PRINT March 1995

Dennis Cooper

There should be a dozen youngish American filmmakers as inspired as Quentin Tarantino. Then it would be easier to designate him a quirkily brilliant minor director, which is what he is. But even with his rather glaring limitations—stagey archetypal characters, short- and long-term memory problems, a lazy visual sense—there’s so much finely tuned energy in his films compared to most of his contemporaries. Tarantino really is one of the few post-Martin Scorsese directors capable of bona fide cinematic magic. He isn’t in a class with, say, serioso experimentalists like Jon Jost and James Benning, but, like them, he is fascinated by Scorsese and his obsessions (the intricacies of male angst). Scorsese is deep, and his best films are girded with emotional and spiritual scars. Tarantino gives terrific surface, but in a Ted Kennedy kind of way—he makes you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness, even if the charisma is essentially inherited.

Tarantino can do great scenes, and his films’ residual narrative drift is busy and clever enough to keep the momentum going. His forte is exquisitely rendered horror: the young drug dealers blown away and Uma Thurman’s OD and lifesaving adrenaline shot in Pulp Fiction; the cop torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Dennis Hopper’s execution by Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted (but not directed) True Romance (1993), the slaughter in the diner that opens Oliver Stone’s semi-Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers (1994). Before he became overly enamored of emptily gorgeous spectacle, Bernardo Bertolucci constructed similarly mind-boggling mid-film epiphanies, albeit scenes less triggered by literary games than by massively repressed homosexual longing, almost always by a man for a boy: the adolescent junkie’s seduction by a father look-alike in Luna (1979), a child’s spontaneous shooting of his pedophile suitor in The Conformist (1971), the upper-class boy’s horrendous murder by his working-class molester in 1900 (1977). Bertolucci’s films have a strong political outlook, are versed in 20th-century philosophy, and are obsessively concerned with and painfully befuddled by their characters’ hidden motivations. By comparison, Tarantino’s films are pointedly thrill-seeking and apsychological.

Tarantino does one thing with absolute brilliance: he boxes talky, neurotic, bright but half-articulate, schlumpy characters into parallel orbits around an agreeable, slightly flammable, usually trendy topic—Madonna, TV chat shows, kinky sex, etc. The conversations he constructs are so superficially systematic that when one character grows frightened of a commitment to the interchange, separates, and unleashes some private insanity on his or her companion, the effect is nightmarish. In Tarantino’s view, contemporary humans are something on the order of walking-talking issues of Details magazine, addicted to MTV chat and tabloid trivia. A verbal scrim unites his characters but quarantines the aspects of their psyches they cannot articulate—sexual attraction, emotional involvement, spiritual interests, etc. As a result, his characters are continually jittery, but the psychological reasons for their jitters are never specified, probably because Tarantino is afraid to know them.

While it’s easy to recognize his characters’ transgressive impulses—which are more savvily up to the minute than authentically personalized—their transgressions have no resonance. In fact the violence in his films would have a pornographic effect if it wasn’t for the way he manipulates the viewers’ morality. This moralistic fascination with the amoral, which is shared by David Lynch among others, may be the main reason why, apart from their poetic gift of the gab, Tarantino’s films are more compelling than, say, neorealistic “streetwise” TV series like NYPD Blue, but less absorbing than a docuaction series like Cops, which focuses, with similar irony but less agenda, on a similar social register (disenfranchised lower middle class).

The thing is, Tarantino is such a talented writer, and his neuroses feel unusually emblematic of the general cultural malaise circa the early ’90s. His p.o.v., frequently attacked for its cheap shots at the powerless, is actually, albeit selectively, compassionate—strangely innocent and guileless. Tarantino tends to rescue and recontextualize unintentionally sublime scenes from the skid row of B-movie history, like some post-Modern Florence Nightingale with a soft spot re cultural trash.

Tarantino’s writing is so pure in its own weird way that it misfires when he isn’t in the director’s chair. If it weren’t for the prettiness of its script, True Romance would be a misshapen and aimless action flick for the MTV set. Its ugliness is too ugly, its cleverness too paved over by technical competence, its p.o.v. too blandly disapproving of its protagonists. Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino partially scripted and now disowns, has its technical charms, but Stone’s cinematographic overdrive flattens the dialogue’s obsessive machinations. Tarantino isn’t such a great director either (or not yet anyway)—he’s just a carefully skillful, sincere one. But it’s hard to imagine a better look to go along with his scripts. He may be an artist on the order of songwriter and fellow ironist Randy Newman, whose complex yet simply crafted songs function only in his own clunky, amateurish renditions. Both men’s talents are just a little too idiosyncratic and fueled by unconscious drives to survive an out-of-body experience.

Tarantino’s possibly doomed to be an imperfect maverick filmmaker, not what some would like him to be—the new Robert Towne or Paul Schrader, pre-directorial pretensions. While the hype around his skimpy, samey output may strike some as too much too soon, it’s not especially surprising. Two or three films down the road, Tarantino’s little tricks could well be schtick; in fact I’d lay money on it. For now, though, his peculiar talent feels real, and obviously life is short.