Quitting While You’re Ahead?

Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I actually like Quention Tarantino. Sure, I recognize that he is an important filmmaker: an original and audacious auteur with the camera; an unpredictable cinephile whose heart beats for a particular blend of low and high culture (in that order). I even enjoy most of his movies. In all its gratuitous violence, the crisp dialogue and assertive performances of Reservoir Dogs (1992) is still able to entertain while being morally repulsive. Pulp Fiction (1994) might not be quite the masterpiece it was once made out to be, but there’s no denying that it has some of the most memorable lines, scenes and characters of 1990s cinema. With Jackie Brown (1997), easily one of my favorite Tarantino movies, I actually think it’s kind of underrated, finding a better balance between the self-referential indulgence that threatened to undercut the first half of Kill Bill (2003), while also being genuinely engaging. It may not be kosher, though, to characterize the visually anarchic Kill Bill as a little monotonous in its reverence for hyper-violent revisionist feminism, but in the end I liked the more thoughtful second half (2004) better. Death Proof (2007) returned Tarantino to an extremely verbal universe, entertaining line-by-line and often comedic in the way it tested my patience for car chases and martial arts, but it ultimately felt hollow. Finally, I surprised myself by having a decidedly lukewarm reaction to Inglourious Basterds (2009), his first meet-up with historical revisionism, and a very critically acclaimed one, too. Although, like everyone else, I was thrilled by watching breakout star Christoph Waltz’s terrifying Nazi Hans Landa, the overly long and only tangentially important Basterds middle section caused me to lose interest, so when it came to the final act I could not really get back into the story.

Where does that leave Quentin Tarantino and me? Well, it’s complicated. I certainly find much to admire about his filmography. I neither want to nor can I imagine an American cinema over the last twenty years that does not have his movies as a focal point. I’m not even sure I would agree with putting him in the category of an “overrated” filmmaker. He deserves the recognition, not only for the movies he has made, but because film history is full of people who have been discounted because the movies they made were considered not be “weighty” enough. And yet, my main problem with Tarantino’s movies is one that often been used to characterize filmmakers like Wes Anderson (too studiously quirky) and the Coen Brothers (too farcical, or too cold). In many instances, but particularly in Reservoir Dogs (which, despite what I’m about to say might be my favorite of his movies), Pulp Fiction, Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds, his movies feel a little, well, slightI don’t always feel that something is really at stake, because the characters are too caricatured, the performances are too big, too much played for laughs or too occupied with paraphrasing cinema history. Again, it’s not that these movies don’t have merit in other ways. It’s just that they never quite stay with me, beyond the thrill of the moment. Put perhaps more harshly than I’m willing to defend in the end, these movies make me think of the Coen brothers of Burning After Reading  more than of No Country For Old Men, if you see what I mean. To cycle back further, I don’t mean to say that humor in movies is a bad thing, or that style should never be allowed to take preference over substance, but even for a visual master like Tarantino, tilting the playing field so decidedly in favor of style can become tiresome.

But we digress. This post was initially supposed to be about a recent interview Tarantino did with Playboy to promote the upcoming Django Unchained. In it, he was asked about his previous remark that he planned to retire at 60, and he expanded on that by saying that few filmmakers make their most vital films late in their careers. That is certainly a debatable notion, and Slate’s Brow Beat did a good job of rounding up counter-examples
to Tarantino provocative if somewhat lazy contention. It was that claim that led me to the quick re-evaluation of Tarantino’s ouvre above.

Regardless of whether Tarantino is right about the claim that many filmmakers become sedate and less interesting with age, I find the broadness of his hypothesis annoying, maybe even ageist. First, in principle nothing should necessarily suggest that older and experienced filmmakers are less able to or interested in making vital, original or interesting works. Their movies may come off as different, to be sure, but that could just as easily be because they have matured as filmmakers or because their life experiences have armed them with an outlook that they simply did not have in earlier years. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a broad declaration such as the one Tarantino made, to me smacks of a kind of self-satisfaction. Read in the most sympatetic way possible, Tarantino is perhaps afraid that he doesn’t not have it in him to create worthwhile movies all the way through his old age, in which case his point signals a kind of humility. Read another way, however, it seems like he’s trying to elevate himself above many of his colleagues who may have kept going a little past their prime. That reading is less flattering to Tarantino, a man with whom it is always hard to know where sincerity ends and provocation and irony begins.

The Slate Culture Gabfest touched upon the subject briefly this, in a discussion mainly concerning Phillip Roth’s announced retirement from fiction and the continued if creaky persistence of The Rolling Stones, and panelist Julia Turner mentioned Woody Allen’s Midnoght in Paris as part of an argument for why veterans who truly live for their art should not be expected to retire even though their heyday may have inevitably past. In so doing, she summed up my beef with Tarantino. If at sixty, or whenever the cult director reaches the conclusion that he has told all of the cinematic tales he’d be comfortable with putting out there, I’d be fine with him retiring. But to say, years in advance, and seemingly based on a haphazard theory about the quality of old-age filmmakers of today, that he will not join their ranks, strikes me as little more an attempt to raise eyebrows. And what did he mean, anyway, by saying that “I don’t want to be an old-man filmmaker”? I can only speculate, but if he’s trying to say something about filmmakers late in their careers generally making movies that don’t fit his sensibility or making uninspired movies, I’d suggest either that he keep going so that he can rectify that problem himself, or that, in the immediate sense, he simply isn’t looking hard enough. Sure, in Amour, Michael Haneke is less of a doomsayer than he’s been previously, but he’s hardly gone soft either. And, to circle back to the Culture Gabfest, Tarantino must surely know how such declarations bring to mind the youthful folly of the cocksure rock attitude of early Stones?

Granted, Tarantino is not alone in publicizing his premature retirement from the director’s chair. The prolific Steven Soderbergh, who made HaywireContagion and Magic Mike in the last year alone, has also indicated his intention to retire from filmmaking in the near future. That would be a great loss to the filmmaking community, not least because Soderbergh is an immensely talented and versatile director, but also because I get a sense that a) he truly loves movies and experimenting with cinematic storytelling, and b) from his willingness to jump indiscriminately and with relative ease between genres, I think he has lots of stories left to tell.

So, regardless of what I think of the totality and individual movies of their respectives filmographies, let’s hope the threats from Tarantino and Soderbergh are in the end empty threats. And if you read him closely, Tarantino’s statements on the matter are not as clear-cut as they have been made out to be. He says that the most prominent threat to his devotion to keep making movies is if he feels like he doesn’t have anything to say, or if he’s afraid people will think he’s no longer challenging himself. In that sense, a self-imposed, flexible deadline could make some sense.

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