By Kim Morgan and David Fear
Special to MSN Movies
Is there a more polarizing filmmaker working today than Quentin Tarantino? A pop-culture savant whose veins pulse
with melted-down celluloid, this superstar of the Sundance generation has
undeniably left his mark on the cinematic landscape. (What other director from
the '90s has inspired his or her own adjective?) But is he the most original and
innovative narrative storyteller to come along in the last few decades, or just
a self-conscious hipster who makes wax museums with pulses? It depends on whom
you ask, which is why, on the eve of QT's latest release, "Inglourious Basterds," we asked two critics, Kim Morgan and
David Fear, to duke it out over the merits of Tarantino's contribution to the
seventh art. Let the slinging begin.
Long Takes: Films with the best extended shots
Kim Morgan: OK, let's start here: Quentin Tarantino knows what I want to see. I want to see girls in short shorts dancing to T. Rex in a run-down Texas bar; I want to see a weird, rough-looking Kurt Russell quoting Robert Frost while asking for a lap dance; and, I want to see a brave woman belted to the hood of a white 1970 Dodge Challenger (the "Vanishing Point" car) while her friend clocks somewhere around 80 mph. Wasn't this part of the reason cinema was invented? So I could see this stuff? I think so. But I'm one of those Tarantino fans who likes the director more when he makes movies that characters from his previous films ("Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction") would discuss while eating their "royale with cheese." With "Death Proof" (his movie from the "Grindhouse" double bill with Robert Rodriguez), all of the above actions occur, aided and abetted by a lean and mean simplicity that's gorgeously shot, spectacularly stunted and oddly lovable. Tarantino is having loads of fun, but he's also respecting all the B-movie classics (and nonclassics) that he clearly cherishes (bless him for directing viewers to the original, superior "Gone in 60 Seconds"). I know many critics complain he's become increasingly superficial since "Kill Bill," and that his last mature work was "Jackie Brown," but I think he's actually becoming more advanced -- boldly experimental and oddly personal. These are his obsessions and his fantasies, after all. I'm just happy he's opened up the double doors to his den to let me poke around. Now if I could only borrow a few things ...
Dave Fear: So the guy with the cinematographic memory, the encyclopedic knowledge of exploitation flicks and the motormouth patter knows how to get a nice genre-hound gal like you hot and bothered. That's great, Kim, but the question remains: Does "Death Proof," his half of this $53-million homage, do anything but wallow in nostalgia for yesteryear's cheap thrills? It's not like I don't have a soft spot for splatter flicks and anything involving muscle cars going vroom as well. The problem is that once you're done playing spot-the-reference (Ohmygod, the chick that kinda looks like Roberta Collins is driving Kowalski's Dodge Challenger and being rammed by Snake Plissken!), you realize there isn't anything there besides "his obsessions" (e.g., a foot fetish that would rival Luis Buñuel's and others' movies). "Jackie Brown" may have been an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel on one level and a sub-blaxploitation crime film on another, but Tarantino also managed to sneak in something heartfelt into the mix: what happens to people when they get older, get burned by life and have to make up for bad decisions and lost time. For him to go from something as emotionally naked as "Brown" to the jukebox cinema of "Kill Bill" (Wow, you've seen a lot of cool Asian movies. Um, congratulations?) felt like a serious step backward. "Grindhouse" is just another series of footnotes masquerading as a narrative. Cinema was invented to show groovy chicks dancing around in their skivvies and hot chrome-on-chrome action; it's also about telling stories, shedding some light on the human condition and showing us something besides a director's favorite scenes being rehashed. If you could leave him a little note while you're rooting around his den (be careful not to knock over those mile-high stacks of giallo videotapes), a lot of us would be in your debt.
