Sunday, June 29, 2008

Classic Tarantino; Typical, Too

Name a moment from Pulp Fiction that isn’t iconic. That, more or less, is the challenge that Entertainment Weekly recently laid down in naming Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hitman flick the most “classic” movie of the past 25 years. It’s a bold statement, to be sure – the kind of from-the-hip hyperbole that you expect from a glossy magazine that uses just over 100 words to defend its top selection. So, last night, inspired by EW’s acclaim and thirsting for a good movie, I watched Pulp Fiction for the first time (I think) since around Kill Bill: Volume I. About five years.

What I discovered surprised me: EW’s proclamation is pretty much right on. With the exception of Butch’s cab ride conversation with Esmeralda Villalobos, there wasn’t a scene in the film that I couldn’t at least quote in part or that hadn’t been quoted to me at some point over the years. Pulp Fiction’s scenes aren’t merely memorable, they are indeed iconic: fast-food in Europe; Ezekiel 25:17; Jack Rabbit Slim’s; the adrenaline; the watch; the gimp; the Wolf; etc. Like Casablanca before it, Pulp Fiction plays like a tour of some of the most celebrated, quotable and unforgettable moments in cinema. And so if ‘classicness’ is measured by ‘iconicness,’ it’s hard to quibble with EW’s selection.

But along the way to that conclusion, I came up with another: Pulp Fiction may be classic, but it isn’t special anymore. Over the past 14 years it’s been pillaged and plundered to such a radical degree that not a single scene or even a line of dialogue still feels unique. It was one thing when Jules (Samuel L Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) curiously had the same self-aware speech patterns as Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), Lance the drug dealer (Eric Stoltz) and Jimmy the coffee brewer (Tarantino), not to mention one another, but by 2008 their cocky personas have now been copied so many times that it’s hard to recognize the original anymore. The culprit here isn’t movies in the ilk of Suicide Kings, which so blatantly attempted to conjure Pulp Fiction’s mojo. The perpetrator is Tarantino himself.

Tarantino’s detractors have long called him a rip-off artist – of Martin Scorsese and too many others to count. And Tarantino’s fans argue back that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have been plagiarized at least as much. But by now it seems obvious that both camps are correct, because the primary looter of Tarantino is Tarantino. And it’s a shame. Watching Pulp Fiction again, I wanted to revisit the memorable characters who in poster form dominated the decorative theme of so many dorm rooms during my freshman year of college. Instead I found the film dominated by only one character, the now unmistakable presence of Tarantino that supersedes the figures spewing his trademark patter.

This isn’t an entirely new revelation. Reviewing Grindhouse last year, I put it this way: “The Tarantino characters once lauded for their originality and uniqueness have fast become redundant … Swap the dialogue of Sydney Tamiia Poitier’s Jungle Julia with that of Rosario Dawson’s Abernathy and you’d detect nothing astray. Tarantino doesn’t actually create characters, it’s becoming clearer by the movie, he just changes settings, conversation topics and costumes.” That, I thought, was the explanation for why Tarantino’s recent films had lost that joy of discovery. I never suspected however that Tarantino was diluting his own filmography to the point that his initial charmers would go flat. Yet that’s precisely what’s happened.

Some scenes still seem to belong exclusively to Pulp Fiction. The foot massage conversation, for example, which in addition to being humorous develops the vicious reputation of Marsellus Wallace. Same, too, for the legend of the gold watch, the extreme details of which prompt Butch to risk his life to retrieve the heirloom. But when Jules pauses to explain to Vincent what a pilot is, or when Pumpkin rants about liquor store owners not speaking English, or when Jimmy says anything at all, the dialogue sounds interchangeable, which at the heart means it’s expendable. Tarantino seems less interested in creating cool characters than in using them arbitrarily in an attempt to document his own coolness. Yet by bludgeoning us with the same tactics over and over again, the magnetism of his brand has worn away, even retroactively.

None of this is to suggest that Pulp Fiction is a poor picture, of course. The praise for its nonlinear storytelling is overblown (EW called it “revolutionary,” which is going a bit far), yet otherwise Pulp Fiction frequently lives up to its hype. To watch it again was to marvel at how committed Tarantino is to each moment as it is happening. For example, in the grand scheme of things we needn’t watch Butch walk across an empty lot on the way to his apartment, just like we needn’t watch him creeping slowly down the stairs on his way to freeing Marsellus. But Tarantino understands that to underline the significance of these episodes he must treat each as if they are the defining moment in the film. And it works.

