Flouting the Conventional Wisdom (On Quentin Tarantino’s Films)
Over the years I have found that anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion on the matter of Quentin Tarantino’s films almost immediately runs up against the intolerance of his fans for such an opinion — in real life, and of course, online. One may object to the violence, profanity, etc. in Tarantino’s films (though his fans will take that as a compliment to Tarantino, whose “edginess” is thought part of his accomplishment, and testament to the critic’s being a laughable prude). One may, to some extent, take issue with his films on the grounds of identity politics — the scripts drenched in racial epithets, the allotment of roles to women and so forth (because so few dare to challenge criticism coming from that direction, while even here, Tarantino fans stand their ground more than most).
However, one is not at all allowed to criticize, or even analyze, his movies as movies, to speak seriously of their aesthetic content, technical execution, or intellectual or political substance (or lack thereof). David Walsh, perhaps the most consistently interesting film critic working today, especially when it comes to discussion of the sort of “independent,” art house filmmakers toward whom the middlebrow reviewers of the upmarket pages tend to be obsequious (though the team he works with is by and large very good here), has been a rare exception from the start. Writing about Pulp Fiction he did not deny credit where credit was due, in particular praising the performances of some of the cast (particularly that of Samuel L. Jackson). However, he saw the film as characterized by a “lack of spontaneity . . . self-consciousness . . . posturing . . . substitut[ing] for a serious look at life”; thought the filmmaking the filmmaking of a “show-off,” constantly “overdo[ing] things,” and “call[ing] attention to everything in his film which he considers clever or daring” with “a dozen exclamation marks,” not least because he is more concerned with developing in the viewer a “certain attitude toward the filmmaker” than anything else. This was certainly the case with the trademark Tarantino dialogue, which he thought “inane” and (this bore that notice specifically) “called attention to itself far too often.” Meanwhile, whatever faint “strand of revolt” and “sympathy for the underdog, the outsider” there may have been in it, whatever “feeling for the banality of lower middle class existence . . . its linguistic rhythms . . . kitsch . . . pathos of dead-end lives,” is “swamped” by the reality that it is nowhere near so subversive as it may look to the untutored eye, Tarantino’s “nonconformism” thoroughly conformist, not in spite of but in its brutality and nihilism.
While somewhat more warmly receiving Jackie Brown, Walsh made clear that the posturing and show-offiness and conformist non-conformism remained, while his opinion of the director worsened after he saw Kill Bill and its follow-ups, an output he deemed “unwatchable.” In his review of the last Tarantino movie he covered for his publication, Django Unchained, he observed that Tarantino is “a seriously unskilled artist . . . a cultural huckster, with a minor talent for pastiche, reworking genres and creating blackly comic moments.” He also notes that “[u]nder healthier circumstances, no one would have paid much notice” to him, and that he did get so much notice reflected the very “unhealthfulness” of those circumstances, what is retrograde in Tarantino aligning with what is retrograde in the prevailing opinion-makers, whose powerful response to Tarantino’s “flippant tone and cynicism” reflects their decreasing “sympathy for democratic niceties.”
What Walsh has to say of the artistic traits of Tarantino’s films — the self-consciousness and the posturing, the inane dialogue, the self-satisfied show off-iness, the conformist non-conformism and general vacuity to which one can, with rare confidence, apply words like “middlebrow” or “Midcult” — has rung true for me since nearly the start. Indeed, already by the mid-’90s it seemed to me that those qualities virtually defined the much-ballyhooed independent film movement, especially its neo-noir component, much of which has been directly imitative of his work. (Already seeing the first commercials for Suicide Kings I couldn’t help burst out laughing at what a pack of cliches it had come to seem.)
Walsh’s reading of the politics of Tarantino’s reception may seem more arguable, shifting away as it does from specific features of a piece of . . . film, to the less certain matter of what it means, but it seems to me that Walsh is at least broadly correct here — the intellectual shallowness with which all this is received, the gleeful nihilism that the gullible take for “cool” and “edgy,” but which is really just fascistic garbage (or actually fascist garbage). It is an opinion that I suspect Tarantino would reject, and I think he would be honest and sincere in his denial. (I had the impression that his support for Black Lives Matter, which seems to have cost him a measure of favor in recent years, was genuine.) Still, a deep political thinker he does not seem to be, especially when making his movies (nor a terribly consistent thinker, period, to go by what many have written about his latest, Walsh’s very capable colleague Joanne Laurier among them). And, if unintentionally, he seems to reflect and play to and be welcomed by his reviewers and his fans not in spite of but because of exactly what these critics find so tiresome and repugnant about his work.