Has Tarantino gone underground or is he revving up to zap the box office with another mega hit?
Another whole year has gone by and still no new film from Quentin Tarantino, cinema’s wunderkind of the 1990s. In fact, there’s not been a peep out of him apart from a few desultory rumours about delays to his next film, Kill Bill, which apparently isn’t going to surface until halfway through 2003. That will make it just over six years since his last movie, Jackie Brown (1997), hit the screens – twice the number of years between that and his previous film, Pulp Fiction (1994). The gap between that and his first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), was not much more than 18 months.
How times have changed. It’s hard to equate the current inactivity, slow pace, and silence with the cultural tornado created by this enfant terrible who directed, produced, wrote, and acted or appeared in over 40 features, shorts, documentaries and television programs in just eight years. The silence creates an eerie vacuum after the loud howls of outrage and euphoria that greeted almost everything he did, most of which stomped loudly and bloodily on mainstream cinema.
Is the Tarantino Phenomenon washed up? Has he crossed over and joined the mainstream which has slowed him down and tempered his iconoclasm? Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) once said, “As soon as you become that big, you get absorbed.” Is this what’s happened? There were those who suggested as much when Jackie Brown was released to a somewhat more muted response than that which greeted his first two films. In making a movie that, as one U.S. mainstream critic wrote patronisingly, “hints at a level of substance beyond his trademark barrage of pop culture references punctuated with flashy violence,” it looked as if the kind had lost his wunder precisely because he’d grown up. An enfant without his terrible has no street cred at all.
And yet Jackie Brown is a film that revisits, and in doing so reinvents, the blaxploitation movies of the ’70s with which Hollywood had crudely attempted to get African-American bums on seats, that at one point abandons the godhead of mainstream cinema – narrative linearity –, that portrays a Hollywood icon (Robert de Niro) as an unlovable nerd, and that successfully elicits our complicity in the murder of a young woman (Bridget Fonda) because we, too, can no longer abide her whining voice. Jackie Brown, like everything Tarantino has been involved in, displays some truly medieval violence toward mainstream sensibilities.
This, of course, is the traditional role of independent cinema. But the indie hat doesn’t fit Tarantino either. What makes him infinitely more interesting than just another flash-in-the-pan filmmaker with a predictable Oedipal drive challenging the codes and conventions of the dominant, parent cinema is that he can’t be categorized as either mainstream or independent. His skill lies in steering a third way, ducking and diving between, and shamelessly plundering from, both mainstream and independent cinemas.
Mainstream or Independent?
It’s clear from the style and content of his movies that Tarantino isn’t a mainstream player: the exuberantly playful and satiric treatment of violence (the ear-lopping scene where we never actually see the amputation take place in Reservoir Dogs) ; the blatant racism (how many times can a white character – played by Tarantino himself in Pulp Fiction – say the word “nigger” and get away with it?) ; the high-gloss visualisation of the unwatchable (Mr Orange, played by Tim Roth, lies bleeding to a hyper-realistic, visceral death throughout the entire length of Reservoir Dogs) ; the pulsing sexuality and sexual independence as well as the intellectual superiority of one big, powerful African-American woman in her mid-forties (Pam Grier in Jackie Brown) ; the persistent rejection of linear narrative and closure (any or all of his films you wish to name).
Even his post-feminism and homophobia, which could be seen as mainstream, can be incorporated into a radical oppositional sensibility: Patricia Arquette’s character’s masochism in Tarantino’s screenplay for True Romance begs the whole question of female essentialism, and Ving Rhames’ character’s anal rape in Pulp Fiction that owes much to John Boorman’s Deliverance, both suggest other than mainstream.
Defining American independent cinema is notoriously tricky. If it was simply about economics – funding, distribution, and exhibition – Tarantino would definitely no longer qualify. As independent film guru John Pierson somewhat disparagingly writes in his “guided tour across a decade of independent American cinema” Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes:[Y]ou have to bend over backward and jump through hoops to define Pulp Fiction as independent. Beginning with the fact that it stars John Travolta and Bruce Willis. Even without their profit participations, it cost $8m dollars. It was originally set up by TriStar and eventually had a 1,200-print release by Miramax, a division of Disney.
But independent cinema isn’t simply about financing (as Pierson hints, with his reference to the strategic casting of the has-been hardbods Travolta and Willis), it’s also about aesthetics and style. And it’s about something even less tangible – an implied difference or opposition to the dominant or mainstream. And it’s about attitude. None of these are easy to pin down because dominant Hollywood cinema has always displayed a tendency to experiment and renew itself whenever the finances looked as if they might dry up.
