[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers. This conversation is the first half of a two-part discussion of Quentin Tarantino. This part discusses his career up to Death Proof, while Part 2 is an in-depth discussion of his latest feature, Inglourious Basterds.]
JASON BELLAMY: Ed, I am daunted. Let's get that out of the way. This is the last subject I ever expected us to cover—Quentin Tarantino. What a thoroughly thankless assignment! It's not that there isn't anything to say about the oeuvre of this 46-year-old filmmaker. Hardly. Since 1992, when his Reservoir Dogs became an indie sensation, Tarantino has inspired as much chatter as one encounters in his tongue-powered films. Diehard film fans from both sides of the aisle have dissected his influence and influences. They've celebrated his distinctive style or ridiculed it. They've called him the greatest filmmaker of his generation or a plagiarist, and sometimes both at the same time. They have suggested he is a heroic preservationist of film history, a filmmaking Indiana Jones, or they have suggested he is film history's archenemy, a Nazi-esque figure using others' masterpieces as kindling for his bonfires. I could go on. Tarantino's films may be original, brilliant, witty, exhilarating, hilarious, childish, nauseating, offensive, brazen, pathetically derivative, or some combination of the above, but they are always something. Everyone, it seems, is somehow affected by Tarantino. Everyone, it seems, has a take on Tarantino.
Against this wall of noise, what are two more opinions worth? Ed, we've never gone into one of these discussions with the attitude of creating the preeminent analysis of the subject in question (neither of us is that arrogant), but in this case I'm not sure we can even hope to produce the most illuminating two-person debate of Tarantino to appear at this blog. As longtime readers of The House Next Door already know, Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich set the bar extremely high with the transcription of their live QT debate in April 2007 that they called My Tarantino Problem, and Yours. It was that piece, incidentally, that made me leap at the chance to bring our conversations series here to the House. I've read it start to finish at least a half-dozen times, and it never ceases to engage me. And thus it's that piece that made me think that Tarantino wasn't a topic worth our time. Save for bringing to the table QT's seventh—depending on how you count—major directorial effort, Inglorious Basterds, which as of beginning this discussion we haven't seen, what more is there to say?
Yet, at the urging of our editor, here we are. I'm excited as usual, but, yes, I am daunted. I'd like to think that our conversation can tread lightly on some of those oh-so-familiar Tarantino battlegrounds in an attempt to find some mostly unexplored terrain, but, as simple as that sounds, I am doubtful. I am reminded that at the heart of every Tarantino discussion is a debate over Tarantino's depth, or lack thereof. And so I wonder: What if in trying to look beyond the surface of Tarantino's controversial reputation we find that there's nothing more there? Could it be that the most compelling element of Tarantino's filmmaking has become our inability to collectively define it?
ED HOWARD: Yes, here we are, faced with the unenviable task of finding a (relatively) fresh perspective on a filmmaker about whom seemingly everything has already been said. Tarantino has been alternately hyped up and beaten down ever since Reservoir Dogs made its Sundance premiere—over seventeen years ago now, believe it or not. Like you say, everyone has something to say about Tarantino, and usually they say it pretty forcefully; I don't think I've ever stumbled across someone who has a neutral opinion of the guy.
If, as you suggest, we downplay some of the typical topics of conversation revolving around Tarantino—whether he's a plagiarist or simply paying tribute to his idols, his treatment of violence, his attitude towards women, etc.—the question then is, what's left? Hopefully, the real substance of his films, as well as the little things that may get ignored when everyone's busy talking about the big topics. Rewatching his films for this conversation, one thing that struck me was that, even though I've seen every Tarantino film multiple times, and some of them perhaps too many times, there are still scenes in each one that feel fresh, that surprise and engage me even after a half-dozen or a dozen viewings. Like a brief little scene I'd nearly forgotten from Pulp Fiction, where Harvey Keitel's Winston Wolf tosses some flirty banter back and forth with the daughter (Julia Sweeney) of a junkyard owner: charming, funny and suggestive of these characters' lives as they extend beyond the film.
As for the question of Tarantino's depth, of what lies beneath the surface of his films, I'm reminded of a quote from that earlier conversation between Matt and Keith. It's probably appropriate, considering how important that piece has been to us both, that we take their work as a springboard for our own, a starting point for our inquiry into American pop culture's thorniest auteur. At one point in that discussion, Matt says:
"I still don't get a sense of what moves Tarantino and inspires him, of what he stands for. I have never seen him say, in a movie, 'This is what I believe. This is what I prize. This is what matters to me.' He's a public figure, and he affects a 'What you see is what you get' image, but he's very cagey about letting the audience look past The Quentin Tarantino Show and sense, in the movies, his true essence as a human being and as an artist."
These are strong words, and I'd like to kick us off by asking: Do you agree? What does Quentin Tarantino believe, if anything? What worldview does his oeuvre as a whole create or explore?
JB: Well, as Matt said to Keith in 2007, we're jumping into the deep end of the pool here, and that's okay. In truth, I'm not sure I could have picked a better quote from which to begin, because the passage you selected sums up the crux of Matt's "Tarantino Problem," and I wonder if it doesn't have a very simple answer. It goes like this: What if Tarantino's films do show us his true essence as a human being and as an artist? What if "The Quentin Tarantino Show" is all that we see because it's all that's there to see?
Before we move ahead, let me be clear: This is a subtly different question than I was asking you just a moment ago. A moment ago I was talking about Tarantino's films and their overall effect and whether they, as pieces of art, are worthy of all the discussion they have inspired. In this instance, however, I'm talking about Tarantino the man and artist. Naysayers look at Tarantino's films and say, "All I see is a guy who loves movies, who worships Scorsese, Leone, Godard and De Palma, etcetera." Well, perhaps that's all you should see. Almost everyone knows at least one person who is staggeringly one-dimensional. Maybe Tarantino is another one. There are world-class athletes who are slaves to their sports. Chess champions give up their lives for their craft. Businessmen lose themselves to their professions. Why do we expect a filmmaker to be any different?