However, my Tarantino Problem is this: Because Tarantino is so consumed with his own interests it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in the worlds he creates—and, sadly, this works retroactively, too. That Lee Marvin comment? Alas, that no longer sounds like something Mr. Blonde would say. It sounds like something Tarantino would say. When Tim Roth’s undercover cop Freddy Newandyke tries to convince himself that the thieves haven’t seen through his Mr. Orange cover and looks into the mirror and says, “You’re fucking Baretta,” that, too, now sounds like Tarantino. I could go on. I could mention Jules’ “Caine in Kung Fu” one-liner in Pulp Fiction, Ordell’s Johnny Cochran comments in Jackie Brown, Bill’s superhero monologue in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 or all that unconvincing rambling about Vanishing Point in Death Proof. These moments—and certainly there are dozens of others—don’t sound like the thoughts and passions of original characters anymore, if they ever did. They don’t even sound like the thoughts of characters who have supposedly learned who they are or who they want to be by patterning themselves off of movie characters. No, instead they sound like the thoughts and passions of Quentin Tarantino, who uses these characters to speak straight to the audience to tell us more about him. They sound like his words, his personality, his interests. And I have a problem with that.
EH: Well, I do have my own Tarantino problems (who doesn’t?), and I’m sure we’ll get into them later, but this isn’t one of them. Yes, Tarantino’s characters are frequently stand-ins for Tarantino himself, and they talk about things that interest him. So what? The thing about Tarantino’s pop culture references is that they have many meanings, many functions within his films—he’s not always using them the same way, and he’s not always using them in only one way at a time. To stick with Reservoir Dogs for a moment, I don’t think the fact that Tarantino likes Lee Marvin and Baretta negates the believability of the characters talking this way.
There are times when Tarantino’s pop culture references are just expressions of his own sensibility, like the opening Madonna conversation, which, let’s face it, though funny and well-written, is there mainly because Tarantino thought it’d be amusing for hardened tough guys to be talking about “Like a Virgin.” But at other times Tarantino’s use of pop culture tropes is more sophisticated. Granted, there are moments in Death Proof where I don’t really buy the dialogue, but Reservoir Dogs strikes me as being grounded in a very particular, well-defined, coherent world. Maybe not a realistic world—it’s very much a part of the Tarantinoverse, a self-contained pop cultural outpost—but certainly a world in which I believe the characters would talk like this, would make these specific references. Tarantino’s films are insular and create their own stylized realities, but they’re not as entirely self-absorbed as you’re suggesting.
Tarantino’s tough guys are very consciously movie tough guys, they’ve been raised on movies, on pop culture, and their whole way of acting is driven by the pop culture they have absorbed throughout their lives. On some level, Reservoir Dogs is, like many of Tarantino’s films, all about role-playing, about performance, about identity. It’s appropriate that these men are hiding their identities for the sake of the job, because what they’re projecting is not their own selves anyway. They’ve all developed their personae from watching movie gangsters, and their individuality has been stripped away as a result, hidden behind identical black suits and generic names, the details about their lives only occasionally peeking through the veneer.
There’s irony in hearing Lawrence Tierney, who once famously played John Dillinger in Max Nosseck’s 1945 film about the bank robber, call another man “dead as Dillinger”—but it’s not just a cute reference, because these men have been molded by the media image of Dillinger, and by Tierney’s sneering, snarling performance as the famous outlaw. Tierney’s hulking presence here, looking like the Thing with his rock-like, sculpted visage, is a link to the cinematic touchstones that create guys like this, bad men who have learned what to do and what to say by watching TV and movies. Is Tierney in the film because Tarantino admires his performance in Dillinger and other genre films? Certainly. But he’s also there as part of the cinematic lineage of these characters.
JB: In the mid-’90s, I would have agreed with you. Not anymore. Yes, the Tierney line is a delightful allusion. It’s a clever bit of writing, a sign of Tarantino’s wit and his love of film history, and I cherish that moment. (Well, let’s be honest: I cherish any moment with Tierney.) But I no longer look at Mr. White, Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink and see men who watched gangster movies as kids and decided that’s what they wanted to be. (The Baretta line is more believable.) Instead, I feel like I’m getting an extended version of the lecture Tarantino delivers as Mr. Brown to open the film. Now, I grant you that the Tarantinoverse feels about as real-world realistic as it gets in Reservoir Dogs. Of course, it helps that the vast majority of the action unfolds in an empty warehouse. Our biggest glimpse of “reality” is the diner scene at the start, and Tarantino can’t get out of there before having Mr. White lecture Mr. Pink with this statistic: “Waitressing is the No. 1 occupation for female non-college-graduates in this country.” Now, really, does that sound like Mr. White to you, or does that sound like the screenwriter?
Before I go on, let me note that Tarantino has created characters who avoid acting as a megaphone for the director, most notably Robert Forster’s Max Cherry in Jackie Brown (and perhaps Elmore Leonard deserves much of the credit there). Nevertheless, I believe Tarantino’s greatest weakness as a filmmaker is his frequent habit of talking at us through his characters, usually at the expense of the characters’ credibility. Alas, Tarantino often seems less interested in telling us a story than in lecturing us on his interests. Just like Michael Jackson built himself an amusement park and surrounded himself with toys in a desperate attempt to cling to his childhood, Tarantino seems to want to create hip characters who embody his passions—indeed, who are hip precisely because they embody his passions—in a desperate attempt to confirm his own coolness. The smoking gun to me is this: I can’t think of a single moment in Tarantino’s filmography when a character exalts an element of pop culture—an actor, a film, a song, whatever—that strikes me as running counter to Tarantino’s personal tastes. My gut feeling is that if Mr. Orange thinks Baretta is cool, it’s because Tarantino does. I don’t think Tarantino has the balls, or maybe even the creativity, to create a character who praises the super-coolness of something Tarantino thinks is lame in order to reveal something about that character. To Tarantino, if his characters were lame, that would mean he was lame. I realize this is a weighty charge based purely on my reading of his films and some gut speculation. That said, can you provide any compelling evidence that I’m wrong?
EH: Not on that question! For me, the “smoking gun,” the evidence that Tarantino’s compulsive pop cultural namedropping is more than just a really elaborate way of bragging, lies elsewhere. Of course his films are filled primarily with the stuff he likes, so I’m not sure I can find the kind of evidence you’re looking for. Tarantino’s films are undeniably littered with pop cultural artifacts that he thinks are cool. (Jackie Brown, the only Tarantino film adapted from another source, is a possible exception.)