Sunday, October 31, 2010

QUENTIN TARANTINO WINS WORLD WAR II (PART SIX)


“You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.” —Brad Pitt, ruling the universe, Inglourious Basterds
And so we come to the end of this series of essays on Quentin Tarantino, and to the picture that, in a lot of ways, just might be his masterpiece. The fact that there's some dispute about what his masterpiece is goes a long way to testifying to the strength of Quentin's body of work, as he defined an entire decade with Pulp Fiction, and a surprisingly high number of people (it's not just me) would argue long and hard for Jackie Brown as his best movie. An equally strong argument could be made for either, based on each picture's own merits. But in terms of Quentin's own style, preoccupations, and in terms of the historical and philosophical significance of the subject matter, Inglourious Basterds is a strong candidate.

It's a picture that's clearly very important to Quentin; he started working on it after finishing Jackie Brown, and spent nearly a decade and a half getting it exactly right, through Kill Bill and Grindhouse and all manner of other side projects (appearing on Alias, directing episodes of CSI and other television shows). A few months before its release I had the opportunity to read the script, and holy shit was it good. It reaffirmed everything I'd always loved about Quentin—the encyclopedic knowledge of movies, the peerless ability to take elements from other movies and make his own from them (again, for the nine millionth time, I respect skilled pasticheurs as artists), and his innate sense of what makes a fun fucking movie—and gave me new respect for his sense of history and what's right.

Obviously, Inglourious Basterds does not follow the established historical record. Hitler and his high command were not machine-gunned by the director of Hostel in a burning movie theater in 1944 in real life. Quentin, though, poses a great rhetorical question: “Wouldn't it be cool if they were?” And I submit that this is an important statement on the study of history. Things happen the way they do, and we are rarely afforded truly cathartic closure; this is why esprit de l'escalier is such a wistful and occasionally sad state of being. Quentin, being an autodidact, is free of a lot of the burdens of academia; in the case of Inglorious Basterds, the burden of “but things didn't happen that way” is refreshingly absent. Quentin's like, “I don't give a fuck if things didn't happen that way. I'm making a movie.”

This is what Quentin does. He makes movies. Because he loves them with an intense ferocity. He loves everything about them, from the stories, to the actors who play out those stories, to the writers and directors who construct them, to the craftsmen who make them look and sound the way they do, to the experience of seeing the completed movie in the theater, to the physical medium—film—that they're recorded on. Because his life experience is given over to such a large degree to watching movies, Quentin's movies are about movies. They radiate his personality, they pulse with his passionate love for what he does. His great saving grace is the one thing overly sensitive politically correct eggheads constantly rag on him for: he is not an educated sophisticate. If Quentin was an intellectual, his movies would not be what they are, which is beautiful, vibrantly alive cinema. A movie about movies made by an intellectual overthinking everything would be like going to school. And, lest we forget, above all else cinema is a medium of entertainment.

And so one of the greatest things about Inglourious Basterds is that Quentin doesn't feel beholden to anyone or anything but his own sense of what's awesome, certainly not historical accuracy. The opening sequence of shots following the title card “Chapter One: Once upon a time . . . in Nazi-occupied France,” like the title card implies, are reminiscent of a spaghetti Western, as is the Ennio Morricone music. Although other genres and forms get a tip of the hat from Quentin (he wouldn't be Quentin if he wasn't enthusiastically showing love to four or five different things at once), the spaghetti Western is the baseline for the rest of the picture, at the very least because spaghetti Westerns never gave a fuck about history, they gave a fuck about being cool. Which is, for lack of any other appropriate term, cool.

That opening scene also has one of the greatest excuses for switching from foreign language/subtitles to good old-fashioned Anglais yet devised in American movies, rivaling the switch at the beginning of The Hunt For Red October. What makes the one in Inglourious Basterds so great is that it's an essential part of SS Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa's plan to get the poor dairy farmer to reveal the location of the Jews underneath his floor without tipping said Jews off that they'd been discovered. It's a brilliant trick, and Quentin sure gives him some great text, but Christoph Waltz swaggered into this fucking movie and was like, “Guten tag, bitches, I'm a superstar now.” He is so good in this it's staggering. Quentin had worried that the part wasn't castable, but fortunately for him and all of us he found Christoph Waltz because wow.

After his thugs machine-gun the floor, only one of the family survives, daughter Shoshana. Christoph Waltz lets her go for reasons that seem vague at first, but remembering this bit at the end makes one wonder about the motivations of the incredibly complex Col. Landa. Once this opening scene concludes, establishing this recognizable but still alternative history, we introduce our title characters, the Basterds.

The idea that some military guy would sign off on the idea of assembling a crack all-Jewish unit and saying “Go fuck shit up” is simply YES. This is why no elitist assholes or limpdick sensitive people should ever, ever criticize Quentin. I mean, look. Both my grandfathers were part of the war effort in WWII: one flew in bomber crews, and the other (a German-speaking scientist) translated German scientific documents for military intelligence. The former was scarred forever and the latter said if he'd been assigned to a combat unit he'd have turned his rifle on himself rather than shoot another human being. That's reality, and it's kind of depressing. War is a depressing, ambiguous business. Some would say that by making the objective as clear and simple as Quentin does is a distorted, sophomoric view of the true nature of war. I think that view is itself distorted and overly simplistic: I say Quentin knows how fucked up real war actually is, but that he's making a movie, not a documentary. In a movie, getting a bunch of Jews together and having them go epically fuck shit up is a much more satisfying premise than doing one of those depressing twelve-part documentaries that makes you hate people. The fact that, after seeing Inglourious Basterds, my Jewish friends were all walking around hollering “THE BEAR JEW!!!!” is proof that Quentin was on to something.

Eli Roth, as the Bear Jew, doesn't really have to do much. He's the Bear Jew. He will fuck you the fuck up. He takes his proud place in the All-Star team of motherfuckers who will simply end you:
The Bear Jew
John Locke
Arnold
Danny Trejo
Helen Mirren in Red.

(Ed. Note: this list is not subject to debate.)
The Basterds' commanding officer, Aldo Raine (nice reference by Mr. QT), is a talkative dude from Tennessee without a ton of formal education who is nonetheless really fucking smart, has a way with words, and is a swaggering god. Wait, you in the back, did you just say “author surrogate”? You may be onto something. Casting Brad Pitt supports that case nicely (also note how far out Brad sticks his chin. Just saying). Bear in mind, calling Brad Pitt an author surrogate isn't a criticism. It's a sign that Quentin has a sense of humor about himself while also having perspective on how cool he is; false modesty would be hideously disingenuous considering Quentin's body of work. And goddamn Brad Pitt is fun in this movie. For his whole career, I've always respected the unpretentious quality control he's maintained. He knows movies are supposed to be fun, has no illusions about himself as a serious artist, but nonetheless refuses to do anything too stupid. Here, Quentin wisely doesn't try to convince us that this guy who scalps people and carves swastikas into people's foreheads isn't crazy. Because he is crazy. Fortunately “crazy” and “awesome” aren't mutually exclusive terms, and anyway, you want your military guys to kick ass, that's their job.

The third chapter reintroduces us to Shoshana three years later. She's now running a movie theater in Paris, and catches the eye of “the German Audie Murphy,” who seems fairly nice and humble considering that he's an enormous movie star in Germany due to his having killed a couple hundred people all by himself. He is, however, annoyingly persistent; one of those guys who thinks “eat shit and die” is flirting.

You can't blame him for flipping out over Shoshana, though. Not only is she gorgeous, smart, and resourceful—she got all the way from cow country to Paris and not only survived but kind of thrived—she loves movies. Melanie Laurent is absolutely terrific in this role. It'd be easy, in the wrong hands, for Shoshana to be annoying, since all she does for most of the movie is tell a guy to fuck off (however justified it might be, in non-talented hands that can get monotonous). But one moment sums up perfectly how good Melanie Laurent is: when German Audie Murphy gets the premiere of his new picture moved to her movie theater by Goebbels fiat, Christoph Waltz pops in for a chat, since he's running security. Melanie Laurent looks like she's just blankly maintaining for the whole scene where he's subtly implying that he knows who she is just to kind of recreationally scare the shit out of her, but if you look really close you see she's practically vibrating with fear and rage. The second he leaves, when she releases, she just fucking loses it; that's one of the best played scenes I've seen in a longlong time.

In Chapter Four, another character cool enough to be the lead is introduced: Michael Fassbender as Archie Hickox. Look, any film critic turned soldier with a plummy British accent is going to make me a little weak in the knees, but Michael Fassbender imbues the role with just the right kind of Brit swagger, a very different thing indeed from American swagger. The fact that he gets his orders—meet up with a German double agent movie star and the Basterds and go kill the German high command at Shoshana's movie theater—from Mike Myers and Rod Taylor playing Winston Churchill is a particular treat (Ed. Note: the fact that Mike Myers didn't make me want to kill everything in sight is a testament to Quentin's ability to direct actors).

The meeting with the movie star and Basterds is doomed from the outset. It's in the basement of a tavern in the middle of nowhere. Brad wisely points out “Fightin' in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you're fightin' in a basement.” Not only that, but when Michael Fassbender rolls in with the two German-speaking Basterds in their fake Nazi uniforms, they find a tavern full of German soldiers celebrating one of their wives having a son back home. The movie star (Diane Kruger) tells them it'll look weird if they leave before having a drink, so they have a drink. The new father wanders drunkenly over and asks for an autograph. Fassbender tells him, in very Brit-accented German, to hit the bricks, but the guy's so drunk that instead of doing so, he tells Fassbender his accent is weird. There's a kerfuffle that's immediately shut down by August Diehl, officer of the Gestapo.

In a movie with so many awesome actors, the way August Diehl just decides, on a dime, “I'm going to own the room” and does is particularly impressive. He sits down and starts talking to Fassbender and retinue, waiting patiently for them to fuck up, in one of the best dialogue scenes Quentin (and, considering how good Quentin is at dialogue, anyone else) has ever written. Eventually, Fassbender fucks up and reveals himself as a non-German (by signaling for three drinks the wrong way) and le jeux son motherfuckin fait.

“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the Kings.” —Michael Fassbender, man of style.
The guns go off and everyone except Diane Kruger auf wiedersehens off this mortal coil. Short two Basterds (and the only ones who speak German) and their inside man, Brad has to come up with a new plan, which is that he, the Bear Jew, and Omar are going to pose as Italians—since Diane Kruger assures them Germans have no ear for Italian—and hope for the best.

For the big night of the premiere, where the Basterds' plot is competing with Melanie Laurent's plot to use the hundreds of nitrate films in the theater as a makeshift bomb—the idea to literally use the power of movies to defeat evil gives me an erection, I'm sorry, I know I'm weird, that idea is just sexy—Quentin is faced with a dilemma. How to properly convey the gravity of the situation? A music cue? Okay, good idea, Quentin. You've displayed excellent use of Ennio Morricone music so far, which reinforces the whole spaghetti Western influences, and besides, it's Ennio fuckin Morricone, who rules on general principle. But still, this is where all the disparate plot threads of the movie are converging for the thrilling, action-packed climax. We need something more. And oh boy does Quentin come up with the perfect way to set the tone:

David Bowie.

