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Death Proof (#110 of 11)

Review: Adilifu Nama’s Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino

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Review: Adilifu Nama’s Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino
Review: Adilifu Nama’s Race on the QT: Blackness and the Films of Quentin Tarantino

Aiming to confront “the racial frankness in [Quentin] Tarantino’s films and not the man himself,” Adilifu Nama’s new book offers close readings of the writer-director’s eight feature films (and additionally, True Romance) in order to unveil the complexities of racial interest and formation as they occur within the Tarantino oeuvre. Nama takes this charge as a corrective to critics like Armond White who view Tarantino’s films as “pop sleaze without the politics,” or Stanley Crouch, who’s compared Tarantino’s interest in race with novelist Ralph Ellison’s. Nama falls somewhere in the middle, wishing to lift the “hackneyed claims that Tarantino is a racist,” while stopping well short of hagiography, stating “at most [Tarantino’s films] serve as catalysts for discussions around black racial formation across the public sphere.” The latter assertion is well taken, since the totality of Race on the QT provides ample, perceptive examinations, but almost exclusively along narrative and character lines, with little attention paid to form or aesthetics, rendering several of these readings useful, but only up to a point.

Nama’s best insights come in the book’s first chapter with analyses of Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, where clever approaches to dialogue and each film’s implicit critiques will make even the most ardent viewer want to revisit them. Nama is particularly on point with Reservoir Dogs, which he deems “a visual analogue of the type of hypermasculinity and extravagant violence rapped about on top of 1970s funk samples.” That is, Nama meticulously mines each of the film’s white characters’ racist views on blackness (of which there are plenty) and positions them in relation to Holdaway (Randy Brooks), the film’s sole black character, since he’s “a formidable tactician and the principle architect for bringing down [the] crime organization.” By recasting Reservoir Dogs as a “racial revenge narrative,” Nama acutely displays the film’s ties with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, films that utilize this kind of narrative far more explicitly. However, Nama’s discussion of these films proves largely unsatisfactory, since here he’s adamant and repetitive in his assertions that Inglourious Basterds is a “science-fiction fantasy” and Django Unchained a “Gothic horror film.” These categorical imperatives detract from Nama’s stated interests in reading for blackness.

Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

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Top 10 Greatest Car Movies
Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

Cars, it’s often been observed, offer a sort of contradiction of motion: They allow us to move around while sitting still. It only makes sense, then, that the movies have for so long been attracted to the allure of the automobile, for surely the appeal of the cinema lies in its capacity to take us from the comfort of the theater or living room to adventures around the world. The greatest car movies—movies about cars, largely set in cars, or otherwise significantly concerned with them—understand that our affection for our vehicles has as much to do with the possible freedoms they promise as the routines they let us uphold. Cars drive us to and from work every day, keeping our lives precisely ordered. But they also suggest escape: We’re always aware, faintly, that we could drive away from it all at any moment, out and off toward some new life’s horizon. Car movies remind us of the power in that possibility—of all the things that can happen when we turn the key.

Body of Work Rosario Dawson

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Body of Work: Rosario Dawson

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Body of Work: Rosario Dawson

The story of Rosario Dawson’s discovery speaks to her enduringly cool credibility as an actress. A New York native who grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Dawson had only a Sesame Street appearance under her belt when she was spotted, on her stoop, by budding director Larry Clark, who, at the urging of then-fledgling screenwriter Harmony Korine, went on to cast her in Kids. She was 15. Just as it did for fellow hip starlet Chloë Sevigny, Kids proved a major launchpad for Dawson, rather literally moving her from her doorstep and shuffling her into the public consciousness. She began attracting other directors in search of gals for urban dramas, and starred in Spike Lee’s He Got Game and Craig Bolotin’s Light It Up, a 1999 flick that took cues from Kids and Dangerous Minds.

But Dawson didn’t wait long to buck her impending typecasting. However unsavory the results, she pulled a 180 and took a part in Josie and the Pussycats, a—ahem—wannabe Spice Girls comedy for the MTV generation. The movie hardly soared, but it was an early indication of Dawson’s deft, enthusiastic knack for diversity, not to mention a taste of the fine musicality that’s periodically weaved its way into her work. Dawson has her limits. One of her virtues is also something of a hindrance: She’s a thoroughly modern actress, and give or take Roxana, her Persian princess in Alexander, she’s not quite cut our for period fare—corsets and all of that. But that hasn’t stopped her from building a terrifically varied filmography, or kept her from emitting a regal fire on screen.

The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two
The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

JASON BELLAMY: Well, Ed, after a few days off we’re ready to move into decidedly fresh territory, because now Inglourious Basterds has entered the conversation, and it has done so with a bullet, or a baseball bat, or something. I have seen the film twice now and I’m ready to proclaim it the most thrilling picture of the year thus far (and, just so you know, that’s a carefully chosen adjective). But what does that really mean? Pretty much nothing. So, with another tip of the cap to My Tarantino Problem, and Yours, the April 2007 give-and-take between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, let’s dive into the deep end once more.

