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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part One

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.

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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?

ED HOWARD: Yes, here we are, faced with the unenviable task of finding a (relatively) fresh perspective on a filmmaker about whom seemingly everything has already been said. Tarantino has been alternately hyped up and beaten down ever since Reservoir Dogs made its Sundance premiere—over seventeen years ago now, believe it or not. Like you say, everyone has something to say about Tarantino, and usually they say it pretty forcefully; I don’t think I’ve ever stumbled across someone who has a neutral opinion of the guy.

If, as you suggest, we downplay some of the typical topics of conversation revolving around Tarantino—whether he’s a plagiarist or simply paying tribute to his idols, his treatment of violence, his attitude towards women, etc.—the question then is, what’s left? Hopefully, the real substance of his films, as well as the little things that may get ignored when everyone’s busy talking about the big topics. Rewatching his films for this conversation, one thing that struck me was that, even though I’ve seen every Tarantino film multiple times, and some of them perhaps too many times, there are still scenes in each one that feel fresh, that surprise and engage me even after a half-dozen or a dozen viewings. Like a brief little scene I’d nearly forgotten from Pulp Fiction, where Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf tosses some flirty banter back and forth with the daughter (Julia Sweeney) of a junkyard owner: charming, funny and suggestive of these characters’ lives as they extend beyond the film.

As for the question of Tarantino’s depth, of what lies beneath the surface of his films, I’m reminded of a quote from that earlier conversation between Matt and Keith. It’s probably appropriate, considering how important that piece has been to us both, that we take their work as a springboard for our own, a starting point for our inquiry into American pop culture’s thorniest auteur. At one point in that discussion, Matt says:

“I still don’t get a sense of what moves Tarantino and inspires him, of what he stands for. I have never seen him say, in a movie, ’This is what I believe. This is what I prize. This is what matters to me.’ He’s a public figure, and he affects a ’What you see is what you get’ image, but he’s very cagey about letting the audience look past The Quentin Tarantino Show and sense, in the movies, his true essence as a human being and as an artist.”

These are strong words, and I’d like to kick us off by asking: Do you agree? What does Quentin Tarantino believe, if anything? What worldview does his oeuvre as a whole create or explore?

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Well, as Matt said to Keith in 2007, we’re jumping into the deep end of the pool here, and that’s okay. In truth, I’m not sure I could have picked a better quote from which to begin, because the passage you selected sums up the crux of Matt’s “Tarantino Problem,” and I wonder if it doesn’t have a very simple answer. It goes like this: What if Tarantino’s films do show us his true essence as a human being and as an artist? What if “The Quentin Tarantino Show” is all that we see because it’s all that’s there to see?

Before we move ahead, let me be clear: This is a subtly different question than I was asking you just a moment ago. A moment ago I was talking about Tarantino’s films and their overall effect and whether they, as pieces of art, are worthy of all the discussion they have inspired. In this instance, however, I’m talking about Tarantino the man and artist. Naysayers look at Tarantino’s films and say, “All I see is a guy who loves movies, who worships Scorsese, Leone, Godard and De Palma, etcetera.” Well, perhaps that’s all you should see. Almost everyone knows at least one person who is staggeringly one-dimensional. Maybe Tarantino is another one. There are world-class athletes who are slaves to their sports. Chess champions give up their lives for their craft. Businessmen lose themselves to their professions. Why do we expect a filmmaker to be any different?

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?

Quentin Tarantino

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.

Quentin Tarantino

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.

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.

Quentin Tarantino

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.

Quentin Tarantino

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?

Quentin Tarantino

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.)

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.

Quentin Tarantino

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.

It’s a mask that does them little good, which is another of Tarantino’s points. When Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe (Tierney) and Mr. White recreate the three-way shootout from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the end of the film, it’s utterly pointless. They’re three men who like and respect one another, who have known each other for a long time, but they’re locked into a position where none of them can just lower their weapons and call it off. The only thing they can do is pull the trigger, knowing the others will do the same and then they’ll all be dead. This is the dead end that the image of the movie tough guy inevitably leads to, and those Tarantino characters who cannot escape such cinematic touchstones, who cannot imagine a life beyond their genre stereotypes, inevitably wind up dead: as dead as Dillinger, as dead as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Here’s where we stumble into one of those tricky areas between intent and realization—an area so tricky that I knowingly contradict myself with regularity. On the one hand, I think the intentions of a filmmaker are irrelevant to the film itself. In other words, if a scene is ambiguous to an audience, then it is, even if the filmmaker “knows” the hidden truth of the scene or intended for its meaning to be straightforward. Likewise, if a scene seems to symbolize something counter to what the director intended, then it does. I am adamantly against going back to a screenplay or, even worse, to the original source material (when it exists) to enlighten the meaning of what plays out on screen. (See: No Country for Old Men and the multiple opinions about where Chigurh is or isn’t in that non-confrontation with Sheriff Bell.) On the other hand, though, I also think it’s possible to give a director too much credit. Or, as Matt said to Keith, “the movie you’re describing is much greater than the movie I saw.”

As it applies to Reservoir Dogs, I don’t sense at all that Tarantino is out to demonstrate that macho posturing turned into a life of crime is a road to doom. Not at all. Instead, I believe that QT thinks the three-way shootout is cool, and so he wants to do one, and that’s that. When I picture Tarantino sitting around talking about his movies, and sometimes it feels like he’s doing that as the film is unfolding (Matt said he feels like Kill Bill needed footnotes, but I feel like sometimes Tarantino’s films are those footnotes), well, I don’t picture him talking about character metamorphoses. If those happen, they are afterthoughts for the most part. Tarantino is driven by action and by his cinematic fetishism. And, again, that’s fine. If it works, it works. It if thrills, it thrills. So while I don’t disagree with your analysis of the film, I can’t agree with it either. I can’t say your description matches Tarantino’s aims.

This is another example of how slippery Tarantino is to define. So much of my ability to look beyond my Tarantino Problems and enjoy the films for what they are requires me to approach them as if they aren’t meant for deeper examination. Because, yes, to really listen to Jules come to terms with that bibilical verse that he’s always throwing around in Pulp Fiction is to find greater complexity than Tarantino is usually given credit for. But in doing so, like Fight Club, Tarantino via Jules negates the very spirit with which he sought to entertain us in the first place, and thus seems to disparage his own pop culture sensibilities as well as the audience that falls for them. Ed, I’m not looking to rehash our entire Fight Club debate here. I’m simply suggesting that I’m not sure that it benefits Tarantino to go seeking depth. Instead, as with moments in Kill Bill, perhaps it’s best when depth sneaks up on us and surprises us.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: If that’s the case, I certainly find there are a lot of moments throughout his oeuvre that surprise me with their depth and complexity. Sure, he throws a lot of stuff into his movies just because he thinks it’s cool. And, sure, each of his films contains at least a few cringe-worthy moments. (Like that scene in Death Proof where the second group of girls enthuse about getting a mix tape as a birthday present; it’s such obvious geeky guy wish fulfillment. Most actual women, I’d imagine, would simply say, “Get me a real present.”) But I can’t dismiss the deeper currents in his work, either. Anyone who doubts the emotional weight of Tarantino’s films should look closely at the entire Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) chapter in Pulp Fiction, specifically the way the tonal shifts are handled—from the playful, 50s rock movie flirtation between Mia and Vincent, to the sobering horror of the overdose sequence, to the quiet aftermath, in which the visibly shaken Vincent drives an ashen, worn Mia back to her house. Their goodbye is awkward and sad, with a sense of lost possibilities in every word, every gesture. This scene is haunted by the ghost of their earlier flirtation, in the way Mia calmly tells Vincent the joke she refused to tell him earlier, and Vincent gives her a tired smile and then, as she’s walking away, blows her a kiss.

For someone who’s so often dismissed as an undisciplined egotist and a slick stylist, the emotions in Tarantino’s films are quiet and subtle, layered beneath the surface of his pop culture riffing. That’s why I insist that it’s worth looking for the depth in these films. As you note, it’s dangerous to try to guess at intent, and I’ll try not to go there. I have no idea, really, whether even Tarantino takes his films as seriously as I do. But when a filmmaker so consistently explores the same ideas, in film after film, I have to assume that it’s not accidental, that at least on some level he means for those ideas to be there, that he’s not just goofing around. I don’t think it’s an accident that the subtext of identity and genre archetypes and character transformation runs through Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Jackie Brown and, in different ways, Death Proof as well.

In Pulp Fiction, both Jules and Butch (Bruce Willis) achieve redemption and second chances by rejecting the shallow values of their archetypal characters. The latter initially cares only about himself; he expresses no remorse upon learning he killed another man in a boxing match. He simply runs away. The later scene where Butch returns to save Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is thus a mirror image of the earlier one: with a man dying behind him, he has the chance to run away or to go back and face up to things, and this time he chooses to go back. By not running, he breaks the cycle of endless flight and hiding that was ahead of him. He rejects his man-on-the-run noir story and turns his tale into something else, a blend of a torture/revenge flick, a Deliverance-style redneck thriller, and a noir romance in which he’s able to make his eventual escape without the moral weight of his past dragging him down. Like Jules, he’s been redeemed from a very familiar genre plot, freed to make other choices, to do things differently and undo the mistakes of his past. Some characters escape the loop of Pulp Fiction towards a different life, while others choose to relive the same stories over and over again, trapped by genre and by fate, which for Tarantino are the same thing: genre is destiny.

Maybe I’m reading too much into these films, but my instinct tells me I’m not. Tarantino simply cares too deeply about pop culture, about genre films and trashy B-movies, to treat them lightly. For him, these films are worthy of serious attention, so why shouldn’t his own treatment of this material be equally serious?

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Oh, Tarantino has his moments of seriousness, complexity and depth, no question about it, and the Mia Wallace chapter is one of Tarantino’s greatest creations—an almost indescribable blend of B-movie cartoonishness and gritty, affecting drama. Tarantino’s best qualities as a screenwriter and director can be found in that overdose sequence, a textbook example of organized chaos if there ever was one, with Vincent (John Travolta), Lance (Eric Stoltz) and Jody (Rosanna Arquette) swirling around the inert body of Uma Thurman’s Mia. Given my previous criticisms of Tarantino, you might think I’d consider it a too-cute contrivance to have two guys bickering over the responsibility of delivering an adrenaline shot while a woman is dying at their feet, but that’s not the way the scene plays, precisely because Tarantino allows his clever dialogue to complement the action rather than giving it center stage. Simply put: the scene’s urgency never diminishes, and all the angst-ridden arguing of Vincent and Lance plays true to these individually rendered characters who are faithfully acting in accordance to their own established motivations, rather than merely serving the mechanics of the suspense piece (or merely establishing QT’s sense of humor).

That said, it isn’t a matter of doubting that Tarantino can deliver emotional weight or that he does so knowingly, passionately and artfully, when so inclined. (Just typing that sentence my brain was filled with images of Max Cherry’s loneliness and Beatrix Kiddo’s relentlessness.) But, at the risk of belaboring the point or sounding like a culture snob, the way I’ve come to cope with those oh-so-many instances when Tarantino uses his films like an open mic for his own sophomoric amusements (and sometimes I swear I can actually hear Tarantino laughing at his own jokes) is to presume that while he is indeed out to move me, he’s not really looking to make me think. And, you know, that’s okay. Thinking can be overrated. In regard to Tarantino, I still contend that it can be downright problematic.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: Honestly, I doubt anyone would argue that Tarantino is an unproblematic filmmaker. Everyone has their own Tarantino problem. Yours is perhaps that Tarantino speaks through his characters too much, and that there’s not much depth beneath the surface of his films. In comparison to the pleasure I get from these films, my own Tarantino problems tend to seem like minor quibbles. I already mentioned the unbelievability of the mix tape dialogue in Death Proof, and most of my objections to Tarantino are along those lines. What he does doesn’t always work, for sure, and there are stretches in each of his films where I’m left doubting my generally positive impression of him. In Reservoir Dogs, it’s the scene where Eddie and Mr. Blonde wrestle and make gay quips at one another (“Did you see that, Daddy? He tried to fuck me!”), which has always seemed to me like a tone-deaf attempt at joking camaraderie written by someone who’s never really had a friendship like that. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the moment when Vincent accidentally shoots Marvin (Phil LaMarr), which is played for shocking humor in a way that jars very uncomfortably against the generally serious, brutal treatment of violence elsewhere in that film and Reservoir Dogs. So I’m afraid my Tarantino problem is rather banal, and it boils down to his inconsistency, his tendency to undermine and contradict his best impulses.

