Sunday, January 13, 2013

Exactly how bad is Quentin Tarantino? Well, pretty bad - in fact, even worse than that, but as long as he rakes in the dollars, Hollywood ain't going to tell him: kill the golden goose? Come one. And don’t accept Tarantino’s version of slavery. Try Howard Zinn’s account instead

Every industry and art form needs its new blood, whether it is a fresh way of cooking the books in accountancy, dreaming up new scams in banking or telling the same joke in such a way that it is not so obviously the hoary old chestnut which has been knocking around since Moses. Originals are rarer, and true originals - that is those who haven’t been expertly packaged by a PR agency to look like the real deal - are even rarer still.

So when Quentin Tarantino turned up, there was a good deal of rejoicing. The legend is that he was a passionate cineaste - actually, I’d prefer to use inverted commas as in ‘passionate cineaste’ as I find both words when used seriously to be pretentious and both words used in the same two-word phrase to be doubly pretentious - who was working in a video store and writing film scripts in his spare time. Finally, one script was so good - that for Reservoir Dogs - that he not only got to have it made, but was even allowed to direct it himself. And not only did he get to direct his film, but several ‘name’ actors - Michael Madson, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth - agreed to take part. (If you buy the legend, you really will buy anything, might I interest you in a beaten-up, broken-down car I’m selling which isn’t even worth scrapping?) But that was the legend and as Reservoir Dogs wasn’t half-bad, the legend, as they say, got a pass, and young Tarantino was the new kid on the block.

It has to be said that Tarantino did have something. The dialogue was witty without being forced and the set-up was intriguing. The film was also a box office success, and there’s nothing in any walk of life which impresses those who call the shots more than someone who can make them a mountain of moolah. So our Quentin, the video store clerk who made good, got to make a second film, Pulp Fiction. That, too, was good, and though one criticism of it might be that, in essence, it was the same film as Reservoir Dogs - great dialogue, intriguing set-up (three interweaving stories) and more name actors (John Travolta, Samuel Jackson, Tim Roth and Bruce Willis), it still had the same freshness as Tarantino’s first and, metaphorically, the lad was invited to even more Hollywood parties. And surely enjoyed it all.

At this point I should point out that although Tarantino went on to direct or write the scripts for several more films, I have only seen five others in which he was involved: Jackie Brown, True Romance (for which he wrote the script but which he didn’t direct), From Dusk Till Dawn (for which he wrote the script and which starred, in my view inexplicably, starred both George Clooney and Harvey Keitel, neither of whom would be thought to be on their uppers and so must have been doing the film for the dosh), Inglourious Basterds (starring one Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt) and, most recently, Django Unchained (with Christoph Waltz again as well as Leonardo Di Caprio and Samuel Jackson). And of those five my view is that just one - Jackie Brown - was a ‘good film’ (not least because it wasn’t a Tarantino original but based on a story by Elmore Leonard) and just one - True Romance - although not particularly ‘good’ had some kind of merit. The rest were, again in my view, dreck (a word I know from German but which I sure I am using more in a Yiddish way).

Let me be very clear: not only did I think the other three were ‘not very good’, I thought they were total bloody stinkers, fucking awful, complete shite. Ironically, though, they did the biz at the box office so young Quentin’s star is still shining. Take a look at the user reviews on IMDB and you will see that the most recent, Django Unchained, is rated very highly - an average of 8.7/10. Loads of people rate it. But I don’t. So what does that say for my judgment. Well, I honestly don’t know. All I can do is to repeat that the two Tarantino films I have seen most recently - Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained - are quite simply terrible. Total and utter shite.

Both follow, for the viewer (or at least this viewer) a similar path: both are technically rather well made and both elicit a certain curiosity: where will this film go, where will it take me. But at the same time a number of elements jar. In Inglourious Basterds is was the pristine wooden hut (with a cellar, by the way - a necessary plot point) on a pristine Alpine meadow. And everything about it - that scene comes at the beginning of the film and goes on rather too long - is not just artificial but has nothing to redeem its artificiality. I hope that makes sense - it will do to some - because that’s what great art is: it imposes itself on you to such an extent that it redeems itself and you forgive its faults and accept it totally on its own terms.

