Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Friday, August 13, 2004

Quentin, Quentin, Quentin... (Updated!)

On the occasion of the release of the second part of Kill Bill on DVD--which I've not seen, so much of this goes out with a grain of salt--

A rather annoyingly shrewd friend of mine recently expressed unmitigated disapproval of Quentin Tarantino. Let me make sure I get the quotation right: Mr. Tarantino is, apparently, "an infantile wanker who disguises his utter lack of taste, vision, or creativity by coating the screen in blood." I was then confronted with the choice: Agree or Disagree?

Well, disagree. With a caveat or two. This is not to be construed as the polar opposite view--namely, that Tarantino is a misunderstood genius victimized by a society too blind to appreciate him. (I just described Christ, for Heaven's sake. Or Socrates, if you're an atheist--don't tell me I'm not ecumenical!)

OK, re: Tarantino, I come down on the "pro"side, not because I think he's misunderstood--I don't think he is, since, well, how anyone be 'misunderstood' when audiences and critics love his work--and, more importantly, I don't think he's a 'genius'--whatever that means. Damn few directors get that title: Chaplin, Bergman, Kurosawa, Welles (although he's more of anunrealized genius since Hollywood screwed him out of the career he should have had--insert generic diatribe against the soulless bean-counters in The Industry), Hitchcock, Griffith (apologies to those who remain incensed by The Birth of a Nation--look on the bright side: you far, far outnumber the people who think that it's historically accurate, a ratio that must hearten you when you consider its initial reception), Ford. Not many others. It helps a lot to be dead, since one can then stand back and really take in the whole opus, evaluating the entire output. I think the Coens will be called geniuses, but if their last two films are anything to go by, maybe not. At any rate,Tarantino's only made four movies--that's too few to be called a genius, unless one of them (a la Welles) is "Citizen Kane"--and none of them are.

But I'm still in favor of Tarantino. Why? Because he can (in my view) write good dialogue. Others (their identities escape me, but since I read their work and remembered it, they must be smart and good, right?) have pointed out that Tarantino's characters love to talk, and that's true. But that's a symptom of, I think, the fact that Tarantino loves to have his characters talk--that he loves to make words come out of other people's mouths with the child-like enthusiasm of a kid performing a puppet-show for his parents. (Yes, that was an autobiographical reference. So what? Shut up. Leave me alone.) And as a result of this energetic enjoyment of language and dialogue, the characters in his movies have conversations that don't makeme want to slap my ears and cry "YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA-YA!!!" to drown out the noise--and that's rare. Not sure what to make of "Kill Bill" just yet--as I say, I haven't seen the second part, and I'm still a little leery of the decision to split it at the last minute--it's definitely one movie, not two, and I think it should be seen whole before any conclusions are reached. As for the gore, well, that's not for taste or lack of taste, that's referencing Hong Kong cinema, which makes the worst splatter-fest ever made in Hollywood looks like "Howard's End." (Those of you who doubt me, go find and rent "The Untold Story": http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B00000IC9C/ref=ase_imdb-adbox/103-2354398-5792606?v=glance&s=dvd --My advice: Do Not Eat Beforehand. You will not want to eat afterwards. Liquor, however, should be present to dull the memory and calm the nerves.) The question is whether such cinematic referencing--like the anime sequence giving Lucy Liu's backstory--is simply enthusiasm for these modes, or whether it's an argument about them.

And here my annoyingly shrewd friend may be right, in that I think that Tarantino is a man of enthusiasms rather than--whatever the hell this means--'vision.' Again, damn few directors have one. Again, Bergman, Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Chaplin--I'd add Fellini, too, but drop Welles--Welles, like Tarantino, was a man of enthusiasm--of an emotional, visceral engagement with the act, rather than the art of storytelling. That's no bad thing, but it means one isn't as artistically self-scrutinizing as, say, Bergman--one doesn't step back from the process in order to get everything in line with one's philosophy. But then, 'vision' is why so many of Bergman's films are spiritual agony to watch (and occasionally, let's be honest, a wee bit dull--they ain't all The Seventh Seal), and why Fellini so often degenerates into staggering self-indulgence. Vision often overwhelms story--witness, say, WoodyAllen's Manhattan, which is really about a bunch of horribly petty, unlikable people, but which sets them in a vision of Manhattan that glorifies the town and reflects their adulation of it--there's no irony there--Allen just let his love of New York get in the way of the fact that these horrible people live there, and we should see the fact that wherethey are helps to make them horrible. Back to Tarantino.He can write dialogue--and his cultural references are always spot on. But does it all add up to more than a sum of its parts? Probably not--but I think that might be the point.

