« Less Philosophy, Please | Main | Blogosphere Anti-Trust Action Needed »

Tarantino and Quotation

Via Ross Douthat an old New York Review article in which Quentin Tarantino's rampant quotations get the better of someone:

There is some truth in this; a well-documented aspect of Tarantino's biography is that he worked for five years as a clerk in a California video store, where he absorbed the dazzlingly encyclopedic knowledge of genre films—Asian, Mexican, American—that has influenced all of his work, which is full of intricate allusions to and quotations of other films. It's no accident that the characters in his films talk obsessively, even manically, about popular movies, TV shows, and songs. True Romance begins with its boyish hero making an impassioned paean to both Elvis and the Japanese martial-arts star Sonny Chiba (who appears in Kill Bill as a master sword-maker). Reservoir Dogs opens with a group of thieves arguing about the meaning of the lyrics to Madonna's "Like a Virgin." Pulp Fiction features a crucial scene set in a restaurant whose waiters impersonate Marilyn Monroe and Buddy Holly (the maitre d' is, appropriately enough, Ed Sullivan); Jackie Brown (1997) starts out with a gun dealer, played by Samuel L. Jackson, discussing the influence of "Hong Kong flicks" on his clients' buying habits. "The killer had a .45," he observes, "they want a .45."
I don't know if this is the author's error, the copy-editors, or just the guy who put it online, but I'm pretty sure the point of that the line in question was supposed to be "The Killer had a .45" referring to John Woo's Die xue shuang xiong that I saw a ways back when the Cinema Village used to be prone to Chow Yun-Fat film festivals.

I think the general line of attack being launched against Tarantino in the article is kind of off-base. His referential habits have, really, two distinct functions. One is simply the fact that since pop culture does, in fact, preoccupy so much of our ordinary conversation it's actually odd that most works of pop culture are so fastidious in ignoring this element of contemporary life. In Reservoir Dogs that's the main use of references and I think it's clearly legitimate. At times, it gets out of hand in various peoples' work, but when done properly it has a clear and rightful use. It's strange that characters on TV shows never seem to watch television or discuss shows they like or dislike with other friends. Incorporating the fact that people do, in fact, debate the meaning of Madonna lyrics isn't just a stunt, it's a correction against poor aesthetic choices in earlier work.

By the time you get to Kill Bill it's less that the works represent characters who quote pop products and much more that the film itself is an exercise in quotation and pastiche. It's this that Daniel Mendelsohn seems to find so troubling, but it seems to me that it's a rather standard artistic move. Certainly in the world of painting it's considered entirely normal for works to put representational tasks to one side and instead engage in a kind of genre-play where the work serves as a kind of commentary. The more legitimate critique is that, say, Jackie Brown is simply bad, a failure where Kill Bill is a success.

The most troubling thing to me, however, is the extent to which Reservoir Dogs is not so much quotational in this sense as it is simply stolen from City on Fire. Ulysses isn't just The Odyssey set in Dublin and with some witty dialogue added.

April 6, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d83474c0f769e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Tarantino and Quotation:

Comments

And don't forget the iconic title sequence of Reservoir Dogs (guys in black suits walking down the street) being lifted directly from Seijun Suzuji's Tokyo Drifter, although nobody on the internet seems to have noticed it, so maybe I'm crazy. And I'm not sure why you wouldn't forget it anyway.

Posted by: norbizness | Apr 6, 2005 4:36:24 PM

Well, Jackie Brown is actually a damn good filmed. Very underrated.

Posted by: Goldberg | Apr 6, 2005 4:39:32 PM

Yeah, Matt, put up or shut up on "Jackie Brown." It's not as good as "Pulp Fiction," but then, what is?

I just read the original Elmore Leonard book, "Rum Punch," and the movie is a lot more interesting than the book, which makes Max a big tough guy, gives him a not-quite-ex-wife, makes (white) Jackie a cipher/sex-object, pulls in a weird neo-Nazi tangent ...

The only thing better in the book, I thought, was the book Jackie's yelling "he's got a gun!" at the end when he actually didn't, because she can't afford for Ordell to live and discuss events with the cops. That creates a moral issue that would've given the ending some tension. But I think that would've violated the sense of honor that serves QT's characters for values ...

