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How to Defend Quentin Tarantino

What critics who attack the director's borrowings miss

How to Defend Quentin Tarantino

Ah, here it is again: that special time we experience every two to six years when Quentin Tarantino makes a new movie, and people dig out the old "Tarantino just steals everything from such-and-such" arguments. You've heard them. Reservoir Dogs is a scene-for-scene rip-off of Ringo Lam's City on Fire, they say, or Kill Bill is nothing but lifts from old exploitation movies, or Pulp Fiction took that one part in which Uma draws a square in the air from a Porky Pig cartoon, and something's gotta be done about it. The premise is that Tarantino is at worst a plagiarist and at best an empty postmodernist: all reference, no substance.

I hate these arguments because they misunderstand what art even is, and by doing that ignore what people love—what is great—about Tarantino.

Django Unchained—the title of which, ironically, pays tribute to rip-offs of Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966)—is Tarantino's most direct homage to spaghetti westerns. But you could already see their influence as the Bride stumbled through the desert in Kill Bill Volume 2, or as the Nazis approached in the opening of Inglourious Basterds, both scenes that mimic shots from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. If that upsets you, think about Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. It's the one that started the genre, and surely one of the best westerns of all time, right? But Fistful, as we all know, is an uncredited remake of Akira Kurosawa's even better samurai film Yojimbo (itself sharing a story with the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest or the movie version of The Glass Key). Fistful is a faithful adaptation of Yojimbo, a much closer copy than anything Tarantino has ever done. And yet we rightly honor it for its attitude, its innovations in music and camerawork, its iconic Clint Eastwood performance, its undeniable entertainment value. Hell, being a rip-off gives it some of its power. It takes a great story and puts it into a new context with a different style.

But Tarantino's movies are far from remakes. His stories and characters are uniquely his. Even the much-discussed similarities between Reservoir Dogs and Lam's 1987 Hong Kong crime drama City on Fire come down to a few scenes at the end of two totally different stories. A better comparison for Tarantino's approach might be the sample-based masterpieces of golden-age hip-hop.

When trumpet player Darryl "Hassan" Jamison wailed away on the 1970 J.B.'s instrumental "The Grunt," he might have known the song was derivative of "Keep on Doin'" by the Isley Brothers. He could not have known that 18 years later one of his feverish squawks would be lifted out of context and made to sound like a menacing air raid siren in Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause." Collaged with pieces of two other James Brown songs, one by the Soul Children, and Terminator X's scratch of Chubb Rock's "Rock 'n' Roll Dude," it forms a new work distinct from its individual parts. No other group can be mistaken for Public Enemy, even though they built their futuristic sound from pieces of the past. It's the context and the combination that makes it a unique work of art.

If Tarantino is a DJ, he's got a hell of a record collection. Kill Bill alone mixes its spaghetti western style with training sequences from Chinese kung fu films, showdowns from Japanese samurai and gang movies, imagery and sounds from European horror, and a backstory told in the form of anime. David Carradine carries his flute from Circle of Iron, Uma Thurman wears a jumpsuit like the one in Game of Death, Daryl Hannah whistles a song from Twisted Nerve, looking kinda like the female avenger from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. It's an epic kung-fu-samurai-yakuza-spaghetti-western-revenge love story. I'm a fan of these genres, but most of the "real" ones don't move me like Kill Bill does when Beatrix at last says good-bye to Bill, or when, reunited with her daughter, she falls on the bathroom floor and cries tears of joy. Like the Public Enemy song, this patchwork doesn't play as name-that-tune, but as something new and different.

If all Tarantino is doing is copying, then why did all the Pulp Fiction knockoffs of the '90s indie boom fail so miserably at re-creating his voice? And how could we even tell they were aping him unless there's something recognizably his to mimic?

Fixating on homages or "lifts" completely ignores what makes Tarantino Tarantino. When Pulp Fiction won the Oscar for best original screenplay, I bet it wasn't because there was a glowing briefcase like in Kiss Me Deadly. It was because voters loved the dialogue, that it was a movie about talking, that it was about the parts of the characters' lives that you usually skip. They liked the then-quite-novel nonlinear structure. They thought it was clever and original in the way it was put together, and they were right.

When Inglourious Basterds was nominated for the same award, was it because of homages to The Dirty Dozen and characters talking about G.W. Pabst, or was it—again—the language, or the screenplay's crazy insistence on fucking with history, its ways of wrenching suspense from long conversations, its indelible characters, such as the murderous Nazi who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes solving a case?

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17 comments
Harmonica
Harmonica

You are no more creative for referencing these rip-off's background as Tarantino is for effectively implementing. Nowhere did you address his lack of creativity or his non-contribution to ANY genre of film, besides "sampling".

You ripped-off Brian de Palma's storytelling technique in Femme Fatale... 


dshkflsdgs
dshkflsdgs

Fuck you ALL!! DJANGO FUCKING RULES BITCHES!! I just saw it, it was FUCKING AWESOME!! One of the best movies EVER since KILL BILL AND PULP FICTION AND RESERVOIR DOGS OMG SO AWESOME!!1 HE DESERVES OSCAR!!

