Quentin Tarantino’s Sustained Coolness (And Why It Matters)

On the eve of the filmmaker’s memoir about the movies that most influenced him, a Hollywood historian takes stock of the writer-director’s canon—and finds fodder for greatness

In the last decade of his life, Peter Bogdanovich lived, like his friend and mentor Orson Welles before him, low on money, from guest house to guest house. Staying at Quentin Tarantino’s around the time Tarantino was writing Inglourious Basterds, Bogdanovich would be made to watch, he said, “the shit Quentin loves”—and, smiling, added that he did mean “shit” in two senses. He shrugged, chuckling wearily, like an old man out of Renoir. “Ah, Quentin . . .”

From left: Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs (1992), the first movie Tarantino wrote and directed.

If we were in a musical—and Peter, a little bit, always was—he would have looked to the sunset over the valley side of Mulholland and sung a sweet, sad song about watching the world change and letting go.

Quentin Tarantino has a new book coming this month, Cinema Speculation, a nonfiction work about the movies of the 70s. I haven’t read it. (As I write this, it is still under embargo.) But I have to read it—we all do. Whether you like his work or not, or, frankly, whether you like film or not, Tarantino’s taste and sensibility—more than any filmmaker or even critic of his generation—has urged the ear, eye, and mind of the American moviegoer. Since Pulp Fiction introduced VHS cinema into the popular canon almost 20 years ago—refashioning “low” schlock-film conventions into high-production tropes—“the shit Quentin loves,” his supersounds of the ’70s, his kung fu and exploitation movies, those black suits with the black skinny ties, his badass motherfuckers, have informed our idea of cool to such a degree that, I think, it’s safe to say, if we don’t understand it, we can’t claim to understand a part of ourselves that, given Tarantino’s two decades of sustained coolness, obviously still matters to us.

The trouble is, I can’t, for the life of me, tell you what Pulp Fiction is about. I’m sure some graduate student has a theory about God or fate or miracles or (per Zed’s chopper) grace, but I don’t see the Tarantino die-hards lining up in their Ray-Bans for a midnight screening of Winter Light (unless, of course, it’s at the New Beverly). I do see them, however, ransacking the basement bins, trading vinyl and movie tie-in paperbacks; I see them as I imagine Tarantino, who, as we know, worked in a video store, lingering outside the theater, rehearsing his punk theories on arcane subtexts, gleefully contrarian in their taste. Psycho? Ha! Psycho II!, their adolescent middle fingers flicked in their parents’ faces.

About that taste. What we see in these early movies of Tarantino’s, beyond the taste itself, is the equally adolescent idea of valuing taste above character. “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan,” Mr. Blonde speculates in Reservoir Dogs, the first movie Tarantino wrote and directed (underwritten in part by the sale to Warner Bros. of his screenplay for True Romance, a movie he wrote but was directed by Tony Scott). Reservoir Dogs is a movie built very much to elide story and character. For the movie to work, we can’t know the truth. We are meant to ask throughout: What happened during the botched heist? And who among these pseudonymous characters can we trust? The rest is film-made tension, the shit Quentin loves (I hear he spent an egregious portion of his low budget on the rights to “Stuck in the Middle with You”) and language—language deluxe, language that rides the ear like a musical score, far exceeding its expositional function, but flinches from showing us who these people are. For that, we have flashbacks. Tarantino loves flashbacks; they so often do what his characters, so busy being cool, can’t: reveal themselves.

In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s coolest movie, everything they do is cool, and everything they say, every high-minded speculation spiked with a choice motherfucker or beatnik hipsterism, sounds cool. Rarely flustered, the cool guys—the good guys—look and move with the mannered self-possession of James Bond, while the uncool—who demonstrate no taste, no style, and no clever independence of thought—flail around the screen in ugly clothes before they lavishly die. (There’s a telling joke: when John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, kings of cool, are made to change out of their suits and skinny ties into banal shorts and T-shirts.) When Travolta’s Vincent Vega is shot and killed, he’s coming from the toilet, where everyone everywhere is at their uncoolest. And so it seems, insofar as the movie consists of cool people killing uncool people, Pulp Fiction, in its heart, is foremost about attitude and taste. The metaphysical talk is just that—talk.

John Travolta prepares to revive Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction (1994)—the precarious balance of comedy and violence became Tarantino’s signature.

But coolest of all was a filmmaker delivering on the promise of independent film, studding his movies with episodes we would be hard-pressed to find in neighboring Hollywood: sudden and spectacular acts of strange and even tortuously attenuated violence, preceded or followed by masterfully attenuated laughs, the whiplash à la Q.T. It’s the cinematic analog of dying and coming back to life, no easy feat. Note the face of Rosanna Arquette after the torturously tense and funny hypodermic sequence in Pulp Fiction, in which Travolta stabs Uma Thurman’s heart with a dripping syringe, reviving her. “That was fuckin’ trippy.” She isn’t scared; she is impressed. To which I’d add, “That’s a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty fucking good.”

I WAS THERE—YOU PROBABLY were too—reading about Pulp Fiction, somewhere in 1994, getting the sense, even before the movie came out, that something was coming, something new and good. Those were the days, before the internet gave us the entire world right away when the early news about a movie would trickle in piecemeal, from film festivals, a critic or two, and people who heard from people who’d actually seen it.

By gentrifying ‘schlock’ genres, Tarantino took the guilt out of guilty pleasure.

