Tarantino and Post Modernism
There is little question that film is art. For years now, academia has backed up this notion in numerous film schools around the world and in countless books that explore the aesthetics of cinema. In the 1920s, film schools were already being created in the Soviet Union. Professors were trying to bring comprehension to an art that had yet to be defined. In the work Beyond the Shot (published in 1929), one professor gleefully admits discussing terms like 'cinema' and cinematography' when the vocabulary did not even exist (the professor was none other than Sergei Eisenstein). As film now passes its hundredth year, one can't help but look back in reflection. The easiest trends to follow have been the film movements in various countries, such as The French New Wave in the 60's and New German Cinema in the 70s. But little has been said to understand the identity of modernism and post-modernism in film, staple terms of both literature and architecture. In the essay "What's left of the Center?" published in the New Republic, the film critic Stanley Kauffmann discerns the place of modernism and post-modernism in film.
There are disagreements about the meaning of modernism and post-modernism in film. In the essay, Kauffmann places the context of morality as the diameter for judgment. While Kauffmann agrees that the French New Wave broke many structural barriers common in film, one can interject that before the French New Wave hit, many films were as daring, if not more daring, than anything to come out of that period. As Kauffmann sees it, morality in film before the 1960s had always been a constant. His example is the gangster films of the 30s. Even though these films portrayed the gangsters as the protagonists, the films always ended in right and wrong. Then the gangster film was transformed with the Godfather series. Though the films have some concept of right and wrong, its main focus is the romanticizing of the mafia. In Part II, the tragedy is not that Michael kills his brother because his life as a Mafioso forces him to, but that he is forced to kill his brother because he betrayed the family.
Serious post-modernism, for Kauffman, does not start with The Godfather. It begins with the 1974 French film Going Places. It is a film about two young men who have no discernible interest except for seeking pleasure and they go to any limits to do so. In one episode, they trap a woman on a train who is breast feeding her child and force her to have sex. Another episode shows them chasing a woman and continually pinching her ass. Compare this with A Clockwork Orange, made three years earlier. Both films are about the adventures of corrupted youth, but A Clockwork Orange is a societal work. The first half is a romp through the youthï¿½s crimes but the second half focuses on the human rights he lost once imprisoned and cured. The shift takes the audience away from direct contact with such a volatile character. It comforts the audience because they know the film didn't subscribe to the ideals of its gruesome leading character.
In Going Places, there is no such comfort. The film follows the characters to their very end. Late in the film, a disturbingly beautiful moment happens as the two men meet a bourgeoisie couple on vacation with their teen age daughter. The daughter feels repressed by her parents. The two men get her alone and convince her into having sex. During the intercourse, the camera focuses on the smile on the girl’s face and soundtrack features lighter music for the first time. The mood in the film distinctly changes. The girl’s feelings after are of freedom and joy. The men's accomplishment of sex again borders on rape, but the repression she felt was an abuse as well. The abuse fueled her attraction to them because they presented her with liberation. The audience is challenged because they can identify with her decision. While post-modernism allows for the absence of morals, one of its best features has been the challenge for extremes in a higher context.
During this period, many films were made that broke barriers of moral identity. It was a trend that easily caught fire. America became inundated with films of excessive violence to the point that Going Places was no longer shocking for some. It wasn't until the 90s that the post-modernist movement witnessed a major boom in discussion with the emergence of Quentin Tarantino in the American film world. His debut film, Reservoir Dogs was a stylistic jazz riff on the robbery genre. The new trend in this film wasn't the excessive violence, but how commonplace violence was to the characters. Mundane conversations took place in the middle of horrific situations. Reservoir Dogs drew a small following who championed the film's everyday approach to violence as a new marker in cinema. Then Pulp Fiction hit. For many who were adverse to Tarantino before, his second film was hard to deny. It expanded on all the limitations of Reservoir Dogs: the scope was enhanced, the story was more fleshed out and the film was not as inundated with violence. Tarantino was still playing his tune of a jazz riff, this time with the gangster genre, but Pulp Fiction also proved that Quentin Tarantino was a talented writer.
As Tarantino is the purveyor of everyday violence, he is also a filmmaker of everyday conversation. His first two films had very little of what we understand to be a plot as it had an inhabitance of his characters beginning at the art of their conversations. As distinct as Mamet is in his prose, Tarantino is also for blending realistic subject matter into outrageous conversation. The realism of the conversation is that action doesn’t break up a character’s wordings. Characters go on the way we all do. In his original review, Gene Siskel commented that one of the best parts of Pulp Fiction was that conversations in a scene kept going a few minutes after the scene normally would have ended. The truth of the success of Pulp Fiction isn’t so simple.
