Saturday, April 16, 2011

HTTPresents: The Influence of Tarantino

                                             Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, courtesy AP

Welcome to our first post of HTTPresents, a new feature where friends and colleagues will write weekend guest posts. No doubt the words of the three of us can grow tiring at times, so we'll switch things up with fresh blood! Our first guest is Shannon, notably known for her well-informed comments on our posts. She is as big a film enthusiast as us and we're proud to have her posting with us, so check out her thoughts on the oh-so unique director Quentin Tarantino below:
While he isn't exactly universally loved, Quentin Tarantino's influence on cinema over the last twenty years, American and British cinema especially, is indisputable. Tarantino has reignited careers of the forgotten and given work to unknowns while leaving an indelible mark on film and pop culture with his  instantly recognizable set of tropes and techniques. While he did not invent things like non-linearity, profanity,  stylized violence, criminal characters, or a habit of paying “homage” by including concepts and scenes from older films, he most certainly popularized them, and 1994's Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's first big hit and the one he may never be able to top in terms of recognition and cultural impact, is among the most beloved and instantly recognizable films of all time.

His record isn't perfect, however, and his influence isn't entirely positive. The criticism of arguably glorified violence in his movies gives one pause with the fact that the script he wrote that eventually became the film Natural Born Killers had a less than savory impact on the psyches of some unbalanced individuals; there's an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to alleged copycat crimes inspired by the film, many of them ending with multiple murder victims. Tarantino himself admits to having been influenced heavily in his early career by the works of director Jean-Luc Godard (to the extent that he named his production company A Band Apart after Godard's  film Bande à part) and "influenced" in some ways by many others to the extent that Tarantino has been accused of being more of a cultural collage artist than a filmmaker. It does not take much research to find out that the elements of his first film, Reservoir Dogs, for example, were taken almost directly from other movies. There's an "ear scene" in 1955's The Big Combo and there are characters nicknamed after colors in 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Tarantino refers to all of this as "homage" when asked, but is happy to take credit when not being questioned on the originality of his work, and there are many other examples of him surreptitiously borrowing quite a bit from others then happily accepting awards when his work is praised. He's still a dedicated, passionate, and talented filmmaker, but realizing he recycled rather than came up with many of the things that make his movies enjoyable can take some of the fun out of them. 
But what of his impact on cinema itself, rather than the impact it had on him? A google search for "Tarantino-esque" brings up over a million results, and films made after Pulp Fiction are sometimes alluded to as “post-Tarantino”.  Due to the range of his influence, the films he indirectly impacted are an incredibly mixed bag. On the positive end, many talented and influential individuals were inspired by Tarantino's films. Shane Black, writer of Lethal Weapon, wrote and directed Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, an enjoyable and self-aware noir tribute with plenty of wit and violence. Irish playwright and multiple Tony and Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh cites Tarantino as an influence and McDonagh's film In Bruges is a tightly-written, surreal meditation on life and death that happens to have Irish hit men as main characters. Guy Ritchie's films, especially Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, have often been called “Tarantino-esque”, and Robert Rodriguiez has not only been compared to Tarantino, but the two are close friends have collaborated many times, such as on Grindhouse (comprised of Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez's Planet Terror), From Dusk Til Dawn (which Rodriquez wrote and Tarantino directed), and Sin City (Tarantino having directed one scene).  The influence on Rodriquez is much more evident in Desperado and Planet Terror than, say, Spy Kids, however. While these movies aren't all perfect, they are balanced, engaging, enjoyable, and able to stand on their own (except Spy Kids). While evidencing Tarantino's influence, these filmmakers sometimes even take it a step further than the wit, violence, and non-linearity and delve into sublime and engaging filmmaking that can sometimes even surpass Tarantino's ability, which I consider In Bruges, for example, to have done.
Quentin Tarantino on set of Kill Bill Vol. 1

