Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

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“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.

Giving Up and Walking Out: How to Press Eject Before it’s Too Late

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Highly anticipated: Even higher pay-off

I haven’t written a review in a while.  Mostly because a lot of the films I’ve seen have really disappointed me (some of which were highly anticipated and from directors I typically hold in high regard) and I don’t like writing negative reviews.  I feel more energized and excited and better all around when I can say a bunch of positive stuff, I also love being able to share the experience and say, “Hey, you should see this.”  I find it much more valuable than finding out which movies to steer clear of.  Also, if someone likes a movie I don’t, that’s fine.  I’m much more inclined to argue my point if someone doesn’t like a film I am particularly fond of.  I haven’t only seen bad films, but nothing lately has really compelled me to write about it.  Not long ago I saw Django Unchained.  I had an absolute blast.  Tarantino is just a master and so full of passion and fun and whimsy in addition to being able to create such polished and consistent drama.  It tires me out thinking of all the great things I can say about QT and his work and his work really transcends anything I can say about it at this point.  At least that’s how I feel.  Sure, he has his detractors, but he can handle them.

gi django waltzThe last thing I wanted to do after I saw Django was review it.  I just wanted to see it again and maybe write Tarantino a thank you letter.  I still might.  Instead, I called my best friend to tell him what I did;  That I had seen the film in Portland’s Cinetopia and that I watched it with Dechutes Chain Breaker Ale (chosen for both theme and deliciousity).  Well, he hadn’t seen it yet, but we got to talking about other films including The Dark Knight Rises, which I had finally gotten around to renting.  I told him the sad truth.  I didn’t finish it.  I turned it off  and replaced it with my DVD copy of 1989’s Batman (Robert Wuhl FTW!).  I wanted a real Batman movie, not whatever that was.  And I had plenty of complaints, but mostly it was just boring, convoluted, and ultimately lacked style.  It may work for some, but not for me.  I expected something consistent with The Dark Knight and TDKR is really just, passionless and overreaching in my opinion.

So, then began our dispute about whether, or not it is okay to judge a movie before watching it in its entirety.  He believes that a movie is meant to be seen as a whole and only after the entire story is allowed to play out should you be allowed to criticise.  I understand that point of view.  It’s wrong, but I understand it.  The truth is, short of walking out of the theater and demanding a refund, you absolutely can and should be able to determine within minutes of the film’s opening if it is going to be worth the investment of your time.

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Corny

We do it with trailers all the time.  They are supposed to hook us and make us want to see the film, but it’s also part of a screening process.  You are given a few glimpses of images designed to sell you on the movie, but they still have to  use their movie to do it, so you can speculate from just a 30 second spot just how much potential the film has to be good.  You can hypothesise whether all of the good shots from the movie were used in the trailer, whether you’ve been there and seen that, and whether there is enough depth, originality, humor, or vision to set it apart from its competitors.  When I saw the trailer for TDKR my enthusiasm, already deflated by the Bane prologue I had seen, sank into complete disinterest.  We as consumers have to weigh out the options just as production companies determine their next investments.

gi tv setIf you want to write a screenplay, you can.  Nobody can stop you.  If you want to write a movie, you suddenly have a ton of opposition to overcome.  The least of which is selling your vision to someone who thinks they can profit off of it, and that’s only after you’ve proven you can be taken seriously as a writer.  That means you have to get the right contacts, you have to sell what people are buying, you have to compromise, you have to deliver.  In short, you have to abandon the notion of “your movie” and give your investors the product they are after.  Now, I’m not down on the system.  It’s a business and it’s no better or worse than any other industry.  In fact, I think it’s wonderful that art finds a way in the industry and you can find great work in studio productions as well as independent ones.  What I’m saying is it is hard, rigorous work to get in and establish a foothold in the business.  You have to meet the approval of many and pass a series of trials to succeed, but that doesn’t guarantee a good product.  For as much history that we have to refer to and as many how to guides that point out the basics of the craft of telling a good story it would seem that the ones who do the financing, still don’t understand how to differentiate between good solid entertainment and garbage.  Millions of movies come out of the woodwork and we the consumers who drive the industry are left to determine what’s good and bad as though there were no screening process at all and anyone is free to just make and distribute a bad movie, no matter the cost.

