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October 13, 2003 by AK

Tarantino, my unsaintly Jerome

Aaron Haspel caustically deconstructs Quentin J. T.’s filmery, primarily Kill Bill, in The Video Clerk As Auteur. I enjoyed his erudite arguments; too bad I must draw a rather different conclusion from them. In fact, I like Tarantino; I think he’s one of the few good directors out there in Hollywood, which is producing good movies at a much lower rate than it used to. Moreover, I’m particularly impartial to Pulp Fiction. Now down to the quotes.

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?

The irony here is misplaced; this is the kind of experience an artist needs much more than what passes for “real life” these days. What kind of active experience can you expect living in the modern West anyway? Gone are wars and knightly duels, femmes fatales and Flora MacDonalds. As for love and hatred, delight and despair, they don’t make it into interviews.

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.

Pastiche, the centone, and stylization are not just modernist and post-modern tricks; these are time-tested tools that artists like Tarantino have, as journalists say, honed almost to perfection. His fondness for deliberate kitsch? That’s what you can cut and paste without regret; no esthetical discomfort involved. Think Akhmatova’s poetry (of which I’m no fan) growing out from garbage.

Tarantino wisely does not overburden the viewer with motive.

Perhaps wisely indeed. What if I don’t care for motives anymore? What if I only care about the picture and the dialogues — QJT is a master of dialogue, isn’t he?

This way or that, I’m not an avid movie-watcher, and this is, no doubt, a biased opinion.

UPDATE: From the comments at God of the Machine:

A (me): Tarantino’s movies simply shouldn’t be taken at face value — they are intended to be taken as centones, to use a musical term.

Aaron (God of the Machine): 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.

A: 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.

Rick Coencas puts it differently and better than I:

I have no argument with his assessment of Tarantino, he is a maker of genre films and is often derivative to the extreme, but I would say that the very reasons Aaron dismisses Tarantino as a “video clerk auteur” are some of the reasons I enjoy Tarantino. His elevation of Low Brow to High Style is oddly endearing. Quentin is the geeky guy you hung out with, or possibly were in college, he is the ultimate video clerk. He is a geek film maker who makes movies for film geeks.

His talent is not in plotting, he is not a visual stylist as a director, and Roger Avery may deserve credit for some of the best dialog in Pulp Fiction. But as I’ve argued before his talent is as a story teller and a structuralist. Many of the great stories are twice told tales. Tarantino tells them in new ways, playing with the structure, putting them into a different vernacular. Not to make too close a comparison, but many artists have painted the Madonna, and many of my favorite Beatles songs could be labeled pastiche.


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