Oh, Quentin, if you weren't just that slightest bit homophobic I'd kiss you for that choice. Not only does he use a Bowie song, not only does he use a Bowie song from his thousand-dollar-suit “yes that's right you'll never be this cool, now pardon me, my Somali wife wants to have the best sex that ever existed” phase, Quentin uses “Cat People,” which has the line “putting out the fire with gasoline,” which is exactly what the fuck's about to happen.

So tension builds. Diane Kruger and her fugazy Italian Basterd cohorts run across Christoph Waltz, who of course speaks perfect Italian (and by the way, the way he loses his shit laughing when she gives her bullshit story about why her leg is in a cast—since she can't fess up to having been shot—is both hilarious and terrifying), but he lets them go. Hmm. Tension mounts, and Christoph Waltz abruptly and brutally kills the shit out of Diane Kruger. German Audie Murphy stops being so nice, and Melanie Laurent shoots him (the gunshots in the movie mask hers) but he doesn't die immediately, and shoots her.

Still, Melanie Laurent's boyfriend/projectionist sets fire to all the film, and the Bear Jew and Omar take advantage of the chaos to blaze into Hitler's box and the Bear Jew shoots Hitler about 25 million fucking times (and boy is that is a satisfying shot). They all burn with the theater and everyone else in it, but hey. No more German high command. The war's over.

It turns out that this was all part of Christoph Waltz's plan. Sensing that the Allies were eventually going to win the war, he seized on the first opportunity to defect and get a full pardon and retconned OSS file saying all his work as The Jew Hunter was to establish his cover as an American agent. Brad and BJ Novak (the only surviving Basterds) just nod like, sure, we'll go along with it, sure, no prob dude. They put Christoph Waltz in touch with a guy who sounds suspiciously like Harvey Keitel (because he is), who says, sure, herr Colonel, your terms are acceptable, head out to the border and surrender yourself into Brad's custody as a formality. Christoph Waltz is bouncing up and down giddy, and it never occurs to him that Brad's going to shoot his dude and carve a swastika into his—Waltz's—forehead. But that's exactly what Brad does, and then the last shot is Brad looking into the camera going “this just might be my masterpiece.” Remembering all that earlier about author surrogates and so forth, the proper response is, yes, Quentin, this just might be.

Quentin's ability to decide “I'm going to create iconic movie moments and characters” and then do it, without fail, in every single one of his pictures boggles my mind. Every single other person ever, trying too hard is a recipe for failure. But Quentin doesn't even have to try. He comes up with a character that he thinks is awesome, demonstrates that they in fact are, et voila. And holy shit, his ability to dig up some obscure actor and turn them into a demigod . . . Quentin, forget any of the snarky shit I ever said about you, sir. Much respect.

If it hadn't been for Inglourious Basterds, I probably never would have written about Quentin. The fact that after all the highs and lows and pictures I didn't like, he managed to drop a picture as staggeringly fucking brilliant as Inglourious Basterds is what made me able to write as much about Quentin as he has meant to me over the years. I also could not have done this if the story didn't end on a high note, because I just couldn't let a discussion of all these wonderful amazing pictures end with me being like, “Yeah, and now he sucks.” That would be wrong.

And now we return to non-Quentin-related movie ranting. To end the series on the same note of form-meets-content that I began it with, it is fitting that our long national nightmare comes to a close on October 31st. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

QUENTIN GOES BROADWAY, GETS BLASTED BY THE CRITICS, AND PONDERS REVENGE (PART FIVE)


Even his most ardent supporters have a difficult time defending Quentin Tarantino's acting. He does not, contrary to widely held belief, suck, although his acting is very mannered and he reads onscreen as fairly difficult to direct (since he always seems to do variations on one particular type of motormouth). Still, he can be an entertaining presence (see Reservoir Dogs, Sleep With Me, Pulp Fiction, hosting Saturday Night Live) and when it was announced that he'd be co-starring with Marisa Tomei and Stephen Lang on Broadway, I thought, “Huh. Hope that works.”

This reaction was in stark contrast to the consensus, which was general apoplexy: “THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT COULD POSSIBLY HAPPEN TO THE THEATRE!!!!” I, as many of you know—some to your great exasperation—act in and write plays, and the great majority of my close friends are theatre artists (Ed. Note: the difference between “theatre” and “theater” is roughly equivalent to “film” and “movie”). Theatre people are very protective of the theatre, and the kind of rough-around-the-edges, experimental downtown indie types that I proudly call colleagues/friends/prospective bank robbery partners have a relationship with Broadway that can get a little complicated now and then. In 1998, when Quentin was cast in a revival of Wait Until Dark (which was made into an awesome Audrey Hepburn-in-peril movie back in the 60s), the most common reaction among the theatre people I was around at the time (not, I should clarify, my current awesome circle) was equal parts the above-capitalized disgust, nearly always capped off by the condescending dismissal “It's just stunt casting,” which segued into a three-hour ellipsis about anarcho-Marxist theatre theory.

Civilians were a little burnt out on Quentin at this point, too. The fucking guy had been all over every single kind of media for over four years, and for your average civilian type—working some job that sucks, going to the movies for entertainment rather than some kind of transcendental intellectually visceral shamanistic ritual, judging movies individually rather than in the context of a director's career or the history of cinema—that was a bit much. Another thing to keep in mind about civilians is that, not having the advantage of holistic theories of creativity that frankly aren't even that widespread among intellectual artist types, the reaction “Fuck is this guy doing on fuckin Broadway? He's not an actor, he's a writer/director” is natural. And, ironically, since it's the same conclusion at which one arrives after a painstaking dissection of Quentin's career with the full armament of theory, historical context, and the scientific method, I have to hand it to the civilians on this one.

Now, I didn't actually see Quentin in Wait Until Dark, so I don't know whether he was good or bad or what. I do, however, have the funny feeling that despite the New York Times' insistence that “reports of his inadequacy have not been exaggerated,” that reports of his inadequacy might have been exaggerated just a smidge. I am willing to entertain the possibility that he wasn't good, but the vehemence with which everyone started slamming him seemed to have less to do with his actual (potentially not-that-great) performance and more to do with media burnout and a collective lack of intellectual and aesthetic flexibility on the part of the critical community. Quentin told Peter Biskind, “The acting bug was very big on me at that time . . . I was really chomping at the bit because I wasn't acting in Jackie Brown.” So when offered the chance to act on Broadway, he jumped at the opportunity.

We must also bear in mind that Quentin was not acting on Broadway because he was doing some bullshit vanity production. Some producer cast him in the hopes his name recognition would put asses in seats. Quentin took the part for the thrill of being on Broadway and to scratch his acting itch, but was treated by critics as though he wantonly, of his own accord, blasphemed against the theeaaaatuhh and Western civilization in general. Biskind quotes an anonymous friend of Quentin's (an occasional red flag that Peter Biskind is pulling something out of his ass, but whatever) as saying “He was traumatized,” and the result was, Quentin took a step back and went off the media grid for a while.

For the next couple years, all one would hear from Quentin were reports that he was either smoking weed all the time, or working on a World War II script called Inglorious Bastards (Ed. Note: the deliberate and inscrutably brilliant misspelling came later). People were talking about him as though his ship had sailed, with Jackie Brown regarded as less than a success; Quentin himself was personally responsible for a lot of this bullshit, as for whatever reason he was publicly and privately ambivalent about Jackie Brown, since it didn't make twice the money Pulp Fiction did or win gajillions of Oscars or some such.

Out of this ambivalence came his next project, Kill Bill, written as a vehicle for Uma Thurman. Kill Bill is a massive movie: the script ran 220 pages, and Quentin shot just about every single one of them. Upon completion, the picture cost more than his previous three features combined, and was about four hours long. Harvey Weinstein, much as he loves Quentin, was like, “Uhh . . . listen, don't take this the wrong way, babe, but if you think I'm putting out a four-hour movie, think again motherfucker.” They arrived at the solution of putting the movie out in two parts; the first one dropped in fall 2003, the second in spring '04.

It's interesting how different both parts feel, even though they're from a script that reads the same from start to finish. This is an excellent opportunity to introduce one of Quentin's most unsung collaborators, editor Sally Menke (who, tragically, died while walking her dog in the middle of a recent brutal southern California heat wave; requiescat in pace), the person most likely responsible for the two volumes not only having an individual tone, but feeling like separately conceived pictures. With every picture Quentin's ever directed except Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof being in excess of two and a half hours long, the fact that all are infinitely engrossing and watchable is due in very large part to the brilliantly talented Sally Menke. Kill Bill may very well be the apex of her work with Quentin, as the feverish collection of random, disparate, occasionally dissonant influences is always reasonably lucid and legible.

The actual narrative of Kill Bill is very simple: assassin Uma Thurman was shot and left for dead by her old employer and several former colleagues on her wedding day; she does not, in fact, die, and makes it her remaining life's work to find and kill all involved. The four-hour running time is not given over to the unfolding of this narrative, though: there are many genres and cinematic traditions that need to each be paid homage, meticulously, at times with the original film stock and camera equipment, and that sort of thing takes time.

Kill Bill is not my favorite Quentin picture (I think of Vols. 1 & 2 as being one movie.) There are moments that are absolutely terrific—the O-Ren Ishii chapter, in Japan, with the anime backstory, samurai swords (wrought by Sonny fucking Chiba), barefoot Japanese girl power pop trio, Crazy 88, Gogo, and massive motherfucking sword fight is one of the coolest action sequences any human being will ever stage. The bit in Vol. 2 where Uma goes to learn kung fu from Gordon Liu is pretty fuckin great too (Gordon Liu looks like he's having a blast playing with his fake beard and making racist/misogynist wisecracks at Uma's expense). But there are a lot of moments I don't entirely get, that drag for me, and there's a bit too much of being told such and such a character is cool rather than being shown.

Also—and I realize a lot of people think I'm out of mind on this count—I think the part of Bill was miscast. Every good action picture needs a good villain, and every good revenge movie really needs a good villain. And Bill certainly has potential. But given the fact that we never see him full on in Vol. 1, when he walks into frame in Vol. 2 as David Carradine, I'm kinda like . . . really? This old hippie is the most feared assassin in the world? It goes down, in one not-so-humble critic's opinion, as Quentin's first-ever casting fuckup. He originally offered the part to Warren Beatty, who did his usual epic Warren Beatty dithering that's equal parts salary negotiation, passive-aggressive request for script rewrites, and reluctance to go to work for anything other than the perfect part, and Quentin eventually got fed up with Warren Beatty's shit simultaneously with Warren turning down the role, and as I understand it—I might have heard wrong—Quentin was in a tight spot and had to think of a replacement fast.

It isn't so much that David Carradine's bad in the role. There's a kind of lived-in leatheriness to David Carradine that makes him a compelling presence, but he's entirely too laid back to be the most dangerous man in the world, even one whose danger is masked by a soft-spoken nature. Also, after two fucking movies and four fucking hours of Uma Thurman navigating twelve different cinematic genres and every single trope in the history of action movies and killing hundreds of people, the fact that the climax is David Carradine giving a speech (lifted from Jules Feiffer, no less) about Superman and Uma doing him in with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique was a bit meh for my tastes. Sure, the significance of Gordon Liu thinking Uma was cool enough to be taught the secret technique is not lost on me. Sure, the ultimate resolution of Uma being reunited with her miraculously alive daughter is the real conclusion of the movie. It's not that I don't “get it.” I just don't like it.