In some ways this is the same thing you’re objecting to. For me, however, Tarantino’s inconsistency never overwhelms my engagement with the things I admire in his work. Obviously I don’t agree with you about the cognitive pleasures of these films, either: Tarantino makes me think, whether or not he’s actually “looking to make me think.” But then, I wonder if that’s such a good criteria for a film at all. Shouldn’t we be thinking about every film we see? I’ve never been an advocate for turning one’s brain off in order to enjoy a movie. If thinking about a film ruins it, it’s probably pretty lousy to begin with. If, on the other hand, thinking about a film yields insights about, say, identity and genre—or, as Keith argues, without quite convincing me, about fire and brimstone spirituality—then that’s a film worth seeing, and worth thinking about. In Tarantino’s case, I initially saw these films the way most people probably do, on a very superficial level, as real badass entertainments. But the more I watch them and dig into their depths, they only seem richer and more complicated.

JB: In a way we seem to be suggesting that Tarantino is similar to Michael Mann, in that his movies can be enjoyed for their simple surface pleasures or for what’s underneath, and that it need not be both. Being totally honest, I’m with you on the importance of being able to think about the films I see, which is precisely why I get so frustrated by some of the self-negating contradictions of a movie like Fight Club. (Note: I realize some people think there are no self-negating contradictions in Fight Club, but that’s the way I see it.) Indeed, that question bothers me: If I have to shut off part of my brain to appreciate Tarantino, is that a black mark on his films? How do I appreciate the metaphorical depth of the Superman story in Kill Bill, which by the end illuminates Beatrix Kiddo in a lovely way, when what I really believe is that the monologue is there to draw attention to Tarantino’s cleverness as much as to inform us about the relationship between Bill and Beatrix? Shouldn’t my thoughts be drawn to the art and not the artist?

On that note, now would be the time, I suppose, to mention Tarantino’s acting appearances, which scream “Look at me!” Those moments, as much as any, seem like pathetic attempts by Tarantino to pronounce himself a member of the cool communities he so determinedly creates, a chance to join the clique he was left out of in high school. In that regard, as further evidence of just how important it is to Tarantino to establish his Baretta-like street cred, it’s a relevant topic for discussion. Then again, in the interest of not wasting time on the obvious, perhaps we can just regard Tarantino’s acting as a grievously insufferable impulse and leave it at that.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: I’m happy leaving Tarantino’s acting pretty much alone, because, frankly, what Matt called “his unfortunate tendency to act” is an embarrassment for anyone attempting to make a serious case for the guy as a major talent. If there’s anything that proves Tarantino sometimes gives in to very adolescent whims in his filmmaking, it’s his continuing desire to prove himself as an actor. It’s tolerable in Reservoir Dogs, where he blends in with the general swirling conversation of the opening scene. It’s much more distracting in Pulp Fiction and Death Proof, where his cameos are so unrelentingly grating that they never fail to take me out of the film; thankfully the latter is very brief. I think Tarantino even intends for his characters to be somewhat annoying—certainly we’re not supposed to like either of these rather abrasive guys—but I wind up disliking not the character but Tarantino himself.

I will say that Tarantino’s best acting moment (and this is strictly a relative proposition, mind you) comes in a film that’s otherwise his most minor work. I’m talking about The Man From Hollywood, his contribution to the 1995 multi-director anthology Four Rooms. It’s an extremely uneven anthology, frontloaded with two shockingly bad shorts by Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell, followed by Robert Rodriguez’s The Misbehavors, a hilarious mutant combination of his gritty B-movies and his kiddie comedies. Then there’s Tarantino’s short, which closes the film; it’s basically a lengthy set-up for a rather simple punchline, accomplished mainly with showy long takes. And it features a performance by Tarantino himself at its core, which should be disastrous but somehow isn’t. Instead, it comes across as the one moment in Tarantino’s oeuvre when he’s really opening up as himself, when he’s most intimate with his audience, really embracing his status as the video store clerk handing out recommendations. Usually he does this indirectly, by referencing other films, but here he’s practically engaging in a conversation with the audience.

He does this with a long take where the camera takes on the perspective of Tim Roth’s bellhop character, holding a close-up on Tarantino as he expounds upon the importance of Jerry Lewis as a comic. Sure, Tarantino’s still as annoying as he almost always is, whether he’s acting or giving an interview, but at the same time I’m won over by his obvious passion, by his earnest plea for a comic legend to be taken seriously in his home country before his death. This is, I think, one of Tarantino’s most admirable attributes: his connection to the past and his awareness of forgotten talents. I appreciate that in this shot, Tarantino is breaking the fourth wall to make his case directly to the audience. Tarantino, for all his pop culture savvy and self-consciousness, actually breaks the fourth wall only rarely, which gives the moments where it happens a special significance: his films are generally self-contained. In fact, the only two Tarantino characters I can think of offhand who break the fourth wall are Tarantino himself here, and in Death Proof, Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike, who looks up at the camera and smiles right before getting into his car to kill Rose McGowan’s character. Make of that what you will.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: It’s certainly no coincidence that Tarantino’s two “best” performances, in Reservoir Dogs and Four Rooms, involve delivering monologues on pop culture; that’s his comfort zone, and his films are never more straightforward and honest in their intentions. Put another way, Tarantino plays Tarantino pretty darn well. To me, that’s always been part of the irony: as desperate as Tarantino is to prove himself as something cooler than he appears, to transform himself into some modern day Fonzie-meets-Goodfellas badass, when he’s just himself he’s actually pretty hip. Obnoxious, sure. But, you know, cool. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that there are only a handful of “real” actors who could have been as convincingly deranged yet charming as Tarantino is in Four Rooms when his Chester delivers one of my favorite passages in Tarantino’s entire filmography: “Nobody wants Norman to lose his finger. We just want to chop it off.”

But, believe it or not, there’s another reason that Four Rooms is worth discussing for a moment, and it’s this: Four Rooms is actually a better realization of the B-movie “grindhouse” experience than Grindhouse, the Rodriguez/Tarantino B-movie-by-design double-feature, at least in my experience. Here’s what I mean:

Of all the Tarantino movies I’ve seen—and I’ve caught each of them in the theater save for Reservoir Dogs—none of them, not one, has sparked the kind of audience reaction that Rodriguez and Tarantino tag-teamed to achieve over the final acts of Four Rooms. Read that again. That’s not a misprint, and I’m not exaggerating, though I should note that I saw Four Rooms at a 10 pm showing on a Friday night in a college town that was no doubt full of hormonal dudes with hard-ons for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction who just couldn’t wait to jerk off (perhaps literally) to the latest Tarantino offering. As you noted, the first two Four Rooms chapters are mostly painful, and so, long before Rockwell’s The Wrong Man had played itself out, my audience was getting restless. People were bored, fidgety, chatty and, to read their minds for a second, wondering what the fuck they were doing wasting a Friday night on this shit. Then the Rodriguez chapter kicked in and went extreme and, preying on the pent up energy created by the opening acts, cured the audience’s blue balls, if you will. (This is a classy description, eh?) People were screaming with laughter, shouting at the screen, really gulping it down—and this was a spontaneous and organic response, not an answer delivered in an attempt to satisfy a formula. Of all the movies I’ve ever seen, only once have I been part of an audience that was more raucous. Seriously. And then came Tarantino’s The Man From Hollywood. And suddenly everything came to a halt.

Tarantino’s chapter follows Rodriguez’s madcap action with talk, talk, talk. At first glance, this was suicide, and the audience started to revolt. But in the end, of course, it was genius. This was Tarantino’s now familiar rope-a-dope routine. This is what Keith would call a Tarantino longueur, one of “the very quiet moments, the ’boring’ moments that lull you into complacency before the punchline.” And it worked. Oh, how it worked. Tarantino let the audience come down from its orgasm of laughter and, slowly but surely, almost without us noticing, got everyone revved up again until finally Roth’s bellhop punctuates the whole thing with a swift swing of a cleaver that made the audience erupt, ejaculating (why not?) every last bit of energy.

Now, granted, this film experience I’m describing was unusual. It took the right setting, and some of it was dumb luck—the perfect group of people packed into the same theater. I’ve seen Four Rooms twice since on DVD and that “grindhouse experience,” if you will, just isn’t there. The QT effect doesn’t translate to DVD the way that it does with Tarantino’s other films. Nevertheless, I still admire the craft of it and the confidence it displays: Tarantino knows that he can break a plot’s momentum whenever he wants to and resuscitate that energy at the snap of his fingers, often with greater cumulative effect than if he would have just ridden the initial wave. (I’m thinking now of the way he cuts away from Beatrix in that coffin in Kill Bill.) He’s a masterful storyteller who truly embodies the spirit Matt and Keith ascribed to him with one of their chapter headings: “We’ll get there eventually.” Somehow or another, doubt him though we will, Tarantino always delivers in the end.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: That sounds like an amazing theatrical experience, and what’s funny about it is how much it relies on the general shittiness of everything that precedes Rodriguez’s short; The Misbehavors is funny as hell no matter what, but it’s especially a breath of fresh air after suffering through the first hour of the anthology.

Anyway, all this talk of longueurs makes me think it’s time to shift the conversation to Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s most languid and uneventful (in the best sense) film. As we’ve mentioned, this is the only Tarantino film adapted from a pre-existing source, Elmore Leonard’s pulp novel Rum Punch, and though Tarantino definitely makes it his own, it’s still distinct from his other work.

One difference relates to the argument I’ve been making about Tarantino’s characters and their relationship to genre. In some ways, Jackie Brown is the exception to the rule as far as Tarantino’s engagement with genre: here, to be redeemed, his characters don’t have to overcome their genre roots but embrace them. The film is about Pam Grier and Robert Forster playing ordinary, working-class people who manage to find redemption to the extent that they are able to embrace their cinematic pasts, to become the tough, badass archetypes they played in so many other movies in their time. Grier’s Jackie Brown is a struggling airline stewardess who gets a second chance in life by becoming a double-dealing crook, playing all sides against one another in a masterful—and masterfully complicated—plot where the audience is as completely in the dark as Samuel Jackson’s gun dealer Ordell and Michael Keaton’s ATF agent Ray. Forster’s Max Cherry, on the other hand, is a straight-arrow bail bondsman who’s tempted into Jackie’s scheme by his attraction for her, though he never quite commits himself entirely to embracing his genre role.

But what really characterizes the film is its even, sleepy pacing. It’s defined by its longueurs, by the quiet moments in which nothing much happens and we get closer to these characters. The film jumps around in time more subtly than in Tarantino’s earlier work, but his time slips are more purposeful than ever. At one point, when Max is watching the first trial run of the money drop, Tarantino briefly steps back to the night before, to a phone call between Max and Jackie, in which they discuss his potential role in her scheme. It’s an effective way of explaining his presence at the drop in terms of the narrative, but more importantly it establishes his emotional reasons for being there. When the two of them are talking on the phone, their voices are relaxed, their posture comfortable, and Tarantino cuts between tight close-ups; it’s an intimate phone call, connecting these two characters in ways that go far beyond the surface. They’re both mature, aging and very conscious of it, but when they talk on the phone it’s staged like two teen lovers chatting late at night in their rooms, after their parents are asleep. There’s something warm, and maybe a little illicit, in this long-distance intimacy, that goes a long way towards explaining what these two feel for one another. This is the kind of quiet but emotionally intense moment that Tarantino especially excels at in this film.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Indeed, “quiet but emotionally intense” says it very well. Jackie Brown is the film I have the hardest time categorizing because in so many ways it feels like Tarantino’s richest and—I apologize in advance for using this word—most “mature” picture, and yet all that so-called maturity has a tendency to render awkward some of QT’s typical flourishes. Case in point: Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell is everything that Tarantino loves—smart, jive-talking, colorful, cool and a little bit nasty—but the more I watch this film, the more Ordell’s patter seems unnecessary and even fraudulent. Over repeated viewings Ordell’s rants, particularly his conversation with (or should I say at) Chris Tucker’s Beaumont Livingston, have gone from feeling poetic to languorous to, well, just unnecessary. And yet I say this recognizing the rope-a-dope effect, and I say this admitting that it all fits together in the end, and I say this knowing that I’m being overly critical.

