Monday, July 20, 2009

Quentin Tarantino: The Emperor's New Pumps

The media buildup to the arrival of the new Tarantino movie with the silly fucking goddamn title is well under way, and in your more fashionable quarters, it's taking the form of a buildup to see if the story of how QT Lost His Way gets extended by another chapter. "When Quentin Tarantino climbs the steps of the Grand Palais for the world premiere of his new movie at this month's Cannes Film Festival," Ryan Gilbey writes, "he may feel like he's coming home. It was in Cannes 15 years ago that he received the Palme d'Or for Pulp Fiction. Even those among us who believe it to be a film of moments, as opposed to a momentous film, will concede that it had a seismic effect on what followed... This year, Tarantino is back in Cannes with Inglourious Basterds, not merely a title destined to have "sic" printed after it wherever it is mentioned, but a spaghetti western draped in a Second World War greatcoat...A lot has changed since Pulp Fiction. The former enfant terrible has just turned 46; the films on which his reputation is founded are some distance behind him. Those who marvelled at the assurance and aplomb of Tarantino's 1992 debut, the slippery heist thriller Reservoir Dogs or the unexpected warmth and wisdom of the 1997 Jackie Brown may then be wary of Inglourious Basterds, with its early signs that the director is wading even further into the B-movie hinterlands of his most recent work."

News flash: Tarantino is never going to be able to follow up Pulp Fiction. That isn't meant as a harsh judgement on his gifts or a dismissal of the movies he's made since--I happen to like Kill Bill and Death Proof more than Gilbey, and more than most of my Screengrab brethren. And a lot of people love Jackie Brown more than Tarantino will publicly admit to; arguably his best film, it was also the one that made it clear that every time he cranks out another movie, it will be judged to have fallen short by the only standard the media has for judging a new Tarantino movie: is it Pulp Fiction all over again? Does it rewrite the rule book for "indie" cinema, in terms of how much fun it can be and how far its appeal can extend? At the time, Pulp Fiction was both a surprise and, because of Reservoir Dogs (a festival circuit legend that didn't actually set box offices on fire in its commercial release) and the stories about the director that were kept circulating as other filmmakers made movies based on his early scripts (True Romance, Natural Born Killers), a premature career summing-up. in the fifteen years since, I think that Tarantino has proven that he can make other good movies. What he hasn't managed to do, and what nobody should have expected from him, has been to rewrite the rule book twice.

"The weight of expectation resting on Pulp Fiction was immense," writes Gilbey, "and even the ease with which it surpassed hopes - raking in $250m worldwide and cleaning up at awards ceremonies - hardly indicated what was in store for Tarantino. It is no exaggeration to say that, for the first time since Scorsese, a director was enjoying something like rock star status." He also quotes a line from Tarantino about his early career--"I would have died for Reservoir Dogs. I would have died getting a shot for Pulp Fiction. I don't know if I would have died, would have thrown myself into that kind of harm's way, for Jackie Brown, and that scared me a little bit."--and adds, "How peculiar that of all his films he feels so divorced from Jackie Brown, with its emotional plausibility and understated melancholy." Is it really, though, consider the way the media built Jackie Brown up as Pulp Fiction II and then walked away from it yawning, muttering that it didn't have quite the same adrenaline rush? It's easy to say that Tarantino should have been savvy enough to have known that, after everyone has written the story "New Whiz Kid Hits Town", the obvious next step is to write, "Whiz Kid Loses It", but you turn a high school dropout and video store clerk into a rock star and then jeer at him at your own peril. When the Cannes premiere arrives, will the little bastard bring to your knees with awe and admiration, or by making you feel that he's beaned you with a rock? Stay tuned.

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