QUENTIN TARANTINO: THE MOST UNDERRATED DIRECTOR WORKING TODAY, OR: WHY DAVID FOSTER WALLACE IS WRONG AS HELL
Quentin Tarantino is the most underrated American director working today.
I am sure some people reading this may be marveling at the sheer nerve it takes to make that statement, but I’m going to do it again: Quentin Tarantino is the most underrated American director working today.
There are many reasons why someone would rightfully balk at such a pronouncement: since Tarantino blew the doors off of American cinema in 1994 with his masterpiece Pulp Fiction, he’s been, without a doubt, one of the all-time most successful directors period. He’s been proclaimed the filmmaker of his generation time and time again (especially in the immediate wake of Pulp Fiction). His films have inspired countless rip-offs, with whole swaths of film school students (some of whom have gone on to make films professionally) ripping off his the surface-level stylings he’s so famous for (over-the-top violence, profane and racially charged dialog, pop-culture references). Honestly, I can understand why film school professors would absolutely hate the guy.
On top of the adulation he’s received by fans and followers and many critics, he’s also about as sure a thing at the box office as anyone. His movies generally open big, with Death Proof the only exception (Jackie Brown didn’t have the impact many were expecting, following Pulp Fiction as it did – but for such a muted, intimate film it did pretty well). Because he was able to set up a great working relationship early on with Harvey Weinstien, he gets to make any damn movie he wants to, without having to do a ‘one-for-them-one-for-me’ thing. Seriously – he may be the only mainstream Hollywood filmmaker who is not beholden to that model, if they’re even so lucky, other than James Cameron. In a year when both he and Steven Spielberg have movies about slavery coming out – it was Spielberg who had trouble getting his film made. Think about that. His film about Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg. Been in some state of production for ages. Almost didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Quentin Tarantino – who has never made a film that’s come anywhere close to raking in as much dough as Jurassic Park or E.T. or the last Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skullfuck – wants to make a hard-r rated Western about a black man gunning down white people left and right? Sure, no problemo. Here’s 50 mil – have fun.
Add to this the fact his films’ tendencies to seep into the larger popular culture – the amount of references made to them in other films, television shows, sketch comedy and even commercials (I distinctly remember at least three commercials that wholly referenced Kill Bill in their visuals and soundtrack), and merchandising: T-shirts, toys, posters…seriously, the man would be a millionaire based off the amount of his movie’s posters that hang in adolescent boys’ rooms (not that I’m familiar with the inside of adolescent boys’ rooms or anything…where was I going with this?) alone.
He’s known to give life to actors’ – both forgotten and as of yet undiscovered – careers. He can popularize old songs. The films that inspire his films, many of which are so unknown they’re not even cult classics, go on to get new home video releases. His movies win Oscars. I’m sure people everywhere kiss his ass. He’s as famous as most Hollywood stars. Many of whom he’s dated.
Taking all of this into consideration, I don’t think anyone could argue that Quentin Tarantino is the most successful filmmaker of his generation. Hell, he’s unarguably the most over-exposed filmmaker in Hollywood, though not as much today as in the late-ninties. So how in the hell can I make the claim that he’s also, simultaneously, the most underrated director around? Allow me to demonstrate:
“Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching somebody’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.”
The above quote comes from David Foster Wallace – the most successful, emulated and over-exposed writer of his generation in regards to his own chosen field of artistic expression. It was written in his (very, very good) essay David Lynch Keeps His Head, and I’ve seen it trotted out by others as criticism of Tarantino each time one of his new movies comes out. Now, here’s the thing – if cinematic violence isn’t your bag, I don’t expect you to like Tarantino movies. But, if you’re being half-way objective about your relationship to art, you have to cop to that being a problem YOU have, not one that Tarantino has. If someone says they don’t like singing and dancing in movies, I don’t expect them to like Singing In The Rain, but I also don’t expect them to criticize it because it contains singing and dancing ( and in the rain no less). But that’s neither here nor there – my problem with Wallace’s quote is not that he’s criticizing Tarantino for being interested in violence – it’s that he’s wrong. Like, objectively, intrinsically, embarrassingly wrong.
The scene to which the late Mr. Wallace is referring takes place in Reservoir Dogs, when Mr. Blond cuts off a policeman’s ear. The scene is the most famous of the whole movie, and it garnered strong reactions immediately. Wes Craven, who of course makes films for little children filled with ponies and singing elves, made public his disgust of the scene. It’s the one movie my own father forbade me to watch when I was a teenager (not that that stopped me), and I’m pretty sure it was due to that scene. For that last point, keep in mind, he had no problem letting me watch Pulp Fiction (which he’d seen), which contains graphic man-on-man rape and shot-gun castration. That stuff is fine and dandy, but Reservoir Dogs=no dice.