At the same time, I recognize Kill Bill as a massive, massive achievement in form. Quentin stands alone in his ability to synthesize and reproduce his influences, and Kill Bill shows a newly found, truly inspired ability to stage action. The way the images and music merge, always a big element of Quentin's pictures, reaches a new peak here; the truly awe-inspiring amount of weed Quentin and soundtrack supervisor Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah (commonly known to y'all as the RZA) must have smoked while picking the needle drops was not in vain. Every Quentin soundtrack worth its salt needs to spawn at least one song that achieves or regains classic status solely through its use on a Quentin soundtrack— “Stuck in the Middle With You,” “Miserlou,” “Across 110th St.”—and Kill Bill's “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” (aka the DENNN DENNN DENNN song) fits the (kill?) bill nicely.

So yeah. In conclusion, not saying Kill Bill sucks, because that would be fucking stupid. It's just a little too frenetic or a little too slow for me, depending on whether it's Vol. 1 or 2 we're talking about. This is partly because I loved Jackie Brown so much that it felt—again, note the equivocation, I don't want to argue about this—like Quentin was taking a step back. Not so much because the dialogue isn't as good (the dialogue isn't as good), but because it's a step back from real problems in a real(ish) world. Nothing against Uma Thurman, but if a hundred people with swords jumped her, she kind of sort of would be fucking dead. Of course, when a hundred people with swords jumped the Black Mamba, she kicked the shit out of them, and impressively. It's just, on a personal level, Jackie Brown ripping off a half-million bucks from Samuel L. was more personally satisfying to me, because it was easier to relate to reality. Still, I do admire Quentin's willingness and ability to branch out and make a different kind of picture.

In spite of not loving Kill Bill (and despising Sin City with a disproportionate amount of vehemence; seriously, don't bring up Sin City to me unless you want to be cursed at and watch glass break), when Quentin and Robert Rodriguez announced that they were teaming up and doing a picture called Grindhouse, I said, “Gentlemen. Do proceed at your earliest convenience. This is relevant to my interests.” Because both Quentin and RR have a well-developed sense of fun, and in spite of their (mostly RR's) missteps neither are pretentious.

Grindhouse was a fun experience: Planet Terror, Rodriguez's zombie picture, was fun once (though I can live without seeing it again), and the fake trailers were fucking sweet. Quentin's featurette, Death Proof, is vintage Quentin: proudly beholden and dutifully respectful to the exploitation cinema of Quentin's youth, with a twist. Death Proof is a slasher movie where the slasher uses his car, thus making it a car chase picture, thus making it fucking awesome. Another nice twist on 70s-era exploitation pictures is that, while it features two different groups of girls being menaced by Kurt Russell, and while those different groups of girls are composed exclusively of whistle-worthy hotties, they get a chance to be reasonably well-rounded characters who get plenty more to say than just screaming.

The shortened, pared-to-the-bone version of Death Proof in the original Grindhouse is a tense, well-mounted action feature with really really fucking good car stunts (even featuring one meta-stunt; man I love Quentin sometimes). The extended version, given a separate DVD release, has a whole bunch of boring dialogue scenes with shitty, incongruous color correction, so definitely stick with the “original.” Both versions do kind of make one wish Quentin had done more with Kurt Russell; while the decision to have the girls turn the tables on and beat the shit out of him in the end is really cool, the establishment of him as this brutal terrifying killer is a little perfunctory. There's a certain amount of compensation Kurt Russell manages to accomplish simply by being Kurt Russell, one of the dick-swingingest fucking movie stars to ever masculinely breath air, but even that considerable asset only brings us to about 95% of what the character could have been. But again, this is Monday morning quarterbacking, and Death Proof is an extremely fun ride.

After the release of Grindhouse, Quentin announced that he would finally be making his now-legendary World War II movie. Quentin fanboys—myself, of course, included—geared themselves up for what would surely be the most awesome fucking movie in the history of fucking ever. Would we be disappointed? Or would it, in fact, rule? Tune in for the sixth and (thank fuck) FINAL installment in this examination of Quentin Tarantino's career (coming tomorrow)!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

QUENTIN TARANTINO & PAM GRIER: TOGETHER AT LAST (PART FOUR)


In light of how dumb/terrible From Dusk 'Til Dawn and Four Rooms were, the news that Quentin Tarantino acquired the rights to a handful of Elmore Leonard novels was encouraging. Quentin credited Leonard with informing the Detroit parts of True Romance, and the influence didn't stop there. The two seemed like a natural pair: Quentin, the pasticheur/collagist director of two excellent crime pictures as well as his script for True Romance, and Elmore Leonard, the writer of many darkly humorous tales of wisecracking tough guys with violent streaks. As a big fan of both, I was quite excited.

It was thus a little confusing that, of the books he'd acquired, the one Quentin actually chose to direct was Rum Punch. Published in 1992, Rum Punch was a sequel to Leonard's 1978 The Switch (a book which, hilariously, Quentin was arrested for shoplifting as a teenager; bask in the levels, my friends), about a couple fuckups who botch a kidnapping. Rum Punch picks up when Louis, the dumber of the two fuckups, gets out of prison and finds the “smart” one, Ordell, running guns in Florida. The plot centers around airline stewardess Jackie Burke, written in a way that suggests Holly Hunter, who is smuggling cash for Ordell to make ends meet and decides to rip him off with the help of a friendly bail bondsman when the cops catch her. It's not Elmore Leonard's best work, but not his worst either. It was not immediately apparent why Quentin picked this book of all books to adapt, and even less so when he confusingly announced his adaptation was to be an homage to blaxploitation, reset in Los Angeles, with the title and heroine's name changed to Jackie Brown.

This was a bit of a test of faith in Quentin. I've long been a proponent of a deeply flawed theory that has its basis in music, that I call “third album syndrome,” which states that a band's third album is likely to be the one where if they fail, they will. The numerous exceptions to this theory notwithstanding, I nonetheless stick with it because while it may not be much of a theory, it's mine. The three examples I used most often while fretting stupidly about Jackie Brown:

The Doors—first two albums were awesome, third one started out as an album-length Morrison poem put to music, that was then scrapped and replaced with extemporized, self-indulgent crap with oodles of filler and a fucking terrible single that got them sued.

Pearl Jam—again, the first two albums were awesome, then suddenly they were like, “Waaaaa! Being a rock star is such a chore!” alienating the living shit out of civilized people, who value money, sex, and adulation. Even then, it would have been okay for them to be such derps about being famous if their third record had been any good; in the most maddening turn of events of all, about half of it is fucking stunningly amazing, and the other half is not just crap, it's lazily conceived and executed crap. And the fucking CD case didn't fit in any known CD rack known to man. (Ed. Note: this last was annoying enough for the author to be half-pissed at Pearl Jam ever since, even though their fourth and sixth albums were both rather good).

Oasis—not only, as pasticheurs, a great segue back into talking about Quentin, but after two tremendously successful albums that had them not only the biggest band in England but getting there in the US (no mean feat for a UK band), they dropped a massively-hyped third album consisting almost entirely of meandering, self-indulgent seven-minute epics that left no doubt about it being made by, as Noel Gallagher once put it, “four gobshites with a bag of charlie.”
With Oasis' massive, gross self-destruction having just happened earlier the same year Jackie Brown came out, I was a little worried about Quentin. Much as I liked Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, From Dusk 'Til Dawn had definitely given weight to the possibility that Quentin could flame out. Still, I kept an open mind, hoped for the best, and went to see Jackie Brown when it came out.

I'll put it this way: I will never need to be convinced that Quentin, on some level or other, knows what the fuck he's doing ever again. From the opening shot of Pam Grier set to “Across 110th St.” Jackie Brown is just wonderful. It's full of the kind of touches one expects from Quentin, like Samuel L. as Ordell explaining the intricacies of the modern arms trade to Robert De Niro as Louis with the help of a video called “Chicks With Guns” to the long (amazing) dialogue scenes, to the multiple-perspective climactic heist sequence, but with something extra, that came as a huge pleasant surprise at the time: maturity.

Jackie Brown is a movie about grown-ups who act like grown-ups. The fact that that's as profound as it is in a mainstream American movie is kind of fucked up, but hey. Better that such movies be rare than not exist at all. Most impressively, considering that the lead is a woman in her 40s who falls for a man in his 50s while pulling a scam motivated by fear of growing old and alone while broke, is that the picture was written and directed by a 32-34 year old millionaire who hadn't heard the word “no” since George Bush, Sr. was president. Quentin really pulled off something special with Jackie Brown. More than any other picture he's ever made, it feels like a story about real people with real problems. When the only truly implausible thing in the whole movie is Samuel L. Jackson's hair, we're dealing with (wonderfully) atypical Quentin.

It's especially ironic, given my concerns about the attendant bombast, self-indulgence, and general obnoxiousness of third albums, that Quentin, in a position where he could literally do anything he wanted—no joke, Harvey Weinstein would have greenlit an O.J. Simpson vehicle if it was Quentin's followup to Pulp Fiction—and what he wanted to do was make a leisurely, well-observed story about a middle-aged woman who needs to prove to herself and the world that she's still got it. As third albums go, it's more like the Velvet Underground's than anything else: low-key, easy on the flash, and catchy as hell.

And now, Pam Grier. In a just universe, she would have been one of the biggest movie stars in the world for her entire career. She's absolutely stunning, and she can act. And, certainly, her work in the 70s would have guaranteed her icon status even without the late-career resurgence of which Jackie Brown was a huge part. But Pam Grier got into the movie business at a time when good roles for black actors in mainstream movies were about as frequent as solar eclipses, and good roles for black women were about as frequent as ice ages. Thus, she starred in exploitation pictures, some of which were good, some of which really, really sucked. Stars find their audience, though. To watch her in those 70s pictures was to love, admire, and respect her. As cult movie stars go, she's one of the finest to ever grace the screen.

Due to the industry's unfriendliness toward women, to say nothing of black women, Pam Grier spent the 80s and 90s toiling in obscurity—showing up on an episode of Miami Vice here, as Steven Seagal's partner who was so much more awesome than him it was like she showed up to the wrong movie there—until she started getting a bunch of roles in pictures like Mars Attacks! and Original Gangstas (Ed. Note: the term, while not coined for Pam Grier, easily could have been). And then Quentin said, “Hi, Ms. Grier. I'm a really big fan of yours. Would you please be in my movie?”

Quentin's casting of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction had gotten a lot of attention because, as is very easy to forget now that he's sort of annoying and we'd like to be rid of him, his career was fucking dead in the early 90s. John Travolta being in a hit movie and being really good was shocking at the time. Emboldened by this—one pictures him walking around with a giant joint in his mouth bellowing something incoherent about Lazarus—Quentin decided to pull the same trick in Jackie Brown, giving the lead to another of the most dearly beloved movie stars of his youth. And it worked just as well. Pam Grier in Jackie Brown is probably the best performance by a woman in a mainstream American movie that whole decade. If not, she's damn close. Don't get me started about the fucking Oscars that year; they should have stopped handing them out after that bullshit Helen Hunt win (and bullshit Pam non-nomination).

