Slaves To The Rhythm

Two decades after Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino is treading water. (But P.T. Anderson’s The Master is original and innovative.)

by Philip Matthews

Let’s imagine an alternate world in which Quentin Tarantino didn’t win the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction in 1994 and instead it went to Krzysztof Kieslowski for Three Colours: Red as most expected it would. Would history have been much different?

For critic Jonathan Romney writing about the Criterion DVD release of Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, that moment at Cannes marked “90s cinephilia’s turn away from the poetic-art-cinema tradition” of the final Kieslowski films. Sure, you can compare the fractured structures of the Three Colours trilogy to Pulp Fiction, except that in the Tarantino film, “the play of interlinked destinies was proudly exposed as a gratuitous effect of narrative game playing”. If the early-to-mid 90s was the age of unseriousness, irony and pastiche, then Pulp Fiction was its peak achievement. Kieslowski’s metaphysical art-house was looking so serious, so old-fashioned.

But I suspect that time has been kinder to the Kieslowski films than to Tarantino and his imitators. And maybe cinema’s ultimate award had a stunting effect on Tarantino. Other than the relatively low-key and even mature Jackie Brown – which sits in Tarantino’s body of work much like The King of Comedy sits in Scorsese’s – everything he has directed since has seemed like a regression. Two decades after the Palme d’Or we get second-hand stuff like Django Unchained.

There was another effect of that Palme d’Or. Tarantino had talked up both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction with recycled Jean-Luc Godard quips – “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl”, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order” – and his production company was named A Band Apart, as a take-off of Bande a part (and then there was Uma Thurman in her Anna Karina wig). The thought occurred to more than a few that Tarantino was spearheading an American New Wave roughly comparable to the French one of 30 years earlier, with Tarantino as its Godard: its thinker, its greatest publicist, its chief radical, its director-as-star. Now France had anointed him. But actually, as the years go by, Tarantino looks more and more like an Orson Welles figure, forever tied to an early achievement.

His films are worse now than they were 20 years ago: more vulgar, more pointless, less connected to any reality beyond cinema. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t intermittently enjoyable and sometimes well-made (I hated Death Proof but I almost admired Tarantino’s adolescent urge to never let his audience get bored). And they can even be considered a perverse, degraded form of Godardism, like a Godard that is never political or cerebral.

Godard once said that his films were film criticism by another means – essays about film rather than essay films. So it is with Tarantino. The pastiche in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (bits of New Wave and Scorsese colliding with bits of film noir and Asian cinema) became, in Death Proof, an idea that cinema’s power could be contained through totemic or fetishist means, and that a misanthropic driver (Kurt Russell) could be destroyed only by three women driving the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point. In Inglourious Basterds, cinema defeated the Nazis in a parallel World War II, which was either bold revisionism or dopey bad taste (I opt for the latter and agree with critic David Thomson that it was “the war film of a kid incapable of understanding the war except in movie terms”).

After the Holocaust, we get slavery. It is as though Mel Brooks and Oliver Stone were collaborating on Steven Spielberg subjects. Django Unchained is a revision of history in which a figure from 60s and 70s Spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation (Jamie Foxx as Django) is sent back 100 years, and as a freed slave, becomes a sidekick to a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz from Basterds) and enacts his own revenge on white masters, thus changing the course of history, although less significantly than in Basterds. Structurally, it is Tarantino’s most conventional film yet. The narrative tricks and temporal games have disappeared. Stylistically, it falls awkwardly between grindhouse imitation – you get a few gratuitous crash zooms and some kitsch music – and well-made Hollywood classicism (it’s shot by Robert Richardson). Sometimes the parody of western clichés is broad enough to suggest an excessively violent Blazing Saddles. As ever, the soundtrack does a lot of the work, but we miss Sally Menke, who edited Tarantino’s films from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds and died in 2010. The thing plods along and you could easily lop half an hour or more off it. An idea like this should be done in 90 minutes, and would have been back in grindhouse days. It gets interminable at about the point that Leonardo Di Caprio arrives.

It was said that language was central to Inglourious Basterds, as characters switched between English and German at key moments. It was about fluency, talking your way out of situations, as was Reservoir Dogs way back when. Both English and German feature in Django Unchained too but Tarantino’s usual facility for long-winded and incongruous speechmaking seems to have dried up, despite Waltz’s attempts to squeeze comedy out of some ornate verbiage (in other words, he says things like “ornate verbiage”). But, mostly, watching Django Unchained, you don’t only think that we’re a long way from whatever the achievements of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were – and I still have fond memories of both films – but you also wonder, what is the purpose of this, beyond the display of Tarantino’s personal taste? It has nothing to say about American history, or the cruelty of slavery, and as entertainment it only really comes alive when people are being killed.

Remember that period, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when every Oliver Stone movie felt like an event, or at least a provocation? It was as though you couldn’t be in the cultural conversation if you hadn’t seen them. But who would think of watching JFK, Wall Street, Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July now? Twenty-five years later, we go to Quentin Tarantino movies for the sole purpose of having opinions about Quentin Tarantino movies.

Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax was the company that distributed Reservoir Dogs, produced Pulp Fiction and had the most to do with the elevation of Tarantino to auteur celebrity. Accounts of that era of American cinema tend to paint the 1990s as the Miramax years, and Peter Biskind’s dutiful history Down and Dirty Pictures is largely about the trajectory of Harvey Weinstein as a mercurial mogul in the old tradition.