So why bring it up? Only to illustrate that this is the Tarantino film that isn’t defined by what is said but by how things are said. I want to be careful that I don’t sound like I’m slamming Tarantino’s other pictures here, because those films have wordless heft, too. But Jackie Brown? Well, fuck, just look at Forster’s face! His skin looks lived-in, which might sound like a cheap compliment, but think about it: how many other actors can you say that about anymore? Words are incidental here. I honestly can’t remember a single line of dialogue between Jackie and Max. What I do remember is his posture when she walks out of jail, the romantic sultriness of the red-tinged bar where they share their first drink, the elegance of Jackie in her bathrobe and that wonderful shot before their kiss when Jackie and Max look at one another with longing and loss. Beyond that relationship, I always get a kick out of Bridget Fonda’s orange skin and mischievous white-toothed smile as Melanie and Robert De Niro’s earnestly content expression as Louis, rocking steadily in a big reclining chair while Simone (Hattie Winston) performs songs by The Supremes. And I love the moment when Ordell sits in the van with Louis, locked in an unfocused but thoughtful gaze while he tries to piece together what’s happened to his money. These are images that pop out, not one-liners. In that respect, this would seem to be the film in which Tarantino works outside of his comfort zone (heck, when Max goes to the movies, he only wants to see whatever is playing next), but Jackie Brown is made with a hand as confident as the one that chopped off Norman’s finger in Four Rooms.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: You’re right that this is the Tarantino film where the appeal is mostly visual. Not that his other films don’t have striking images as well, but when people talk about Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction they’re going to be quoting dialogue rather than gushing about the images. Maybe the fact that Tarantino was using someone else’s words for once freed him up to tell his story more visually than usual. Maybe the especially laidback pacing just lent itself especially well to meditative images. Whatever the reason, this film is as moody and purely beautiful as a Michael Mann film. In addition to the moments you mention, I think of that image of Jackie emerging from jail, a dark silhouette against the slick, reflective backdrop of the pavement: there’s something so poetic about that shot, and about the way that Forster’s Max seems to fall in love with her right then and there, without even having seen her face. It’s a romantic image, in the same way as Mia dancing with Vincent is romantic, or Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) smiling as she sends a text message to her boyfriend in Death Proof, or Patricia Arquette’s Alabama handing Christian Slater’s Clarence the “you’re so cool” note in the Tarantino-written True Romance. For all his macho bravado, there are times when Tarantino displays a real romantic sensibility, and one of the reasons I like Jackie Brown so much is that this sensibility is really given room to breathe here.

Another reason, as you point out, is the faces. Seldom have faces so completely defined character as in this film, where Tarantino’s job might as well have been finished in the casting phase: put Robert Forster and Pam Grier in these roles and what more do you really have to do? Grier’s iconic face, so unique and startling, mature now but no less striking, no less beautiful in her own idiosyncratic way, is expressive and rubbery, giving Jackie real character. As Winston Wolf says in Pulp Fiction, “just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.” It’s safe to say that these characters also have character. You can see it in Grier’s face, in her crooked, hooked nose, so often accentuated in sculpted profile shots where her face seems carved out of the background. Her mouth twists and turns, jutting off to the side at an oblique angle to her nose, turning the lower half of her face into a contorted zigzag, a sneer of pure attitude. It’s funny, in the least macho Tarantino film, she turns out to be his ultimate badass hero, at least until the Bride sliced her way onto the screen; think of that shot where Jackie turns on Ordell, resting her gun arm on her bare knee, her face knotted into a skeptical glare.

This is also a formally interesting film in more subtle ways, particularly in the low-key mirroring of certain shots and series of shots. There are three crucial dissolves spaced throughout the film, each one linking together the central characters for the final showdown. The first dissolve links Ordell and Jackie, the second Jackie and Max, and the third and final dissolve is from Jackie, waiting in Max’s office, to Max and Ordell walking out of the latter’s house together, going to meet Jackie. Tarantino also seems very conscious of how his characters appear within the frame. Jackie is often seen in profile, while Max’s close-ups are almost always head-on, looking directly into his eyes; one of these people is straightforward, unafraid, a real straight-shooter, while the other is trickier, less certain of herself, less stable in her life. Tarantino was always interested in structure, as evidenced by his purposeful shuffling of chronology, the way the re-ordered narrative of Pulp Fiction infuses Jules’ redemption (and Vincent’s failure to change) with its full meaning. But in his next two films, Kill Bill and Death Proof, Tarantino would engage much more directly with the pleasures of structural filmmaking, with halving and mirroring, using the structure of the film to convey his ideas and his stories. It’s worth thinking of Jackie Brown as a first step in that direction, as well as the first installment in an informal “women’s trilogy” in which the macho heroes of his first two films are largely replaced by heroines.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Before we get into structure, let’s get back to your comment about the way Tarantino frames images, because often lost in all the glorification (or damnation) of Tarantino’s dialogue is his visual mastery. Even beyond the relatively tightlipped Jackie Brown, his images speak to us. As with Casablanca, you wouldn’t want to watch a Tarantino film with the sound turned down, but you could. In what prove to be the truly powerful moments of Tarantino’s films, the dialogue is almost always incidental.

Tarantino proves his visual acumen in a number of different ways. In Pulp Fiction there’s the tight and suspenseful editing in the overdose sequence—the quick-but-not-too-quick cuts revealing that huge needle in Vincent’s hand and the mark on Mia’s chest and all those expressions of anticipation. In Kill Bill there’s the way Tarantino handles Beatrix’s initial reunion with Bill at the church—a lovely sequence that begins with a touching homage to The Searchers and then segues into some luscious black-and-white close-ups of Beatrix and Bill before it finishes off with a slow dolly shot out of the church that retreats past the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (High Noon meets The Wild Bunch) before the camera cranes above and away from the chapel for a distant yet heartbreaking non-view of the massacre. (For all the times Tarantino’s films are explicitly gory, this is one of the many times he leaves us to imagine the act of violence.) Another Tarantino visual flourish involves using a split diopter to achieve a kind of dual focus or deep focus effect. In Reservoir Dogs it means being able to see the face of the bloody cop and Mr. Orange’s bloody body in equal focus within the same frame. In Jackie Brown it means being able to watch Jackie’s expression as she receives her sentencing, while also watching the face of the judge as he sizes her up. If you believe, as Jim Emerson recently wrote, that “every unnecessary cut is a colossal statement of failure,” Tarantino is a terrific example of a filmmaker who cuts (and doesn’t cut) for deliberate effect. True, Tarantino’s use of a split diopter might be motivated by his reverence for De Palma as much as anything. But you can’t argue with the result, which underscores the completeness of Tarantino’s craft. He’s far more than just a wordsmith.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: All very true, and I hope that by saying that Tarantino’s films have become increasingly concerned with structure and form, I didn’t imply he was uninterested in those things in his first few films. Because that is far from the case, and you pick out some great examples of how Tarantino’s visual acuity enhances the themes and emotions underlying his stories. Another I’ve always loved is the taut, suspended moment in Pulp Fiction where Butch and Vincent meet at Marcellus’ bar and simply glare at one another silently, the tension building, a conflict seemingly inevitable until Marcellus interrupts by calling Vincent over. This meeting, almost entirely wordless and mysterious, creates an amorphous tension that is finally resolved in the duo’s second meeting, a subtle echo of the first in which the two men again stare silently at one another before Butch blows away Vincent with the latter’s own gun. This time, Marcellus is too late to interrupt, instead meeting Butch just afterwards.

This kind of subtle structural play reaches its peak in Kill Bill and Grindhouse. The former, though released as two separate films, is best thought of as a single film divided into two halves, a four-hour-plus epic where events at one end resonate in unexpected ways at the other. The appearance of Vernita Green’s (Vivica A. Fox) daughter in the first part of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 eventually echoes off of the appearance of the Bride’s own daughter B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine) at the end of Vol. 2: one daughter who loses her mother for good, and a mother who rediscovers the daughter she thought she’d lost. Many have also pointed out the symmetries in the way certain actors play different roles in the two halves of the film, particularly Michael Parks (as the sheriff who finds the Bride after the wedding massacre, and later as the seductive, sadistic pimp who points her to Bill) and Gordon Liu (as a ninja bodyguard and then as the Bride’s teacher Pai Mei). The two halves of this film work together, with Vol. 1 a relentless, colorful samurai movie pastiche, and Vol. 2 upending expectations by retreating from the cartoonish violence of the first half, delving into the dense emotional layering of this seemingly straightforward revenge tale. The two halves of the film don’t work nearly as well separately as they do when considered as part of the same work, in which Tarantino initially riffs on tired genre motifs only to later dig into the unexpected depths of his characters.

In fact, what I especially love about this film is how complex Tarantino allows most of the villains to be. They’re rotten and mostly unapologetic for what they’ve done, and yet, other than perhaps Daryl Hannah’s sinister Elle Driver, they’re not one-dimensional bad guys. In the middle of the Bride’s fight with Vernita at the beginning of the first film, there’s that wonderful lull when Vernita realizes that her daughter’s bus is pulling up outside. Both fighters remain in their defensive stances, knives outstretched, but Tarantino inserts a close-up of Vernita’s face, which is pleading, contorted, her eyes darting frantically between her opponent and the bus visible through the window behind them. It’s heartbreaking, as is the later shot when, as the Bride is stepping up out of a crouch over Vernita’s dead body, the little girl comes into view behind her, looking on silently. In Vol. 2, Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen) is a sad, ambiguous character: we’re unsure if he’s washed up and pathetic, or if he’s simply trying to escape the terrible deeds of his past by becoming as average as possible, just as the Bride had once tried to do. Tarantino says a lot about Budd simply with an offhand revelation about the location of the sword Bill once gave to his brother. Even in a grand epic like Kill Bill, Tarantino manages to make the little things, the minor details, hit especially hard.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: On all those things we agree. (Well, except: I’ve always found the “symmetry” observations of the Parks and Liu appearances to be overly academic and ultimately empty. Does that symmetry really have an effect? I’d say no, considering the average moviegoer wouldn’t even notice the dual appearances even if watching the films immediately back to back. I suspect that Tarantino is simply nodding back to a time when such things weren’t so out of the norm. Heck, in The Great Escape Steve McQueen is both the American getting away on a motorcycle and one of the Germans in pursuit. There’s no hidden meaning there. All it means is that McQueen was good on a motorcycle.)

The Kill Bill movie—and you’re right, it’s one epic—is the Tarantino creation that I am least interested in on the surface but that I am starting to love most. Here’s what I mean: I have zero interest, none, in martial arts pictures. I respect the skill involved but it doesn’t make my pulse quicken in the slightest. But, especially over repeated viewings, what becomes increasingly apparent is that all those fight scenes serve a much greater purpose than raising our adrenaline level, or satisfying Tarantino’s campy bloodlust, or even paying tribute to the martial arts movies he adores. Instead I see now that all the swordplay, which seemed rather empty the first time around, is illuminating. It’s interpretive dance. It’s the key to understanding Beatrix’s skill but also her heart. She will stop at nothing. And, of course, it’s a beautiful arc that Beatrix must fully embrace the killer that she is, the superhero that Bill believes her to be, in order to triumph over the man who tried to assassinate her for pretending to be something she’s not.

I also think Kill Bill is Tarantino’s greatest achievement in nonlinear storytelling. I know, I know: it’s supposed to be Pulp Fiction. But the trouble with Pulp Fiction is that the primary design of its time and plotline juggling is to throw the audience off-kilter, to mind-fuck us, which was particularly effective in 1994, before Pulp Fiction convinced filmmakers that the best way to infuse life into tired material was to tell the same old story nonsequentially. Alas, over the long haul, when we know how Pulp Fiction’s pieces fit together, the puzzle isn’t as arousing. That isn’t the case with Kill Bill, at least for me. Here the leaps in time and space serve to elucidate Beatrix’s metamorphosis—life to death to life, killer to wife to killer, mother to avenger to mother. It’s a dramatically effective technique in and of itself, sure, but it’s far more than a gimmick. I said before that Tarantino is a brilliant storyteller, and this film proves it. Tarantino gives us pieces of Beatrix as if her soul is a deck of cards. Tarantino is still dealing right up to the very end, with the flashback to the moment Beatrix learns she’s pregnant and the subsequent standoff (one of the least convincing segments in the entire two-part film, but never mind).

