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

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

Introduction

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

However, the most interesting critical reaction that came out of the Pulp Fiction bubble—at least, the thing that caught my eye the most—was voiced by David Denby, who wrote for New York magazine at the time. In his review of the film, Denby compared Tarantino not to Jerry Lee Lewis, but to the famous 1960s French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard. According to Denby:

Pulp Fiction is play, a commentary on old movies. Tarantino works with trash, and by analyzing, criticizing, and formalizing it, he emerges with something new, just as Godard made a lyrical work of art in Breathless out of his memories of casually crappy American B-movies. Of course Godard was, and is, a Swiss-Parisian intellectual, and the tonalities of his work are drier, more cerebral. Pulp Fiction, by contrast, displays an entertainer’s talent for luridness.”

As a recent convert to the Jean-Luc Godard bandwagon myself, I admit that my initial reaction was to take Denby’s and others’ critical declarations of this sort as proof of Tarantino’s inferiority to Godard as an artist. Sure, both directors share a lot of surface similarities: they both have certain stylistic likenesses, and they both dabble in the postmodern genre of self-reflexivity—making movies that make you aware that you are watching a movie, to put it simply. But the differences are more telling: Godard, the cinema philosopher who likes to use popular American movie genres for his own intellectual and socially critical ends, seems to have totally different artistic priorities from Tarantino, the self-professed trash movie geek who often seems more interested in having fun with those same popular genres than in rigorously exploring anything political, semiotic or philosophical except in the most movie-based terms. A close look at Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction versus, say, Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964) and one could perhaps detect a sense of real world melancholy underlying the surface playfulness of Godard’s little heist picture that is hardly present amidst the unabashed pop trashiness of Pulp Fiction.

But then I got to wondering: could it just be that Tarantino and Godard are essentially the same filmmaker, except part of different time periods and totally different societies? Certainly, there are quite a number of noticeable differences between the France of the politically tumultuous 1960s—when Godard was making his mark on world art cinema—and the media-saturated, relatively more politically apathetic America of the 1990s, during which Tarantino first burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs (1992). Perhaps those who try to make a case for the artistic superiority of one director over another are, at least for the moment, forgetting that both directors come from such diverse backgrounds, and that all films speak of the contexts in which they are made and seen. Films, as do all works of art, do not exist in a vacuum, and to treat them as entities separate from time and space is to engage in only a superficial level of interpretation, at best.

I think that this is an important distinction to make, especially when it brings into clearer focus the fact that both directors, to admittedly varying degrees, are working in basically the same tradition of the self-reflexive work of art, a tradition that goes all the way back to Cervantes and even Shakespeare—with its self-consciousness and its implicit allegory of readership—and maybe beyond. So while Godard is always aware of the social function of the cinematic image, Tarantino turns self-reflexivity into a form of genre pastiche. Does that automatically make one director’s work more important than the other? Godard fans might prefer his social analysis and critique to the self-absorbed playfulness of Tarantino, but what explains Tarantino’s immense popularity all over the world on the basis of Pulp Fiction or his recent two-part trash epic Kill Bill (2003, 2004)? Godard, by comparison, may command only an intense cult following outside France at best, particularly now that he has remained fairly reclusive over the past couple of decades. One would certainly not see recent Godard works like In Praise of Love (2001) or Notre Musique (2004) headlining the marquees of big multiplexes nationwide.

Thus, in this weeklong series—and in celebration of both Film Forum’s revival of Godard’s La Chinoise starting Wednesday and the recent DVD release of Tarantino’s Death Proof—I would like to examine the similarities and differences between Godard and Tarantino in many of their different facets. I plan to explore this comparison not only by examining their respective work and comparing and contrasting them, but also by considering both directors in terms of both their personal biographies and objective historical contexts. I will then draw on all this to evaluate how both directors are similar yet temperamentally and substantively different, and how each is representative of his particular era and social environment. As for their body of work: because Godard has been so prolific for over four decades now, it would simply be unwieldy to try to encompass his entire body of work (a lot of which isn’t even readily available on video). For that reason, I will focus almost entirely on the bulk of his groundbreaking oeuvre from the 1960s—his most popular period, arguably, and the one most comparable to Tarantino’s—when comparing it to Tarantino’s comparably meager, yet equally varied and fascinating output.

Ultimately, the broad question I would like to pose is: is Tarantino really a Jean-Luc Godard of the 1990s and today? Maybe there is something to the comparison after all, and not just technically or stylistically speaking. If Godard is a reflection of a politically-conflicted, self-aware, industrializing society, Tarantino is perhaps an example of Godard’s convictions taken to a perversely logical conclusion. In a society that has already been industrialized and invaded by pop culture as America has, maybe it is only logical that a Tarantino would take that self-awareness and popularize it for the mass American audience—an audience, some might say, that prefers its entertainment to be pure escapism, something that Tarantino provides even as he occasionally makes gestures toward something deeper. And what of Tarantino’s worldwide popular success compared to Godard’s relatively provincial success? What does that suggest about the societies and audiences from which both filmmakers came? And, if they are so different, does that necessarily mean that they are both incomparable? Or could it just mean that Tarantino is a kind of Godard stripped of political content (and perhaps creating an implicit stance of its own: apathy) and raised on a diet of both high art and pop culture?