Underneath it all, Pulp Fiction remains a testament to the seductive aura that results from an artist with a well-defined vision. But by flattering himself with his self-imitation, Tarantino, with each passing picture, is turning his bona fide classic into something ordinary.


Mark said...

Expecting this post to generate a big conversation I "held back" for a while, as Jules and Vince might say, and I'm surprised that a week-plus later there are no comments.

I don't think I can agree with you this time, my friend. True that there are common cadences to Tarantino's dialogue, and that he has borrowed from himself. But I think it's overstating the case to say he's undercutting his brand or that his "classic" is becoming retroactively ordinary.

We just watched "Pulp Fiction" again last night and "Jackie Brown" again a few days ago. Both are among my favorite movies and I remain just as enthralled by the storytelling, the characters and the speeches in both as I was when I first saw them. I'm also a big fan of the "Kill Bill" movies.

Look at the character of Max Cherry or the ATF agents in "Jackie Brown" and show me a precursor (or postcursor) in Tarantino's other pictures. I can't think of any.

He's a little full of himself, I'll grant you that. We made the mistake of watching a Tarantino Q&A on the Jackie Brown DVD; "I'm not saying my dialogue is poetry, allright, but Sam (Jackson) captures the poetry.

Even so. Sinatra was a jerk, so they say. But the mofo could sing. I feel the same way about QT.

His films may someday strike me as ordinary, but it's going to take many, many more viewings before I get there, I suspect.

Jason Bellamy said...

Mark: "Pulp Fiction" ain't ordinary yet, especially in the wide view. But if you shuffle up Tarantino's films and show them to someone who hasn't seen them, I'm not sure it would seem much different than the rest.

I think Max Cherry is the extreme exception to the rule, as is "Jackie Brown" as a whole (though I haven't seen it in a while). I still go back to the idea that most Tarantino characters go on cool-speak rants that could be traded among the characters and across the films with no noticeable effect.

What was so great about the fast-food conversation when "Pulp Fiction" came out is that you watched it and said, "Wow, I've never heard characters talk like that." But now the vast majority of Tarantino's characters talk just like that. So when I revisit the movie I feel less like 'This is how Jules and Vincent talk,' but 'This is how Tarantino talks ... whether he's writing a black hitman or a white stunt driver or anything in between.'

Your Sinatra point is a good one, and on that note: mofo makes interesting films (I can think of few scenes from the past decade that gripped like the ship's mast sequence from "Death Proof," or the buried-alive sequence from "Kill Bill").

But Tarantino is talented enough to go a new direction and I wish he would. His supporters would say "Kill Bill" was a new direction, but not really. The mood and dialogue are so typical QT that all that really switched was the genre. By contrast, Scorsese has made a bunch of gangster movies, but at least when he made "Age Of Innocence," for example, he didn't have some short Italian character dropping f-bombs and asking how he was funny.

Someone else jump in here. Like Mark, I'm surprised at the lack of debate. People always seem to have an opinion on Tarantino -- that's one of my favorite things about him, alright...okay...

Ed Howard said...

You say:
The Tarantino characters once lauded for their originality and uniqueness have fast become redundant … Swap the dialogue of Sydney Tamiia Poitier’s Jungle Julia with that of Rosario Dawson’s Abernathy and you’d detect nothing astray. Tarantino doesn’t actually create characters, it’s becoming clearer by the movie, he just changes settings, conversation topics and costumes.

I think this really only applies to Death Proof, and it's a quite conscious choice since the film is aping the disposable characters of grindhouse B-movies. Death Proof is, to me, a really marvelous structuralist film, a proclamation that tends to make people look at me like I'm crazy. But the film is all about its formal properties, its obsession with halving. It's the ultimate point/counterpoint film. Point: a bunch of chatty girls are stalked by a killer in the stereotypical B-cinema plot. Counterpoint: a bunch of chatty girls are stalked by a killer but turn the tables and emasculate him. The characters and dialogue are, in this sense, irrelevant. They're filler, only there to fill in the film's rigid formal structure, which also mirrors on a micro-scale the halved structure of Grindhouse as a whole.

To me, the characters in Tarantino's other films are rich and highly individualized even when their dialogue all falls into those distinctive rhythms. The Bride, Jules and Vincent, the characters in Jackie Brown, the hoods in Resevoir Dogs -- they may sometimes talk in similar ways, but in deeper ways their characters are as different as they come. And they're all interesting characters, too, regardless of whether their dialogue is recognizably Tarantino or not.