Deadwood, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, did that, as did Pan’s Labyrinth. Great art succeeds against all odds. Inglourious Basterds did nothing of the kind. It simply failed. But, oddly, given the quite good dialogue, you grant Tarantino a little more time so that it fails a little more slowly. All the while you get just a little more nervous that there is, at the end of the day, a lot less to what you are seeing than meets the eye. Then comes the final scene, the explosion and fire in the Parisian cinema in Inglourious Basterds and the Southern mansion being blown to smithereens in Django Unchained, which helps you realise that what you have just seen is complete dross, total dreck, the work of a chancer who will, sooner or later be found out. It is a minority opinion, of course, but one which I shall stand by until my dying day.

Let me spell it out: Quentin Tarantino is really not very good at all, a one-trick pony who will, one day, be found out. I had thought that, perhaps, Inglourious Basterds was the exception which proved the rule, that everyone deserves a clunker now and then. After seeing Django Unchained I’ve realised that the opposite is true. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were the exceptions which proved the rule. Perhaps they were just beginner’s luck.

There are, of course, dissenting voices, with, according to IMDB, many more who consider Tarantino’s latest something of a masterpiece. But accepting that the majority opinion can’t be wrong reminds me of the advice I heard years ago: ‘Eat shit, 12 billion flies can’t be wrong!’ So here are the summaries to the many IMDB reviwers who think our lad walks on water: ‘Tarantino at his finest’, ‘Amazing formally, and with a moral complexity that will work on you from within’, ‘Quentin is Quentin. Highly entertaining and perfectly written’, ‘Spot-on characterization of internalization of corrupt values’, ‘Django Unchained is simply a BLAST from start to finish and a new epic of Quentin Tarantino!’ and ‘Tarantino Back To His Best!!’

BTW There’s is an unmistakeable camp element to Django Unchained, all that leather and sadism. If, despite reading this you decide to watch it, pay particular attention to the scene when some dude or other arrives to torture Django but is then seen off by the Samuel Jackson character and leaves. If his leaving isn’t a fully blown mince (possibly intended, but if so, why?) I’m a Dutchman.

. . .

There’s another reason why I disliked Django Unchained so much. The studio PR guff, happily and gladly replicated by the fucking press, as eager as Hollywood to turn a dishonest buck printing whatever the fuck will turn that dishonest buck, makes out that the film is some kind of re-evaluation of the master/slave relationship and some kind of examination of slavery in 19th-century America. No, it’s not, it’s just another Hollywood potboiler. It’s just another Hollywood potboiler which has, rather belated it has to be said, cottoned onto the fact that the black US dollar has the same 100 cents as the white US dollar and that ‘aspirational’ blacks, whether in the US or elsewhere, might care to part with several of their hard-earned dollars to in widescreen technicolour how a black dude - Jamie Foxx in leathers - blasts the living shit, and then some, out of loads and loads and loads and loads and loads and loads of white folk. All this, it has to be said, under the ineffably spurious guise of evaluating - or possibly ‘re-evaluating’ - the  master/slave relationship of 19th-century America.

Several years ago I came across, just by chance, Howard Zinn’s People’s History Of The United States. I read it and was exceptionally surprised by what I read. I have already written here in this blog about the book. Howard Zinn is admittedly politically left-of-centre and admittedly something of a socialist. But there is nothing wrong with that in my book and especially nothing wrong with that if a man or woman comes clean from the off about where he or she’s at.

Howard Zinn’s main point - with which I am obliged to agree - is that most history is written top down: what kings and queens and lords and ladies and presidents and parliaments and prime ministers and leaders did. Zinn decided to redress the balance when he set out to write his history of the United States: he showed how quite apart from those who came over to colonise the new world, there were those who were apprenticed and indentured to the colonisers, but to such an extent that they were more or less slaves.

He showed how the apparent emancipation of the slaves after the Civil War was a complete sham, how the ‘emancipated’ slaves were duped into continued servitude and slavery by means of the company store and the rest. And this was all news to a white, middle-class, public school educated lad like myself. So when Tarantino arrives with his blood-fest featuring a leather-clad black cowboy getting one over the whites by blasting them all to kingdom come, I recall history and don’t just puke once but several times.

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