PRINT March 1995

Gary Indiana

Like O. J. Simpson and Newt Gingrich, Quentin Tarantino has become one of those cosmically disseminated mirages that even the most resolute ascetic living in a hole somewhere becomes aware of “through the media.” For us ordinary folks who consume magazines and TV programs haphazardly, he—like O. J., like Newt—has acquired the pull of a vortex into which all conversation eventually spills. Edgy from coffee nerves, verbally diarrheic, a study in hip geekiness or geeky hipness, Tarantino’s personality is on display in dozens of print interviews and talk shows, and it’s the same one he gives all his characters. Like them, he’s fond of crunchy breakfast cereals, cartoons, obscure movies, and disco hits of the ’70s; like them, he favors the verbal tropisms of the “interesting” digression, the aria of cultural trivia, the self-consuming monologue. More than with most American directors, he and his films seem like the same thing.

Tarantino locates hipness in the same unlovely products of American pop culture that so many foreign teenagers find endlessly marvelous. His ideal character is the kind of American who beats a path to McDonald’s when visiting Paris, someone whose frame of reference instantly assimilates the Other into its own obstinately lowbrow schema—anything reachier would be pretentious. At the same time, this character comes stuffed with the most arcane erudition, permissible, one supposes, because erudition is essentially unintelligent. Like the Jim Jarmusch of Stranger Than Paradise and Mystery Train, Tarantino is an intellectual who enjoys playing dumb, who pumps up the assertive dumbness embedded in hipness. This gives him the kind of aerial view associated with satire, though it would be hard to say what Tarantino’s satirizing other than his own saturation by old movies. Tarantino flirts with the belief that energetic posturing will make his skin turn black, a delusion shared by white entertainers like Sandra Bernhard and Camille Paglia. In its most exacerbated form, this sentimental tic of the white hipster locates all “authenticity” in the black experience, against which all other experience becomes the material of grotesque irony. To be really, really cool becomes the spiritual equivalent of blackness, and even superior to it: there are plenty of square black people but not one square cool person. For the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction, blackness is a plastic holy grail, a mythic substance with real effects and its own medieval code. It becomes “pulped” in a number of extremely cool ways, some of them literal (the black accomplice whose brains accidentally get splattered, the Mr. Big who dominates most of the white characters’ lives yet gets tucked in the ass by a psychopathic redneck). Tarantino is goofing on coolness and white ideas about blackness, pushing them over the top. But within that goof is a have-it-both-ways determination to be the coolest of all filmmakers, which costs him something in credibility.

Tarantino’s subject is maleness: by repicturing cinema’s rituals of masculinity in wildly exaggerated forms, he has achieved a more daring deconstruction than even directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Unlike them, though, he has trouble depicting women in more than one dimension—in the movies he’s directed he has barely tried. Reservoir Dogs is an all-male, all-macho, grindingly homoerotic film, deliberately hobbled by Tarantino’s refusal to picture the anal intercourse that all its characters yearn for (albeit with a firearm rather than a penis), either as recipients or givers. In Tarantino’s realm of anal longing, women are almost beside the point. Mia, in Pulp Fiction, is a charming cartoon of Anna Karina; like the magic animal in a fairy tale, her narrative function is to rest Travolta’s loyalty to her husband, his boss. Male fealty, of course, wins out. All Pulp Fiction’s other females orbit the “active” males they’re paired with as if attached by Crazy Glue, in one case requesting “oral pleasure” with the languid coquettishness of a teenage catamite.

It’s this director’s genius to toss incompatible ingredients like a salad. His movies are formulaic but the formula is unique, a wild collision of things—the rupture of narrative time, rougher and more radical than Godard’s; the layering of quotations from other movies; the characters besotted by their own eloquence; the Mexican standoff; the petty conversation carried on during horrendous violence. Tarantino can invest a cliché with breathless energy. However sketchy his people look, he makes sure they register onscreen in some indelible way—they may not have depth but they have presence. Tarantino is immersed in movies he’s seen on video, which may explain why their appropriation seems somehow weightless: they’re two steps removed from the primary creative process. One is always inside an artifact cobbled from other artifacts rather than from any profound experience of life. (In this, Tarantino resembles, of all people, Jorge Luis Borges, a writer entirely produced by what he’d read, whose talent was best applied, with ample irony, to genre-detective fiction, the parable, the fairy tale.) But this is also Tarantino’s strength: he has an almost Buñuelian fluency with film—“has movies in his fingertips," like the hero of Alexander Kluge’s film The Blind Director. This becomes especially obvious in Natural Born Killers and True Romance, two surprisingly trite movies made by other directors from Tarantino’s scripts. These films only come alive during the scattered moments when Tarantino’s writing survives molestation.

“Alive” may be too strong a word, though, even in Tarantino’s own movies. Tarantino’s set pieces—bursts of operatic violence scored to brilliantly incongruous soliloquies and other business (I’m thinking of Michael Madsen’s song, dance, and razor routine in Reservoir Dogs)—produce an amphetamine rush that often leaves a tinny aftertaste. We are thrown into a world whose particular deity extends compassion only to the hip and the violent, never to the “asshole” victims. This may pump us up with a certain Nietzschean elation, but can only be followed, sooner or later, by a bewildered sense of depletion, as if we’d been talked into robbing a liquor store or running over a dog. The director can credibly claim that the violence in his films is “unreal”—an aperçu he cribbed from Godard (“It isn’t blood, it’s red”)—but it has to be added that an excessive display of unreal violence has the same adventitious quality that wall-to-wall singing had in the old MGM musicals, which gets us not very far from “a wax museum with a pulse.”

I have the feeling that Pulp Fiction looks as good as it does partly because, its formidable virtues aside, studio pictures have become more idiotic, rebarbarively predictable, and smug. A wild card like Tarantino, versed in everything that still works in the Hollywood mold and at the same time graced with idiosyncrasy, stubbornness, and uncanny energy, can deliver the goods to an audience starved for nuance but allergic to “art.” It was the mistake of former wunderkind like David Lynch to imagine the audience wanted “art” (along with some sideshow touches), or a signature style, or a lot of other things extraneous to sitting in the dark with a tub of popcorn. (Blue Velvet worked mainly because its audience had never seen Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising.) The best thing about Tarantino’s movies is that they aren’t “art,” they just go where art goes, without being overly fastidious about how they get there.

Gary Indiana’s third novel, Rent Boy, was published recently by Serpent’s Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.