Not content to stop there, Quentin went even more obscure for his male lead. Robert Forster had been in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Medium Cool—both of which were good but not hugely popular, not to mention thirty years old when Jackie Brown dropped—and also, interestingly, Original Gangstas with the above-mentioned Ms. Grier. He was no stranger to Quentin, though. Quentin knew how good Robert Forster was going to be and thus was intractable. Robert Forster was going to be the lead and that was that. Probably the best example of Quentin's confidence in his casting instincts is the fact that Robert De Niro, Bobbert the Maginficent Himself, read the script and said, “Hey, kid. I want to play the lead in your next picture” (add more mumbling and emotional remoteness for full effect) but Quentin said “Nope. Some guy you've never heard of is playing that part. You can play Samuel L.'s retard sidekick if you like, though.” And probably the best example of how huge Quentin was in the mid-90s was that Bobbert didn't just reflexively tell Quentin to go fuck himself; not only that, but he took the part as Samuel L.'s retard sidekick.

Robert Forster as Max Cherry is one of the most singular performances I've ever seen. It's a fairly well-written character, but atypically for a Quentin character Max Cherry says as much with his silence as with his words. He's a genuinely good guy who does his job, believes in right and wrong (and doesn't necessarily equate those with legal and illegal, even though he's not a lawbreaker), and maintains like a goddamn champion when the shit goes down. That scene at the end when Samuel L.'s holding him at gunpoint in the car, and the Delfonics are on, and Samuel L. goes, “You like the Delfonics?” and Robert Forster takes that beat before saying, flatly, “They're pretty good” just fucking rules. It's two lines, but they have a whole conversation. Because Samuel L. knows, generalization though it may be, no white guy Robert Forster's age listens to the Delfonics, and the fact that he has the tape on in his car is a clear indication that he's thrown in with Jackie (who, as a black woman who was young in the 70s, falls much more comfortably into the Delfonics' demographic). And Robert Forster, fully grasping the implication of what's being said, manages to say “Yes, I bought this tape because Jackie was playing the record at her place. This music reminds me of her, and I love it because I love her.” All in one fucking sentence. AND he manages to tell Samuel L. to go fuck himself. IN ONE FUCKING SENTENCE. All with timing, inflection, and cadence. That shit is fierce.

As for Samuel L., I have to confess I'm a little divided. Part of it's Quentin's fault (after all, Samuel L. didn't write the script where his character breaks the Guinness World Record for n-bombs in a movie), but the goofy hair is Samuel L.'s fault, as is this: I've written, directed, and acted, and have been on all sides of the writer/actor/director conversation about script rewrites, and when you're working on a new script (be it original or an adaptation), they're quite common, and actors can say to a director “Hey, this text feels awkward.” This is something actors can and should do. It's then on the writer and/or director to determine whether this is something the actor needs to work past, or whether they can change the line. If a line gets through, the actor, writer, and director share responsibility if it sucks. Or seems racist.

That being said, for most of this picture, Samuel L. is fucking rad, in the way only Samuel L. can be fucking rad. The scene near the beginning where he manipulates a stoned Chris Tucker—and incidentally, Chris Tucker is fucking out of his mind good in that scene—into the trunk of his car is one of my favorite movie scenes ever. The dialogue is nonpareil, both Samuel L. and Chris Tucker are great, and Quentin's camera is elegant and unobtrusive (Ed. Note: yes, the words “Quentin Tarantino,” “elegant,” and “unobtrusive” were used in the same sentence. Simmer down, kids). That long crane shot at the end when Samuel L. drives over into the lot, opens up the trunk and shoots a still-yapping Chris Tucker twice is like . . . holy shit. Cinema for the fucking win.

Like all Quentin movies, the supporting cast is universally tremendous as well. It may not look like Bobbert's doing anything (and fuck knows I've had dozens of conversations with people who think he sucks in this) but bear in mind he's playing an inarticulate, borderline retarded, poorly socialized fuckup. You know how you fuck a character like that up? Overdoing it. You know what works as a template onto which an audience can project what they will from the context of the overall piece? Stillness and silence. Now, I ain't saying this is his finest work or anything, but Bobbert holds it down. And I'd rather see Bobbert hold it down subtly in a good movie than mug like a fucko in Meet the Parents 4.

Bridget Fonda, as Bobbert's weed-smoking buddy (and for three many-splendored mostly off-screen minutes, sex partner), catches a bit of shit from people as well for being annoying. But, again, the character is really stupid and way farther into her 30s than anyone who sits around smoking weed all day should be. If you do a good job playing an annoying dipshit, you're going to look like an annoying dipshit, that's just how it goes. It's incumbent on the audience to discern whether the actor is supposed to be an annoying dipshit. And let me tell you, ladies, I can discern with the best of them. Zing! Try the veal.

Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen, as the cops who bust Jackie, make a good team. Michael Keaton, in particular, is summed up perfectly by a Max Cherry line: “He's just a young guy havin' fun bein' a cop.” Because everything Robert Forster does as Max Cherry is perfect. Michael Bowen does a particularly impressive job considering he's probably the least famous person in the whole movie (though that would change after he was the genius kid's asshole dad in Magnolia and, more importantly, Buck who came to fuck in Kill Bill).

One thing that helps lend a certain reality to the proceedings—dealing as the story does with gun dealers, feds, smuggling, and so forth—is the fact that the sum of money (a half million bucks) Pam Grier plots to rip off from Samuel L. is, while a fuckton of money, an amount of money that would both motivate a normal person to do extraordinary thing and is actually an amount of money a normal person could, given the right circumstances, steal. Where something like The Usual Suspects benefited from the amount of money they were trying to rip off being so mind-boggling ($91 mil) because it was about a mythic villain, Jackie Brown is a more down-to-earth affair. Thirteen years later I'm still amazed that Quentin's first “I can do whatever the fuck I want” movie was so restrained, disciplined, and painstakingly of this world (well, Los Angeles, but still).

The indulgences and missteps in Jackie Brown are so small and periodic as to be almost invisible. True, it is two and a half hours long and deliberately paced, but it's very much a movie that wants to sit down and smoke a bowl with you, in the best sense of the concept. Its joys are not lost on those unfamiliar with the joys of smoking a leisurely afternoon bowl, though that is just about the only experiential analogue to Jackie Brown. Also, much like the proverbial good weed-smoking experience, awesome tunes are in abundance. Everything on the soundtrack is absolutely terrific, and only one needle-drop is out of place in the movie itself: the scene when Samuel L. is sitting in his car thinking about killing Robert Forster while listening to “Tennessee Stud” by Johnny Cash. First of all, no, Samuel L. is not listening to that song while sitting in his car thinking on a murder. Sorry, Quentin. Second, it's a great song but it's just about the only thing on the soundtrack that isn't 70s soul, so it sticks out like a sore thumb and makes what should be an ominous couple of seconds randomly funny when it shouldn't be. Third, if Samuel L. is getting ready to light somebody up, and he's in his car listening to tunes and he wants to hear some acoustic guitars, what's wrong with Leadbelly? I know I'm splitting hairs and Monday morning quarterbacking, and it really isn't that big a deal, but that's my point. Looking for flaws in Jackie Brown, your list is going to be short and make you look like a dickhead.

When it came out, I remember a lot of people walking around whining “well, it's no Pulp Fiction.” No shit, straw man, of course it's not Pulp Fiction, that's what's so impressive about it. Quentin made about as good a followup as he possibly could have: just similar enough that it's recognizably Quentin but just different enough that he showed the ability to grow (and not repeat himself). It's the most rewatchable picture he's ever made, in spite of its length, and anything that keeps Pam Grier working is a noble enterprise. Also, let us not ignore the fact that Quentin resisted the urge to act in it; who the fuck would he have played? Michael Bowen's part? How much would that have sucked? (Quentin does the voice of Pam Grier's answering machine, but that's it, and it's kind of funny).

But because a lot of critics had already decided that nothing could top Pulp Fiction, and because it didn't do Pulp Fiction box office, the meme took hold that Jackie Brown was a borderline failure. Nothing could be more exasperating to someone who actually saw the fucking movie, but with the inevitability of the critical reaction and audiences desperately wanting to seem too cool to like Quentin anymore, it really couldn't have happened any other way. Shame that Jackie Brown was the movie that had to take the hit, and that it's been taking furious amounts of effort on the part of my fellow nerds and I to make sure that Jackie Brown gets its just due as one of the best movies of the 90s.

In our next installment we'll see Quentin, having bought the bullshit lie that Jackie Brown didn't work, trying to figure out what to do next. The answer: Broadway, a lot of weed, and a four-hour movie where Uma Thurman cuts people up with swords. Oh, Quentin . . . what the fuck? To find out what the fuck, tune in for PART FIVE!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

THE WORLD IS QUENTIN TARANTINO'S OYSTER (PART THREE)



(Click here for part one and here for part two)

The year is 1995. Quentin Tarantino is the second coming of sliced bread. Pulp Fiction has won not only the Palme D'Or but an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Every annoying twat in the Western world is walking around quoting his dialogue out of context. Hollywood is blushing at him and pulling up its skirt to show a glimpse of stocking. Where do we go from here?

Quentin's initial reaction was, apparently, to try doing everything all at once. He took parts in movies like Destiny Turns On The Radio (which I've never seen, partly because of the shitty title). He took high-paying script doctor jobs like Crimson Tide (all those Silver Surfer references and James Gandolfini spouting submarine movie trivia, presumably). He directed an episode of ER (which, in another reminder that shit was different in '95, was once a groundbreaking and genuinely exciting television show; the original cast was one of the most talented yet assembled on the small screen). Capping an unprecedented year of celebrity for a movie director—with only two features under his belt, no less—Quentin hosted Saturday Night Live in November and it didn't seem weird at all.

Then, in December, a movie called Four Rooms was released. It was an anthology comprised of four stories, each by a different writer-director, that began life as a victory lap for the “Sundance Class of '92,” consisting of Quentin, Alison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, and Robert Rodriguez (whose El Mariachi actually screened at the festival the next year, but got to hang because El Mariachi was awesome). The four writer-directors were quite good friends, and by the time they commenced work on it, the intent was for Quentin—obviously the most famous of the bunch—and Robert Rodriguez, who had blown people's fucking minds with El Mariachi, to use their media profile to give Anders and Rockwell, who had gotten good critical notices for their debut features but not a whole lot of money, a boost. They came up with the idea to set the movie in a hotel, linked by a put-upon bellhop (played by Tim Roth), and each director would make a short set in a different room in the hotel.

It sounded like a great idea—and the public certainly couldn't get enough of Quentin at the time—but the result is one of those movies that's bad in a very strange, borderline inexplicable way. Anders' and Rockwell's “rooms” are the best of the bunch (though holy crap Madonna sucks in Anders' one), perhaps because unlike their more famous friends they had more at stake and couldn't just phone them in, but even they aren't all that great. Robert Rodriguez's “room” is the stuff the “eye roll + jerk-off” gesture was designed to describe. But Quentin's . . . holy shit.

