The featured director this month in the Englert’s American Filmmakers Series is Quentin Tarantino. True Romance, which he wrote but didn’t direct, is showing Tuesday, May 10, and Pulp Fiction, his dubious masterpiece, plays the following Thursday. Does the director of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds deserve to be ranked alongside John Cassavettes, Terence Malick, Woody Allen, Jim Jarmusch and the other contemporary masters featured in the series?
Tarantino is an auteur of our times. The pretentiousness of that word auteur suits him. He was among the first to evoke on screen the aesthetic of our extended adolescence, in which comic-book violence and teenage cool are transformed into gruesome adult spectacles. When they came out, Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction were revelations. They were so cool, at least to a cadre of mostly young, disaffected men of slightly above-normal intelligence.
His movies portray in a deeply ironic manner a world of random violence, world-weariness, drugs, Japanese swords and savvy mixtures of high and low culture—mostly low. A director like Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs explores the various meanings of violence and lapses into its gratuitous portrayal. With Tarantino there’s no pretension of exploring the meaning of anything. It’s all gratuitous, which is even more pretentious. For Tarantino, there’s nothing outside the movie.
Spike Lee once criticized Tarantino for his obsession with the word “nigger.” Tarantino blasted back that as an artist he had the absolute right to use whatever word he wanted, whenever he wanted. Right on cue, he accused Lee of reverse racism. But there’s a difference between the freedom of the artist who must use such a word to speak truthfully about their world (for instance, Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn or Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing) and an artist like Tarantino who just wants to draw on the powerful charges of that word for purely aesthetic effects.
To deal with the Holocaust, the most traumatic event of the last century, Tarantino invents a story of a team of Jewish Allied soldiers, led by Brad Pitt, who carve swastikas into Nazis. In one sense, a movie like Inglourious Basterds is immensely fun. It’s satisfying to enact a fantastic revenge drama. It feels good to be relieved of all the pieties of life, like the official remorse and pity we’re supposed to feel about the Holocaust. But within minutes of leaving Inglourious Basterds, I felt physically ill that this was the equipment we’d forged to deal with our history. Anthony Lane once compared a Tarantino movie to fast food: It tastes good going down but leaves you undernourished and queasy.
It was inevitable that a director would eventually serve up empty art as entertainment. But I’m not even totally convinced of Tarantino’s artistic prowess. He’s certainly capable of crafting taut, distinctive, exciting scenes, like the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds or the final Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogs. But his movies as a whole tend to sprawl. Does it really require significantly more time to tell the story of Kill Bill than Seven Samurai?
My hunch is that Tarantino’s career peaked shortly after it began. In the nineties, that pleasant wasteland between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, his movies felt bracing and free of illusions. In our age of terrorism and infinite war, his artsy treatments of violence ought to come across as juvenile rather than witty, though I fear that we still long to be encased in fantasies like his.
Tarantino’s most enthralling movie is Reservoir Dogs, but the quintessential expression of his art is Pulp Fiction, in large part due to the nonchalant performance of John Travolta. The one unforgettable scene of the movie takes place in a fifties-style diner called Jack Rabbit Slim’s, where Travolta orders a “Douglas Sirk steak” and a vanilla coke from a Buddy Holly look-alike played by Steve Buscemi. The place is kitschy, but it’s filmed with genuine love. The achingly beautiful Uma Thurman chats leisurely with John Travolta. It may be the only scene in all of Tarantino’s work that isn’t frantic, blood-soaked, or intentionally superficial. You know how it ends, with Uma and John winning the twist contest. For that moment, Quentin Tarantino ranks among our best.