At some point in 1995, Miramax was presented with a script for Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. According to Biskind, Harvey Weinstein ran screaming when he heard it was about pornography, having just come off controversy over Kids and Priest. (By and large, Miramax was more cautious than it liked to pretend it was – it buried Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and would often cut foreign-language films for the US). Instead, Anderson took Boogie Nights to New Line. In New Zealand at least, Boogie Nights was released to capitalise on the same kind of ironic retro appeal (a porn-disco 70s) that Pulp Fiction and Swingers mined, even though it went to much darker places.

Tarantino wasn’t the only one of his generation to make movies that were dependent on movie history. Todd Haynes and Paul Thomas Anderson – and, a few years earlier, the Coen brothers – were doing similar things. But over the years, their work has deepened and matured, whereas Tarantino has been stuck with a bad case of arrested development.

Anderson’s newest film, The Master, has been criminally under-released in New Zealand. While Django Unchained played multiplexes and was advertised on the back of buses, The Master has so far been limited to Auckland and Wellington. I caught The Master on a recent visit to Auckland and was one of an audience of two at the Academy. You wouldn’t want to seem bitter, but only a month or two earlier, its distributor, Roadshow Films, was crowing about getting The Hobbit onto 203 screens in 98 New Zealand locations.

Whatever. I guess The Master isn’t mainstream cinema – it might have been in the 1970s – even though it contains some of the finest acting you will see on either the big or small screen, beautiful cinematography and production design (the shooting is by Mihai Malaimare Jnr and the design is by Malick regular Jack Fisk), and faultless editing rhythms. You are so immersed in the old-fashioned pleasures of film-making that a conventional three-act narrative with conflict, resolution, back story and the rest seems less important. Which is a way of heading off the chief criticism thrown at this film – that it doesn’t deliver on story.

Actually, I think there are subtle ways in which it does. But I also think The Master is “about” other things. It’s well-known that it mimics a version of the early days of Scientology, with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a parallel L Ron Hubbard and The Cause as something like Dianetics. Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is horny, violent, drunken, like the id to Dodd’s ego, or the Caliban to his Prospero, the inner animal that he struggles to repress or rise above (Dodd makes speeches about overcoming your animal self). Quell has come out of the army, seems disturbed and shell-shocked – Anderson and Phoenix looked at a documentary about shell shock, Let There Be Light – and finds his way onto Dodd’s ship. Dodd puts him through “the Process”, which is roughly like Scientology’s auditing.

The greatest surprise is that The Master doesn’t really condemn its version of Scientology – it isn’t about exposing either Dodd or The Cause as a colossal fraud or his process as an exercise in abuse. There are ways in which Dodd’s system works for Quell. And that should cause you to reflect on its moment and its geography. Five out of six of Anderson’s films have been set in California. There was the suburban San Fernando Valley in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Then you went back 100 years to California for There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis doing an impersonation of John Huston in Chinatown as oil monster Daniel Plainview. A couple of generations pass, and in The Master we are in California immediately after World War II. This was a crucial time in California generally and Los Angeles in particular (see also Todd Haynes’ recent Mildred Pierce mini-series which is set in suburban Los Angeles in the 1930s). These films are about California and its promise and mythology as much as they are about the people in them. Scientology could only have happened as it did in California. You could say the same thing about Hollywood.

It isn’t just proximity that has made Scientology a big thing for actors. There is a way in which Scientology’s auditing is itself a version of an acting class – your self is just a persona, a character, a mask. Dig deeper. Go back 75 million years. Its exercises are about power over others, and the presentation of an impermeable self. Exactly what an actor is looking for. The Master gets into that, the shifts of personality. Hoffman’s performance has suggested Orson Welles in Citizen Kane to some, as though that’s the template for every audience-fooling blowhard. It is easily the best showcase yet for the remarkably raw and direct emotions of Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, even greater than the one Hollywood recognised (Walk the Line). You might even wonder about how this lost or damaged soul follows on from Phoenix’s presentation of himself as a lost or damaged soul in his weirdly misjudged pseudo-doc, I’m Still Here. In any event, I found The Master mesmerising and enigmatic, powerful without ever being obvious.

A quick footnote or two : After splitting with Miramax, the Weinsteins took Tarantino with them to the Weinstein Company. They supported Django Unchained, just as they indulged both parts of Kill Bill, the Grindhouse experiment and the problematic Inglourious Basterds. The good news is they also backed The Master.

The Paul Thomas Anderson film not set in California was his first feature, Hard Eight, a gambling movie set in Nevada, which established the father-son theme that has run through the writer-director’s work since (there, it was Philip Baker Hall and John C Reilly). In 1998, Roadshow Films – believe it or not – brought Anderson to New Zealand for interviews to promote Boogie Nights. He told me that the distributor changed the title of Hard Eight to Sydney for its US theatrical release as they were worried that Hard Eight sounded like a porn film. He was incredulous. Now here he was … well, too many ironies.

Anyway, Hard Eight is a smaller film, less flamboyant than what followed. And if you’re after some other interesting Joaquin Phoenix work, check out his films with James Gray, especially Two Lovers.