I apologize for the above tangent, since Wallace’s quote isn’t actually showing any disgust or shock at the violence of the scene. Wallace is making the point that Tarantino’s fixation on showing the ear getting cut off exposes that he is primarily motivated by the details of the shocking act, that Tarantino is interested, obsessed even, by the aesthetics of violence. Which is undeniable, Tarantino has said as much himself (even comparing the way he uses violence in his films to the way dancing is used in musicals). The problem is this: Tarantino doesn’t actually show the ear getting cut off.
He doesn’t show the blade moving into the flesh, he doesn’t show the blood pouring out, he doesn’t even show the two men struggling as the mutilation occurs for more than a quick second. Instead, during that most infamous of scenes which people have convinced themselves they actually saw, the camera very noticeably moves over to the top of the wall behind them, focusing on a bit of graffiti that reads: WATCH YOUR HEAD.
You don’t see the ear getting cut off. Instead you notice the movement of the camera. You are brought to this visual punchline. You hear the sounds of cop’s muffled screaming and the casual demanding of Mr. Blond for him to hold still. And you also hear the sounds of ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’ mingling with the sounds of human suffering and sadistic glee. But you never see the ear getting cut off.
Wallace not only gets this scene technically wrong, he also disproves his own point: in this scene, Tarantino is interested in everything but the physical violence. He’s interested in technical formalism of the medium, he’s interested in transgressive black humor, he’s interested in human power dynamics, he’s interested in the sense of surrealism that comes from juxtaposing violence with kitschy pop. And he’s interested in the very, very real horror that is caused by violence.
Right here is how Tarantino is underrated: his detractors level several charges against his films, the most prevalent of which is that he has a juvenile fascination with violence. As I wrote above, the man certainly has a fascination with violence. But it’s overtly dismissive to call it juvenile. It is often times sadistic (as in the head shooting scene in Pulp Fiction, which is played wholly for laughs), it is often times critical (the casual violence of chattel slavery in Django Unchained); it is often times realistic (the long, slow, utterly unbearable pain of a gut-shot wound in Reservoir Dogs), banal (the car trunk scene in Jackie Brown), and cartoonish (the spraying fountains of blood in Kill Bill). It can be used to repulse and horrify us (the first murder in Death Proof) or give us powerful catharsis (killing Hitler and the German high command in Inglorious Basterds). No one has explored the full range of cinematic violence like Quentin Tarantino. To call it juvenile is to ignore all of the evidence, to say he’s only interested in seeing the ear get cut off is to miss the goddamn point entirely. It’s would be like saying David Foster Wallace is only interested in showing off how smart he is – er – was.
The charge of juevinalia not only overlooks the way Tarantino has explored violence, it overlooks the very real effort the man puts into every other aspect of his films. This effort can lead to indulgence – a charge that comes up against him which I won’t dispute, except to say I tend to like indulgence in certain artist’s work because I enjoy spending as much time with them as possible *coughdavidfosterwallacecough*. But there are few other people who create as complex of characters as Tarantino does. Each one has so many facets to them that you can end up debating their motives time and again and end up coming to different conclusion each time (for example, why does Hans Landa go from relishing his nickname ‘Jew Hunter’ at the start of Basterds, only to seem disgusted by it at the end? Has he actually had a change of heart over the course of a few years? Is he merely an opportunist taking advantage of each situation? Is it a mix of both?). People will tend to scoff at the notion that he writes deep characters, but that’s because they define deep in terms of psychological ‘realism’. But by those standards, we would have to cut down so many of cinema’s most beloved characters, from Marty McFly to Harry Lime to Chaplin’s Tramp to Nicolas Cage. None of these people act anything remotely like a person in real life would act, but that doesn’t make them empty characters.
Then there’s the language. Tarantino is often charged with relying on profanity and movie references in his dialog. As to the former part of that statement – it’s fucking horseshit. There’s no real way to ‘RELY’ on profanity in place of good dialog. Writer’s don’t use profanity as a crutch – they either write good dialog or bad dialog, either of which may or may not be filled with lots of ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ or ‘mic bastard’ or what have you. People who criticize profane writing are overly sensitive, conservative minded types who would seek to deny artists their full extent of expression out of a sense of offense which they take as somehow worth something. In other words, they’re pussies.
