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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part 1

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.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Film

Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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