#haveseenmonday Brilliance but little wisdom in Reservoir Dogs

When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.

Reservoir dogs

During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.

Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.

It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.

What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.

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Django Unchained

My first experience of Quentin Tarantino’s brand of film making was at the ideal age. His first film, Reservoir Dogs, hit cinemas when I was a student. Short and punchy, a crime-heist movie which played fast and loose with the narrative rule book, I still remember the dizzying sense of stumbling out of the cinema not entirely sure if I’d enjoyed the film but certain I’d seen something remarkable. His follow-up, Pulp Fiction, did the same only more so. Nothing in his career has recaptured those experiences in quite the same way; he’s in need, really, of someone to tap him on the shoulder and to convince him to stop believing his own hype.

Whatever has happened since the start of his career, a few things remain unchallenged about him. He’s a director who can draw brilliant performances from any actor apart from himself. When he’s at his best he can create moments of such jaw dropping threat and tension which stretch your nerves in previously unheralded ways. He is obsessed with violence, but for all that he’s actually far better at the threat of violence. He needs to remember, too, that the cult films he’s so obsessed with are cult films because not many people liked them; it’s one thing to be inspired by something, it’s another to keep on trying to remake it.

So to Django Unchained. In many ways, it’s Tarantino’s most honest film to date. He’s been trying to remake spaghetti westerns in different genres for years; in this film he gives up trying and just makes one. His obsession with the n-word? Well, lets put in the context here of the story of the American slave trade and a super-slave on a revenge/rescue mission. Let black and white alike use the word with abandon. Call him racist, but you’re doing so in the face of a film which confronts one of the darkest parts of America’s past square in the face. He needs to learn to edit his films? Yes he does, and this is very long, but at least strands of the story find a context in the narrative. An actor’s director? You won’t find a film which indulges actors more, allowing them to play against type, linger on an apparently meaningless conversations to build character. You also won’t find a film this year with a level of performance throughout the cast that’s as high as it is in Django Uncahined. Special mention to Leonardo Di Caprio, for a startling and disturbing turn.

Yes, this is the quintessential Tarantino movie; it’s his essence as a film-maker bottled and distilled. If you can call a 2 hour 45 minute film, distilled. Is it racist? Hard to say. I’d come down on the side no, but that’s as easy for white male to say. Is it offensive? Yes, of course it is. In the sense that for all the splatter and showmanship, I see a film looking long at dark period of history and refusing to cast anyone in the role of a white rescuer. It’s as violent and as ludicrous as you’d expect, but at heart this is, I think, honest. Honest that in situations of oppression, oppression is carried out but the majority; in this film there is not a single redeeming white American figure. Honest in that it revels in violence; which maybe troubling, but has no pretence. Honest in that while it could and should be shorter, it does tell a story and tell it well. Honest, in that it ultimately it acknowledges it’s own absurdity.

Tarantino has been quoted as claiming he’s the only one to be talking about slavery. He clearly isn’t, but he is the only one to do so on such a public stage and not portray the rescuer as white. He refuses questions about his obsession with violence; which he’s wrong to do until he makes a film free of violence but with all his trademark flare. He still needs strong minded friends and a good editor to tell him when to stop, be quiet and just finish a film.

For all that, I fear Django Unchained proves the film industry needs him as much he needs it. Which may not be a bad place to end … if only the industry and the film-maker would listen to each other.

I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Inglorious Basterds

So where do you start with Quentin Tarantino? The geek-genius, with no co self-control, discipline or artistic self-control. Feted by actors & the Weinstiens. His first 3 films were all varying shades of brilliant – whatever your moral take on the violence, the profanity and the plot-lines these were clearly the work of a man capable of genius in his chosen field. But then, whichever way you slice it, things started to go wrong. Kill Bill was just too much; Grindhouse an insulting fiasco. As many have said, he’s a frustrating director precisely because it’s so evident just what he could be capable of if he really put his mind to it. He doesn’t seem to notice that very few of even the more keen and observant film fans really care about all the sly cross-referencing: films that are really about films (as he’s been known to claim this one is) are often a sign of creative death akin to the band who writes an album about being on tour – most of us just don’t care that much.

He may argue that this is a film about war films, which it may be. There are actors playing actors; an undercover agent whose a film theorist when his country’s not at war; the plot turns on a film screening of a film starring one of the characters. Some of that works, some of that we just don’t care about. What’s more striking, and potentially either troubling or inspiring, is the attitude this World War 2 story takes to the subject of Jews in wartime Europe. Like the earlier Defiance, this film wants to challenge idea of Jews as helpless victims and tells a story of Jews fighting back against the Nazi oppressor. All well and good. The problem for Tarantino is that Defiance was at least based on fact, about a real group of people. His film, on the other hand, is self-consciously re-imagining history. It literally changes the story of war – it’s deliberately and consciously fictional. In and of itself, that stands in a Shakespearean tradition. But what’s he saying? Is he implying that this is what the Jews should have done and were too cowardly to do? If it is, tell that to my grandmother, lucky to escape wartime Europe with her life. Is he just having a bit of fun with a revenge story? If so, it’s dangerous ground to have fun on? Or is he examining the ethics of revenge? Well, I was actually feeling particularly vengeful against someone who’d hurt me when I saw the film, and it certainly warned me off. But given his track record, it’s hard to believe that was his intention.

So Inglorious Basterds leaves us a lot of questions. It’s too long, too flabby. On the plus, there are many truly excellent performances, and a handful of sequences (the opening especially) that are as good as anything you will see in the cinema all year. Which just, as usual, makes it frustrating. It’s ten times better than the woeful Grindhouse; it’s morally troubling, it’s not for the squeamish. It contains brilliance. It’s just not entirely brilliant.

Shame, if not completely so.