Favourite Films on Friday: #11, Pulp Fiction

Inevitably, approaching the very heights of a list like this, as we now are, something changes. There’s a move from films you love for one or two reasons, that you’ve seen two or three times to two-hour chunks of pure cinema you’ve seen enough times, talked about and fawned over enough that, over time, they’ve become woven directly into your personality. The relationship is just different: from now on, this list becomes pretty much The Films That Made Me. I’ll try not to get too indulgent, try and keep the pesky author out of it as much as possible, but you’re just going to have to allow me this one. Watching Pulp Fiction now feels like nothing more snuggling into an old favourite pair of pyjamas. Baggy in places, sure, maybe with holes you’ve picked over the years, but familiar, and comfortable. There was much laughing at jokes the moment before they happened and – in the case of Urge Overkill’s Girl You’ll Be A Woman soon – singing along. For all the violence, drugs and naughty naughty swears, it was an experience best described as ‘nice’. So while it played: I reminisced about the first time I watched it – in the living room on a Friday night, while the parents were out – and doodling sharp-suited assassins in GCSE art. I spot moves I stole for awkward school discos before I could dance. Occasionally, I rolled over and watched the colours twinkle on the laminated poster of Jules & Vincent I bought on a school trip to France. I mentally placed tracks on the soundtrack (which I bought on the same trip, and which pretends to follow the film’s chronology but doesn’t, really) and finally worked out why Strawberry Letter 23 is on there, except for the fact that it’s one of the best songs ever… It was an intensely personal experience, is what I’m saying. I’m indulging myself a little, but that’s what it felt like: the pyjamas I was wearing as I watched it, or the hot chocolate I’m sipping as I write this. Warm, fuzzy nostalgia of the kind I don’t often have for my actual real-life memories of school. Not that I had a bad childhood or anything, don’t worry your pretty little self, but rather that I’m one of those people for whom memories don’t come too easily. Retrieving them most often means a sharp wince of embarassment, or else fuzzy, like someone smeared Vaseline on the lens. As you’re reading this, it’s quite likely that you too define yourself by the culture you consume, at least occasionally. It’s not an attempt to look more intelligent or interesting or, God forbid, cool (I certainly wouldn’t be writing these if that was my aim). I’m not even sure it was something I chose. I just know that, on holiday in the small Spanish town I went to every summer for nearly a decade, when my mom points out a place and says ‘remember when…?’ I struggle, but that if I stand in one place for long enough I can give a rough idea of what page of which Discworld book I was on. Which, if Pulp Fiction doesn’t play the same role in your life, doesn’t tell you much about the film – the casual non-linearity, the structure of interlocking short stories, the interplay of dialogue and soundtrack, actor after big name actor turning in some of their finest work and Quentin Tarantino doing a particularly poor imitation of Quentin Tarantino, etc. I’m sorry about that, but it’s all widely available online or by talking to anyone who has ever heard of Pulp Fiction. All you really need to know is that for all my nostalgia, I was actually surprised by how vital it still felt. The thing is, though, I’m pretty sure something does play that role in your life. Or a few things, most likely. It’s a response I’m fascinated by, the way we can build identity out of pop-cultural detritus, that has fed directly back into the type of culture I enjoy. Like Pulp Fiction, for example. Like most of Tarantino’s work, it’s a just-about-digested mix of all the films that fascinate him. It’s telling that one of the main criticisms levelled at his work is that it’s self-indulgent. Which is a criticism I’d lay firmly at the feet of this entry, too. But to that I say: so what? And hope someone’s still reading.

