Oscar Duel: Has Quentin Tarantino Produced a Legacy of Greatness?

by Anne Thompson
February 8, 2010 7:20 AM
18 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
During a public appearance in London last month, Quentin Tarantino told the audience that with Inglourious Basterds, he is now an auteur; he has established a body of work that can be analyzed as a whole and as a product of his unique vision. Recalling his experiences watching the films of Howard Hawks, he said: "My aim is that some kid in 50 years time has the same experience with me and my films." In this dueling blog, Moviefone's Jack Mathews and I debate whether QT's films actually form a body of work or remain a work in progress. 



JM -- In an essay I wrote for the L.A. Times shortly after the opening of QT's Pulp Fiction in 1994 -- a movie I loved, by the way -- I cautioned critics and others to lower the volume on their hallelujahs. I wrote: "Whether the 31-year-old high-school dropout and video-store guru has the native intellect and social vision to go the distance as an auteur -- whether he has anything, after all, to say -- remains to be seen." Well, QT's now 45 with five full features behind him (I count the two Kill Bill volumes as one movie, as was originally intended, and Death Proof as a featurette, as it was intended) and while his films are definitely his, I'm still not sure he has anything important to say.


Thompson on Hollywood
AT -- Tarantino has plenty to say. But his movies are not about your standard point-A-to-point-B narrative arc. He is discoursing and commenting on and jumping off from past cinema. With Inglourious Basterds, masterfully, with care and affection, he dreams up a new universe that has more to do with World War II movies than the real thing. Great fun to watch, Inglourious Basterds is defiantly an art film, not a calculatedly mainstream entertainment. Tarantino throws you out of the movie with titles, chapter headings, and snatches of music (often Ennio Morricone). You don't jump into the world of the film in a participatory way; you watch it from a distance, appreciating the references and the masterful mise-en-scene, inspired by Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, the French New Wave and The Guns of Navarone, among other things. Inglourious Basterds improves on repeated viewings. That may partly account for its glowing reviews (here), a $320 million world-wide gross and eight Oscar nominations.



JM -- I don't see where any of this refutes my growing contention that Tarantino does not seem to have anything to say. Given, he is a master at regurgitating his vast movie knowledge in ways that are original to their genres. He has a terrific gift at writing movie dialogue, he casts his films with eccentric precision and he gives an audience its money's worth. But as far as I know from watching his movies, he's not contributing to the human experience outside of movies.
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AT -- Making entertaining, innovative, original, not-like-anything-else films is a contribution to the human experience. You seem to be asking for some kind of old-fashioned message/theme/educational value to Tarantino's moviemaking. Is that required?



JM -- It's only required if someone wants to leave a legacy of greatness, which QT confirmed with his London comments. No question, he has proven his greatness to his hardcore fans, among whose numbers many critics and film scholars can be counted. But in the 16 years since Pulp Fiction, he has not come close to matching that film's brilliance. His movies, while enjoyable to watch, are self-indulgent games for him. If Inglourious Basterds is a great war movie, Blazing Saddles is a great Western. They're both fun but that's all they are. 



AT -- Wow. Do movies have to educate us?



JM -- No, but a great movie, like a great novel, has to do more than merely entertain. And for a filmmaker as interested in his legacy as Tarantino is, the body of work which he thinks is now ripe for analysis falls far short of greatness.

AT -- While we disagree about what 'great' cinema is, I do look forward to seeing Tarantino mature and grow. I want him to tackle more complex and sophisticated narrative structures. I see him as representing the movie-nurtured generation. He deserves praise for sticking to his guns and writing original material and now allowing himself to get sucked into the Hollywood morass. He has amassed an impressive -- if sometimes indulgent -- body of work across a range of genres. In that sense, he's very much like French New Wave critic-turned-filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who commented in his films on other movies as well as pop culture, or Howard Hawks, who is not remembered as well as he should be partly because he was such an adaptable master storyteller who kept changing styles.

JM -- I would say the big difference between Tarantino and American auteurs like Hawks is that his movies are more about him than whatever story he's telling. He's young and, hopefully, will make a lot more movies and then -- maybe 15 years from now -- he'll have a body of work that really is ready for career analysis.

