A new film from Quentin Tarantino is always a special event, even the trailers and posters sparkle with a cinematic ecstasy which, fan or no fan, is impossible to deny. The big man himself can talk up a storm unlike any other director around; his very presence, passion, and words inspiring interest furthermore into the hearts of loyal followers while enticing skeptics. For this, Tarantino has a gift seldom found in a filmmaker and a quality only the likes of Welles or Hitchcock had ever possessed before him. The UK will have to wait another month for Django Unchained - a pre-civil war western set in the deep enslaved American South - as it gets its US Christmas day release, making it the second of his films to share this bold opening date. The first was Jackie Brown (1997), a film which many critics over the years have crowned as QT’s highest accomplishment despite its modest stature. A film that following the dizzying heights of Pulp Fiction (1994) hardly set the world on fire but laid out a deeper emotional significance to his work.
While a sizeable portion of critics and audiences would love this shared opening date to be far from the only comparison between these two films, it seems from advertisements and reviews thus far that we’re far from the emotional ‘maturity’ of his 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation and closer to the zealousness of Kill Bill, once again. The debate of Tarantino’s ‘regression verses evolution’ has waged a tedious war among fans and critics for close to a decade now; some feel that Tarantino needs to reign himself in, to harness the essence of his talents, while others relish his unruly punk-rock approach to filmmaking. Here I explore what it is about the idiosyncratic Tarantino that exasperates, excites, but either way never stops him being the media’s main-event and talk of the town each time he comes around. Does he need to calm down to become a truly great filmmaker? Or is this just missing the point?
Firstly, it’s no wonder Django Unchained is one of the most anticipated films of 2012/13; with Leoardo DiCaprio (below) placed as slave owner Calvin Candie in a much welcome departure from recent roles in which he’s seemed to mourn a dead wife for the most part. For his first villain DiCaprio certainly seems to be having fun with this larger than life evil. Christoph Waltz who won an Oscar for his dastardly performance in Inglourious Basterds returns again but this time as a mentor to the titular character’s quest to retrieve his enslaved wife. Also, cinematographer Robert Richardson who has been responsible for the lush gleam of Tarantino’s pictures over the past decade has returned to lens once again. Plenty of promise shown in the casting alone.
Due to its setting Tarantino has dubbed his new film a ‘southern’ but it’s clear, pedantic notions aside, which genre Django Unchained belongs to, making the project an intriguing one on a simple basis: Tarantino withholding from making a fully fledged western over the years seems odd given his adoration for the genre. His films have always featured strong elements from Leone, Peckinpah, and Corbucci; gunslinging antiheroes, tight close-ups juxtaposed with wide-angle shots, Mexican standoffs, operatic bloodbaths, and of course the music of Ennio Morricone. He even described Inglourious Basterds as a, “spaghetti western with World War Two iconography”, and he wasn’t half wrong, with the opening chapter in particular feeling as sinisterly stylised as anything from his favourite film The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly. So here what we have isn’t another pseudo-western or a film tinged with genre traits but an unadulterated example of Tarantino’s most cherished area of cinema, an inclusion into film history that surely won’t risk blandness from this exuberant artist.
Django was apparently written rather quickly in which Tarantino claimed it flowed out of him effortlessly. When approaching this new film with more than a sense of reserve this is surely a comfort. Tarantino’s post-90s work has become increasingly indulgent; previously he would write and simply shoot what he’d written yet now his scripts operate as sprawling novels which he must cut down and adapt for the screen. This has become arguably problematic as we saw his epic tale of revenge Kill Bill spread over two instalments, not to mention the original plan for Inglourious Basterds to come to life as a ten part mini-series. After the willing of fellow director Luc Besson and fearing he’d become ‘too big for movies’, Tarantino halved his ten chapter war film and adapted it accordingly. The result was stifled to say the least, in a film which presented examples of Tarantino at his blinding best but also at his most blinkered. Though further assuring him as a master of set-pieces it did nothing to bind the multiple story strands or invest in the many characters rapidly introduced and quickly disposed of. The final chapter is best in summing up the aimless and contrived nature of a film that should have offered so much, either as a meta-examination of filmic propaganda or a powerful tale of a young Jewish girl’s survival and eventual empowerment. It was at this point where I truly saw for the first time the ‘Tarantino conundrum’; an auteur with a personality so strong that his films have gone beyond infectious entertainment to being downright smothered by himself. In short, my point is that there was a great film rattling about somewhere in Basterds but its creator suppressed any such chance of brilliance by imposing his voice over the top like an unwelcome drunk.
With him taking on a delicate part of history once again with Django Unchained, this time American slavery as apposed to the Nazi’s Jewish eradication, I can only hope that the heavy handed and often misjudged Tarantino treats the world to a film offering a more resounding message this time round. While over the years the film industry has used WWII as grounds to deliver countless tales delivering either rip-roaring adventure or grounded historic insight, slavery remains more taboo. Slavery is a part of history that the world (in this instance the USA) is still coming to terms with and is finally looking to talk about, this subject matter is yet to be at a stage to be toyed with given the ignorance still surrounding it. Resultantly, this is why Tarantino is a worry given his past over confidence and his tendency to force his sensibilities into material. While it’d be foolish to expect a meditative film tackling colonial guilt, it’s still not unreasonable to want this remarkably talented man to stop being so boisterous with his approaches. Of course he’s far from the likes of Michael Haneke but he is a filmmaker who must show responsibility and admit that the material he’s approaching is bigger and more important than his own voice. This is what scares me about a man whose audience indulges him, from those buying the tickets to the press fuelling him on.