Kim Morgan: Hot and bothered? Who said this was a sexual thing? How insulting. I mean, a ramming Dodge Challenger? Snake Plissken? What kind of a girl do you think ... OK, OK, maybe it's a little sexual. Anyway, my point is, what's wrong with a guy reveling in his encyclopedic knowledge of exploitation if he's actually being inventive and honest along the way? And both "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof" are incredibly inventive and, as you said of "Jackie Brown" (which I like -- especially Robert Forster's performance), exceptionally naked. He's not just cataloging favorite scenes from Asian cinema, spaghetti Westerns, Brian De Palma, giallo, exploitation and redneck road movies; he's actually building on them, mixing the aesthetic and thematic elements into a feverish work of grand geek opera. And he knows we know that. He's not, like some other "inspired" filmmakers, simply copying Terrence Malick or Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman; he's tweaking and amplifying what he truly knows of life -- movies -- and Tarantino is a fan of cinema from the Grindhouse to the Art House. In that sense, he's a lot like Godard. And, really, a lot like Woody Allen, who also riffs on his influences ("Stardust Memories?" Fellini, anyone?) and continually chats about movies and music throughout his films. Maybe April March's "Chick Habit" (used at the end of "Death Proof") isn't as classy as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (used in Allen's "Manhattan") but ... oh what the hell, Serge Gainsbourg wrote it, so maybe it is. I truly believe Tarantino is (ahem) "shedding light on the human condition" via "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof" in that the human condition is not only comprised of what is real but what we fantasize about. When I watched Uma break through that grave in "Kill Bill," I was significantly moved. And when Traci Thoms turned her Challenger around to pursue a murderous Kurt Russell, I was inspired. Why is that response, even in the most fantastical of scenes, any less meaningful than watching a movie where someone does something mature and responsible? And I do own a 1971 Ford Torino, so if some jerk tried to ram me off the road, I might do the same damn thing.
David Fear: It's funny you bring up Scorsese because, whenever I watch Tarantino's work, I think of this documentary that someone did on Marty when he was in the midst of making "GoodFellas." An offscreen interviewer is saying how everybody talks about the way the legendary director eats, breathes and sleeps film ... and you can see the notoriously amped-up filmmaker suddenly getting even more fidgety. Then Scorsese blurts out: "Yeah, but doesn't that make you a one-sided person? If that's all I really do, is know film ... then why would you be talking to me? Why would you be interested in what I'm saying? I have some ideas about life and people as well." (The irony that this particular tidbit is something I'm quoting from a film is not lost on me.) I'm sure Quentin has, during the last 44 years of his life, fostered some opinions regarding life -- and his best writing certainly attests to a sensitivity toward the way people talk, if not think -- but too often, the man's movies seem far more interested in testifying about other films than the world around him, or the world around you or me. (As for Woody Allen, he used Fellini and Bergman as inspirations, not as the basis for karaoke sessions.) Maybe it's not fair to compare someone with 4 3/4 films underneath his belt (I'm counting "Death Proof" as half and his noxious segment from "Four Rooms" as one quarter) to a member of the exalted and coronated "greats" you mentioned earlier, so let's shift to a peer: Paul Thomas Anderson. He's a filmmaker who's also been known to quote heavily from other beloved works -- never mind the obvious Altman influence; that infamous firecracker scene from "Boogie Nights" was stolen wholeheartedly from "Putney Swope." But underneath the references, I also get a clear sense of someone who's trying to examine a world that extends beyond his vast DVD collection. I see an artist who's sensitive to the notion of family, to the idea of community and to the emotional complexities that make up what it's like to live in the world circa right now. I don't just see a guy who like, y'know, really, really loves Seijun Suzuki and Lucio Fulci and Pam Grier and Elvis, all riiiiight? Look, Tarantino's genius lies in his talent as a synthesist. We wouldn't be bothering with him if there was no potential there ... we're not doing a point/counterpoint on Brett Ratner, after all. No other cinephile-turned-director -- not even his/my own beloved Godard -- has been better at packing various strains of film history into one sausage-skin package. High culture, lowbrow pulp, art house, grindhouse, pretentious, psychotronic -- it's all in there. What he's managed to churn out with this methodology has rightfully been praised. "Reservoir Dogs" isn't just a great genre deconstruction; the movie still feels like it's turning the crime film's speedometer back to zero. "Pulp Fiction" is an incredible pop narcotic ... hell, it's a freakin' pop pharmacy! And I'll take that exchange between Pam Grier and Robert Forster about aging in "Jackie Brown" over any number of references to fast food and old Top 40 hits. The thing is, those three films are a testament to the fact that he has the potential to be something more than the sum of his influences. And yet, he now seems to be content churning out these Frankenstein monsters constructed from others' greatest hits. As a fellow film geek, I love that Tarantino has turned on a generation of people to areas of cinema that (a) I also love, and (b) other folks might not have given a second glance. Now I just wish he'd spend his time actually making film history instead of simply cherry-picking from it.