AT -- While his oeuvre has already inspired reams of analysis -- more than most filmmakers of his generation -- when we look at Tarantino in 15 years, I predict that he will wear the respected auteur mantle, much the way Martin Scorsese does now, as a master of the cinematic medium who, more than anyone else, carries movie history in his head.

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18 Comments

  • jonathan | February 23, 2010 8:18 AMReply

    Tarantino is currently the most exciting filmmaker out there along with PTA and the Coen Brothers. His movies are all "must sees" and are all incredibly entertaining. I think he has plenty to say in his films, but he doesn't spoon feed the audience. True art can be interpreted many different ways, and I think any film that delivers a clear message is weaker for it. Let the audience decide for themselves. Recent films like No Country for Old Men and the Hurt Locker are extremely effective because they don't hit you over the head with "what they're trying to say." I think Inglourious Basterds is the same way, and you don't have to look far on the internet to critics have really responded to the themes in this movie. Mr. Matthews, you might not prefer Tarantino's work, but he is indeed an auteur, and among the top writer/directors making films today.

  • @johnHlang | February 19, 2010 1:00 AMReply

    I would like to know what Jack Matthew's thinks QT is "has to say" in Pulp Fiction that lacking in his other films. Is that anywhere on the net?

    Then let the debate continue from there. Thus far, I think commenting on film through his movies is certainly "saying something"

    Would you say impressionist painters had "less to say" because the movement was more a response to art at the time than some statement about the "human condition". Or, are they one in the same.

  • Michael Heister | February 17, 2010 4:42 AMReply

    I'll go with QT being an auteur. It's not the volume of the work; it's the significance of it.

    Some common themes may be discerned. Consider the various shades of revenge as laid out in Kill Bill (I count that as one movie), Death Proof, and now Inglourious Basterds. And wasn't Butch's fear of Marsellus' revenge a primary character motivation in Pulp Fiction?

  • Phil | February 16, 2010 5:21 AMReply

    No other movie has entertained me more this year and truly Inglorious Basterds should be the front runner and should finally win Tarantino the Oscar he so richly deserves for his best work. This is the best picture of the year -- I was not a huge Tarantino fan, even stayed away from this movie thinking it would be so violent -- but Basterds is so far from what you could possibly think that it is -- such a great story, so many layers to this movie and just a movie that is a movie for those who love FILM -- it really brings you back to the reason you go to the movies in the first place -- to be entertained, to experience something new and different. Inglorious Basterds has stayed with me for months now since I've seen it and looking back, I just love every minute of it. People talk Oscars and say that so and so deserves it for his body of work and yes, Tarantino has provided us with some great cinema, but that is not only the case here -- Basterds is so far and away the best picture of the year and Tarantino's masterpiece.

  • Andy Klein | February 10, 2010 5:48 AMReply

    First of all, "Is [insert artist name here] great?" debates may be fun -- and they're certainly unavoidable -- but they're also futile, even silly, exercises.

    Secondly, as presented by Anne (I haven't seen the full quote in context), QT didn't claim greatness; he claimed auteurial status. It seems to me that he could have made that claim after three films; it's easier for critics/fans when there's a bigger body of work, but it's not essential. Pretty much everyone accorded Malick that status after two films. They were clearly creations of a single creative entity (despite the great contributions of the actors, DP, and many others).

    Thirdly, there are filmmakers who are -- by virtue (or vice) of a recognizable style or set of concerns or simply the circumstances of creation -- auteurs...who suck. Ed Wood is the obvious example. Looking only at De Mille's sound work for the sake of this argument (since I'm woefully unschooled in his earlier stuff), I perceive an auteur -- one I can't stand.

    But, most importantly, in exactly what way are Hawks films "about something" or motivated by "something to say" than Tarantino films? Let me be clear: QT may be one of five favorite living directors, but Hawks is one of my five favorite living-or-dead-or-anything-else directors. Like most movies beyond, say, Airplane-style parodies, both directors’ films have thematic content. (Actually, now that I think of it, even Airplane can be looked at as a commentary on a certain type of film and of audience expectations.)

