QT, Je T’aime: My Love/Hate Relationship With Tarantino

Foreword: Emphasis on the “love” of the title. No matter how much I find myself split on the oeuvre of living B-movie/grindhouse/exploitation cinema archive and all-around film enthusiast Quentin Tarantino, I can’t ever bring myself to revile the man himself in any fashion. There’s no way around it; he’s a mensch, and we should all be thankful someone like him is out there making movies and doing incredibly mensch-like things such as saving L.A.’s New Beverly from being turned into a Super Cuts. A ding-dang Super Cuts, people. If for no other reason than that, Tarantino should be lauded and adored as much as Superman.

Naturally, though, this wouldn’t be a Constant Visual Feast article without a dispute of one sort or another, and herein lies the rub. As much as I admire Tarantino, the man, I’m split on Tarantino, the artist. Full disclosure: I think Pulp Fiction is one of the most overrated titles from his body of work and a far cry from the quality of Inglourious Basterds, which I consider to be QT’s masterpiece. Really. If you think me contrarian, disputing the position of movies like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in the over-arching canon of contemporary cinema, you’d be wrong; in fact, I feel strangely guilty over how lukewarm my feelings are toward most of Tarantino’s creative output. Part of me has considered hypnotherapy as a means to overcoming this particular handicap. I want to like everything QT does. I really do.

But I don’t. That’s just reality. Moreover, I truly think that I can’t, that his filmmaking penchants rub me too much in the wrong way and render it impossible for me to truly appreciate a film like Kill Bill (volume 1 or 2, either one) on anything more than it’s finest merits (which are not few, to be thoroughly fair). Look– I love watching David Carradine in both parts of Tarantino’s martial arts-spaghetti western-revenge yarn. I love seeing him breathe so much life and personality into a fairly stock villain (and I love how QT’s writing elevates Bill above the stock elements of his character archetype). I love watching Sonny Chiba play one of the most charming and warm characters of his career. And I love the use of random actors– like Lucy Liu– in roles you wouldn’t expect them to fulfill. These are all things (among others) which I adore, full stop.

Yet I loathe, utterly, the movie geek fetish porn that comprises the bulk of both Kill Bill movies’ respective run times. I can’t abide the “Where’s Waldo?” style of rapid-fire cinema reference that clogs the film’s visuals– which are stunning, because Tarantino is a master at setting up and capturing truly eye-catching shots– and make the entire experience of watching it exhausting. I do not see what basis many have for praising Uma Thurman’s inconsistent performance, alternately full of energy and totally lackadaisical. I find nothing enchanting or compelling about the way Tarantino mashes together his influences and homages each of them endlessly, frame after frame; I don’t feel like the films are greater than the sum of their parts. (Incidentally, this is almost totally in line with how I feel about Pulp Fiction.)

And at the end of all of that I still find Tarantino to be compelling as a director and as a filmmaker, even if his movies don’t “do it” for me, as they say.

What’s interesting about my Tarantino appreciation is that those qualities which make me shake my head at a number of his films also make me admire him as an artist. The inherently referential nature of his filmmaking voice– which recalls not only the films that QT has seen but the songs he’s listened to and the books he’s read and so on– that pulls me out of movies like Pulp Fiction simultaneously is responsible for the adulation I feel toward him. “Why?”, you may wonder, and the answer is simple: he’s one of us. Maybe more than any filmmaker working today, Tarantino truly is a cinephile, a person who eats, breathes, and dreams films, someone whose passion for cinema propels him and drives him in everything he does. For every criticism I may level at him, I relate to him. To me, Tarantino is a wholly knowable, palatable person, self-indulgences and all; over the years those elements which I perceive to be flaws have become endearments to me. While I can’t always look past them, I can appreciate the enthusiasm for cinema that they represent.

