Oct 122003

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.)

  15 Responses to “The Video Clerk As Auteur”

  1. I saw Kill Bill over the weekend, and agree that it’s a pretty lame movie. Your overall assessment of Tarantino’s work, however, leaves much to be desired. Reservoir Dogs was little more than a student film for him, but even there, his visual energy and witty dialogue were readily apparent. And his 3rd film, Jackie Brown, was based on an Elmore Leonard novel (so apparently Quentin has read at least one book) and contained practically no violence or cartoony ‘homage’ flourishes of any kind. It’s a good (and, precisely because it is so un-Tarantino-like, underrated) movie with mature characters and a fun story. You might want to watch it sometime.

    As for Pulp Fiction, your dismissal of that movie as shallow pastiche — i.e., as bad art — has always rung hollow for me and, I suspect, for almost anyone who has seen it. He created real characters with real motivations in that movie, and pulled off multiple storylines with real style and wit. The ‘pastiche’ and ‘video clerk’ jokes are, to be blunt, shallow dismissals that were cliche about a decade ago. Your kicker seems to imply that anyone who could convince a studio to give him $50 million could watch some old exploitation films and create "Pulp Fiction." This is such a glib, condescending and inaccurate take on the skill required to make a decent movie that it’s kind of laughable.

    Regardless of what we think of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, let us remember that it was that movie and, a few years earlier, sex, lies and videotape, that turned independent filmmaking into a significant creative and financial industry, and for those of us who love movies, the indies become more important all the time, as economic imperatives move studio filmmaking ever deeper into brainlessness. For the steady flow of quality small films that come out every year, we all owe Quentin and Robert Redford (who created the Sundance festival) a debt of gratitude.

  2. There’s nothing wrong about pastiche, although it may seem that cinema is too young an art to reduce itself to autoquotation — unlike literature, which has pretty much exhausted the originality pool. Tarantino’s movies simply shouldn’t be taken at face value — they are intended to be taken as centones, to use a musical term.

  3. Michael: I realize that Quentin Tarantino’s genius is a cherished superstition of yours, and I am truly sorry to have to disturb it.

    Tarantino’s slender reed of talent is for dialogue, although many people credit even that to his lesser-known collaborator, Avary. His talk is not witty, unless you regard ESPN catch-phrases as witty, but it does ring true sometimes. Pulp Fiction loosed an army of adolescents and adolescents-in-spirit threatening to get medieval on each other’s asses, and we may be permanently stuck with the phrase, a fate narrowly averted for "royale with cheese" and "dead nigger storage."

    "Real characters," "real motivations," "multiple storylines," "style and wit": the cineast doth protest too much. Saying it does not make it so. My description of the mind of Tarantino is scarcely original, but I will claim to be one of the first to use it opprobriously. Run "pulp fiction pastiche video clerk" through Google and you’ll see what I mean.

    I fail to see what bearing the history of independent film has on my post, but didn’t Pulp Fiction cost about $8 million — not huge but not chump change either — and wasn’t it distributed by Miramax and provided with a national marketing campaign?

    "Cliche," incidentally, is still a noun. "Quality" used to be too, but I won’t fight that battle any more.

    Alex(ei): If Tarantino’s movies aren’t to be taken at face value, then how are they to be taken? They strike me as nothing but face value.

  4. In "From Dusk Till Dawn" Tarantino cast Selma Hayek as a vampire. This is his single shining moment. It is the most exquisite way to become undead I can imagine.

  5. Bill: Tarantino didn’t cast anyone in "From Dusk Till Dawn"; he just wrote the screenplay. Robert Rodriguez directed it, which is why it sucked. But your point about Salma Hayek is well-taken.


    >"Real characters," "real motivations," "multiple storylines," "style and wit": the cineast doth protest too much. Saying it does not make it so.

    No, it doesn’t; nor does your saying the opposite make that so.

    >Tarantino’s slender reed of talent is for dialogue

    Wrong. He writes good dialogue, but his reed of talent, which isn’t slender, is for visual drama. He knows how to put characters into conflict and how to film that conflict so as to bring it to emotional life. That is the backbone he hangs his dialogue on, which is what makes said dialogue so often entertaining, which is why so many of his scripts — not just the ones he directed, but also "True Romance" and "Natural Born Killers" — so eminently watchable.

    Your accusation that I consider the guy a "genius" is false. But it is entirely evident to anyone with half an eye for cinema that he has considerable talent; that the plagiarism dismissal was boring and specious ten years ago; and that Jackie Brown, for god’s sake, isn’t a "blaxsploitation" homage or anything like it, however much the TV ads may have given you that impression. I’m not going to spend an hour explaining to you why you’re wrong about "Pulp Fiction," except to point out that its subject is honor among thieves, and assert that if you absolutely made me, I could explain how every one of its many plotlines spins an interesting take on that subject.

    "Kill Bill" wasn’t a truly terrible film — go see "Matrix Reloaded" if you want to see truly terrible — but it wasn’t very good, either. I don’t want to defend it at all; it’s a big step backward for him. However, your video clerk nonsense cannot stand; he has written way too many good screenplays to deserve that (go read his original screenplay for "Natural Born Killers" before you go proclaiming that he has no ideas of his own).

    >one hopes that his unfortunate detour into Hollywood superstardom will be short.

