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My Tarantino Problem, and Yours

We’re entering into this conversation coming from antithetical perspectives.

Reservoir Dogs
Photo: Miramax

1. The Air of Unreality

Keith Uhlich: Here. Read this. It’s from Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Nonfictions.

Matt Zoller Seitz: All right. (Reading aloud from text:)

“Objections of a more general nature can also be leveled against City Lights. Its lack of reality is comparable only to its equally exasperating lack of unreality. Some movies are true to life: For the Defense, Street of Chance, The Crowd, even The Broadway Melody, and some are willfully unrealistic, such as the highly individualistic films of Frank Borzage, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Eisenstein. Chaplin’s early escapades belong to the second type, undeniably based as they are on depthless photography and accelerated action, as well as on the actors’ fake mustaches, absurd false beards, fright wigs and ominous overcoats. Not attaining such unreality, City Lights remains unconvincing. Except for the luminous blind girl, extraordinary in her beauty, and for Charlie himself, always a rake, always disguised, all the film’s characters are recklessly normal. Its ramshackle plot relies on the disjointed techniques of continuity from 20 years ago. Archaism and anachronism are literary modes too, I know, but to handle them intentionally is different from perpetrating them ineptly. I relinquish my hope, so often unfulfilled, of being wrong.”

Okay!

KU: I’m citing this passage to get at the idea of unreality in Tarantino, because you said that you often had a problem believing in the worlds he’s created, that you miss the religious element or the spiritual element that I think apply to them. I use that Borges quote as a justification for my point of view, primarily because of the one section where Borges talks about attaining an unreality.

Yet I think that part of the passage also supports your point of view because maybe the Kill Bill films, or Reservoir Dogs—or any of Tarantino’s films—don’t attain the air of unreality that allow you yourself to feel the reality of the situation. Whereas they do for me.

We’re entering into this conversation coming from antithetical perspectives.

MZS: Yeah, and we’re kind of jumping into the deep end of the pool. And that’s OK, because what you’re describing is the crux of what I call “My Tarantino Problem.” We’ve been having this argument for about a year now, and at one point I told you that I was going to write a piece called “My Tarantino Problem,” and that you might as well follow it up with a rebuttal titled, “Your Tarantino Problem.” We never got around to that, but here we are now, so let’s just get it out here, and follow it at the very end with a discussion of Grindhouse.

By way of background, the first Tarantino movie I reviewed was Reservoir Dogs, back when I was a critic for New Times newspapers. I said at the time, when it came out after an advance wave of publicity declaring him the next great American filmmaker, that yes, it was entertaining, yes it was very clever, but there was something secondhand about it. It seemed to me an exceptional example of the tough guy movie, of the gangster film, but there was something glib about it that rubbed me the wrong way. I guess you could call the review backhandedly positive.

Then Pulp Fiction came out, when I’d been a professional journalist for about three years, and a lead film critic for about a year. I really fell for that movie. I saw it several times in the theater, and I remember being very strongly influenced by a Sight and Sound article about Tarantino that hit newsstands right around the time of the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded the movie its grand prize. I remember on first viewing being bothered by certain elements of the movie, including pacing problems and the film’s attitude toward violence, which I thought was too comical—there wasn’t enough weight to it—and just a general sense that what I was seeing were not hit men and boxers and gangsters’ trophy wives, but rather a video store clerk’s conception of them based on having seen them in other movies.

But the movie was so exciting, and so interesting for the way that it merged Hollywood and American art house and exploitation and academic elements, that my review barely touched on the aspects that bugged me—maybe because I was young, the movie was being hailed as a masterpiece by much more established critics who I thought were quite smart, and I wanted to cover my ass in case my elders were drawing on a base of knowledge I just didn’t have yet, which seemed very possible, considering that I was still finding my way.