His recent output, like the central car crash in Death Proof, can be seen as a tragic accident. But boy what an accident! We’re used to following an artists’ work and watching an evolution, the emergence of a voice and subsequent refining of craft; Martin Scorsese, for example, clearly came into his own with Raging Bull and perfected everything he’d learnt and shown thus far with Goodfellas, Tarantino (like Terrence Malick) appeared out of nowhere and declared a new cinematic voice with his first film. Everyone boarded the Tarantino train and have been riding it since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction redefined American cinema in the 90s. His only financial disaster to this date is Death Proof which he shrugged of with considerable ease. Basically, Tarantino cannot hear the complaints over the cheers of fans and cash tills ringing; for him and his producers it’s clear that their product sells so why should any of them worry?
Tarantino is, in a word, passionate. He’s not in it for the money but he sure as hell doesn’t want anyone to lose any on his part either. The problem this presents is that Tarantino’s success has allowed him to work too comfortably, not enough hardship has fallen his way to take any drastic measures or to re-evaluate his approach to the way he works. While I believe there to be truth in this argument and that a serious confidence knock could resultantly produce the best work from him yet, it’s also a little like writing to Coca Cola about how you don’t like the taste and that you wish they’d change the recipe for you. Tarantino has created a sub-genre in cinema that only his work belongs to, his name and style (derived from a million existing cinematic examples) are a brand which cannot hear complaints.
It seems that Tarantino’s career has taken an unlikely route which could be mistaken for a regression. The important question to ask though, is whether he is an ernest artist or not? I believe he is. In the careers of the many greats it can often be seen in one film where it all formulated; for Kubrick the watershed was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for Malick it was The Thin Red Line (1998), and for Antonioni it was L’Avventurra (1960). To look before these films shows a consistent authorial voice, complete with thematic and/or stylistic obsessions, yet these examples provide the moment where their style truly came together and continued to encompass their body of work from then on. It was at these points where fans chose whether to take a leap over the edge or stay put and scold. With Tarantino, that film was Kill Bill, a film that (like it or not) is the moment when all his true colours were displayed. Of course his pre-naughties work was booming with personality and a cocktail of cinematic references, though with Kill Bill came a style which has yet to leave him, making for his favourite and most personal film to date. This heightened style has been largely off-putting to those who had long followed Tarantino’s work yet gave him an introduction to a younger generation of film-goers; an eccentric barrage on the senses that in the formative stages of young film enthusiasts was truly irresistible.
Since Kill Bill there seems to have been a certain sacrifice in plot and character. His previous work digressed from pulpy story lines into seemingly unrelated and unnecessary expository avenues, yet a gripping narrative always shone through. For the first time, Kill Bill demonstrated a threadbare plot serving as an excuse for Tarantino to run wild in excess. He admitted that Kill Bill and Death Proof were his ‘movie-movies’: films that the characters from his previous works, such as Vince from Pulp Fiction, would hypothetically pay to see. He believes his films exist in two separate ‘universes’ (his early work forming the basis of one, and Kill Bill spawning the other) but the evidence is that he’s gotten lost and blindsided inside the latter, unsure of how to ascend from the cinematic rabbit hole he has created. It is apparent to see Tarantino tie Inglourious Basterds to True Romance, with strong references between characters from each making it clear he is attempting a departure from his later works, wanting to return to the universe that homes his first films. His characters are now caricatures and mere products of films, lacking in soul and substance. Can anyone actually imagine movie producer Lee Donowitz (True Romance) sitting in the same room as his supposed grandfather, the bat wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Inglourious Basterds)?
Tarantino’s characters have always been heavily influenced by films and television just as he has personally: just look at the young Butch in Pulp Fiction with his surrogate television parent, or Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Blonde second guessing that Mr. White is a “big Lee Marvin fan” after seeing his regurgitated ‘tough man’ act. A notable difference before Kill Bill was that the worlds Tarantino created felt authentic and lived in. The Los Angeles which he presents in his 1990s output feel ‘real’ despite occasional over-stylisation and descents into the absurd. When Marcellus is chasing Butch post-car crash we feel like we are a part of that chase. When Mr. Orange is bleeding to death we feel the bullet and the conflicting emotions of Mr.White. It is of course easy to note that Kill Bill was a purposefully shallow exercise in genre filmmaking, yet when Tarantino supposedly re-entered his previous fictitious domain with Basterds, a realistic and human element was still lacking. Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, whilst set in vastly different eras, are clearly part of the same animal.
While his war film had remarkably crafted set-pieces (the Nazi infested tavern to name but one), the outcomes only bring about apathy in place of shock. We are not invested in the action or the characters and nothing feels real, so why should we feel anything at the loss of a life? Arguably cinema’s greatest gift is its power to not only entertain but to transport us, to help us learn vicariously about the world and human life; sitting in a cinema or at home can reward with perception altering and life changing experiences. An individual can of course rely on cinema to such an extent that real life may end up passing them by. This is what I fear with the work of Tarantino. As he dives into another very real historic nightmare I can only hope that with Django Unchained we’re able to connect with his characters again, to feel life and the subsequent loss of it upon the screen.
It would be a mistake to want Tarantino to be neutered. Despite the overpowering nature of his personality (seeing him interviewed demonstrates this all too well) there simply isn’t another filmmaker like him working today. Arguably his own worst enemy, he could well overcook his films with a childish excitement most filmmakers would have lost by now, but in a cinematic climate where imagination and guts are largely baron it’s surely foolish to want this aberrant artist to cease in his current direction. He is now on his eighth film and it may be customary to long for a director to embark upon a ‘maturer’ phase of their career by now, but we may have to accept that we are probably never going to get a formalist masterwork from Tarantino. We should try and seek enjoyment in and find respect for an artist refusing to colour inside the lines.
Django Unchained is released in the UK on January 18th