As an opinionated blow-hard, I sometimes find I’m spoiling for a fight. Not actual fisticuffs – just taking someone down a peg or two.Those sacred cows have had it too good for too long, I think, placidly chewing the cud in their respective fields. These aren’t actual bovines, or course, but rather those critically acclaimed figures who rule the roost in the arts.
Who better to start on then than a self-confessed – and proud of it – video clerk who parlayed his hobby and OCD’d his love of B movies, Bruce (first Campbell then Lee) and belligerent bad-asses into a new profession and thus laid it on a grateful
‘Is it white boy day today?’ was the line from True Romance and, yes, it was.
He arrived openly showing clay feet – his acting and Four Rooms the first signs that he was not the Messiah – then later prescribed the double sleeping pill dose that is Kill Bill. Still he was, right place, right time, Quentin Tarantino.
Not Clarence, not Jules, nor Jackie. Especially not Alabama. It was the writer-cum-director-cum-actor’s time in the spotlight.
Tarantino the man giveth but he also tooketh (to channel the “though I walk through the valley” speech by Samuel E. Jackson). He was blessed with a keen ear for dialogue which fed his ability to write idiosyncratic dialogue; he had a loving appreciation for ‘movies’ as opposed to ‘films’. Fuck ‘cinema’ and its reverent, unopposed adoration of Bergman, Ray and the rest, he effectively outlined.
This was effective and exciting – as unexpectedly left-field as when Jeremy Corbyn went from simply spotting specks of spelt in his beard to rocking the ‘C&A anorak’ look at London’s Cenotaph. In other words: fuck Heston and Douglas, get a load of Sonny Chiba!
Such an embrace of ‘low’ culture within cinema came over as a fresh commodity, particularly when familiar but forgotten faces like Travolta‘s appeared and the sound of old earworms from the likes of Stealers Wheel were heard. Tarantino’s on-screen love of Americana, be it food, music or the legacies of slavery, was nothing new however.
It was only due to his relentless upholding of the anti-hero, his own love of schlock and low-rent miasma that his films thrilled and dazzled upon release.
Topping all of this, a streak of cruel violence ran wild. Brutal censor-baiting ass-whuppery was looped Zapruder-style, slow and quick endless shots of gunshots rolled up into one.
There was an almost NRA-like love of guns that was an ’18’ to Stallone and Schwarzenegger‘s ’12’. Sure, there was equally an undeniable gratification in being judged an adult audience who could handle gore and cartoon-ish slaughter.
But seeing Chris Penn and Michael Madsen huff and puff in the name of grandeur and gravitas, elevated as they were to leading men status, was akin to praising Oasis in their ‘hooligan-meets-Hollies’ prime whilst pretending The Beatles had never existed.
Yet if one tired of the unloading and squirting of catering bottles of ketchup, there was sometimes some low-key ordinary beauty to the dialogue amidst the lauded ‘Royale’ and ‘Zed’s dead’ lines.
“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special, you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably share silence” (Mia Wallace, Pulp Fiction).
His films became a gallery for star spotting, but it’s undeniable that Tarantino gave us glimpses of rarely hitherto-seen jewels: the always welcome mischievous danger of James Remar snuck into Django Unchained, for example.
Jackie Brown allowed the stoic dignity of Robert Forster; managed to drag on-screen a sometimes quiet and retiring De Niro as a (mostly) quiet and retiring Louis; and gave Pam Grier some overdue screen-time at the end of a 20th century which had only previously given her roles based on T&A criteria.
For a writer and director who made clear his love and admiration for blaxpoitation flicks though, Jamie Foxx as Django the slave still relied on the bounty hunter King Schultz to un-chain him, be the mentor he never knew he needed. Motherfucker even had to get dressed up in order to be allowed to kill.
Leo DiCaprio was (wisely) cast in that film as the bumptious Mandingo-owning Southern gentleman of Django and, usually, it’s the shining white prince or occasionally princess who wins out in QT’s films.
In True Romance the stooge-like non-entity that is Clarence stays in the bathroom during the film’s climax, guided by an imagined Elvis, and ultimately survives a bloodbath which claims most others. Shouldn’t all horny video clerks get another crack at a push-up bra on a compliant blonde?
Shooting fish in a barrel never allowed anyone entry to the Olympics. That said, much of Tarantino’s characterisation lacks depth, especially the African-American and female roles.
The ceaseless top-lining of white male actors seems unnecessary and old hat nowadays in this Moonlight, Black Panther, Fruitvale Station (post-Harvey Weinstein?) era of film.
The upcoming Widows, directed by Steve McQueen, arrives just in time to hopefully show us how gays and gal dem – with the obligatory gats – are a possible future for film and not simply a nod to #MeToo and #blacklivesmatter.
Even the lamentable Muppetry mishap that is Melissa McCarthy’s The Happytime Murders is a step forward regarding the ousting of all white male line-ups. Of sorts (after all, it’s little different to Tarantino Wigger-ing himself, spitting out the N-word).
A word of caution though. Having been Oscar’d for his Get Out, Jordan Peele appears in Abruptio next year. The early signs aren’t good though if you want to enjoy the actor-director’s comedy chops as his name doesn’t even make the billing on the poster.
But Sid Haig does. Who? The grisly and grizzled Caucasian bit-part actor who graduated from Roger Corman‘s movie ‘school’ to make his name in 1967’s cult schlock Spider Baby, blaxpoitation stand-outs Coffy, Foxy Brown… and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Be careful then if you go looking for sacred cows; there’s far more of ’em than you realised and they ain’t going anywhere.
© Pat Mellow 2018