As to the movie and pop culture references – sometimes this is a legit criticism. I don’t mind hearing them because I dig talking about and hearing about movies (in case you couldn’t tell), but I can understand how the average movie goer might get bored by certain segments of dialog in Death Proof that revolve around an obscure chase film from the seventies, or role their eyes at some Partridge Family joke coming out of the mouth of a hired killer. But I’d also make the case that Tarantino’s whole modus operandi is formalism, and references, whether they be part of the dialog or the way a shot is set up to recall the shot of another movie, is essential to it. If formalism isn’t your bag, I don’t expect you to like Tarantino’s films (in the same way lots of people don’t like De Palma films). But again, that’s YOUR taste, not his film’s fault.
Speaking of formalism, the other claim that comes up against Tarantino all the time (especially in dismissive comment section posts) is that he just rips off or recycles other films. The people who make these charges probably don’t know or understand the concept of formalism, but even in that case, I’d be willing to venture that there’s a good chance they like rock&roll and/or hip hop music. The way Tarantino takes elements from other films and combines them into something new is no different that the way a Rolling Stones or Dylan song relies on a classic rhythm or the way a hip-hop song will use a sample. It becomes a rip-off only if the original source isn’t acknowledged – Under Pressure being stolen for Ice Ice Baby or Metallica stealing from Excel to compose Enter Sandman. Tarantino has never, ever been guilty of this. He goes out of his way to let you know what films he’s riffing on. Plus his films are so much better – usually -then the ones he’s taking things from. Seriously, before you proclaim RIPOFF! when watching Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Vol.1, go watch City On Fire and Game of Death. Both films have their charms, no doubt, but nowhere near the level of his films.
There are two more issues I want to get to regarding the way Tarantino is wrongly criticized/underrated which are two parts of the same whole. A charge that is leveled against him, which someone who said they were a film critic (not mocking this person, I just wasn’t familiar with them) was arguing with me about: that Tarantino’s films aren’t about anything. That there’s nothing underneath all the formalism.
I find this claim absurd for two reasons: the first of which is that the basic mechanics of a story – plot, character motivation and forward momentum – are not nothing. Tarantino is a master of all of these mechanics; I would hope that even his most ardent critics will give him that. But there still remains this idea that a film must either have some grand political theme and point of view to be great, or else it’s meaning must be obscure and complex. Now, I have nothing against either of these cases. I love baldly political films so long as they err on the side of radicalism rather than ham-handedness, and I really, really love capital A art films where I walk out of the theater having no idea what the fuck I just watched. But I also love me a good story told well. There’s nothing much deep about Die Hard, but fuck you if your gonna lie to my face and tell me that’s not a great movie. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not basic story elements that make a story good. Live Free or Die Hard is an example of a film that has basic story elements and is not only about nothing, but is also miserable. But when those basic story components are employed with real gusto the result is magnificent.
Seriously, I don’t understand how someone can claim to love films but undervalue the thing which, perhaps more than anything else, Tarantino has mastered: visceral emotion. If the grand purpose of any art is to make people feel something than Tarantino has more than solidified his position as our greatest filmmaker because of the way he’s able to distill visceral excitement time and time again. If that’s not the reaction you have when watching a Tarantino film that’s fine, he’s failed you. But when he is so thoroughly dismissed as juvenile and all style over substance, it insults the very real visceral reaction so many of us have had to his films. It proclaims us as stupid and juvenile for daring to be shocked, surprised and exhausted by his movies.
Here’s the thing that makes this argument so fucked though: his films are filled with deeper themes and ideas, every single one, even though you almost never read or hear people going into discussions about them. Instead they focus on the surface of his films – the violence, the profanity, the references – rather than the often startling ideas and observations his films make. This, more than anything else, is what makes him our most underrated director.
For all of the discussions you have had or come across about Pulp Fiction, how many of them have been about the film’s central theme of divine intervention? How many reviews of Inglorious Basterds made special note of the film being about art used a weapon? For all the talk of the indulgence of Death Proof, how much talk was spent breaking down the way that film worked as a deconstruction of the grindhouse films it emulated perfectly (as opposed to the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse which, while fun, makes it seem like he’s never seen a real grindhouse movie in his life)?
