Sunday, 14 December 2014

Tara, 'tino - looking back at Tarantino, the era of Pulp Fiction and beyond.

Over at the Strange Things Are Happening website, the ever reliable David Flint decided that reviewing a film as well known as Pulp Fiction is a pretty pointless exercise, so instead expressed his own thoughts and feelings about that Tarantino time (you can see David's post here -

This got me thinking about my own feelings about Tarantino and this post is in no way a reposte to the Strange Things post, as for the most part I agree with a lot of what he says, but I thought I'd put my own thoughts down.

I was at college, 17 years old, when the Reservoir Dogs phenomenon hit the UK and it seemed that there was suddenly a new wave of film makers coming through in the UK and abroad. I'm probably mixing up timelines and release dates, but when reading magazines like The Dark Side and Shivers there was a new breed of no/ low budget film makers determined to make the films they wanted to see on UK soil - I'll paraphrase Chris Jones, who wrote the Guerilla Film Makers Handbook as "we wanted lots of muzzle flash." These were film makers, like myself, who had grown up on 80s VHS action and genre films and they were the sort of films we wanted to make ourselves. In The UK it still felt like the British film industry was a stuffy affair, making period films of the aristocracy, or at least that's how it felt to seeing people like Richard Stanley make Hardware and Dust Devil, (despite it's problematic post production), Stephen Norris with Death Machine...hell, even the terrible Funny Man was inspiring that people were making these sort of films.

(I can't find a proper trailer for Funny Man so this will have to do, which actually makes it a lot more stylish and inventive looking than I remember it...)

So Reservoir Dogs came along with a bunch of style press support - the now defunct UK music magazine Select often had free posters of bands and movies and they must have had a freebie of the UK poster for Reservoir Dogs. I hung this up on the wall in our room at college and it stared down at us for over a year. We were sucked into this being the epitome of cool and cutting edge cinema.

Ironically, none of us had seen it.

After a brief cinema run Reservoir Dogs got caught in a censorship hole regarding its video release - there seemed to be a wave of hyper violent films which the BBFC in the UK had a problem with - Man Bites Dog, Henry'Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Bad Boy my head they all seem to exist at the same time as sort of forbidden fruit that were difficult to see, at least uncut (though Man Bites Dog probably snuck through as it was a foreign language film, though the UK artwork had to be censored, losing a baby's dummy ricocheting from the gun and blood blast.)

Much that I'd read of midnight movies and films running for years in New York etc, that didn't happen in lowly north Notts - the Mansfield Cannon was unlikely to do such a thing and so the only way to get hold of the film was through pirate video channels. Eventually a friend of a friend, or something like that, managed to procure us a copy and several of us made our own copy to keep.

Having seen clips of the film on various film and cultural shows, read so much about it I finally got to see it.

In all honesty, I found it a bit boring.

I'm pretty sure as a result I've only ever seen it through once or twice.

By this point I think I'd seen John Woo's The Killer and Hard Boiled (two other films the style press had picked up on and ran with, making Chow Yun Fat instantly iconic) and although I know Reservoir Dogs wasn't an action film this may have played a part. No doubt my expectations were ramped up in anticipation of finally seeing this film and possibly nothing could have lived up to them. I guess it just wasn't the film I was expecting it to be.

I can pick one very early point where somehow the film wasn't delivering what it was in my head - the opening titles. Having stared at that poster for a long time, big dramatic type and a splatter of blood beneath it I was expecting something similarly hard hitting. Instead I got a slow motion walk of the robbers, with a smokey yellow Times New Roman font rolling up the words RESERVOIR DOGS.

This might seem ridiculous, that the marketing should reflect the font and design of the film, but I genuinely thought it would be reflective of the style of the film.

(On an aside, that UK poster is actually a bit cack when you look at it in retrospect, like a 6th form project with the terrible shadowing on the text. Even at the time I thought some of the cutting and pasting of the characters was a bit rubbish, Tim Roth's character's stance in particularly looks goofish rather than cool. I would say that the American screenprint type poster is much better and sells a much cooler image.)