    Hawks has a lot to “say” about male friendship, loyalty, moral choices, redemption, and romantic relationships. QT deals with all of those (except the last) repeatedly. (And even the last sometimes. The relationship between Butch and his girlfriend in PF is, in the best cinematic way, conveyed with a degree of nuance in very few strokes.) I was bemused when some people regarded Pulp Fiction as amoral, when it has one of the most consistently worked out moral schemes I’ve ever seen. (If anything, I might criticize for being too neat.)

    I have a funny feeling that, if this were 1943, Jack would look at the previous five years of Hawks films (including Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, and Air Force) and complain that Hawks “didn’t have anything to say.”

  • jl | February 10, 2010 1:59 AMReply

    @ JD Connor, QT is a better writer than Clancy? He may be a better screenwriter but only because Clancy is a novelist (not credited with a screenplay). I'd bet QT fairs poorly as a writer if you take away the music, actors, and visual "cool" factor and leave it to a story and words.

  • J.D. Connor | February 10, 2010 1:52 AMReply

    Oh, hell: Tarantino is a far better writer than Clancy. Not that anyone is following this thread all the way down.

  • J.D. Connor | February 10, 2010 1:44 AMReply

    zxcvb: first your mother dies suddenly, now you're supersizing yourself. If we can only ask the one question--legacy of greatness--then I'd agree (albeit with less ridicule and more hope--I'm always rooting for directors with potential to put it all together and really hit their stride; Brian, above, pretty much took care of this).

    And I'd agree that Tarantino doesn't measure up to your terrific list, but that really isn't the relevant list--none of those guys are really attempting to be both popular and aesthetically important at the same time. (Godard gave it up after a while; Naruse was always inscrutable; Bresson probably comes the closest; Davies is a prestige director. At a decidedly lower key than Tarantino, the standard for popular auteurs would be Ozu; among genre directors, as everyone has noted, Hawks.)

    At the end, your analogies are breaking down again. Great as your list of auteurs is, I wouldn't teach most of their best work in high school. But I wouldn't teach Clancy either. (I taught Kafka, and Welles when I had the chance.) In any case, Tarantino is a far better than Clancy (for the actorly reasons I've been harping on).

    Finally Basterds is no cruddy burger. And if it were, it wouldn't be a Big Mac anyway. It would be a Royale with Cheese--American fast food tarted up with French pretension.

    (P.S. You know an argument is done when your opponent is getting off better one liners about his position than you are. Gotta go watch Scarlet Street. This has been fun. And Mathews is still annoying.)

  • Al | February 10, 2010 1:42 AMReply

    Your analogies suck zxcvb. The difference is a Big Mac is actually bad for you, where a film isn't bad for your health. (besides obvious extremes like people fainting during Passion of The Christ) Not enjoying a film isn't going to be bad for you, you just don't enjoy it. Sure its more focused on fun, but that doesn't dumb it down. You still care about the characters, and thus far it still has a sole. Style over substance is a terrible debate, as long as it has a soul then it shouldnt matter if it makes you think rather than feel, or feel rather than think, as long as its focus is one or the other instead of robots pointlessly exploding. Now you're probably gonna say, being the Tarantino detractor you are, "It didn't make me feel" So preemptively I'm going to say that thats just you, and your personal opinions, besides even when his films are just focusing on laughter or just a blast of energetic cool, thats something.

  • zxcvb | February 9, 2010 10:45 AMReply

    You're free to "like what you like," JD. But our culture, in particular, needs to distinguish between things that are pleasing and things are actually good. For example, I like a Big Mac and fries. It tastes really good. However, I recognize that a Big Mac and fries is neither good for you nor is it a work of culinary genius. And since the question is whether QT has produced a "legacy of greatness," the answer has to be a loud and resounding "hahahahahaha" followed a somber "hell no."

    Godard, Brakhage, Naruse, Bresson, Davies...these are great film artists. But Tarantino? Seriously? If he's a great artist, let's start teaching Tom Clancy in high school English classes.

