Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been covering the movies of Quentin Tarantino the past three weeks, and so far we’ve motored through his debut and his huge splash in the mid 90s. What’s interesting is that Tarantino was not just writing/directing, but also producing scripts that he would hand out or sell early in his career before he firmly invested in his writer-director persona. Those scripts, some of which landed with smart directors and others that didn’t, make up a body of work that still feels decidedly Tarantino-esque, and more eclectic than the swath of people trying to emulate his style that came up in the wake of Pulp Fiction.
So today we’re going to be covering all the extra, the movies that Quentin didn’t direct (and one that he did 25% of), in a sort of grab bag. I plan on covering some of these directors in Directed Viewing in some dim distant future seasons, so I’m not going to aim to be fully comprehensive about these movies. I’ll be focusing mostly on script, thematic similarities, and how well his words and ideas fall out of the camera of other directors. Because man, sometimes it goes really weird.
True Romance (1993)
This first one is interesting not so much in its Tarantino-ness, but just how much it evokes Wild at Heart. Tarantino riffing on Lynch sounds like it could be delightful, and it mostly is, especially in the restrained hands of early 90s Tony Scott. Scott takes what could have been a wild crime drama and instead strips out most of the most rauckus energy, instead creating a movie that is charming in how it presents the love story of two unrepentant fuck ups. Surprisingly, this isn’t that far from material that would show up again in both Natural Born Killers and Jackie Brown, a fixation he kept doing until he finally got it right (and backed away from the young love, rock and roll ending of either of those movies).
It’s also the most woefully dated film on this list, managing to feel a decade older than Pulp Fiction, which came out in the same year. It works for the film, though, grounding the story of Elvis-loving, killers on the run in a sort of timelessness that that story really needs to succeed. And that’s all on Scott, I feel, since Tarantino shoves a bunch of his pop culture references in to try to pull it into ‘real life’. Most obviously, the movie opens with a Sonny Chiba film marathon, a reminder that the obsessions that would fuel Kill Bill were already an indelible part of his work even at this early date. But even smaller things, the pacing and the way characters drift happily into monologue, the random cameo of Brad Pitt as a stoner on a couch the entire movie, all reek of the sort of messy film making that informed Pulp Fiction.
In fact, the movie feels like a happier version of that, a story that’s part Hollywood artifice, part Hollywood showbusiness, and a bunch of old school crime story laid over the top. With 90s cops and timelessly old-school Italian mobsters and Christian Slater doing his best to emulate Elvis and a sort of rockabilly devil-may-care attitude. It works well, and stands up, even as I watched it for the first time for this project. I’m actually not a huge fan of Tony Scott’s output from this era, but with a good script backing him up, the movie is all business and manages to feel both classic and exciting in its fusion of influences, the thing that has always been Tarantino’s bread and butter.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
I kind of hate Natural Born Killers, and I’m not alone. Tarantino’s gone out of his way to distance himself from the movie ever since it was release, claiming ad nauseum that Oliver Stone took his script and turned it into something that barely resembled what he originally intended. And you can kind of see that: the nightmare of MTV montage and channel surfing mentality is absolutely against everything Tarantino stands for in his curated cultural aesthetic. Knowing everything is one thing, but one has to pick and choose what best suits being remixed in any particular story is a trait I feel Tarantino tries hard to cultivate.
That said, his attempt to cut himself off entirely from it doesn’t really make that much sense, given that it immediately brings to mind both True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn in that it embraces that outlaw romance ideal and runs with it and subverts it with a heavy dose of Hollywood thrown on top of it. Self awareness is inherently a Tarantino trait, as characters riff on pulp culture tropes in and out of his scenes, and nobody is more culturally cognizant than Mickey and Mallory, even if their ADD version of cinematic and television nerdery is more breakneck exhaustion than cross-discipline elegance. These aren’t Tarantino characters, but you see where they could have been if they came from better homes or took some of the right drugs.
The problem, then, is Oliver Stone. Big shock, I know, but Stone’s style just murders Tarantino’s dialog and pacing by turning the film into a nightmare of slapdash ideas bolted one on another until the whole thing just becomes a mess. People have puked neater narrative structures, and that’s exactly what one wants to do after watching two hours of swimming handheld camera shots and dutch angles that careen from shot to shot like the whole film is on a very troubled boat. And it’s so senseless, and so immediately dated, a way to embrace the sort of pan-media chaos of a generation that was immediately made more or less obsolete by the internet. I don’t need commercial and music video aesthetics permeating my movies, because those seem like hilariously dead forms even less than two decades out. Of all of the movies Tarantino has been attached to, this is the one that feels oldest, and cheapest, and least relevant no matter what it’s actually trying to say. And there’s nobody to blame but the man at the helm, who does this with half his movies anyway.
Four Rooms (1995)
Four Rooms is an anthology of vaguely interconnected short films by a quartet of directors, all concerning the goings on of a suffering bellboy (Tim Roth) and an array of increasingly strange patrons during one harried night. The movie is uneven, as all anthologies tend to be, but the final piece of the movie is undoubtedly the best. Shock of all shocks, it’s Tarantino’s contribution, and manages to define itself even as a stand-alone brilliant piece of cinema.
