Quentin Tarantino is pretty much the quintessential film-school darling, the sort of filmmaker whose work appeals most strongly to those in high school or college—but, to paraphrase Diane Keaton in Manhattan, you absolutely grow out of it. Or you mostly do, anyway. You might concede that, yes, Pulp Fiction is an accomplished work, though it was regrettable that it inspired a legion of poor copycats through the decade that followed. But there’s something vaguely irksome about how self-consciously a Tarantino film cultivates its aura of cool, how it panders to those in the know. The kind of pastiche in which Tarantino commonly trades results in work that’s only narrowly satisfying, hitting a few film-geek buttons but missing out on more meaty human drama.
This would be fine if he were producing quick-and-dirty exploitation flicks, or traditional genre pictures, running on cheap thrills. But even his purest genre-aping efforts—Jackie Brown and the first volume of Kill Bill being the closest he’s come to sticking with a straight-forward idea—are presented as major efforts, labored on for years and overstuffed with ideas. Tarantino isn’t making a lean fight picture like The Raid: Redemption or even a low-key alien invasion satire like last year’s Attack The Block, even though he’s a known fan of films like these. He’s making three-hour revisionist history war epics bogged down by a dozen stars and ten times as many cinematic points of reference. There are ideas in Inglourious Basterds as inspired as anything I’ve seen on-screen in years. But in one sitting, the film is a bore, and relishing the strokes of genius means slogging through everything else. Short of the fantasy wish-fulfillment of its historical revisionism, there’s no emotional throughline for us to follow, and no fully realized human drama to sink our teeth into.
In a way, this problem with dramatic situations in his work is a necessary consequence of the formal predilections that launched Tarantino’s career. When the most salient feature of your debut is that its characters spend a significant portion of the running time sitting around talking about pop culture, there’s a good chance that emotional depth is off the table altogether. The irony is that while Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were being hailed for their “slice of life” sensibility, they were really just trading one kind of artifice for another, less recognizably “cinematic” one. So while characters in a Tarantino film might just sit around talking about cheeseburgers or instant coffee, as real people are indeed wont to do, they were affirming themselves as fundamentally frivolous, which ultimately made it hard to care about their fates. Characters who resembled real people wound up feeling less fully realized than more conventional ones might have, which is the opposite of the intended effect. There’s no doubt that Pulp Fiction is a hugely enjoyable and inexhaustibly quotable film. But it’s not exactly emotionally rich or psychologically complex, either.
My point isn’t that Tarantino should stop writing his trademark dialogue or that his films should be less self-consciously cool. He will always use snatches of music from Leone Westerns or giallo horror movies, and there will always be a receptive audience of college students whose savvy will be validated through identification of those references. But I do think Tarantino has made one perfect film, and I wish he would return to the form to make another exactly like it. It’s called The Man From Hollywood, and seeing it all but requires that you sit through 80 minutes of the unfathomably terrible footage which immediately precedes it.
Released to widespread critical disdain in 1995, the multi-director comedy Four Rooms is, in many respects, one of the most egregious cinematic missteps of the 1990s. The concept must have sounded promising: four young, recently successful independent filmmakers would each contribute an original short to be worked into one bigger picture tying them all together, like a more deliberately integrated New York Stories with far worse filmmakers. In this case, the filmmakers were Allison Anders, director of the cult classic Border Radio in 1987 and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant the year this film was made; Alexandre Rockwell, who won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance for his film In The Soup in 1992; Robert Rodriguez, who of course made quite a splash with his micro-budget El Mariachi, also in ‘92; and finally Tarantino himself, who was just coming off an Oscar win for Pulp Fiction. Like a montage in a heist picture, the producers had assembled one hell of an expert team.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but in 1995 the prospect of four upstart independents working together on a major Hollywood production seemed like a ready-made success story, and even though Rockwell and Anders haven’t done anything of note in nearly two decades now, they were, at the time, every bit the exciting new artistic voices that we know Rodriguez and Tarantino were. Along with Soderbergh and Kevin Smith, these guys were being touted as the faces of the American independent cinema, a revolution that would fundamentally change the landscape of Hollywood film production. So the fact that Four Rooms was terrible was doubly significant: it was both a clear-cut indictment of the failure of these filmmakers to resist the influence of Hollywood’s big-budget mediocrity and, more damningly, a compelling riposte to the very idea that independent filmmakers could start a revolution within an industry so all-consuming. Critics, naturally, were quickly swept up in the backlash against Hollywood’s new indie darlings, and Four Rooms was dismissed and rejected outright. And there are good reasons for doing so: the first two shorts--Anders’ The Missing Ingredient, in which a coven of witches attempt to procure a sampling of semen, and Rockwell’s The Wrong Man, in which a married couple play out a bizarre sex fantasy--are veritably unwatchable, not only mercilessly unfunny but abrasive and grating, too. I expect many walked out before the halfway point, and on video I wouldn’t be surprised if many more gave up even earlier.
