Quentin Tarantino's something of a strange case--he's an enthusiast without much discrimination, a director who cares more about framing his dialogue than his images, an auteur wannabe more interested in cramming allusions and homages into his works than actually fusing them into a unique voice. He's got so many references in his movies the frame operate more like hypertext (click on this hat and it's the same type hat used in so-and-so kung fu flick; click on that pack of cigarettes and it's the same brand used in one of the director's previous works)--that much he's up-to-date. To be fair, he does have a fondness for the classic and antiquated that may, after all is said and done, be his finest trait (though his uncritical passion for junk takes a bit of the gloss off that love).
In effect, he's not the greatest thing since apple pie, but he's not cow flop, either. In 1992 he took the plot of Ringo Lam's great Lung fu fong wan (City on Fire, 1987), shuffled the time scheme for variety, dumbed down the understated desperation, and presented it as Reservoir Dogs; two years later he took Godard's declaration that "every film has a beginning, a middle, and an end... but not necessarily in that order,” made Pulp Fiction, and won a Palme d'Or in Cannes (funny Godard never got credit for the idea, nor brought home his own Palme d'Or). The 1996 From Dusk Till Dawn might be my favorite Tarantino, if only because the man wrote a clever, genre-bending script for his more visually talented friend, Robert Rodriguez (Rodriguez's problem is in constructing a narrative that moves in reasonably smooth motion, and comes to a satisfying resolution; the two should do more projects together, preferably with Tarantino at the keyboard, Rodriguez behind the camera).
Perhaps his most admirable work was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch. Tarantino moved the action from Florida to California and changed the main character from white airline stewardess to black, mainly so he could use blaxploitation queen Pam Grier in the role. May all directors' whims be so effective--Tarantino's genius has always been in casting (witness Tierney in Reservoir Dogs, or Travolta in Pulp Fiction); with Jackie Brown (1997) the iconic Grier is handed her meatiest role onscreen to date. Grier's Jackie isn't quite like the usual female Tarantino character, either sexual tease, or invincible killer, or wallpaper--she's tough and independent, has accumulated considerable mileage both literal and metaphorical, and is vivid yet likeable enough a presence that you care what happens to her. She's perfectly matched by Robert Forster as a shy bail bondsman attracted to Jackie and aching to help (Grier's scenes with Forster are like a delicate pas de deux, where both parties are presumably too embarrassed (By the racial and sexual implications? Maybe not--they look too sensible for that) to take the relationship to the next level), and she's surrounded by a small constellation of stellar performances--Bridget Fonda as the annoyingly sexy (sexually annoying?) Melanie; Samuel Jackson as the relatively subdued (for Jackson, anyway) gun and drug dealer Ordell; Robert De Niro as Ordell's slyly funny right-hand man Louis; Michael Keaton, trailing just a step behind Jackie as ATF agent Ray Nicolet.
Tarantino drops much of his mannerisms here: the fractured time schemes, the playful devices, the wince-inducing violence; some critics at the time the picture was released complained that this wasn't the typical Tarantino flick, that he'd sold his soul to the Devil to become a more commercially successful (and more conventional) director. Truth is much simpler, apparently: Tarantino is so enamored of Leonard he's assigned himself the task of actually bringing the material onscreen, not twisting it beyond recognition to fit his usual sniggering, wiseguy notions of entertainment.
Of Kill Bill the less said the better. The first half is Uma Thurman as the vengeful Bride, cutting a wide swathe of death and destruction across the American landscape to reach the eponymous Bill (it's a panoramic variation on Bruce Lee's Game of Death (1978) only with clunkier action choreography and filmmaking); the second half is fairly more interesting, a kind of retread not so much of Sergio Leone's motifs, as of his music and emotional tone--at least when David Carradine's Bill finally confronts Thurman's Bride, there actually seems to be a subtext of long-felt pain between the two that they have to deal with before they start trying to kill each other.
Death Proof (2007), Tarantino's contribution to the Grindhouse omnibus (the other is Robert Rodriguez's sleazier, slimier Planet Terror) is easily his best work as a filmmaker yet, mainly on the basis of the climactic showdown between the black Dodge Charger and white Dodge Challenger, with the added bonus of stuntwoman Zoe Bell perched precariously on the Challenger front hood. Tarantino had said he deplored the recent trend towards CGI effects in place of real stunts (a sentiment I share), and proceeds to practice what he preached, using white-knuckle driving and Bell gripping the edges of the Challenger's hood to create real thrills. The premise is fairly engaging if a little outlandish, with Kurt Russell as 'Stuntman Mike' a serial killer who uses his 'death-proofed' cars to kill women (though why, after making an earnest attempt to kill a second batch of women, does he leave his car and try talk to them?), but the duel of the Dodge muscle cars is the movie's main attraction--fact is, if you come in an hour late to catch only the duel, you haven't missed much.
What I do miss, though, is the kind of purity that created something like Richard C. Serafian's Vanishing Point (1971). Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a car delivery man assigned to take a Dodge Challenger (yes, the same one--down to the white paint--used in Tarantino's picture, and several characters explicitly refer to the film at several points) from Boulder, Colorado to San Francisco, California.
He never makes it to San Francisco (mainly, as Serafian reveals, because they didn't have the budget to shoot there); instead he side-swipes police cars, barrels the wrong way down divided lanes, runs up inclines, down country roads, and pretty much out-turns, outsmarts and just plain outraces anything on wheels. Perhaps the most haunting aspect of all this is--why? Kowalski has the entire weekend to deliver the car; why risk life and limb to try do it in fifteen hours (which would take an average speed of 85 mph for the length of the trip)? Serafian offers fascinating hints and glimpses in Kowalski's former life--he's a war hero, a bike and car racer, a former police officer discharged for beating his partner (the man was trying to blackmail a young girl into having sex). The question looms larger and larger as Kowaski rushes nearer and nearer to his ultimate fate, and almost effortlessly acquires philosophical and metaphysical dimensions. Tarantino's movie is good, trashy fun, but Vanishing Point leaves you stunned, a tragic fable unfolding a hundred miles an hour on a two-lane blacktop.
(First published in Businessworld, 8/10/07)