  • Andrew | February 9, 2010 7:38 AMReply

    I'm not sure I'd consider QT to have attained the great auteur status he claims here, but man, Jack Matthews' definition of filmmaking "greatness" is about as dull and schoolmarmish as it gets.

  • J.D. Connor | February 9, 2010 5:34 AMReply

    Wow, zxcvb. I didn't know the Nazis killed your mom. (Your analogy is pretty bad, though, you have to admit. WWII wasn't last night; and the enormous pile of movies and TV shows and novels and whatnot that stands between us and the war gives Tarantino (or Brian Singer, or the creators of Hogan's Heroes) license to try what they want.)

    As for the happy ending, you're really getting all het up for no reason. Surely you'd admit that there are successful war movies that end with the protagonists accomplishing what they set out to--blowing up a bridge, distributing Saddam's gold, escaping prison. The difference, I suppose, is that in every one of these movies that I know of, the successes are small-scale: you can win the soccer match but not kill Hitler. The historically accurate end of the war is the given within which we are allowed to imagine a variety of fictional variations. But why? I think that's one of the reason's Basterds has something new to say--not epochal, but not negligible. Tarantino may think that throwing off the yoke of a half-century of movie convention counts as a revolutionary act; I don't. But it counts for something.

    Is it a revenge fantasy and wish fulfillment? Obviously. Why is that bad? I shouldn't entertain revenge fantasies about Hitler of all people? I shouldn't wish, for a couple hours, that he had been offed? This makes me juvenile? Nah.

    Take a very different movie, like Thin Red Line. Jim Caveizel's death is not a revenge fantasy, but it's a fantasy nonetheless: the desire to be in a position where your death might save dozens of others--for your sacrifice to be that clear--is just as much a wish fulfillment. I suppose it seems less juvenile, but, really, it's awfully close to the basic attitude of an emo teen. The point is that when you look closely at any fantasy or wish-fulfillment--and movies do give us both--you're bound to find something juvenile somewhere. I suppose that was Freud's point.

    In any case, and in defiance of internet commenting laws of maximum conflict, I didn't like Jackson's voiceover either, and I've never been a fan of the characteristic Tarantino composition. But what I like, I like. I still think he gets great performances where you might not expect them, and that Mathews is wrong in half a dozen ways. You're probably just wrong in 2.

  • zxcvb | February 9, 2010 2:53 AMReply

    "The commitment to an absolutely counterfactual history at the climax."

    Is that supposed to be admirable or even interesting? Juvenile revenge fantasies and wish fulfillment? It's teenage notebook doodling at best. In fact, it's so stupid and immature I almost want to give QT the benefit of the doubt and say that he's actually trying to evoke the futility of revenge. Unfortunately, the films ends far too trimphantly (in spite of the death of a certain young woman) for that.

    "Why has our culture been so unwilling to entertain a happier ending to World War II than the one we got?"

    Maybe because war is never "happy"? And talking about it in terms of "happier" or "sadder" is ridiculous. You may get the preferred result, but even that will always be the lesser of two evils. A violent conflict in which millions are killed can never have a happy ending.

    Finally, what QT has done in Inglourious Basterds is analagous to this:
    Me: My mother was murdered last night.
    QT: I'm sorry to hear that.
    Me: Thanks.
    QT: But wouldn't it be, like, awesome if instead of being murdered, your mom learned kung-fu and killed her attackers instead?!
    Me: ...
    QT: That would be sooo awesome, dude!

    QT is a junk food dealer. An entertainer who uses violence, sex, drugs, and other shock tactics (and other filmmakers' ticks) to be famous. The one thing I'll give him credit for is daring to make Nazis that are intelligent and even decent-seeming people (the young officer that the propaganda film is about). That's the first genuinely interesting and original thing I've ever seen from QT. Also, even QT's editing, pacing, and compositions were awful in Basterds. Sam Jackson's voiceover? Clunky as hell.

  • Croc | February 9, 2010 1:27 AMReply

    There's always someone who's pretentious as hell. Am I watching "Me and Quentin Tarantino"?
    This is such an awesome debate. I love it.