Favourite Films on Friday: #13, Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown: the third Tarantino film of five, the one people tend to forget. Naturally, it’s one I love dearly. How is it different from all the rest? Well, it marks the moment before Tarantino dived into the self-referential genre stuff, and is a bit slower and smoother than the rest of his work, and I think it’s generally considered his most mature work. But I don’t want to talk about that stuff. Just watch it, it’s great, and if you like Tarantino you’re really missing out, okay? I want to talk about music. That means, I realise, talking about one of the things that doesn’t differentiate it from Tarantino’s 0ther work: after all, he’s always been handy with a soundtrack. It’s easy to rattle off a list: Little Green Bag, Misirlou, Battle Without Honour or Humanity, Cat People… But this is a whole other level. Because it’s never just been about the music. It’s about how Tarantinos entwines them with the film, to make something bigger. I could talk about the opening, where we track, following Jackie as she walks through an airport to the sound of Across 110th Street, and how it tells us pretty much everything we need to know about the character or how it should be one of the most iconic scenes in recent cinema. We could reminisce about Strawberry Letter 23, how its opening is one of the most magical minutes in all of music, and how beautifully it complements a scene of Samuel L. Jackson preparing to stone-cold murder one of his friends. How the gliding vocals as he pulls those gloves on develops that Stuck in the Middle/torture juxtaposition into something far more subtle and sinister. I could go on like that all day. I really could. But I want to tell you my latest theory. We’ve already considered Kill Bill’s novelistic chapters, but I think Jackie Brown is the perfect illustration of how musical Tarantino’s work is. Obviously the use of songs, yes, but: the way the greater plot so often gets sidelined in favour of dipping and peaking tension. The rhythm of dialogue. The non-linear style that returns to certain moments, chorus-like. The focus on Moments. There’s a way of looking at music that’s well expressed in the work of Tom Ewing, and one I tend towards when thinking/talking/writing about music, that puts the focus on these individual Moments. You know: the thrilling peaks in the middle of those repeating structures, that demand your attention every time a song plays. It might introduce a new idea, or put the emphasis on one instrument, or maybe a production trick that tweaks the way everything sounds. In Tarantino, this manifests as those quotable moments of dialogue (“Our ass used to be beautiful”, the AK-47 speech, 90% of the things Sam Jackson says in this film) and little stylistic quirks (the ubiquitous ‘trunk’ shoot from inside a car’s boot, the use of white text on black titlecards). There are valleys – and Jackie Brown is a long film, so be prepared for a whole lot of valley – that provide the rhythm, and then layered on top of that, and on top of the push and pull of these characters and the constant threat of them killing each other, are these beautiful moments of style. People criticise Tarantino for being style over substance. I say, style is the substance. Have you never listened to a pop song?