In the case of Kill Bill, I can’t help but crack a smile at the nods to films like Lady Snowblood, The Searchers, Thriller, Fists of Fury, Citizen Kane, Game of Death, Death Rides a Horse, Django, Lone Wolf and Cub, and many, many other pictures hailing from genres that QT and I both love. What else can I do? If the callbacks are distracting to the point that they become detrimental to the deployment of narrative, then at least I can enjoy them purely because I’m in on the joke, so to speak. But I think that that underscores perfectly my relationship with much of the director’s work– for me, knowing what Tarantino’s on about puts me in the weird position of being both an insider (because I catch many of his references*) and an outsider (because the mercurial nature of his referential habit often prevents me from immersing myself in his films). I don’t know if it’s the sheer volume of Easter eggs and homages he incorporates into his pictures or if I’m just sensitive to them– I am inclined to think it’s the former, since I’m not one to flatter myself– but when a film fashions its heroine into the image of Bruce Lee whilst sticking her in the middle of a fight scene that directly points to a totally different Bruce Lee movie, I find myself jettisoned out of the movie entirely even as I’m inwardly giddy over seeing Tarantino pay tribute to genre flicks both great and small.

You see my dilemma. The real rub is that everything which goes on in Tarantino’s films should easily garner my adulation; he throws everything from fantastic dialogue to rich characters to excellent fight scenes to masterful cinematography into his cinematic blender, and the product he yields after mashing the “puree” button should be right up my alley**. Nevertheless, I see Tarantino as essential. And I see him specifically as a cineaste icon maybe more than I see him as an active figure in the world of film. I’ll probably never develop a love for QT cinema that leads me to reverse my opinion on some of his most revered works, but I’m more confident that nothing will alter my perspective on him as a strong and totally necessary filmmaking. As long as Tarantino keeps making movies, I’ll always step up to defend his talent (which I acknowledge even when I’m not thoroughly enamored by his movies); if he starts making more movies like Inglourious Basterds (which I kinda loved), then I’ll likely never say a negative word about his output again. Either way, whether I’m getting harsh on his movies or singing their praises, I’m firmly and maybe surprisingly in his corner.

*Not that I think so highly of myself to believe that I pick up on all of them; I’m sure I miss as many as I don’t.

**Strictly speaking, it is, but I can’t keep up with it anyways.

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22 thoughts on “QT, Je T’aime: My Love/Hate Relationship With Tarantino

  1. I think it goes along with what you’ve said that I just assumed this entire time (time spent knowing you and films you like) that you loved Tarantino. You are in a rather odd position, like you said, of being too much like the director to put yourself totally into his world. Which is sad, because it gets hella crazy in there. I would seriously look into that hypnotherapy, because while I do appreciate your insights on why you only sort-of enjoyed some of the best movies of the past 20 years, Pulp Fiction is the only movie I’ve ever seen that I can hardly stand to watch, yet love to death. Granted, I do not have a huge backlog of movies taking me out of the film every ten minutes. Nonetheless, I weep for you. Tarantino films are damn near the most fun you can have at the movies without getting kicked out. I wonder if Hallmark makes cards for this sort of thing…

    • I think for me the key is being able to recognize that Pulp Fiction is great without feeling obligated to force myself to like it. My personal regard for it aside, it’s a monumental and great– in the sense of being iconic in cinematic canon– film that’s influenced the shape of filmmaking since its release. It’s possible to acknowledge a film’s quality and place in film history without having to like it; I hold a personal theory, for example, that most cineastes who proclaim Citizen Kane to be among their personal favorite films of all time (at least, those cineastes from my generation) actually care for it all that much beyond the fact that they’ve been told that it’s great. It may well be great, but that doesn’t mean you have to love it.

    • I loved, loved, loved Basterds. I think it’s a more polished film and a more meaningful film than Fiction by far; the only thing Fiction has over it is time, and a position in the top 100 best films ever made (depending on what lists you might consult), rightly earned because it’s an enormously influential movie.

      But I’d watch Basterds twenty times before I watched Fiction again.

  2. I am another who thinks Basterds is better than Pulp Fiction. As much as I love Tarantino though, Edgar Wright is my film god lol. You can’t help how you feel but I think a love/hate relationship is the best kind 🙂 You don’t blindly love the films he puts out but you can recognize the talent, and that’s always worth watching this day in age in film.

  3. Here to restore the balance of the movie force.

    Pulp Fiction is way better than Inglorious Baterds.

    As for the other stuff, I don’t know. I like Kill Bill. A lot. I guess without the extensive knowledge of the obscure films, you dont pick up on as many references though, so you dont get bothered by the barrage.