For all the times that Tarantino is called an imitator, and he is, it’s the unpredictability with which he revives and combines these influences that makes him unique. At his best, Tarantino borrows from other filmmakers like Picasso borrowed colors from a rainbow. The end result is a distinct Tarantino creation. For example, in Kill Bill, when Beatrix is being buried alive, yeah, I had the same thought Matt says he did: “Quentin Tarantino loves The Vanishing.” But that was a fleeting thought. Mostly I was wondering how on earth Beatrix was going to get out of that box. For all the movies packed with escapes from certain doom—the recent District 9 dispenses them like Pez—here’s a rare case when I was actually overcome by the seeming impossibility of escape. And yet by cutting away from Beatrix in the coffin to tell the Pai Mei story, Tarantino ensures that the scene is more than a suspense device. He makes it spiritual. Appropriately then, for the only time with a Tarantino film, when Beatrix began to punch her way out of that wooden box, I was choking back tears.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: I’m with you on the structural brilliance of Kill Bill, though I wouldn’t elevate it at the expense of Pulp Fiction. People often argue that the narrative trickery in Pulp Fiction is superficial, a way of jazzing up a straightforward story, but I don’t agree in the least. We’ve already talked a bit about Jules’ arc of redemption, but in my opinion it wouldn’t have nearly the same heft if the film was told chronologically. As it is, the film ends with Jules’ decision to quit as a hitman, and Vincent’s cavalier dismissal of his partner’s spiritual awakening. It’s crucial that by the time we see this scene we’ve already seen the results of their respective decisions: Jules escapes into a new life, while Vincent rejects the “miracle” and dies violently, just as he lived. This wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if Jules’ speech about “walking the earth” came before Vincent’s death, as of course it would in a linear film.

That said, Kill Bill does take this kind of structural ingenuity to the next level. And you bring up a good point about Tarantino’s habitual borrowing from other films. For the most part, this stuff works even when those familiar with the original material catch the references. It works because Tarantino doesn’t just stitch together elements of other movies haphazardly. He’s very aware of context, very aware of structure, and when he references another film he’s doing so because the scene he’s quoting is exactly the scene, exactly the emotion, that he wants to convey at that particular moment. I think of Tarantino as a sampler, to borrow a hip-hop metaphor (appropriate considering Tarantino’s collaboration with Wu Tang Clan producer RZA), in his approach to other movies and pop culture. Now, there’s good sampling, where you take bits and pieces of other works, recontextualize and rearrange them, and create something new through combination. Let’s call that Public Enemy-style sampling. Then there’s bad sampling, where you essentially take a big chunk of another song and use it as the foundation of your own in lieu of creating something original. Let’s call that Puff Daddy-style sampling. I think it’s safe to say that, in most cases at least, Tarantino is more Public Enemy than Puff Daddy. When he cites another film, it’s rarely just a hollow quotation: it works, emotionally and thematically, in the context of his own story.

JB: Well, that’s certainly an analysis of Tarantino that I’ve never heard before, but it makes perfect sense. (That I now have The Police’s “Every Step You Take” ringing in my head says it all, no?) I think the element that’s worth underlining, and it’s certainly implied in what you just said, is that Tarantino’s sampling works precisely because he understands the material he’s quoting. While Tarantino’s dialogue can be forced, wandering into areas of the director’s interest in tangents that aren’t quite justified by the cinematic world he’s created, visually he tends to be more specific, economical and, well, focused, I guess is the way to put it. Sure, there are throwaway shots in Tarantino’s filmography just like there are throwaway monologues. I’m thinking of the not-so-insider’s running gag with Red Apple cigarettes or the endless ogling of women’s feet, which is so excessive in Death Proof that it goes from silly to obnoxious to positively creepy. But, to get back to my point, Tarantino’s visual sampling is anything but random. Yes, his films remain a tour of his interests and influences, but for the most part when Tarantino quotes a favorite shot, he’s doing so to get something out of it. It’s not just the shot he’s looking for. He’s after the effect.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: That’s exactly what I appreciate about Tarantino’s formalism: it’s formalism intimately wedded to purpose, to themes and emotions and ideas. That’s why Death Proof, his most explicitly formalist film, is also his most fascinating. In my opinion, unless Inglorious Basterds proves to be a true masterpiece, Death Proof is quite possibly his greatest achievement thus far. It’s fascinating on one level as an investigation of Tarantino’s still-adolescent infatuation with femininity, which in this film is especially on-the-surface: seldom have I ever seen so many drooling shots of women’s feet and butts condensed into one place. And yet even when he’s accentuating the curve of a woman’s rear end in shot after shot, there’s something almost, dare I say, respectful about Tarantino’s sexualization of his heroines. Respectful in that Tarantino seems utterly in awe of these women. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to reduce his characters or actresses to mere sexual objects, which is usually the function of such nakedly fetishistic cinematography. Rather, Tarantino just seems to be especially interested in these women as women, and this includes their beautiful bodies but also their endless talk, their banter, their back-and-forth sparring and bitchy outbursts and hidden emotions and the comfort they feel as members of a tight group of friends. Somehow, even though they’re occasionally saddled with Tarantinoisms that I frankly don’t believe these women would say, they nevertheless feel real, because even when the dialogue strains credulity, the rhythms feel right, both in the performances and in the way Tarantino’s camera wheels around the women as they talk, capturing their casual camaraderie.

The film is also interesting in the way it plays with genre expectations. The original context of Death Proof was as the second half of Grindhouse, coming after Robert Rodriguez’s trashy zombie tribute Planet Terror. Much as in Four Rooms, Tarantino opts to follow Rodriguez’s over-the-top genre pastiche with something much more tempered and deliberate in its pacing, carefully dividing and subdividing the film into smaller and smaller units. His film as a whole is half of a larger film. Then Death Proof itself is divided in half with two sets of protagonists, and even within each half the two stories are halved, centered roughly around a pivotal event: the lapdance, either seen or unseen, in the first half, and the reversal of pursuer/pursued in the second half. After the outrageous, gleefully superficial fun of Planet Terror, Tarantino tones things down in order to dissect the grindhouse genre.

One way he does this is by playing with the genre (and gender) roles underlying the slasher film. The classic grindhouse/slasher flick, with the killer dispatching partying youngsters, is often implicitly structured around a conservative, moralist message: those who have sex, drink and do drugs will die. It’s a familiar genre convention. Tarantino fulfills the bare bones of this kind of movie in the film’s first half while revealing its basic untruth: people who have sex and drink and do drugs don’t deserve to die, they aren’t silly or frivolous because of the things they do, they’re simply people, with complex emotional lives and reasons for what they do. These women just want to hang out and have fun, maybe to find love or at least a little pleasure. They make some bad decisions, maybe, or do some stupid things, but when they die it’s a pointless tragedy, one that Tarantino drives home by stretching out the horror of their moment of death. The film mourns the loss of their vitality and vibrancy, just as in the second half Tarantino mourns the destruction of the classic no-budget action movie by CGI.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: Quick question: Did you see Death Proof in the theater as part of the Grindhouse experience, or merely as its own unit?

EH: I originally saw the full Grindhouse when it was in theaters, and have since rewatched Death Proof as a standalone, slightly expanded film.

JB: Same here. I ask because Death Proof plays differently depending on whether one experiences it as part of Grindhouse or as a standalone—and I’m not referring to the omission or inclusion of Butterfly’s lapdance. A perfect example is that deadly collision. Seeing Death Proof on its own, I kinda-sorta agree with you that Tarantino seems to “mourn” the loss of Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her crew. (Actually “mourn” is right. I just can’t agree that Tarantino goes so far as to make it a “pointless tragedy,” even though it is one.) As part of the Grindhouse experience, however, having worked through the Rodriguez zombie flick and, even more importantly, those mock trailers for Machete (Rodriguez), Don’t (Edgar Wright), Thanksgiving (Eli Roth) and Werewolf Women of the S.S. (Rob Zombie), many of which are highly sexual, the deadly collision has no mournful sprit at all—at least none that I detected. What I detected instead, via Grindhouse, was eroticism, exploitation, dark humor and perversion. The moment when Jungle Julia’s leg flies off her body and flops around on the ground is Tarantino by way of Larry Flynt and Robert Crumb. And, hey, that’s fine. But my honest first reaction to that scene wasn’t one of sadness. More like embarrassment. I felt like Tarantino had exposed himself. He’d dreamed up this “grindhouse” idea that would allow him to dip into depravity with impunity, and yet that leg-flopping nonsense managed to feel depressingly shallow just the same, and I say that as someone who laughed uproariously at those profane mock trailers.

Having said that, the important thing here isn’t to determine which of my reactions was “correct” or which Death Proof experience is “better.” The important thing, I think, is to identify that the Grindhouse experiment “worked,” at least to the point that Tarantino’s installment feels significantly different whether sharing the company of Planet Terror (& Friends) or going it alone. As I mentioned earlier, my true grindhouse experience with Tarantino came via Four Rooms. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Zoë Bell’s thrilling stunt work at Death Proof’s conclusion is all the more invigorating to the audience member who has slogged through a double-feature (and faux trailers). This is one of those instances where Tarantino’s awareness of the big picture is unmistakable. He deliberately slows the action to a crawl precisely to lull us into complacency so that the “ship’s mast” stunt will hit us like a bucket of ice water in the face, and it does.

Beyond that, I agree with you that Tarantino’s blatant sexualization of his female protagonists has a reverent and awestruck air about it. Tarantino seems determined to underscore each woman’s fuckability, as if that’s the highest compliment he could give a woman. He respects that these women don’t need men to be fulfilled, and he routinely furthers the notion that women are holding all the cards in the game of courtship (which doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally overplay their hand). And so even though these women are objectified, and they are, they are celebrated, too. I imagine that many women watch it and can’t decide whether they should slap Tarantino or kiss him.

But for all that I can excuse in Tarantino’s depiction of these female characters, I do have a problem with their lack of originality, the way that they are—more than anything—representations of Tarantino’s fantasyland. Here are women who talk much like the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs, and yet I don’t think we can make the argument that they’ve watched a lot of gangster movies and have patterned themselves on their pop culture idols. These women are Tarantino drones with individualized uniforms. They are either borrowed from previous Tarantino films (Tracie Thoms as Samuel L. Jackson as Whomever) or they are made distinguishable from one another by hairstyle, accent or outfit. They talk about Tarantino things using Tarantino words in Tarantino cadences, including frequent repetition.

To get a feel for what I’m talking about, consider this: At one point a character remarks, “That pituitary case? Might have kicked my ass a couple of times. Sorry. I’m built like a girl, not a black man. But I’d die before I ever gave [her] my chocolate milk.” Now, if you know the movie, you know who said that, and you know whose name I concealed with brackets. Nonetheless, wouldn’t you concede that those words could have come from Jungle Julia as much as Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) or Kim (Thoms)? True, none of those characters delivered those lines. But they might as well have. For the most part they are pretty puppets.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: You make two points here that I want to address. The first is about the different impact of Death Proof as part of Grindhouse or separately. I have to say that I didn’t have remotely the same experience as you did when seeing Grindhouse in a theater; my own reaction was virtually the opposite of yours. For me, Rodriguez’s film and the grisly fake trailers present a cartoonish vision of violence that’s never really deeply felt, where the stakes aren’t very high and a woman who loses a leg simply replaces it with, of all things, a machine gun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no moralist critic who tut-tuts at every sleazy, blood-splattered B-movie, and I got a kick out of the no-holds-barred mayhem of Planet Terror and the trailers. But spending roughly an hour and a half with this stuff really drives home that Death Proof is most definitely not more of the same, that its treatment of violence is very different from the grotesqueries of the rest of the film.

