There’s a scene in the Wizard of Oz. Having killed the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy returns to the Emerald City. The Wizard delays her request to grant her well-deserved reward and as she argued, Toto pulled open a curtain exposing the “Wizard” as a normal man.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” The Wizard shouts.
In terms of modern cinema, Quentin Tarantino is the man behind the curtain. You can’t watch one of his films without thinking about him or hearing his voice. It’s become virtually impossible to suspend disbelief and lose yourself in characters and plot. It’s not all his fault. With the arrival of Pulp Fiction Independent Film went from the melting pot of new ideas to a style, a way of doing things that made them “independent”. For years after Pulp Fiction we had to deal with pop culture, snappy dialog films featuring a car, a gun, and bad guys that sound like they’ve swallowed a TV Guide. You can’t blame him for Eli Roth, just as you can’t blame The Beatles for Phil Collins.
I don’t care that he’s accused of ripping off other people movies. When Tarantino was asked about this he said he doesn’t rip movies off, they are a ”homage” to the original. Some might consider that a bit of a cheap copout. “Oh no sir I didn’t counterfeit this money, it’s a homage to real cash” but I think all movies are fair game if you do something fresh with it.
The problem is when did the last time QT do anything that felt ‘fresh’?
Now his movies seem to be an exercise in being cool as opposed to telling a good story. He doesn’t communicate anything to the audience except “look how cool I am”. I call this the Samuel L. Jackson syndrome, an actor that Tarantino managed to kill off and replace with Jules his character from Pulp Fiction. Jackson has been phoning in some variation of that part in all the films he’s done since.
I’ve been taking swipes at Quentin Tarantino for years. I’ll admit I was impressed with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was arguably his masterpiece though I’ll always have a certain fondness for Jackie Brown. For me the signs were there with Kill Bill. This was an 84-minute B grade revenge movie stretched out over two films. Sure the club sword fight and kill scenes were cool but mostly this movie was talktalktalktalktalktalktalk. At the end I couldn’t remember if it was a movie or an insurance seminar. From the start of the movie where Uma Thurman escapes in a giant yellow and pink car called The Pussy Wagon the film does little but dazzle you with carefully crafted cool, leaving you punch drunk enough to see that nothing is going on here at all. But at least it’s entertaining.
Then a funny thing had happened during this time, independent films became more personal, more intimate. Films like Little Miss Sunshine started to head back to movies about people and stories, neither of which are Tarantino’s strong point.
Things rapidly got worse with Death Proof. If you forget the name Tarantino, forget the unnecessary scratchy film and colour to black and white transitions. What have you got left? Enough inane talk to fill the Grand Canyon! The dialogue between the girls while negotiating the hire of the Dodge was mind numbingly nonsensical. Do women really talk like that? What could have been an interesting plot was drowned out by ego-style and self-indulgent speech.
Besides the poor dialogue, what really destroys this movie is the acting. Tarantino appears himself in a wooden acting role as a barman (another terrible performance) and the long-chinned director foolishly awards a cameo to his friend Eli Roth who rambles through his lines like a bad amateur. The chasm between a professional and amateur actor has never been so evident, and worst of all was Zoe Bell. Her poor acting skills are not pleasing to the eye.
Death Proof is an out-and-out dud, a film so profoundly dull, so relentlessly misguided, so criminally self-indulgent you almost feel bad wasting time criticising it.
One of the biggest reasons for Quentin Tarantino’s success and acclaim is his use of dialogue throughout his many films. His dialogue is, for lack of a better term, unique. It is often blunt and to the point, but will also take its sweet time to let the audience immerse themselves in the dialogue. Scenes from Inglorious Basterds seem to exist solely for the sake of dialogue. While in other films, like Kill Bill Vol. 2, the dialogue serves to punctuate dramatic moments and heighten the tension of the final showdown between The Bride and Bill.
Often times, the dialogue acts as its own character of the story. It adds an air of grandiose and majesty to everything the characters do. Even the simple act of telling an anecdote, like in Reservoir Dogs seems more detailed with the dialogue that is used. Tarantino’s use of dialogue might be his greatest strength, but it is also his greatest weakness.
It comes across like Tarantino puts so much focus on the lines and discussion in his films that he is blinded by it. Going back to Inglorious Basterds that scene with the Nazis playing cards goes on for what feels like twenty minutes. We watch these soldiers play their games and shoot the breeze, but it ultimately does not add anything to the film. The majority of that scene could have been edited out of the film, and it would not have affected anything.
The story, pacing and characters of a Tarantino film often take a backseat to the dialogue. This repeatedly becomes distracting and causes the film to fall apart after multiple viewings. The dialogue in even his best films is sometimes unnatural and removed from reality. For example, most of the conversations between Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction don’t flow like real conversations. Their discussions might be funny and quirky, but they usually just exist for their own sake.
Worst of all is that when I hear Tarantino dialogue I can only hear Quentin Tarantino’s voice. Every man, woman or vampire talks exactly like him, the same cadence and the same intonation. Every sentence sounds like it should end in an exclamation mark.
Tarantino has been making films for 24 years, the same length of time as Ang Lee who has made double the amount of films, each very different, two winning him Oscars for best director. Great artists can have lean years, Hitchcock and Scorsese certainly did. But great artists can’t become a fixed point, and I would argue that’s exactly what QT has become. Will he evolve as a writer and film maker? I doubt it.