At the end of Tarantino’s World War II (revenge) fantasy, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine looks straight into the camera and says: “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” He’s referring, of course, to a freshly carved swastika, but I wonder if—like so many characters before—Aldo might just be speaking for the filmmaker behind the camera and behind that carefully chosen line. And so, Ed, I ask you: Is Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece?

The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part One

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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part One
The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part One

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?

2007: It’s Okay to Play Catch-Up

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2007: It’s Okay to Play Catch-Up
2007: It’s Okay to Play Catch-Up

Commentary, first.

1. A landmark year for me as well as for the movies. Returning to school proved the right thing to do, despite all the concessions that go with such a decision. Not only did I find the vocabulary I’d always yearned for, and lacked, it keeps growing as I keep writing and reading. I giggle to think of how measly my first attempts at film writing were back when I joined the blogosphere a mere year and a half ago. I giggle more when I realize how right on I was about some movies back then without really knowing why (beyond “that made me cry” or “that was a dope edit” or “Wes Anderson’s wit speaks for me”). What makes me giggle the most is coming to understand how cool it is to change one’s mind. Before 2007 I was a staunch platformist: this is what I believe, deal with it. 2007 taught me some humility, in school and out. Not that I don’t stand by my arguments: I will continue to defend my use and experience with and understanding of the English language. Yet I find myself more willing to have a conversation about a topic, with a topic, to take my time with a topic (films, books, meals, loves, families, etc). This topic of conversation finds its best example, perhaps, in my engagement with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou during the first half of this year. I wrote a big, long paper about Wes Anderson’s fourth film at the end of my first semester back at Berkeley detailing how I’ve come to appreciate the picture. I still think it a fine piece of writing, one I enjoyed revisiting this week, but I view it as a necessary step, a stage of my education, if you will, towards a better understanding of what film is, and how film works, and how to write about both, from my experience. More simply: I would not write the same thing about The Life Aquatic again, now. I would write something more film-specific about its liquid, eternal philosophy. But I may keep that final paragraph.

The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—4th Installment

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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—4th Installment
The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—4th Installment

Putting Them in Context

When it comes to interpreting or evaluating a work of art, a common tendency is to consider it strictly on its own terms, as a work unto itself, without considering the personal or social circumstances surrounding the creation of that work. Arguably, it is easier to evaluate a work that way, because there is no extra baggage to consider. However, to look at it strictly from such a formalistic standpoint, and thus to neglect historical or social context, is to neglect not only important facets of how art is often created, but also of how we as audience members and art consumers receive and consider that work. Something inspires an artist to create a work, and while ultimately the interpretation of a finished work of art is in the eyes and minds of the viewers, an attempt at interpretation that disregards the surroundings in which the work was born makes for a rather superficial analysis of it.

The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment

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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment
The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—3rd Installment

Parody and Pastiche

When one thinks of parody, one might immediately think of blitzkrieg spoofs like the Mel Brooks movie satires (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, etc.) or the 1980 airline-disaster-movie takedown Airplane! But those deliberately lowbrow laugh-a-minute joke-fests represent only one kind of parody.

In general, parody has a critical intent: it tries to deconstruct and then mock outdated or plain silly conventions, and it does so often by adopting those same conventions. As many might agree, only if an artist understands those conventions can he even think about demolishing them through parody effectively. Parody, though, does not necessarily have to be funny/ha-ha comedy—it could also be funny/strange (to borrow terms coined by Andrew Sarris) in the sense that it is trying to render as odd and ridiculous certain artistic sacred cows, whether that entails merely a cliché or an entire outdated genre. Blazing Saddles, for instance, took on the Western genre as its target, while Airplane! toyed mercilessly with the conventions of the disaster genre that was seemingly in vogue through a good part of the 1970s. Of course, to be able to satirize both Westerns and disaster epics with any effectiveness, the filmmakers had to understand and, at the very least, look like a standard-issue Western or disaster epic (Airplane!, for instance, took this a step further and based its entire plot on a 1957 airline disaster flick entitled Zero Hour). Robert Stam defines it in this way:

The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—1st Installment

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The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—1st Installment
The Philosopher and the Fan: Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino—1st Installment

Introduction

When Pulp Fiction hit the movie landscape like a tornado in 1994-—the film surprised almost everyone by picking up a Palme d’Or at Cannes that year-—it wasn’t only moviegoers lapping up writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s irresistible circular triptych of blood, guts, bullets and gleeful postmodern hip. Critics, by and large, bought into the hype for it too. When he reviewed it for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert called Tarantino “the Jerry Lee Lewis of cinema, a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking.” Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly called it “quite simply, the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking to come along in the nearly five years I’ve been writing for this magazine.”