The Tarantino ‘Phenomenon’
If any one film maker epitomises the cynicism and opportunism of the postmodern zeitgeist,
it is Quentin Tarantino. Like Scorsese, but with even less justification, he has attracted serious
attention from film critics and reputable institutions, such as the BFI.
It is for the latter reason, in particular, that Tarantino deserves special mention. After the era of
the Hollywood ‘auteur’, such as Scorsese and Paul Schrader, etc., which stretched from Hollywood’s
golden years of the 1970s into the 1980s, along came Tarantino, the ‘wunderkind’ of the 1990s.
Therefore, rightly or wrongly, he has earned a serious mention on the BFI web-site of great directors,
wherein he rubs shoulders with the likes of Welles, Ingmar Bergman or Coppola.
Needless to say, almost all of his films fall into the category of crime-action-thriller. By boldly going down this road (cf. Scorcese,
who does make the occasional deviation, e.g. in his black comedy. After Hours), Tarantino has scored a series of hits, each
one bigger than the previous one. It is against this backdrop that the BFI describes Reservoir Dogs (1991) and Pulp Fiction
(1994) as ‘the two most influential independent films of the early nineties’; because they have ‘classy set pieces, snappy
dialogue and use of soundtrack’. With his ‘matchless style’, Tarantino emerged as the auteur of his time. This is high
praise indeed. In 1997 this was certainly confirmed with Jackie Brown, his biggest film so far.
However one unnamed top US critic is more circumspect: This film, at best, merely ‘hints at a level of substance beyond
his trademark barrage of popular cultural references, punctuated with flashy violence’. Moreover, he continues, Jackie Brown
can’t be categorised as either mainstream or independent, because ‘it plunders both’ categories.
Nevertheless Tarantino’s career has continued to rise; extending into the 21st century with blockbusters like Kill Bill Vols. I & II (2003-4)
According to one undiscriminating commentator, ‘Kill Bill’ is ‘a grindhouse movie’: i.e. ‘pure exploitation joy...Kung Fu, sex, revenge,
murder blood-gorged frames, fast cars, fast women and a pumping, pulsating soundtrack. But when all is said and done, Tarantino
has merely transplanted the genre-epic of Hong Kong national cinema to Hollywood. It is a sign of the times.
As for the viewers, their attitude is aptly summed up by one person, who describes Bill as ‘bad, bloodier’ and ‘better’. And so
we arrive at Tarantino’s latest blockbuster, Sin City (2006). The end result an over-reliance on stylised or fetishised violence and
special effects. It is a film which uses real actors; but without a decent script or good acting, it is not only shallow; it looks
like a glorified cartoon.
Tarantino, the so-called auteur does not have any compunction about prostituting himself to the Hollywood machine. Given the importance of special effects these days, his allegedly new hybrid category of mainstream-independent film has already degenerated into the category of mainstream and the blockbuster. Thus his achievement so far is either vehemently hated or loved by his fellow directors, critics, journalists, teachers, intellectuals and, of course, mass audiences. Once again, this would seem to confirm Adorno’s theory of the ‘culture industry’, as an adjunct of ‘the mechanised and rationalised labour process’, the very basis of capitalism’s ‘total society’ etc.; within which Hollywood occupies pride of place.