If director Quentin Tarantino wants to reconnect with a wide audience, he might consider putting away childish things and tackling new material worthy of his gifts

By Mark Harris
April 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com
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The Final Cut: Mark Harris on Tarantino’s creative crisis

There’s going to be a lot written about the financial failure of Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino’s latest epic canonization of garbage from his own adolescence. There are lessons in any big flop, and the lesson of Grindhouse may not be much more complicated than ”Don’t make a three-hour homage to something that wasn’t very good the first time and expect everyone to come running.” When the only purpose of making a movie is to flaunt your immense skill at replicating something dumb, you’re probably limiting your audience to connoisseurs of the ironic (not a huge demographic) and fanboys (who didn’t show up — turns out they like their bloody comic-book violence mainlined, 300-style, without any winking). Treat your audience as if both you and they are cooler than the film you’re cranking out — as Snakes on a Plane did last summer, and as Grindhouse does — and your movie’s doomed.

I enjoyed parts of Grindhouse, although three hours is a long time to watch two directors draw air-quotes around bad moviemaking. (And it’s not as if plain old bad movies are irony-free: If there’s some major distinction between Bruce Willis’ smug squint in the trailer for Live Free or Die Hard that played just before Grindhouse and Bruce Willis’ smug squint in Rodriguez’s ”Planet Terror,” I missed it.) Quentin Tarantino is a pretty good writer and a monstrously gifted director, and I’d rather his movies were hits, because why root against talent? But I can’t pretend to be disappointed that Grindhouse is stiffing, because creatively it’s a dead end that he’s been traveling toward for a dozen years.

Tarantino and I are the same age — we were both born in 1963 — so I’m speaking middle-aged guy to middle-aged guy when I say that it’s time to put away childish things. Manic jags of hyperbole about vintage crap start to wear thin once you’re only a couple of Presidential elections away from your AARP years. Guys who love movies — no matter what their age — tend to overrate the films they loved between the ages of, say, 13 and 20, when they were — how to put this politely? — easy to stimulate. Tarantino, who loves movies more than anything else, grabbed on to the bargain-basement genres of the early 1970s — the stuff he wasn’t quite old enough to see when it opened — and he’s never let go.

In 1994, his enthusiasm yielded Pulp Fiction, which felt entirely new — intricately structured but playful, wild in its violence yet able to accommodate a witty line or gesture without seeming to pause, perfectly acted, always surprising, and (despite its title) never simply a gloss on old material. Since then, though, Tarantino seems to have started believing that his own worst qualities are what distinguish him. He’s abandoned what was great about Pulp Fiction (control, impeccable pacing, utter originality, knowing when the characters should stop talking) and decided that what people really want from him is chatty, protracted dialogue scenes, elaborately arch pop-culture references, and ass-kicking action — in other words, easy imitations of his own biggest success. With Jackie Brown, he had good source material — there’s rarely any fat in an Elmore Leonard novel — but he let the flights of verbosity and the characters’ knuckle-cracking become extravagantly drawn out; some scenes almost felt as if they contained their own rehearsals, and what should have been a lean take on early-’70s crime dramas inflated to 154 minutes. With Kill Bill, we got four hours and seven minutes of bended-knee worship of martial-arts movies, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, and Japanese comic books. Some brilliant action; nonstop visual style; real wit (especially in Vol. 1) — and a whole lot of wheel-spinning as we toured through Quentin’s Referential Kitsch Arcade (Naughty nurses! Sonny Chiba! Kung Fu!)

And now, Grindhouse: 192 minutes (a length for which Tarantino must share blame as a self-indulgent producer if not as a director) of smirky tribute to grade-B early-70s sci-fi-horror and car-chase movies, specifically to their mediocrity — the rancid prints, the clumsy camerawork, the artificial-butter smell of the plotting. (Didn’t he and Robert Rodriguez do this already in From Dusk Till Dawn, which was basically Grindhouse without the extra 90 minutes?) Tarantino’s half of the film, Death Proof, might go down more smoothly if every aspect of it weren’t fetishized, from head to (literally and repeatedly) toes. Tarantino doesn’t let anything simply unfold anymore. Kurt Russell, a relaxed and resourceful actor, can’t just be allowed to act — he’s an icon, dammit, and you can feel all the tedious jawing about Escape from New York behind the way he’s used and framed and ogled by the camera. The Soldier Blue poster in the background, the wry Robert Urich and Lee Majors name-checks, even the long, long raunchy-girl-talk conversations are just a series of attitudinizing postures — lots of ”Nigga, please!” (way too much, in fact) and the like, as if women have nothing better to do all day than compete in a never-ending coolness contest.

Is Grindhouse itself just part of that contest? And why devote so much energy to proving your superiority to such inferior material? Tarantino clearly gets high on trashy film rediscoveries. The thing is, when you’re high, your definition of genius slackens as your riffs get louder, wilder, and less supportable. Grindhouse is one of those riffs. At one point, Tarantino has a character announce that the 1971 car-chase thriller Vanishing Point is ”one of the greatest American movies ever made.” It’s not; it’s just a really good car-chase thriller. I hope Tarantino can still tell the difference. For ten years, he’s been the hipster in the back of the video store, using his flashlight-under-the-chin grin to beckon us away from ”Drama” and ”Action/Adventure” and toward his favorite section — the one labeled ”Clearance.” Now that he’s 44, it’s fair to ask if this obsession is becoming a curse — if he ever plans to make a movie that’s not about other (mostly mediocre) movies. His fixation on 1970s subgenres has now lasted longer than the 1970s themselves. It would be a shame if he decides to spend his directorial career obsessively polishing one plastic-turd genre after another.

Tarantino is one of the few working directors who could make a great movie in almost any genre (or better still, invent a new one). Right now, what’s holding him back is either bad taste or lack of ambition. He seems to be having a lot of fun in his semi-permanent retreat to the comfort zone of nostalgia for the stuff that got him off when he was a teenager. But I hope he takes a breath before he leaps into his next project — which I’m hoping isn’t a trilogy inspired by Burt Reynolds’ Gator movies. I’d rather see him shoot higher and miss than hit a target that’s barely worth aiming at. He’s way too talented to settle for being the best bad filmmaker of all time.

What message do you take from the box-office reception to Grindhouse? Was it a project worth doing? Is Tarantino falling prey to adolescent impulses? What kind of material would you like to see him tackle? Post your comments below.

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