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 6, 2005 4:51:15 PM

I liked Jackie Brown too--not my favorite Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) or my favorite Leonard adaptation (Out of Sight), but still worth watching. Anyway, this reminds me of something Steven Soderbergh said in an interview with Elvis Mitchell: "If you want to know what a director does, just watch Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Jackie Brown."

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Apr 6, 2005 4:58:30 PM

"It's strange that characters on TV shows never seem to watch television or discuss shows they like or dislike with other friends."

This seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of television programming. Not only is this not true -- Will & Grace does it all the time -- but even if it were true, exactly why would you expect network shows to pimp other shows, some of them on other networks? If Show A is giving us characters to identify with, the producers of Show A would have a stake in having those characters be the type of people that watch Show A and nothing else, the better to increase viewership and loyalty and to decrease interest in ever watching anything else.

But as I said, it's not true, and sure enough, network TV viewers are less loyal to those shows, mainly because the characters sound like name-droppers who are altogether too self-aware for a 22-minute sitcom. And for a non-fan of Tarantino, like myself, that is my main complaint: people in the real world really don't talk about pop culture that way. The only people that talk about pop culture that way, it seems, are film junkies and Tarantino-heads. So it's a chicken-and-egg problem, but Tarantino films aren't for the public; they're only for film students.

Posted by: diddy | Apr 6, 2005 5:10:17 PM

Yeah, I guess that's why nobody ever goes to see any Tarantino movies, aside from film students. Whatever.

Posted by: Haggai | Apr 6, 2005 5:19:29 PM

Yeah, I guess that's why nobody ever goes to see any Tarantino movies, aside from film students.

You left out "aficionados of stylized violence." Going to Sin City tonight!

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 6, 2005 5:34:18 PM

Jackie Brown is far, far better than Kill Bill.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Apr 6, 2005 6:20:12 PM

I just wanted to say that the little upstairs theater at Cinema Village is my absolute favorite place in the world to watch movies.

Posted by: Devin McCullen | Apr 6, 2005 6:34:09 PM

Blah at “Reservoir Dogs is not so much quotational in this sense as it is simply stolen from City on Fire.”

Its not stolen, he took a concept from a 10-minute scene in the movie, and made a whole film about it. I don’t believe taking a scene from one movie, and expanding and adding to it to make another movie is really “stealing”.

I mean, City on Fire is the usual undercover cop infiltrates crime gang and bonds with his partners in crime before betraying them type of film. It certainly didn’t originate that gimmick, but nobody says it’s a product of theft. Or any of the films of its type like “Donnie Brasco”. So how come what QT did is considered theft?

Posted by: Lord Fluffy | Apr 6, 2005 8:09:34 PM

i'd also heard that Tarentino was brought in to script-doctor a couple of scenes in Crimson Tide, the Gene Hackman/Denzel Washington nuclear sub flick.

anyone who's seen the movie can tell right away which two scenes he worked on: when they're on their way to board the sub and two of the senior officers are quizzing each other about who played German sub officers in old WWII movies; and later, on board the boat, when two crewmwnr get in a fight over which Silver Surfer was better-Kirby's or Moebius'. the two scenes just stand out from the rest of the film as Tarantino's handiwork.

Posted by: achn2b | Apr 6, 2005 9:04:26 PM

"The killer had a .45," he observes, "they want a .45."

...the line in question was supposed to be "The Killer had a .45"

Did I really just see Matt Y., of all people, have the chutzpah to correct someone else's typo?

Posted by: Allen K. | Apr 6, 2005 9:23:57 PM

I'm one of those people who liked both Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown much better than Pulp Fiction. In the former films the everydayness and crazed intellectual energy of the conversations, which are alternatingly morally probing and aimlessly trivia obsessed, serves characterization and is often quite engrossing. And there is some human context to the savage violence, which allows it to be disturbing or otherwise affecting.

