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A Dream of Perfect Reception

The movies of Quentin Tarantino

Americans love junk; it’s not the junk that bothers me, it’s the love.

—George Santayana

Quentin Tarantino is today’s feel-good movie director, the Frank Capra of the nineties. Moviegoers are as elated leaving showings of Pulp Fiction as moviegoers must have been leaving Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life. But whereas Capra’s movies were jolly life-affirming affairs, Tarantino’s are jolly death-affirming ones. And whereas 1938’s audiences identified with political reformer and populist Jimmy Stewart, today’s audiences identify with petty criminals and murderers played by Harvey Keitel and John Travolta. This says considerably more about the state of our culture than it does about Tarantino. So does the fact that he is the most critically lauded, even fawned-over director to emerge in the last few years—and a commercial powerhouse as well. Tarantino, in short, has it all: the approbation of the taste makers of the popular press, the adulation of movie-goers, and the consequent clout that is so cherished in Hollywood.

In his short career, Tarantino has written four films, two of which he’s directed himself (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), the others having been directed by Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers) and Tony Scott (True Romance). The critical establishment, such as it is, instantly crowned Tarantino an auteur upon the release of Reservoir Dogs and certified his exalted position with an effusive reception for Pulp Fiction. Movie magazines have trampled each other to rush obsequious profiles into print over the last two years, each chronicling his rags-to-riches story from movie enthusiast and video store clerk to Oscar-winning Hollywood whiz kid, his encyclopedic knowledge of movies, his excitement for all things filmic. He apparently talks faster than anyone this side of Camille Paglia and is a genuine connoisseur of trash. We are clearly living in the cinematic age of Quentin Tarantino.

But the age of Tarantino is Santayana’s nightmare come true: here is an American who doesn’t merely love junk, but who proselytizes on its behalf every chance he gets. While he may be skilled as a writer and director, Tarantino’s most important talent, the ability that has catapulted him to the top of the critical heap, is as an agent for commerce, a booster for the commercial values of industry product, a symbol of Hollywood Triumphant. The rare combination of mass popularity, critical acclaim, and industry adulation afforded his films represents the triumph of an economic/cultural order that aims to reduce both producers and consumers of film product into blithe and giddy Tarantino replicas. On the talk show circuit he prattles enthusiastically about a life spent watching and adoring junk while his movies are feature-length advertisements for products that you can watch on TV or purchase at toy stores. Tarantino is the perfect shill—hip, comforting, and infectious—for both the passive ideology of spectatorship that the Information Age requires and for the product its leading industry manufactures.

It would be a different matter if Tarantino’s movies were not empty rearrangements of Hollywood banalities. Despite his rule-breaking reputation, Tarantino’s aesthetic is entirely predictable in its use of cliché and reverse-cliché: every film must include (a) a grisly torture scene in which a witty monologue is usually delivered by the torturer to the great discomfort of the torturee; (b) intense violence alternating with goofball humor that more often than not derives from the characters’ arcane knowledge of American junk culture; (c) an unending stream of “homages” or rip-offs of dialogue, scenes, or premises from a vast array of American and European movies; and (d) a Mexican stand-off in which everyone or nearly everyone dies.

Scratch the surface of one of Tarantino’s dramas and the flimsy layer of moral electroplating that holds the story together disintegrates. The conflict that gives Reservoir Dogs what little human resonance it has—the struggle to reconcile an amoral life with moral impulses—seems almost intentionally shoddy when compared to a movie like The Wild Bunch (a Tarantino favorite), which is animated by the same moral conflict. The two films share similar bloodbath conclusions in which lone moral outlaws are slaughtered by overwhelming force. But it’s the differences that are instructive. Unlike The Wild Bunch’s climactic eruption of violence, the moral backdrop to the actions in Reservoir Dogs doesn’t convince. It is unlikely, for example, that the professional criminal played by Harvey Keitel would so obstinately jeopardize his safety or break with his old and trusted friend Lawrence Tierney, who’s convinced (for good reason) that the Tim Roth character is a cop. To set this implausible situation Tarantino has Keitel exhibit a jerry-rigged paternalism toward Roth, (wrongly) claiming that, “It was my fault he got shot” and “The bullet in his belly is my fault.” Keitel’s sudden burst of profound moral responsibility seems more like a plot device mechanically inserted because Tarantino had seen the same theme used in another movie rather than because it makes any internal sense.