  • J.D. Connor | February 9, 2010 12:55 AMReply

    Jack Mathews, of Moviefone, is objecting that Tarantino has nothing to say. I'm sure sometimes he doesn't. But let's just take the case of Basterds to refute this quickly and move on: 1. The jawgrinding scene in the LaPadite cabin. This is a very old-fashioned humanist look at power and oppression, charged with suspense, and clearly the work of a guy who has something to say. 2. The commitment to an absolutely counterfactual history at the climax. Here, the question is not QTs self-indulgence but a more provocative one: Why has our culture been so unwilling to entertain a happier ending to World War II than the one we got? Because after Auschwitz even Hawks (yeah, I said it) didn't have as deep a belief in the spirit of comedy as Tarantino does.

    More important than correcting Mathews's snide underestimations would be to ask what it is that Tarantino has done consistently well. It doesn't get enough attention, but he is a great writer of roles--of speeches and business, of character and quirk. He resurrected Travolta and all but made Jackson; he resuscitated Pam Grier and Robert Forster; he got Waltz his nomination. Mathews calls this a "gift" at writing "movie dialogue." Actors think of it as a writer-director who makes space for them to do great work.

  • Alec | February 9, 2010 12:16 AMReply

    I'm not sure how it effects the argument of whether or not Tarantino should be considered an auteur worthy of analysis or if his work is truly great but there is certainly something to be said about the fact that the main reference point for his films are other films.

    I would have to agree with Jack in so far as for Tarantino and his work to be considered great it has to go beyond its existence and interaction within the universe of film and exist and interact with reality to a much greater extent. Transitioning into this relationship with reality shouldn't necessarily have anything to do with old fashioned ideas about message or theme. Art is about communicating the human experience and the best art is that which comes the closest to the truth of that experience. Tarantino is communicating the human experience as it exists through the filter of a camera lense and as such will always be departing from a point that is at least one step removed from the truth of that experience.

  • Griff | February 9, 2010 12:15 AMReply

    Brian: Cimino has actually directed only seven features.

    De Mille's silent features are well worth examination.

  • Brian | February 8, 2010 10:04 AMReply

    Howard Hawks directed 47 features, 26 of note.
    Scorsese directed 21 fiction features, 17 of note.
    No argument about why we call them auteurs and why we study their films.

    Kubrick directed 12 features, 11 of note.
    There've been quite a few books about him and courses devoted to him.

    Michael Cimino directed 8 features, 3 of note.
    Terrence Malick directed 4 features, 4 of note.
    Do we call Cimino and Malick auteurs? Should we study their films? Or wait for more? I think we've given up on Cimino, but Malick may have another couple in him. Let's wait.

    Tarantino directed 7 features, 5 of note (I'm counting KBV1, KBV2 and DEATH PROOF as three separate features.) I'm a Tarantino fan, but I'd prefer to wait before I place him in any category alongside Hawks. Or even Kubrick. I enjoy what Tarantino does, but not because it gives me a whole new way of seeing, which is what Kubrick's and Scorsese's best films do. Tarantino panders to my tastes and 42nd Street cinephile sensibility. He flatters me by putting Lawrence Tierney and Robert Forster and Pam Grier and Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu and Rod Taylor in his films. It's nice to get stroked. But is it art? Yeah, but in the way that Cindy Sherman's photographs are art. Not the way that Winslow Homer's paintings are art. Maybe that's what Postmodern is.

    I enjoy Tarantino's best work (his 5 features of note--RESERVOIR, PULP, JACKIE, KBV1, BASTERDS), but I don't think he will ever make a masterpiece the way Orson Welles or John Ford did or anything as meaningful and engaging on so many different levels as, say, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO, DR. STRANGELOVE, BARRY LYNDON, or GOODFELLAS.

    Tarantino's a bit of a showman and he knows how to hype himself. That's part of his appeal. But that doesn't put him in the company of Hawks or Scorsese. Or even Hitchcock. Let's just take his bluster for what it is. Showmanship. Cecil B. De Mille was a great showman, but how many great films did he make. Just one--THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), if you ask me.

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