But Pulp Fiction seemed determined to play up the purely humorous, grotesque and random aspects of the approach in the earlier films, and dwell more in the detached fantasy underworld of Tarantino's celluloid-plagued imagination, The result was in my view boring and puerile. Assuming from what I read that he was continuing in the same direction of playful, stylized worthlessness, I didn't see either of the Kill Bills, although I suspect I will watch them eventually and find them entertaining enough.

I admit there is a certain fun to be had from delighting in our own memories, and exploring the vast attics of mental garbage and anarchic adolescent fantasies that clog our heads. But beyond that cheap masturbatory fun, there doesn't seem to be anything particularly worthwhile about the exercise.

Ultimately, what really wears thin in a movie like Pulp Fiction is the sophomoric detachment, unrelenting moral cowardice and pose of supercillious insouciance of the director's "vision". Perhaps someone who has seen both Kill Bills can tell me before I see them whether Tarantino has begun to show an interest in making a grown-up film, or is still lost in the boyish Neverland of the Pulp Fiction world.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 6, 2005 10:54:43 PM

"someone who has seen both Kill Bills can tell me before I see them whether Tarantino has begun to show an interest in making a grown-up film"

Unless the "Bills" are entirely self-referential violent movies about violent movies in a subtle commentary on the ways we interpret violent imagery....the answer is that Tarentino remains immature.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 6, 2005 11:35:04 PM

I think it was David Denby who wrote, about Kill Bill Vol. 1, that for all its visual intensity, he left the theater feeling "nothing". I will eventually see more of Tarantino's stuff and I can appreciate the visual imagination I see onscreen in films of divergent genre, from mythological martial arts efforts like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to period melodramas like Raise the Red Lantern. Nonetheless, I think Tarantino, like many contemporaries, revels too complacently within the confines of genre work. The Denby comment suggests why -- there's a shallowness, an emptiness, in using method, such as advanced special effects, as a substitution for content. The exercises in stylistic innovation that are most compelling to me -- in films like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf -- use the particular intrigue of their chosen technique to intensify and underscore an existing emotional theme. The same considerations apply to pop culture references. I find The Simpsons annoying after a while because for all the brilliance of the cultural allusions, the characters, who never age or have even the modest character arcs we see in other comedic television, are in those moments of reference little more than crude mouthpieces for the writers' brilliance. Better just to watch the writers talking or the more honest lack of plot we see in MST3K. Or contrast these approaches (the falsely serious and openly self-justifying use of pop culture) with the more profound effect achieved in work like The Wire, where cultural references illuminate characters and worldviews, where they seem to say more about the characters than the writers.

Posted by: inip | Apr 6, 2005 11:47:09 PM

Yup. And professional killer/criminals/sociopaths don't sit around and discuss Madonna lyrics. That said, I kinda liked Jackie Brown. It really illuminated the banal stupidity of the criminal life. I thought Resevoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were o.k.. Kill Bill part one sucked so bad that I never saw part two.

Posted by: Will Allen | Apr 6, 2005 11:47:14 PM

My "yup" was directed at bob, but I agree with inip as well.

Posted by: Will Allen | Apr 6, 2005 11:50:03 PM

"and dwell more in the detached fantasy underworld of Tarantino's celluloid-plagued imagination,"

Who's imagination? I herewith reverse myself, Tarentino is creating post-modern funhouse mirrors to reflect our culture back at ourselves. I take him more seriously than Rodriguez, Woo, or even Peckinpaugh.

Spoiler? I don't think it matters.


A clown would not have Uma Thurman bawling in the bathroom as the near final scene of "Kill Bill 2".

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 6, 2005 11:50:49 PM

". . . there's a shallowness, an emptiness, in using method, such as advanced special effects, as a substitution for content."

I guess I've just never seen how Tarantino can be accused of any such thing. Directors who actually use method or special effects or gratuitous amoral violence in place of content, thinking they're imitating Tarantino, invariably produce swiftly-forgotten direct-to-video flops. The reason Tarantino films work, and continue to draw audiences, is that aside from their undeniable technical virtuosity and referential cleverness, they show a) a damned good understanding of suspense, narrative structure and timing, and b) an even better understanding of how to enrich characterization and plot without burying them in exposition. One may or may not agree with the moral universe that results from all this, of course, but I don't think one is really in the position of trying to decipher Tarantino's mysterious success-without-content.

