What happened to Quentin Tarantino?

The director of ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Kill Bill’ once epitomized the future of moviemaking. But now he’s mostly interested in movies of the past.

What happened to Quentin Tarantino?Is Quentin Tarantino old-fashioned? There’s a question you’d never have heard 15 years ago, when Pulp Fiction made him arguably the most famous and influential semi-independent filmmaker in America. But his new movie, the Second World War adventure Inglourious Basterds (opening Aug. 21), has the usually cocky Tarantino sounding insecure. Sebastian Haselbeck, founder of the Quentin Tarantino Archives website, told Maclean’s that an important part of Tarantino’s persona is “enormous self-confidence in what he does,” but far from sounding confident, Tarantino told the New York Times he rushed to get the film cut because he hasn’t yet made a great film in the last 10 years: “I wanted to have a masterpiece before the decade’s out,” he said. Still, he wouldn’t say that Basterds would be it, only that “this was the hardest movie I’ve ever made.” Tarantino has also made some self-promotional comments that sound more like the brilliant, obnoxious media personality from the ’90s, like his statement that he refuses to hire composers because he doesn’t want a musician “coming in here and throwing his s–t over my movie.” But he’s increasingly acting like someone who doesn’t want movie history to pass him by. Others think it already has: Gerald Peary, a critic who edited a book of interviews with Tarantino, now says, “I don’t find him as significant a cultural icon” as he was in the Pulp Fiction days.

Audiences don’t always know what to make of Inglourious Basterds; the film got a mixed reception at the Cannes Festival (where Pulp Fiction took the top prize in 1994), and even favourable reviews warn that it’s not the rollicking action-packed movie we’d expect from the trailers. Inglourious Basterds has all the things we’ve come to expect from Tarantino: horrifying but cartoonish violence, silly comedy in inappropriate places, sexy women out for revenge (Mélanie Laurent as a Jewish woman trying to destroy the Nazis in retaliation for killing her family). But it also has surprisingly little action for a movie about ragtag Nazi-killers who take their victims’ scalps; two key scenes, the opening and a long one in a Paris tavern, consist of 20 minutes of dialogue followed by a few seconds of violence. And top-billed Brad Pitt, who plays the head Nazi-hunter, doesn’t have much screen time in the movie; his character doesn’t really drive the plot compared to the relatively unknown Christoph Waltz, who plays a charming but ruthless Nazi officer.

The most surprising thing about Inglourious Basterds is that for a director who used to epitomize the future of moviemaking, Tarantino now seems like an Old Hollywood director. Whereas Pulp Fiction used a series of time jumps, making non-linear storytelling the norm for independent filmmakers, Inglourious Basterds tells its story, about two different groups of people plotting to destroy a movie theatre where high-ranking Nazis are attending a premiere, in a very linear way. And while Tarantino used to be considered a kinetic, fast-paced filmmaker, much of Basterds is deliberately paced, with stately camerawork and carefully composed shots; fast cutting and slow motion are mostly used for brief scenes of violence. If you’re used to the heavy cutting of modern blockbusters, or the camera tricks of last year’s big Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire, Tarantino almost seems like a throwback to an older age of “classical” filmmaking, where the director doesn’t show off. For those who find today’s movies overedited, the unflashy approach of Basterds may be refreshing. But it’s still a sign that Tarantino isn’t exactly interested in a lot of the tricks younger moviemakers are using.

Actually, Tarantino’s old-fashioned approach isn’t that hard to understand when you listen to one of his many interviews: more than any other moviemaker, his influences come from old movies. Peary fondly remembers that the first time he met Tarantino, “he came to my class at Boston University and he gave this two-hour impromptu lecture on French film, about Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville.” Younger moviemakers are influenced by music videos or more recent films, but Tarantino builds every movie out of bits of older movies he’s seen. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were about gangster movies, not gangsters; Kill Bill mixed martial-arts movies with the French New Wave.

