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.