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

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

Parody and Pastiche

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

In general, parody has a critical intent: it tries to deconstruct and then mock outdated or plain silly conventions, and it does so often by adopting those same conventions.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trying to render as odd and ridiculous certain artistic sacred cows, whether that entails merely a cliché or an entire outdated genre.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

“Parody, one might argue, emerges when artists perceive that they have outgrown artistic conventions. Man parodies the past, Hegel suggested, when he is ready to dissociate himself from it. Literary modes and paradigms, like social orders and philosophical epistemes, become obsolescent and may be superseded. When artistic forms become historically inappropriate, parody lays them to rest.”

Considering that definition, one could legitimately consider many of Godard’s genre deconstructions as parodies. Not all of them are comedies—Alphaville is a serious picture in addition to being a deadpan spoof of science-fiction films; the resolutely austere and experimental Contempt wears the guise of a lurid color melodrama whose dark humor is dwarfed by its sheer scale and gloominess—but they all share that deconstructive intent, taking a critical look at cinematic classics.

As referential, self-referential and movie-obsessed as Godard is, however, Tarantino is not a parodist in the same manner. Tarantino may reference all sorts of films and genres and cultural artifacts, but he does not do so in a spirit of satire or even a light ribbing. He’s merely referencing them.

Thus we come to the concept of pastiche. To put it simply, it’s parody without the critical intent. As Jameson defines it:

“Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor…”

Tarantino certainly has not lost his sense of humor in his films. But his humor does not necessarily grow out the feeling that the director is spoofing genre constructions; his absurdist dialogue is simply a clever way to make clichéd characters feel fresh. In nearly every other respect, “pastiche” is a legitimate way of describing most of his films. He cobbles together elements of a dizzyingly vast array of genres and styles, but the spirit behind his references is not mockery: the intent is often simply to affectionately play around with such genres and styles rather than to reflect on or critique them. What is the point, for instance, of revolving part of the story of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 around the grave of a woman named Paula Schultz other than the fact that the name refers to a 1968 comedy entitled The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz? Or what exactly is Tarantino intending when he whimsically decides to place a black-and-white back-projection townscape—like something right out of a ’40s noir—behind Butch and a female cab driver as he is escaping from the scene of his victory fight/murder?

Those are but two of a countless number of references in Tarantino’s work, but the point here is: to this movie-watcher, there doesn’t seem to be a clear deconstructive point to Tarantino’s references as there often is with Godard. There is a big difference, for instance, between, say, Godard using esteemed German director Fritz Lang to play himself in his Contempt and Tarantino using former Japanese martial arts star Sonny Chiba to play a sword-maker and trainer in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Godard may be as huge a fan of Lang as Tarantino is of Chiba, but in the context of his rigorous and complex examination of filmmaking, the film business, and personal relationships, Lang stands out as an icon of the cinematic old guard, “the only uncorrupted and incorruptible figure” in Contempt, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has said. Chiba’s character, by contrast, seems to have importance only in context of the film’s plot (he trains the Bride for her eventual showdown with O-Ren Ishii, one of the five assassins responsible for trying to kill her at her wedding). Otherwise, it seems that the only reason he’s in the film, one could conclude, is because the movie geek inside Tarantino deeply desired to have this martial arts icon in his tribute to martial-arts movies.

Ultimately, the difference between Godard’s art and Tarantino’s is the difference between a philosopher of the movie image and an obsessive movie fan. It is necessary for Godard to utilize his Brechtian distancing devices because he is trying in part to explore and deconstruct the power of movie images in all of their forms: from the look of a movie icon on a poster (the poster of Bogart in Breathless) to the familiar images and associations evoked by Hollywood movie clichés. From the use of familiar movie-musical tropes—the snatches of high-spirited music, Raoul Coutard’s brilliant Technicolor palette—to cast a different light on what might otherwise be a mundane character drama in A Woman is a Woman, to the characters of Band of Outsiders playacting at being hoods, Godard frequently takes apart Hollywood genre conventions and questions how they get their meaning, and whether that meaning has any relation to ordinary lives at all. (Even a later ’60s Godard film like Two or Three Things I Know About Her is essentially tackling the same subject—it’s just that, this time, he is exploring the image and how it acquires meaning in an industrialized, consumerist society rather than in the context of other movies.)

Tarantino may be Godard’s equal in exposing the artifice of his cinematic constructions, but he doesn’t so much deconstruct genre conventions as use them as a source of fun. Whereas Godard is concerned with exposing the reality underlying movie images, Tarantino is very much in love with the images they create. In other words: Tarantino lacks the critical distance Godard maintains in many of his films. That is why Tarantino uses real gangsters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, for example, as opposed to regular people who yearn to be movie gangsters, as Godard’s protagonists in Breathless and Band of Outsiders are. While it is true, as critic Fernando F. Croce points out in his review of Kill Bill: Vol. 2, “Tarantino in Kill Bill raises the characters to a level of mythical movie lore before twisting them to reveal flesh and blood,” the important point to emphasize for the purpose of my thesis is that Tarantino conceives his characters as images from the start before trying to reveal the human beings underneath, while Godard goes the opposite way. Tarantino doesn’t deconstruct so much as reconstruct from available parts.