But the moral conflicts that run through The Wild Bunch are organic components of the film, attentively developed by director Sam Peckinpah, and consistently embodied, in various degrees, in the characters themselves. The film gets its meaning from the conflict between the decomposition of William Holden’s gang and the moral imperative expressed in his exhortation, “When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!” The much-celebrated violence in The Wild Bunch is explained as a matter of survival, but in Reservoir Dogs it is used purely to shock, to make for an effective scene or to crank up the tension: Michael Madsen’s torture of the cop, Roth’s pointless killing of the civilian in the car, Chris Penn’s irrational murder of the cop in the warehouse. And while the wild bunch’s last act is one of willful redemption, Keitel’s is a simple act of vengeance; it is both grandiloquent and trivial. So phony is Tarantino’s moral attitudinizing that one begins to realize that the only reason he includes it in the first place is because it’s the custom in Hollywood movies; it’s how the product is made.

A glimpse of Tarantino’s thinking about violence can be found in his response to questions regarding his repetitious use of the epithet “nigger” in Reservoir Dogs and, even more frequently, in Pulp Fiction. “I … feel ‘nigger’ is one of the most volatile words in the English language and anytime anyone gives a word that much power, I think everybody should be shouting it from the rooftops to take the power away,” he asserted. By taking this same promiscuous approach to violence and callousness, he succeeds in draining any power or meaning they may otherwise have had as well. His films are a succession of torture scenes, murders, and tough-guy talk until the only possible response is one of disaffection. When Travolta’s Vincent is machine-gunned by Willis’s Butch in Pulp Fiction, one feels nothing because Tarantino didn’t bother to sculpt Travolta’s character into a human being we could care about. When Butch expresses indifference, even contempt for the opponent he just killed in the boxing ring, the audience easily accepts, maybe even enjoys his callousness; when he goes back to help Marcellus, the audience applauds his decency. One means no more or less than the other, the contradictory impulses nullifying the character’s interest as a human being: he is no more than a plot convenience. When Samuel Jackson’s Jules finds God, and gives Tim Roth his revelatory speech at the end of the film, we realize even God has been trivialized and reduced to a character in a sitcom.

Tarantino is well-known to be a most undiscriminating media buff. Consider, for example, his giddiness over the TV show Baywatch. “It’s like, such a great show. I’ve been lamenting the fact that exploitation movies don’t exist any more, but they do—they’re just on television.” He gushes about his favorite movie shoot-outs, listing The Wild Bunch, Dillinger, and John Woo in one breath—“And this has to be mentioned,” he adds with dramatic urgency, “the restaurant shoot-out in Year of the Dragon. A true masterpiece of filmmaking.” His familiarity with movies and TV has served him well; indeed, it’s the application of this storehouse of knowledge—the references, “homages,” characters, plot devices, etc.—that constitutes the reality of his films.

Tarantino is a cinematic kleptomaniac—he literally can’t help himself. Movies, TV shows, and ad jingles are all that there is on his earth.

Tarantino learned a few things about name-dropping from his hero, Jean-Luc Godard. But while Godard has always kept his cultural references on the high end of the scale (Dostoevsky, Novalis, Sartre, Bakunin, Malraux, Apollinaire), Tarantino keeps his overt references decidedly low. His characters speak of Elvis, the Beatles, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Superfly, The Guns of Navarone, Green Acres, Kung Fu, Happy Days, Lee Marvin, Sonny Chiba, and so on. When Tarantino’s characters aren’t invoking the names of movies or TV shows, they quote from them (such as Christian Slater in True Romance quoting John Derrick’s nihilistic line from The Harder They Fall), or enact scenes that echo other movies. The prizefighter played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction is a slick, witty, glamorized version of Robert Ryan’s tragic prizefighter in The Set Up; Butch’s and Marcellus’s predicament at the hands of the rednecks is straight out of Deliverance (the difference, of course, being that in Deliverance the rape created the film’s central moral dilemma whereas in Pulp Fiction it was merely “the single weirdest day of [Butch’s] life”); True Romance’s voice-over and accompanying music is lifted from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven; the structure of Reservoir Dogs owes a debt to The Killing; the much-praised looping narrative of Pulp Fiction is similar to Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (including title cards for the three separate stories); the mysterious attaché case in Pulp Fiction glows when opened, an homage to Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly (or to Repo Man). Even small gestures and routine camera placements are suspect. Madsen’s funny gun gesture is the same motion used by a crook in City on Fire (from which Tarantino stole much of Reservoir Dogs) while the tracking shot of Buscemi running from the jewelry store is identical to tracking shots in City on Fire and Los Delous. And when he isn’t knocking off characters or imagery, Tarantino’s paying “homage” to dialogue from other films. Compare these excerpts from his oeuvre to Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick:

(From the screenplay of Natural Born Killers)

Movie Mickey: Listen to me, Jimmy Dick! I want cash, lots of it, cars, fast cars! And I want it now! Not later, now! I wanna wail, baby, wail!