Favourite Films on Friday: #20, Reservoir Dogs

I don’t like crime films. Seriously, I can’t even make it past the first 30 minutes of The Godfather. Scarface, Goodfellas, The Departed? Fuhgeddaboudit. Any film which features tough gangstery guys doing tough gangstery things and saying tough gangstery stuff, I’m just not interested. Reservoir Dogs is, of course, a crime film. So, as the only representative of that particular genre on this list (considering it separate to the detective side of it which, as we all know, I love deeply), let’s ask: Why? I think it’s list-within-a-list-time. A) It’s how you tell ’em After all, looking at it Reservoir Dogs has a pretty grim plotline (spoilers follow, obviously). A gang of (tough, gangstery) guys are brought together for a heist. It goes violently wrong, leading to the deaths of a number of them, a much higher number of policemen and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. The remainder of the film plays out as one of them coughs out, in bloody chunks, his last few hours. The survivors argue over who ratted them out to the police, point guns at one another, torture (famously) a policeman, and eventually all get shot by each other. Even with the playful Tarantino dialogue, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to play it grim ‘n’ gritty. There’s a lot of shooting, blood, and hacked-off ears. But Reservoir Dogs is a film that understands that sustaining threat and keeping an emotional centre doesn’t mean staying stony-faced for two hours. It’s a genre piece, a knockabout caper not afraid to crack a smile; what Graham Greene would class as an ‘Entertainment’. A long section of the film is given over to telling a long, jokey anecdote; another (again, famously) to a discussion of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and the etiquette of tipping, rather than lingering on the ever-growing despair and pile of corpses. B) It’s not really about crime Mostly, Reservoir Dogs is a story about relationships: Mr White and Mr Orange, Mr Blonde and the Cabot family. We’re introduced to all the major players in the diner scene, leading into the title sequence. From there, the film immediately jumps to a painfully intimate scene between Orange and White. Orange is bleeding out in the back of a car, whimpering and inevitably going to die, and White is trying to comfort him. It closes on an even more painful mirror of the scene, with Orange now in White’s lap, both covered in their own blood. The whole central action of the film is driven by the push-and-pull between the two cliques. Yes, cliques. You could strip out all the genre tropes of Reservoir Dogs and play it is as something not far removed from Mean Girls. And Mr White is Lindsay Lohan, torn between two social groups – an old friendship with Joe Cabot, the crime boss planning the heist, and a paternal/ever-so-slightly-homoerotic relationship with the young Mr Orange. It’s this divide that brings the film to its bloody conclusion: just like any teen drama, then. C) It’s not a conventional crime film Much has been made, over the years, of how similar Reservoir Dogs is to a play. It has a small ensemble of well-developed characters, mostly takes place in one location, and is mostly made up of dialogue with no big action scenes. That’s just another way of approaching the point that – for all Tarantino’s knowledge and love of big crime films – it isn’t like them, somehow. They’d suggest Mamet, I’d argue Fey; the point is, it’s different. D) It’s just so beautifully dressed Reservoir Dogs has something in its favour which even the stately elegance of Coppola’s Godfather lacks: style. The first film both written and directed by Tarantino, it is stamped with his trademark cool, in everything from the dialogue – “You kill anybody?”/”A few cops”/”No real people?”/”Just cops” – to the cinematography – which manages to be both fluid in motion and pause-any-frame iconic – and the soundtrack – everyone remembers the Stuck in the Middle with You ear-cutting, but all the music, accompanied by Steven Wright’s low radio DJ drawl, works perfectly. Given you can dig on Tarantino’s particular groove, it’s beautiful stuff. E) It’s well-structured Because the film is non-linear, scenes are able to rub against one another in interesting ways, cutting from friendly banter to extreme violence. It lends an extra edge to both types of scene, something that has increasingly become the core of Tarantino’s work. And the central ‘who’s the rat’ conceit, which is played lightly enough that the mystery can be shattered early on, is a good hook to work the relationships around. It ties together the detective narrative of the kind of crime films I do like with the claustrophobic mistrust of something like The Thing. Perfect. F) All of the above

Favourite Films on Friday: #25, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2)

When we’ve talked about the various Pixar films on this list – and there will be plenty when all’s said and done – I’ve admitted that it’s hard not to think about them in terms of the larger framework of that studio’s output. A similar rule applies to my enjoyment of the work of Mssr. Quentin Tarantino, another figure who will be proliferating this list. Kill Bill marks a kind of watershed moment in Tarantino’s work. This is how I see it, anyway. It drew a line, between the types of films he made then and now. Moving from crime, and into other genres that leant more towards action, wearing all his cinematic influence on those baggy sleeves, while adopting a novelistic structure and odd moments of unexplained experimentation. The QT House Style of the 21st Century, I guess. Two films later, with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s biggest hallmark was revealed for all the world to see. Not the bloodshed, not the pop-culture chatter that everyone had been doing in their impressions. It was simply long, building scenes of tension where violence simmers just under the surface, and is suddenly released. With, okay, maybe a little bit of blood, a smidgen of chatter. Looking back, almost every Tarantino film is a collection of these build-and-release scenes, of varying lengths. So, it’s odd that in Kill Bill you pretty much know exactly who will be standing in the end: our singular heroine will survive. It’s just that kind of film. And Bill? Well, it seems unlikely he’s going to make it, somehow. So how do you build that thick, syrupy tension? Kill Bill’s answer finds its answer somewhere in that novelistic structure we talked about earlier (oh yes, the gun was very firmly above the fireplace). Kill Bill isn’t just in volumes: it’s in chapters. When the films were on the BBC recently, my lovely girlfriend – who has never seen the films before – and I only caught the middle three chapters of Vol. 2. To my surprise, each worked perfectly and satisfyingly as a self-contained story, and the three put together felt like a full, satisfying film. The chapters phrase The Bride’s various capers in small, contained bursts that manage to feel dangerous, or else take the opportunity to dance across the other strains of the film’s mutant DNA. They build up individual characters – the supporting cast of Kill Bill’s insane world – with conflicts, threats and finally resolution (mostly, bloody resolution). It’s probably telling that Tarantino leans so much towards large ensembley casts. Nevertheless, however it’s managed, and however you or I choose to intellectualise it, Kill Bill manages that rarest thing for a modern action film, looking back over its long lineage of jumps, thrills and stunts: it feels breathtakingly risky. Not always, and not always because of the danger to our heroine, but it’ll get to you at least once in that four hour running time. ….Phew. I got through that without a single mention of the word ‘iconic’. Not even the merest whiff, talking about the most riffed-on film of the last ten years, as the sword-reflected eyes of the Bruce-Lee-dressed Bride stare over me from a tattered poster in my bedroom back home and I’m starting to faintly hum the 5678s… Not a single mention. I must be getting better. Right?

