Thursday, October 12, 2006

..or are you gonna bite?

The arc of Quentin Tarantino's career is a fascinating thing. He makes a near-perfect debut film. Not that Reservoir Dogs is a Great film, since it has nothing to say about anything other than how cool certain crime movie conventions are in the right hands, but I'll get to what QT's work has to say (or not) later. Reservoir Dogs is perfect in its way. It may not be a Great film, but its a great movie, a distinction QT would appreciate. Its brilliantly paced, brilliantly cast, brilliantly acted, the script is funny and was original in its day, and the direction is sharp and imaginative. Its got some unforgettable, absolutely iconic moments. Its hard to imagine now just how hip a film it was when it was first released, when people quoted it endlessly, when its soundtrack was THE soundtrack in shops and bars and restaurants and at parties. It is the film that, more than any other, jumpstarted Harvey Keitel's career. Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi all benefited enormously from their appearances.
When I last watched it I was stunned by how tight and tense it is, and how it doesn't waste a frame. The torture scene is infamous because of what it puts the audience through. Though we see virtually nothing, we feel everything. At the time, it was as if this film had reinvented screen violence somehow - as if it had not been done right for a long time, and here it was, with weight and impact and terror in every gunshot .

QT seemed like an incredibly promising young director. He obviously understood the power of the medium and had a great command of it, but what was most palpable was his excitement to be allowed to use it. He would have understood Orson Welles' line on the set of Citizen Kane : "This is the best toy train set a boy ever had!" That excitement is evident in the film. You can feel it somehow in the great rush of ideas and images and one-liners, and it is exhilarating.

Pulp Fiction seemed to be the first step in the fulfillment of his obvious talent. It was more ambitious and expansive, it took more risks and explored new ground. QT proved he could work with proper, bigtime Movie Stars like Bruce Willis, but he also relaunched the career of yet another fallen idol in John Travolta. He made effective use of Samuel L Jackson* - only Spike Lee had utilized Sam to anywhere near full effect before, in Jungle Fever - and again his soundtrack was iconic, his dialogue ridiculously quotable, his use of violence edgy and funny. Again he seemed to be formally adventurous, playing with chronology, doubling his story back upon itself. And this time he had a huge hit. Pulp Fiction crossed over in a way Reservoir Dogs never had. It won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and won for best Original screenplay. In the year between the two films, Tony Scott's True Romance, from a QT script, had been released. It had shared their brutality, humour, great dialogue and the explicit cineliteracy. Natural Born Killers, Oliver Stone's deranged mangling of an old QT script, and Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk til Dawn were both hits. Both tapped into some of what made Tarantino's work special and yet neither was quite as good as the films he himself directed. The slightly studied artiness of his visual sensibility - the self-conscious framing and cutting evident in the long takes of the warehouse in Reservoir Dogs, where the camera monitors everything from a distance and from foot-level, for instance - was absent, as was the sense of his utter personal investment his first two films possess. Tarantino loved his own films, loved his characters, their dialogue and the worlds they inhabited. Another director could never quite love them as much as he evidently did.

Back then it seemed that he would be The filmmaker for my generation. He had the chops, he was as cool as any director had ever been, he had the clout to do whatever he wanted. Jackie Brown just confirmed this. For the first time, some of his characters had a depth and presence that suggested they might come from the real world. There was a pathos to this story. QT seemed less concerned with his style than he had in his other films. But even here, there was an emptiness at the heart of his work. Jackie Brown honours Elmore Leonard's novel, but QT is perhaps more interested in honouring the Blaxploitation genre. The lack of ostentatious style is attributable to a desire to replicate the effect of that genre - a sort of visual flatness. The casting of Pam Grier and many of the choices of music on the soundtrack makes this obvious.

