Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" (that's QT's spelling for you) has been greeted with love and hate since it played Cannes last spring. It opens Friday, and to prepare for the occastion, Matt Zoller Seitz, with an able assist from Keith Uhlich, has composed "Quentin Tarantino: Words in Action for L Magazine. It's very well put-together, and it lets Tarantino riff in his own words.
I find QT's work alternately exhilarating (his fluid direction) and exhausting/embarrassing (his cutesy, over-written dialog that all sounds the same -- a monolog divided up among "characters"). You can see and hear the whole range in this montage.
Bottom line: unfair as it probably sounds, Tarantino's still not quite the director I'd personally like him to be -- the Tarantino-influenced South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, whose movies are equally artificial but more emotionally engaging, is much more my speed. But while re-watching QT's films, I did find myself admiring elements that had previously bugged the hell out of me....
Tops on the list: Tarantino's profane, rococo dialogue. It once struck me as wildly hit-or-miss - either brilliantly florid and theatrical (sometimes revelatory) or else redundant and navel-gazing, dragging the filmmaker's characters into a quagmire of telling when the films could have been showing instead (Tarantino is very, very good at showing). I'm taking the second part of that characterization back. More so than almost any arthouse favorite since Ingmar Bergman (and bear in mind the precise point of comparison here before you roll your eyes), Tarantino's talk is not just the fuel of his movies: it's the engine, the wheels and most of the frame. It's where the real dramatic and philosophical action takes place. The gunshots, car crashes and torture scenes are punctuation.
Now, I often appreciate dialog that sounds like it's written (Mamet, Pinter, Coens come to mind), but there's a preciousness about Tarantino's writing that often irks me. To me it sounds like one of those hyperactive boars/bores, in love with the sound of their own voice, who hijack conversation by delivering prepared pedantic lectures (not unlike the -- very funny -- one Tarantino himself delivers about "Top Gun" in "Sleep With Me"). Sometimes I wish the writer would just shut up and let the characters speak for themselves. But that's because, to me, everybody in the movie sounds like QT, and not like individuals (see countless latter-day Woody Allen movies where half the actors just do Woody Allen impressions). That may be a deliberate artistic choice, or a solipsistic one. I don't know.
I am a big admirer of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Jackie Brown," and it's really the actors (and Tarantino's direction of them) that make the best scenes work -- which may be the real reason so many performers love Tarantino's mouthfuls-of-dialog. Perhaps the best moment in Matt's montage is the quiet moment between Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda from "Jackie Brown." The energy is different from most of the other clips -- which are nearly all pitched at the same level of insistent, self-conscious cleverness. (Don't get me started on the easy-laugh pop-culture references.) De Niro, who can be quite the over-actor himself (especially when trying too hard to do comedy), doesn't have much to say in these few seconds, but he mercifully doesn't try to sell sell sell his lines the way nearly everyone else does. (Tarantino should discourage his actors from adopting the raised-finger delivery method. It gets tiresome in a hurry, as do the expository speeches that sound like Seinfeld stand-up outtakes.)
Likewise, I find myself watching the frightened face of Marvin (Phil LaMarr) in the "Pulp Fiction" shooting scene, because he's more interesting than the talk-talk-talkers. That said, I'm really looking forward to "Inglourious Basterds." It's apparently a flat-out, over-the-top Nazi-scalping comedy, and it's been a long time since I've seen one of those.
P.S. I haven't seen "Kill Bill." Can somebody tell me if there's a reason for that insert shot of the cupboard with the jars and the can of Stag Chili?