Your reward for enduring half of an awful film, though, is The Misbehavers, a slender but funny slapstick piece involving children (by Rodriguez, no doubt devising Spy Kids in his head), and, if you get through that, The Man From Hollywood, by far the best thing Tarantino has ever worked on. Clocking in at just under 20 minutes but packing just as many ideas (and movie references) as any of his feature-length films, The Man From Hollywood proves conclusively that the Tarantino formula is most successful in small doses. Here his characters are allowed to have their depth only suggested—that’s the nature of the form—which alleviates the strain of actually having to flesh them out. And because Tarantino is infinitely better at suggestion than at explication or delivery, the little that’s implied in this short never has a chance to disappoint us. This all makes perfect sense, if you think about it: Tarantino tics have time to sink in but not to overstay their welcome; his characters get a chance to be funny and cool without being proven hollow; and his novel premise can fuel the action of the entire picture without spreading its charm too thin. Hollywood isn’t set up to sustain the model, but Tarantino should clearly be a creator of shorts rather than features. (It should come as no surprise that my second-favorite film of his is also his second-shortest: his half of Grindhouse, the stuntman slasher short “Deathproof,” is widely underrated.)
In The Man From Hollywood, our film-long hero, Ted the bellhop, played by Tim Roth, is asked to delivery a special list of seemingly random items to the big spenders staying in his hotel’s penthouse suite. The highrollers include Chester, a newly successful director played by Tarantino himself; Norman, played by Paul Calderon; Angela, the star of the second segment, played by Jennifer Beals; and Leo, played by Bruce Willis. Our introduction to them and to the room is formally virtuosic, an extended sweep through Chester’s rapid-fire expository monologue (which details, among other things, the nation’s lamentable dismissal of Jerry Lewis and the unbeatable taste of Cristal champagne) shot in one fluid, ten-minute take. It’s an ostentatious gesture, but short works need to be punchy, so in a way it’s the best possible opening--it’s funny, nice to look at, and rewarding to those paying attention. By the time Chester outlines the premise of the short—he and Norman want to reenact a bet made between Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and they want to pay Ted to be their game’s “hatchet man”—we’re totally hooked, and Tarantino milks the tension of the scene for all it’s worth.
It’s less often discussed than his gift for punchy dialogue, but Tarantino has always had a knack for mounting and releasing tension, and for doing so in what is essentially a classical style. Like Hitchcock, Tarantino likes to drag out silences unnecessarily, taking them from benign to portentous with little more than an extended long take. His longtime editor, the recently deceased Sally Menke, must be at least partly responsible for fostering this talent, but in any case the resulting work can be excruciatingly intense, and such sequences usually emerge as the highlights of whatever film they’re in. Consider the evidence: the most dramatically effective scene in Pulp Fiction is its bracing final one, when Jules Winfield faces down a robber and reconsiders his place in the world; likewise for Inglorious Basterds and both its opening, when Colonel Hans Lander calmly smokes out his prey, and the infamous “Mexican standoff” scene in the bar, which could stand as a study in high-stakes suspense.
The Man From Hollywood hinges on precisely this sort of tension. It’s the best thing Tarantino’s done yet because it concentrates his best qualities into a form better-suited to maximizing their effectiveness, which means that it does what he does well, without the baggage of a feature. It’s a miniature masterpiece, and though it’s buried beneath two terrible shorts and a merely decent one, getting to it is well worth the effort (and patience) Four Rooms otherwise demands. This is a side of Tarantino that shouldn’t be relegated solely to college dorms; it’s a side that elevates him to the level of a true artist. It’s just too bad that nobody noticed.
Calum Marsh is a frequent contributor to Slant Magazine.