When Tarantino was promoting Pulp Fiction, he was routinely asked why he chose the structure of a shifting story that jumped from end to beginning and every other which way through out the film. Tarantino alluded to the example of the novel in every response. See, the shifting story of back-and-forth is nothing new in movies. The way Tarantino does it though is. Pulp Fiction does little to bring resolution to any of the major characters. While the alleged inspirational film of Pulp Fiction, Stanley Kubrickï¿½s The Killing, has a similar story objective and a resolution that is tidy to finding an outcome for all the characters. The weight of Pulp Fiction rests solely in the strength of the scenes and the interactions. Novels have the challenge of detailing hundreds of pages with character portraits. Better novels focus on that challenge knowing the value of what they write is hardly ever found in looking for redemption in the final twenty pages. Tarantino makes Pulp Fiction memorable because he understands where the value of the films rests. While the film was well made in many ways, its rare quality was that it was encompassing of the helpful objectives of another art.
The praise for Pulp Fiction has its limits though. In an early scene in the film, a routine drug pick up and execution goes wrong when an assailant, hiding in another room, jumps out on Jackson and Travolta and begins shooting. He misses them entirely and immediately is shot for revealing himself. The situation sets up the final scene where Jackson reflects on the unlikely chance of the shooter missing entirely not as good luck but as an intervention from God and a message to Jackson. Travolta argues his sincerity but when the two are held up at gun point, Jackson spares the robbersï¿½ lives and says he is through with being a criminal. In the context of true post-modernism, the scene aches to have a personal context for the character. Alas, it does not. In no manner of societal or personal matter is a larger comment issued. The biblical reference begins and ends as stylistic mechanism. The rest of Pulp Fiction, while very good, follows suit to be the introduction to the larger public of what makes Tarantino so appealing at surface level.
As Going Places shows no sympathy for its characters' ruthless aggression, neither does Tarantino for his characters, who are the embodiment of the violence our new culture has grown up with. But the characters of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction stand outside and inside of movies: they kill as the casual heroics of the movies but bleed and die with realism outside of it. For Tarantino, this is how post-modernism existed. The problem with Tarantino is that he never expanded beyond this premise. His films became genre films, wrought with stylistic ambitions yet void of content. He was making films that interpreted genre as high art. While Pulp Fiction had no context, its popularity did. When the wave of imitative filmmakers came after the success and the new wave of filmmakers began to settle as the critical backbone of American cinema, Tarantino became the 90s version of Andy Warhol. The fact is, no filmmaker of this generation (including Tarantino) was able to progress beyond Pulp Fiction.
Filmmakers who were exceptions to that critical praise had to pick up the slack. Ironically, it was out of a Quentin Tarantino story that this began. When Oliver Stone made Natural Born Killers in 1994, he made it the same year as Tarantino revolutionary started with Pulp Fiction but he also had to be aware of the already established gore style of Tarantino. The film is about two serial killers who are in love and kill everyone they see. The filmmaking is anarchistic and flies with no flags of moral identity. It runs with the characters to a state of hyper-realism. This is not the reason why Quentin Tarantino denounced this adaptation of his short story. He denounced the finished film because there was a total transformation of his original story. Tarantino wrote the characters to be believed in. Oliver transformed them into clichés of bad films.
Natural Born Killers ends up as satire. It empties an arsenal of criticism into how America made the killers. It is also a piercing example of Tarantino's limitations. For me, post-modernism is art that not only brings the most challenging scrutiny to our society, but also pushes the limits of its own aesthetic. Tarantino still glides at the top of the film world for his technique of referencing earlier films, but that is as dated as the oldest films made. Citizen Kane tops greatest films lists for a reason. It is the first film to combine all technical innovation and style of the film world into one film. The commonplace violence in Tarantino's films stuns the audience with how brutality is made into easy entertainment beyond anything else. I'm reminded of what Philip Roth once said of literature and the media: "The popular media have usurped literature's scrutinizing function - usurped it and trivialized it. The momentum of the American mass media is toward the trivialization of everything." The media need no assistance now because it has Quentin Tarantino.
Jackie Brown, also in the canon of his work and notably praised, deserves little attention. Tarantino performed an act he should have never committed to: the execution of a plot. It detracts his writing of great detail, the type of detail that made Pulp Fiction worthwhile. At his best, Tarantino writes for the intricacy of everyday life. Jackie Brown asked him to acknowledge the patterns of drama that made him look at depth first and he comes up flat. The film ends up dragging from scene to scene with little motivation. He also directs to a very flat tone. His excuse was that he wanted the film - first and foremost - to be an acknowledged adaptation of the original novel. I’ve never read the novel but the films plays to the little intricacy or scrutiny that most novels possess. Whether Jackie Brown is faithful or not is beyond the answers of this essay but it is not very interesting.