Like many filmmakers of my generation, Quentin Tarantino was a huge inspiration and the impetus for many of us to get off our butts and make films of our own. I recall my very first two films (made in college and thus not officially part of my filmography) being very much in the Tarantino mold of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, if not heavily derivative of them. He was, and remains one of my favorite filmmakers and a true visionary in the world of genre cinema.
So you can imagine my disappointment upon seeing his latest, DJANGO UNCHAINED.
I seem to be in the minority here but I found his take on the Spaghetti Western to be rather uninspiring. The titular character was horribly miscast, underwritten and overshadowed by Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz who seemed to be recycling leftover bits from his far superior performance as Col. Hans Landa in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. The overall tone of the film seemed far too cartoonish, even by the standards set by his post-KILL BILL filmography, to the point where even though this film wasn’t conceived as being a serious commentary on the horrors of slavery a la Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD, the subject matter felt as frivolous and pulpy as the cardboard caricatures this fine cast was forced to play.
Now in its defense, DJANGO UNCHAINED had the unfortunate role of being the film that followed what many consider to be Tarantino’s masterpiece, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Now there was a film that managed to combine the “new Tarantino,” which is to say his flamboyant, comic book approach to genre filmmaking (KILL BILL Vols. 1 and 2 and DEATH PROOF) with the “old Tarantino,” that being making genre films with soul (RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION and especially JACKIE BROWN). If there was ever a film to go out on (or take an extended hiatus from filmmaking), it would be that one.
But Tarantino seems to be on a roll, producing one film after another and as such, we’re forced to examine the issue of whether he’s still maintaining the standards of quality set forth by his earlier work, or has he peaked with BASTERDS and simply phoning it in now.
I would make the argument that Tarantino peaked a long time ago with what I feel to be his true masterpiece, JACKIE BROWN.
Now I’m not a black woman in her mid-40s by any stretch of the imagination, but even I was able to relate to the plight of Pam Grier’s character in that there have been moments in my life when I had hit rock bottom and was so desperate to get out of my situation that I was willing to consider measures that I’d hitherto cast moral judgment upon. In many respects, situations like these formed my core philosophy to this day that it’s easy to have morals and values when you don’t stand to have them challenged. But I digress.
JACKIE BROWN was the epitome of a brand of genre filmmaking that Tarantino became identified with where you could have the best of both worlds. On one hand you have all the conventions and beats that come with the sensationalist nature of exploitation films with the emotional depth and three-dimensional characterizations that come with the most deeply profound and moving of art films.
There are many people who criticize Tarantino for ripping off characters and plot points from classic and especially obscure genre films, but with all due respect to the makers of those films, their works, however inspiring they may be, are mere shadows of Tarantino’s material. With his initial crime trilogy of DOGS, FICTION and JACKIE BROWN, Tarantino was making the kinds of films that the aforementioned directors wish they could have made had they had access to the budgets, actors and Mark Twainian sensibility of Quentin Tarantino’s scripts. He gave a sense of credibility to genre that had been severely lacking in mainstream cinema and perhaps his acceptance into the hearts of critics who would have otherwise scorned such material has resulted in a sense of animosity and resentment by filmmakers and fans of exploitation cinema.
Tarantino then took an extended hiatus from filmmaking and returned in 2003 with KILL BILL Vol. 1.
While entertaining as hell, one couldn’t help but notice a radical departure from the tone of his earlier works and a more conspicuous embrace of the “genre” aspect of his filmmaking. Uma Thurman’s character was basically a one-dimensional comic book heroine, who despite efforts by the script to add “depth” and “weight” to what she was doing, essentially became Lady Snowblood Version 2.0, whose main novelty was that she was being played by a Hollywood star who decided to go “slumming.”
KILL BILL Vol. 2 was definitely the more “JACKIE BROWN” of the two parts in that an attempt to humanize Bill and the Bride with the introduction of their child was brought to the forefront of the narrative. But unfortunately, due to the over-the-top theatrics of the first part of the film, this change in pace and direction seemed to come out of left field and in many respects alienated a lot of the audience, myself included.
And then we have DEATH PROOF and the whole GRINDHOUSE experience which was clearly a chucking of the “old Tarantino” and a hailing in of the new one. It also served as the foundation of the creative vacuum that Tarantino finds himself in today where he seems to continually be repeating a lot of the same motifs and not really advancing as a filmmaker. What was the big shootout scene in DJANGO UNCHAINED if not a retread of the House of Blue Leaves sequence in KILL BILL Vol.1? What was the ironic use of 2Pac in a key sequence in DJANGO UNCHAINED if not an echoing of a similar use of music in RESERVOIR DOGS? And what’s the tired concept that unites the main characters of KILL BILL, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED? You got it, revenge!
Tarantino may be on to something when he suggests that the older a director gets, the more out of touch he/she becomes and the more likely they are to repeat themselves and essentially make increasingly watered down versions of the films that first brought them to prominence. While I believe that Tarantino is truly and utterly incapable of making a bad film (DJANGO UNCHAINED may be uninspiring and definitely his “worst” film, it was at the very least entertaining, particularly once the action arrives at Calvin Candie’s plantation), his ability to create fully fleshed out characters we can empathize with and to raise genre cinema to a level where it can sit side-by-side with the snootiest of art films has certainly diminished.
Tarantino seems content nowadays to make live-action cartoons that are episodic rather than cohesive narratives and borderline parodies of the genres he professes to love so much. Even worse is the fact that they rake in lots of dough which only convinces him to keep the machine going.
I never thought I’d say this, but perhaps another six-year hiatus from filmmaking would do the auteur good and force him to go out and life live and bring some of his real world experience to his next opus.
Unfortunately, if you believe the hype, his next project will either be KILL BILL Vol. 3 or surprise, surprise, another revenge story set during W.W. II called KILLER CROW. By that same token, he’s also expressed interest in doing something smaller in the vein of JACKIE BROWN.
Hmm, perhaps there may be some light at the end of this tunnel after all.