Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Quentin Tarantino

I watched the Golden Globes with some people last week. While Quentin Tarantino was giving his acceptance speech for best screenplay for Django Unchained, one of the group said, "So why is Quentin Tarantino giving a screenwriting lesson during an acceptance speech?" Someone answered, "Because he's super-intense and super-serious about filmmaking."

I don't know a great deal about Tarantino, but I admire him for his intensity towards his art. His films demonstrate a keen knowledge of film genres, particularly B-Movies and pulp, such that his films incorporate those genres even when they borrow from other genres (westerns, martial arts films, war pictures). Arguably his films' use of violence is a kind of popular pandering to people who like to see violence for its own sake, but his films do other things too that I admire a great deal.

For example, he is not afraid of long scenes. Indeed, he seems to love them. Long scenes are difficult to do, for they have the potential to slow down the pace of a film to a point that many film viewers cannot tolerate. Yet in his long scenes, he can explore aspects of psychological and social realism. In addition, his long scenes are usually moments of extraordinary drama. Some filmmakers (and artists of narrative in general) avoid representing important dramatic moments. Scenes where characters confront each other over important issues are easy to portray with too much sentimentality or cliche. That is because such moments are often very uncomfortable to write because the stakes are high. Some writers think that high-stakes moments are impossible to represent well, and therefore they avoid writing them at all.  Tarantino, however, works very hard on his long scenes, and he makes sure that his actors are competent enough to maintain their character throughout the long scenes.

In Inglorious Basterds, Christoph Waltz, who plays Nazi colonel Hans Landa, is the centrepoint of a remarkable long scene at the film's opening. Waltz's character visits the home of a family who is harbouring Jews. Everyone knows that Jews are in the basement--the audience, the family, and Waltz's character (he feigns ignorance, though weakly). The scene is excruciating: if Waltz finds the family in the basement, Waltz will likely kill the lot of them. Waltz's seeming gentility is surprising, yet no one is fooled by him. The trope of the genteel yet cruel Nazi is too common, perhaps. Indeed, the film seems to acknowledge that cliche. Tarantino, however, goes much further than other filmmakers in allowing Waltz the time to represent what such a person might be like. The question is not whether or not Landa will find the Jewish family, but how horribly things will go for everyone once he does. Just how cruel is this charming man? That is the question that the film offers up. The promise of extreme violence lies in wait for many minutes. When the violence comes, it is not a surprise, and it is over very quickly.

For the rest of the film, all other scenes with Landa have that promise for violence--yet Tarantino does not always let the violence loose. He allows Landa to be charming in many cases, enough to make the audience wonder what Landa's goals are--can he really be a good guy in disguise? The answer is no. If people like Landa, it's because he seems to be the brightest, liveliest person in the film, with the exception of his counterpart, Shoshanna, who escapes from the house and works a long game of revenge. 

His film fantasy goes further than most other war films--it gets rid of Hitler in spectacular fashion, but it also defies the war film genre.

An American war film that has two non-American main characters, Landa (a Nazi!) and Shoshanna (a Jewish woman who loves film!) is extraordinary. After Shoshanna gets what she wants by manipulating the expectations of the film audience, she burns to death. Tarantino toys with generic expectation, and her death typifies this defiance.

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