Aug 17, 2009

What went wrong, Quentin?

"I have sibling rivalry with Orson Welles. I don't think he's that good...all right? I have sibling rivalry with him and Stanley Kubrick" — Quentin Tarantino on CBS Sunday Morning
I have no desire to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie. This fact amazes me. I used to love his films. They felt so fresh and startling and original you felt like you'd just laughed yourself awake. That's quite a come-down, from 'as good as laughing yourself awake' to 'don't even want to see them.'

So what happened?

Reading reviews you get the impression that Tarantino has lost his edge, or gotten too grandiose, or self-involved, or arrogant, or whatever (insert relevant word here). I don't think that quite accounts for the difference between films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, on the one hand, and the films he's been making recently: Kill Bill, Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds. It's not just that the former are good and the latter are bad. The two groups of films are so wholly different, the gap between them so marked that its more like a switch of genre, or aesthetic. It's not that Tarantino trying to do what he did before and failing. He is doing something completely different. That different thing is very wrong, and it's killing his filmmaking, but it's quite deliberate on his part.

So what is the thing he's doing different? I'm going to think it over some, try to put my finger on it, but here are some initial thoughts.

He's making action movies now. But he's not really an action movie director. He used to make movies about what happened before the violence started, or after the action had subsided. He was all prelude and after shock. That's what made him so formally inventive. Just look at the flashback structure of Reservoir Dogs, or the looping narrative of Pulp Fiction. Its like he was making movies out of all the bits other directors left on the cutting room floor. He's not doing that anymore. He's making them out of the same bits other directors make their movies.

He's playing away from home. Neither Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds are set in contemporary America. Kill Bill takes place within the kung-fu universe. Inglorious Basterds takes place within the Nazi movie universe. But Tarantino writes dialogues for contemporary Americans. It's what he's best at: profane, loopy dialogue that glances off contemporary pop culture in a way that connects with an audience, even as the situation on screen does not. Most members of his audience have not held a gun to someone's head. But they'd eaten Pop tarts. His films used to live in that gap.

Not anymore. There's no contrast, no twists, no transplant. It's as if Spielberg, in 1984, had decided that he didn't want to make make movies that filter sci-fi ideas through a suburban setting, but wanted to make pure sci-fi films — no suburbia, just rocket ships and lasers. He's not playing to his strengths; he's playing to his weaknesses.

1 comment:

  1. Grindhouse was possibly my least favorite movie of 2007, and I saw like 130. For me it was like: he didn't make an homage to b-movies, he actually made one. And b-movies are bad! They're stupid and boring. The Kill Bills were slightly better, I thought, because the cleverness of dialogue and shot-making was still there, but I think you nailed it. I'll probably see Inglorious Bastards, but, yeah... it's too bad.