KIll Bill is where it all went wrong. After a longish sabbatical, perhaps QT would return with his masterpiece, a film about the way we live now, about the terrifying, fascinating modern world? Perhaps in his years off, appearing in the odd film and the occasional television show, and even on Broadway, he would have found a subject matter and a theme worthy of his obvious talent?
Nope. He returned with a revenge epic about martial arts movies and spaghetti Westerns. Nice one, Quentin.

The Kill Bill movies are fun. Beautifully made fun, full of love for Kung Fu movies, Japanese samurai movies, the Sergios (Leone and Corbucci), exploitation movies, Uma Thurman and David Carradine. They both have great soundtracks, of course.
They entertain, they have great action scenes, some good, funny dialogue, a few memorable moments.

Its not enough. Not from a talent as big as QT. He blew it with Kill Bill, revealed that, once and for all, he will never be a major filmmaker. Which is probably fine with him, and is with millions of his fans. But I held out some hope. Maybe that Great film was still in there, maybe he'd get to it eventually.

Then I saw the trailer for Grindhouse. And realized that its never gonna happen. He'll make these little pastiche-cum-genre exercises for the rest of his life, because its what he loves. He knows no different. Hes not capable of anymore. And don't get me wrong, Grindhouse looks like fun - chicks and guns, explosions and stunts. Fine for Robert Rodriguez. But QT should be doing more.

I saw The Departed perhaps a day or two before I saw the Grindhouse trailer. When Reservoir Dogs was released, Scorsese was obviously a big influence on QT. The macho dialogue, the astute use of pop on the soundtrack, the love of cinema exuded by the film, all suggested a partiality to Scorsese. Perhaps even more than with QT, Scorsese refers and pays homage to dozens of films in his work. I once read an interview with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead where he explained that the guitar sounds on Subterranean Homesick Alien were his attempt to create his own version of a sound he had heard on Bitches Brew or A Love Supreme - I can't remember which - and Scorsese often seems to be involved in a similar pursuit in a different medium. Raging Bull is his attempt to make his version of Body & Soul or The Set-Up. Taxi Driver is the Searchers. The Age of Innocence is the Leopard. The Last Temptation of Christ is King of Kings or The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. And yet Scorsese is able to transcend these influences. Raging Bull is better than the films it wants to be.

This is the difference between Scorsese and Tarantino - while Scorsese may use other films in his work, his work is never merely about those other films. He always has something to say, there is always a subtext, beyond "Wow, aren't samurais cool?".
He returns to the same themes time after time - Catholicism, morality, masculinity, identity. Tarantino has no themes.
Obviously QT writes his own films, whereas Scorsese has worked with a line of screenwriters. This serves to damn QT further, since Scorsese is able to impose his authorial vision, interrogate his concerns, in films written by others, whereas QT, the single author of his own films, is unable or unwilling to do so.

I say Scorsese "is" able, but maybe that statement should be in the past tense. The Departed is a minor Scorsese film. It feels like Scorsese Does Scorsese, like a cover version of an old song by a singer, done in a slightly more modern style. It reminded me of Tarantino while I watched it because its almost entirely empty - it can be argued that its a study of duality and loyalty and betrayal and family etc, but then so can many b-movie cop films - because its Mamet-lite ratatat macho dialogue is reminiscent of the Scorsese-esque moments in QT's films, because its a remake, like Reservoir Dogs, of a decent Hong Kong genre film, and because it feels like a place I've visited many times before.
Perhaps only Cape Fear has been as superficial in Scorsese's career, and it similarly distracts the audience with lots of directorial dazzle and flash - whip pans, arresting compositions, vertiginously ostentatious crane shots. The first half hour of The Departed is full of such effects, and it reminded me of P.T. Anderson more than anybody else. His early films are bursting with love for Scorsese and Mamet (just like QT) but he uses his obsessions to try to say something, anything, and his love for Robert Altman, which became evident in Boogie Nights and grew only deeper in Magnolia, tempers that influence and adds something far riskier and more experimental to Anderson's sensibility. But there are passages in Boogie Nights and Magnolia that are pure Scorsese. The opening of The Departed rips through years of story in minutes and is probably the best the film gets, similar in a way to the prologue in Magnolia.