What else can I say about it? Harvey Kietel duel hand guns blasting the police in their car still packed a punch, but perhaps I presumed that a lot of the film would be like that - I knew upfront it didn't show the heist (which seemed to be a point many articles made about the film) but perhaps I wasn't expecting so much of the film to be backstory. By the time the film got to Tim Roth's back story I felt quite bored, that it was really dull. There had also been many articles about "Who shot Nice Guy Eddie?" that, in the absence of a film to watch, I'd read but when it came to the actual stand off it seemed to be over very quickly, probably realistic but felt somewhat ironically anticlimatic. Perhaps I was expecting more of a Leone type stand off, as opposed to a load of bickering being instantly cut short.

No doubt my limited film knowledge as a teenager, expecting visceral shallow thrills, possibly didn't grasp some of these film making choices, but in the end the film was a disappointment to me. I don't say that to appear cool now, it was how I felt.

Looking back I don't think it was a pretence I kept up about my thoughts about the film, perhaps more that I deluded and lied to myself that I thought it was a great film and that I did love it and SHUT UP LUTHER AND SHUT UP ABOUT IT BEING A BIT it felt like it was "our" film and "our" cinema I didn't want to feel let down by it, perhaps there was some sort of self inflicted peer pressure, possibly out of not wanting to admit that it didn't live up to my expectations after all the anticipation.

Timelines, releases and events all merge here but following Reservoir Dogs we had True Romance and Natural Born Killers - I don't recall when or how I got to see these films, I know NBF was another film which suffered with delays with the BBFC so we went on any snippets we could get - magazine articles, soundtracks, posters, clips on film shows...the pre internet world sounds like such a drag at times...for some reason I was snobbish about Natural Born Killers, perhaps I think critically it seemed divided, I'm not sure if part of me had a problem that it wasn't Tarantino directing it, but I didn't have a problem with True Romance. True Romance no doubt endeared itself to me and probably a similar generation with a lead character who works in a comic shop (my own particular favourite hang out) and loved martial arts films (though I'd never seen or heard of Sonny Chiba, it was all Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee round our parts) - to have someone who seemed so like "us" on screen was a massive deal, even though films and comics was as far as it went - we didn't get prostitutes, guns, drugs or dodgy dealers in my life (though there were some dodgy white dreadlocks) nor was there a smidgen of romance, true or otherwise.

Ironically, when I saw eventually saw Natural Born Killers many years later I really admired all the fourth wall stuff (the Rodney Dangerfield sit com for example) and quite liked it, it was what I thought brave and dynamic film making should look like. Arguably it's like a student film too, but perhaps it's the style I expected Reservoir Dogs to have. (When it comes to the documentary approach in the latter half of the film it reminded me of a script I was working on where much of it was TV news crew footage to justify the shaky cam look, so I felt some sort of affinity with Tarantino in terms of thinking how you could justify a low budget documentary look.)

The other thing which endeared me to Tarantino (the man) was that he'd visited Nottingham with Reservoir Dogs as part of the Broadway Cinema's old Shots In The Dark crime film festival. I read a great interview with him in John Martin's wonderful Giallo Pages fanzine - here was a director talking about his love of Italian genre cinema, about Fulci, about Castellari, all these film makers I'd come to love and HE LOVED THEM TOO! All the other directors I'd read about never spoke about these people, most likely would not have even been aware of them, but here was Tarantino talking about them, which reinforced the idea that HE WAS ONE OF US. Of course, his story of video shop clerk to lauded film maker was also an inspirational story for someone like factors like these helped to bury my negative feelings about Reservoir Dogs but increase my love for the man.

In the lead up to Pulp Fiction I caught a TV show, may have been a Culture Show special on BBC2 all about Tarantino, which offered some glimpses of Pulp Fiction, with its  bigger budget ($8 million!!! A VERITABLE FORTUNE!) and showed the Jack Rabbit Slims set, which I'm sure I was amazed at how it seemed to be mostly flats giving the impression of the space. I think it also had some of the footage from his Sundance workshop video, which showed a rough improv/ work in progress of Reservoir Dogs, which didn't seem to resemble anything in the finished film. I remember feeling a bit disappointed about seeing this, somehow it took the tarnish off the media story of video clerk writes script and becomes a star, when in fact he'd got into one of Sundance's workshops...somehow doesn't seem as instant.