The first eight minutes or so is one uninterrupted shot of a very drunk-looking Quentin talking directly into the camera about stuff like Cristal champagne and getting in some very unsubtle digs at Hollywood types. Bruce Willis and Paul Calderon—who also look fucked out of their tree on something or other—are wandering around cursing in the background. Tim Roth eventually gets them to explain why they've requested the weird assortment of items he's dutifully brought, at which point Quentin explains that they have a bet, based on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen, wherein Paul Calderon has to light his Zippo lighter ten times in a row. If he succeeds, he gets Quentin's car. If he loses, he loses a finger. Tim Roth has, involuntarily, drawn finger-cutting detail. Tim Roth is initially squeamish, but Quentin (in an extremely drawn-out but mildly entertaining speech) bribes the living fuck out of him. After almost a half-hour of buildup, Paul Calderon finally tries to light his lighter, fails the first time, and Tim Roth chops his finger off and hauls ass the fuck out of the penthouse suite. End of movie.

It's not the worst thing ever, and it certainly has a couple amusing moments, but it contains a number of gigantic Quentin ego red flags:

(1) All the broadsides against shallow Hollywood assholes, while not without merit, sound a little weird coming from a 32 year old who has sold every script he ever completed, and seen one of them turn into a $100 million grossing, generation-defining pop culture event. Just about the only times Quentin didn't get his way were Mike Medavoy getting nervous about people shooting heroin and casually blowing each other's heads off in Pulp Fiction (Quentin's intractability on those counts were what led the project moving from Tri-Star to Miramax, where everyone lived happily ever after), and Oliver Stone pissing on Natural Born Killers. Granted, the latter had to suck, and the former certainly couldn't have been fun, but still. Chill out.

(2) Quentin, not the greatest actor in the world by any reckoning, plays by far the biggest part and has—by rough estimate—90% of the lines. His performances in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (not to mention Sleep With Me, aka "the movie where Quentin gives the speech about Top Gun being gay"), because they were smaller, didn't expose his mediocre acting nearly as much. He has one thing that he does very well, which is “doing Quentin.” Considering that that's a very entertaining act, that's nothing to sneeze at, but his weird, drunk Four Rooms is a little out of his comfort zone (and his faux-black accent, while perhaps a side effect of his being drunk, is a headscratcher).

(3) Apropos of that last point about Quentin seeming drunk, everyone in the vignette with the possible exception of Tim Roth, seems like they're actually drunk/on drugs in real life. This could just be really good acting, but if it is, it's really really good acting.

(4) The whole goddamn thing is just a rehash of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode it's “paying homage” to. Quentin, at his best, at least throws in several different purloined plot elements and re-arranges them. Four Rooms just gives ammunition to the “Quentin steals, fuck him” brigade. And they're annoying, because their argument is reductive.

(5) It's set in the goddamn penthouse of the hotel, which is four/five times the size of the other three rooms. Blatant, blatant symbolism.
Four Rooms is one of those “critics hate it, everyone else kinda likes it” pictures. I'll grudgingly admit that if I had some good weed, a bottle of whiskey, and a bunch of friends to crack wise with, I'd probably enjoy it very much. But even if one likes the movie, and Quentin's “room,” it's hard not to see potentially problematic ego problems shining through. (It should be noted that the Four Rooms experience basically ended his friendships with Anders and Rockwell).

Not long after Four Rooms opened, another Quentin/Robert Rodriguez collaboration, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, did as well. This one, at the time, I was very much looking forward to. The idea of QT and RR doing a fuckin vampire movie was about as cool as cool got to 17 year old me.

The irony, looking back, is that the vampire part of the movie was exactly the moment where I thought it started to suck. The first half of the movie, featuring George Clooney and Quentin as brothers (!) on the run from the entire law enforcement establishment of the southwest United States, is vintage Quentin: hip, tough-guy dialogue, crazy cartoonish violence, the whole ball of wax. Robert Rodriguez's similar but goofier sensibilities only helped (as they did in his El Mariachi remake/sequel/whatthefuck Desperado, where Quentin had a funny cameo before violently dying).

Clooney, in his first starring role, was surprisingly badass at the time (not having his career since to prepare us, it was one of those “wow, he has balls? Who knew?” moments), and Quentin was reasonably effective, since he had to play a lunatic sex criminal. When they kidnap Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, and the other kid and insist on being taken to Mexico, it's a very tense few minutes of movie. Then we get to the club where Clooney's contact asks to meet them, and all hell breaks loose.

While a movie stopping on a dime and suddenly becoming a completely different movie is novel, it is a very jarring experience. Especially when the vampires are all done with such shitty special effects. Quentin and Double-R were, I understand, paying homage to the shitty low budget horror movies that gave them boners as kids, so one would think criticizing the shitty FX would leave me open to “you just don't get it” accusations (a particularly irritating conversation to get into with other Quentin fans). But here's the twist: the reason the FX suck is that they're too expensive. This was also the problem that their future collaboration Grindhouse would have: they had way too much money to pay proper homage to the $1.50 pieces of shit of yore.

Low-budget movies are awesome precisely because they're low-budget. Spending $15 million (From Dusk 'Til Dawn's budget) to pay tribute to something that cost $15 thousand simply doesn't add up. It's always going to look a little too slick, and having people like George Clooney and Salma Hayek on hand, awesome though they are, throws off the whole enterprise, not to mention Harvey Keitel (even Juliette Lewis, a seemingly perfect fit in a trashy exploitation milieu, is too self-aware).

From Dusk 'Til Dawn made me confront a sobering truth about my taste in horror movies, and my complete lack of ability to discuss them without gigantic faggotry disclaimers: I prefer Anne Rice vampires. Sorry, I'll take all necessary ridicule for that statement (and don't worry, Twilight can eat a dick, my taste isn't that bad), but a) no one's perfect, and b) ghouls bore me. The From Dusk 'Til Dawn vampires are basically ghouls, and they thus leave me snoring. The thing I liked about the Anne Rice variation—all her bullshit narcissism and Catholic baggage aside—is that they're sexy. They have moments of monstrosity, but there's an appeal to them, and a very seductive element. Is it fair to blame Quentin for not giving me exactly what I want in a vampire movie? Of course not, but that's not why I'm on his ass about this movie.

Again, my main beef with From Dusk 'Til Dawn is the ego trip aspect. Quentin and RR both made their bones with debut features that turned their limited resources into assets. But, once they both hit it big, it was like, “ooh, more toys, gimme gimme.” It would be fucking stupid to tell someone that just because they made one good low-budget movie they have to keep making low-budget movies forever after. Instead, I advocate the principle of holistically combining resources and the creative process. If you have no money, make the kind of movie you make when you have no money (dialogue scenes and in-camera effects over car chases and CGI, for an extreme example), and when you have money, make the kind of movie that you need money to make. Conversely, if, like From Dusk 'Til Dawn, you have an idea that you really shouldn't spend more than a million bucks on, don't spend more than a million bucks. Use the other $14 mil for P&A, I don't give a shit, but the authenticity of it being a genuinely inexpensive picture will help the movie in the long run.

Anyway, in spite of it being a fairly successful year and change for him, Quentin still was facing pressure to make another feature, concurrent with the beginning of the “Quentin can't create original work” grumbling. It was announced, eventually, that Quentin's next picture would be an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, but retitled Jackie Brown and rewritten as an homage to the “blaxploitation” pictures of the 70s. It would be released . . . eventually.

Would Jackie Brown be the epoch-defining, walking-on-water masterpiece that the critics and general public demanded? How much weed would our erstwhile protagonist smoke while trying to cope with the astronomical expectations? Tune in for Part Four to find out!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

QUENTIN TARANTINO BECOMES "QUENTIN TARANTINO" (PART TWO)

(For part one, a discussion of Reservoir Dogs and True Romance, click here)


Before Quentin made Reservoir Dogs, he had already written two scripts, each of which he intended to direct as his first feature. The first was True Romance. The second was a much more ambitious variation on the two-young-lovers-on-the-run theme, Natural Born Killers, the story of two young lovers who drive around killing people and subsequently become celebrities.

Natural Born Killers was ahead of its time. Quentin's paradox when he first wrote it was that you need to have seen a Quentin Tarantino movie for it to make any kind of aesthetic sense, and he'd yet to make one. In terms of content, its examination and critique of the way America makes celebrities out of outlaws similarly needed things to happen that hadn't yet happened to make any kind of sense (O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, reality TV, and whatever other sleazy fish in the barrel wish to volunteer for target practice). Quentin's script was a thought-provoking, cynical meditation on the idea of celebrity written by someone who would become one but wasn't yet. As a script it wasn't quite filmable but would be without all that much work. But, judging from certain elements like notes on camera moves and effects and switching between a variety of different kinds of film stock, it was clear that Quentin considered it to be, if not complete, then very close to. However, because he couldn't get it made with himself attached as director, he sold the script to a pair of producers (one of whom Quentin would later feud—and slap in the face—publicly) who developed it on their own.

Unlike True Romance, where in spite of a couple cosmetic structural changes and one new ending the finished result was recognizably a “Quentin” movie (by which we mean, of course, that Roger Avary wrote considerable chunks of it), the version of Natural Born Killers that eventually hit the screen ended up being a cultural conservative's cold sweat nightmare of what a Quentin movie was like. Even the flashiest penis lariat moments in something like, say, Kill Bill still had visual clarity and legibility, and while they may have only been an homage to some thirty-five year old Asian movie that no one except Quentin and the Asian movie's editor ever saw (the director, of course, having moved on to his next), they were still specific references to some specific thing, and you could see what was happening. The Quentin-less Natural Born Killers had so such specificity or artistry (the pasticheur and collagist are artists, whether you like it or not). The reason why lays firmly at the feet of Oliver Stone.

Oliver Stone has made or had a hand in some very fine movies. He wrote Midnight Express (for which he won his first Oscar) and Brian De Palma's remake of Scarface, which is a thoroughly ridiculous entity (and, not coincidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). As far as his efforts as a director go, the original Wall Street is quotable, JFK was a diverting act of trolling, and The Doors has its moments even if it thoroughly ignored nearly all the reasons why Jim Morrison was actually interesting. However, Platoon suffers from terminal “look at how cool and nihilistic I am” syndrome, Born on the Fourth of July lacks any kind of subtlety whatsoever and is about four days long (though Tom Cruise works his fucking ass off in it), and nothing else he ever did was really worth a shit. Well, except Any Given Sunday, which is pretty tight in spite of Al Pacino being miscast (if Al was coaching a sports team, he'd be one of those tightly wound megalomaniac Rick Pitino-type college basketball coaches) and Cameron Diaz turning in one of the most unintentionally funny performances of all time.

Which brings us to Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, to be blunt, is two hours of Oliver Stone sucking his own dick. Any pretense of it being an examination of the media and its complicity in making celebrities out of criminals is crushed beneath a mountain of self-indulgent, decadent overkill. The two leads are miscast, though Juliette Lewis slightly less so than Woody Harrelson, who is neither scary nor sympathetic enough to succeed in either being a menacing psychopath or a hapless victim of a corrupt media culture. There are a lot of name actors in the cast, but they mostly either jump around and scream, like Tommy Lee Jones, or wander around looking like they spent all night getting fucked up with the director, like Robert Downey Jr. There is one exception, and it's an absolute doozy. The best performance and only thing of any redeemable value in the movie is Rodney Dangerfield.