Think of the scene where Stuntman Mike kills Pam (Rose McGowan) by slamming her around in the interior of the boxed-in passenger seat. This is a truly horrifying scene, with Tarantino capturing the watery fear in Pam’s eyes as she looks through the divider at her tormentor. This isn’t violence presented for entertainment or for exploitation; it’s too real, too obviously painful and ugly, more like the gory ear-slicing in Reservoir Dogs than the comparatively flippant killing of Marvin in Pulp Fiction. (And this brings up a side point, that throughout his oeuvre, Tarantino has sometimes presented violence as a darkly comic punchline, and sometimes with the ferocity and brutality of violence that has real consequences.) Then, during the crash scene, Tarantino replays the collision multiple times in order to capture the look in the eyes of each woman in the moments before her gruesome death. When Jungle Julia’s leg is sliced off, it resonates with the eroticization of her throughout the rest of the film, but it’s not itself an erotic image: it’s a horrific and chilling one. The whole sequence is uncomfortable and unpleasant and hard to watch, whereas so much of the rest of Grindhouse was spectacle presented for the audience to laugh at and enjoy. The laughter largely dies during Tarantino’s film, at least before the second half turns into a gung-ho revenge thriller parody. It’s easy to laugh at a woman who runs around with a machine gun as a peg leg, because it’s so cartoonishly unreal that it can only exist in its own cinematic world. Tarantino presents grindhouse violence that’s harder to laugh off, especially since it happens to characters who we’ve just spent so much enjoyable time hanging out with. If Death Proof works differently within Grindhouse, it’s because Tarantino’s deconstruction of genre attitudes towards violence is given context when surrounded by the more straightforward genre tributes of Rodriguez, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie.

As for the dialogue in Death Proof, I’ve already mentioned that I find it frankly unbelievable at times, and you’re probably right that there’s not much attempt to differentiate the women as individuals in their speech patterns. What matters to me more than that, though, is the overall flow of the conversation. Even if I don’t always believe in what they’re saying, I believe in how they’re saying it. I believe that they’re friends, and that they’re comfortable with one another. I love Rose McGowan’s delivery of those lines you cite, even if they could just as easily be delivered by several other characters. This is maybe the Tarantino film where his approach to talk is totally pure, with little attempt to really ground it in character. He’s just relishing the fun of good talk for its own sake, putting all this sparkling, stylized dialogue in the mouths of his characters. I can see why this could be grating, of course, though personally I’m enthralled every time I watch. The women in this film are treated as groups rather than as individuals, because Tarantino here is really interested in group dynamics: the way natural leaders emerge, the way some members are naturally a bit outside of the core, and others desperately want to be part of the in-crowd.

At the same time, Tarantino does allow for some non-verbal moments where the spirit of the individual characters really comes out. Like that close-up on Abernathy during the ship’s mast scene: as Tarantino’s camera slowly inches in, her expression shifts, almost imperceptibly, from nervous terror to a bright, dawning grin, childlike in its awe. Or Jungle Julia’s unexpected vulnerability when she’s sending text messages to her celebrity boyfriend who ultimately doesn’t show up. Or Butterfly’s expression after Stuntman Mike reads her disappointment that no one hit on her all night. This is hardly Tarantino’s best film for deep characterization—it’s about genre and archetypes and thus works largely at a formal and thematic level—but that doesn’t mean he completely abandons those piercing moments of insight into his characters.

Quentin Tarantino

JB: On that last point we agree, and I’m not attempting to throw out the baby with the bathwater here. Through two viewings now, I like Death Proof, in either incarnation. And you make a good argument for how the talk, talk, talk stretches credibility on an individual basis but finds a kind of symphonic sophistication when considered at a distance—perhaps the closest Tarantino ever gets to the style of another chatter-fond filmmaker, Robert Altman. Beyond that, it’s only fair to note that I find these conversations more convincing than the majority of the group-dialogue scenes that Woody Allen has staged over the past fifteen years or so. (Whereas Allen’s ensemble scenes manage to feel conversely unscripted and regimented, Tarantino’s group chats in Death Proof feel positively of-the-moment, particularly the one at the diner among Abernathy and friends—a long uncut sequence that feels flawless but entirely unrehearsed.) If Death Proof was my only interaction with Tarantino’s dialogue, I’d have few complaints. But to put some punctuation on an argument I was making earlier, the sin of Death Proof’s dialogue is that it diminishes the magic of its predecessors with its redundancy. These women are carrying out conversations that seem to have started fifteen years prior by jewel thieves having breakfast. First there was Madonna. Then there was Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. It’s like Tarantino is a parasite feeding off his own work and taking the life out of it in the process, and that’s a shame.

Beyond those complaints, however, Death Proof deserves a lot of love for its striking simplicity in the Abernathy chapter, when Tarantino abandons the grindhouse gimmickry of the Jungle Julia segment (bye-bye missing footage and scratched celluloid). That diner scene, for instance? It’s one unbroken take around 8 minutes long. But what makes it special is that it isn’t a gratuitous unbroken take. Rather than drawing attention to the filmmaking itself, Tarantino never cuts because, well, he never needs to. Similarly, there’s a great moment in the car chase in which Stuntman Mike runs off the road and ends up having to perform a quick 360 in a dusty field. The camera, which has been trailing the action coming up the road, pauses to capture Stuntman Mike’s car as it kicks up a whirlwind of dirt, and then in one quick move the camera swings down to the right to catch the car reentering the road. After that, Stuntman Mike speeds into the distance and the camera resumes its pursuit of the action. Again, no cuts. No cuts because there’s no need. The entire car chase sequence is an appreciation of stunt work ballet, and Tarantino is wise enough not to spoil that by giving it the rapid-cut treatment. He gives us the distance we need to appreciate the choreography. As a result, even rather simple stunts are made rousing, like the moment when Zoe, having run alongside Stuntman Mike’s car, beating him with a pipe, runs back to the Dodge Challenger with Kim at the wheel and leaps up into and through the open window in one graceful move. This is cinematography at its most efficient, and it’s thrilling to behold.

Quentin Tarantino

EH: Maybe it’s just me, but I love the idea of the Death Proof girls continuing the conversation of the bank robbers from Reservoir Dogs—Tarantino even accentuates the connection by shooting the two diner scenes in very similar ways, by whirling his camera in circles around the table (though it’s an unbroken take in Death Proof and not in his debut). It’s a connection that makes even more sense during the final sequence, when Tarantino shoots the three women stalking towards a wounded Stuntman Mike in the same manner as the tough guys walking together during the credits of Reservoir Dogs.

Your appreciation of the stunt choreography in the second half of the film reminds me of another striking connection to Tarantino’s previous films. At one point when the girls are chasing Stuntman Mike, Tarantino cuts away to a long shot of the two cars winding across a country road, while a water pump takes up much of the foreground. As a tranquil stasis in the middle of a frantic chase, it echoes the very Zen pauses built into the fight between O-Ren and Beatrix in Kill Bill, during which Tarantino also cuts away to a long shot of a water pump gurgling in the foreground, with the fighters in the distance. It’s a small touch in Death Proof, but it reinforces my impression of this film as a compendium of Tarantino obsessions, words and images, a summation of his career thus far. In that light, I don’t see the echoes of earlier Tarantino movies as redundant, but as welcome indications of the continuity between all the films that make up the Tarantinoverse.

JB: Hmm. As simple as that argument is, I’d never considered it before, which is strange because within this conversation I’ve frequently praised Tarantino’s awareness of the big picture and his precision with allusions. Still, I’m not sure I buy it, and here’s where we enter one of those incredibly subjective areas. Maybe Tarantino, for as much as I respond to his movies, just doesn’t satisfy my palate. Maybe he’s too sweet for my tastes. There isn’t a single Tarantino film that I dislike, and yet I’ve always felt like I was on the outside looking in. I’ve always been aware of how limited my appreciation of Tarantino is compared to his biggest fans, even though I suspect that I appreciate things about Tarantino that some of his biggest fans overlook.

We’re at the point in this conversation where we have to pause and wait for the release of Inglorious Basterds, so allow me a quick tangent: A few years ago I went to see Raging Bull at the beautiful AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. I’d seen Raging Bull before, but I’d never found it as magical as its reputation and I wanted to see if it would provide a richer experience on the big screen. Before the movie began, there was a trailer for the then-unreleased Double Dare, a documentary prominently featuring Zoë Bell, which is terribly entertaining by the way, if for no other reason than the absolutely hilarious moment in which Bell gets hit on by an intoxicated Gary Busey.

Anyway, within the trailer there was a snippet with Tarantino. The moment Tarantino’s face appeared on screen the 20-something dude behind me yelled, “Awesome!” It was as if it was an involuntary reflex. Just the sight of Tarantino got this guy pumped. Thus it really didn’t surprise me when, a few minutes into Raging Bull, the dude was reciting the Jake La Motta monologue along with De Niro. I turned around on that one and told him kindly to stop narrating the film, and he did, but that didn’t keep him from cheering or from laughing way too hard at every element of Raging Bull that was even slightly funny, as if he was seeing the movie for the first time when clearly he knew it by heart. By the end of this experience I was so annoyed that (in my own head) I was referring to the dude as the “Tarantino-Loving, Scorsese-Worshipping, Scarface-Poster-Hanging Motherfucker.” The last part was just a guess. And, wouldn’t you know it, I saw the dude two weeks later at the AFI Silver and, I shit you not, he was wearing a Scarface T-shirt.

Okay, so what’s the point of this story? It’s certainly not to suggest that Tarantino has one kind of rabid fan. It’s certainly possible to find religion in QT without becoming a kind of gritty-fanboy cliché. (I’ll go out on a limb and assume Keith Uhlich doesn’t have any Scarface apparel.) The point is, while I have found religion in Michael Mann, to recall our previous conversation, I haven’t found it in Tarantino. I attend his church, I go through his rituals and I have moments of bliss. But rapture? No. I’ve never quite seen the light. I don’t fully believe.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Jeonju IFF 2019: Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, & Introduzione all’oscuro

These are three enigmatic, challenging, and weird works of art by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

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Coincoin and the Extra-Humans

Shortly after arriving in Jeonju, the mid-sized Korean city about 200 kilometers south of Seoul that serves as the site of the Jeonju International Film Festival, I pulled my bedraggled, jet-lagged body over to the guest center to pick up my press credentials. As I made my way through the carnivalesque open-air city block known as Jeonju Cinema Town, I found myself, to my surprise, in the midst of a rather peculiar, almost surreal scenario as a bunch of white- and black-suited stormtroopers marched in lockstep toward me, weapons at the ready, flanking none other than the Grand Imperial Poobah himself, Darth Vader.

The group maneuvered around me without incident, eager to pose for selfies with the crowd of locals assembled in the area, but after over 20 hours of travel, the encounter took on a vaguely sinister air, as if the forces of Hollywood monoculture had been dispatched to this relatively remote cinephile retreat to ensure that no one here got the wrong idea: Have fun with your cute little art films, but remember who really wields the power in the world of cinema.

I suppose these are the sorts of strange inclinations that strike you when your body’s circadian rhythms have been shaken up like a snow globe, but, despite the presence of the Walt Disney Company as one of the festival’s premier sponsors, the films I saw—personal, challenging, at times exhilarating work from all across the world—couldn’t have seemed further away from the market-tested franchises that clog American cineplexes. Having said that, it’s with some irony that one of the first films I took in at Jeonju IFF was in fact a sequel—albeit one whose eccentric sense of humor and repetitive, unresolved narrative mean it’s never going to be mistaken for the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The sequel in question is Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, Bruno Dumont’s follow-up to Li’l Quinquin. One of the great left turns in the history of auteurism, Dumont’s 2014 miniseries signaled his transition from austere Bressonian miserablism to a singular brand of deadpan grotesquerie that gleefully explodes the thin line between the clever and the stupid. Dumont doesn’t vary his style too much for the sequel, as it’s another bizarre sunlit mystery set in the windswept countryside of Dumont’s native Nord-Pas-de-Calais. And Dumont has reassembled the same cast of non-professional local oddballs led by Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a twitchy, hapless police detective investigating matters way beyond his depths.

Dumont, though, still finds ways to mess with his audience’s expectations, starting with the baffling and completely inexplicable change of the title character’s name. If the earlier film felt like Dumont’s riff on popular international crime dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing, Coincoin turns out to be his spin on The X-Files, a sci-fi pod-people procedural featuring a mysterious black goo from outer space that inhabits its victims and forces them to give birth to their own uncanny clones. Like many stories about body-snatching, the series is a satire—here on provincial racism, the poor treatment of African migrants, and the rise of the French far right—but Dumont isn’t simply interested in topical point-scoring against Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant politician who represents Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Rather, with its ambling, directionless narrative and lackadaisical long shots that perversely undercut the screenplay’s gags, Coincoin evokes a deep-rooted spirit of reactionary malaise, of people whose lives are hopelessly circumscribed by their own fears and prejudices. Dumont rigorously resists developing his plot or deepening his characters: They’re all trapped in an absurd loop, doomed to endlessly say the same things and reenact the same jokes.

Van der Weyden sums up that mentality in a single line: “Progress isn’t inevitable.” There’s a group of black men who periodically appear throughout the film only to be consistently and summarily dismissed in a fit of racist panic. Each time, we expect the film to create some meaningful interaction between the white townsfolk and these migrants, and each time we’re rebuffed—that is, until a final musical explosion of kumbaya-like camaraderie that’s somehow goofy, moving, tedious, and invigorating all at the same time.

Dumont is one of the few artists in cinema willing to risk exhausting his audience to induce a particular effect, but he’s not the only one, as demonstrated by James Benning’s L. Cohen, a 45-minute static shot of a seemingly unremarkable field with a mountain visible in the distance. It’s an elegantly composed frame, reminiscent of an American Regionalist painting and whose centrally located peak perhaps coyly refers to the Paramount logo.

After 20 minutes, even the most hardened cinephiles are bound to be squirming in their seat, at which point Benning reveals his remarkable trump card: As the sky quickly darkens and blackness falls over the Earth, we realize that we’ve been watching the leadup to a total solar eclipse. It’s a moment of quiet astonishment and confusion for anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming, bringing us close to the feeling a caveman might’ve had when the same event occurred. With typical mathematical precision, Benning has placed the eclipse at the exact center of the film, allowing us to explore the subtle shadows that precede and follow it.

The film, however, isn’t just some academic structuralist exercise, as it’s also a meditation on death, a fact highlighted by the next startling moment: the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Itself” on the soundtrack, a stark divergence from the ominous drone (identified by Benning during his festival Q&A as the hum of airplanes flying overhead) that fills the rest of the film. This song and the dedication of the film to the recently deceased Cohen add a deeper layer of meaning to Benning’s precisely calibrated study of light and time.

L. Cohen is in essence a meditation on temporality. All things are fleeting, even grand interplanetary ballets. Considering the brief alignment of these celestial bodies puts one in a cosmic mood and calls to mind a cryptic, haunting line from a different Cohen song, “Stories of the Street”: “We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky.”

One could also find the specter of death looming over Introduzione all’oscuro, an expressionistic tribute to director Gastón Solnicki’s good friend, Hans Hurch, the recently departed director of the Viennale, the Vienna International Film Festival. Described by the director not as a film about Hurch, but a film for him, Introduzione all’oscuro dispenses with biography entirely, instead evoking its subject’s buoyant, ragtag spirit in an almost subliminal fashion: through music, film, and the city of Vienna. Hurch “appears” in the film primarily through his letters and through his voice, recorded by Solnicki when he provided notes on one of the director’s previous films. Solnicki does appear on screen: a comically lonely figure visiting some of Hurch’s favorite Viennese haunts—such as the Café Engländer, from which he would periodically steal cups—on a journey that drolly recalls Holly Martins’s investigation into the apparent death of his pal Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like Solnicki’s Kékszakállú before it, Introduzione all’oscuro is what might be called “slideshow cinema”—a procession of taut, piquant compositions whose relationship to one another isn’t precisely clear but which, when taken together, create an indelible impression of a highly specific milieu. Structured more like a piece of avant-garde music than a narrative work or traditional documentary, the film has a hypnotic yet often dissonant allure. It pulls us into a strange liminal zone where Hurch seems to be simultaneously present and absent, haunting the film like a benevolent spirit. Solnicki simply has one of the best eyes in cinema today, and it’s the pungency of his images which makes the film such an endlessly compelling experience, even when the reasons behind Solnicki’s individual choices remain obscure.

Abstruseness, though, is no crime. In fact, the greatest pleasures of Jeonju IFF were to be found in grappling with “difficult” films such as Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, L. Cohen, and Introduzione all’oscuro: enigmatic, challenging, and even downright weird works of art made by filmmakers pushing at the boundaries of the cinematic form.

The Jeonju International Film Festival ran from May 2—11.

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Review: As Teen Comedy, Booksmart Is Sweet and Nasty in Fine Balance

It’s an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness.

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Booksmart
Photo: Annapurna Pictures

An uncharitable way of describing Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut, Booksmart, is as a gender-flipped version of Superbad. Like Greg Mottola’s 2007 film, it concerns a pair of best friends who’ve spent their high school years as outsiders but, at the end of their senior year, decide to attend the biggest, coolest graduation party imaginable. As in Superbad, getting to the party devolves into an almost picaresque gauntlet through suburban nightlife, consisting of comical encounters with outlandish characters (both films even feature a “creepy car guy”). Booksmart and Superbad also share a ribald, R-rated sense of humor and a sex scene interrupted by vomit—even the same casting director (the venerable Allison Jones).

For all that, Wilde’s film is less a derivative of Mottola’s teen comedy than a corrective to it. Its exaggerated universe is less mean-spirited than the one depicted in Superbad, where so much of the humor depended on Jonah Hill loudly proclaiming his character’s misogyny. Booksmart isn’t above getting laughs from sex jokes that land somewhere between honest and outrageous—there’s a recurring bit about Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) masturbating with her stuffed panda doll—but it does show that teenage conversations about sex can be funny without being demeaning. And its belief in its main characters as more than just stand-ins for the most distorted beliefs that virginal high schoolers have about sex gives the film a fuller, more satisfying arc.

Amy and her best friend, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are their elite Valley High School’s A-type-personality do-gooders, well-meaning in their ambition and their wokeness, but with streaks of haughtiness and self-righteousness. Beanie is class president, the kind of kid who pushes the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) to arrange a budget meeting with the juniors on the last day of class. In contrast to the brashly assertive Molly, Amy is meek, barely able to eke out syllables when talking to her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but she’s also intensely woke, adorning her denim jacket with feminist-slogan patches and her car with “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. The pair are so close that they’re often mistaken for being a couple (Amy has been out since the 10th grade), and they definitely don’t party.

As school is letting out, Molly discovers that her and Amy’s monk-like approach to high school life has been for naught. Although the two pride themselves on respectively getting into Yale and Columbia, it seems that virtually all of their classmates have a similarly propitious future lined up. Even the horny goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who repeated seventh grade three times, was recruited for a six-figure job with Google. Molly adopts partying as her new project, dragging the reluctant Amy, all the more anxious because Ryan will be at the party, along with her. The problem is that, not being a part of their school’s social scene, they have no idea where the party actually is, and limited means of figuring it out.

The obliviously indefatigable Molly is a star-making role for Feldstein, who keeps let her highly dynamic character—Molly can be both very rigid and very foolhardy—from feeling inconsistent, or leading to broad caricature. As the quieter Amy, Devers’s role is mostly reactive, but, in the tumultuous climax, she supplies the film’s most poignant and relatable moments. As the omnipresent Gigi, a troubled party girl who inexplicably appears at each of the girls’ wayward stops on their journey to the party, Billie Lourd channels a chaotic energy, becoming the film’s strung-out jester. Lourd is just part of an altogether impressive ensemble that also includes Jessica Williams as the teacher who loves Amy and Molly perhaps a bit too much, and Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s super-Christian, super-supportive parents.

For the most part sharply written, and tighter and more consistently funny than the fragmented improv-style Superbad, Booksmart nevertheless has a couple of stretches that don’t quite land. There’s a claymated ayahuasca-tripping sequence that neither suits the rest of the film nor is followed up on in any way by the narrative. And the film’s conclusion is more than a little formally messy, with Wilde relying on a too-rapid succession of non-diegetic pop songs as emotional accents and to fast-forward the plot—at one crucial moment even drowning out the dialogue. But despite these small missteps, Booksmart feels like an innovation, an R-rated teen comedy that proves that you can center girls’ experiences without sacrificing grossness, and that you can be gross without being too mean.

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Eduardo Franco, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien Director: Olivia Wilde Screenwriter: Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins Distributor: Annapurna Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Terminator: Dark Fate Official Trailer: Going Back to the Well with Sarah Connor

Linda Hamilton at least makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

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Terminator: Dark Fate
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Today, Paramount dropped the trailer for the sixth entry in the Terminator series, Terminator: Dark Fate, which promises to deliver…more of the same? With this film, Deadpool director Tim Miller aims to give the series a reboot: by pretending that none of the films that came after Terminator 2: Judgement Day ever existed (sorry, Rise of the Machines fans), maybe even Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. “Welcome to the day after judgment day,” reads the poster, promising the badass return of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor. And on that front, the film looks to deliver, as Hamilton certainly makes a killer impression as Sarah visits fiery justice upon Gabriel Luna’s terminator.

But based on everything else that’s on display throughout the trailer, we’re worried that there’s not anything new that a film in this series stands to bring to the table besides running and gunning, with the occasional wink thrown in for good measure. Cast in point: Mackenzie Davis stars as Grace, an “enhanced human” who looks to fill the hanger-on role to Connor that Edward Furlong’s John Connor did to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, now apparently living in woodsy retirement, and at the ready to give sage advice. In short, we’re not impressed, and that also holds true of that cover of Björk’s “Hunter” by some zombie man singer.

Watch the official trailer below:

Paramount Pictures will release Terminator Dark Fate on November 1.

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Review: Woodstock Offers a New Look at the Three Days that Defined a Generation

Throughout, the era-defining yet problem-plagued music festival astounds in large part for all the disasters that didn’t occur.

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Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation
Photo: PBS Distribution

According to Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival seemed fated to fail. But a rare convergence of good luck, good intentions, and good vibes somehow snapped into place and crystallized over a few days in August the aspirations of a counterculture about to hit its peak. The festival’s planners, mostly promoters and music-industry pros, talk off-camera throughout this gloriously gleeful documentary about their somewhat spur-of-the-moment concept in a purposefully overlapping mosaic that makes it difficult to determine who’s saying what. Their original idea was simply a big concert that would celebrate the opening of a recording studio in the bucolic artist community of Woodstock, NY and take advantage of the musicians living nearby.

That conceit ballooned into a sprawling three-day cultural amoeba of feel-good psychedelia billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” to be held in a bucolic setting. It would ideally seem, according to one organizer, “like visiting another world.” Creating that gateway to paradise, however, hit one snag after another. Conservative fears about an invasion of hippies led to much anger among locals and triggered permitting issues. Original desired stars like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones all passed on the vent. Months’ worth of construction at the original site in Wallkill, NY had to be scrapped at the last minute.

But Woodstock shows also how both lucky circumstances and in-depth planning saved the day. The lineup swelled with a killer roster of acts whom David Crosby defines simply as “everybody we thought was cool”: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, and so on. According to writer Bob Spitz, interest grew as the organizers put the word out through the underground press, and though their top estimates of attendance topped out at 150,000, the eventual total was closer to a potentially unmanageable 400,000. Seemingly foolhardy ideas like hiring Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune to handle what they termed “security” and what Wavy defined as trying to “spread grooviness,” helped the increasingly massive enterprise maintain an appealingly mellow tone. Then, a Republican dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who just happened to have a visually gorgeous sweep of land shaped like a natural amphitheater, agreed to host the festival.

Just about everyone interviewed in Barak Goodman and Jamilia Ephron’s documentary still marvels a half-century on at the scope and tranquility of what happened, though the potential for disaster provides some dramatic grit to the narrative. Much of the festival’s harmoniousnes was a result of on-the-spot empathetic resourcefulness, from Hog Farm’s thrown-together Sunday-morning “breakfast in bed” and “freak-out” tents for people on bad acid trips to the previously resentful locals who spontaneously emptied their pantries to feed the long-haired kids who had been tromping through their front yards. The crowds were soothed by the reassuring voice of the festival announcer, whose “we”-focused addresses over the PA system strengthened the communal spirit, which is then echoed in the film’s starry-eyed reminiscences of interviewees who all sound as though they wish they could go back.

Woodstock cannot hope to supplant Michael Wadleigh’s more symphonic and experiential 1970 documentary. But conversely, its tighter, narrower focus on narrative and context ultimately tells a bigger story at roughly half the length. Co-director Goodman has shown in some of his darker work for PBS’s American Experience, like his episode about the Oklahoma City bombing, a knack for building suspense. He deploys that skill here marvelously when showing the sea of humanity converging on Yasgur’s farm, balancing a fear of impending disaster (short supplies, last-minute glitches, a crowd many times larger than the highest estimates) with the dawning realization that things might just work out.

That tightrope-walking drama is maintained through the actual concert portion of the movie. The musical highs, Hendrix’s squalling “Star-Spangled Banner” and Richie Haven’s raucous two-hour jam (filling the gap while helicopters ferried musicians in over the blocked roads), play out while the vast crowd contends with food shortages and an unexpected rainstorm. But even though the attendees rushed past the mostly unbuilt fencing and by default created what organizer John Roberts here terms “the world’s greatest three-day freebie,” he and his partners appear now happier about the instant community that metamorphosed in the mud than the fact that as a business venture the concert was “in deep shit.”