Nonetheless, by the time Pulp Fiction hit I was so psyched for it and I loved it, I still recall that initial blast of Link Wray as the screen filled with yellow and the film's logo slowly fell back. Finally it seemed to be delivering on what I expected from Reservoir Dogs, that the marketing and the film and everything were all in synch. I just remember being enthralled by it, hanging out with the characters, riding with the twists and turns of the storylines, the playful time shifting of John Travolta's character dying but still being there for the finale. Fabulous fun.

I even went to see it again at the cinema, which was a rare thing for me.

Like many other people of my age, I had the soundtrack, I had the poster on the wall and when it was available to buy on VHS I owned a copy too, though oddly and tellingly I really don't know if I watched it more than once on video.

(On an aside I wonder if a UK filmic equivalent for this hype and culture plough is Trainspotting, another film where everyone was caught up in the buzz for it.)

As touched on in the Strange Things blog post, cinema changed in the wake of Tarantino's quartet of Dogs, Romance, Killers and Fiction. Many imitators, for better or worse, were following in the wake. Unsurprisingly everyone at college wanted to make gangster films, which involved shades, shirts and ties. Cool gangster culture became prevalent. Cinema seemed that it was becoming more self aware, characters could and would reference real life pop culture, which all felt fun and cute...initially...but then would begin to grate as the imitators began to pile up.

(On another aside, I wonder if the result of all of this real life awareness and references tarnishes the "purity" of cinema sometimes existing in its own world - Prometheus amongst many faults, felt sullied further to me by the Lawrence Of Arabia footage, which planted this film and therefore by association Alien and Aliens in OUR world, which feels like it removes the uniqueness or mystique somewhat, I like that these films exist in a vacuum with no cultural references. The less said about Stephen Stills and his squeezebox the better...)

Initially the shared universe of his characters felt to me at the time something really fresh and reflected the crossover world of comic books - back then the idea of a Superman Vs Batman film, or 20th Century Fox just getting on with adapting the Aliens Vs Predator comic book was something we wanted to happen and couldn't understand why it couldn't happen, so for Tarantino to create his own world with this, even if it was a background element, was a cool little gimmick to me. It was something which I didn't pull off in my own post college relationship films but sorta existed in my head.

Looking back at some aspects of Pulp Fiction, I find the "hanging out" with characters amusing in that all those screenplay books you can read usually say that all dialogue should move the story on, when I'm not sure if some of the dialogue between Travolta and Jackson falls under that "rule." Is this rule breaking from Tarantino, or indulgent? Possibly the latter, if subsequent films are anything to go by.

In retrospect I think Travolta comes across as a bit of a dweeb, with his slicked back almost mullet-esque hair, it's weird how he was held up as being iconically cool. I guess I've never been a fan of Travolta and find him equally dorkish in Grease when he's supposed to be badass hot rodder. Maybe it's because he's always reminded me of Andrew Cook, a kid from childhood who seemed a bit goofy too.

But as cinema changed, so did I. Perhaps it was post gangster culture fatigue, but by the time Jackie Brown had appeared my love for Tarantino was waning. I really didn't like Jackie Brown. I found it completely over long and indulgent - yes, it's all very clever that you can show the money exchange from several different view points, but I questioned whether that was to the detriment of the film. I had a real problem with the casting - it felt like Samuel Jackson had been typecast into being the attitude big mouth and felt I'd seen it before, Robert De Niro didn't seem to add anything memorable...what I think disappointed me most about the casting was that I presumed Tarantino was a big enough name to sell a film regardless of casting (I'm sure the studios and execs didn't agree) so was hoping he would almost put his money where his mouth was and fill the film with all those straight to video or forgotten actors that he used to love. I genuinely think that Pam Grier and especially Robert Forster are the best things about the film, Forster in particular gave a warm, sympathetic performance (maybe my love for him was skewed by having him on my bedroom wall for 10 years as it was covered in Black Hole wallpaper as a kid....)

References which once seemed cute now seemed a bit naff, or tiresome, as if there wasn't anything original Tarantino had to say, perhaps all he was every doing was riffing on things which had gone before, finding his own interpretation of something else, but never really saying or creating anything truly new. I found the praise for the opening sequence in Jackie Brown baffling - they were praising Tarantino for using a song from another film, written especially for that film, for the opening of his own film? Watching Pam Grier on a travelator while Across 110th Street played out didn't seem particularly iconic to me, just utterly vacuous.

