By Jeffrey Overstreet
In elementary school, I read an interview with the young star of my favorite sitcom, Mork and Mindy. That was thirty years ago. But I still recall Robin Williams’ remembrances of childhood—particularly his love for model-making. And it wasn’t just ordinary model-making. He’d take several plastic model kits, mix up their pieces, discard the instructions, and glue the stuff together into bizarre machines, robots, and vehicles of his own invention.
This comes to mind whenever I see a Quentin Tarantino film. Does any contemporary filmmaker work with more childlike enthusiasm? Tarantino’s movies are audacious pictures made with pieces from the puzzles he loved as a young man. Recently on Jimmy Kimmel, he explained that his dream of adulthood was shaped by his father’s mastery of movie trivia. He wanted to become a “movie expert.”
Mission accomplished: Tarantino’s scenes can be footnoted as heavily as T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Few directors demonstrate both an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and command of its techniques. Few deliver bolder images, develop more colorful characters, or pen dialogue that sticks the way his does.
But you can also tell that the young Tarantino wasn’t raised on kids’ stuff. His imagination drew from reservoirs of violent media. The story goes that, on his seventh birthday, Tarantino was “treated to” a double-feature of The Wild Bunch and Deliverance. He lived on a diet of crime flicks, martial arts and samurai epics, and exploitation films.
Speaking of Williams—there’s a moment in The Fisher King when his character pulls a champagne-cork wire from the garbage, cleverly twists it into a dollhouse chair, and remarks, “You can find some pretty wonderful things in the trash.” That’s what Tarantino does again and again, crafting memorable moments of cinema from the lurid, the crass, and especially the violent.
I haven’t come to bury Tarantino, but I haven’t come to praise him either. No filmmaker leaves me feeling so conflicted, torn between admiration and revulsion. Two things complicate my experience. First, the violence. It’s not that his movies are violent; it’s how they’re violent. He knows how to make us squirm like bugs pinned to a board. He cultivates riveting suspense through conversation and editing, until the threat of violence becomes certainty. The violence itself isn’t so remarkable—it’s that edgy and tangential talk during the buildup, and in the bloody aftermath. But he does it so often, and to such extremes, he makes me feel tortured.
Which brings me to the second point: He never lets me forget that he’s there, enjoying his own power over the audience.
I’ll never forget Reservoir Dogs. Those gun-toting crooks came to life through dialogue that was both hilarious and profane. And despite its extreme violence and nerve-wracking suspense, the film’s conversations were riveting—they were musical, percussive, hilarious, ironic, tangential, and full of surprises. Every scene seemed to be a place set for unexpected discussion.
Still, in that now-legendary scene in which a merciless torturer smugly carved up a captive policeman, he tested the limits of his audience’s endurance. But for what purpose? I went out feeling as if I’d been tricked, seduced into witnessing something obscene, something harmful. No justification I’ve read seemed sufficient; the whole sequence seemed designed to frazzle our nerves.
A friend praised the film—specifically excited by the torture scene—saying “I haven’t felt so alive in a long time!” It made me wonder: Is Tarantino drawn to the adrenalin of violence because, having lived on a steady diet of the stuff, he’s become “comfortably numb”? I’m still wondering.
By contrast, I loved Pulp Fiction. It wasn’t the violence. Its cast of buffoonish crooks were hilarious in their obvious error and moral relativism. When Vincent Vega, purchasing drugs from a dealer, lamented the moral depravity of a young punk who had scratched his car with a key, I howled.
So much stylistic mastery, so many conventions overturned—and all of it stitched together with affection and humor. Meanwhile, the short stories progressed from tales of wish-fulfillment revenge to a conclusion in which a violent man cast off violence and determined to “walk the earth” as a nonviolent savior. It was full of Tarantino’s typical “Look what I can do!” bravado, but I began to hope he was maturing.
Jackie Brown impressed me even more. Tarantino the Show-Off took a step back. He submitted to the conventions of a genre story, and lifted up his actors and the storyteller—Elmore Leonard. I walked away believing in that world and thinking more about the story more than its artist.
I wrote admiring reviews of Kill Bill, Volumes One and Two, exhilarated by its amusement park ride through the styles of fight flicks from around the world. But something troubled me. It was the sense that Tarantino was showing off, switching genres and tones acrobatically to prove how adept he was with each. Worse, he couldn’t resist those sequences that put us on the rack again, to see how far he could stretch us. And that opening line—“Do you think I am… sadistic?”—seemed like just another wink to the audience, making it all about him.
But by the time I saw Grindhouse, I was tired of the exhibitionism. For all that he did well in his half of the film, Death Proof, he was still in show-off mode, his own expertise on other movies becoming the very subject of his work.
While I can agree when critics point out all that he does so well, I’m not drawn in anymore. I can’t suspend disbelief. My enjoyment of his strengths is failing because he’s always pointing to himself, even as he jolts the audience to see how much they can take.
Do you think I am… moralistic? Whatever. I don’t want to be a bug squirming on a pin, justifying the abuse because the torturer’s bait is tasty and the violence makes me feel “so alive.”
Tomorrow: So...what about Inglourious Basterds?