Tarantino: master of mediocrity?

Louis McEvoy asks whether Tarantino’s legacy is simply a tall tale of misused potential

Last week, with characteristic egotism, director Quentin Tarantino declared his retirement: “Hopefully, the way I define success when I finish my career is that I’m considered of the greatest fi lm-makers that ever lived. And going further, a great artist, not just fi lm-maker.” However, like the not-quiet-there-yet clunkiness of this remark, Quentin Tarantino—as eminently quotable as his scripts are, as stylish as his direction is—is not a great filmmaker, but he arguably had the ability to be. Tarantino is nothing more than a sophisticated Tim Burton: a fi lm geek who specialises in self-indulgent pastiche rather than any art.

It’s important to qualify that, although Tarantino is nowhere near as talented as either he or his fans believe, he is a capable entertainer. His films are incredibly fun, especially his recent period pieces like Inglourious Bastards and Django Unchained, thrilling cathartic revenge epics on the behalf of oppressed peoples (note how the liberation is only enabled by the enlightened, white Christoph Waltz character). Yet they are superficial bloodbaths adorned with witticisms and, in his less historical works, flooded by a deluge of pop culture references. However as I like to say about a similar cult classic—Mcdonald’s— just because it has enjoyably edible food, doesn’t mean you can call it a great restaurant. Tarantino is essentially closer to the likes of Michael Bay than to Scorsese. Whereas Bay’s cinematic hedonism is concentrated on explosive action, Tarantino’s is balanced between violence and quips.

But even quips ring hollow. Mark Kermode has noted how every one of Tarantino’s characters simply speaks like Quentin Tarantino. His empty characters are vehicles for profane absurdities and quasi-wisdoms which generate amusement but little else. Moreover, most tellingly, his best moments are simply stolen from older, better directors. This is usually described as paying homage to them, but when a certain trick is not only gestured toward, but wholly transferred without the slightest change or subversion, is it really just homage? The opening scene of Bastards seems brilliant and potent, until you watch the opening scene of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and realise who really made it. The moment where Butch runs into Marsellus in Pulp Fiction makes use of an obscure trick from Psycho and just reuses it. The idea that this is paying tribute is murky.

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His closest claim to originality, although even this can be seen in Rashomon, is his innovative use of narrative structure in his 90s features, presenting events out of order and from different perspectives. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction offer the pleasure of a puzzlebox, with Tarantino showing off  the storytelling equivalent of a Rubik’s cube. But this habit was abandoned: Tarantino presumably had little capacity for more imaginative ways of deconstructing the conventional narrative.

Tarantino will make a few more films, and they will be as frothily excessive and disappointingly hollow as most of his filmography. But we can be truly grateful for Tarantino’s work on two main counts: the first being his introducing Western cinema to the delightful and hitherto unknown Christoph Waltz; the second being what constitutes the great exception to Tarantino’s shallow moviemaking, his masterpiece, Jackie Brown. What makes Jackie Brown stand above all his other features? Well, although Pulp Fiction might be funny and exciting, Jackie Brown has heart. It’s the only Tarantino film which makes you care, and the only one that can make you cry. A world where Tarantino had built upon his work in Jackie Brown rather than remaking Reservoir Dogs again and again would be one where he would have a chance of being remembered as a great artist.