You may also wish to check out the L’s coverage of Tarantino’s new Inglourious Basterds, reviewed here by Nicolas Rapold, and discussed here by Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart
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.
In Jackie Brown, the scene in which Ordell Robbie convinces a reluctant Beaumount Livingston to get into a small, dark, and dirty trunk and act as back-up with the end reward being dinner at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles — is CLASSIC! Jackie Brown gets over looked A LOT, but Tarantino uses Ordell’s power of pervasive dialogue as action throughout the entire film. Ordell is easily one of Tarantino’s best characters, especially in terms of dialogue, wish I could have seen more of him in this piece, but overall thanks MZS for putting together another great video essay! – LOPEZ
If the credits below the screen toggled between “Script by Avary/Tarantino” and “Scr/Dir Tarantino”, it might reflect a certain difference in quality between the heightened realism of Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction and the Tarantino-world language of the other movies. I personally prefer QT diluted by the addition of another writer’s ear. Others will disagree. Nice essay, all in all.
Paul, based on Avary’s own writing in his movies, I’m not sure how much dilution he’s doing. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I don’t get the impression Tarantino was dictating to Avary who then filtered the language through his own grounding sensibilities. Judging by Killing Zoe or The Rules of Attraction, he doesn’t have much of that. The dialogue in those earlier Tarantino movies is a bit more musical and more of a pure joy to listen to, but I’d say some of the conversations in Death Proof have a more realistic rhythm than the funnier stuff in Pulp Fiction.
In Jackie Brown, after Samuel L. Jackson’s character Ordell Robie kills his buddy Louis (Robert De Niro), he says: “What the hell happened to you man? Your ass used to be beautiful.”
I consider it one of the great lines in cinema.
Quentin’s dialogue has the ability to turn an evil character into a good one. His words create doubt about the morality of good characters by showing faults in both the protagonist and antagonist, even secondary characters with what seems like a throwaway line. Very well crafted screenplays equal excellent films.
By tying in reality and pop culture, Tarantino is able to draw in his target market as well as those that may not like his style of action movies. Either way, you have summed up his overall ability to ensure an audience can relate to a character be they bad or good or even indifferent. Active words are a great way to show action too!
I look forward to watching Inglorious Basterds.
Tarantino did an interview with Charlie Rose where he says that he considers himself more of a writer than a filmmaker. He also reveals (I didn’t know, at least) that he wrote Kill Bill as a book first, and then adapted it to the movie, which I thought was interesting.