Don't Try this at Home: Tarantino

By Ian Penman

reservoir-dogs-quentin-tarantino-1.jpgReservoir Dogs, 1992

Quentin Tarantino says that the frisson fission friction fiction of his pulp gulp films comes from one basic conceit: ‘I want to take these genre characters and put them in a real-life situation.’ Which, when you think about it (which you’re not supposed to) is really only a pseudo-adult kind of Roger Rabbit with guns.

So, you see - unreal people in real situations - that’s the reason that despite their spitty hissy tom-cat woozy-Uzi male-violence these are real ‘feel-good’ movies. (Or only half-real: half-real and half-reel as it were.) A real feel-good deal for People Like Us. People who can spot pop-trash references the way people used to spot wildflowers and lap-wings. People too sassy smart to get a feel-good fillip out of Forrest Gump but yet too squishy-brained to make the effort to get haunted by some Kieslowski meditation on the fracturing of late twentieth-century identity. Because these (last) days People Like Us want our fractured identities signed sealed and delivered inside a fast-food pop-cult package – you see, we don’t want to be haunted; we don’t want to wake up later in the night with strange visions shifting around the bare room of our conscience, or tears of trepidation asking to be cried; we don’t want to ask too closely about the failure of love in our lives and the fever of disappointment that stalks us daily. No, we’re far safer in San Quentin, the adult Theme Park where everything is just a mild wild half-teen half-toon update of old nasty noir references; where pasty-faced men in black suits are our version of giant Mickeys and Goofys who pat us on our nodding heads on the way to the exit as they say: It’s OK little children, go home safe in your fan-fan-fantasies...

pulp-fiction-quentin-tarantino.jpgPulp Fiction, 1994

(So you see, I’m not a big Tarantino fan.)  

(But you see, It’s more than that: because I was fatally seduced at an early age by the serious tragedy and sensuous vortex of the cinema screen, I stumble and tremble like a lapsed Catholic whisky priest through a Greene-land desert of a soul: I think the cinema stinks of decadence these days, but I’m still tied to it with the blasted ugly fervour of a fallen acolyte, and I can’t stand to see the soft-suck pabulum version of it people now comfort themselves with. So, you’s not that simple.)

So, what do you see when you don’t see through Tarantino?  

What it is, you see, is that despite these films being populated by the scum of the earth, people who have nothing in common with nobody you know and everything in common with a Nothing you personally have never known, you still come out of Tarantino feeling as if you’ve – hey! – at least and at last finally had A Good Night Out At the Movies: like, this is what the movies are supposed to be about (as so many people tell me when I endlessly and over-passionately rehash these heated arguments over too many cold drinks), this is why you gave the movies your time and money in the first place. Because if cutey-pie QT is one thing he’s a damned good salesman; a huckster narcissist from a long American tradition, from a long line of guys who may not have any looks or any grace or any grand vision but they have the eye for the main chance and the gall and sometimes the balls and they alchemise their very gracelessness and guilelessness and gawkiness – alchemise all this into what it is that they ultimately sell: themselves. These films are in fact – if you look just a teensy bit closer - violently affectionate hymns ... to Quentin Tarantino.  

Now, see this, the Boy Wonder sells confidence: confidence in himself and in movies as a minor debased form of redemption; and in his audience’s projected ability to dig the same stuff as him, to groove on the same in-joke riffing and pop-cult rifling – which is, let’s face it, a pretty attractive proposition after a decade in the doldrums which is pretty much (in relative terms) what the Eighties was for movies. There may have been isolated movie freak scenes (e.g., Blue Velvet) but nothing like the collective Whomp delivered by the whole Altman-Scorsese-Schrader-etc. nexus in the Seventies.  

And see, here’s the rub: if those Seventies films were about alienation – an entire nation now alien to itself after Watergate and Vietnam – and about a nation of men now strangers to a formerly sure certain legacy of US Frontier manliness and masculinity – then QT is somewhere else altogether: his is a cinema of pretend togetherness. These supposedly so-so-so-hep flashily sick fluently slick sharkskin-ballet no-ethics no-feelings hardboiled reel-world spiels are actually groovy little group therapy feel-good sessions for an audience cut off from its own emotions but that still wants (needs?) to congratulate itself on having one basic response left: laughing in rhythm. An audience that sees the – their, any – cultural past as a sweet shop to be picked and mixed – and so on and so forth until we all complacently slum together in the strangely one-dimensional glow cast by these movies because all they ultimately do is they tell us so sweetly surely sagely how People Like Us, we dig the same things.

reservoir-dogs-quentin-tarantino-2.jpgReservoir Dogs, 1992 

When you buy into the Tarantino aesthetic it’s not like some movies which darkly nudge you into areas you’ve never been before (or shapely nudge you back into areas you shouldn’t have gone, but did). QT’s QED pictures are a celebration of the fact that we’re all the same, that – don’t worry, it’s OK – we get it – and that’s OK! (No disturbing after-shock or after-effect that lingers for days and nights and weeks and months.) QT is the ultimate director-as-dweeb – Quentin: ha! what a dweeb’s name to start with! – because his success speaks to us like this: if I can be cool, so can you – just by enjoying my film and repeating the lines afterwards with your friends in the pub where they have the Pulp Fiction CD on an endless loop on the CD-jukebox...  

(Cue that dreadful surf instrumental that no one in their right mind ever wants to hear again; or Stuck In the Bloody Middle Of The Road With You for that matter.)  

