There was a time when I loved a couple of Tarantino's films - namely, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. I respected and enjoyed other projects he was involved with, too - From Dusk til Dawn, say - but I loved those two films enough that I developed an investment in the idea of liking him, and for years, I really looked forward to his new project, whatever it might be. In the case of the films of his I have not enjoyed or respected much on first run - including Pulp Fiction, which initially struck me as trivial and disappointing - I have watched most of them multiple times, figuring I might learn to appreciate them more, or decide on reconsideration that my lack of appreciation for them might be blamed on me, not him. To that end, I believe I have tried Inglourious Basterds four times now, taking it on faith that surely people - peers, respected critics, film studies professors - who were proclaiming it a masterpiece (and taking it seriously, to boot!) - actually saw something I didn't ("it must be my fault; I'll give it another shot.") I even saw Death Proof twice, and last night marks my first viewing, since the opening weekend, of Django Unchained (I despised it the first time through). Truth is, on second viewing, all of these films get more enjoyable and interesting, once I have gotten over the disappointment and dismay and in some cases the anger which marked my initial reactions to them. Approached with high hopes and expectations, they had pissed me off; but approached again months later, with sufficiently lowered expectations, I had to admit in each case that there were likable and interesting things in all his films...
...although I have yet to attempt The Hateful Eight a second time, and may not, ever, because by the time of that film, my fondness for Tarantino, the time of my regarding him as a filmmaker I cared at all about, had waned; and also because it is the film of his I've found the least to enjoy about, the first time through. Even Django Unchained, the film of his I responded to most badly on initial viewing, had entertaining and effective moments on first viewing - best use of a Jim Croce song in a film, say - that made me willing to go back and give it another chance, but the impression The Hateful Eight left of plodding, pretentious, pompously overwritten dullness, punctuated with brutality, self-indulgence, and punches to Jennifer Jason Leigh's face, make it seem uninviting to revisit. I am not saying I didn't respect the film - it was, in a way, his most "writerly" film in a long time, as I said in a review. I just didn't find it much fun to watch.
I have, I think, two main issues with Tarantino, now: the first is that he plays with serious themes in a trivial and sensationalistic way, and the second is that, talented as he may be, he's just so goddamn full of himself. To speak to the first issue: Django Unchained features horrific violence and depictions of brutal racism in the context of what essentially is a cute, white-saviour buddy movie with a smartass happy ending and enough humour throughout that it plays mostly as a comedy. Like the severed female leg rolling down the road in Death Proof, the film has moments that disturb far more than the theme or story justifies, such as escaped slaves being torn apart by dogs, or the testicles of Jamie Foxx on display, as he hangs upside-down in the "castration" scene. It's kin to Africa Addio or something, raising serious issues while cavorting in the realms of rank exploitation, where the former end up ultimately in service to the latter. Even the so-called blaxploitation cinema of the 1970's had a higher moral purpose than Django Unchained. I thought, revisiting it, of Roger Ebert's review of Betrayed, a Costa Gavras film about neo-Nazis that may also not have the moral gravity or seriousness to properly house some of the horrific, race-related images in it. Ebert writes of "a particularly disgusting and violent scene in which Berenger and his right-wing buddies capture a black man and then stage a 'hunt' in which they chase him through the forest at night and finally kill him." In the context of a not entirely negative review, he nonetheless concludes of that scene:
It is reprehensible to put a sequence like that in a film intended as entertainment, no matter what the motives of the characters or the alleged importance to the plot. This sequence is as disturbing and cynical as anything I’ve seen in a long time - a breach of standards so disturbing that it brings the film to a halt from which it barely recovers. I imagine that Costa-Gavras, whose left-wing credentials are impeccable, saw this scene as necessary to his indictment of the racist underworld he was exposing. But Betrayed is not a small, brave political statement like Z, it is a Hollywood entertainment with big stars, and vile racist manhunts have no place in it.
I'm not sure that Django Unchained really even knows what to do with its black characters. It gives the majority of its speaking time to Christophe Waltz's main character - the white saviour who literally liberates Django from slavery and teaches him how to be a bounty hunter - and the second-largest share to a racist plantation owner, who is allowed to discourse freely about phrenology and racism and given attractive qualities perhaps beyond what the narrative requires. The most fully-developed black character is a smart but servile "house negro" played by Samuel L. Jackson, who, you come to understand, is the real brains of the plantation; but the main relationship in the film, the one that sets the action in motion, between Django and Hildegard, is almost totally undeveloped - she's basically a McGuffin, with very few lines of dialogue indeed. It is important that a film that presumes to depict the deepest horrors of racism not participate in it, but the fact that Django and Hilde's relationship gets less screen time and less dialogue than the "education" of Django by his white liberator, the contest between the white liberator and the white racist plantation owner, and the relationship between the plantation owner and his most valued servant, is telling and troubling. Django and Hildy are supporting characters in their own movie. Why thoughtful people bought into the film puzzles me; about the only way to enjoy it seems to be to completely turn off ones brain and passively accept it as an entertainment, without asking questions of how brutal it gets, how ultimately uninterested it seems to be in its main black characters, and how little it actually really amounts to. It does work fairly well if you do that, mind you - if you approach it with a truly lowest-common-denominator, "here-we-are-now-entertain-us" vacuous grin - but it's not really what one would call a thinking person's movie. I wonder what Armond White made of it?
None of that is the most annoying thing about Tarantino, though. The thing that pisses one off the most is that his awareness of people's esteem for him went to his head a long time ago. There was a time when film geeks talked about "the new film by Quentin Tarantino," but you don't have to do that anymore, because that kind of phrase has practically become his celebrity tagline, his directorial "I'll be back" catchphrase, written in huge letters at the start of his trailers. They even presume to count down his works for us, in case we've stopped bothering: "the eleventh film by Quentin Tarantino," I believe the trailer I saw for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood declares. There's a bombast to this that suggests Tarantino has been caught in a kind of feedback loop, as a film geek who knows how film geeks think and who wants the esteem of fellow film geeks: he will now geek out about his own movies for you, in case you've lost the desire.
You remember that trashy, cruel article that circulated online about Tarantino's foot fetish? The moment that stands out is when Tarantino describes Kill Bill as one of his "seminal works," and the author, Beejoli Shah, quips that it should be someone else who describes a filmmaker's work as "seminal." In a way, that seems exactly the point. Tarantino has lost all humility before his texts, apparently, and all sense that cinema should serve some sort of high moral purpose. I can't imagine a movie about movie making with a Manson family subplot will deliver him (or us) of this tendency. I want to be excited about it - I haven't fully lost the desire to like his films - but I suspect I will go and be, at best, pissed off, and then maybe watch it three more times on DVD, trying to see what other people missed.