I do, however, think that Tarantino’s use of pop culture is more complicated than the simple exaltation of coolness. This is especially apparent in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two films that (like Fight Club, another film you have serious issues with) simultaneously glorify and critique the macho violence and media-savvy “coolness” of their protagonists. Pulp Fiction, like Fight Club, is often superficially appreciated by young men who think it’s cool and badass, who admire the attitude of Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) without realizing that the film contains its own critique of such “cool” presentations of violence. Specifically, Jules’ road to redemption begins with the realization that words and actions have meanings beyond their surface, a message that can be applied to Tarantino’s oeuvre as a whole as well. Throughout the film, Jules recites a paraphrased verse from Ezekiel before he kills someone, and it’s played as “cool,” which is exactly what it is for Jules: a tic, an affectation, something to make him sound badass before he killed someone. He never thought about the words. Then in the final diner scene, he tells Pumpkin (Tim Roth) that he has finally thought about what he was actually saying, and has realized that not only is the verse much more than a simple prelude to his murders, it contains an implicit critique of his entire way of life.
In other words, the very thing that makes Jules so cool and appealing is later revealed to contain the seeds of his redemption, the negation of his superficial, violent lifestyle. Similarly, Tarantino’s hip gestures and slick surfaces often cycle around in order to critique the slick and the hip. Pulp Fiction is structured as an endless loop, and those who escape the loop do so by rejecting a shallow, surface-level understanding of genre and character. Jules is set up as a blaxpoitation badass, a tough guy, and he redeems himself by rejecting this gloss, by embracing another way of life. That the way of life he embraces, that of David Carradine’s Caine from the TV series Kung Fu, is another archetype in itself, is not as important as the fact that Jules has freed himself from the limiting bonds of his natural genre. He’s jumped outside the frame into another type of movie, one that takes place beyond Pulp Fiction. So while I see your point—Tarantino’s characters are spouting only the pop culture references that Tarantino wants them to spout—I don’t buy that Tarantino’s nearly as superficial at heart as you contend.
JB: Those are very good points, and I must express that I’m not out to label Tarantino as “superficial.” Tarantino largely gets away with speaking at the audience through his characters because, more often than not, he’s damn entertaining about it. The superheroes lecture in Kill Bill is clumsily obvious, and I’ll never believe the breathless banter about Vanishing Point in Death Proof, but Tarantino has a knack for producing an end that justifies the overt nature of the means. To stick with those previous examples, in Kill Bill the superheroes speech proves to be an eloquent metaphor for how Bill (David Carradine) regards Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), while all that Vanishing Point chatter serves as a kind of foreplay for Death Proof’s exhilarating old-school stunt-spectacular finale.
Yet there remains a problem. Each time Tarantino uses his characters as props for his own lectures, he robs them of their uniqueness. After a while, that redundancy in character creates a redundancy among the movies themselves. In the aftermath of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino acolytes loved to trash all the QT wannabes (and there were many) who tried to conjure the paradoxical magic of having tough-guy characters engage in passionate conversations about everyday minutiae. (One of the most blatant offenders was Suicide Kings, in which the Denis Leary character has an in-car monologue about his shark-skin boots, as I recall.) But, over the long haul, no one has Xeroxed Tarantino as much as Tarantino. Yes, each director has his/her own style and needn’t apologize for staying true to that. I’m not one of those arguing that Tarantino needs to “branch out” and make dramas about the Holocaust. Instead I’m recognizing a point that I think must be addressed: Tarantino has managed to water-down his own genius. The early works that made him famous, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, no longer feel so special or unique. That’s less because Tarantino has inspired so many imitators than because his wild genre shifts have failed to disguise the fact that the core thrust of his filmmaking remains an effort to define all the things Tarantino finds super-cool.
Hmmm. Maybe I am calling him superficial.
EH: And I’m trying to argue that his seeming superficiality is often just a gloss on something deeper. You see “redundancy” between Tarantino’s films where I see thematic and aesthetic consistency. As you say yourself, the most obvious pop culture references in Kill Bill (the Superman monologue that Tarantino adapted from Jules Feiffer’s book-length essay The Great Comic Book Heroes) and Death Proof (the Vanishing Point dialogue) turn out to be integral to the films’ deeper themes. (And by the way, I don’t know why it’s so hard to believe that a pair of stuntwomen would be interested in Vanishing Point, and would extol its virtues to their non-gearhead friends; maybe because I know women who love cars and do love that movie. I’ve always thought the “girls wouldn’t talk about Vanishing Point” criticism was kind of sexist.)
For me, the core thrust of Tarantino’s filmmaking is not his endless pimping of what he finds cool; that’s all decoration, sometimes adding to the films’ substance, sometimes simply gliding along the surface. The real core of Tarantino’s oeuvre, the thread that runs through much of his work, is about identity, about the way people assume different roles in order to define themselves. What is Kill Bill, after all, if not a process of cycling through roles in order to discover the true self, freed of genre obligations: an assassin, a victim, a vengeful killer, a mother, Black Mamba, the Bride, Arlene Plympton, Beatrix Kiddo, Mommy. This thrust is apparent right there in Tarantino’s first film, as well.
For me, the key scene in Reservoir Dogs is the one in which Mr. Orange prepares to tell “the commode story.” When he starts telling the story, he’s only rehearsing it, pacing around his apartment, working his way around the lines, figuring out how he’s going to learn it and make it sound natural. Then we see him practicing it in more detail for a fellow cop, really acting it out, embellishing it; it’s polished now. Then we see him telling the story to his fellow crooks, as a way to break the ice, to get them to like and trust him. And then, finally, we see the visualization of the story’s climax, acted out as though it was something that really happened. Tarantino allows this chronology to flow smoothly, with no disruptions, as though it was all part of the same sequence—because it is, it’s a chronicle of the process by which Freddy the cop puts on a mask, becomes an actor, assumes a genre role. It reinforces the film’s theme of men who are always acting, always putting up a front of macho posturing developed from TV and movies.