After that, the film settles down to a sort of entertaining plod interrupted by several tense set-pieces and kept afloat by a funny script. But for the most part, it feels like it could have been directed by any competent Hollywood hack with a knack for pretty & gritty visuals. When Scorsese was at the top of his game, his films were unmistakeably, uniquely his in a way none of his peers - with the exception, perhaps, of Brian DePalma - could ever manage. You could watch a short excerpt from any scene in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull - or even Goodfellas or Casino - and know instantly who the director was. But over his last few films, going back to Kundun, perhaps, his visual style has deserted him, or at least lost some of its old power. The critic Gilbert Adair called his post-Goodfellas style "scor - cese" (as in journalese), a hackneyed visual language, style without any substance, and if this style reached its peak with the almost decadent, overripe Casino, Scorsese seemed to abandon it for Kundun, where it would have clashed with the films mood and theme. His style in subsequent films has been less distinctive, more muddled and anonymous, and less successful.

Does this fate await all directors, or even all artists? This is the question Sickboy asks Renton in Trainspotting - why do all artists lose it after a certain age? Most of the Movie Brat generation and their 70s peers seem to have fallen pray to it - Copolla, Milius, Scorsese, DePalma, John Carpenter, Walter Hill, Polanski, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen...perhaps only Spielberg, Altman and Terrence Malick are still consistently producing work to rank with what they did in that decade. Many of the giants of cinema from the last century suffered late career dips from which they never recovered : Hitchcock, Truffaut, Kurosawa, John Ford, Fellini.....perhaps when QT reaches that stage, in a decade or so, when his ability to craft a sequence has ebbed away, and his homages just seem derivative instead of excitingly derivative, and the actors he wants to cast won't work with him because hes not as cool as he used to be, and hes exhausted all of the forgotten gem potential from his record collection, perhaps then, when he looks around at his life, and his career, and the films hes left behind him, perhaps then he'll start to make the film he might be capable of.

That or a movie about criminals in suits.

* Since Pulp Fiction, with only the very occasional exception, Sam has played variants on Jules for a decade. He shouts dramatically, he is cool. This is what he does. Even in Star Wars. Increasingly he does it while playing the crusty old mentor role. Most of the supposed appeal of Snakes On A Plane was seeing Sam shout dramatically in such a ridiculous situation. Is it necessary to point out what a waste of his talent this is? Its as if the only elements of his own persona hes familiar with are his ability to shout and be intimidating. Its depressing to write such a looong-ass blog about one waste of talent, then have a little footnote about another, but there is something tragic about it. He should be doing Shakespeare. He would make a fantastic Coriolanus or Mark Anthony...

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Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Shed deja-vu. The whole creative career thing is a bastard in general I think. All of these filmakers basically seemed to start out with an original idea or angle and tried to get as much mileage out of it as possible. It's basically the same in any artistic field. They start out with an idea of what kind of films they want to make, how they will take their influences and use them to make something better, but they can only do that so many times before it gets tired, and they get tired of doing it.

It doesn't seem to be QT getting bored or falling out of love with movie making - he just doesn't have an inclination to make a great film for our generation - it likely hasn't occured to him. I don't think he wants to be Orson Welles, or make Citizen Kane. Thats a poor example but you know what I mean, he's out to have fun now...he's making genre movies while he has license to do whatever he likes and he can piss about with Robert Rodriguez blowing shit up. I think he can be saved, but I'm not holding my breath - they're all essentially one trick ponys.

Mallick gets away with it better than most because he takes long-ass holidays, Speilberg made Hook, and Altman did that Neve Campbell film about Ballet. No-one is infalalible.

I had a feeling you'd start up soon, I only checked on the off chance.

11:44 pm  
Blogger David N said...

No one is infallible, but at least Altman's failures are glorious and ambitious, Spielberg is in a category all by himself - and Malick "gets away with" what exactly? Being a visionary genius? Oh well, ok then.