Self-Consciousness

At one point in Band of Outsiders, all three main characters—Franz (Sami Frey), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Odile (Anna Karina)—impulsively decide to share a minute of silence amongst one another because, as Franz says, they don’t have anything left to say to each other at that particular point. When they do initiate their minute of silence, however, Godard suddenly silences the soundtrack as well—almost as if Godard wants you to feel in your gut just how long a minute of silence can really be.

In Pulp Fiction, when Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) responds to Vincent Vega’s (John Travolta) befuddlement (“What the fuck is this place?”) after they both get to Jackrabbit Slim’s, Mia coaxes him by saying “Don’t be a…” and then drawing a rectangle in the air to visually denote “square.” But when she draws that rectangle, Tarantino visually emphasizes it so that she seems to be drawing an actual physical rectangle—one made up of tiny brightly-lit bulbs—onscreen.

Both of these moments have the effect of breaking the fourth wall, of deliberately throwing us out of the movie for that one brief period of time—in effect, to remind us that what we are watching is a movie. In other words, those two examples evince self-consciousness about their artistic selves that courses through not only both films, but also through both directors’ bodies of work as a whole. Furthermore, it is this tradition of self-consciousness in which both Godard and Tarantino consistently work—it is, in a broad sense, what is so strikingly similar about both directors.

First things first: what makes up a “self-conscious” work of art? A self-conscious work of art signifies a work that consistently makes the audience aware of its sheer movie-ness (to put it in fairly crude terms). Many fiction films demand that audience members assent to the illusion that the filmmakers—the director, the actors, the behind-the-scenes crews—are presenting to us. For that reason, classical Hollywood films are known for their unobtrusive style: invisible editing, carefully-structured plotting, and well-placed camerawork, among other attributes. Better to use cinematic materials to tell the story well rather than experiment too much and risk impairing our willing suspension of disbelief.

Self-conscious artists, however, are less interested in immersing their audience in their films’ illusions than in exposing the gears underlying those illusions, in making us aware of how fake those illusions actually are. Look, self-conscious filmmakers seem to say to their audience, I could tell this story in the familiar classical manner. I could make more of an effort to immerse you in the lives of these characters and the world they inhabit. But that would only be false to reality, because classically-told stories simply aren’t real, as much as we might want to believe they are. As Robert Stam puts it:

“In their freedom and creativity, anti-illusionistic artists imitate the freedom and creativity of the gods. Like gods at play, reflexive artists see themselves as unbound by life as it is perceived (Reality), by stories as they have been told (Genre), or by a nebulous probability (Verisimilitude). ... The god of anti-illusionist art is not an immanent pantheistic deity but an Olympian, making noisy intrusion into fictive events. We are torn away from the events and the characters and made aware of the pen, or brush, or camera that has created them.”

If art is all about raising our consciousness of the world around us, of looking at certain previously-taken-for-granted things anew, self-conscious works of art use, as their playing field, previous works of art instead of something from the outside world. Self-conscious artists take apart what has already been done before, try to understand what previous artists were trying to do with those elements and how they went about doing it, and put all those elements back together again to create something new.

Stam notes that this approach has roots all the way back to Shakespeare; he cites the use of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet as an early example of self-reflexivity even before Cervantes picked it up and pushed it further in Don Quixote. Only relatively recently, however, has this kind of approach been taken seriously as an artistic style in the cinema.

Both Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Luc Godard fit right into this mold of the postmodern self-conscious artist. Their works deliberately take you out of your involvement in the film’s story and point up the artificiality of the construct. Though their purposes for doing so may be different (as we will see later on), their means are often surprisingly similar.

Reworking classical narrative

Neither Godard nor Tarantino show much interest in telling stories in any conventional sense. Indeed, Godard—in films like Masculin féminin (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) and Weekend (1968)—barely shows any interest in telling any kind of story at all, instead preferring to essentially make either portrait films (his fascinated-yet-critical look at French youth and the sexual divide in 1960s France in Masculin féminin, for instance) or essay films (his seemingly stream-of-consciousness philosophical ruminations on the power of the image in an increasingly industrialized Paris that form the backbone of Two or Three Things). Godard’s deliberate disregard for classical narrative convention goes all the way down to the level of technique, most notably editing (his celebrated use of jump cuts and mismatched shots from Breathless (1960) on) and sound (his playful experiments with music and sound in A Woman is a Woman (1961) or his random dropping-out of sound at certain points in Band of Outsiders and Masculin féminin).