    I get what you mean though. I pretty much had to downgrade Super 8 (not that it was that great anyways) because the line between homage and knockoff had been crossed. Kind of similar… maybe?

    • Blain– I agree. And not to toot my horn here, but it’s really rare to see anybody confront their own tangled appreciation for a filmmaker with honesty. I don’t know if I’ve really done the best job of that here– this is kind of an incomplete article, in my opinion– but I can say I’m happy I tried.

      Fog– like I said to Fitz, I think the only thing Pulp has over Basterds is around twenty years to alter popular consciousness in filmmaking and exert influence over a generation of filmmakers to whom Pulp is like their Citizen Kane. Apart from that, Basterds is a far, far more meaningful movie and one that feels greater than the sum of its parts. Why does the non-linear narrative in Fiction matter? Why do we care that these numerous plot-lines are interconnected through happenstance? Tarantino’s not really saying anything with his choice of structure, and it feels arbitrary to me in a way that betrays the movie and makes it feel somewhat arid. That’s what I can’t really get past, and it’s what I failed to touch on in this essay.

      I don’t know if you you should give me too much credit, as I wouldn’t call my knowledge “extensive”. Clearly I recognize enough that it becomes a problem for me, and I did feel sort of the same about Super 8 as well. It’s a matter of feeling like the director is trying too hard, I suppose– yes, QT, I understand you like kung-fu flicks. I’ve seen that one too. We get it. (Or, I do.) Which is kind of why it’s hard for me to really hate on the guy because he’s so clearly enthusiastic about these genres.

      • Well, kudos to the level of discourse here that this exchange tempts me to do a 1,500 word rebuttal essay replete with screencaps, etc. Lol.

        I’d just say that the non-linear narrative and the intersecting storylines add style and pizazz to an excellent story. That these things have become overplayed nowadays shouldn’t be held against it.

        I don’t want to “Bash” IB, I really do love it too. But what’s the meaning I’m drawing here? Nazis are bad? Film can conquer evil (if it’s set on fire)?

        Meanwhile, Pulp Fiction delivers a spiritual message amidst it’s carnage. If you open your eyes to the hand of God, he may enter your life at a critical moment.

        Where IB has two memorable characters to me, PF is loaded with them. There’s no comparison between the dialogue either.

        I literally could go on and on. We may just have to agree to disagree. 😀

        • We could turn this into a thing. Dan’s and Andrew’s Agree/Disagree.

          As far as the non-linear narrative goes, my problems with its use here don’t stem from the subsequent recycling of the structure by other artists. I just don’t think it adds anything substantive to the narrative, or says anything about the themes/sub-themes that you go on to mention. It’s flair for the sake of flair, but when you screw around with storytelling technique and structure, I think you should be doing so for a reason. I don’t think Tarantino has a good reason for doing so here.

          I don’t necessarily buy the spiritual message here– not so much that it’s there (because it’s explicitly made clear that that’s exactly what’s happened to Jules by the end of the film), but because it happens to someone who just barely rises above being a background character. Jules does enough in the film to drive the plot in tangible ways, and he changes enough that I’d call him dynamic, but if that’s the core message of the film how does it play into the other vignettes? Where’s that divine intervention in the interaction between Wallace and Butch in the pawn shop?

          By the way, I do like the film taken in pieces– each segment and each separate story to me works on its own. I just don’t think that they add up to something that’s rife with meaning, and I think that a lot of the impact that Pulp Fiction has had on cinema since its release has to do with style/technique, and opening up the doors for a new wave in which homage/referentialism is the norm. It’s a film about other films that Tarantino likes.

          Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, is about film itself, and the power film (and hell, all art) has to inspire, deceive, overthrow, and educate. Film here literally is used as a weapon against evil in the last act when Shoshanna blows up her theater and burns the Nazi command alive, but Goebbels uses a propaganda film to motivate his nation, and Hicox’s knowledge of cinema– gained through his experiences as a film critic– uses film as a means of infiltrating the enemy, as his expertise becomes his reason for entanglement in the Basterds’ plot.

          I agree, though, that in terms of influence, they don’t compare, but there are obvious reasons for that. Given a couple of decades, the story might be different.

          • “We could turn this into a thing. Dan’s and Andrew’s Agree/Disagree.”

