Whether you’re an Elvis man or a Beatles man, tune in to our latest episode of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, because we’re finally getting around to talking about the man who doesn’t need us to tell him how good his coffee is: on the occasion of the release of his latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, your cultural baristas are having a chat about writer-director Quentin Tarantino, his films, his music, his women, his use of violence and his very particular brand of nostalgia. How much Tarantino is that? A lot!Continue reading
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…
… or at least I thought so.
I lost my nouvelle vague virginity to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, and boy, was it a fantastic first time. After seeing that film, I was excited for the medium of film. Never mind that the film was over 40 years old at that time, I’d seen something that in its cinematic language was radical and fresh and lightyears away from tropes as old as the mountains. Probably some of that was a cinematophile’s crush on a young Jeanne Moreau (and who better to have a crush on than her?), but a lot of it was Truffaut’s way of making the material become incandescent through making it new. Even now, just thinking about the film makes me want to rewatch it – and if I could go back to being a teenager, be assured that a Jules et Jim poster would adorn my bedroom wall.
In the meantime I’ve seen a couple of films that are attributed, more or less loosely, to the nouvelle vague, from precursors like Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, to Truffaut’s Les 400 coups and Tirez sur le pianiste. Yes, Truffaut’s a constant, mainly because I was hoping to find something that would leave me as amazed as his seminal love triangle. Bob didn’t do much for me (for a heist film it’s disappointingly tame and lacking in memorable scenes – or perhaps I’m just too much into Soderbergh and compare every heist flick to Ocean’s 11), and both Truffauts mentioned above were good enough though somewhat underwhelming. Ascenseur, Malle’s first feature, worked well enough, but that is due in no small part to Miles Davis’ soundtrack, bringing out the sadness beneath the cool, and to Jeanne Moreau walking Paris in the rain for what feels like an eternity.
While nothing had lived up to that first time, I thought I was ready to graduate to Jean-Luc Godard. The signs were in my favour: here’s a French director whose name recalls both my mother’s maiden name (don’t ask me why this would be a good sign, but I thought it was) and my favourite Starfleet captain. (Somehow I think that if Godard had founded a society, it would have had a big sign at the entrance: “No geeks!”) It had gorgeous black and white photography and a cute-in-that-French-way-although-she’s-American Jean Seberg.
Here’s an admission: if a film’s main character is a dick, I will have to work twice as hard to like it. If the protagonist is a sexist dick, it becomes three times as hard. And if he’s behaving like an adolescent ass, four times.
Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel in A bout de souffle is all of that. He’s full of himself, he’s a blowhard, he’s a revolutionary in his head but a reactionary in his gut. He’s a git with an inflated sense of entitlement. In effect, in all but physical age he’s a teenager. Which would be okay, but the film seems to buy into him completely. The film seems to think that Michel is cool, revolutionary, a breath of fresh air. Cocky arrogance, that’s okay, that I can deal with – but Godard’s film seems so infatuated with its central character it becomes difficult for me not to transfer my intense, immediate dislike for him to A bout de souffle.
Stylistically Godard’s movie is interesting, and there are individual scenes that work well for me. All in all, I think I would have loved it as a 10-minute short. As a 90-minute feature, though, it feels at least two hours too long. Thing is, you can find a number of parallels between Truffaut’s film and Godard’s, and between its central characters. Catherine and Michel are both amoral, they’re both self-centred, and they get what they want at the expense of others. They’re both willful and capricious and narcissistic. They’re both adolescents in their emotions and actions, and both films ask us – at least up to a point – to forgive their actions. With one big difference: for everything horrible she inflics on the two men in her life, I can forgive Catherine. Michel, on the other hand, I want to punch in the nose, repeatedly.
I guess it’s like Vincent Vega said: “My theory is that when it comes to important subjects, there’s only two ways a person can answer. For example, there’s two kinds of people in this world, Elvis people and Beatles people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.”
After I killed him, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – “Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.” I didn’t even know where Bruges fucking was.
It’s in Belgium.
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is an effective, strangely affecting black comedy. It’s by no means a great movie, but what it does it does tremendously well. Many of the reviews compare it to Tarantino’s films and to the modern Brit gangster flicks such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but both of these comparisons miss the persuasive streak of sadness that runs through the film.
Clearly there are elements of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but these similarities only go skin deep. (Two humanised hitmen spouting funny, quotable lines.) A more apt comparison would be Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, both in its absurdity and in the way its characters are acutely aware of their guilt yet unable to verbalise their feelings. Both Pinter’s early play and McDonagh’s film work as comedy, yet it wouldn’t be fair to either to dismiss them as just that.
A lot of the sadness that permeates (yes, I’m using that pretentious word – deal with it) the film, clearly helped by the medieval morbidity of Bruges and Carter Burwell’s simple yet effective score, comes from Brendan Gleeson. However, while Gleeson’s performance is spot on, it isn’t that different from many of his earlier dubious yet loveable characters (his best to date, as far as I can tell at least, would probably be Martin Cahill in John Boorman’s The General). For me, the true standout performance, surprisingly, was Colin Farrell, both funnier and more touching than I’ve ever seen him. (Disconcertingly, Farrell’s second best performance was in a Joel Schumacher film, Tigerland. How’s that for scary?)
In Bruges falters towards the end, with a finale that ramps up the absurdity at the price of its earlier moodiness, but the film remains a small gem composed of moments of unexpected beauty. And how often do you get the chance to see Ralph Fiennes play the Ben Kingsley part from Sexy Beast?