I know QT doesn't want to make Citizen Kane, thats whats depressing. The lack of ambition, the failure of vision.

2:34 am  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

A promising debut. I think you're showing the potential for becoming a serious blogger. You understand the language of blog, without it feeling hackneyed or plagaristic. The referencing is tight, but there is a maturity and humanity showing underneath. It's like a re-invention of blog, but in a familiar way. All in all it bodes well for the rest of your blogging career. Don't mess it up. I feel you have a rich, deep, complex and thought-provoking blog in you. You could be The blogger of our generation.

Or you could write about what plays on your iPod and give us amusing anecdotes about being married. Which would be a populist choice and a waste of your talents.

You'll probably do two blogs, vanish for a decade and then come back and do two more arresting blogs about the conflicts in man and in nature.

Do you see what I did there? I kill me.

1:26 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

some interesting points raised sir. i agree that there is something depressing about such an obviously talented director and writer (of dialogue) being happy to settle for kill bill, which was great but limited. maybe the fact that he wanted to make jackie brown at one point can be seen as encouraging, we can only hope. bit disappointed that you failed to mention his finest directorial effort though: a fantastic episode of csi.

as for scorsese, well, its hard to disagree with the opinion that his films have dropped off since goodfellas. i think its worth pointing out his tremendous documentary work in this period (dylan and blues) which is, mystifyingly to me, treated as a sideline and not as relevent as his movies.

as davey has said its seems this drop off seems to happen in all creative fields, and it is strange. but i think it has as much to do with western cultures obsession with youth as it has with any genuine downturn in quality. in the last few years, there has been a change of empahsis in music (starting with buena vista social club?) and i think older artists are more excepted as relevent in a way they were not 10 years ago, for better and worse. you would imagine that would be less of a problem in cinema where the artists is not so obviously the focal point of the art.

and i can't let you get away with saying that kurusawa experienced "suffered a late career dip from which he never recovered". kagemusha and ran are 2 of the finest films i have ever seen.

2:51 am  
Blogger Ross said...

Interesting, no?
What would you say to Mike Leigh?

I always enjoy reading your movie writing, which makes me wonder why you have less ambition than I whilst I have comparatively less talent.

A conundrum, though I don't fully recall you telling me why you studied film in the first place.

I never felt the same promise from QT so meh, quite frankly. More than anything Kill Bill is just a series of moments with only the vaguest pretence of being stitched together as a whole film, an end result of his style, the quotable film man.

10:13 pm  
Blogger David N said...

CSI in general and its mystifying popularity is a whole 'nother blog, and hopefully I'll get to it eventually. The Kurosawa dip I was referring to wasn't in reference to Ran or Kagemusha (beautiful films visually but both lacking the rigour of his earlier work dramatically for me, which is a long, polite way of calling them, well, boring) but to the likes of Dreams and Rhapsody In August.....

12:23 am  
Blogger jamesinbrasil said...

i went to see darren aranofsky's 'the fountain' last night, and it made me think of your blog. the story is incredibly ambitious and spectacular, attempting to deal with the issue of life after death. it takes place in three realms, the present day, a mythical past and some sort of spiritland. after watching the film my overiding reaction was confusion: what was that film about, what was it trying to say and did i like it? i could only conclude that the film failed to make feel the way i was supposed to, but it was a glorious spectacular failure.

so my question is this: in principal, what would you rather watch, the ambitious failure (the fountain) or the under-ambitious success (kil bill)?

12:57 am  
Blogger David N said...

Well, that really depends on how the failure fails and how the success succeeds. The manner of it, I suppose.
You say a glorious failure? That sounds good to me. Apocalypse Now is a glorious failure, but its a magnificent piece of cinema.

The important thing for me, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, I think, is not what a film is about. Its how its about what its about. You dig?

I can't wait to see The Fountain.

1:26 am  

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