(From Charley Varrick)

Harmon: I got something I want to hang onto you, Jimmy-Dick! I’ve been waiting all my life to make a score like this, I ain’t waiting no more. I mean, I’m gonna wail! And I’m talking about chicks, cars, clothes, a box at the races, and beefsteak three times a day!

(From Pulp Fiction)

Marcellus: I’m gonna call a couple pipe-hittin’ niggers, who’ll go to work on homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch.

(From Charley Varrick)

Boyle: They’ll strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blow torch.

After a while, all the scenes, references, dialogue take on an arbitrary cast: they’re pieced together not from life but from twenty years of watching movies. Tarantino’s characters—and Tarantino himself—inhabit a world where the entire landscape is composed of Hollywood product. Tarantino is a cinematic kleptomaniac—he literally can’t help himself. Movies, TV shows, and ad jingles are all that there is on his earth.

Dialogue that goes nowhere; scenes borrowed in their entirety from other movies; endless invocations of TV past: the Tarantino aesthetic is a concentrated and streamlined rendering of the larger aesthetic of the culture industry. Like mass culture itself, which mutates opportunistically with the transient Zeitgeist but stays always the same, Tarantino’s films are always hip but scrupulously content-free. Literary critic James Wood writes that “Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus voiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies (rather than to contain or comprehend). Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest.” And yet it’s this very vacuousness, this disconnection from anything remotely resembling moral or emotional issues, that Tarantino’s admirers love. One of these insists that Tarantino’s “greatness lies in the fact that his movies don’t need the real world. Tarantino’s head is already crammed … with a complete, distinct universe, which has its own reference points and its own moral compass”—a “distinct universe,” a set of “reference points” and a “moral compass” that are all lifted from other movies.

This curious disconnection is true of his characters as well as the moral dilemmas that they so glibly confront. They inhabit a world bounded by movies and television. And when they are not defined by their own constant references to media, they are themselves characters familiar from other movies—gangsters, cops, prizefighters, talk show hosts, etc. (Though there aren’t many et ceteras; that list pretty much covers the gamut of characters in Tarantino’s four films to date.)

It would be one thing if Tarantino were using these filmic references and icons to comment on films or television, but one gets no sense that (unlike his idol Godard) he is engaged in social criticism or even has a discernible point of view. Nonetheless, he has endorsed the proposition (“one hundred percent”) that “on one level [his] movies are fictions, but on another level they’re movie criticism, like Godard’s.” His hagiographers tend to concur. But while his movies are certainly about movies, elevating them to the status of “criticism” would require distance, irony, and judgment, qualities of mind Tarantino has never displayed. When he writes a dance number for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, he’s not commenting on Saturday Night Fever but recreating it, and indulging in the ultimate dream of a movie buff.

Perhaps I’m misreading Tarantino entirely; perhaps I’m holding him to inappropriate standards. Perhaps his films are comedies, as many of his fans claim. Oddly enough, Tarantino himself denies this: “I always stop short of calling my work comedy,” he has been quoted as saying, “because as funny as [Pulp Fiction] is, there are things you’re not supposed to be laughing at. It takes the seriousness away from it if you describe it as comedy or black comedy….” Two points are worth noting in this astonishing comment: 1) Tarantino does not think comedy or black humor is serious, and 2) he considers Pulp Fiction serious apart from its humor.

Tarantino’s comedy is centered not around the doings of people we recognize from life or of archetypes extrapolated from life, but the rarefied milieu of walking genre clichés.

The neologism “comedy-drama” was coined by Columbia’s publicity department to promote Capra’s It Happened One Night. The film’s success proved that naturalism and humor could coexist, creating and resolving a tension that seamlessly enhanced the possibilities of both modes. Lubitsch’s masterpiece To Be or Not To Be had a similar effect. “One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy,” the director said—“I do not care and neither do the audiences.” Great comedy, including black humor, is always serious on some level: think of Chaplin and Keaton, Sturges and Cukor, or films like My Man Godfrey and Private Lives. In these films humor articulated the characters’ social and political relationships, revealed their moral and emotional lives, and crystalized their conflicts. And their success grew from audiences’ sheer joy in watching the play of wit at the service of universal human questions—love and death and the right way to live. Both required less a slavish mimesis than the creation of a world more or less analagous to our own, held together and made believable by an exquisite equilibrium between comedy and drama. Strictly speaking, they weren’t realistic or naturalistic, but they were always emotionally, psychologically, or socially truthful.