This constant focus on movies, instead of the real world, frustrates a number of critics who were hoping Tarantino would get more ambitious as he got older. Peary lost a lot of his interest in Tarantino because “I don’t see much development into maturity as a filmmaker.” Some critics suspect Tarantino became less ambitious, or at least a little less willing to break with the Pulp Fiction formula, after his 1997 movie Jackie Brown got mixed reviews and an even more mixed audience reception. That movie had more exploration of character and theme than his subsequent films, and Peary calls it “his one movie that seemed to say he was getting a little older and a little wiser.” When it didn’t do well, he went back to what Haselbeck calls “snapshots of reality seen through the lens of a cinephile.”

Sure enough, Inglourious Basterds sometimes seems like a less “mature” movie than Tarantino’s early successes. Those films had characters who emerged as people, but virtually every character in Inglourious Basterds is not only a movie cliché, but an over-the-top version. Pitt, talking with a deliberately absurd Southern accent, is a tough, stoic man of action like John Wayne or Lee Marvin. Hitler is a babbling, sweaty, comical figure reminiscent of the way he was portrayed in American WWII movies; the British characters talk in stiff-upper-lip jargon also lifted from old movies; and the French, of course, are obsessed with cinema and wine. Tarantino went to Berlin to make the picture, but there’s nothing in it that suggests the writer-director has ever been outside of a movie theatre. And because Inglourious Basterds applies all these film clichés to the most serious subject matter Tarantino has ever dealt with, it may leave him open to charges of trivializing the Holocaust. “In the early days, he was an antidote to a kind of snobbism about what cinema should be,” Peary says, but now that his ’90s novelty has worn off he seems like another Hollywood filmmaker who doesn’t care about the real world, and concentrates on “smart-ass dialogue and explosions.”

But just because Tarantino is obsessed with movies doesn’t mean that Basterds has nothing to say. Every scene is a commentary on the role movies play in our lives, not only because there are constant homages to war movies from at least five countries (including an Italian exploitation film called Inglorious Bastards and Ernst Lubitsch’s war comedy To Be or Not to Be), but because most of the characters are involved with movies in some way. Laurent’s character owns a movie theatre, and the plot revolves around the decision to use her theatre for the premiere of a German propaganda movie starring a war hero turned actor (Daniel Brühl). A British spy (Michael Fassbender) was an academic film critic in civilian life, and his double-agent contact (Diane Kruger) is an actress. And of course there’s a part in the film for Goebbels, the man who literally wanted to use movies to take over the world.

Looking at it that way, Inglourious Basterds isn’t just a random series of movie quotes, but an examination of how movies shape our view of the world. Tarantino has made a mash-up of war movie characters and clichés, showing how “reality” looks different depending on which movie we’re watching and which country made it. And he builds toward a climax that demonstrates the power of movies for good and evil. They’re great for rewriting history, creating an alternate version of the Holocaust where, as he told the Atlantic, we get to “see Germans that are scared of Jews” and “take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.” But movies are dangerous when people confuse them with reality. Laurent’s only mistake in the film comes when she confuses the heroic and sympathetic onscreen persona of a movie actor with the real thing; for an instant, the propaganda power of the movies works on her too.

In its own way, that may show that Tarantino is a bit out of touch: he’s assuming movies are as important to his audience as they are to him. Tarantino, who famously worked in a video store before he became a director, is a product of video-store culture, of the first generation that could watch almost any movie ever made. Today, movie history has become a niche market, and many of Tarantino’s references are liable to get lost among younger viewers. A shot near the end of the first scene has the villain as a shadowy figure framed in a doorway. It’s an homage to John Wayne in The Searchers, but viewers may mistake it for an homage to Star Wars, which copied the shot as well. Tarantino has made a movie about the importance and power of old movies—just when movie history is starting to be ignored. There’s something noble and quaint about his belief that the great German director G.W. Pabst (who is referred to constantly in Basterds) still matters.

That disconnect between Tarantino and the mass audience may help explain why the Kill Bill movies opened strong at the box office but tapered off quickly, and why he’s less influential than he used to be. Peary thinks that the pseudo-hip style of Pulp Fiction “has become everybody’s way of looking at the world,” but in many ways, that’s not true: today’s directors are busy aping the self-conscious quirks of Wes Anderson, or Judd Apatow’s improvisational messiness, and Tarantino’s movie-geek style almost belongs to another era. Haselbeck thinks that “Pulp’s enormous cultural impact could have also been just a very lucky coincidence in movie history.” The question now is how Tarantino will cope with the end of movie history.

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