JPMcMahon
JPMcMahon

Tarantino proved that he could make a pretty great straight narrative film adapted from a literary source; 'Jackie Brown' from Elmore Leonard's 'Rum Punch'. I know that it has elements of blaxploitation films in it, but Leonard thought it was the best adaptation of any of his novels ever made. But Tarantino obviously isn't interested in making that kind of movie now. Is it so bad that he is making movies that have favorite elements that he is basically sharing with other film buffs that like the same kind of stuff that he does? Or, like white blues musicians in the 60s and 70s, that he is encouraging others to go seek out the original source material? I haven't seen D'jango yet, but in 'Inglorious Basterds', I think that Tarantino even went a step further in his cinephilia and snuck a crypto-documentary about the Nazi film industry into the movie. That, and the scene set in the fucking basement cafe are kind of what he is all about. The long scene with the card game with the soldiers, SS man, Basterds, and movie star was better than the wild, brutal gun fight that ended it. Fascinating, long set pieces of dialogue, and movie references, punctuated by  violence. That's his style, and I'll take it over the other crap out there any day.

Skyrim22
Skyrim22

Basically, he gives wannabe filmmakers hope that if they steal all the right moments from other movies, they too can make a movie!

He makes crusty critics who are too full of themselves to recognize their own stink feel young and hip and clever and relevant again.  It's just silly tripe.

f_abdic
f_abdic

Why defend him? He made three really good movies - his first three--
even if they're mostly collage/pastiche/re-interpretation, but they had
some new clever angle to it -- and then he made crap that got
attention because of his reputation-- but he did make a lot of money.
And it's still better than 'Taken 2,' which made more money than any of
his movies -- future will tell how he will be remembered (and many of
those films he has  referenced/borrowed/quoted from as well).

Binkconn
Binkconn

Who cares who he steals from? What about Django barely rising above the level of a particulary chatty episode of the Dukes of Hazzard? Crap.

Turtletub
Turtletub

Not really sure I agree with this.  Borrowing versus rip off is a
matter of degree and intent.  An homage tends to be intentional.  An
"influence" can be unintentional.  Some of the examples given were
"influenced" by the stylistics of past films but not necessarily
intended to be an homage.  If intentional, an homage can either be done
to pay respect to what came before, to use the familiar in a new context
and thereby create meaning, or simply to borrow its style.  When an
homage is done simply to borrow style, it teeters on a lack of
originality.  But some individuals like Tarantino take the 'homaging" to
a degree where many times it's just done, not to add meaning, not to
make a comment on cinema itself, but simply because it's expected or it
can make the moment -- "cool."   David's use of Christ's arm from "La
Pieta" in "The Death of Marat" is an homage to Michelangelo, to give
meaning to Marat as a "Christ type."  But David's style is still his
own.  Tarantino is not really an auteur -- he's a pop parodist.  And in
this sense, he's not original either -- parodying the careers of
Godard/Suzuki as well as their styles.  His parodying would work even
less in a culture that was familiar with his references BEFORE his
movies come out.  I have been a Django fan since the 60s, and I
tried hard to get people to watch the 66 original (I love Italian
directors from the 60s) after "Kill Bill" but everyone was caught up on
Tarantino's constant referral to "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" as
his favorite spaghetti western to take this seriously.  Then "Django
Unchained" come out and suddenly, everyone's an expert on Corbucci
(though they haven't seen his other films).   What intrigues me about
this is that I found the use of Corbucci's score to be offensive (even
with Nero making a cameo) because that score is iconic and specific to
"Django" and I'm such a fan of the original that it was jarring.
However, most Tarantino fans don't care because they see it as "hip and
cool"  But how would you feel if an Italian director used "The Star
Wars" theme as his theme for an Italian space opera?  And how would you
feel if the director got away with it because everyone thinks he's
"cool"?If American audiences and critics were more familiar with
his sources, they'd probably see his work as that of a pop cartoonist,
similar to Simpsons writers... and they'd probably get tired of it
sooner.  Unfortunately his work at this point and his style are getting
sillier and sillier (and I'm a Tarantino fan), and the community of film
critics have grown soft and easy on Tarantino for all the wrong
reasons.  Tarantino's movies can best be summarized by a line of his own dialogue -- they are wax museums with a pulse.

voxpop80
voxpop80

WOW, Vern..that's tellin' 'em.

timmyrobot
timmyrobot

@CesarPelli - I have been reading Vern's reviews for well over 10 years, and he often references his life before he started writing, so I'm pretty sure he's older than 20.

And Vern is in no way saying that new stuff is better than old stuff.  He is simply and specifically saying that Tarantino's stuff is often better than the films he is referencing.  I definitely agree with that - Tarantino has a way of imbuing a "genre piece" with real characters that elevate any silliness and give the film real depth, whether the story is crazy or not.  He is a master filmmaker that wears his influences on his sleeve but doesn't let them override his own unique and awesome voice.

But that's just my opinion.

Anyways, Vern's not 20.


CesarPelli
CesarPelli

I really love lectures from 20-year-olds on why contemporary culture is really so much better than the old stuff. This is an argument designed to flatter the ignorant and I'm sure it will be met with widespread approval and huzzahs.

joeybot
joeybot

@Skyrim22 Wow, it's almost like you didn't read the article.  

So are you a frustrated filmmaker/writer, becauseI ususlly find them to be the whiniest when it comes to Tarantino.

JPMcMahon
JPMcMahon

The Great Silence! Klaus and QT would have been a match made in heaven. 

joeybot
joeybot

@CesarPelli So to sum up your argument, "I'm old and bitter and I'm positive I'm so much smarter than everyone else."

studiesincrap
studiesincrap topcommenter

@CesarPelli Perhaps you might enjoy some lectures on reading comprehension, because you sure as shit displayed none of that here. 


emob
emob

@CesarPelli Congratulations to completely and utterly missing the point.

 

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