Woodstock hits many of the expected notes about the concert’s place in the nation’s cultural history. But it’s refreshingly less self-satisfied than awestruck at the simple beauty of what happened at the Woodstock festival and the utopian example it provided to the world. Though unmentioned here, the disastrous music festival that occurred four months later at Altamont Speedway, in the hills of Northern California’s East Bay, where the organizers’ callous indifference to advance planning led to chaos and multiple deaths, shows just how rare the event that occurred in Bethel across three days back in August ‘69 remains to this day.

Director: Barak Goodman, Jamila Ephron Distributor: PBS Distribution Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Is a Knotty Trip Down Memory Lane

Its stylistic fluctuations are a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today.

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The Souvenir
Photo: A24

True to the mission of its protagonist, a well-meaning student filmmaker working on a thesis feature about a community foreign to her, writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is engaged in a running dialogue with itself around the notion of how—and how not—to make a personal narrative. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London-based, upper-middle-class young woman coming of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England who feels a moral imperative to transpose her own experiences onto a fictional story set in working-class Sunderland, and she’s given ongoing opportunities in her film workshops to try to articulate why that is. Hogg, who based the character on her own early experiences as an artist, views Julie’s trajectory tenderly but through the lens of a greater maturity, dotting the young woman’s path with interlocutors who challenge and redirect her inclinations. Gradually, Julie’s certitude seems to fall out from under her, transforming Hogg’s film in the process.

Pivotal among these forces is Anthony (Tom Burke), a spectacularly smug older man with ambiguous professional and personal affiliations who becomes inexorably drawn to Julie, and she to him. When he first appears on screen across a table from Julie at a café, Hogg frames the scene in the kind of spacious, sophisticated master shot that defined her 2013 film Exhibition, snapping The Souvenir out of the close-up-heavy, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic with which it opens. The shift in style registers the exhilarating impact Anthony has on Julie, who is up to that point seen as a wallflower at college parties, taking photos and rolling a Bolex in the corner while bouncing in and out of conversations. Sizing up Julie’s film project with suave dismissiveness, Anthony suggests that she might heed the influence of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were able to express personal emotions free of the constraints of realism, and later proposes that “it’s not enough to be sincere or authentic.”

Julie takes such counseling in stride even when it comes from her casually condescending professors (also men), giving her a headstrong resilience that Swinton-Byrne beautifully underplays. But Julie’s toughness doesn’t equate to stubborn pride, and soon The Souvenir turns away from its portrait of early filmmaking ambition and toward the knotty dynamics of Anthony and Julie’s strengthening relationship—itself modeled off a fling in Hogg’s past. The director orchestrates this formal shapeshift with sly subtlety, first introducing the couple’s scenes together as elliptical diversions from the central storyline, then gradually lengthening them until the sequences set in and around Julie’s film school take a backseat entirely. Now sharing an apartment, Anthony and Julie go through the growing pains of coexistence—the former posits a “Wall of Jericho” made of pillows in a reference to It Happened One Night to solve his discomfort in bed—but nonetheless find a strange harmony in their dissonant personalities, with his brutal honesty charming her and her placidity disarming him.

In Anthony’s case, however, this apparent personality yardstick proves misleading, as it turns out that he’s frank about everything but his own life. Talk of a vague government job creates an impression of a posh background belied by Anthony and Julie’s trip to visit his parents, and later, an offhand remark made by one of Anthony’s friends when he’s in the bathroom yields the startling revelation—cued by spatially disorienting mirror shots and the gentle use of Dutch angles—that Julie’s boyfriend is a heroin addict. Hogg omits the scene where Julie confronts Anthony about this revelation, but the mark it leaves on their relationship is implicitly, delicately apparent in every part of The Souvenir moving forward. The neatly organized, white-walled apartment where much of the action takes place becomes charged with tension, not only from the threat of dissident bombing that percolates outside its windows (a reality contemporaneous to the film’s early-‘80s setting), but also from Anthony’s frequent, unexplained comings and goings, which starkly contrast Julie’s more fixed physicality as she spends her time hunched over a typewriter.

The Souvenir flirts with a few conventional movie premises—the doomed romance, the spiral into the hell of drug addiction, the pursuit of self-actualization—without ever fully engaging one, which doesn’t indicate an uncertainty on Hogg’s part so much as a supreme confidence in the intricacies of her own material. Likely to some viewers’ dismay, Julie’s story isn’t one that ever comes to hinge on an a-ha moment, a sudden realization that she’s strayed from her artistic passion in her entanglement with a toxic partner. Rather, Hogg evokes both the seductive appeal of an irrational romance and the less sexy but nonetheless potent comfort of falling into the role of nurturer, a discipline shown in a few touching scenes to be inherited by Julie from her mother (Tilda Swinton). What’s more, it can’t be said that Anthony’s influence is purely deleterious, as his bouts of real vulnerability, carried off with a persuasive display of wounded pride by Burke, repeatedly push Julie toward greater sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps ambivalent herself to Anthony’s recommendation that Julie seek inspiration from Powell and Pressburger’s work, Hogg shoots in a grainy, underlit 16mm palette that has less to do with period fetishism than with draining the sparkle from Julie’s privileged upbringing. The Souvenir is shot from a measured distance, often with the camera in rooms adjacent to the actors so that walls and other objects populate the foreground, and the resulting sense is of being simultaneously immersed in the spaces of Hogg’s early adulthood and at an intellectual remove from them, a fusion seemingly reflective of the director’s own mixed emotions in revisiting this story. In this case, however, that quality of fluctuation isn’t a deficiency but a virtue, a sign of a filmmaker really wrestling with how she became the woman and artist she is today, and the mark of a film that’s beholden to no recipe but its own.

Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Richard Ayoade, Jaygann Ayeh Director: Joanna Hogg Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg Distributor: A24 Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Aladdin Is a Magic Corporate Ride to Nowhere Special

Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake is content to trace the original’s narrative beats with perfunctory indifference.

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Aladdin
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Compared to a few other recent live-action remakes of Disney’s animated films, which at least attempted to bring striking story wrinkles or an auteurist perspective to bear on their interpretations, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a remake in the most literal sense. Much of the film’s first act traces the narrative beats of the 1992 animated feature, and in shot-for-shot fashion: Thieving street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and charms the princess of his native Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and ultimately runs afoul of scheming grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), before obtaining a magic lamp containing a genie (Will Smith) who has the power to transform the young pauper into a prince worthy of Jasmine’s station.

The steadfastness with which every aspect of the original is replicated by this new Aladdin makes Ritchie’s film a grueling example of the streaming-era notion of art as content. Because there’s no chemistry between Massoud and Scott, the legitimacy of Aladdin and Jasmine’s flirtations is largely sold on the basis of the viewer’s preexisting knowledge that these two will become a couple. Elsewhere, the relationship between Jafar and the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is an even paler imitation. In the original, Jafar’s viciousness was at least partially driven by his hatred of the Sultan, who issued inane commands to his grand vizier in all sorts of parodically infantile and buffoonish of ways. Here, though, the Sultan is a negligible figure, neither callous nor especially influential, thus robbing his subordinate of a compelling motive. The Jafar of this film is evil simply because he’s been designated as the story’s big bad.

If the dogged faithfulness of Ritchie’s film to the original proves consistently stultifying, it’s the most noticeable deviations that ultimately damn the remake. In an attempt to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections, Ritchie and co-writer John August blend the character’s traditional frustrations at being trapped behind palace walls with a newfound resentment over how her capacity to rule as sultan is thwarted by traditional gender roles. Nonetheless, her desires to lead are bluntly articulated and reflective of a broader tendency among the film’s characters to express their awareness of their own repression by tilting their heads back and staring off into the distance as they speak extemporaneously about their dreams. Poor Scott is also burdened with the film’s big new song, “Speechless,” an instantly dated empowerment anthem that suggests the sonic equivalent of that old woman’s botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco in Borja, Spain.

The film does come somewhat to life during its musical numbers. Though these sequences are marked by simplistic and unengaging choreography, they don’t quell the verve of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s original songs. Less successful is Smith, who, unable to match the intensity of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie in the original film, leans into his signature drawling sarcasm to bring his spin on the character to life, effectively draining the Genie of everything that made him so memorably larger than life in the first place. Even when portraying some of the Genie’s more antic behavior, Smith mostly takes the path of least resistance, injecting just enough energy into his performance to hint at Williams’s memorable take on the character but without seeming as if he’s actually working up a sweat.

Elsewhere, Massoud mostly goes through the motions in establishing Aladdin as a rakish pauper, but the actor comes alive in a comic scene that sees his street urchin, newly styled as a prince by the Genie, presenting himself to the Sultan’s court. Having never been trained on any points of social graces, Aladdin can only stammer out pleasantries, using strange honorifics to refer to the Sultan as he curtsies instead of bows. Later, the Genie helps Aladdin perform an elaborate dance by controlling the young man’s body in order to wow the Sultan’s court. Impressively, Massoud manages to perform complicated steps while looking as if every movement is done against his will, giving Aladdin’s flailing motions a slapstick quality.

Such flashes of personality, though, are few and far between in this remake. Certainly there was a lot of room to bring a contemporary perspective to this material—to counter the original’s problematic representation of its Middle-Eastern milieu and deepen its characters. Instead, the film settles for telling you a joke you’ve already heard and botching the delivery.

Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk, Frank Welker, Billy Magnussen Director: Guy Ritchie Screenwriter: John August, Guy Ritchie Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 128 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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Review: Brightburn Is a Soulless Mishmash of Disparate Genre Elements

The way the film shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped of its most crucial narrative parts.

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Brightburn
Photo: Screen Gems

Like a lot of kids squirming through puberty, Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) is an asshole. Unlike most, however, he’s from outer space and possessed of formidable superpowers. Soon after learning of his abilities, he stalks a classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who consoled him in class after he was teased for his incredible smarts. Brandon makes a show of controlling Caitlyn’s laptop before appearing outside her bedroom window, eerily floating in the air. By this point in director David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, one is still optimistic that Brandon’s creeper tendencies will be the most insidious of his problems. But when Caitlyn calls him a pervert, after letting him fall to the ground during a “trust fall” exercise in gym class, Brandon crushes the bones in her hand after she’s forced to help him up. By the end of the film, Caitlyn will prove to be one of the lucky ones.

That Yarovesky and screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn don’t exactly push the link between Brandon’s pubescence and his growing self-awareness isn’t the first sign that something is amiss here. Right out of the gate, Brightburn reveals itself unwilling to animate its characters’ emotional dramas, using visual shorthand to simply hint at them. In the opening scene, set more than 10 years in the past, the camera pans across a bookshelf full of fertility books, informing the audience that Brandon’s parents, Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman), really want to have a baby. Later, while helping his dad with chores, Brandon accidentally throws a lawnmower halfway across the family farm. This is when he recognizes that he has superpowers, but rather than prolong the kid’s doubt across more than one scene, the film zips straight to the moment where he’s about to shove his hand into the lawn mower’s spinning blades to confirm his suspicions that he’s nothing short of invincible.

More genre films—more films, period—could stand to have a lot less fat on their bones, but the way Brightburn shuttles through its 90 minutes, it’s as if it’s been stripped even of its most crucial narrative parts. Outside of one pulpy hallucination sequence, the film stubbornly refuses to give a concrete sense of the desperation that drove Tori and Kyle to adopt Brandon, just as it can’t be bothered to give shape to the mythology of his creation—or rather, his arrival. For a spell, though, this suggests a purposeful show of evasion. Much is made of the red light that peeks out from the floorboards in the family barn and to which Brandon is drawn throughout the film. If you’re a fan of Larry Cohen’s canon, you may wonder if the kid will be revealed as a kindred spirit of the ever-glowing human-alien antagonist from God Told Me To, here to make sport of our biological urge to procreate in our increasingly decaying world.