He doesn’t take us anywhere dark or uncanny, or to the real cruel places of the lamentable American or late-twentieth century soul; instead, he gives us cartoon versions of the spectres that haunt our cities. (Reservoir Dogs is at times like Mean Streets re-made by the Top Cat Team.) A bit like Oliver Stone (albeit not on the same mockalyptic scale), really, and the more you ponder this pair the more Tarantino begins to look like Stone’s grotesque polar/younger twin. Stone at least has the excuse that he has lived through a lot of this stuff, and that his cinema is like an obsessive psycho-therapeutic raking over of certain personal and collective dark clouds. QT is, of course, just dependably and defensibly ‘postmodern’, whatever the meaningless hell or meaningful shell that means these days. These two natural born thrillers are gargantuan hacks who both have learned the trick of turning what is a flaw – their compulsive chatter, their inability to shape and sublimate and economise – into a supposed virtue. It’s like a great scriptwriter god in the sky gave them everything except the edit facility. You could say: Stone is all subtext and Tarantino is none. Stone’s voracious apocalyptic flash is just an excuse to proselytise at us. QT’s supposed ‘subversion of genre’ is just an excuse to flashily dazzle us.  

QT seems to be reaching out to tackle scenes way outside his own limited, limited – life experience. (If his experience of life is limited, his experience of soul seems to be less than microscopic: even though his films are action films Tarantino is in reality anti-Existentialist man.) In reducing his range of (love) objects down to the degraded level of pulp and video and late-night TV repeat and small talk, he makes it easy on himself ... nothing ever develops here, everything remains at the one stalled stilted level of discourse.  

(At times I think I have sussed him as a one-trick pony: all he has done is transfer films that should take place in the squared-off Mondrian confines of New York and re-located them in the wide bright boulevard of LA.)  

You see, you see him interviewed and you notice that he can’t seem to answer any question – serious or trivial – without reaching for an aid, a pop cultural yo-yo or pogo stick or pet rock... it’s like wow see this Jean-Luc Godard film it’s like SO cool and I took the colour red from this scene and see this Fifties car it’s SO cool and that’s where I got the idea for this hamburger heaven and see this Sam Fuller poster it’s like SO cool and ... it’s like... it’s like he makes his film the same way: just tossing in bits and set pieces like the directorial equivalent of one of Oliver Sacks’ casebook studies: The Man Who Mistook His Life For a Map; or: The Man Who Mistook A Video Collection For His Life.  

Because the real truth is that QT’s career is about taking a supposedly ‘real’ character (i.e. himself) and putting him in all these far far far out situations – that he’s never been near in real life and never will. (The only film he could convincingly make would be about the Film Festival circuit.) That’s why I suspect they represent a gigantic evasion – what used to be called ‘bad faith’. Because if you check out all the B-movies by the likes of Sam Fuller that QT so adores you’ll find real darkness and doubt and bad dreams and debts – sex, madness, guilt, the great themes. (With Quentin, we get ‘celebrated’ dialogue about what hamburgers are called in Europe.) Tarantino’s mise-en-scène seems to take place in no particular era or every particular era: take any given scene and without prior clues you could accurately guess that it was ‘meant’ to be set in the Forties or the Fifties or the Eighties or, in other words, entirely in QT’s playground mind: it doesn’t matter: it’s all just Letraset to the Lippy Hipster Kid. 

OK, so we can hardly demand of every film maker that they have previously lived out what they portray – this would render, inter alia, RoboCop, Jurassic Park and Mary Poppins pretty unfeasible projects. But I think there’s a deeply ingrained way in which QT’s lack of interest(s) outside his own gee-whiz aesthetic casts a very specific shadow over his films. To begin with, I couldn’t put my finger on why his films made me feel so queasy and unsatisfied rather than exhilarated like all those around me. I felt like I’d been fed from one end of a week to the other on nothing but cheeseburger and milkshake and cheap speed: an unrelieved diet of something simultaneously over-rich and under-nourishing. And maybe the reason – or a great symbol for the underlying reason – is this: if you detach yourself for a moment you may notice that every single one of QT’s characters talks with the same voice: his. He can write, boy, can he write and write and write – but it’s all just straight from his burbling swamp place mind straight to the page straight to the screen. Thus in Pulp Fiction, we get a six-foot-plus hyper-cool black assassin who... talks with the voice of a nerdy white video-rental-store manager. This ice-blooded Isaac Hayes of the hinterlands talks about things like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and A Flock of Seagulls and stuff that nobody talks about – black or white – unless they’re a QT kinda pop cult bore; unless they’re QT in OD.  

And so, unlike anyone from Travis Bickle to the Bad Lieutenant, or anyone in any book in a lineage that stretches from Jim Thompson to James Ellroy – who mine the same vein of relentless street nihilism as Tarantino – QT’s bad guys are just one-dimensional parodies of badness: boy-men facing unreal pulp dilemmas. On some level – like a lot of society – QT is both dazzled by the glare of ‘bad’ men and frightened of the real evil that lurks in all our tense hearts.  

OK, OK, OK. The problem with Quentin is that there seems to be no sensible middle-ground: people either rave relentlessly and uncritically on about his gory glory or (like me) just Don’t Get It. In my weaker moments I might have to concur that what is wrong with QT is not so much wrong with QT as it is the cultural scene. In any decent movie-going era QT would not be centre stage – he’d just be gearing up to do something better, being helped along by criticism rather than adulation. A minor player; a marginal entertainment. And so yes it may be that poor little unquesting unquestioning Quentin is just taking the wrathful rap for all my monumental ire, and that the poor baby is guilty – or desperately abjectly innocent – of nothing more than being the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

Just like one of his – real gone, unreal goon – characters.  

From Vital Signs published by Serpent’s Tail.