Favourite Films on Friday: #31, From Dusk Till Dawn

So we all know how a Tarantino film goes, right? It’s something like this. A couple of tough guys commit some crimes, and they’re bad dudes – like, real bad motor-scooters – but you start to love them anyway, because they’re talking about all this stuff you know. And it opens exactly like that. A long, drawn-out conversation between a guy behind a till and a cop, full of mundane stuff and stylised swearing, while the Gecko brothers there – the guys farming this film’s melons – provide the underlying tension. They’re in the back, and they’ve got guns, and hostages, okay? So even when the tension inevitably releases itself, and the cop gets a bullet through the back of his Stetson, it remains comfortable territory. This is what you put down your pounds, dollar, yen, or currency of choice down for, right? Except that From Dusk Till Dawn isn’t just a Tarantino film. A trademark bare foot marks, with its delicately wiggling toes, exactly where that territory ends… (Anyone who has never watched the film, and intends to, stop reading. Now. Buy, rent, download. We’ll still be here when you get back.) … Because this is a Rodriguez joint too. He’s the director, after all. And, nearly an hour and over halfway into the film, Dusk Till Dawn totally flips genres about with a single nudity-filled, mariachi-soundtracked scene. The mariachi band start playing on guitars made of human meat, and the topless girls turn into grotesque vampires. Cue over-the-top violence, b-movie make-up monsters, and Tom Savini with a cannon for a penis. The surprise makes the change-over deeply, darkly hilarious. It’s the perfect punchline to a long shaggy dog story of a joke, and from here on the film is armed with shotgun/baseball bat crucifixes, condoms full of holy water and cheesy one-liners. Pleasant is a strange word to use, but it’s one of the most pleasant shocks in cinema, and one that, in a perfect world, I’d preserve for future generations. I’ve spent many an hour with my lovely girlfriend arguing the merits of my refusal to ever read those blurbs on the back of books that tell you roughly what the story’s going to be. Dusk Till Dawn is the perfect example for my side. The effect of both halves would be negated if you knew what was coming. Because you don’t (hopefully, and if you’ve read this without watching, you’ve only got yourself to blame), the second half of Dusk Till Dawn turns – ta-da! – into something all its own, equal parts black comedy and survival horror. There’s a line to be drawn between it and Tarantino/Rodriquez’s other cinematic collaboration, Grindhouse, also a film of two parts: one distinctively QT, another more on RR’s turf. But this feels more organic, and does it in one single film. In a much shorter timeframe, using the same characters, you get two equally pleasing, entirely distinct films. To steal one of the ideas those two threw around during the promotion of Grindhouse: From Dusk Till Dawn is incredible value for money. Two flicks in one, okay?

