Tarantino’s films suggest he’s a man in love with cinema and with himself. Is that particularly interesting? Not on paper, I concede. But let’s pause and look at the world in which Tarantino grew up. It was one of relative privilege and safety. It was one in which the average American had greater access to cinema than ever before. It was a world without an apocalyptic war. It was a world without a radical social movement. Tarantino is a filmmaker from Generation X (and seemingly for Generation X). Should we be shocked that a child of Generation X had his worldview formed by the VCR and the multiplex? These days, when so many young people have their worldview shaped by cinematic media, is Tarantino all that different? Most of us go to the movies and learn about life and love and seek engagement with other people. Tarantino, it seems, learned those same lessons and decided to keep his relationships faithful to his love of cinema. Does that sound plausible?
EH: It sounds more than plausible. In fact, let’s push the idea a little further. My own reaction to Matt’s objection is that it’s a mistake to go looking for substance and depth in Tarantino’s work independently of his pop cultural and cinephiliac obsessions. What Tarantino has to say is about film, is about pop culture, is about the ways in which people of his generation and later ones interact with the world through the prism of culture. His films are about people who have learned how to act from TV, who have grown up in a culture that surrounds them with images, with narratives, with readymade characters whose behaviors and attitudes they can absorb into their own lives. Certainly that’s the way I’ve always viewed the thugs in Reservoir Dogs. They seem like movie tough guys not (or not just) because Tarantino only knows about movies, but because the movies are where these guys learned how to behave as criminals. After Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) have a standoff, nearly coming to blows, Blonde gives a lopsided grin and asks White if he’s a fan of Lee Marvin. He knows, from the way the other man acts, the things he says, the way he carries himself, that White likes Marvin’s movies. They both like these movies. In a way, they’re the same man because they’ve adapted their schtick from the same source.
Tarantino’s films are a pastiche of film history because that’s the way he views the world, but also because that’s how his characters view the world. In fact, that’s the way a lot of people have viewed the world for the past several decades. What does Tarantino believe? He believes people today are defined by pop culture, that consciously and unconsciously they construct their identities from the fabric of the culture they’ve been exposed to. He believes that the ephemera of the past are invested with new and possibly deeper meanings by those whose formative years were spent with these transitory things, this cultural junk. So he treats these things with a seriousness that befits the process: he gives us movie tough guys who bleed and cry, a Shaw Brothers samurai epic about a mother’s desire for vengeance, a blaxploitation icon resurrected as a struggling airline stewardess.
While on some level it sounds reductive and even insulting to suggest that Tarantino’s movies are only about movies, it’s actually just descriptive of what interests him. It’s often said of Tarantino, not just by Matt, that he knows nothing about life, that all he knows how to talk about is movies. This criticism ignores the fact that for an increasingly large number of people today, to talk about the movies, to talk about pop culture, is to talk about life. In the West, where we’re saturated with media practically from birth, people are more and more defined by the culture they consume. If you’re of a certain generation, you grew up watching certain cartoons, watching certain movies, listening to the pop music of the time, and these things become touchstones in your life, markers of your identity. You know someone is like you if they talk about the music you know, the movies you know, the TV shows you know. Tarantino’s obsessive pop culture riffing isn’t just a tic, isn’t just a way of showing off his own encyclopedic pop culture knowledge, it’s a way of grounding his characters in a society where these things matter, where what you watch and what you listen to in some way defines who you are. If you listen to K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the Seventies,” that locates you as a certain kind of guy, maybe a guy of a certain generation or a guy with a certain level of taste; it says something about you. This is Tarantino’s big point, his central idea: pop culture matters, damn it, it is not meaningless, it is not empty, it is increasingly a big part of our lives and we should acknowledge that, should engage with it. In this light, Tarantino’s films aren’t disconnected from reality. They’re all about reality, because reality in the 21st Century has increasingly imitated art, rather than the other way around.
JB: That’s beautifully said, and we almost agree, but with a significant distinction that cuts right to what I guess is my Tarantino Problem. See, I absolutely agree that for a progressively larger portion of American society, pop culture is life. Or, another way of looking at it: pop culture is consuming what we used to consider plain old culture. They are becoming indistinguishable from one another. It is this pop cultural evolution that created Tarantino, created his cinephiliac worldview, and thus created his films. On that we see eye to eye. But where I disagree with you adamantly is that Tarantino is actively commenting upon this cultural evolution, that Tarantino is curious about anything beyond his own interests. Unless Inglorious Basterds convinces me otherwise, I’ve yet to see any evidence of that.
I think the charge often lobbed at Tarantino that he is only interested in satisfying his pop culture interests is correct. Is that a “criticism”? I guess it could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, many of Tarantino’s characters and films have an air of stylized unreality to them that seems sliced from old celluloid and spliced into Tarantino’s screenplays. Well, so what? There are no rules here. Tarantino is perfectly entitled to explore his obsessions, whatever they are. He is perfectly entitled to make a World War II movie that, I’m just guessing, owes more to pulp comic books than to history books. All films need not be redeeming or deep. Additionally, all films need not be “deep” in the same way. I do have Tarantino problems. Many, actually. I do not worship at his altar. But I cannot deny that his films have an effect on me, cumulatively, not consistently. To be clear, this isn’t mere admiration, a term I’d apply to, say, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which impressed me with its construction and scope but seldom moved me (especially after the first picture). Tarantino’s films, at least as I’m watching them, get under my skin. There are moments when I roll my eyes and moments when I’m bored and restless, but I cannot deny Tarantino’s ability to stimulate.