I have many irrational loves and hatreds. I irrationally love bad movies with Vincent Price, and the 1960s TV show The Avengers. I irrationally hate Christian Bale, and unicycles. Love and hate are extreme terms, and when I say that I hate something I don’t really mean that I hate it; I mean that my dislike of it is abundant.
I both love and hate Quentin Tarantino, in fairly equal measure. By ‘Quentin Tarantino’, I mean of course his films. Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Inglourious Basterds, etc. After all, I don’t know the guy and so claiming to truly hate or love him is ridiculous. I have seen, amazingly enough, every single one of the films he’s directed. I own many of them. So I know whereof I speak. But why? Why does he get to me? Why do I love every moment of Pulp Fiction, but equally despise every moment of Kill Bill? WHY?
I Love Tarantino
God, his movies are entertaining. The vast majority of them succeed at being incredibly clever, incredibly cool, sharply drawn pastiches of pulpy genre films. I first saw Pulp Fiction when I was in college, and was surprised at how funny it was. I had expected extreme violence, but not the humor and cleverness on display. When it came out, Pulp Fiction was a revelation in cinematic storytelling and narrative structure; those intertwining storylines, that plethora of good actors, that dialogue! While other filmmakers have employed the kind of storytelling techniques he uses (Robert Altman, in both Short Cuts and The Player), Tarantino gave us a new perspective on the way that filmmaking could work. He’s one of the first, and greatest, of the pastiche filmmakers.
Admittedly one of the things I like most about Tarantino is his unabashed love of film, particularly underground or genre film. How many of us would have truly experienced the weird fun of grindhouse, spaghetti westerns, blaxsploitation, B-horror films, kung-fu movies, and pulpy noirs without first being exposed to Tarantino’s mish-mosh of those styles? For a film buff, it can be a pleasure to sit through a Tarantino film and find yourself identifying the layers of references, obscure and not, that coat his better works. He gives a bevy of very good actors the opportunity to take on roles they might not have even thought of otherwise; there are few directors who can make me warm to John Travolta again, or gain respect for Kurt Russell. I won’t even mention Samuel L. Jackson, who is just motherfucking amazing.
Finally, Tarantino must be credited now with bringing race back into the cultural discourse with a vengeance via Django Unchained. His use of the n-word for once actually makes a culturally significant point; we are reminded that as much as America would like to claim itself as a post-racial society, we still suffer under the same prejudices, the same scars and festering wounds that we have never fully addressed, as either blacks or whites. He explodes the cinematic myth of the glorious antebellum south, punctures not only the blatant bigotry of Birth of a Nation but also the less blatant and altogether more insidious presence of Gone with the Wind in the nation’s cinematic lexicon. He literally blows up Tara. Finally.
I Hate Tarantino
God, his movies are self-satisfied. The cleverness of the dialogue becomes increasingly wearing, as though the characters are madly in love with the sounds of their own voices. I’ve yet to see a Tarantino film that could not have been cut down by an extraneous 20 minutes simply by eliminating needless dialogue. His continued obsession with low-grade genre films becomes tiring after awhile; we all know that he’s seen a lot of bad B-pictures, but do we really have to be subjected to a reinterpretation of piss-poor cinema?
Pastiche as an art form is always a problematic one, although I don’t believe that Tarantino is terribly interested in making ‘artistic’ (or even particularly deep) film, so the comparison may be an unfair one. Pastiche suffers from its layers of referentiality, which can sometimes mask a shallowness of meaning. I’m afraid that as far as I can see there’s very little of intellectual significance underlying any of Tarantino’s work up to Django. Once the layers of cinematic referentiality have been peeled away, we’re left looking into a gaping, but shallow, abyss. If he’s still seeking to expose the violence and misogyny inherent in the culture, he ran out of steam on that one about 20 years ago. It is Tarantino’s very shallowness, intentional or not, that keeps me from fully appreciating him as a filmmaker.
Then there are the movies that I simply do not like. Kill Bill Vols 1 & 2 are overlong, pretentious works of self-indulgence, with moments of exceptional craft – the anime sequence, for instance – in the midst of what it perhaps the most boring and badly choreographed martial arts movie I’ve ever sat through. Uma Thurman wields a sword with about as much ability as I do. Jackie Brown likewise bored me to tears, as did the first half of Death Proof. Reservoir Dogs might have been groundbreaking in its time, but as far as I can see it has not aged well, its conscious cool diminished beneath its sublime lack of having anything interesting to say. So for a man with a relatively small body of work, Tarantino actually has very few films that I can say I entirely enjoy, and only one – Django – that I can appreciate beyond its surface and aesthetic qualities.
So, it’s true. I love Tarantino and I hate Tarantino. I will go to see every movie he makes, and reserve the right to complain about it afterwards. Am I expecting too much from a director who never claimed to be anything more than a film buff? Probably. But Django proves that Tarantino has the ability to say something worthwhile without sacrificing the things – dialogue, music, pastiche, etc. – that make him so beloved and so derided. He’s moved beyond the pastiche filmmaker, and rightly received critical laudits for it. When the next Tarantino movie comes out, I’ll be there front and centre, to either snark or begrudgingly admit that he’s done it again. But I don’t really think that he gives a fuck if you or I or Spike Lee or anyone loves or hates his films. He’ll just go right on doing what he does. And y’know what? I respect that.