In a scene (not in Quentin's original script, natch) illustrating the domestic horrors Juliette Lewis sought to escape by running away with Woody Harrelson (it hurts just to type that; why the fuck would anyone run away with Woody Harrelson . . .?) in the form and style of a TV sitcom, Rodney plays her father. Rodney unleashes the full, terrifying force of the dark side he hid with his comic persona for all those years, the pathos and torture of his lifelong battle with clinical depression, and delivers one of the most stunning performances I've ever seen. Not necessarily best, or most accomplished. Literally stunning. He openly talks about molesting his daughter, and leers at her in a way that can only be described as demonic. It is fitting, though, that the only good thing in the movie is still so ugly.

While Oliver Stone was off shrooming in the desert like a fucking jagoff and trying to break the Guinness World Record for most unnecessary cuts in a movie, Quentin was off being a mature professional (Ed. Note: if you make Quentin Tarantino look like a paragon of restraint and work ethic you have seriously, irrevocably fucked the dog). He waded through a bunch of futile attempts by Tri-Star to fuck him over and formed what would be a lasting and fruitful partnership with Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein, who picked up Quentin's new project, Pulp Fiction, in turnaround. In one of the most impressive achievements of Quentin's career, he got into a dick-measuring contest with Harvey over the length of the picture, the turgidity and circumference of the cast, and whether it would be released uncut. And won.

Quentin had made quite the impression in Europe with Reservoir Dogs, with the entire United Kingdom walking around going “'S a fuckin good film, innit?” and a sizable group of French people blowing smoke rings at each other and saying “Je ne peux pas me rappeler un Américain américain de film aussi que celui-ci, ni un directeur américain tellement singulièrement de sa terre natale” (Ed. Note: only “a sizable group” felt this way because there's no such thing as uniformity in France). So, when Quentin had a new picture on the way, Gilles Jacob was like, “Donnez-le moi, baby,” and Pulp Fiction went to Cannes, winning the Palme D'Or. This kicked off an avalanche of critical acclaim almost as over the top as the events of the movie.

Now, Pulp Fiction was an enormously important movie in my life and in my development as a movie lover. It's a really fucking good movie, and it manages to seem fresh and new in spite of the fact that just about everything in it is taken from other movies and TV. This never bothered me as much as it did some other people, precisely because the act of assembling and arranging these borrowed elements transformed them into something wholly other. Quentin deserves a hell of a lot of credit for this picture, even if he probably should have given Roger Avary co-screenwriting credit (Quentin wanted the title card and promotional material to say “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino” for the sake of his ego, when Avary wrote the entire Bruce Willis/Maria de Medeiros/Ving Rhames/Deliverance segment, as well as a couple other memorable scenes). Pulp Fiction was by far the best American movie of 1994 (nothing else that year was within ten miles), and top 5 for the decade, no argument whatsoever. But a lot of critics weren't content to let it be awesome. It needed to be Very Important as well.

The most concise example of the critical hysteria: Quentin found himself being compared to Jean-Luc Godard. This is, to say the least, a stretch. The color pallette Quentin's DP Andrzej Sekula used is kinda sorta like a couple shots in Godard's Made in U.S.A./La Chinoise mid-60s period. Almost. Quentin did claim that the Twist scene in Pulp Fiction was inspired by the Madison scene in Bande A Part. Okay, that's two similarities. It literally took me about fifteen minutes to think of the dance connection (Ed. Note: Wikipedia is for pussies). Point being, the critics kind of overdid it.

I think the reason why is that Serious Cineaste types don't really let their hair down and loosen up all that much. Quentin's intrusion upon their consciousness was the kind of thing they had no way of knowing what to deal with. These poor intellectuals saw Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and got blindsided by these incredibly aggressive, stylish “go fuck yourself” movies and stumbled, dazed, into their libraries in their velvet smoking jackets, mumbling “Oh dear, I must find my thesaurus,” and looked up synonyms for “piquant” and found words like “awesome,” “dope,” and “rad” that only served to deepen the confusion. In this addled and slightly terrified haze, they began to ascribe all kinds of intellectual significance to Quentin's pictures that simply weren't there.

Quentin Tarantino is not an intellectual. This isn't a value judgment; “intellectual” isn't a mark of superiority, it's a state of being and a way of approaching the world. Quentin is not the type to sit around stroking his chin and musing upon the great mysteries of our time (though fuck knows he's got the chin for it if he decided to try). He is an enthusiast. He watches pictures by people like Jean-Luc Godard and goes, “Wow, that's awesome,” and he's right. They are. Watching something like Weekend and digging on that massive traffic jam tracking shot for its sheer value as entertainment is equally as valid as looking at it as a blistering visual critique of the Western capitalist lifestyle. It's all a matter of perspective.

From my perspective, Pulp Fiction came out at the absolute perfect time. I was just about to turn 16, with all the usual teenage male appreciation for violence and rude language that entails. I was also several years into a lifelong love for pulp literature, noir and neo-noir movies, and had juuuuust gotten to the point watching movies where I started getting bored of seeing the same old shit over and over again. The thing about innovation—of any sort—is that if it's too new, it's very scary to people, and Quentin had already warmed up the movie-going public with Reservoir Dogs and to a lesser extent his script for True Romance (Natural Born Killers doesn't count; fuck you, Oliver Stone). Pulp Fiction's newness, while it changed the face of American cinema and made an impact still felt today in nearly every genre of cinema we have, needed to be not so new in order to have that impact. Through the fact that it wasn't Quentin's debut and by Quentin's nature as a pasticheur and collagist, Pulp Fiction managed to be the game-changer it became.

While the things we remember most about Pulp Fiction are its long dialogue scenes full of hip talk and pop culture references, its periodic scenes of intense violence, and boldly weird non-linear structure, the thing that made it great instead of just new or cool is the characters. Every principal character in it is a multidimensional person, equal parts larger than life and ordinary fuckup.

John Travolta's character, Vincent Vega, is the most perfect for his skills of any he's ever played: a not very bright, overly emotional, but deeply loyal and dependable guy, who is that great rarity (but not, despite what civilians might think, unheard of): the functioning heroin addict. This last is a great metaphor for Travolta's addiction to making shitty movies; he started feeding the bad movie monkey on his back the second his Pulp Fiction success gave him the opportunity. (Ed. Note: the irony that he "cleaned up" in this metaphor by playing a junkie is delicious). But that's neither here nor there, his performance as Vincent Vega is one of the great pleasant surprises in movies.

Samuel L. Jackson, in an equally revelatory performance, is a fiercely charismatic, glib killer whose spiritual transformation from the avatar of “the tyranny of evil men” into someone who's “trying, real hard, to be a shepherd” only seems abrupt when you ignore the fact that, despite the fact that he follows orders and kills who Marcellus Wallace wants killed, he still questions whether the big man might have “overreacted” by tossing a once-loyal associate “into a glass motherfuckin house, fuckin up the way the nigga talks” on the basis of a rumor.

Ving Rhames, as Marcellus, is the very model of absolute power. What he says happens. Who he says dies does so promptly. And yet, he suffers extreme violation at the hands of the lunatics in the pawn shop, and only maintains his power by virtue of the fact that the one living witness to his being shown powerless will never see or speak of him again.

As that witness, Bruce Willis gives—as does almost everyone else in the cast—the best performance of his career as a boxer who is more cunning than he is intelligent, making the near-fatal mistake of thinking he can rip off The Man and live, and only through the talismanic power of a watch that saw several male ancestors through wars does he manage to escape with his life. And even, after all that he does to both recover the watch and escape with his life, he still is forced to recognize his girlfriend's disappointment at not being able to get her ideal breakfast as more important than his own troubles.

Uma Thurman, as Marcellus Wallace's wife, has less complexity to her, but no less power to her situation. Most gangster movies regard the trophy wife as exactly a trophy and no more. Her ability to fill out a swimsuit, evening gown, or lounging attire is considered to be the beginning and end of her role in the gangster's life. (Not even her skills in the bedroom are important; gangsters fuck their mistresses).Quentin asks the rare rhetorical question: “How fucking boring is it to be that person?” Mrs. Wallace is very bored indeed, turning to blow and clinging to any diversion at all like a life raft. In a deleted scene, when John Travolta shows up to take her out for a night of chaste, safe, entertainment, Uma Thurman interviews him and films it with a video camera; she's so unused to human contact that she has to ease into it with that artifice. Ultimately, the scene was cut for length—it is a little long—and because her boredom and isolation didn't really need any more emphasis, but the inner life of the boss' wife is so rarely explored that it's kind of sad: all that money, and she's still that starved for human contact.

Even though the characters are the most important thing about the movie, the most memorable thing about it is Quentin's dialogue. And, as impolitic as it is, there have been fewer funnier scenes than this one, after John Travolta accidentally shoots Marvin in the face—“I accidentally shot Marvin in the face” is pretty damn funny its own self—and Samuel L. has to call his one friend in the Valley at about seven or eight in the morning and ask him if they can hide out at his place until Marcellus can send reinforcements:

Quentin (as Jimmie, the friend): Let me just ask you one thing. When you came pulling in here, did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said “Dead Nigger Storage?”
Samuel L.: Jimmie, you know I ain't seen no—
Quentin: Did you notice a sign out in front of my house that said “Dead Nigger Storage?”
Samuel L. (sighs): No, I didn't.
Quentin: You know why you didn't see that sign?
Samuel L. (sighs again): Why?
Quentin: Cuz it ain't there, cuz storing dead niggers ain't my fucking business, that's why!
I know, I know, I know. But come on, picturing a huge blinking neon sign that says “Dead Nigger Storage” is funny. My other favorite line in the picture is, not at all coincidentally, another mildly transgressive one: when Harvey Keitel's fixer character capably guides Travolta and Samuel L. through the process of cleaning the car and they're all happy, he reminds them they're not done yet with the legendary, “Well, let's not start suckin' each other's dicks just yet.” Again, for the visual image.

Usually, there's nothing quite like the first time one sees a memorable movie. With Pulp Fiction though, I feel the same exhilaration in only moderately diminished force every time I watch it. I'm a compulsive re-watcher of favorite movies (and definitely have a handful of what Quentin, himself a big re-watcher, calls “hang out movies,” that you put on to hang out with the characters in their world), but I only re-watch Pulp Fiction once every couple years. For one, I don't need to: it's burned into my memory (even the parts I misremember, I consistently misremember). For another, I don't really want to. It's a powerful enough experience every time that overdoing it is a mistake. I remember, distinctly, one time in my freshman year of college that someone insisted on watching it because I was the only person in the dorm who owned it, and I'd just watched it with someone else the other day, and it felt distinctly like having an extra portion of a great meal when already full. By the end, it just didn't taste as good, and it was a while before I could “eat” again.