Kim Morgan: Hmmm. I always liked the Frankenstein monster, especially when he taught himself how to speak (that's in the book). The monster just gets stronger and more aggressive and will follow you to the Arctic Circle if you don't watch out. Anyway, you're playing dirty on a few points here. One, "Death Proof" is indeed a full-length feature film, no matter what you think of it. To just out and out say it doesn't even deserve to be called a movie is like saying "Duel" isn't really a movie because it was about a truck pursing Dennis Weaver and it was made for TV. And two, it's entirely unfair comparing Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson -- these guys are clearly different animals. I understand they've made around the same amount of movies and both are influenced by other filmmakers but obviously (obviously!) they have varied goals in mind. I love Paul Thomas Anderson (He is, along with Wes Anderson, one of the greatest directors currently working), but I don't want Tarantino to attempt to be anything like him. As for the claim that Tarantino's simply plugging quarters into a jukebox, well, that's too easy. Amidst all the Sergio Leone, Kinji Fukasaku, "Twisted Nerve" ecstatic beauty of "Kill Bill," there's real emotion there. And, as much as he riffs and synthesizes and fetishizes, I can safely say I've never seen a movie like "Kill Bill." He makes these psychotropic mélanges all his own. Furthermore (my God, you just made me say "furthermore"), with both "Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2" and "Death Proof," Tarantino appears to be in his women's stage, merging a kind of fantastically formal Douglas Sirk sensibility with the raw outrageousness of Russ Meyer. These women may be idealized but they've endured stress and struggles that, like those relating to the trials and tribulations of Peter Parker, are answered in an intriguing blend that's both human and mythical. And, sure, "Death Proof" is more of a lark, but for heaven's sake, it's on a double bill for a movie called "Grindhouse." What did you want him to make? "Love Streams"? And concerning two of my heroes -- Woody Allen (whose "Stardust Memories" is almost exclusively a Fellini homage) and Godard (who's "A Woman Is a Woman" is so drenched with film reference that it almost becomes wearisome), I will confess that, indeed, Tarantino has not made his "Crimes and Misdemeanors" or "Contempt" quite yet; perhaps he never will. But look Daddy-o, I actually dig Tarantino's newer direction as a genre-busting, fanatically obsessive, ultimate mix-tape action filmmaker. And action filmmakers are generally given the critical shaft. But I'm not accusing you of this. In fact, I detect someone who might like these movies almost as much as I do. I mean, you've already dropped the K-bomb ("Vanishing Point" Kowalski) on me and you've got the Rock Star name (Fear? You should be making movies), so I'm thinking you might actually appreciate Tarantino's inspired goulash if you loosened up a little. How can I help? Road trip a la "Two-Lane Blacktop"? I get to be James Taylor. You can be Dennis Wilson.
What are your thoughts on Quentin Tarantino? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Morgan writes the MSN Hitlist Blog, and is a film writer for the LA Weekly, Fandango and Reel.com. She was a film critic for The Oregonian and has written about movies for various print and Web media. She served as DVD critic on Tech TV's "The Screen Savers" and has appeared as guest film critic on AMC's "The Movie Club With John Ridley" and on E! Entertainment. She writes for her blog, Sunsetgun.com.
David Fear is a film critic for Time Out New York. He's also written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Filter and Moviemaker Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.