(In?)Glourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s developed a different reputation, it seems, in the wake of Kill Bill and Grindhouse. He’s started to become entangled with the traits he played with there: breaking-the-rules, ironic ridiculousness, over-the-top-till-its-funny violence and homage to so-bad-they’re-good b-movies. And so when he does something in Inglourious Basterds, I almost feel a traitor for thinking about it seriously. Which leads me straight into the film’s biggest problem: Michael Myers. Funny when spotted in the credits, his Austin-Powers performance is so out-of-sync with the rest of the film it’s…well, it’s not funny. But because of the type of filmmaker QT’s become, raising these concerns with my friends was invalidated- just another joke. And it is a funny film, but at its best you’re laughing with (or, perhaps, at) the characters, not at the film. It feels like Tarantino’s trying to make a point in Inglourious, in a way I haven’t seen since that original statement: film characters have mundane lives too, y’know. And this is where I think Inglourious‘ negative reception comes from- that infamous one-star Guardian review, for example. Its hard not to give too much away, and I applaud the advertising campaign which has completely misserved the tone of the film (it comes off as a Brad Pitt action romp, which it really isn’t.) But if you’re going to see, I wouldn’t read on (I mean, I’d bookmark it and come back after and shower me with praise for my insight whilst linking all my friends, but that’s just me. Just a suggestion.) I think Inglourious is an attempt at taking apart the last films Tarantino’s made- Kill Bill and Death Proof. It precisely isn’t those films- there’s probably less action in this one than Reservoir Dogs– though it takes something from them. That last moment in Kill Bill Vol. 2, where Bea’s both crying and laughing and its the only time in the entire film anyone seems to make to anything to think, is all this revenge actually a good idea? The film is clearly pointed- the first two scenes serve as a perfect mirror- just as Col. Landa (wonderfully played, in the one thing everyone seems to agree on, by Christoph Waltz) hunts the Jews, and makes an extended, charismatic but horrifying argument for it, Lt Raine (Brad Pitt, I’m not sure if he’s another pure exertion of Pitt’s charisma or a one-dimensional cut-out) hunts the Nazis. But Raine doesn’t really seem to have a reason- because the genre demands it! Because they’re Nazis and they’re bad! Meanwhile, they offer the same choice to their captive audience- a French farm-owner and a Nazi sergeant- sell out your friends to your own benefit (i.e., survival) or don’t, and die. The Frenchman accepts, while the Nazi- boo! hiss!- stays loyal. And is very much killed. Woo! Yay! It seems like, by presenting us with cinema’s (and history’s) easiest baddie (excluding, of course, the loathsome CommieNazi), Tarantino is actually looking at how easily violence came in Kill Bill’s three-figure death count and how good he is at it- the stand-out scene in Death Proof is the wonderously misogyno-death scene of its (up till then) four main characters, played out in repeating, protracted pornographic slow-mo. The deaths here are inglorious- there’s no murder porn* as good as the Stuck in the Middle ear-subtraction, and the good guys come off as zealots. Even the Bea-2.0 character of Shoshanna, with a violently played out cause for revenge, is more terrorist than freedom fighter. Okay, in the words of John Lydon, I could be wrong, I could be right: perhaps Tarantino really is just making impulse decisions ’cause they’re kewl. And, if I am right*, its hardly the newest idea to say, yeah, but the German soldiers weren’t all Nazis or, maybe film violence is bad. Like all these things, though, its about context. The mainstream arena these ideas are being presented in, the subtle way** you can read the film either way, and the way it works against Tarantino’s reputation, make it interesting in a way chin-stroking Oscar-baiters or blatantly dogmatic addresses at the audience just never are for me. But, undeniably, Inglourious Basterds shifts the Tarantino brand- it strips away (probably not intentionally) the uber-cool soundtrack and the perfect remember-them casting, the pop-culture references and the worst excesses of ultra-violence. I think the reason I like this film so damn much is that I’ve finally realised what the Tarantino Thing is: the long, play-like scenes, the way he uses dialogue as a weapon to build tension and finally, messily, release. The entire film is a simple build-and-release tension-builder, and when we finally reach the violent loosing of that tension, nothing is ever really achieved***. But that’s Tarantino for ya.*And, okay, the film features Eli Roth, King Of Torture Porn, in an absolutely appalling turn as the promisingly built-up ‘Bear Jew’, so obviously we’re not entirely shaking off the shackles of violence oppression here. **Some would say “the proves-you-wrong way”. ***There’s an obvious way of arguing against this. Bring it. Come on. I dares ya. (Confession: I realise that the “Say auf Widersehen to your Nazi balls!” moment, at which I laughed at louder than the entire cinema like the absolutely abhorrent human being I am, somewhat undermines this argument. Its possibly the most ridiculous moment in any Tarantino film. I never said it was perfect- either my argument or the film. I just think we have to register some change.)