On Quentin Tarantino's Legacy, And The Shadow It Casts
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions. Their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. -Oscar Wilde
Obviously, cultural history is littered with some controversy behind what is authentic or not, not to mention the debate surrounding art vs. entertainment. One could say that this chatter has been amplified since the onset of post-modernism. One particularly nagging development in recent decades has been the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino is an authentic movie-maker, or if he is a "hack". It's a type of conversation that doesn't often happen outside of art circles, but here, with the writer and director of numerous wildly successful films, it's a regular staple in film groups.
One could call him a number of things. My favorite is from a friend who called him "The Andrew Dice Clay of cinema". For those that somehow don't know, Tarantino has copied entire scenes from lesser known movies. A couple of the more flagrant examples would include how a significant portion of Reservoir Dogs was copied verbatim, shot for shot, from a 1980s Hong Kong film called City On Fire, which in itself could have copied any number of showdown scenes.
Another oft-mentioned piece was lifted from Lady Snowblood, and planted into Tarantino's Kill Bill. Tarantino's work is often referred to as a "pastiche" of several different film references. Some say that not only are these scenes carbon-copied, but are also of a lower quality than the original. Ennio Morricone, at one point, said that he would not work with Tarantino on another film, because the legendary film music composer found certain sequences to be poorly executed.
It probably doesn't help that Tarantino has been caught up in some gossip-worthy situations in recent years. Namely, a falling out with longtime friend and collaborator Uma Thurman, due to a car accident that resulted from an ill-advised scene without a stunt-person. To buttress the argument, it has been suggested that, as some sort of revenge/cheap-shot, Tarantino wrote a scene so that he specifically could spit in Thurman's face (rather than the actor who was to be doing that in the film). To top that off, Tarantino was roped into the drama surrounding Harry Weinstein's sexual assault convictions, and to some degree, at least in the eyes of accusers, an unwitting accomplice.
As if that's not enough, one could easily bring up the time Tarantino appeared on Howard Stern's popular radio program, and said that the young teen who was said to be drugged and raped in the '70s by director Roman Polanski, "she wanted to have it". To the director's credit, there has at least been a polite, although still thoroughly questionable rebuttal, rather than outright denial, or "lawyering up" on the part of Tarantino. For now, let's just assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle with cases like these.
Now that the general means of character assassination/straw man arguments for many debates is out of the way, and we'll assume that we're mature enough to be able to avoid discussing the various "violence in cinema" claims, calls to cancel him, there is still the matter of whether or not Quentin Tarantino, as a screenwriter and director, is a real artist or a copycat. The next step is to roll out the old "Great artists steal, they don't do homages" quote, which in itself was similarly (perhaps incorrectly) attributed to Picasso (before Tarantino "stole" it)... Here is where it can be highly subjective and especially contentious.
If we could agree that a person can be inspired by another piece of work, expand on that idea enough to "make it their own", and still be called an artist, then we could at least hopefully agree that there is a subjectivity to the idea of authenticity. With the rhetoric surrounding "post-modernism" and especially how it relates to the art world, it's generally tedious and unnecessary, getting into contrivances and different levels of absurdity, although it remains a theater of speculation what common item taped to a wall will sell for tens of thousands.
Indeed, the quote "Art is anything you can get away with" is often attributed to Andy Warhol, but it was also stated by Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man, first published in 1964. Maybe that is a coincidence.
Art begins where imitation ends. - Oscar Wilde
For the record, Warhol escapes my crosshairs only because I truly believe he was enthusiastic about uplifting mundane ideas, such as his famous Campbell's soup paintings. In any case, the audience wants to feel like they're in good hands. Even if there is nothing new under the sun, we want to connect with the artist on some deeper level when we experience their work. We don't want to connect with conmen and their unceremonious appropriation of other peoples' ideas. It's a fine line to draw between narcissistic, egomaniacal, attention-starved opportunists and the child-like innocence that is at the core of many great creations.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness. -Oscar Wilde
Tarantino has lifted entire scenes, and it's been argued that he created Jackie Brown a little too much in the likeness of Foxy Brown (both of which were inspired by Elmore Leonard's novel, Rum Punch. I do think there needs to be a degree of self-indulgence on the part of an artist when they are dealing in the realm of ideas. In my case, although I can't necessarily vouch for his character, I believe that he writes movies whilst being immersed in a deep, creative process. It's quite clear that he's obscenely knowledgeable about movies and movie history.
In my admittedly subjective opinion, Tarantino is at least sincere and earnest about his work, and his films stand firmly apart from the wide array of influences that form them. He instills symbolism and subtext, as well as an entire universe where his characters live, including the creation of movies that they themselves watch. He does this in a way that makes me believe that he's not just ripping off some bright-eyed interns that unwittingly allowed themselves to be drained of their inspiration.
It's also probably helpful in my case that Tarantino did not go to film school. He learned by simply watching thousands of films. While I'm not a film buff myself, I do know some people who have said that film school "ruined" movies for them. They were able to dissect and to some degree, predict the nature of a movie based on its formula. What I get from Tarantino, if not unpredictability, is a sense that his referential scenes are like modern archetypes bundled with meaning, like a painting by Dali or Ernst, where a sequence lifted from another film is almost presented for mythological reasons that are symbolic as much as they are practical in executing the plot. As a person who is fond of collage art and sample-heavy music, I walk this line with my tastes often.
While many may consider the subject matter to be somewhat brutish, Tarantino's films have never come off as cynical cash-grabs, much less thinly veiled remakes. He's also said to have not only changed the way cinema was made, with his somewhat unconventional techniques exhibited in 1994's Pulp Fiction, he's also himself inspired a number of copycats.
Although he refers to himself as a "genre filmmaker", he gives his films a greater context than your average run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up story, and it's that nuanced fervor that sets him apart from other directors. Don't get me wrong, Hollywood does put out some crap, but Tarantino has perhaps created films that were challenging inasmuch as they would not often be greenlit by a production company if it were any other director.
For those that disagree with me, I understand. I definitely don't like the idea of giving patronage to a person who studiously, yet unceremoniously, parrots other peoples' work and steals other peoples' ideas, only to dump them into an amalgam of gimmicks designed to get attention. In this case, having listened to many of Tarantino's insights on his creative process, I feel like we are talking about a person who creates with a form of ecstatic ponderousness, without regard for rules or barriers, and for once, there are some films that are not only memorable in their formula, but also with the intent that it put into them as they are created. I still admit the conflicted nature of interpreting his work. A person who says that they "play the audience like a conductor does an orchestra" is definitely going to remain somewhat suspicious, but the fact remains that few other films have the simultaneous complexity and visceral response as Tarantino does. Just a hunch. I could be wrong.
Social critics don’t mean a thing to me. It’s really easy to ignore them, because I believe in what I’m doing 100 percent. So any naysayers for the public good can just fuck off. They might be a drag for a moment, but after that moment is over, it always ends up being gasoline to my fire. - Quentin Tarantino