I used to be a big Tarantino fan. In fact, I’d still consider myself one; I can still remember the exhilaration I felt after first seeing Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (both parts) or Inglourious Basterds, and they still feel fresh and exciting to me now. Even Death Proof, which many of his fans were, let’s say, ambivalent about: the film puts a big goofy grin on my face.
I’ve been underwhelmed by three of the most recent films I’ve seen: Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Yet these are all films that have received rave reviews from the critics; for instance, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest received a Metacritic score of 95/100, Django Unchained has a Rotten Tomato score of 88 out of 100, and all three were Best Picture nominees at the recent Academy Awards.
Obviously an argument can be had about the Oscars and whether they truly reflect what’s best about movies – an argument I’m not particularly interested in getting involved in. What I’m more interested in is this: do all these films depend on the particular culture that gave birth to them? More specifically, to what extent do they depend on an American audience?
As a non-American, it’s not that I’m disinterested in the films’ topics, but I don’t have any connection to them. Slavery, particularly as it was practised in the United States, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden – neither of these have any particular, personal relevance to me. Going into the films, though, I felt that they required, perhaps even demanded such a personal connection to be at their most effective. For an audience that saw the 9/11 attacks as aimed at them – not at the Western world in general, but at them as Americans – it might be easier to identify with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine and her obsessive hunt for Bin Laden. For an audience that culturally still lives in the aftermath of slavery and its legacy, the sight of a black gunslinger exacting brutal revenge on the one side of the cinematic spectrum, on the other a tall, gangly president seeking to end not only a war but a racist, inhumane practice deeply entrenched in the national culture – I expect that these resonate in ways particular to that audience.
Except that resonance wasn’t there for me. Whereas 9/11 felt like a shared event even on this side of the Atlantic (with some caveats – the discussion on the terrorist attacks very quickly became critical of the United States in Europe), the hunt for Bin Laden didn’t. The most personal connection I have to slavery is remembering seeing Roots on TV, which barely counts. Yet there are films that manage to make essentially American topics more universal, where I don’t feel I have to have grown up in a specific culture to connect to them. Did these three films end up less effective, and less successful as movies, because they were aimed at a very specific audience?
It’d be interesting to hear some opinions on this issue. What were readers’ opinions of these three films? To what extent did you feel that they spoke to you – or failed to speak to you?
Note: While Argo could also be said to be about a particularly American topic, it didn’t feel like it to me. This doesn’t mean I agree with the Academy’s opinion on the film – I enjoyed Argo but would call it a good film, not a great one – but in the end I enjoyed it more than either Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained or Lincoln. Then again, I haven’t fully enjoyed any of Spielberg’s movies in a very long time… but that may be material for another blog post.
What’s happened? Why the sad face on my part? It’s this: ever since first watching Pulp Fiction, I’ve been a Quentin Tarantino fan. This doesn’t mean that I love everything the man’s been involved in – I wasn’t too keen on From Dusk Till Dawn or Natural Born Killers, for instance – but I’ve greatly enjoyed his directorial work. While most people would go, “Yeah, I dig Reservoir Dogs, but fuck Jackie Brown, man, what a bore!” or “Kill Bill Part 1 rules, Kill Bill Part 2 drools,” I came away from all of them with a big grin on my face. Yes, even Death Proof, apparently the litmus test for Tarantino fans.
So what was wrong with Django Unchained? Let’s mention the positive first: I found the film very entertaining. It was funny, it had its tense moments, it was well crafted, it had good performances. Christoph Waltz was a joy to watch, Jaime Foxx was effective in the part, Samuel L. Jackson played a very different role from what I’m used to seeing. It’s just… I expect more than “very entertaining” from Tarantino. I remember sitting in the cinema for Jackie Brown and being hooked in the very first scene, thanks to the perfect combination of actress, visuals and music. I remember being pulled into the film immediately when Kill Bill started with a black and white close-up of the bloodied Bride and Bill doing his “Do you find me sadistic?” monologue, followed by the blackout and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. With Death Proof it took longer – up until the halfway point I was prepared to hate the film for, well, finding it sadistic, but then things fell into place in the second part. And the first scene of Inglourious Basterds is pretty much perfect in how it creates tension and then ratchets it up to unbearable levels.
I felt giddy about all of Tarantino’s earlier films, sometimes due to the sheer exuberance of what he was doing, often because of the virtuoso way in which he remixed styles and genres to amazing effect, usually because the films had a sharp wit and intelligence that might not be apparent at a first viewing. Django Unchained, though? I never felt giddy. I never felt excited at what Tarantino was doing. The closest the film came was Christoph Waltz’s character and performance, which were pretty much pitch perfect, but other than that the film was strangely flat. No surprising juxtaposition (and no, it’s not enough to have Ennio Morricone and 2pac on the same soundtrack any more), not much in the way of subtext. Especially after Inglourious Basterds, which did some pretty intriguing things with its revenge plot(s), Django Unchained is strangely, disappointingly straightforward – and often it’s the lack of straightforwardness, the eagerness to stray of the most direct path, smell the daisies and cut them to shreds in an ironically postmodern homage to grindhouse gardening (“Alan Titchmarsh stars in The Gardener and his Hoe!“) that make Tarantino’s work stand out.
I’m wondering whether some of my disappointment comes from slavery being much more of a cultural issue in the States, and accordingly it wouldn’t resonate with me in the same way that it might with an audience that is still confronted with its racial past. Perhaps that adds an element that simply wasn’t there for me. Or perhaps Django Unchained is Tarantino light, at least with respect to the things I like best about Tarantino. Anyway, I’m in no particular hurry to see the film again (I saw both Kill Bills three times each at the cinema), but perhaps the film will grow on me if/when I sit down to watch it again. And in the meantime I’ll finally see what Pulp Fiction looks like on my TV…