            Heh. Don’t tempt me. I have a long weekend coming up.

            Regardless, I’m a big fan of your blog, you’re definitely a good writer and know your films. Plus, seeing as we have been trading opposing viewpoints quite a bit, you’re obviously open to discussion. Another big plus.

            Keep up the good work man!

  4. Not to say I don’t love his work, but I have a feeling that he’s been completely sucked into his own world of film and film genre, and nothing else is deserving. He’s quite the movie snob, which I think is not just relfected in his character, but also in his film.

    • Often, that’s sort of how I feel. The first half of Death Proof, and of course all of Basterds, don’t make this impression on me, though (and I guess Reservoir Dogs doesn’t either, though it’s pretty rife with reference itself). I don’t know if he’s snobbish as a result– I just think he likes what he likes and he wants to make movies about the movies that he likes. He does know how to make those movies seem like Tarantino movies, though, which is much more than I can say than most directors who attempt to homage their favorite films.

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  6. This is a really wonderfully balanced look at Tarantino’s work. If it doesn’t click for you, there’s no shame in that because it’s pretty obvious you’ve given it more than a fair chance and are judging it from an objective viewpoint.

    • Thanks, John. I’ll admit that I’m not totally pleased with this piece, and it feels unfinished to me, but I’m glad that my viewpoint managed to come across anyhow.

      Tarantino’s a good filmmaker, full stop, even when I don’t like his movies. Directors like him deserve to be given a fair shake instead of being harshly judged right out the gate.

  7. Andrew, nice read. I was thinking about doing a similar post myself, and I still may one day, but what you have written is similar to how I feel about Tarantino.

    I have a lot of respect for the man. I’m a fan of Pulp Fiction (although I hardly watch it, hmmm) and Reservoir Dogs, and I also love how much thought he puts into a soundtrack. Also, his contributions to film outside of the directors chair have been fantastic, True Romance, Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. But somewhere along the way he lost me as an unconditional fan.

    I was severely underwhelmed by Jackie Brown and I loathe the Kill Bill films. Uma’s ‘wiggle your big toe’ scene almost sent me into a rage for some reason. Also, I was watching on TV when he arrived at the Oscars in the truck from Kill Bill. He gave a short interview and seemed completely insane.

    I think Basterds was a solid film, but I’m not in love with it. Perhaps I should give it another go. Anyway, nice post!

    • I think you might dislike his work more than I do. I didn’t think that was possible.

      Tarantino demands respect, though, and we definitely see totally eye-to-eye there. I don’t think it’s logical to hate on the guy– he’s informed the direction of cinema in a big way since Pulp Fiction came out, and I think he’s just the kind of guy whose passion for the art form is infectious. He’s not pretentious or obnoxious about it at all, and you get the impression that you could spend a day with him and he’d be your tour guide through all sorts of great, obscure, deranged movies.

      It’s just that for me his passion doesn’t translate to his own cinema in a way that’s consistently palatable. I loved Basterds— I do think you should give it another chance, it’ll be worth it– but obviously I’m not quite so over-the-moon with his other work.

      Thanks for stopping by! Come around more often, I’m always up for talking movies.

  8. The problem I’ve had with Tarantino’s films is exactly what you find wrong with his work: he’s content with doing homages rather than coming up with something original himself. Of course, you can argue that he IS an original and others have since copied from him. He’s original in the sense that he made it mainstream to throw in as many references to previous movies as is humanly possible. He’s too smart for his own good, and his films reflect this smarmy geekism that is off-putting. Spielberg and Scorsese reference previous filmmakers, and Star Wars is a conglomeration of serials from the past, but their films largely are refreshing because they made their films their own. With QT, it’s like he’s showing off his knowledge of film history in a breathless, breathtaking manner. Yes, he’s a force to be reckoned with, but for once I’d like him to do a non-referential original story that comes from his experiences as a human being and not as an audience member.

    filmverse.wordpress.com

    • That’s more or less how I feel, though I do think he puts his signature on his gallimaufries but the problem for me comes in how often his work can just be boiled down to pastiche and fan appreciation. I get that, and I like it to an extent, but I think he’s got a lot more to say than “hey look at this cool movie I’ve seen!” and much and more to offer us than simple referentialism.

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