Coming up next (hopefully sooner than this update): Is it possible that the Goofy Beast was slightly disappointed with a Joss Whedon-penned comic? (No, not Buffy.)
When you read Internet comments on anything concerning Quentin Tarantino, you quickly realise two things: 1) You shouldn’t read Internet comments unless you get some sort of masochist enjoyment out of sustained idiocy; 2) Quentin Tarantino is considered a hack by lots of people who, by extension, think that Tarantino fans are wannabe hip wankers.
Now, I understand that QT’s films aren’t to everyone’s taste, and he’s definitely not one of those directors/writers who can do no wrong. But I would think that anyone with half an eye and a minimum of appreciation for movies should appreciate that Tarantino is anything but a hack. Pulp Fiction still holds up amazingly well 14 years after it came to cinemas. Jackie Brown is a bit of an odd one out – its relationship to the rest of QT’s oeuvre is roughly like that of The Straight Story to most other David Lynch movies. Many people who loved Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs found Jackie Brown boring, and people who hated Tarantino’s earlier films (or Kill Bill, if they started from the other end) probably didn’t even see the movie.
We started watching it yesterday evening – for the first time since the DVD came out, in my case – and from the very beginning, the Miramax logo appearing on screen to the strains of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, I got the same giddy feeling that I got from most of Tarantino’s movies. Apart from anything else, the guy knows how to use a soundtrack to accompany and reinforce his images. The film’s intro is one of the coolest in all of American cinema, and its simplicity makes it even cooler. Pam Grier, seen through Tarantino’s lens, is both a real person and utterly iconic. Neither the music nor the images without the other would work nearly as well:
What I only realised yesterday was that, once that intro is over, it’s half an hour before Jackie Brown (the title character!) is back on screen. But that introductory sequence has burnt her into our mind’s retina. It’s her film.
But it’s also the rest of the cast’s film; most if not all of the main characters are played brilliantly. I still haven’t warmed to Bridget Fonda, I have to admit, neither in this movie nor in most others (except A Simple Plan), but it’s fascinating what Tarantino does with Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro. In a way it’s a shame that Jackson was so good in Pulp Fiction, because in most films that followed it he did minor variations on Jules Winfield only, becoming a self-parody. He was never less than cool but neither was he more than Samuel L. Jackson(tm). Robbie Ordell, though, is different. Not wildly different, but he takes his earlier character and makes him into something colder, more real and more frightening.
Robert De Niro, though, is an actor who has rarely impressed me in the last ten years or so. He too has been playing reduced versions of his earlier parts, also becoming a caricature of himself in so many movies. His Louis Gara is a comic figure in his slowness, yet it’s much more differentiated a performance than you might think at first. And his scene with Bridget Fonda is one of the most cuttingly funny sex scenes in American movies. For now, I’ll leave you with it:
Out of Sight will always have a special place in whatever chamber of my film nerd’s heart is reserved for films. For one thing, it was my first taste of Soderbergh’s work – and, in spite of his lesser films, he remains one of my favourite directors. However, and this may sound strange, I like him most for the editing of his movies… even though he didn’t edit most of his films.
Nevertheless, it’s obvious that he doesn’t just leave the editorial work to his undoubtedly talented editors – many of his films play with jump cuts, freeze frames and achronological editing, whether he’s the one sitting in the Avid chair or not. There’s a strongly impressionistic feel to how Soderbergh places his scenes in relation to each other, to the point where it can become annoying for audiences that aren’t made up of editing geeks like me. The Limey is a case in point (and, even more film nerdy, the director’s commentary on the DVD edition plays the same games with jumbled chronology as the movie – I got a kick out of it, but chances are I’m part of a very exclusive club there).
What strikes about Out of Sight is how effortless the fractured chronology is presented. People were confused by Pulp Fiction‘s B-A-C-style narrative, but that’s nothing compared to how this film jumps, starting pretty much in the middle and liberally moving back and forth. Nevertheless, you’re never confused as to what is going on in the story. Soderbergh hides his positively avantgarde editing in plain sight.
And it’s rarely been done as successfully as in the love scene between George Clooney (pretty much at the beginning of his career as an actor rather than clothesrack) and Jennifer Lopez (has she ever been better than in this film?), which cuts smoothly back and forth between the actual lovemaking and the buildup. The spark between Clooney and Lopez is made into one of the most erotic love scenes in American filmmaking. Yet the fades and the music also have something sad – it’s clear, somehow, from watching the scene that this will be the one and only time the two characters are in effect together.
P.S.: To be fair, the scene is not entirely original. Soderbergh has obviously watched his Nicholas Roeg closely, getting his inspiration from the Julie Christie/Donald Sutherland love scene in Don’t Look Now (gotta love the accidental synchronicity between the two films’ titles) which jumps back and forth between sex and the couple putting their clothes back on afterwards, infusing the mundane married life with the erotic.
P.P.S.: For anyone interested in the art of editing, do read In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, Jarhead).
Sorry, guys… Not enough sleep and no coffee make this guy uncreative. I could write something about today’s episode of Six Feet Under (“The Silence”), but then, something about its ending made me feel all blue.
Or should I write about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier today? Well, considering that the annotations file on that one is more than 50’000 words long, I think that my review should wait until I’ve had more sleep.
So… should I write about Pulp Fiction, which I watched again yesterday, for the first time after years? Thing is, so much has already been written about Pulp Fiction, so I think I’ll just leave it at saying that the film is as fresh and as cool as it was back then (has Samuel L. Jackson ever been cooler?). And here’s a little something to keep you happy ’till the next blog entry: