As some readers may know, I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic defender of Quentin Tarantino; I discussed my reservations about him a while back with my friend Keith Uhlich, the managing editor of The House Next Door, a Time Out New York film critic and an unabashed Tarantino booster. But because I do admire Tarantino’s idiosyncratic style, and because some of Keith’s arguments made me question my assumptions, I took another look at the director’s work in advance of his latest feature, Inglourious Basterds.
Bottom line: unfair as it probably sounds, Tarantino’s still not quite the director I’d personally like him to be — the Tarantino-influenced South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook, whose movies are equally artificial but more emotionally engaging, is much more my speed. But while re-watching QT’s films, I did find myself admiring elements that had previously bugged the hell out of me. Tops on the list: Tarantino’s profane, rococo dialogue. It once struck me as wildly hit-or-miss – either brilliantly florid and theatrical (sometimes revelatory) or else redundant and navel-gazing, dragging the filmmaker’s characters into a quagmire of telling when the films could have been showing instead (Tarantino is very, very good at showing). I’m taking the second part of that characterization back. More so than almost any arthouse favorite since Ingmar Bergman (and bear in mind the precise point of comparison here before you roll your eyes), Tarantino’s talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it’s the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It’s where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation.
From Abernathy in Grindhouse describing how having sex with a dude named Cecil would rule out the possibility of being his girlfriend, to the title character of Kill Bill Vol. 2 defining the essence of superheroes as a prelude to revealing why Superman does not fit the paradigm, to Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction debating the implied carnal intent of a foot massage and the relative merits of pigs and dogs, the director’s films prefer verbal spectacle to the physical kind. Tarantino doesn’t just explore language’s capacity to reveal and conceal motives and personality, he shows how people pick words and phrases (consciously or subconsciously) in order to define themselves and others, and describe the reality they inhabit (or would like to inhabit). Even low-key and seemingly unimportant exchanges are as carefully choreographed as boxing matches. Clever flurries of interrogatory jabs are often blocked by witty responses; the course of conflict can be shifted by deft rhetorical footwork that re-frames the terms of debate.
Think of Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs implying that Mr. Pink’s opposition to tipping demonstrates insensitivity to working women. Mr. Pink counters that his opposition isn’t based on the notion that waiters don’t deserve to be tipped; he objects because there’s no logic behind the practice, and he doesn’t want to support a practice just because he’s told that he should. (“Society says, ‘Tip these guys over here, but don’t tip these guys over here.’ It’s bullshit.”) In Vincent and Jules’ Pulp Fiction coffee shop exchange, Vincent latches onto Jules’ admission that even though dogs are dirty, he likes them better than pigs because they have personality. “So by that rationale,” Vincent presses, “if a pig had personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal — is that true?” “Well, we’d have to be talking about one charming motherfucking pig,” Jules replies.
A seemingly throwaway moment in that same movie is even more revealing of Tarantino’s m.o. When Marsellus Wallace hands boxer Butch an envelope full of cash as payment for the fight he’s about to throw, he asks, “Are you my nigga?” Butch replies, “It certainly appears so,” then takes the cash. Butch isn’t lying. His statement is a truthful assessment of the moment: Wallace thinks he’s got Butch in his hip pocket, but he doesn’t. Butch’s response also says a lot about his peculiar code of honor; he’s willing to double-cross his boss by winning a fixed fight, but he won’t lie to the man’s face.
With a generous assist from Keith, I’ve pulled some examples of Tarantino’s attention to language from five features: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Death Proof (his half of Grindhouse). With some exceptions, this montage favors smaller, more fleeting moments over the widely quoted monologues (there’s nothing from Jules’ Ezekiel speech, and only a fragment of Mr. Pink’s Reservoir Dogs rant about tipping). I’m trying to show how the filmmaker’s Socrates-in-a-dive-bar mindset influences his films — how Tarantino puts words in action.