The (In)Essential Tarantino

You know, for a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is I don’t like about Quentin Tarantino.

Not the man himself – I’m under no illusions as to why I dislike him, and it has a lot to do with this Brett Easton Ellis interview which combines two of my absolute least favourite creators who somehow come to define the nineties in popular culture and then gets them to wank each other off in text for eight thousand words. But I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about his movies that leaves me so cold.

Well, at least now, anyway, because of course, I spent a long time thinking Tarantino was about the finest filmmaker who I’d ever been graced to share the planet with. His movies were inestimably cool, featuring iconic performances from even more iconic actors, taking random dusty genres and recreating them with pitch-perfect soundtracks and hyper-violent action scenes. I think most people who love movies probably loved Quentin Tarantino at one point or another, and I do think his films fill a particular hole in pop culture: they’re the fun teacher of cinematic language, the one who lets you take class outside and makes genre conventions seem cool.

But there came a point where I just suddenly found myself not liking his films anymore. And not just liking his new output – sure, Django Unchained left me pretty cold, but I was even looking back on Pulp Fiction with an abject exhaustion. Nothing had changed about his films, and yet my interest in them had flatlined. Since then, I’ve been trying to work out why.

Because I can still see, objectively, that there is some good to his films. Tarantino has a solid ear for dialogue, and an exceptionally talented stable of actors to draw from who bring actual life to his often-cartoonish characters. His knowledge of film is written all over his movies, and, as a film geek myself, that usually appeals to me. I could do without his own garbage cameos, but as long as he continues to blow himself up fifteen seconds after arriving on-screen, I can live with that, I suppose.

But it finally struck me, when I was watching the trailer for his latest (and allegedly final) movie, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, what it is that’s left me so cold about his career after loving him so much. And it’s that his films feel totally inessential.

When I was at the start of my movie-watching career, Tarantino’s films felt mind-blowingly new. Their deftness in cinematic language and genre conventions was so fresh to me – because I didn’t have that knowledge myself. When I actually started watching the movies that he was parodying, homaging, and straight-up ripping off, it started to feel like, at best, his films were an open door to everyone who had done the genres that he liked better and with more genuine passion than he had.

If there was a single word I would use to describe Tarantino’s work, it would be “knowing”. They’re knowing deconstructions of various genres – the martial arts movie, the blaxploitation flick, the Western, the Western again, since you mention it. And that’s fine and dandy when you, the audience, might not know a huge amount about those genres – I’m not trying to sound like a pretentious ass here, nobody’s the expert on everything cinematic, least of all this Rob-Zombie-loving asshole.

But as soon as you do learn a little more – or as soon as I did – Tarantino’s movies just start feeling painfully inessential. Their keenness to let you see just how much they know undercuts anything that feels like it lasts – it’s hard to invest emotionally in a character or a story when it’s there to underline some wry observation about the genre. Why would I watch some snarky, knowing take on a type of movie when I could watch someone do it in earnest and make it feel like it matters? Why would I watch someone deconstruct this when I could watch someone construct it?

And that’s what it comes down to for me: all that film literacy just turns Tarantino’s back catalogue into an overeager and mostly empty attempt to show just how much he knows about these types of movies. I’m not going to sit here and say that his films are objectively bad, but to me, that inherently knowing nature leaves me cold. For all the tricks and quirks and cleverness, there’s a removed smugness that renders Quentin Tarantino’s movies inessential compared to the films and genres they’re trying to pick apart.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via IndieWire)

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