While Tarantino's films can speak volumes about humanity, honor, and sacrifice, they're also fairly violent and profane, and some filmmakers only bother to try to produce the latter. They attempt to recreate the “cool” feeling of Tarantino's movies by filling theirs with careless, gratuitous violence and meaningless dialogue without ever touching on anything with the slightest bit of intelligence or gravity. It ends in aping and mediocrity, like in the boring and contrived Lucky # Slevin, the flashy and colorful but incredibly shallow Smokin' Aces, and the awful, offensively overrated, and soulless Boondock Saints. For example, while Pulp Fiction has extensive use of racial slurs, it also has African-American characters who are fully developed and just as prominent and interesting (if not moreso) than their white counterparts. Boondock Saints uses racial slurs for... comedy? Tarantino's movies sometimes include violence against women, sexual assault, sexist characters, etc, but he balances it fairly well with prominent and fully developed female characters. His women are just as capable of humor, violence, profanity, and revenge as his men, and for the most part they serve just as much of a purpose (rather than existing as objects or stereotypes). Boondock Saints has Rocco groping an unconscious woman and violence against a massively stereotyped lesbian character... why, now? Reservoir Dogs ends in massive sacrifice after a film that debates extensively on the morality of “professional” criminality and Pulp Fiction uses the stories of several very different characters to speak on loyalty and personal philosophy and redemption through words and action, such as in Butch's choices about the watch and whether or not to risk his life to save Marcellus or in the differing views of Vince and Jules on miracles and on their line of work. The depth and morality of Boondock Saints, however, is essentially “something something Catholicism” and “killing people is cool”, and it as a whole is fairly exemplary of the awful, bottom-of-the barrel, and intellectually barren Tarantino copycat cinema still being produced nearly twenty years after Pulp Fiction's release. 

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  1. I have to disagree about the "recycled" comment. The fact that characters are named after colors isn't what makes Reservoir Dogs fun for me, or that there's an ear-related torture scene, so it doesn't bother me in the least that it may have been borrowed.

    In any case, I think that the instances mentioned represent the very definition of homage. They're only superficial callbacks to movies that Tarantino may have seen and enjoyed, but the substance of the scenes is entirely different. I have to say I had never seen The Big Combo before, but I watched the scene, and it serves an entirely different purpose from the one in Reservoir Dogs. In The Big Combo, the torturers are actually trying to get some information from the protagonist, and his refusal to cooperate helps characterize him. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Blonde doesn't want any information-- he just likes torturing people. His scene sets him apart from the other "professionals" as a sadist who took the job to hurt as many people as possible rather than to get money.

    Anyway, that may have been a little long winded, and I probably came off as a bit of a Tarantino fanboy, but my point is that I don't begrudge Tarantino (or any filmmaker) his homages, as long as that's what they are. I have less sympathy for cut and paste scenes.

  2. I agree with Scott. The references Tarantino uses are the very definition of homage in that they are not direct copy/pastes yet similar enough for you to immediately (if you've seen the source) get the semblance. That's art. Like, all of Kill Bill is a big homage to Japanese samurai stories, and it's pretty amazing. I liked how you talked about bad Tarantino-esque films due to the dialogue, which is funny because Tarantino dialogue is probably one of the most recognizable, creative, and unique things about him as a writer. You just can't beat the "royale with cheese" conversation, among others.

    I couldn't name my favorite film of his, though. Pulp Fiction is always amazing, but I also liked Inglorious, and it's been a while since I saw Kill Bill. Great post, Shannon! It was a pleasure to have you join us!

  3. For me, the interesting part is how all the films that you call influenced by Tarantino (except the ones that should be panned, such as Saints) are actually a lot better and more interesting than most actual Tarantino films themselves. Tarantino has a certain style that speaks with its clever dialogues complimented with violence, but he very quickly starting to fall down into repeating himself a lot. Once you start noticing every single character in a Tarantino film speaks like Quentin Tarantino, most of the fun seems gone. The only exceptions to this usually seem to be either the dumb victim characters, who clearly do not have the intellect of the rest of the characters, and thus can be shot in the head.

    He is, in a way, becoming a fanboy of himself, much like Tim Burton is. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are great, but Tarantino has never actually moved beyond that. His films are still set up the same, with snappy dialogues and satisfying ruckus, but by now we've all seen this before and are (hopefully) waiting for him to move on.

    Another problem is that Tarantino is at his very best when writing snappy dialogue, not when directing. A good mention here would be True Romance, in which Tarantino has written the script but NOT directed the film itself. This lets him show his good side: the film has magnificent character scenes and the over-the-top violence scenes you'd expect - but it's still a proper, actual movie with a moving plot and characters. Just compare that to Inglorious Basterds, a mess of a movie, mostly saved by the performance of Cristoph Waltz. It's clear Tarantino had all kinds of fantastic ideas about the various scenes present in this film, which are indeed great and fun to watch. However, as a feature film it doesn't seem to link together at all - every scene could've been done without the rest of the film, and it feels just like that: just a bunch of scenes tied together with a plot floating above somewhere.

    Whatever its influence may be in the past, presently Tarantino needs to get a serious Muse or possibly a hit on the head.

  4. What would honestly make his "recycling" more tolerable would be if he just admitted that he wanted to recreate his favorite scenes in different settings or occasions. It's one thing to pay loving homage to another, it's a completely different thing to pretend that it was just a "good idea."

    Many stories are just retelling of other stories, so it isn't like true originality really exists anymore, but the least one could do is given obvious credit when lifting something totally from another's work.