gi schlockIn most cases, it’s the indie films that really let me down.  For one, they don’t have quite as much publicity, so I am usually going into it blind, whereas if they had been marketed by a big distribution company I would have been exposed enough to the film to determine if I thought it would be right for me.  They also lack in production value and often are not directed with much finesse.  It’s hard to say exactly where an indie film goes wrong because usually the whole cast and crew is somewhat inexperienced.  You can’t always pinpoint if the writing is bad or if the actor just didn’t land it, or if better photography or more interesting coverage could save a scene that is flat.  Still, I find the same problems in big budget actioners or comedies that I just find unwatchable.  So indie films are no more likely a source of great art than “Big Hollywood” can be blamed for all mindless schlock.

gi netflix instantHere’s the thing: There are so many movies out there mainstream or not, and with several digital media platforms streaming an endless supply of potential entertainment, “consumer me” expects “film you” to get my attention and not let go, lest I find something much, much better out there to occupy my time.  For as hard as it is for a good writer to get noticed, it is an insult to see much of the turds deemed worthy to polish and exhibit because of some x factor that might incite just enough interest to raise a profit.  It becomes necessary, with such a saturated marketplace, to become a little more aware of the quality of product we are offered, especially when we pay to view such content.

gi promoMy first step in personally determining what movies I choose to watch was ignoring the stars.  They are the easiest way to push a bad movie on an audience and they often have least to do with whether, or not the film is any good.  They don’t even know how the movie is going to turn out, yet they are saddled with the task of mustering up enthusiasm in appearances on talk shows.  The things I look to are the writer– because the script is the backbone of the film– and the director, because ultimately they determine the most of what the finished product will be.  The better the track record the more the likelihood that a movie will be worth the ticket price.   It’s unfortunate then that actors work so much more than writers and directors and your trusted handful of artists make so few appearances.

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Screenwriter Drew Pearce’s only feature film credits are all still in production.

It’s also remarkable how often a high-profile tent pole, or other highly anticipated property is entrusted to writers whose IMDB profile credits them with only commercials and a short or two, or some relatively unknown television series.  As a consumer, it’s hard to trust these resume’s when it’s obvious the studios are banking on the appeal and recognition of the property itself, such as the recent slew of Hasbro related films.  Sometimes the producer has directing or writing clout that he uses while giving some young hotshot a chance.  That’s very cool, but also a little tricky and not always reliable.  In the case of TDKR, Chris Nolan is the director who elevated both the franchise and the genre.  He has a fantastic track record, but I also took a cue from the lack of willingness I perceived in regards to making a third installment.  I felt as though he did not want to make the film, but either the money was too good or he was already under contract for a third.

The role of the critic remains essential for helping to sift through all of the options.  They watch it and tell you what you can expect.  You find one of those that you trust and you are golden.  When TDKR finally came out, the critics I read gave reluctant mixed reviews, indicating that the movie had indeed fallen short of the glory of its predecessor. I again opted to hold off on watching the film which continued to show signs of disappointment.  But the critic is just a guide, and if the movie in question isn’t high-profile enough it may go unnoticed by many.  If you want entertainment now, as so many distributors promise, you have to trailblaze a little bit.  This is where it helps to recognize quickly whether or not you may have stumbled on the wrong path.

Again, it starts with scriptwriting and the process that so many readers at production companies and agencies go through just to pick that one promising gem out of the thousands of submissions.  Some people may only request the first ten or thirty pages.  That’s enough to see where the story is going or even if you have a story.  My screenwriting mentor Jonathan O’Brien stated that he could tell in ten pages if a script was going to work, and usually his instinct would be right after the first page.  If a page translates to a minute on-screen as it is supposed to then the same time frame should theoretically apply.  About ten to thirty minutes in, you usually have enough of an idea where this movie is going to determine if you want to continue watching.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you give up on it though and there are several reasons to continue to give it a chance.

gi fight club nortonFor one, the film may be very good at eluding your perceptions and preconceptions.  It is entirely possible that a film is exceptionally good and you don’t know it until you reflect on it later.  These movies you may downright loathe, but that feeling is rooted in uncertainty over what is being conveyed rather than the overall quality of the piece.  I remember the first time I saw Fight Club, I was very uncomfortable and found it tedious at times to the point of near torture.  I had empathized so much with Edward Norton’s character that it really put me through the wringer and only near the end did I get the chance to appreciate one of the most rewatchable and influential films of my lifetime, certainly a personal favorite.  If I had turned it off I’m sure I would be likely to catch it at some point years later and maybe have an entirely different experience.  So judgement should not be considered final even if it is swift and harsh.  Still, this is not the type of movie I am referring to when I talk about “giving up” on a movie.