I've seen some film critics really embarrass themselves while trying to take potshots at Tarantino, actually. Take one example from the NYR reviewer, for instance: set on demonstrating the evils of the film's referentiality and the emptiness of its action, he claims not to have noticed any backstory for the revenge plot... which I find downright bizarre. No, we don't get a blow-by-blow of the details, but the first few scenes of Kill Bill are as convincing and visceral a backstory for a revenge tale as I've ever seen. It's the kind of criticism that makes one wonder if the guy actually just slept through parts of the film.

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Apr 7, 2005 12:59:35 AM

The idea that the earlier movies are "corrective" (in the sense of representing an aspect of ordinary commerce other movies have neglected) strikes me as pretty ridiculous. There are movies contemporaneous I think you can make that case for, e.g. Clerks, Slacker, etc., but there's a difference between that sort of thing and hypothesizing a world of undercover cops and gangsters, and then inserting video geeks in those roles. Which is not to say that undercover cops and gangsters never talk about cheeseburgers and Madonna... But Tarantino is plainly not some kind of cinematic Studds Terkel, which is what this idea sounds like to me.

Anyway, I thought Kill Bill was boring. Jackie Brown had nifty plotting and dialogue. Kill Bill was just waiting around for Bill to get killed, which I didn't care about anyway.

Posted by: spacetoast | Apr 7, 2005 1:27:27 AM

Perhaps someone who has seen both Kill Bills can tell me before I see them whether Tarantino has begun to show an interest in making a grown-up film, or is still lost in the boyish Neverland of the Pulp Fiction world.

Nope. Kill Bill I and II were crap. Tarantino is a 14 year old boy with a knack for film and dialog, in a grown-up's body. The dialog actually gets old, I can't really stand Pulp Fiction any more, even though I loved it the first time. His film talent is wasted in empty fluff that takes adolescent pleasure in breaking things.

Posted by: tango | Apr 7, 2005 1:38:02 AM

Perhaps someone who has seen both Kill Bills can tell me before I see them whether Tarantino has begun to show an interest in making a grown-up film, or is still lost in the boyish Neverland of the Pulp Fiction world.

Neither Kill Bill film is anything like Pulp Fiction (which I liked, and still like). Nor would I describe them as "grown-up films;" they're wacky genre pastiches, very effectively put together, driven by compelling performances and featuring -- for a revenge yarn -- compelling characters. Vol. 2 in particular has some sequences that, frankly, deserve to go down in cinematic history on their technical strengths alone, but it's also excellent entertainment. I'd easily rank either of them as better fare than Jackie Brown, which I find unwatchable despite (or perhaps because of) its earnest stab at being a "grown-up film."

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Apr 7, 2005 3:01:01 AM

You're obviously not going to get agreement on the Kill Bill movies, Dan. Gonna just have to rent them.

(My wife, who is always telling me she likes more grown-up movies than me, loved them. I hated them).

Posted by: tango | Apr 7, 2005 3:09:38 AM

What exactly is a "grown-up film"?

Posted by: Lord Fluffy | Apr 7, 2005 6:53:25 AM

Unless the "Bills" are entirely self-referential violent movies about violent movies in a subtle commentary on the ways we interpret violent imagery....the answer is that Tarentino remains immature.
.
.
.
Who's imagination? I herewith reverse myself, Tarentino is creating post-modern funhouse mirrors to reflect our culture back at ourselves."

Well, this is indeed something I would like to know more about Bob. I certainly accept the possibility that because I have not read each and every comic book, and seen each and every chop-sockey B movie that Tarantino has, then there are interesting bits of commentary and satire contained in the movies that are going over my head.

Is there really any subtle commentary? I suppose that if any director cuts out pieces of our entertainment culture, artfully pastes them together in some order, and throws them back at us, then we viewers are likely to notice things and draw conclusions about our own culture and the way it uses and interprets violent imagery. But in your opinion does Tarantino himself have any intereting observations on the subject, observations that come through in the films? Or is the insight all generated by the viewer?

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 7, 2005 6:59:36 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.