Tarantino’s piece, titled “The Man From Hollywood,” concerns a famous director named Chester Rush (Tarantino), who calls up Roth’s bellboy to bring him an array of strange items, which include some random trinkets, an array of weird food, and a hatchet “as sharp as the Devil himself.” Roth brings these up to find a small party already in progress, four people drifting through the large penthouse suite, obviously drunk and obvious drifting in that nebulous space between having a great time and doing really dumb things. Roth is instructed to hand everyone their food as Tarantino spins a story about bets and fate.
The idea is simple: Norman (Paul Calderón) is betting Chester that he can light his Zippo ten times in a row without fail. If he wins, he’ll get Chester’s car. If he loses, he is going to get his pinky chopped off. Chester brushes it off as not a big thing, since they’ll just put it in the bucket of ice he asked the bellboy to bring up and they’ll rush to the hospital to get it reattached. The job, then, is to be the hatchet man, to swing the blade if he fails to light, since he’d be a disinterested third party and he’s also the only one who isn’t drunk. The other two, a woman from an earlier sequence and Bruce Willis in an uncredited cameo as a haggard business type, encourage him. Roth, knowing that this is a bad idea, gets up to leave.
This is when Chester breaks out a fat stack of cash, and starts laying them down on the bar if only Roth will come back and hear his pitch to help out. It’s Tarantino in full monologue mode, chewing off a speech in the way only someone who wrote and lived in that voice can. It’s a fast-talking con, but it’s a good con, and you can watch as he lays more and more $100 bills in the if-you-say-yes pile Roth get worn down more and more. It’s not just the money, either. It’s Tarantino’s speech, the kind of powerful rhetoric that can not only change someone’s mind but convince them that it was their idea in the first place. It’s like watching Inception happen, but in 3 minutes and without any drama. It’s enchanting, and a perfect moment, that explodes with him finally agreeing and the ridiculous, sudden end to the sequence.
Because I could never do it justice, here it is in all its glory: http://www.myspace.com/video/vid/709107 Yeah, I know, myspace. But it was hard enough to track down a clip of this, can’t be choosy about where it’s from.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
I actually fully intend to do a Robert Rodriguez project (next year, maybe?) and want to cover this film at length there, so I’m going to be short here. From Dusk Till Dawn is a movie that I consider a childhood classic, something tween me was very into. It was interesting, funny, sexy, gory, and dangerous. And revisiting it countless times over the years, I’m struck by just how dangerous the movie still feels. Tarantino just let this script rip, not caring about what could or couldn’t be done, and the result is just this side of sticking your finger in a socket.
It’s all in that two-genre conceit, a clear sign that he was already interested in mashing up the incompatible (all of his modern movies exhibit this two-genre approach) in taking a relatively straight crime getaway movie and throwing those characters into a schlocky, effects-heavy monster killing movie. And it does it so well, not blinking from the seriousness of the first half until the moment comes to dive into the next thing. George Clooney, fresh from his stint as a heartthrob in E.R., plays the most aggressively mean character he’s ever played, a criminal who kills without compunction and deals with his rapist asshole brother (Tarantino, in what is still probably his most notable acting role) with the begrudging acceptance of someone who has cleaned up plenty of dead, mutilated women after his brother is done with them and is mostly just annoyed at how much work is involved. They’re mean guys, in a movie that’s harsh and gritty even beyond Tarantino’s actual work. It makes Reservoir Dogs look safe, and Pulp Fiction look like a broad comedy, by sheer comparison to the brutality. They savage innocents and children casually, rolling all the way into the second half of the movie. And even at the end, it never lets up the criminal origins, a MacGuffin Mexican oasis Clooney’s character is trying to get to named after a similar dead-end crime harbor from the Jim Thompson novel The Getaway.
But when the vampire second half hits, it dives straight into cornball territory, with great monsters and hilarious send outs to horror geeks, from Tom Savini’s crazy Sex Machine character with his gun-codpiece to the world’s most inappropriate ‘Nam flashback. And it’s full of the kinds of kitschy, post-modern horror movie self-awareness that really didn’t hit again until Edgar Wright made Shaun of the Dead, with everyone making strange makeshift weapons like a jackhammer stake-machine or holy water balloons out of condoms. That kind of movie still is rarely done well, but it didn’t even exist in the mid-90s, when these two friends got together and made the kind of movie that only movie nerds would make, entrenched deep in pop culture and self-reference, but never sacrificing the energy of its story or the greatness of its cast to do so.
And that cast requires special mention. This is Clooney’s movie, to be sure, but it rests upon the great performances specifically by a graciously against-type Harvey Keitel, who allows Clooney to push him around the entire movie, and a very awesome Juliette Lewis, an actress who I’ve never been a huge fan of but who manages to take a character who starts out thanklessly victimized and turn her into a legitimate badass in the course of the movie. At the end, when she offers to go along with El Ray, there’s a real sense that she would happily follow Clooney into criminal hell, forsaking all morality to do so, with nothing left but this vaguely threatening man with whom she underwent this trauma with as the only kindred spirit in the world. There’s a stunning sadness, surprising given the cartoon that came before, that really sets the ending as noteworthy not in how much is included, but how much is implied and almost comes to pass.
I think it’s telling that they’ve made multiple sequels (without Tarantino or Rodriguez) to this movie, but even in my worst cinematic masochism I’ve never sought them out. The original is too perfect, and too complete, to mess up with a bunch of more genre-typical trashed.