gi poster bottlerocketYou may have even a more passive experience that leads closer to boredom than anguish, just out of the uncertainty of whether there is indeed a story.  Wes Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, but I have to be honest that I rarely “get it” the first time around.  His movies are so subtle with such a slow burn.  If you aren’t the stop and smell the roses type, it can be difficult to appreciate right off, but the craft is certainly there, buried among layers of atmosphere and keen observation.  Only after I’ve finished watching one of his films am I really able to start processing all that I have seen in a manageable context.  On the flip side, there are sometimes terrible movies, that are also at least good enough with craft, that even though you know it’s a mind numbing waste of time they manage to bait you into watching a littler longer and a littler longer until finally you reach the climax and before you know it your whole afternoon is gone.  They tricked you.  Because they had a basic understanding of formula, they were able to tell their mediocre story just well enough to keep you from looking for something else to do.

Popular opinion is the basic model we are expected to follow on sites like Netflix and amazon.com.  Other viewers’ scoring based on a five star system indicates the average rating given to a particular movie.  Unfortunately, right out the gate you can see a problem with the type of streaming options that are available.  The large majority of instant options get one and two star ratings.  Redbox offers cheap rentals, but mostly the same kind of sub par offerings with the exception of possibly a couple of good new releases and an occasional pleasant surprise.  When you are streaming entertainment that is part of a monthly service fee, giving up on a movie is as easy as changing the channel.  It’s harder if you’ve paid a buck twenty or up to four dollars to rent it.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t do it.  I’m serious about this.  A two star rating might make you feel better about not liking a film, but by chosing to give it a chance you showed that you are capable of ignoring public opinion.  If you turn that ability the other way and ignore high ratings as well it can be very freeing.  Like critics, rating systems based on public opinion can be great clues, but they are not fool-proof.  You decide what you want to see, but that power of decision doesn’t begin and end with pressing play.

I would never write a review for a movie that I haven’t seen from start to finish.  That is absolutely messed up.  But I have judged several, movies often within the first ten minutes, thereby adding days to my life.  I take the idea that a film should be judged in its entirety from a different perspective.  Even if a film miraculously has a terrific ending that is massively inconsistent with its beginning, the beginning is still decisively bad.  Even after finishing the movie on a good note there will still be that one thing–that it being horrible thing– that ruins it.  So if you’re bored and no longer care how the movie ends, that’s a good indication that it not only is a bad film for failing to hold your attention, but there is really no need to continue devoting your time to it.  After all, it’s there for your entertainment, and unlike a boring party guest, you can just shut it off and look the other way.  Why would you continue to watch something that you already know is not working.  Your rental money is already spent and will be waisted either way, might as well redeem what time you still can.

gi batmanI gave  about an hour to TDKR before pulling the plug shortly after Batman makes his unimpressive first appearance.  I had been shuffling scenes and rewriting the film in my mind, from the very beginning.  This was not the Batman I wanted to see and I yearned for a better adaptation, which is why I pulled out my copy of Batman and saved the evening with moody atmosphere, wonderful toys and one of film’s most quotable goofballs, Alexander Knox.

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“Lieutenant, is there a six foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police payroll? And if so, what’s he pulling down… after taxes?”

People say that I missed most of the movie and that it all comes together, but most of them also agree that it doesn’t come together very well.  I certainly didn’t want to see another two hours of what I had been watching and one hour is way too much time to hold off an audience before allowing a film to become acceptable, especially in the wake of TDK.

Cutting your losses and saying goodbye to that rental money is the hardest thing.  Judging a film you only partially watched is easy.  It’s already been determined that it failed to entertain you.  You paid your money and went in with good intentions.  The movie started and set everything up and at some point you realized “this is really bad.”  Why should you have to sit idly through the entire production just to feel justified in your feelings of betrayal?  You shouldn’t.  To me, that bad, used portion of the movie and the lack of motivation to continue watching is evidence enough.  If you don’t like your Starbucks latte, you don’t drink the whole thing before complaining.  It’s better to say,” it was so bad I stopped drinking it,” than to hand them an empty cup and shrug.