The Tarantino Conundrum

Throughout the history of cinema, an ancient and relatively ignored phenomenon has existed, and occasionally flourished, right under the noses of innocent movie-goers. It facilitates the production of truly terrible films (not such an extraordinary occurrence in Hollywood, admittedly), yet incredibly, its jurisdiction is not restricted by space or time. Instead, this cinematic, syphilitic Time Lord is able to visit previous masterpieces and irrecoverably damage them beyond all recognition, rendering them forever unwatchable. And most curious of all, it is a phenomenon which appears to stem from an unwittingly suicidal impulse in filmmakers. It is, for want of a better term, directorial retroactive sabotage.

Put more simply, it is the act of a director making such a bad film, such an atrocious, insulting, awful, diarrhetic plop of a movie, that all his or her previous films, regardless of their quality, are immediately tarred by the same brown brush. They become terrible merely by association. This is, thankfully, a relatively rare occurrence, but can be observed nonetheless, so long as the director’s style is consistent. If certain techniques that were employed so successfully in one film are then used to unintentionally terrible effect in another, the quality of the former unfairly takes a hit. It is perhaps most noticeable, and certainly most notorious, in the case of George Lucas. The original Star Wars trilogy became the Bible for certain lonely, fat boys (and some girls), and for thirty years, it remained, for them, an infallible and utterly perfect gospel by which to live their lives. They would wear a dressing gown around the house with the hood up, in slovenly imitation of a Jedi, they would make lightsaber noises whenever wielding anything long and thin (‘ooh, matron’, etc.) and they would practice for hours in front of the mirror, trying in vain to perfect the self-assured cockiness of Han Solo. But then, after three decades of happy obsession (and a good deal of crippling loneliness), George Lucas waddled back onto the scene to announce three new films, all written and directed exclusively by him.

The subsequent disappointment is well known and documented extensively, including the memorable over-reaction of one fan who, upon exiting a screening of Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, cried out to the waiting journalists, ‘George Lucas has raped my childhood!’ You’d think the title’s multiple colons would have offered him a clue beforehand as to where the artistic inspiration for the film originated from. For those who had worshipped the original trilogy, it was as if God had cashed in on the record-breaking success of his first book and written The Bible 2: Jehovah’s Revenge, in which Jesus comes back to Earth as a ninja to snap the necks of all the unbelievers, whilst having his magic powers explained away by midichlorians. Leaving aside the fact that a ninja Jesus would be awesome, the fact remains that for millions of people, the gospel of their youth had been torn to shreds.

Although it’s painful, we must stay on George Lucas a few moments longer (after which we shall rapidly dismount him), for he is also one of the few directors in history to go back and substantially tamper with his previous films. Ignoring the nasal, asthmatic protests from his fans, Lucas physically and knowingly engaged in retroactive sabotage. Not only this, but his big sweaty hands were also not restricted to just one franchise. Working together, he and Spielberg dual-handedly pulled the good name of Indiana Jones through the mud with the thunderously stupid Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The title once again reflects the film’s quality, over-long, over the top and thoroughly unmemorable as it is. Fortunately for us, the previous films have just enough charm and resilience to survive this ordeal, while the sheer awfulness of the fourth film serves as a reminder of just how good the previous instalments were.

Unfortunately, retroactive sabotage is not restricted to films of one franchise. If the director’s style is distinct enough, his entire back-catalogue can be ruined. The most glaring example of this would be Quentin Tarantino, who, after two masterpieces (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) and one underrated gem (Jackie Brown), came dangerously close to volunteering this violent, sweary and magnificent triumvirate to the unforgiving retroactive treatment with Kill Bill. By upping the violence, foul language and stylistic ticks while accompanying it with an infantile and shallow script, Tarantino was placing his earlier work in grave danger. Fortunately, his three best films pretty much survived this treatment, just as they had survived the flood of imitation Tarantino films that infected cinema in the late nineties, with their non-linear narratives, pop culture dialogue and a bit of the old ultra-violence combining to no real effect. Yet Quentin is nothing if not persistent, and so, three years later, he triumphantly unveiled his coup de grâce: Death Proof. Appropriately enough, it involved several enormous car crashes. In one fell swoop, Tarantino rendered utterly impotent everything that had made his first three films so stylish and impressive, and his failure offered yet another example of this tragic cinematic phenomenon.

For would be filmmakers, there is one of two possible lessons to be learnt here. You must either avoid a noticeable style that pervades all your films, thus neatly avoiding the possibility of accidentally ruining your earlier work – as exemplified by Danny Boyle, Rob Reiner, Alfonso Cuarón and many others – or, if you insist upon maintaining a distinctive style, you must also maintain a high quality for all of your films. Very few manage the latter option, though some have succeeded, including Guillermo del Toro, Pedro Almodóvar and Christopher Nolan. Yet even if a filmmaker ignores these options and does commit retroactive sabotage, that is not necessarily the end of the story. Quentin Tarantino may have shot himself in the foot (and other more painful places) with Death Proof, but, against all odds, he managed a magnificent return to form with Inglourious Basterds, bringing his first few masterpieces back to their original quality. It is perhaps the first example of a new and encouraging phenomenon: retroactive redemption. One can only hope it catches on.

[Originally published by Cherwell Online, 02/08/2010: http://www.cherwell.org/content/10595]

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