Those were also the days when movie journalism, pulling itself up from the yuppie swamp of deal-obsessed reporting—back when it really seemed to matter how much everyone got paid on Ishtar, when even people who weren’t in the movie business followed the weekend grosses—when the hot story changed from the Sherman McCoys of Hollywood to the discovery and promise of the festival kids, the vision and hustle of Miramax, and, for those of us in high school looking to be told who we were, the organizing comforts of fresh and popular art. A new world: for us.

But who were we?

Our parents and their filmmakers, as we all know, grew up watching TV. But how many channels did they have? Six? Four? My friends and I had VCRs. We could watch the movies we wanted when we wanted and—here’s the best part—we could watch them again. In their day, Lucas and Spielberg and Scorsese had to thread up a projector with actual film—when they were lucky enough to get their hands on a projector and film. We had pause and rewind; we could watch scenes, just scenes, and, with scholarly delight, regard them shot by shot. And for the first time in history, we had the full film library at our disposal, not just the Oscar winners or the canonical titles saluted in textbooks. The only thing we didn’t watch—because we didn’t have YouTube or iPhones—was amateurs. We watched filmmakers. And because we, unlike our forefathers, had choice, we defined ourselves as much as filmgoers as by the filmmakers we loved. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese: They all loved Ford, they all loved Kurosawa. They saw the same movies. We broke into tribes. Technology had given us the means to fetishize “our” filmmakers’ conscious and unconscious cinematic minutia—that music cue, that reaction shot again, that tendency we kept noting in a character actor no one noticed before. We were the video kids.

Sam Peckinpah directing Steve McQueen in The Getaway (1972) graces the cover of Tarantino’s new memoir. Both men and the film were huge influences.

AND THEN THERE WAS THE person, Quentin Tarantino. He didn’t act or look cool, but in interviews, he spoke cool, as fast and freewheeling as the internet, if the internet could speak, racing happily, guilelessly, from one shamelessly provocative, heartfelt critical observation to the next, celebrating, with loving insight, the kinds of movies a) we, the general public, hadn’t seen before, and b) might have been afraid to love if we did. As every real critic should—as Andrew Sarris did in his way and Pauline Kael did in hers—Tarantino took the guilt out of guilty pleasure and opened up new worlds of enjoyment and appreciation. But who was he? I mean, apart from a fan?

As his taste entered the mainstream (even the Pulp Fiction soundtrack was a hit), the world’s more established, assimilated work—the classical, the popular, the financially successful—became increasingly uncool, and the stigma that once afflicted the shit Quentin loves was transferred to the so-called Hollywood values of glamour, romance, mass appeal, and the well-told story. In the Tarantino ’90s, all that was aligned with the corporate, with tradition, was false, a cliché; to be conscious, you had to be self-conscious. You had to be, on some level, what is now celebrated as meta, evasively “above” story. In a few years’ time, parody seemed a very highbrow form, Gus Van Sant was remaking Psycho shot for shot, and you would hear people in the theater lobby redeeming a bad movie with a single word: “homage.” This was not cool. Not to me at least. And I’d wager not to Tarantino either.

As if to culturally course-correct, he countered with Jackie Brown right on time. Here, the filmmaker applied something of his heart to style and taste: the long, caressing, sometimes silent close-ups of Pam Grier’s face—as if to say, she is the event, enjoy her as much as I do—his pace slowed to let emotions sink in, the use of cutting to elucidate relationships, likewise the use of the Delfonics. This was not the boy Tarantino geeking out on cool, but an aging nerd a little bit in love. After Jackie Brown, it was safe to say Tarantino would be around for the rest of our lives. After three singular and distinct features, he had demonstrated the interest and ability to expand, cinematically, his definition of himself without losing himself. What would he do next? It seemed like anything.

It was hours into the amazing, tedious death pageant of the Kill Bills, my attention dreamily redirected by the passion of Ennio Morricone’s score, that I realized Tarantino, with  Asbergarian virtuosity, was contracting, not expanding, as if having sampled, in Jackie Brown, the world outside the video store, he changed his mind, turned around, and ran back inside. Now, about running away from emotions. The movie pays lip service to vengeance as Pulp Fiction does to whatever it was supposed to be about, but Uma Thurman is no Clint Eastwood; she does not, with a look, convey the bottomless wound, the refiner’s fire of cruelest injustice, and Tarantino is no Sergio Leone; he does not muster the vastness of scorched emotional landscape or attain the operatic. Likewise, his recent cycle of celebrated vigilante flicks, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though sparkling with bravura set pieces and delicious scene-chewing from great actors, they are, at best, like eating candy for dinner—for over two hours.

Tarantino in a scene from Death Proof, one of the director’s B-movie homages.

What Tarantino does do, and does better than anyone, came through quite starkly—as it often does with powerful artists—in his weakest work. Death Proof shows how passion dies in life but lives through death. What I mean is, scene after character-driven scene is ludicrous, but when Kurt Russell, via madman Tarantino, mows down those bitches like the badass he was born to be, I actually whispered “Fuck” through a mouth of crispy-ass, hot, buttery popcorn. Which is how I came back to what, in my genuine and lasting admiration, I had been resisting all along: how old I was in 1994. Now I can’t get out of my 40-year-old head what Leslie Fiedler, in his book Love and Death in the American Novel, saw in the American character: an unending boyhood, unable to deal with erotic love, pathologically obsessed with death.

I can’t wait for the next one.

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