The way Pulp Fiction was released was as novel, for an “independent” movie (Miramax was, by that point, owned by Disney, and Pulp Fiction was the first movie they produced rather than acquiring after completion): sensing, with the delirious critical acclaim on top of drugs and violence, commercial potential, Harvey Weinstein gave it an immediate wide release rather than doing the normal independent movie thing of putting it in a couple theaters and generating word of mouth. Word of mouth was redundant. Everyone was talking about it. Some industry people were quietly snickering at the idea of Harvey releasing Pulp Fiction the same weekend as a Sly movie (The Specialist, not one of Sly's best), but they weren't laughing when Pulp Fiction was #1 at the box office that weekend. The rest , of course, is history: the first “independent” movie to gross over $100 million, award nominations, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Before Quentin, the last time any director was even remotely as famous as he now found himself was Francis Coppola after the second Godfather movie. And Quentin was even bigger in late 94 and early 95 than Coppola ever was. The media hung on Quentin's every word. And boy did he have plenty.

In Part Three, we see just what the fuck happened when Quentin got so big it was illegal not to call him a genius. Next chapter ain't pretty, y'all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

LET ME TELL YOU WHAT QUENTIN TARANTINO'S ABOUT (PART ONE)


One thing you should know about me is that I love me some unity between form and content. Aesthetic symmetry is a fine thing indeed, though it can be extremely frustrating when what one is trying to do is write about a guy who keeps getting distracted and takes forever to get a project done. So it is with my attempts over this past week to write a proper post about Quentin Tarantino.

I've loved movies since I was a little kid, but my obsessive interest in them roughly coincided with Quentin's ascent to stardom. That wasn't an accident, as the first handful of pictures Quentin wrote and/or directed were key in the ignition of that obsessive interest. Although he's gone on to explore other kinds of pictures, part of everyone who was around in the early-to-mid 90s is forever going to associate Quentin with the troika of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, and Pulp Fiction.

Now, with so many years gone by, the vast majority of them spent, by Quentin fans, waiting with increasing frustration for Quentin to get off his fucking ass, take the joint out of his mouth, and make another picture, it's easy to forget how new, fresh, and cool those first three pictures seemed when they first came out. No one before him made pictures the way he did, borrowing this plot element from a Hong Kong heroic bloodshed epic, that transcribed monologue from a 70s documentary, and the other old script a buddy of his had written and crafting, out of that pastiche (Ed. Note: French for “theft”) a feverish pop culture collage that it was simply impossible to stop quoting.

Reservoir Dogs was the picture that made people a couple years older than me want to make movies. For me—the chronically late-to-the-game cautious overthinker—it was Pulp Fiction. Also, typically (and in keeping with Quentin's love for non-sequential narrative), I saw the Holy Quentin Trinity out of order: True Romance first, followed by Reservoir Dogs, concluding with Pulp Fiction.

True Romance was a watershed moment for me as a teenager; I'd already started dipping my toe in the water of international and independent cinema, which involved forcing myself to sit through a whole bunch of shit I was too young to appreciate. Here, in True Romance, was a picture with that independent imprimatur (Warner Bros hid their logo behind shades and a black suit and slapped Quentin's name all over the promotional materials) that was playing in a “normal” movie theater—though thankfully little that happened at the old Metropolitan was actually normal—that made sense, was in English, and had guns and explosions.

Having seen, and loved True Romance, I scrambled to acquire a VHS of Reservoir Dogs so that I could pretend I'd already seen it (I was 14, fuck off). And, with both a sincere and passionate love for True Romance and a burning desire to appear cool, it could be argued that I'd decided to like Reservoir Dogs before I even saw it. But that was all null and void with the opener:

“Let me tell you what Like A Virgin's about. It's all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. Entire song. It's a metaphor for big dicks.”
Even though this was not my introduction to Quentin, it was such a brilliant, characteristic opening volley that it felt like the first picture of his I saw. The opening scene, that famously progresses from the deconstruction of Madonna as size queen to the ethical foundation behind tipping waitresses, had an enormous, lasting, and extremely destructive impact on my own writing (which was then in its wailing, puking infancy). Like—I hope, for selfish reasons—many who saw Quentin's early pictures, I took the wrong lesson away from all those long, apparently meandering dialogue scenes. All I saw was a bunch of guys sitting around looking and sounding fucking awesome.

What I missed was that, in Reservoir Dogs at least, the torrents of verbiage bring something new to the crime movie genre. Movies about criminals and other people getting up to things they'd rather other people didn't know about are all about hiding one's thoughts and intent. Over the history of crime as a literary and cinematic genre, there have been many approaches to the achievement of this end—Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe bought himself time by cracking wise to give himself a moment to think, and also to put forth the appearance of fearlessness (though the brilliance of Marlowe is that he's frequently scared shitless but always maintains). Richard “Donald E. Westlake” Stark's antihero thief/badass Parker kept his business to himself by only saying like five words the whole fucking book; the cinematic equivalent would be Alain Delon in all those Jean-Pierre Melville pictures where he walks around being awesome and smoking cigarettes and then mysteriously gets wasted by the pigs two-and-a-half hours later. Elmore Leonard characters, while gifted and hip conversationalists, were and are still fairly terse when it came/comes to talking business. Quentin's innovation (probably born of his own innate inability to shut the fuck up for five seconds ever) was to have criminals who hid their true intent by talking endlessly about subjects that in no way could compromise their business. Missing this point until about five fucking years ago meant that I wrote an awful lot of really awful shit. But hey, few enough people come to see my plays that the pain inflicted was compartmentalized. (Ed. Note: engraved invitations to the author's pity party are in the mail).

Quentin having his band of thieves talk about shit like Madonna lyrics and the difference between Honey West and Christie Love (and which one, if either, was played by Pam Grier) is the perfect solution, and an example of the artist's personality indelibly imprinting his art: a guy who talks a lot is naturally going to think to himself “I have this bunch of guys brought together in anonymity by a gangster masterminding a diamond heist. They can't know who each other are, lest they be able to tell the cops anything if pinched. So they can't talk about anything personal. What then, do they talk about?” Because seriously, if you've read/seen an interview with Quentin, you know he's not going the Parker/Delon silent route.

The other most interesting thing Quentin does in Reservoir Dogs is the whole “heist movie with no heist” trick. Like everything in Quentin's career, this has inspired thousands of message board flame wars; this is what happens when you become extremely famous at the exact same time as the Internet. The reason, even as a kid, that I liked not showing the heist was that crime pictures in the 80s got very very retarded when it came to the heist scene. Think about it: if you're ripping something off, you want to get it as quickly and quietly as possible. Preferably at night when no one's around, and you have an inside man shutting off the security system and a cocktail party full of people on the other side of town willing to swear—in exchange for a cut of the haul, of course—that you were there the whole time. (Ed. Note: if you ever hear about a massive jewel heist happening on the same night as the New York Innovative Theater Awards, that's where I was, getting drunk with my friends. They'll totally back me up.) You would not, were you pulling a heist, put on ski masks in broad daylight and pull a smash and grab on an armored car, unless you were either monumentally fucking retarded or playing Grand Theft Auto. And they didn't have Grand Theft Auto in the 80s, leaving but one conclusion.

For all Quentin's scruffball populism and fierce disdain for the snootier, elitist side of culture, he still considered his work above the run-of-the-mill dumbass action fare (that he nonetheless undoubtedly smokes lots of weed and watches like a civilized person), and thus the twist. But, again, this was not just a gimmick for flashiness' sake, as it was accused of being. Taking the focus off the big, stupid scene with people flexing their nuts and pointing guns at each other in the middle of a robbery meant there was more time for people to flex their nuts and point guns at each other in private. A fine distinction, perhaps, but consider this: just about the only big-ass heist scene with guns all over the place and suicidal stupidity on the part of the robbers that was not itself irredeemably stupid was the big one near the end of Heat. The only reason it wasn't stupid was because De Niro and retinue were doing something stupid in the story. And even then, that sequence strained verisimilitude a bit far. In Reservoir Dogs, not seeing the heist lets the audience imagine it for themselves (and also, smartly, spares a first-time director the embarrassment of staging something even veteran directors get wrong). And it also puts the focus on the characters.

The confounded expectation of not seeing the heist also ties into the complete reversal of every single first impression of the cast in the first scene: Mr. White lectures Mr. Pink, who refuses to tip, about his disregard for working-class women, making Mr. White seem like a caring, sensitive (comparatively speaking, by gangster standards) sympathetic guy and Mr. Pink like a weaselly little dick. In the end, Mr. White is an overly emotional, ineffectual blowhard and Mr. Pink is the only one of the bunch of them who knows what the fuck he's doing. Mr. Blonde seems like the coolest, most unflappable cat in the city in the opening scene, but leave him alone for five minutes and he's gunning down black teenagers for the hell of it and pouring gasoline on the cop whose ear he just cut off to burn him alive because he's bored. Mr. Blue seems like he's going to be the drawling, ball-busting old-timer who keeps everybody honest but we never see him again after his off-screen death. Mr. Brown has all this insight and then he's blinded by a fatal gunshot wound that kills him (okay, that wasn't much of a reversal, and Mr. Brown is only in the crew so Quentin could be in the movie; moving on). And Mr. Orange, who's just there hanging out not saying much of anything—and unlike everyone else there, “not the world's biggest Madonna fan”—ends up having the most interesting backstory: he's the undercover cop there infiltrating. Joe, the doddering old man trying to remember the name of the girl in his old address book in the first scene, turns out to be sharp as a tack; even though he mistakenly hires an undercover cop on his crew, he still senses the whole time something's not quite right about him. Even Nice Guy Eddie, Joe's son, turns out not to be the competent, affable lug he seems in the beginning, devolving to the point where his last line before being killed is a quavering, blubbering “Stop pointing that fuckin gun at my dad!”

In the end, everybody we've met in the entire movie gets killed except Mr. Pink (whose ultimate fate is slightly ambiguous; the lines in the script where he's off-stage asking the cops not to shoot him are buried in the sound mix if they were even included) and a few cops. More than anything in the movie this owes a debt to the European and East Asian movies that influenced Quentin. The good guy dies a lot more often overseas than he does here, variously due to a societal belief that movies should not show criminals getting away with it or good old fashioned fatalism, depending on the culture. And, interestingly enough with all of Quentin's post-modern, meta-cinematic tendencies, everyone getting killed at the end, whether an homage to Godard, Melville, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Beat Takeshi, or whoever, is the most realistic thing in the movie. IRL, when you rip off a diamond wholesaler in broad daylight, the cops will shoot you. And if you save them the extra bullets by killing a couple of the other dudes in your crew first, that's a couple pages less they have to write in their reports and may even be thought a considerate act.

True Romance is considerably more fanciful than Reservoir Dogs, but the reason why is right in the title. It's a romance. Romance has nothing to do with reality. Being in love with someone makes everything feel heightened and vivid at first, which is kind of romantic, and leaves you feeling the absolute impossibility of ever being apart from that person, which is extremely romantic, but the day-to-day reality is shit like, “Oh, man, why do we have to go to your mother's for Thanksgiving, my mom's a better cook.” “Why do you hate my mother?” “I don't hate your mother, she just always overcooks the turkey.” “We can go to your mother's next Thanksgiving, okay?” “Okay.” Etc. etc. Romantic stories are inherently a lie of omission, because they just include the interesting stuff.

Also, let's not forget, True Romance was directed by Tony Scott, the poet laureate of bullshit. Every single movie he's ever made has had some massive pile of bullshit somewhere within (keep in mind, I say that with the utmost respect and love, as you can see here). Whether it's the implication in The Hunger that lesbians look like Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon—trust me, I live in Park Slope, IRL lesbians differ slightly—or the laughable presentation of Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis as a heterosexual couple, or running backs with .45s in their skintight pants that no one sees until the running back starts lighting up tacklers so he'll cover the spread (my personal favorite, and something I'd like to see incorporated into college football to actually make it interesting), Tony Scott movies are proudly full of shit. True Romance is a borderline exception, being not quite as dumb as the rest of the Tony Scott oovra, and in true Quentin fashion, its departures from realism are deliberate and in the service of entertainment.

The True Romance we're all familiar with is not the picture Quentin had in mind when he first wrote it way back in the days. The script, one of his first, has the non-sequential structure that Reservoir Dogs kind of had and Pulp Fiction later famously had, but it doesn't serve any end apparent to anyone other than Quentin. Its origin, as either a collaboration between Quentin and old video store co-worker/friend Roger Avary or a script Avary wrote that Quentin brazenly stole from at every possible opportunity (sources differ), may have led in part to the haphazard structure of the published script. Or it may have been Quentin being a young guy writing his dream first script with all the flourishes and shit he wanted to see on the big screen. Whatever the case was, the ultimate accessibility of True Romance, and its consistently central place in the hearts of my generation, probably owes itself to Tony Scott sitting in the editing room and going, “Hmm, wonder what'll happen if I put this in chronological order?” As declassé as Tony can be at times, I have to call it a wise choice. Hopping around all over the place works sometimes (like in the pictures Quentin directs), and other times it doesn't.

True Romance marks the end of Christian Slater's brief run of relevance and is beyond any possible debate the best movie he was ever in (Ed. Note: Heathers has no third act, Pump Up The Volume turned into a pumpkin in about 1996, Robin Hood was Robin Hood, Interview With The Vampire was insufficiently gay—not that Christian Slater was really even in it—and the entire rest of his career sucked marmoset dick). While that editor's note proved—using the finest, most advanced metrics known to man—the rest of his career was nothing to shake Jack Nicholson's dick at, Christian Slater is fantastically good as a Quentin surrogate in True Romance: just good-looking enough that you can buy Patricia Arquette falling for him, but still scruffy and poorly socialized enough that you can buy him as a nerd of the mind-boggling scale that he needs to be.

Patricia Arquette is perfect as the love of Christian's Slater's life in this. Again, just good-looking enough that you can buy her as the woman of his dreams but just flawed enough that you can buy her falling for a choad who works in a comic-book store. This isn't meant to be mean, but Patricia Arquette's fucked-up teeth are what make her performance. It's not like her acting isn't good (it is pretty good), but the part needs a really good-looking girl with something just a little off. And fucked-up teeth were the perfect thing, because when she smiles like a love-struck goofball at Christian Slater, the fact that her teeth are all fucked up is kind of adorable. Much like Jennifer Grey getting that nose job, Patricia Arquette getting her teeth fixed ended up being kind of a bad career move; afterward she was still attractive and a reasonably good actress, but that initial je ne sais quois we all fell for was gone. However, we'll always have True Romance.

The rest of the cast is standing room only character actor gods. Dennis Hopper is Christian Slater's recovering alcoholic/amateur historian father. Christopher Walken (genuflect) shows up and legendarily brings it (and it should be said, the line from the trailer “I haven't killed anyone [gunshot] since nineteen eighty-fwah” was what made me say “This movie is getting seen come hell or high water”). Samuel L. Jackson has an amusing cameo as shotgun fodder. Gary Oldman forever set the bar for zipper down, dick out, scenery-masticating Gary Oldman performances: he has fucking dreadlocks. And says the n-word (in grand, facepalm Quentin tradition) about a thousand times. And, of course, introduced the world to the concept of White Boy Day.

“He must have thought it was White Boy Day. [slightly worried] It ain't White Boy Day, is it?”
“Naw, it ain't White Boy Day.”
Christian Slater eventually panics and, thinking that Gary Oldman is going to be so awesome that no one remembers him in any of the reviews, lights him up and accidentally steals the suitcase full of cocaine that Gary Oldman stole from Samuel L. Jackson. And thus, we have the perfect Quentin Tarantino MacGuffin. A suitcase full of cocaine. Did Quentin save the suitcase and do all the coke in it while writing the script to Kill Bill? We may never know.

However, once Gary Oldman is dead, many others start stealing scenes from our intrepid hero. Michael Rapaport does his dumb goofball routine as Christian Slater's old buddy who's hoping beyond hope to get cast on a reboot of T.J. Hooker (note cultural prescience, foretelling the wave of reboots that would consume Hollywood in its ravenous maw in coming years). His roommate, though, may very well turn in the best, most memorable performance in the movie. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Brad Pitt.

“Get some beer . . . and some cleaning products.”
“Don't condescend to me, man . . . fuckin kill you, man . . .”
“They're at the Safari Motel Inn, the Safari Motor . . . Safari Motel.”
“So you go . . . you go down . . . hey, you guys wanna smoke a bowl? [the gangsters all rack their shotguns] Oh . . . okay, well you go down and you keep drivin and you keep drivin!”
I doubt I will ever laugh as hard as I did the first time I saw Brad Pitt smoking weed out of one of those bear-shaped honey bottles while blasting Soundgarden. Your naysayers will sniff “Well, he's not really acting, everyone knows Brad Pitt's a giant pothead.” But fuck that shit; first of all, the rumors that Brad Pitt smokes weed all the time are scurrilous and the only people who can prove them are all the people he smokes weed with (and potheads have shitty memories). Second of all, if you were Brad Pitt, wouldn't you smoke weed? He's been able to get the best shit in the world for like ever. Third, as someone who has tried to act while stoned, I can tell you, it's really, really, really hard. Fourth, trying to act stoned while you are stoned will make your head explode. Fifth, since we've established that since Brad Pitt was not acting while stoned because his head is still in one piece, we can only conclude that he was in fact not stoned while playing the part of the single most stoned character in the history of cinema. And thus, ladies and gentlemen, we have demonstrative proof: it is a fine, fine performance. You can do all the character work you want, and draw your motivation for every single beat from your own life experience, but you can't teach timing, and Brad's timing is fucking supernatural as Floyd. Every pause is perfect. Every ellipsis. Every gesture.

The awesome doesn't stop there. The guy Michael Rapaport finds to buy the suitcase full of coke is Bronson Pinchot—I think this was the movie where I realized he wasn't actually European—on behalf of movie producer Saul Rubinek (“Hey, choose a fuckin' lane. Wha—DON'T GIVE ME THE FINGER! I'LL FUCKIN' HAVE YOU KILLED!”). Both are tremazing.

Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn play a couple cops, lovingly drawn from the tradition of 70s and 80s cop shows and movies, who report to Ed Lauter. When Bronson Pinchot get busted with a hooker, who smashes a big bag of coke all over his face, Sizemore/Penn bust him and convince him to be a witness, and they go in to inform Lieutenant Lauter of their good fortune, and that they will be able to bust Saul Rubinek. Of course, being a Quentin movie, this is how they explain who he is:

Chris Penn: He did that movie, Comin' Home In A Body Bag?
Ed Lauter: Vietnam movie?
Chris Penn: Yeah.
Ed Lauter: (beat) Good fuckin' movie.
Chris Penn: Fuckin A.
Tom Sizemore: Great fuckin' movie.
The way Ed Lauter says “Good fuckin movie” has always, for some reason, just destroyed me. If some silly bastard ever lets me do a Siskel & Ebert type TV show, instead of “thumbs up” I'm saying “good fuckin movie” in my best Ed Lauter impression whenever something rules sufficiently.

(Minor aside: This is a universe where a movie called Comin' Home In A Body Bag won multiple Oscars. If you need it explained to you why this is awesome, you're on the wrong fuckin blog, my friend.)

Then, lest we forget, there's also James Gandolfini, back when he was just “oh, wow, that guy.” He had a good enough string in his pre-Tony Soprano years that after a while he became sort of like the Italian Luis Guzman to me (Ed. Note: This is pre-“Luis Guzman” Luis Guzman we're talkin about; before PT Anderson introduced him to civilians). And say what you will about Quentin as a writer, there is no getting around the fact that the boy writes a good fuckin' psycho:

“Now the first time you kill somebody, that's the hardest. I don't give a shit if you're fuckin' Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper. Remember that guy in Texas? The guy up in that fuckin' tower that killed all them people? I'll bet you green money that first little black dot he took a bead on, that was the bitch o' the bunch. First one is tough, no fuckin' foolin'. The second one . . . the second one ain't no fuckin' Mardi Gras either, but it's better than the first one 'cause you still feel the same thing, y'know . . . except it's more diluted, y'know, it's . . . it's better. I trew up on the first one, you believe that? Then the third one . . . the third one is easy, you level right off. It's no problem. Now . . . shit . . . now I do it just to watch their fuckin' expression change.”
The scene where James Gandolfini gives a crunched, bloody Patricia Arquette that speech really shook me up the first time I saw True Romance. It had, up til that point, been this cool, sexy, stylish lark where like people got lit up and called each other the n-word even though they were white and Val Kilmer showed up as Elvis to give Christian Slater pep talks and there was all that flashy Tony Scott camerawork and then suddenly we're in this vividly terrifying scene where I was half convinced James Gandolfini was going to rape, torture, and kill Patricia Arquette, and I was not entirely sure it would be in that order. It's long enough and graphic enough that it lingers even after it's over, lending an air of needed uncertainty to the coming drug deal.

Our heroes show up to sell Saul Rubinek the coke, with the cops all over the place, waiting to pounce, and a whole bunch of gangsters (among them the mighty Frank Adonis, Victor Argo, Paul Ben-Victor, and Kevin Corrigan) on their way in to kill everyone and get their coke back. Thus, the trademarked, copyrighted, watermarked, cattle branded Tony Scott shootout. Now, Tony Scott shootouts are always awesome, and this one is no different, but I have never been able to figure out where all those fucking feathers came from. I mean, yes, they look cool, but did each cop and each gangster bring their own personal down pillow to fire their guns through?

In a blatant nod to commercialism, this time only almost everyone gets killed. Michael Rapaport escapes unscathed, and Christian Slater takes one in the face and appears dead, until Roger Avary saves the day with an uncredited rewrite (Quentin refused to change the ending, telling Tony Scott “Fuck you, you bought the script, you rewrite it.”) and had him only lose an eye, thus leading to the cute happy ending where Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, and their son Elvis frolic on the beach while Christian Slater wears an eye patch. Again, like Tony Scott's other apparent commercial whore instinct changes, this one changes the movie for the better. Sure, not every movie needs to have a happy ending, but this one did.

And so we come to the announcement that Quentin's next picture, that he'd again be directing, would be called Pulp Fiction. But first, the other script he sold before Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers, would be released, in heavily altered form. All this and more in Part Two!