Over the years whenever I brought up my lack of love for Jackie Brown with some people they thought I was crazy, that it was a great film and I was missing the point. I guess I'd "matured" enough to finally hold my own opinion on a film without feeling the need to say I loved a film because others did. It only took about 21 years.

As we slip through the rest of Tarantino's catalogue, Kill Bill was a film I finally got around to seeing. I remember very little about it, I certainly found the first part a fun thrill ride, but nothing sticks in my mind about it...I came to it a little later than my friends who were already swept up in the hype and excitement about the film. Again, the reference points had soured so much I now found his magpie referencing grating - stealing Bruce Lee's iconic yellow jump suit from Game Of Death, instacool, just add water and stir - why couldn't Tarantino come up with his own jumpsuit design, something that would create a new filmic icon, instead of riffing on the past?

As for Kill Bill pt 2, I recall other people really disliking it, I didn't mind it, but I can remember barely anything about the film. This probably speaks volumes about how much love I had for Tarantino and his films by this point. Whenever I saw an interview with him I'd just find him really annoying.

I never saw Deathproof - I saw Planet Of Terror, which I enjoyed, but disappointed in a way as it seemed too big, too lavish, too epic for the style of film it was trying to imitate. I've never seen Inglourious Basterds or whichever spelling he gave it...and I've no interest in seeing Django Unchained.

As a big fan of Enzo G Castellari and the original film I'd been following Tarantino's plan to remake the I.G for years. I guess what I find most annoying about this all is that he seemed to just steal a pretty raucous title and discard pretty much everything else of the original film and, although the original did get a dvd release cashing in on the Tarantino film, I can't imagine it got that much notice, or whether the majority of mainstream reviews felt it was even necessary to point out that it was a "remake" of an obscure Italian WW2 action film. I very much doubt Tarantino's film has such marvellous train carnage achieved on a shoe string budget with miniatures and inventive camera angles.

Similarly, with Django I find it frustrating that he has now "stolen" Django from Italian genre cinema and for the mass market he will now be synonymous with the name, not a classic spaghetti western that spawned endless cash in sequels, nor Franco Nero.

I probably shouldn't get so wound up by his theft of Italian genre cinema - in theory his films should have helped promote them more to the masses but I guess for the most part it starts and stops with his own films, with very few people wanting to look at the films he is referencing/ stealing from.

A strange I thing I find, looking back that Pulp Fiction is 20 years old, is that the iconography of Travolta and Jackson continues to permeate our culture as a shorthand for "cool" - I've seen Virgin Media vans with quotes and artwork referencing the film, HMV's rolling animations in their shop windows use a simplified cartoon image of Travolta and Jackson - and I find this all a bit sad. Has cinema really not produced anything equally iconic in the last 20 years? I'm sure the people now in charge of creative decisions in these places are similar people of my generation, swept up in the Tarantino wave, possibly still hold them in high regard, know with home broadband and cable they're selling to a demographic who grew up with Pulp Fiction, recognise it, still think it's cool....when to me it now seems a bit...tacky...and what would the equivalent have been in 1994, using Godfather II or Blazing Saddles to sell Playstations?

I wonder if myself and the whole Tarantino "fad" aren't symptomatic of some sort of...juvenilia (I don't think it's a word, but it might sum it up) - not to belittle my teenage self, but just looking at it in a bit of the cold light of day - was it a shallow bit of teenage love, something I won't forget, but in the end it was no, well, true romance?

So, despite my initial love and rush for Pulp Fiction, I don't feel any desire to sit and watch the film again. The prospect of a 20th anniversary boxset full of, well, tat, in my opinion, isn't very appealing. 

But to be a little bit fairer to Tarantino, many directors I loved at that time no longer mean much to me - as a huge Woody Allen fan, I think the last film of his I saw was Sweet and Lowdown and bar an odd title I couldn't tell you much about his work from the last 15 years. Equally with Scorsese, since Casino I'm not sure if I've seen anything beyond Hugo and his Infernal Affairs remake (so memorable I've forgotten the name, well, I'll never forget Nicholson blowing a load of coke on an ass, or did I imagine that?)

I don't think my diminished love for them are signs of maturity, more growing old, "passions" fading as time passes, not feeling obliged or compelled to keep up with a filmmaker that once meant something to you and eventually finding that other random obscure films and filmmakers currently provide a bigger thrill than your old heroes ever could with something new.