    Well, it has already lasted over a decade, and he just scored his biggest financial hit yet, so I wouldn’t count it.

  6. Didn’t Borges call himself just a librarian, by the way?

    What I mean is that Tarantino’s films should not be seen as depicting some sort of traditional reality; they are set in phantom spaces and populated by phantom characters. These movies feed on other movies rather that the physical world; this is second-storey art, so to say: the cinematic world is to second-storey movies what the "real" world is to traditional films.

    In this sense, Tarantino’s works are akin to science fiction: a sci-fi writer has to build a world before actions starts, while a modern movie director had ready-made worlds at his disposal: in this case, the domain of trash flicks. This trend is not limited to Tarantino: American Beauty, for instance, builds on the realm of social stereotypes. Even the Matrices probably references its predecessors in a meaningful way, but since it is anti-intellectual and targeted at dumbable-down audiences, only a few cinephiles will notice.

    On a side note, Tarantino can shoot an entertaining movie within four walls, on a reasonable budget, which alone is a sure sign of talent. Scarce resources can bring outstanding returns if one has the know-how.

  7. Alex(ei), you’re right — in fact, there is no longer any correlation (if there ever was) between the amount spent on a film and its entertainment value (it may even be a negative correlation). Sofia Coppola, for around $1 million, did "Lost In Translation," which knocks every studio concoction clean out of the box(including "Kill Bill," which, unlike "Pulp Fiction," is actually guilty of the Tarantino brand of vacuity that Aaron describes).

  8. Aaron earns a solid 9.99 score for this one, deducting 1/100th of a point for being too kind to Tarantino. "Pulp Fiction" has got to be one of the most over-praised films in movie history.

  9. Time will tell, Jim. Sorry to all if my posts on this topic were a bit strident; Aaron and I have been arguing about "Pulp Fiction" since we saw it together with a (highly polarized) group ten years ago. Tarantino seems to inspire strong visceral reactions of both kinds, which to my mind is at least somewhat of a compliment (who bothers arguing about most movies?). "Pulp Fiction" I can watch over and over and still be entertained. "Kill Bill," alas, I will never feel the need to see again.

    FYI: Next up for Quentin, supposedly, will be "Inglorious Bastards," another original script, this one set in World War II and due out in ’05. If he actually makes the movie, we’ll learn a lot about his capabilities; I can hardly think of a subject less emotionally conducive to "Kill Bill"-style Tarantino cartooning than WWII.

  10. Alex(ei): Borges’ describing himself as a librarian is an elaborate joke, like his little essay about the two Don Quixotes. After all, someone has to write the books, which do not spring unaided from the collective unconscious. There is no "universe" of trashy movies in the sense in which sci-fi has to create one. Your use of the plural "worlds" gives the game away: the novelist is obliged to create one world, self-consistent and with comprehensible rules.

    Michael: I’m not sure how "visual drama" differs from garden-variety drama, except that it’s on screen, so I guess it’s visual. But in Pulp Fiction all the drama is drained from the cleaner scene because we know in advance what’s going to happen to the characters, thanks to Tarantino’s derangement of the time sequence. He must have seen it somewhere and thought it was cool. Kill Bill does the same thing, to no particular aesthetic effect I can discern.

    Time won’t tell much either, at least not our time. Stupidities often persist for many generations. People still read Wordsworth.

  11. Aaron, what I take Mike to mean by "visual drama" is "all the visual stuff that’s part of the medium of film, as opposed to script and dialogue." Of course it’s not always easy to separate it out, but Mike’s right that QT’s brilliance resides in his use of the camera, his composition of frames, his pacing, and a host of other stuff that can still be impressive even if your material doesn’t get beyond the level of pastiche.

    I think I liked Kill Bill more than Mike did, but still not as much as RD or PF. Or Jackie Brown — which is the one QT movie that it sounds like you’d ever have a chance of liking.

    I ramble on about the movie over on Polytropos.

  12. Aaron, I am afraid I wouldn’t rank very high on your intelligence scale, for I am quite fond of Wordsworth — not all of him, of course.

    I would go as far as saying that most of Borges’ stories can be described as elaborate jokes, which does not diminish their value in my eyes. Novelists can often afford to use the world around them as canon fodder; but, as the St. Petersburg of Dostoyevsky existed only in his head, it would be enough for me if some world of films existed in Tarantino’s head and manifested itself through his work.

  13. Alex, you’re obviously very far from stupid, and I’m certainly not going to knock you for liking Wordsworth; foreign taste is weird. Great French poets like Baudelaire loved Poe’s poetry, which sounds awful to any educated native ear, because of all English poetry it sounds most like French. Educated Russians love H.G. Wells, or used to. Go figure.

    Doestoevsky’s St. Petersburg, which I assume, although I don’t know, you are correct in saying existed only in his imagination, is a perfectly coherent and comprehensible world, in which people do things for reasons. This is what distinguishes it from the world I note that you have dropped the plural of trash movies.

    Nate: You’re talking about cinematography I think. Saying you liked the cinematography is about the faintest praise for a movie I can imagine.

  14. How much do you think QT owes to David Lynch? I’ve heard that the debt is considerable, but haven’t seen enough of either’s work to say for myself.

  15. Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism. (I stole that.)

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