The announcement of a new Quentin Tarantino film comes with oohs, aahs, and post-Kill Bill, a lot of bitter commentary on his gleefully referential style. (Or, as they say in French, homages.) One can't take Internet discussion boards too seriously, but it would appear that a certain segment of cinephiles finds it cool and refined to hate on Tarantino for such things. Since his latest script, Django Unchained, wears its reference on its title page, the voices have become quite loud indeed. Even the most ardent fans have to ask themselves whether he's already done enough spaghetti Western worship.
The criticism eats at Tarantino. "Here's my problem with this whole influence thing," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they're really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it's like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with."
It's true, and yet in the next breath Tarantino happily lists a number of films and actors that he references in Inglourious Basterds -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Operation Amsterdam, International Lady, and so on. And he's unapologetic. "But what happens is that it becomes my scene with my actors and my way of telling the story and I feel like I somehow make it my own." And he does. The opening of Inglorious Basterds may happily lift from Monte Hellman, Sergio Leone, and John Ford, but it does become pure Tarantino, and an organic part of the film. None of his films feel like a cut-and-paste job. They're akin to a good research paper, where sources are subtly noted and woven into a sweeping, encompassing argument.
Yes, that's a very dry metaphor, but it's an apt one. As a young academic, I anguished about building my arguments on the shoulders of others, until a kind professor pointed out that what I did was an art. Anyone can plop in a chunk of text; a real researcher had to weave it into his or her picture and that, he insisted, was what I was doing. Tarantino's best films work on the same principle. They may borrow a mood here, a bit of lighting there, a costume idea or a posture from that, but they all end up being a cohesive and original whole. It's worth noting that the scenes people remember -- Shoshanna striping her face to Cat People, Mia and Vincent in the '50s restaurant, the opening dining conversation of Reservoir Dogs -- are original, even if they're framed around some pre-existing pop culture. (I don't consider namedropping Douglas Sirk or Madonna a homage. It's simply a reference. Plenty of films old and new have them. It's a touchstone of the time or the talent behind it.)
Even the scenes that are glibly ripped from other films -- Mia and Vincent dancing, for instance -- go beyond homage and into a reflection of cinema itself. Jerome Charyn points out that a Godard reference winds up folding in on itself to tug on our nostalgia: "Travolta's entire career becomes 'backstory,' the myth of a movie star who has fallen out of favor, but still resides in our memory as the king of disco. We keep waiting for him to shed his paunch, put on a white polyester suit, and enter the 2001 Odyssey club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where he will dance for us and never, never stop ... [Vince and Mia's] actual dance may be closer to the choreography of Anna Karina's shuffle with her two bumbling gangster boyfriends in Bande à part, but even that reference is lost to us, and we're with Tony again."
The film that's latest on the homages, Jackie Brown, is nevertheless more effective because it is one giant love letter to Pam Grier and Foxy Brown. It's difficult to deny the man his "junk cinema" when it results in something as mature and wistful as Jackie's speech about growing old. The riff on blaxploitation extends beyond a mere nod and wink, and into territory that is human, heartfelt, and -- dare I say it -- historic because of the place Grier occupies in American culture. (And I'll admit, I'm someone who wishes he would return to the more subtle and mature style of Jackie Brown. Basterds was a step forward; let's hope Django Unchained is another. Early script reviews suggest it might be.)
And yes, Inglourious Basterds' homages may fly as fast and furious as those in Kill Bill, but they all end up on that funeral pyre, which would appear to be Tarantino's entire credo. Movies are our life -- and our death. It's a sentiment shared by IFC's Michael Atkinson, who holds Basterds as a sort of life-defining moment. "Tarantino is the story, and so are we, because the story is about making and watching cinema, inside the movie and out, and therefore about real life experienced and observed, and the sooner we accept the fact that movies are not separate from our experiences but part of them, then we can be free."
Many directors repeatedly shove references and homages at us; few are lambasted as hard as Tarantino. This year's Rango was one giant pastiche of Western references (Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy also did it to a lesser extent), and audiences ate it up. I was left a little cold by it, and when pressed for why, I couldn't really explain it except that I'd already seen Once Upon a Time in the West, and I didn't need to see it with a lizard. Yet I could easily say the same of Tarantino (how many times are you going to rework Angel Eyes' vicious dinner scenes, Quentin?) but I don't come away feeling as cranky. As a lover of spaghetti Westerns and serapes, I'm at once desperate to see them referenced and yet weirdly protective of how such nods are used. Rango felt off, yet Tarantino feels right. One can tell he loves the little things about those films, and he's also aware of the wider mythology they encompass. All mythologies borrow; be they creation myth or cinematic pulp, but the trick is tapping into our instinct with the image instead of rewarding us for "getting it."
I will say this, though -- Tarantino's references can be as eye-rolling as anyone else's. Going forward, I'd like to see him abandon some of them. Cut out the Ennio Morricone, for one. I grin every time I hear those cues too, but they're not flexible enough for everything, and they belong to Leone. I'd also like to see him (and everyone else) stop using the shot from The Searchers. It's a beautiful one, but it belongs to Ford. It's cheap to try and milk it for film after film.
Otherwise, keep doing your thing, Quentin. When it gets to the point that you homage yourself, like The Onion once teased, then we'll talk again.