No such luck, as Brightburn is a meaningless mishmash of disparate genre elements. The truth of what lurks beneath the floorboards turns out to be of no particular consequence—not exactly a red herring, just a bit of hogwash that confirms Brandon to be a gene splice of Damien and Superman. Maybe a sense of majesty, of mythic grandeur, might have made him feel as if he was less arbitrarily willed into being, though Yarovesky certainly conveys the weight of the kid’s killing spree. Not its existential weight, only its repugnant force. At one point, one of his victims struggles to hold up the lower part of his grotesquely shattered jaw, as Brandon pulls off the mask that he wears because, presumably, he understands that that’s what someone with superhuman powers should do. Brightburn never shows us how Brandon came to such a realization, but it does let us glimpse the stone-cold delight he takes in erasing human life—a spectacle of violence that exists for its own soulless sake.

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Jennifer Holland, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams, Steve Agee, Emmie Hunter Director: David Yarovesky Screenwriter: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn Distributor: Screen Gems Running Time: 90 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Film

The Nightingale Trailer: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin Star in Jennifer Kent’s Follow-Up to The Babadook

Today, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825.

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The Nightingale
Photo: Matt Nettheim

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the Aussie filmmaker’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Babadook, premiered way back in September at the Venice Film Festival, and to mostly positive notices. Today, ahead of its U.S. theatrical release in August, IFC has released the first trailer for the film, which is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825 and follows a young Irish convict settler, Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi), who, after finishing her seven-year sentence, struggles to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). According to the studio’s official description of the film:

Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as “The Black War.” Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.

Watch the official trailer below:

IFC Films will release The Nightingale in NY and LA on August 2.

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Film

Cannes Review: The Lighthouse Is a Hilarious and Grotesque Genre Pastiche

Robert Eggers loosens the noose of veracity just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Willem Dafoe farts and Robert Pattinson masturbates vigorously in Robert Eggers’s creepy and unexpectedly, if grotesquely, hilarious follow-up to The Witch. Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse finds Eggers again mining the past for an air of mythic portent but loosening the noose of veracity that choked his meticulously researched yet painfully self-serious debut just enough to allow for so much absurdism to peek through.

From the moment that lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced old “wickie” with a shuffling gait and a hair-trigger temper, and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his handlebar mustache-sporting assistant, set foot on the tiny island where they’re to spend the next four weeks, they start to get on each other’s nerves. Wake is a slave driver who’s said to have made his last assistant go crazy, and who ignores any and all regulations, while Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a lighthouse keeper, refuses to drink and be merry with Wake, which causes its own problems. Before long, the two men kick into motion a game of one-upmanship, a raising of the stakes to see who will be the first to drive the other to madness—with flatulence and horniness among the many, many factors fueling that pursuit.

Eggers’s willingness to get goofy, and to not worry about humor defusing his narrative’s macabre horror—as in, say, the cartoonish pummeling that a devious seagull receives—makes The Lighthouse something of a breakthrough for the filmmaker. Diverging from the formula of coiled tension followed by sudden and jolting release that’s favored by so many contemporary arthouse horror films, Eggers parcels out the action in the film, steadily and methodically building toward the psychological breaking point of his characters.

Dafoe and Pattinson are crucial to selling that trajectory, ensuring that every moment here bristles with performative bluster. Dafoe’s surly former sea captain is a blowhard who’s given to sentimental reverie whenever he gets hammered, while his foil is played by Pattinson with slyly vacillating docile subservience and scheming spitefulness. The veteran character actor and dressed-down movie star play off each other exceptionally well, especially when, as is often the case in a two-hander, they have to pull-off a tricky role reversal.

Taking advantage of a bigger budget than The Witch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film. He’s also utilized the 1.19:1 Movietone aspect ratio, which was briefly standardized in the 1920s and is tighter than the already boxy 1.37:1 academy ratio, as a means of emphasizing his vertical compositions and the at times literally stratified relationship between his main characters. At one point, Dafoe’s old codger refuses to share lantern duty, while Winslow toils down below, swabbing decks and maintaining the dilapidated station.

Eggers successfully approximates F.W. Murnau’s stark and dynamic use of light and shadow in images that ensconce his characters in darkness and place them in geometrically unbalanced positions within the frame. But the quirkiest influence on this film is Night Tide, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 supernatural farce of a noir, which Eggers cribs from blatantly in a surreal sequence where Pattinson’s character has an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, and in a delirious body-horror montage—realized through largely practical effects—that co-opts Harrington’s hybridization of Roger Corman and Kenneth Ager’s stylings.

And like Night Tide, a send-up of beach-party movies and cheap ‘50s sci-fi, The Lighthouse aims for self-aware pastiche and pulls it off without smugness. Unlike Harrington’s film, though, it doesn’t register much affection for the forms it’s working with, and can come off like a calculated exercise. Still, Eggers’s ability to take the piss out of his inflated genre movie pastiche, without lapsing into parody, is an impressive and an entertaining feat.

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriter: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers Distributor: A24 Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Features

Maryland Film Festival 2019: The Hottest August, Donbass, & American Factory

This year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

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The Hottest August
Photo: Maryland Film Festival

Judging from the enthusiasm of the surprisingly high number of New York filmmakers and critics this writer met in Baltimore this past weekend, the Maryland Film Festival isn’t seen as a pale shadow of Big Apple filmgoing. Rather, it’s a vital supplement to it—a program that compresses many of the festival season’s essential offerings into a manageable four-day run in an easily walkable city with comparatively chill crowds.

Those who made the commute to Baltimore for the festival this year had the chance to encounter one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory in Brett Story’s The Hottest August, an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker. Shot in August of 2017 around a principle of “organized spontaneity,” per producer Danielle Varga, the film spans New York City’s five boroughs while adhering to a nebulous, difficult-to-define but nonetheless valuable objective: to take the temperature of the times we live in and tease out the collective mood of the country’s most densely populated area.

Willfully biting off more than it can chew, The Hottest August features rich people, poor people, scientists, skateboarders, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, barflies, artists, and more waxing extemporaneous on topics including climate change, economic inequality, automation, racism, and the future. The mood is off the cuff, conversational. A pair of women in lawn chairs joke about how their street’s rat population has swelled as a result of gentrifying construction in adjacent neighborhoods. Two former cops reframe the term “racism” as “resentment” in a sports bar just moments after demanding that no politics enter the hallowed space of the drinking hole. A loft-dwelling futurist pontificates on what the tax system might look like if the country embraced robotics instead of fearing it as a job killer. Occasionally we hear the filmmaker off screen, tersely prompting her subjects with open-ended questions, but mostly this is an ensemble of eager talkers, their openness running contrary to the old chestnut about closed-off New Yorkers.

Finding form in this seemingly disconnected mass is editor Nels Bangerter, who managed a similar feat with Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film drifts subtly from subject to subject, pointedly using B roll not just to evocatively provide a sense of place, but to extend someone’s thought or offer counterpoint. Three streams of information exist at once: whatever opinion is being put forth by the person on screen; whatever in-the-moment perspective Story takes on her subject’s response through the questions she asks or the camera angles she chooses; and the question of how that segment ultimately interacts with the film in its final form, where images have been invested with meaning through context.

The Hottest August is a film that’s constantly “thinking,” and that thought isn’t fixed or authoritative, but rather in flux and negotiable. Story isn’t setting out to answer any pressing political issues so much as capture the tactile sense of how those issues permeate everyday settings. Hers is a form of ambient reportage that feels very welcome in our contemporary moment, when the daily barrage of information can sometimes make it difficult to recall how one felt about something two days earlier, let alone in that turbulent August of 2017.

Similarly macro in its approach is Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, which adopts a sprawling, vignette-driven structure as it catalogues the miseries and grotesqueries of the eponymous eastern Ukrainian territory. A region occupied by pro-Russian paramilitary forces (specifically the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics) ever since the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, present-day Donbass is a morass of conflicting sympathies and ideologies that Loznitsa doesn’t so much seek to clarify with this film as reflect in all its muddy complexity.

In fact, Loznitsa goes so far as to call into question the very possibility of the truth of this situation he captures on camera. Whenever reporters appear on screen, they’re portrayed as ineffectual stooges waiting to be chewed out as propaganda peddlers by their political opponents, and the film’s bookending sequences, set at the trailer park of a movie set, build toward a thesis statement on the dubiousness of contemporary reporting with its tendency to stage and reframe reality according to the mandates of whatever affiliation is being placated.

Cameras, we’re repeatedly reminded by the mise-en-scène, are violators, as they merely augment the dangerous power of the person wielding them. Donbass’s most harrowing elucidation of this theme comes in a scene on a public street, where a Ukrainian loyalist, tied to a telephone pole by a pair of armed separatists, endures a humiliating beating at the hands of a growing mob of passersby, one of whom decides to record the grisly spectacle with his smartphone. As Loznitsa’s camera circles the action, the heckler’s phone presses right up into the face of the prisoner, relishing in the man’s suffering, and we get the sense that the escalation of violence may have never come to pass in quite this way were it not for the spontaneous idea to turn it into a video meme. Later, the recording gets shown to a hooting crowd of Novorossiya sympathizers at an absurdly overemphatic wedding celebration, assimilating smoothly into the atmosphere of nationalist fervor.

Donbass is fueled by such collisions between the grave and the comic, a tonal oscillation mastered by Loznitsa in his documentaries and carried over here to support a vision of a society cracking under the weight of its own inconsistencies, corruption and mob mentalities. Less tightly structured than Loznitsa’s preceding fiction work, the film adopts the immersive observation of films like Maidan and Victory Day with a more active, roving camera but a similar degree of durational endurance. In one scene, Loznitsa even seamlessly integrates an extended use of documentary language into a longer fictional setup when his camera descends into a cramped and overcrowded bomb shelter, where a local host, lit by a camera-mounted source, walks us through the destitution of those living inside. As with the later street scene, the dreariness is eventually spiked by a dash of absurdism, but the counterpunch isn’t intended to lighten the mood so much as further disorient, ultimately giving Donbass an unnerving precarity that must come somewhat near the feeling on the ground.

If these two films, content as they are to revel in ambivalence, seek to grasp the experience of the now in all its bewilderment, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory takes a more committed stance on an issue that’s equally topical. Fuyao Glass America, an outgrowth of a global glass manufacturer owned by a Chinese billionaire, opened in Moraine, Ohio in the shell of a shuddered General Motors plant toward the beginning of the decade, persisted financially for years while pursuing its awkward goal of unifying Chinese and American work cultures, and then inevitably ran up against controversy in 2017 when safety concerns and low wages encouraged the local employees to vote to unionize.

American Factory charts this entire compelling history with surprising comprehensiveness: When a late scene plays out as an illicit audio recording from an employee over a black screen, it stands out for being one of the only instances when the filmmakers don’t appear to have unencumbered access. But this sprawl has its downsides. Though briskly edited and tonally varied, Reichert and Bognar’s documentary skims over the surface of some of its most fascinating threads while in pursuit of a rousing decade-long tale.

The American workers depicted in the film, disgruntled by their diminished earnings and recalling a recent past with less bureaucratic oversight, too often blend into one undistinguished mass of Midwestern homeliness, and the few individuals who do get singled out for attention—a woman living in her relative’s basement and a rancher who befriends one particular Chinese co-worker—often get neglected for long stretches of time. The Chinese are perhaps even less differentiated, their insistence on dogged work ethic and company allegiance repeatedly emphasized almost to the point of xenophobia. That Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, who weaves through the film as an amusingly oblivious villain for its majority, eventually gets a moment to fondly reminisce on China’s pre-industrial past and contemplate his own complicity in the country’s shift to globalized capitalism comes across as penance for the film’s occasional treatment of foreigners as misguided corporate drones.

What American Factory ultimately amounts to, however, isn’t an exploration of culture clash or a penetrating depiction of rust belt dejection, but rather a rallying cry for worker solidarity (in America, if not across the globe), a message it pulls off resoundingly in the final hour. Reichert and Bognar smartly detail all the insidious ways in which corporate messengers mischaracterize unionizing as a threat to individual liberty, and the populist filmmaking vernacular they employ as the union vote nears—fluid crosscutting between different intersecting narratives, plenty of emotional close-ups, a score of almost Spielbergian grandiosity—gives the documentary a genuine shot at trafficking radical politics to a relatively wide audience. If it’s any indication of future success, American Factory was one of the most well-attended screenings I went to during my time in Baltimore, but it’s a testament to the Maryland Film Festival’s outreach that healthy crowds congregated throughout the weekend. Though modest and inviting, this year’s selections exhibit a scope and ambition that should continue to draw adventurous filmgoers for years to come.

The Maryland Film Festival ran from May 8—12.

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