That nagging feeling came back years later as I was watching parts of Jackie Brown, which I think is still his most mature film, for all its problems. And they resurfaced again when I watched the Kill Bill movies. A lot of the things that didn’t sit right with me when I watched his last three features were also present, in some form, in Pulp Fiction. There was a lesson in there, and I think it was something like, “Trust your instincts.”

My Tarantino problem in a nutshell is that I recognize the things that he’s trying to do, and I concede that if the goal is to create an entertaining movie that is very much about other movies and very much informed by film history, then Tarantino has to be considered a major, major success, there’s no doubt about it; but as I get a little older, and get further away from my twenties, I look back on my positive review of Pulp Fiction, and I cringe a little bit, because what I’ve come to value in movies more than anything else is emotion, and a sense of connection to life. That is the one thing that I think is consistently missing from Tarantino’s movies, with a couple of exceptions, which I think we’ll get to as we go through his career film by film.

2. Fire and Brimstone

KU: Reservoir Dogs I count as a big influence in my life. It was the movie that sort of shocked me into wanting to be a critic. To further my spiritual-religious descriptor: I recently re-watched all of Tarantino’s work and they seemed like an old school preacher talking at you, really preaching with fire and brimstone.

MZS: Reservoir Dogs? Really?

KU: Yes. Absolutely. And not just Reservoir Dogs—the whole body of work has to me a revival tent, old-school-religious feel: in its sanguine nature, in its passion and enthusiasm, and also in its more troubling aspects.

I don’t want to come across as a blind Tarantino acolyte. I admit there are problematic things in all his movies that I am willing to accept as part of his contradictions. But his movies are inherently contradictory in that way. Reservoir Dogs is probably the most perfectly structured and leanest of them all—

MZS: Absolutely.

KU: You know what, though? I’m going to take that back. One of the things I appreciated when I re-viewed all the movies is what I’ll call The Tarantino Longeurs, which are the very quiet moments, the “boring” moments, that lull you into complacency before the punch line. Everything comes clear for me. There’s a sense of illumination and I get a chill out of it.

MZS: I would never use religious language to describe Tarantino. You’ve got to not only have, but be able to communicate, feeling, in order to convey that sensibility, and I just don’t think Tarantino has it in him. He believes in the gospel of movies, no doubt. I think his taste is incredibly eclectic, and I admire that. But I could list—and I might as well go ahead and do it right here—the moments that have moved me in Tarantino films.

There’s Harvey Keitel cradling Tim Roth in his arms at the end of Reservoir Dogs. There’s the flashback, or the visualization, in Reservoir Dogs, of Tim Roth in the bathroom with the police dog coming in. There’s John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson walking out of the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction, and the dance between Travolta and Uma Thurman. In Jackie Brown, almost any scene involving Robert Forster, and the expressions on Robert De Niro’s face as his character comes to grips with his attraction to Bridget Fonda’s character. And in the Kill Bill movies, really nothing, except for the anime section in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, which ironically for me is the only chapter of those two movies that attains that kind of excessive, operatic emotion that Sergio Leone attained routinely in his spaghetti westerns, which are an acknowledged and probably primary influence on the Kill Bill films.

That last item on the list tells me all I need to know about Tarantino: the only scene in both parts of Kill Bill that felt truly overwhelming to me—overwhelming and excessive in a good way—was the scene that Tarantino essentially subcontracted to another filmmaker.

That, in a nutshell, is my Tarantino problem. His technical proficiency, his sense of play, his sense of film history, his wide-ranging taste, the democratic spirit that is Quentin Tarantino, all demand to be acknowledged. But there’s something missing. I like many filmmakers who are in the vein of Tarantino. I adore the Coen brothers, and they’re often accused of being artificial, and I’m doing some writing about Wes Anderson right now, who wouldn’t exist if not for Tarantino and the Coens. But Wes Anderson and the Coens—and for that matter, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, who are also highly, highly, highly stylized, contraptionist filmmakers have all moved me more than Tarantino. Even when their movies are overscaled, overcontrolled or boring, they touch my feelings in a way that Tarantino doesn’t. If Tarantino’s a preacher, I’d say he’s Elmer Gantry. I don’t believe in anything he says.

