche of such traditions but deeply imbued with a new aesthetic. Viewers less aware of cinema history and studies may be more proned to appreciate Tarantino purely on a topical, stylistic level. But I would argue that there is much more going on in his films that would seem obvious to your "typical" critic.

David Bordwell recently wrote about the nature of pastiche and plagiarism, essentially claiming that when it comes to moving images and narrative conventions, it's hard to pinpoint plagiarism. While this doesn't directly apply to Tarantino, who reflexively calls attention to his influences, it does bring up a larger issue of coming up with new images and whether pastiche efforts like Tarantino's Kill Bill, for example, offer anything unique to itself. But what film is capable of living up to the idealistic notion of originality that some viewers expect of films or narratives? Even the most seemingly original work is inspired in some form or another by previous films. No film exists in a vacuum. Images are made based on what a filmmakers has already seen. A good filmmaker has a keen knowledge of the images previous films conjured, yet can also work within such stylistic and narrative devices to expand upon them and form new styles and images. Tarantino recognizes this, and he offers a unique perspective to reflexivity in cinema.

Another point/counterpoint discussion touching on these very ideas is posted at Kim Morgan's blog, Sunset Gun. In her defense of Tarantino, in particular his Kill Bill films, Kim offers a unique perspective:

"He's not just cataloging favorite scenes from Asian cinema, spaghetti Westerns, Brian De Palma, giallo, exploitation and redneck road movies; he's actually building on them, mixing the aesthetic and thematic elements into a feverish work of grand geek opera. And he knows we know that. He's not, like some other "inspired" filmmakers, simply copying Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman; he's tweaking and amplifying what he truly knows of life -- movies -- and Tarantino is a fan of cinema from the Grindhouse to the Art House. In that sense, he's a lot like Godard. And, really, a lot like Woody Allen, who also riffs on his influences (Stardust Memories? Fellini, anyone?) and continually chats about movies and music throughout his films. Maybe April March's "Chick Habit" (used at the end of Death Proof) isn't as classy as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (used in Allen's Manhattan) but ... oh what the hell, the brilliant Serge Gainsbourg wrote it, so maybe it is. I truly believe Tarantino is (ahem) "shedding light on the human condition" via Kill Bill and Death Proof in that the human condition is not only comprised of what is real but what we fantasize about. When I watched Uma break through that grave in Kill Bill, I was significantly moved. And when Traci Thoms turned her Challenger around to pursue a murderous Kurt Russell, I was inspired. Why is that response, even in the most fantastical of scenes, any less meaningful than watching a movie where someone does something mature and responsible?"

She goes on to add the following:

"Amidst all the Sergio Leone, Kinji Fukasaku, "Twisted Nerve" ecstatic beauty of "Kill Bill," there's real emotion there. And, as much as he riffs and synthesizes and fetishizes, I can safely say I've never seen a movie like "Kill Bill." He makes these psychotropic mélanges all his own."

I'm inclined to agree with her insofar that with these films, Tarantino is essentially breathing life into the influences he's evoking. Kim's comments hint at deeper issues of how viewers familiarize themselves with images or narrative conventions. This issue of originality seems to be processed on a very topical level. If we are focused only on visual trademarks and details, we may be preventing ourselves from feeling what they are doing. Like I mentioned previously, only those who understand cinema history and these past styles deeply enough are aware that Tarantino is not simply replicating them. The temptation with Tarantino's more recent films such as Kill Bill, as they are obviously made as tributes to old filmmaking styles and traditions, is to interpret them exclusively within that pastiche mold. If we do this, we are greatly limiting our ability to see beyond the surface details of the intentionally familiar images. That is the danger of viewing films like this and it is also the danger of making them. But I believe that Tarantino is more than just a one-trick pony and that within these familiar stylistic frameworks he is allowing older styles to grow and interact differently, thus yielding a new aesthetic style and a new way of seeing experiencing cinema.

Tarantino is still experimenting with composition, violence, and character interaction in his recent films; only now he is self-awarely operating within narrative and stylistic frameworks of cinema's past. But there is much more going on than a simple hop-scotch from one cinematic style to the next. These styles push up against each other in their odd juxtapositions, exploiting the beauties, artifices, and nuances of them. This is only possible through understanding them in relation to each other, as well as in relation to an acknowledged present in which these styles no longer exist. By this I mean that Tarantino knows that the spectator is aware that these conventions are no longer in practice. By putting them back into practice, he is framing more contrasts and relationships to how viewers understanding certain images, styles, and conventions.

Any filmmaker can do this can call it artistic, but Tarantino's unique style is in how he allows the artifice of these styles to yield sensation that is simultaneously real and superficial. He clearly loves cinematic storytelling, enough to show off its artificial nature. In so doing, he also taps into the beauty and necessity of not just narrative, but cinematic narrative. His reflexive playfulness with cinematic style then serves as a springboard for exploring cinematic absolutes such as pleasure, violence, revenge, love, and sensation in ways exclusive to cinema.

No comments: