Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Does the Pope Shit in the Woods?

"Is Quentin Tarantino a Great Director?" Salon asks. The piece that bears that title is a reposting of an article entitled, "Oscar Duel: Has Quentin Tarantino Produced a Legacy of Greatness?" The question wrestled with in the exchange is slightly different, and is the one to which my title responds: is Tarantino an auteur? I've always understood the word to mean a director with an identifiable style with any film he makes. To ask such a question of a director so ubiquitous that Slate included him in what-if features about Watchmen and the Super Bowl is simply ridiculous.

Anne Thomson and Jack Matthews' idea of auteurship, however, includes a message conveyed in the artist's work, based off Tarantino's self-declared auteurship whose "vision" Inglourious Basterds now clarifies. Thus the debate. It's been obvious since the beginning that anyone looking for a moral lesson in Tarantino's films would be destined for disappointment. The only constant thematic through-line in his work, besides women's feet being the sexiest part of their body, is how absolutelygoddammawesome movies are. The reason Basterds solidifies this, as he claims, is because the entire damn movie hinges on the power of cinema. Those who hated it because of its violence or makes the Jews as bad as the Nazis (which is an undercurrent in nearly all revenge literature--the problem of becoming evil in order to repay it--and which the movie's climax addresses so slyly that you don't even notice until you think about it afterward) are wasting their time: why criticize it for what it was never trying to be in the first place?

Matthews thinks there needs to be more to Tarantino's output than mere entertainment for him to have longstanding auteur status, but he's ignoring an important precedent: Hitchcock. Do we go to Psycho for what it tells us about the human condition? Rear Window? What political insights does North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much bring us? Hitchcock was of a rare breed whose tremendous ability to tell a story and manipulate an audience--'twas not for nothing he was known as the Master of Suspense--was enough to build a legacy on. And, tellingly, Basterds draws from the Hitchcockian tension well quite often.

Does this then signal a new (actual) direction for Tarantino, away from "Isn't this cool?" detachment towards drama and emotional investment in a character's predicament? Maybe, hopefully, but probably not. Jackie Brown already proved he could lower the volume on the pastiche in order to let the characters speak for themselves, which is to say it was just another part of Tarantino doing whatever the hell he wants because he can. Boy can he, and even if his future films won't all rope us in as effectively as Basterds' opening battle of wits between Hans Landa and the French dairy farmer, I'll be glad to revel in his pure cinema anyway. There's nothing else like it, and that's the real standard for an auteur.

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