When Will Quentin Tarantino Grow Up?

Yesterday I saw Inglourious Basterds [sic], Quentin Tarantino’s latest project. It’s an epic tale of World War II intrigue, assassination attempts and gory Jewish revenge fantasy. In style, it was typical Tarantino. The film began with a long, talky scene fraught with tension, and moved through the series of long set pieces we’ve come to expect from the director of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction.

While I enjoyed Tarantino’s latest project, it left me feeling a little hollow inside. It really feels like the writer/director has utterly failed to develop as an artist. He’s technically astute, and has an incredible repertoire of film history in his head on which to draw. This seems to make him an incredible writer and director of individual scenes and set pieces. Inglourious Basterds, for example, begins with a fay Nazi officer interrogating a French farmer about some Jews he may or may not be concealing. Depending on how you feel, it’s an homage to or highly derivative of the work of Sergio Leone.

It’s a riveting scene, but, much like Kill Bill, it’s preceded by a title card that explains that this is ‘Chapter One’. Other title cards follow. See, Tarantino can’t seem to resist reminding us that we’re watching a film. And not just any film–one of his films. Hence the title cards, the self-aware performances his actors give, the conspicuous song choices, the film-within-a-film in this movie and so forth. They’re all post-modern tricks that felt very hip in 1994.

Today, his films feel like sweet confections with hollow centers. There’s nothing wrong with plain old entertainment, but I really wish Tarantino would explore some themes beyond ‘how cool is retro?’, ‘the world is full of sudden violence’ and ‘I am a master film aesthete’. Here’s a quote from Cannes that kind of sums up my frustration with Tarantino-as-egotist-auteur. It’s in response to a question about the title’s mispelling:

Here’s the thing: I’m never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to describe it, to explain it, would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place. Basquiat takes a letter ‘L’ from a hotel room door and sticks it on his painting. If he describes why he did it, he might as well not have done it at all. That’s my answer!”

Guess what, dude: you’re not Basquiat. I don’t actually mind his misspelling the title. It’s just that his films seem to reflect a kind of aesthetic snobbishness which I find frustrating.


  1. I am always interested in debating Tarantino because he seems to sometimes evoke a very vitriolic backlash from film enthusiasts – while somehow managing to entertain everybody else. I disagree that the whole title-card and other gimmicks are somehow ‘played out’ because if anything, it’s a cliche _because_ Tarantino made them known to the maintstream.

    Few people seem to like every aspect of his films because he takes a lot of chances and sometimes fails (eg: Death Proof was a glorious all-round failure). I like them for how he creates compelling characters and I just like watching them interact with one another. For that I can overlook some of the other, more hackneyed elements. I mean who didn’t enjoy seeing Uma Thurman whip that army of Yakuza’s in the more gruesome way possible. Was it an example of nuanced and intelligent filmmaking? No. Was it entertaining as hell? Yes.

    1. I’m not sure I agree with your defence of title cards. They’ve existed in films since the early days of cinema. Hasn’t Woody Allen, for example, used them over the years?

      But I wouldn’t object to the title cards by themselves. It’s that Tarantino deploys the same arsenal of gimmicks in every film (though I haven’t seen “Death Proof”, so that’s one I can’t speak to). Derek makes a good point below–we have yet to see Tarantino’s “The Straight Story”.

      1. To say that he didn’t invent them is not the same as saying they’re popular. Except for Wes Anderson I can’t think of another mainstream director that uses them now. Maybe you can, and I would retract that if I agree.

        I also agree with Davin that this is part of his style. For me which when you take it in its entirety, is extremely unique.

        Your comments about: ‘how cool is retro?’, ‘the world is full of sudden violence’ and ‘I am a master film aesthete’ – are really that you’d identified his themes. Some people miss the point that Tarantino’s themes are not about holding a mirror to life. It’s theatre and its exaggerated, dramatic, glorified, and unlikely.

      2. I can’t argue the particulars of the title card question, but otherwise you’re right about his unusual (though somewhat derivative) style and the theatrical aspect of this films.

        One reason I focus on the title cards is that I think, like a lot of voice over narration, they’re a cinematic crutch–a bit of a cheat.

        My point is that his films are all style and little substance. That was satisfactory early in his career, but I think it’s about time he started, as you say, holding a mirror up to life.

  2. Interesting critique. I would say, in his defense, that there’s nothing wrong with having a style. That will conclude my defense of QT, because like yourself, I get tired of the static nature of said style.

    I have yet to hear someone articulate *why* they liked IB.

    1. There is something wrong with having a style if that style makes for lousy cinema. See, for example, Michael Bay.

      I don’t mind Tarantino’s style at all. I quite enjoy it. It just doesn’t appear to have grown or evolved any in the past 15 years. And his style seems to include a kind of apathy toward meaningful stories or themes, which makes him increasingly appealing to me as a filmmaker.

  3. I think what Tarantino needs to do is what David Lynch did with The Straight Story: a film that avoids the director’s characteristic violence and surrealism (or, in Tarantino’s case, conscious anti-realism) in favour of a simple, good story, well told. Just to see if he could do it. There would be a huge tension built into watching a film you knew Tarantino made that included no graphic violence, for instance.

    Then again, I’m not sure if someone like Fellini ever made a normal film either, and despite his fetishes, Lynch seems a lot more mature than Tarantino. So I agree with your title.

  4. I love that in this industry someone can say “in fact I rather enjoy his style” and then proceed to waste another page or two saying “but he hasn’t progressed as an artist” and so on.

    Thats almost like saying Rembrandt never progressed.

    If you don’t like his movies then you don’t like them. But to preach that they are good but he himself isn’t getting any better is arrogant. Almost every one of his films has the same passion and effort behind it and you can feel it. Who’s to say he needs to change his ways.

  5. I don’t know which scene I like better, Michael Madsen dancing his way over to his police victim before he gets ready to slice his ear off, or the build up to Eli Roth about to bash the germans head in. Identical techniques were used and both were perfect.

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