Quentin Tarantino watches a whole lot of movies, to considerable purpose, as most of the best bits in his own movies are lifted from other people’s. Pulp Fiction‘s “cleaner” sequence plagiarizes, down to the name, the one from La Femme Nikita. It even uses Harvey Keitel, who played the same part in Point of No Return, Nikita‘s word-for-word American remake for the subtitle-impaired. The colorfully named crooks of Reservoir Dogs first appear in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a little thriller so taut and well-made that it must make Tarantino weep with envy. To be fair, the original lacked a Mr. Pink, and Steve Buscemi’s plaint of “Why do I have to be Mr. Pink?” seems to be Tarantino’s invention.
Jackie Brown, which I could not bring myself to see, advertised itself as a “homage” to 70s blaxploitation films, starring Pam Grier for bonus verisimilitude. (This term, in Tarantino’s universe, refers to fidelity not to life but to other movies.) “Homage” is one of the many euphemisms for plagiarism that litter Tarantino reviews. Others include “nod,” “take,” “view,” “deconstruction,” and “twist.”
Tarantino’s new movie, Kill Bill, will be released in two parts; this is Volume 1. The “volume” has “chapters” too. This an ironic reference to the fact that it’s not a book, it’s a movie. The curiously stilted dialogue manages to be at once formal and ungrammatical, as if it had been translated from English to Japanese and back a few times. Now Tarantino, being a genius, knows that “vermin” sounds silly in the singular and the difference between who and whom. Tarantino could not possibly intend lines like “with your own beautiful blue eye” (said to the Daryl Hannah character, who wears an unexplained eyepatch) and “Silly rabbit, tricks are for kids” to pass for wit. So these must be ironic references to the badly translated subtitles of the chop-socky movies to which Kill Bill is a “homage.”
The plot involves a team of beautiful girl assassins, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DVAS, get it? huh? huh?), managed by an off-screen character named Bill (David Carradine), to whom they are utterly devoted. This is an ironic reference to Charlie’s Angels, or a nod to it, or a twist on it, or something. Bill turns against one of his Angels (Uma Thurman) for no specified reason, and on her wedding day sends his whole team to finish the party off.
The combined efforts of Bill and his lovelies result in killing everybody but Uma herself, who awakes from a coma four years later bent on revenge. Tarantino wisely does not overburden the viewer with motive. He sweeps aside bagatelles like whom she was marrying, why she was pregnant, why everyone at the wedding has to die along with the target, why she joined the Deadly Vipers in the first place, how the best female assassins in the world and their boss can botch such a simple job, why the other girls all hate her, and why everyone in the damn movie insists on using swords instead of guns anyway — which I recall seeing an ironic reference to someplace. Vol. 2 may clear these matters up, or perhaps Tarantino will leave them hanging, as ironic references to making sense. In any case, he brings us quickly to the swordfighting, which is really the point. If you don’t enjoy watching people lose their appendages then Kill Bill may not be the wisest choice for your entertainment dollar.
Tarantino is often criticized for drawing on television and other movies instead of his own experience. This is unjust. So far as I can tell, his experience, aside from an occasional bar brawl, consists entirely of watching movies and television. What else would you expect him to draw on?
If your local video parlor is anything like mine, it is staffed by film junkies who pride themselves on knowing the good bits of every movie. They can quote at length from more movies than you and I will ever see and are lost if you ask them what any of those movies is actually about. They are all writing screenplays. If a major studio ever greenlights one the result may resemble Kill Bill.
Tarantino was a video clerk in his youth. It is rare for anyone to find his calling early in life; one hopes that his unfortunate detour into Hollywood superstardom will be short. His movies are pastiche, all good bits because he does not understand what makes the good bits good. This explains his special fondness for blaxploitation and chop-socky, which even at their best have a few memorable lines and scenes with no context to support them. Listen to the great man himself, in his Newsweek interview:
Interviewer: Its like when youre a kid, you say, Oh, just give me the good parts.
Tarantino: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, God, you could almost make a case that thats my whole theory in filmmaking: take out all the shit that weve already seen a million times before, and that we never liked in the first place, and just get right to the good stuff.
For “the good stuff” read “grotesque violence.” At some point it may occur to Tarantino that the goodness of the good stuff depends on all that other shit that we never liked in the first place. Then again it may not.
The true geniuses behind Kill Bill are the brothers Weinstein, who decided to release it in two parts. A tetralogy couldn’t tie up the loose ends in Vol. 1, but what do Bob and Harvey care? They disguise the mess and get two admissions for the price of one production budget. By the time Volume 2 comes out, in February, Tarantino’s fans will have forgotten that the package is nonsense, if they cared in the first place.
About Tarantino there is only one interesting question: Is he firmly convinced of his own genius, or does he wake up in a sweat at 3 AM, wondering when the world will wise up? I don’t know. His best friends may not know. Only one man can say for sure, and he isn’t telling.
(Update: Rick Coencas comments. Alex(ei) also comes to Tarantino’s defense.)
(And: Gregg Easterbrook is even harsher than I am, which I didn’t think was possible. The whole Jewish movie executive business at the end of the piece is a bit loopy though. Nate Bruinooge has some especially interesting comments. Ian Hamet strikes a more mature attitude.)