Tarantino’s Surprisingly Traditional Take on Film - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Tarantino’s Surprisingly Traditional Take on Film
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I’ve always been of two minds about Quentin Tarantino. His movies parody and pay tribute to genres, both literary and cinematic, that have never really been my thing. Pulp Fiction (1994) was intended to be a celluloid take on the lowbrow crime stories told in lurid old detective magazines and drugstore paperbacks. Jackie Brown (1997) was inspired by blaxploitation films. The two parts of Kill Bill (2003, 2004) drew on martial-arts and samurai flicks. Watching these early Tarantino pictures, I appreciated his flair but was bored by the material and put off by the through-the-roof profanity and violence.

Then came Inglourious Basterds (2009), his “alternate history” take on World War II. I was floored by the whole thing, but I especially admired the sequences in the French cottage and the downstairs bar, both of them first-rate models of tension building. After that, I looked forward to Django Unchained (2012) but decided after a few minutes that I wasn’t in the mood to hear the N-word repeated endlessly. I suppose I’ll get around to it sooner or later.  

Then I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and once again was wowed. Like Basterds, it’s alternate history, depicting, in this case, a world in which the Sharon Tate murders never took place. Both it and Basterds are sui generis, products of a wonderfully eccentric imagination; both are at once stunningly innovative and packed with homages; both contain moments that are simultaneously hilarious and unsettling. To experience such works at a time when the major studios keep greenlighting superhero sequels and reboots — plus the occasional dull piece of politically correct Oscar bait — is to be grateful that at least one quirky, original mind is still being allowed to run free in Tinseltown.

All of which explains why, when I saw that Tarantino had written a new book about movies, I purchased the Kindle immediately. I’m glad I did. One thing that the horribly titled Cinema Speculation underscored for me is that, in matters of taste, so much depends on what you grow up on. Like other movie-loving New York–area children of the 1960s and 1970s, I grew up watching an extraordinary range of old movies, some of them dating back to the 1930s, that happened to be broadcast — 20 or more a day — on local television. 

Those TV channels, as was often noted by the late comedian, podcaster, and film buff Gilbert Gottfried (born a year before I was), provided a wonderful — and totally free — education in film classics. Kids like Gilbert and me were exposed to love stories like Casablanca and Random Harvest; biopics like The Life of Emile Zola and Madame Curie; weepies like Dark Victory and Goodbye, Mr. Chips; “message pictures” like The Grapes of Wrath and Gentleman’s Agreement; war stories like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Young Lions; sophisticated comedies like Ninotchka and The Philadelphia Story; thrillers like Foreign Correspondent and Strangers on a Train; “women’s pictures” like Mildred Pierce and A Letter to Three Wives; male-oriented dramas like On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny; touching family stories like Friendly Persuasion and The Yearling; scary movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Seconds; musicals like The King and I and My Fair Lady; and biblical spectacles like The Ten Commandments and The Robe.

I loved them all — all the good ones, anyway. I didn’t take to some genres, but there were always exceptions: Although Westerns usually left me cold, for example, I was crazy about The Big Country and, when I finally saw it, Red River.

You won’t agree with everything Tarantino says, but unlike so many big shots in Hollywood these days, he sincerely loves movies, knows cinema history, and actually says what he thinks.

Those old movies, with their solid plotting and their obeisance (sometimes more than others) to conventional values like courage, kindness, honesty, and self-sacrifice, shaped my notions of what film should be and do. What about the blaxploitation, samurai, and martial-art flicks — not to mention the spaghetti Westerns — that shaped Tarantino’s creative imagination? They were barely on my radar. And when the film revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s came along, I wasn’t terribly impressed. Yes, I enjoyed Chinatown. I found The Graduate entertaining. I recognized that Taxi Driver was powerful. Naturally, I loved The Godfather. And the ending of Bonnie and Clyde blew me away.

But Midnight Cowboy? No thanks. Easy Rider? Nope. And as I grew a little older, I started to grasp what at least some of these films’ directors, with their lowlife anti-heroes, shabby mises-en-scène, and dark denouements were up to. They wanted us to sneer at real heroes and idolize the kind of airheads, a few years older than I was, who were smoking dope on campus lawns while strumming three chords on acoustic guitars and then retiring to dorm rooms hung with posters of Chairman Mao.  