Tarantino’s approach, of course, has led some critics to accuse him of triviality—of making empty popular entertainments that signify little except that the director has seen and absorbed a lot of movies. Fair enough, although I would submit that a closer look at the nuances of his films would reveal that they are hardly empty. Tarantino is taking on genuinely big subjects in his films: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction deal, in different degrees, with honor among criminals; Pulp Fiction adds a hint of pop spirituality into the mix; Jackie Brown is a leisurely tribute to the ’70s blaxploitation genre that also suggests the melancholy of old age in front of and behind the camera; the two Kill Bill films, taken together, could be seen as a revenge epic that charts one woman’s transformation from vengeance-thirsty warrior to flawed human being; and I would submit that the relatively small-scale Death Proof is Tarantino’s bid to consider, in his own way, the sexual politics inherent in the slasher-movie genre. For someone who claims, both in public and through his films, to simply be having fun while making movies, he also clearly has his sights on serious topics. But Tarantino’s style is what seems to throw his critics: his filmmaking is so viscerally delirious, his references are so multitudinous, and his dialogue and visual style are so overtly stylized and exaggerated that it sometimes fools people into not taking his films seriously as anything other than a movie fan’s tribute to his passions.

Perhaps it is the general absence of politics—which could itself be a political position, apathy—that jars some of his critics. None of his films deal much with real-world events; you won’t find any trace of political commentary or satire in Tarantino’s films. In fact, in none of Tarantino’s movies is there much of a reference, either visually or verbally, to a world outside either movie history or the borders of the movie frame. All of his films seem to take place in self-contained universes of his own movie-influenced imagination, and his only gestures to recognizing a reality outside the proscenium arch come from his use of real-life settings and his relatively straightforward way of capturing those settings on film. In other words, with the arguable exceptions of Jackie Brown and Death Proof (and even in those films topicality isn’t much of an issue), Tarantino’s films are, above all, fantasies based on the movies that he has seen and loved, and Tarantino doesn’t try to pretend that his films are anything more realistic than that.

Godard, however, has politics in abundance throughout his films from the 1960s—hardly surprising considering both the politically tumultuous environment in which his films arose and the politically- and philosophically-aware French culture in which Godard was brought up (both are environments I will explore in some depth later). Even in films like A Woman is a Woman and Band of Outsiders that don’t place much emphasis on French politics or global affairs, Godard throws in little hints of politics here and there to shake us out of our genre-induced stupor. Thus it is jarring to hear, at one point, Arthur reading a news item at one random moment in Band of Outsiders about Hutus massacring Tutsis in Rwanda (how prophetic in light of the ethnic cleansing that took place in that country in 1994), or to see Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in A Woman is a Woman walking around wearing a French tricolor armband on his right arm. Sure, Godard did take early cracks at political works, as in the relatively austere 1960 film Le Petit soldat (dealing ambivalently with the problematic methods used by the rebel FLN during the Algerian war for independence from France) and the deliberately grimy 1963 anti-war film Les Carabiniers (a film-about-war-films which also could profitably be considered a black comedy in its bleak view of humanity amidst the absurdities of war).

It was after Pierrot le Fou in 1965, however—which features heavy, critical references to the Vietnam War—that politics seeped into Godard’s films with a vengeance until, by the time he completed Weekend (and even before then, with films like La Chinoise), he had thrown off the shackles of movie storytelling altogether and started making explicit political tracts. (This gradual but unmistakable shift in his filmmaking style coincided with his participation in the events of May ’68 and his growing belief in Maoism; later he, Jean-Pierre Gorin and others would form the Dziga Vertov group, dedicated to “making films politically.”) Thus, Masculin féminin features a main character, Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who is politically confused (although he doesn’t admit it to us); La Chinoise interrogates one particular group’s fascination with Maoism; and Weekend, of course, takes his fascination with politics to some kind of savagely satirical, bitter zenith.

Tarantino, it must be said, has only made five feature films (and his most satirical effort, his screenplay for Natural Born Killers, was transformed by its eventual director Oliver Stone into something quite different from what Tarantino apparently had in mind), so perhaps it is too early to see whether he will eventually shift from the loving, self-contained genre pastiches he has made so far to something more seriously worldly and political. But, even in his earlier works, Godard evinced hints of a politically minded sensibility. Perhaps Tarantino’s only overtly political act so far in his young career was his choice of Michael Moore’s anti-George W. Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2004 (a film which, incidentally, Godard publicly denounced, stating that Moore “doesn’t distinguish between text and image”). Very little in his movies suggests political reflection as much as reflections of cinema history and popular images—a fact that understandably leads people to write off Tarantino’s art as trifling and unserious.

I do not believe, however, that Tarantino’s concern for elucidating the humanity underneath genre icons (or lack of that concern) makes him less of an artist than Godard. He may be a different kind of artist, but not necessarily an inferior one. This leads me to my final point.

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.