The spiritual father of the American Indie filmmaker, before Tarantino changed the rules, was undoubtedly John Cassavetes. Currently enjoying a revival of interest in the academic, festival, and independent arthouse circuits, Cassavetes – who flirted fairly heavily with Hollywood – offered what British film critic Philip Kemp describes as a rejection of “Hollywood flawlessness” and “the liberating insight that perfection wasn’t essential, or maybe even always desirable.”
With some exceptions – Jim Jarmusch’s films such as Down By Law and Dead Man, for example – this “attitude” translated into a style that was to become a signature look for independent filmmakers the world over: Steven Soderbergh’s home-movie look and feel in sex, lies, and videotape is a good example. Until Tarantino, that is. Not for him the fuzzy graininess that signified independence from the mainstream. With his cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, he opted for perfection, using very fast film stock, requiring a great amount of interior lighting, in order to create the sharp focus and depth of field more frequently associated with the dominant cinema.
In his recent book American Independent Cinema (BFI Publishing, London, 2001), the leading film theorist in this field, Jim Hillier, maintains that independent cinema “involves a tension between art and commerce.” This puts Tarantino apart from the independents. His style and content, a glorious and often unruly mix of classic Hollywood, Hong Kong action cinema, comic book, television, video, and digital computer, display no such tension. But then nor do his films, scripts, or the films he produces and promotes suggest he belongs to the mainstream.
If it’s hard to know where Tarantino fits into this schemata, it does help explain why he chose the punning name for his company “Band Apart,” from title of the film by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part (Group of Outsiders). It’s this “outsider” element that makes it possible to talk of a Tarantino Phenomenon. His legacy is a style and sensibility that have contributed to creating a cinema that is neither one nor the other. By rewriting both mainstream and independent cinemas, and by showing audiences new ways to look at old movies, he’s created a space for other filmmakers to make movies that might not otherwise get audiences – or get made in the first place.
Was He the First?
Tarantino wasn’t the first to attempt to navigate the passage between the hard conventions of the mainstream and the rocky unregulated place of the independents. His most immediate predecessor was Stephen Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape (made for a mere $1.2 million U.S.) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989. Its 26-year-old director was hailed as the young turk whose film, according to Hillier, represented “the advent of American Independent cinema as a major force in the landscape of U.S. movie-making.” But, as Hillier adds, “in retrospect, it may represent the assimilation of that cinema.”
Soderbergh arrived on the scene when Hollywood was looking for ways to reinvigorate the market glutted with blockbusters (and failed blockbusters) made by the one-time highly cineliterate and more or less independent “movie brats” –Scorsese, de Palma, Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas. When Soderbergh collected his prize on the French Riviera, he announced “I guess it’s all downhill from here.” To those who see mainstream cinema and films like Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich (and others since) as a sellout, has ever a truer word been spoken in or out of jest?
Some other Indies traveled – or attempted to travel – along a similar path. Few were successful in terms of either box office or independent “spirit”: Gus van Sant pushed the boat out with his queer My Own Private Idaho but fell overboard with subsequent mainstream projects such as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and the strangely conservative frame-by-frame remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Even the incomparably independent David Lynch baffled the fans of his indie cult film Eraserhead when he made The Straight Story – which was really quite straight – although Mulholland Drive suggests he’s back on the path.
Where Tarantino succeeded was in developing a style that stepped beyond the usual irony and pastiche of much postmodernist mass culture and plunged into satirical violence, demonstrating a breathtakingly cineliterate intertextuality, and a taste for overriding conventional narrative forms that owes much to popular cultures from cinemas around the world. The Tarantino Legacy gives globalization a good name.
Without the space created by the Tarantino Phenomenon, would Hong Kong action movie supremo John Woo have made the translation to Hollywood with films such as Broken Arrow and Face/Off? Would quite such large audiences the world over have enjoyed the refreshingly different approaches to narrative in movies like the German Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola Run or Princess and the Warrior? Would the British Guy Ritchey’s Lock Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels with its labyrinthine plot designed to fold back on itself have been quite so successful? Would audiences be able to both enjoy and distinguish between Sam Mendes’s mainstream-feeling American Beauty and P. T. Anderson’s independently spirited Magnolia? Would it have been possible for Todd Solondz to have made Storytelling, a direct attack on American Beauty, with its two separate stories entitled “Fiction” and “Fact” and its confronting representation of an unpleasant disabled person having sex?