Quentin Tarantino, six years my junior, grew up on those pictures and still has a place for them in his heart. But his take on the most archetypal counterculture films of that era, with their callow self-indulgence and fashionable nihilism, is surprisingly solid: 

For hip audiences, the hero dying futilely at the end of the picture was a come-on. It reaffirmed their pose, you can’t win. When Robert Blake and Stacy Keach died at the end of Electra Glide in Blue and The New Centurions, and when Fonda and Hopper bought it in Easy Rider it was senseless and tragically ironic. But that felt good because it reaffirmed the senselessness and tragic irony of American life. The senselessness of their deaths made them heroes. In the first half of the seventies you weren’t a hero for fighting a war overseas and killing a bunch of enemy soldiers. You were a hero if you fought the war, went back home, and got shot in a liquor store robbery.

Alas for the counterculture auteurs, most ordinary moviegoers weren’t “hip.” They quickly grew tired of what Tarantino quite properly dubs “anti-everything cynicism.” And then, just in time, a new wave of directors began releasing pictures — such as The Godfather, Paper Moon, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — that had been made, as Tarantino puts it, “for maximum audience enjoyment — not artistic indulgence.” Their directors included Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. And even as these men (yes, all men) represented a dramatic departure in style, pace, characterization, and camerawork from the old Hollywood of William Wyler, Frank Capra, and Howard Hawks — hence the label “New Hollywood” that was attached to them — they also firmly rejected the “pose” of “anti-everything cynicismthat was so common around 1970. 

In short: While they were artistic innovators, they weren’t social rebels. They didn’t hesitate to admit they enjoyed cheesy movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Guns of Navarone. And they weren’t ashamed of wanting to reach a big audience — of wanting, in a word, to entertain.  

And neither is Tarantino, who’s a devout student of these directors’ work, and who, in Cinema Speculation, focuses mostly on their oeuvres. Like them, he doesn’t see popularity and aesthetic excellence as mutually exclusive. At one point he refers to “audience-enthralling films of the seventies like Jaws, Carrie, Annie Hall, and The Exorcist that in retrospect seem like perfect films.” You and I know what he means: These films are perfect of their kind; they accomplish precisely what the writers and directors wanted to accomplish; they’re fun to watch. No, they’re not Citizen Kane. But no filmgoer wants every cinema experience to be a Citizen Kane. I can watch A Perfect Murder 10 times a year with pure pleasure; I don’t need to see Rashomon ever again(READ MORE from Bruce Bawer: Joan Didion: The Narcissism Never Dies)

Graham Greene famously separated his book-length works of fiction into “novels” (The Heart of the Matter) and “entertainments” (The Third Man). In similar fashion, motion pictures can usefully be separated into “films” and “movies.” So it is that Tarantino praises Jaws as perhaps not “the best film ever made” but “easily the best movie ever made.” On the other hand, he actually finds an amusing way of comparing Bogdanovich’s period drama Daisy Miller, based on Henry James’ 1878 novella and definitely a “film,” with Bob Clark’s ultra-tacky teen comedy Porky’s, unquestionably a “movie.”

Nor does he flinch from taking politically incorrect stances. In one long, gutsy, and reflective passage, he defends Dirty Harry, “a towering example of genre filmmaking,” from the charges of racism and fascism. And he takes Scorsese to task for apologizing for the violent ending of Taxi Driver. “They never say cinematic violence is fun,” complains Tarantino about the New Hollywood directors, whom he otherwise reveres. “They never say, I just wanted to end the movie with a bang. They never say, I wanted to shock the audience out of their movie-trope-fed complacency.” 

There’s much more in Cinema Speculation that’s insightful, engaging, risible, thought-provoking. You won’t agree with everything Tarantino says, but unlike so many big shots in Hollywood these days, he sincerely loves movies, knows cinema history, and actually says what he thinks, apparently without worrying for a moment about offending the PC crowd. That’s good enough for me.

And if you don’t want to read Tarantino’s book, at least check out his appearance, a few months ago, on Bill Maher’s marijuana-fueled podcast Club Random, which (surprisingly) is far more congenial, and sensible, than Maher’s weekly HBO show, Real Time. During their conversation, Tarantino actually dared to criticize Norma Rae (1979), a piece of pure propaganda in which we’re encouraged to cheer a union organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) who gradually talks the workers at a small-town Southern textile factory, led by Norma Rae (Sally Field), into voting for a closed shop. Tarantino’s take on this shameless piece of agitprop was right on the money. Viewing it in 1979, he’d thought it was a good film; but rewatching it recently, his first thought was that, thanks to the kind of aggressive unionizing activity celebrated in the film, American towns “no longer have factories that are giving everybody … jobs! Any showbiz VIP who’s willing to say such things is OK in my book.

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