On the other hand, Tarantino often sticks to a fairly unobtrusive technical style. Much like Godard, he is an actor’s director, sometimes preferring long takes to allow his actors to strut their stuff, other times cutting back and forth between actors who are conversing with each other. Tarantino’s innovations of narrative are temporal rather than technical. Pulp Fiction is known for its circular, three-story plot structure, in which the film starts and ends in the same setting; in which a threatening incident in an apartment cuts away in media res only to resume in the third story; and in which a major character killed off in the second story returns very much alive in the third story, which had taken place beforehand. Reservoir Dogs and the Kill Bill films all play with this kind of non-chronological storytelling—the former in particular cuts back and forth between past and present in dissecting how a robbery attempt went horribly wrong. Even Tarantino’s most linear film, Jackie Brown (1997), has one show-stopping sequence—a homage to Stanley Kubrick’s early heist thriller The Killing (1956)—that replays a theft from three different points of view. And his most recent film, Death Proof (2007), still manages a measure of structural rigor even while remaining linear all the way through: it’s a two-part work, with rhyming motifs giving it an underlying sense of unity.

The point here is that neither director makes films that fall neatly into typical Hollywood storytelling structures, even though both directors unapologetically dabble in well-worn Hollywood genres. This has the effect of taking a viewer out of his/her Hollywood-induced comfort zone as far as storytelling is concerned.

References

The films of both Godard and Tarantino are often layered—or littered, depending on whom you ask—with references: to pop culture, politics, other films, popular music, literature, etc. Take Godard’s crime films, like Breathless and Band of Outsiders: they are full of references to both literature (the Dolores Hitchens novel that Godard credits as the inspiration for Band of Outsiders is referenced visually and verbally in the film; one of the characters is named Arthur Rimbaud) and cinema (the poster of Humphrey Bogart that seemingly stares at Michel in Breathless; the use of legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang playing himself in the film-about-filmmaking Contempt (1963); the paraphrasing of narration from Fritz Lang’s 1950 thriller House by the River to alert “latecomers” to the theater at one point in Band of Outsiders); later films such as Pierrot le Fou, Masculin féminin and Weekend would also add explicit and implicit allusions to the contentious political events of the day—Vietnam in particular—to his burgeoning plate of references. (But then, even the relatively lightweight Band of Outsiders finds Godard in a serious-enough mood to make a random yet poignant reference to Rwandan atrocities as Franz is reading the newspaper out loud at one moment.)

Tarantino tends to limit his references simply to cinematic ones—movies were the biggest part of his upbringing after all, as we shall see later—but Roger Ebert does note one interesting literary allusion: “the opening exchange between Jules and Vincent about what the French call Quarter-Pounders, for example, is a reminder of the conversation between Jim and Huckleberry Finn about why the French don’t speak English.” As he does with movies, Tarantino is taking a literary trope from a classic American novel and updating it on film for a newer audience. Also interesting to note are Tarantino’s references to Godard himself. In the unrated version of Death Proof, for instance, one lengthy sequence that kicks off the film’s second half is shown in black-and-white until the film suddenly reverts back to color, in a piece of technique that may remind some viewers of Godard’s switching of color filters in an opening sequence of Contempt. Or consider the twist sequence in Pulp Fiction, which recalls the Madison dance sequence of Band of Outsiders in its randomness and sense of isolation. Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction is also done up like Anna Karina in My Life to Live (1962), short black hair and all, even if Mia Wallace comes off more like a gangster’s wife playacting at being a gun moll than Karina’s Nana ever does throughout Godard’s film. (In some cases with Tarantino’s references, context matters less than the fact that he makes the reference in the first place.)

But such references often aren’t simply mere mentions or hints of that sort. Often, Godard and Tarantino run deeper, trying to allude to whole genres or styles with their references. Godard’s voiceover narration of Band of Outsiders is full of comparisons: when Arthur decides to delay the robbery, Godard says that such an act is “in keeping with the tradition of bad B movies”; when Franz decides to turn around to try to save his friend, he’s compared to “the hero of a legendary romance.” (Ironic, because Band of Outsiders, though it may seem like a similar kind of bad B movie or legendary romance when you hear a plot description, certainly doesn’t play like either; if anything, it is a romantically anti-heroic film that often alludes to a heroic tradition.) Even his characters diegetically evoke such movie-conscious associations: Arthur thinks of Franz as “a good shield…like in the movies”; one random character asks his teacher how to translate “a big million-dollar film” to English.