I never understood why people thought Pulp Fiction was in any way profound. It wasn't. It was just an incredibly enjoyable, rewatchable picture about bad-ass people doing and saying bad-ass things. Nothing wrong with that--there really isn't a thing wrong with the film. But it's not "genius"--but maybe, just maybe, it is "brilliant." And what's brilliant about it--and Kill Bill--is how uncreative these films are--how they give us what we've mostly seen before--tried-and-true visions from films we already know and love. The question regarding Tarantino's lack of creativity is this: Isn't that his argument--not that he lacks creativity, but that we as a society have forsaken creativity for the ability to be 'clever'--the problem with creativity is that it necessitates confusion--people don't know what to make of what they've never seen before. Which is why Hollywood discourages creativity. So Tarantino makes movies that are pastiches of "Hollywood" films--action films, mysteries, gangster films, romantic comedies, caper films, buddy pictures, etc.--to show that the best we can do, in a world that largely forbids artistic creativity, is just mix up familiar elements in a semi-creative way.

And no, I don't think I'm giving him too much credit--I think his time working in that video store and watching every movie ever made had a profound effect on his thinking--that it showed him the decay of film from the greats (remember, except for Bergman, all those geniuses are dead--and even Bergman's retired) to the hackery of today. I think Tarantino's one of the few working satirists in film--and I like that about him.

Plus which, he seems to have stopped acting. I like that even better.

Post-Script: I found the source of my (as it turns out, mistaken) citation of Tarantino and his character's love of speech. Not quite what was actually said, but still worth citing. The author is none other than Mil Millington, the genius of www.thingsmygirlfriendandihavearguedabout.com and herein is the inaccurately remembered reference to Tarantino:

Tarantino is great because his films are so wordy. People talk unremittingly. More bodies pile up in any Steven Seigal film, but no one says anything of any interest. Slasher movies splatter more blood about and often try to inject a little 'humour' too, but the result is nothing more than a catch-phrase and some weak puns. Think of the scene in 'Pulp Fiction' where they're trying to re-start Uma Thurman's heart, what makes it so funny is Rosanna Arquette whining about people coming round the house all the while throughout. Tarantino deserves credit for, subtly, bringing dialogue back to movies.

Well said, Mr. Millington. I bow to you as Dryden did to Milton.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, well, well, what do we have here?

Msr. Dryden, how quickly you forget Stanley Kubrick, especially after YOU gave a near definitive Kubrick dvd box-set collection to one of our mutual friends (for his law school graduation?).

The A List - Chaplin, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Welles
The A- list - Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Miyazaki, Polanski
The A--/B++ list - David Lean, Milos Forman, Woodie Allen, John Frankenheimer, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis, the Coens
The top newcomers (those who have not necessarily hit their zenith) - Peter Jackson, David Fincher, Ang Lee, and Quentin Tarantino.
The most accomplished actor/filmmakers - Gibson and Eastwood.

I leave out Bergman, Fellini, and Griffith since I have not seen enough/any? of their films to judge them. Ford might be revered in America, but I feel that time will leave him behind. The first two recollections most have of his movies are the Duke and Monument Valley.

How to classify promising screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman who are just as responsible for a great movie as the director?

While Quentin might try to combine the two volumes of Kill Bill in the future, I agree with most that the two volumes are so different in tone and pitch that Quentin was correct in splitting the movie.

The fans adored Volume 1 while the critics loved Volume 2. Luckily, Tarantino was able to split the movie so that there is a volume to appease each audience.

Msr. Dryden, if you were but closer to LA, I would recommend you come over to see the flick.

10:30 AM  

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