You know what one of the very best films about aging is? Jackie Brown. Seriously, watch that movie with that in mind, and prepare to be blown away by the way it subtly tackles the sadness and regret inherent in getting older (as opposed to growing old). That’s the movies main theme by the way. You know what it’s actually about, plotwise? A con? A crime? No. It’s about how hard it is to be a middle-aged black woman in America. Seriously, that’s the expressed theme of the film, one which is demonstrated – beautifully – by the action of the plot. How many filmmakers, white or black, male or female, have used their success in order to make a film about the struggles of being a middle aged black woman in America? I supposed if he wanted to get the credit he deserves, Tarantino would have made the film a dour, slow movie shot in a grainy style and full of Oscar-baiting weeping, so that people would damn well know he made a film about such an important and ignored topic. But hey, he decided to make his movie all entertaining and funny and suspenseful, so, you know, fuck him.
Don’t ask me why, but I recall a quote from a television show which I believe was (shudder) Entourage, where an actor asks his agent what Tarantino’s next movie is about, and the agent says something along the lines of ‘Who the fuck knows? It could be about some lesbian Chinese emperor in the 16th century’. The thing is – that’s a pretty apt description. His next movie could conceivably be such a thing. How does that not make him the most exciting filmmaker alive? Critics and cultural gatekeepers always bemoan the lack of films made for and about minorities and historically oppressed people. Yet Tarantino makes those movies! Time and again! He’s now even turned his eye towards exploring the heinous actions of white male supremacy, using as his main protagonists members of the actual oppressed classes (as opposed to say, Glory: the story of black soldiers in the Civil War staring Mathew Broderick; or Jeronimo: An American Legend, staring Matt Damon, naturally). His last three films have been about, in order: strong women fighting back against male sexual domination (Death Proof); strong Jews fighting anti-Semitism (Inglorious Bastards) and a strong black male fighting back against white supremacy (Django Unchained). And (spoiler alert) in each of these cases, they fucking win!
Are these fantasies? Yes, of course they are. But don’t we want more fantasies that look like these? Aren’t we always complaining about the way most established fantasies support the status quo of white male dominance?
Let’s face it, the reason Tarantino is often times vehemently dismissed is because he’s a white guy (by the way, I’m a full Mex’can ‘Merican, so don’t start leveling charges of white self-pity at me). If Katherine Bigelow had made Death Proof it would be considered the feminist classic it is. If Eli Roth had directed Inglorious Basterds Jewish intellectuals wouldn’t have said it was reinforcing negative Jewish stereotypes (yeah, good luck figuring that one out). If Antoine Fuqua had directed Django Unchained, it would be unanimously praised for it’s bravery (although Spike Lee would probably still find something to bitch about it). I get that the fact that Hollywood wouldn’t bank those other versions reveals how deeply fucked up Hollywood is – but the charges of white male privilege in the case of Tarantino miss the point. What is a privileged (from his own making – this guy wasn’t the son of some producer) white guy supposed to use his juice for if not to address issues of oppression? Again, again – I know – if he wanted people to take him seriously he should have made his films boring, because we all know that there’s only certain ways you can tell stories about certain subjects, right? Because fuck imagination, what’s that got to do with making movies.
Which itself brings me to my last point: the problem is not that Tarantino has critics. He has tendencies to be critical of. I love his indulgences, but I can see how they’d rub others the wrong way. I love the use of poetic racial invective, but I understand why many are offended at the gall of this white man to put the word ‘nigger’ in the mouths of so many of his characters. I have no problem with the dude’s foot fetish, but I can see why others find it all kinds of creepy. The problem is that when Tarantino is criticized it’s in a dismissive way – “He has an artist’s eye and an adolescent’s brain.” “I think all of his movies are based on watching other movies, as opposed to being based on any meaningful life experiences.” “Not art. Just plain stupid.” (All actual critiques taken from various comment sections that it took me five minutes to scroll through.)
The problem isn’t whether or not people like Tarantino movies, or even approve of them. I get why people find them so troubling. But even if that’s the case, and even if you don’t like them, I can’t understand how someone who truly loves films can dismiss them. Shouldn’t we welcome more troubling films (for example, I like Tyler Perry movies precisely because I find theme so interestingly troubling)? The twisted vision of this man brings so much to the table in terms of conversations to be had. And yet it’s the same old ‘Quentin Tarantino is only interested in seeing dude’s ear cut off’ time and time again.
It’s alright though. Tarantino has said he makes movie for 20 years from now, films that will last the test of time. I believe that is the case. Hopefully, one day down the line, be it twenty years, or thirty, the richest, most successful and beloved filmmaker of his time will finally get his due.