Tarantino’s comedy, though, is mostly a cheat. It is centered not around the doings of people we recognize from life or of archetypes extrapolated from life, but the rarefied milieu of walking genre clichés—serial killers, Walter Mitty-adventurers, gangsters. Stylistically, the humor in Pulp Fiction is a hodgepodge of schtick, stand-up comedy routines, black humor, screwball comedy, and anything else he can get away with. Far from balancing humor and drama, his technique is to throw so much of this anarchic mess at the viewer that any critical apparatus is quickly dulled.

In one revealing episode, Uma Thurman’s Mia overdoses on heroin, thinking it’s cocaine (a case of mistaken identity, a classic screwball comedy device!), and Vincent and his drug source have to slam a needle full of adrenalin into her heart in order to revive her. It’s a grotesque episode, but it doesn’t suggest the complex wit or the rewards of screwball comedy so much as the kind of zany premise one expects from an episode of I Love Lucy: more sitcom than film art. Nor does the story bear any relationship to the rest of the film—soon afterwards Mia is just dropped. Then there’s Tarantino’s attempt at the blackest of black humor—when Vincent accidentally blows someone’s head off in Jules’s car, and the boys have to clean up the mess. But black humor requires more than mere goofiness to touch an audience; it demands an authorial point of view, a moral position staked out and defended by the filmmaker, or at the very least, a normative anchor from which we can get our bearings: Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was clearly opposed to the madness of MAD just as M*A*S*H was opposed to priggish authoritarianism and hypocrisy. Cary Grant’s and Raymond Massey’s moral extremes provided the ballast that allowed us to see the irony in Arsenic and Old Lace. But there isn’t any countervailing moral presence in Pulp Fiction to serve as contrast; since everyone in the film is a self-serving scumbag and everyone’s motivations are selfish and sleazy, nothing is at stake and the humor is just momentary exercises in empty guffawing.

But whatever the mode, Tarantino seems determined to prevent his humor from cohering into a meaningful, thematic whole. It exists only in isolated or compartmentalized scenes and his dialogue is usually spit out furiously by actors who are so constantly “on” that they appear not to be talking to each other, but directly and self-consciously to the camera in a kind of Bogosianesque routine. Ultimately it serves no function greater than as a bridging device between the violence, so the audience can chortle one minute and squirm the next, never bored. Having passively absorbed the “realities” of TV and movies, Tarantino regurgitates his favorite clichés and formulas, sometimes with a wink, sometimes with a straight face, sometimes with wit, but always with an unconditional love for the clichés and formulas that precludes the possibility of Godardian criticism or even incisive observation.

Tarantino is now everywhere, as ubiquitous as popcult itself, on talk shows, directing TV episodes, licensing his movies to a schlocky comic-book publisher, starting a production company to make television commercials (!), script-doctoring trashy Hollywood movies. Yet the New York Times (November 13, 1995, “Ah, the Perils of Overexposure”) informs us that American movie-goers’ love affair with Tarantino may be reaching its merciful conclusion.

But there is no real danger of Tarantino’s retirement from the public stage any time soon. He and his audience are as one insofar as they both demand of their entertainment shallowness, ease, familiarity, and as much sex and violence that an R rating can accommodate. Not only does Tarantino deliver these ingredients, but he makes the public feel good for wanting them in the first place. He is too valuable a symbol, too useful a metaphor, to be dumped anytime soon. In Tarantino and the enthusiasms of his audience the architects of the Mind Industry see their most fabulous aspirations made concrete: he represents the audience with its critical guard down forever, sucking it all up without reservation, commiting it to memory, building their lives around it. In Tarantino the titans of the Information Age see the world re-made in their terms, with their clichés, according to their formulas. He is pointing the way to a golden future in which there is no longer any difference between what people are told they want and what they think they want. In his frail, hyperactive body the industry sees the two great functions of “creative” and “marketing” coalesce seamlessly and ooze with sincerity; making, selling, and living junk; the dream of perfect reception fulfilled.