Friday, April 1, 2011

The Tarantino Thing

A couple months ago I was having a bit of a heated discussion with a local movie rental shop owner about film directors, starting with how I believed that Danny Boyle's become dependably unwatchable (a statement I may have to retract after seeing a live broadcast of his National Theatre stage presentation of Frankenstein) and he countering back about how Tarantino's films bring him little pleasure since all he can see are the references to other films, most of which he's already seen. We went on to discuss other directors and our polarized feeling towards them, including Aronofski and Scorsese settling only upon Robert Rodriguez as neutral territory.

But it was this shop owner's comments about Tarantino that stuck with me. He praised Quentin's writing prowess as close to unrivaled, and his ability to blend music into cinema in a way few other directors adequately comprehend, but his sticking point comes down to his hyper-referential visual style. Scene after scene alluding to a famous scene of another film, or perhaps copping the style of another film director, or appropriating a tone or a song notably used elsewhere. It seemed to be too much for this gentleman I was talking with to truly appreciate the man as an artist. I surmised before the conversation drifted elsewhere that perhaps it is my age and inexperience with cinema prior to the 1980s, or the fact that Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting are the blue pills of my cinematic awakening, that I have such an indelible affection for Tarantino. It's still all so fresh to me.

But it was afterwords that I realized there was another facet of my pop cultured brain that skews me towards Tarantino's films, one that makes me far more sympathetic to those that dislike his work. Quentin Tarantino is a one man hip-hop crew of the highest caliber, unsurpassed. He's perhaps not the greatest emcee, nor the greatest DJ, but as a one-man-show, unrivaled.

It's all metaphorical, of course but I look at it this way... Tarantino's dialogue, when it hit the ground running in Reservoir Dogs, was like little the filmgoing public had seen before. Sure, there have been long-winded conversations in films in the past, but they're generally either mass exposition or meaningless drivel. Tarantino words aren't necessarily always about meaning, but about the moment, as much as its about establishing a voice, for the characters and for the film. Through his direction, he brings the words to life, not as in human life, but like plant life, scenery, atmosphere, setting. The words, in his style, establish a mood, and while what is said can be taken on its own merits it's what's happening between the words, in the character his or herself (via the actor, ultimately via the direction they're given) that matters. He's a cinematic wordsmith uniquely his own, like the greatest rhymesayers in hip-hop, notably the ones with presence. It's not just about saying the most rhymes or drawing the most analogies like some rap battler, it's about tone, inflection, rhythm, cadence... words blend and become one with the cinematic landscape, the same way the rhymes of a rapper can meld with the backing beats, synchronous harmony. A whole. One.

A rapper can freestyle without benefit of anything but the sound of their own voice, but the right DJ, the right beatmaker, can transform lyrics. Tarantino is the visual equivalent of the worlds best DJ. A DJ will take a whole record and find a snippet, a few seconds, sometimes even a fraction of a second of that record and build a loop, a backing beat, a sample that becomes the foundation of a song. Did he create the initial work? No, but he's recontextualizing that, he's making it something new, like a phoenix rising from the ashes: what was old is new again. But it doesn't stop there, one sample begets another, and another, until a song is built, sometimes it's frivolous, sometimes pulpy, sometimes energizing, sometimes a failure. Tarantino in the same way builds his films out of samples of other films. His mind is the record collection and in that collection are the thousands of films he's seen and the moments he's loved indelibly flagged, and as he's directing, he will pull out the sample that captures the moment best... and like any good DJ if there isn't a sample that will do he will make his own.

I happen to love DJ music, and part of the fun of the culture is hearing within a song something familiar, but in a way you're not familiar with it. It also works in reverse, where I can hear a classic song and for the first time recognize a familiar sample that had been removed from it. It rarely lessens the original's work, and sometimes bolsters it. Tarantino's films are the same way. As DJ doesn't use a sample unless he likes it, with no disrespect intended, nothing Tarantino does is out of irony, so a copped di Palma split screen done so out of affection. At the same time the sample is placed precisely as it should be. The Tarantino copycats who started flooding the direct-to-video shelves after Pulp Fiction don't understand that there is a time and a place for everything, and it takes a certain level of skill, nay genius, to use the samples judiciously for the proper time and scene.

Some people wouldn't call DJ's musicians, just as some hesitate to call Tarantino a filmmaker. Regardless of what one thinks of the output, DJ's make music, just as Tarantino makes films, they're just using tools and techniques that perhaps you don't like or just can't find room to appreciate. Fair enough. I get it now.