Tarantino does something similar—taking recognized genre characteristics and putting them into entirely new situations—except his references simply stay on the level of iconography. Thus, Pulp Fiction doesn’t so much impose genre conventions onto grounded characters as basically conceive characters as icons from the start and then fashion them in a manner that feels more pop-contemporary and wink-wink existential than such characters usually are in classic noir genre pictures. Unlike Franz and Arthur in Band of Outsiders, Jules and Vincent aren’t regular folks who try to be glamorous movie hit men. They are glamorous movie hit men through and through—their black-and-white suit-and-tie wardrobe recalls any number of Jean-Pierre Melville’s quietly existential heroes from 1960s noirs like Le Samourai. It’s just that they talk like stoned pop philosophers when they discuss the minutiae of daily life in ways that make such minutiae seem more significant than they really are. Many of Melville’s heroes, by contrast, spoke barely a word. Then there is troubled boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who seems to have walked right out of the 1949 real-time boxing noir The Set-Up, especially since the character is saddled with a plot that recalls similar situations in Robert Wise’s film. And when Butch feels compelled to save an angry Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) from sex-crazed male hicks, the various weapons he examines, before deciding upon a samurai sword as his weapon of choice, implicitly act as representations of the kinds of trash genres—action, horror, martial arts—that obsess Tarantino himself.

Yet, as different as their approaches may be, Godard and Tarantino are essentially playing the same game: making films that are heavily intertextual, depending to a certain extent on their—and our—knowledge of other works outside of the one we are currently watching. In a way, they are creating both a cinematic meta-context and a community of viewers who get that context.

Choice of genres

Godard and Tarantino’s references to “lower” genres which I referred to above is also a characteristic of postmodernism, and is thus important to articulate here for the purposes to establishing the tradition out of which both directors create in the cinema.

In his essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Fredric Jameson believes that one of the tenets of postmodernism is the blurring of the lines between high culture and pop culture. As he explains it:

“...[M]any of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated by that whole landscape of advertising and motels, of the Las Vegas strip, of the late show and Grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery and the science fiction or fantasy novel. They no longer “quote” such “texts” as a Joyce might have done, or a Mahler; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.”

This would seem especially appropriate to Tarantino, whose films are almost entirely about his mixing of “texts”; Pulp Fiction, after all, references and borrows from a whole host of films and genres (principally noir films like the aforementioned The Set-Up, but also such diverse sources as Saturday morning cartoons, Saturday Night Fever, even 1960s Godard films like My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders). Even Jackie Brown, arguably Tarantino’s most “down-to-earth” feature, constructs its universe out of remnants of 1970s blaxpoitation flicks (with its star, Pam Grier, its most obvious icon). But keep in mind that Jameson published his article a decade before the Tarantino cult exploded. Godard did this kind of wholesale rummaging of pop culture in many of his ’60s features before Tarantino picked up on it for his films. While many of his ’60s films deconstruct popular American genres—Breathless, Band of Outsiders (crime drama), A Woman is a Woman (musical comedy), Contempt (Hollywood melodrama), Alphaville (1965, science fiction), Made in U.S.A. (1966, spy thriller), Pierrot le Fou (as many genres as possible)—they also exude the kind of fascination with “low” culture that Jameson is talking about. Appropriate, then, that some early-’60s Godard works like Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou are based on supposedly inferior literary material—a cheap American thriller entitled Fool’s Gold in the case of the former, a Lolita knockoff called Obsession in the case of the latter. Even when Godard credits or quotes “high” literary, artistic or philosophical sources in film—Pierrot le Fou, for example, is loaded with such allusions, from Diego Velázquez to James Joyce—Godard places them in a distinctly modern context that doesn’t immediately call to mind something that one might initially consider “high” art.

Because both Godard and Tarantino dabble so unreservedly in “lower” genres, and take such an interest in popular culture, many who simply look at the playful surfaces of Band of Outsiders or Pulp Fiction have sometimes perceived the films of both directors as trivial and “fun” at best. As much as they might prefer to play around with the archetypes of crime drama or the musical or whatever, when you see such clichés in their films, they certainly don’t play and feel like any of their sources. Such deconstructions of genre, in addition to embracing a measure of romanticism toward the movie-influenced characters that they sometimes simultaneously debunk, is what intrigues me the most about their work. It is a vivid illustration of the “increasing difficulty” of drawing the line between high and popular art as anything that Jameson points out in his essay.

When it comes to both directors’ self-reflexivity, I think the most important similarity to note is that, because of the distance they instill between the viewer and what is happening onscreen, in their films one often ends up caring less about the ostensible plots and more about other things—for instance, the artificial, movie-based nature of it all. It is almost as if Godard and Tarantino assume that you are quite familiar with all the conventions of the genres in which they work, that you’ve basically seen it all before, and that there is nothing more to do with genre clichés except to try to mock them or think of them in a new way.

Of course, this raises the question: why are Godard and Tarantino playing this self-reflexive game in the first place?

Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.