KU: I do believe, and continue to. Reservoir Dogs was important to me as a teenager—and this is going to sound crazy—in the way that Spaceballs was important to me as a child.

MZS: How so?

KU: Spaceballs was one of the videos I rented the most. That’s my video store clerk mentality coming out here. I saw it seven times on video, I loved it so much. I went into the video store to rent it again and there was literally one last copy up there on the shelf. Somebody else had just taken it, so I walked up to this person and grabbed the Spaceballs cassette from them because I wanted to see it an eighth time.

MZS: You never know what’s going to give you a revelation.

KU: And that film gave me a revelation when I was very young. Then I was going through middle school, and I somehow heard about Akira Kurosawa, and I said to my parents, “Let’s do a Kurosawa film festival,” just because I had heard of him, and I started bringing home Kurosawa films on tape. Reservoir Dogs came out in 1992. That was post-middle school, early high school, a very important time for me developmentally. And Reservoir Dogs shocked me out of some kind of complacency. I credit it with putting me on and pushing me down the road toward being a film critic.

MZS: What did Reservoir Dogs do to you, or show to you, that was so significantly different from anything you’d experienced before that it prompted you to reconsider your life and think about what you wanted to do with it? I ask that because—and I don’t think you’d disagree with this—Tarantino’s career is very much about borrowing and repurposing film history. By which I mean, a lot of the stuff you saw in Reservoir Dogs you’d probably seen before, in some other form.

KU: Or I was being prepared for it. People say about Tarantino—and I want to be careful here and not make blanket statements about groups of people, because I did that the last time we had one of these conversations—I do see a sort of group mentality that attacks Tarantino, that says his appropriations turn minds off to film history, and not just film history.

MZS: I have heard that—that if Tarantino’s such a boon to film history, why aren’t Godard DVDs flying off the shelves?

KU: The charge is that Tarantino’s work does not make people want to seek out the other stuff, the movies that inspired him. But Tarantino’s work does make me want to seek out the other stuff. The Shaw Brothers logo at the beginning of Kill Bill actually made me seek out the Shaw Brothers films, and it helped inform me as to what he was trying to do in the Kill Bill movies. Reservoir Dogs, maybe Jean-Pierre Melville could be compared to that. But back to your question, which is, what was different about Reservoir Dogs? For starters, there’s the copious amount of blood. It’s a very sanguine movie. It is soaked in blood—Tim Roth especially.

MZS: Tim Roth seems to spend about half the movie bleeding.

KU: He does. Then there was the jumping back and forth within the story. I know now that this had been done before in other movies. But put yourself in my position—this was entirely new to me, this jumping around chronologically. I can hear the cinephiles now, saying, “Oh, what a sad child, to have experienced Tarantino before Godard.”

MZS: Well, you gotta start somewhere.

KU: The movie showed me this structure that I had never seen before, and it showed me this really vicious, bloody vision. Like the title says: Reservoir Dogs. They’re going at each other in the gutter. God is in all of Tarantino’s movies. Reservoir Dogs is very much about looking down at these men going at each other, and essentially destroying each other.

However, at the same time, it’s funny, but I think I had always misread the end of Reservoir Dogs until I watched it again just a few days ago. When Roth is saying, “I’m a cop,” and Keitel points the gun at his head, I always thought Roth was trying to talk Keitel out of shooting him. The last time I watched it, it seemed that instead of [Roth] saying, “I’m sorry. What are you doing? Don’t do that!” he was saying, “Do it. I want to be with you.”

MZS: The brilliance of that ending is that it can be read more than one way. I’ve had conversations with people about the meaning of the words and gestures in that scene, and there isn’t one answer, just as there is no one answer to the question, “Why did Travis Bickle shoot all those people?”

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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