Among the films of those who inherited the Legacy, there are certain common characteristics and often only one degree of separation. The Tarantino Phenomenon antennae start twitching, for instance, whenever Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Amanda Plummer, Chloe Sevigny, or Harvey Keitel appear on the screen. Complex, labyrinthine nonlinear narratives are another strongly favored element – such as Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which denies the role of memory and uses flashbacks each one earlier than what we’ve just seen. The world of commercials – once strictly taboo for an independent – has been opened up, with Jonathan Glazer’s high-gloss, thrilling Sexy Beast reaching a high point. A lack of objective reality, as in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, is another common theme, while Richard Linklater’s latest, Waking Life, ups the ante on the notion of subjectivity by filming real people and animating them.
A much-loved influence is very definitely the video with its fast forward and backward buttons and ensuing fragmented, episodic narrative structure: in this Michael Haneke leads the way (Benny’s Video, Funny Games, Code Unknown). A certain – some would say complete – disregard for plot is yet another sign of the phenomenon – as in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Harmony Korine’s Gummo (described approvingly by Gus van Sant as being like an “arctic fried chicken wing”).
The above themes, common styles, and spirits are by no means an exhaustive list: plot coincidences within multi-plotlines, audience participation (frequently sadistic), and a refusal to take the high moral ground in the portrayal of violence are also a part of this cinema. None of these elements are new in themselves, and Tarantino certainly didn’t invent them. But his legacy is to provide a new space for filmmakers and audiences to smash conventional movies and reassemble the pieces – and to play “spot the influence” along the way. If one had to select just one filmmaker who fits the description, it would be the Hong Kong film-poet Wong Kar-wai (Chunking Express, In the Mood for Love), whose strongest champion since his early films has been Tarantino himself.
Previous generations of filmmakers may have been cineliterate, but what sets Tarantino and other like-minded contemporary filmmakers outside both mainstream and independent cinemas is that never before have filmmakers been so literate across such a wide range of screen products. Nor have they included audiences in the project of cineliteracy to the extent that they have since Tarantino hit town.
His sensibility is the result of a truly independent mind that, for its formative years, lay marinating in a potent cocktail of mainstream, art house, independent, Asian, genre, European, and trash cinemas; it included cinema, television, commercials, documentaries, and high culture. It resulted in a cinema that jerks two fingers up at the mainstream and, at the same time, demonstrates a determination to jerk a single, rude digit up the backside of independent cinema.
In truth, it isn’t his films that are the most significant thing about Tarantino. He also determinedly reinvented the notion of the auteur by fusing it with public relations and advertising. He became much more than the sum total of his own films and screenplays. Of Tarantino, the celebrity motormouth, it has been said not that the author is dead but that the text no longer exists.
This is not to deny that his films and screenplays are of interest and value to a wide range of audiences. U.S. critic Roger Ebert summed up the significance and attraction (or repulsion) of Pulp Fiction when he said that like all great films, it criticizes all other films. The same can be said of almost everything Tarantino has written, directed, or produced. Knowing as much as he does about cinema and screen language, its history and its theory as well as its diverse relationships with other screens around the world, meant he was able to criticize all films – from both Hollywood and independent cinemas.
By revealing just how large the palette of options filmmakers, if brave enough, have at their disposal, he reinvented screen language and created a space for others to make the sort of films that probably wouldn’t have otherwise been made.
Next On Your Screens …
All we know of Tarantino’s next film, Kill Bill, is that it will star Uma Thurman and, according to a privileged commentator who was shown an early draft of the script, “it’s 30 years of Grindhouse Movie Going Squeezed in A Duck Press.” If, like most of the rest of the world, you don’t know what the heck this means, he continues:
Now what is a Grindhouse movie you ask? It is pure exploitation joy … Kung Fu, Sex, Revenge, Murder, Blood Gorged Frames, Fast Cars, Fast Women, and a pumping pulsing soundtrack that makes your dick or nipples hard. Grindhouse filmmaking was low budget HIGH THRILLS, and Quentin is aiming to make the EPIC of the Genre.
This just about sums up the Tarantino Phenomenon: “epic” and “genre” belong to mainstream cinema; “Kung Fu” originated in Hong Kong national cinema and has been transplanted to Hollywood; “low budget” and “hard dicks and nipples” belong to independent cinema; the rest is spread unevenly over both cinema and television, film and video, and dominant and alternative cinemas.
This new cinema spreads itself between the mainstream and independent cinemas and displays absolutely no tension between commerce and art. It’s a cinema that is vehemently enjoyed or vehemently hated (it scarcely matters which – but the vehemence is essential) by cinephiles, critics, scholars, teachers, journalists, curators, preservationists, intellectuals, and mass audiences. This is a rare bequest.