Quentin Tarantino Spotlight
I’ve got Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino on my mind these days, mostly because of a statement the younger filmmaker had made about Scorsese some years ago.
They’ve always been linked, these two. Tarantino had been anointed by more than a few as “the next Scorsese” with his 1992 directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. Dogs’ mix of unrepentant low-lifers and profanity-as-gutter-poetry dialogue harkened some reviewers back to Scorsese’s own breakout nearly twenty years before: Mean Streets (1973). Tarantino himself has often cited Scorsese as one of the filmmakers whose work has had a “huge” influence on his own filmmaking (along with Howard Hawks, Brian DePalma, and Sergio Leone).
I’ve tried to run the quote down to make sure I have it exact (I’d hate to stir up a fuss with a bit of misremembering), but haven’t been able to trace it. It would’ve been after the releases of Tarantino’s Kill Bills (Vol. 1 – 2003; Vol. 2 – 2004) and Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator (2004). Tarantino said something to the effect that he didn’t want to wind up in his later years like Scorsese making movies about Howard Hughes.
I don’t know if Tarantino was suggesting Scorsese had passed his peak, or that he’d reached a point in his career where he had to make movies – as Tarantino once said of a certain tier of directors – “…to pay for (his) pool.” Or, perhaps the notoriously motor-mouthed filmmaker was just on a jag and his tongue got a little in front of his head. Whatever: dig, observation, or slip of the tongue, I remember thinking it wasn’t particularly flattering. Or fair.
Since then, Scorsese’s filmography has been extended by the Oscar-winning The Departed (2006 – which also copped him the Best Director trophy); the Rolling Stones rockumentary Shine the Light (2008); his biggest hit in the thriller Shutter Island (2010); the docs A Letter to Elia (about director Elia Kazan), and Public Speaking (about writer Fran Lebowitz) (both 2010); the pilot for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010 – for which he won an Emmy); the HBO doc George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011 — named among the Top Five Documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review); and, of course, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, which received multiple Oscar nominations including two Best Director nods for Scorsese. That’s almost as much directorial work as Tarantino has turned in since — and including — Reservoir Dogs 27 years ago.
But as much as Tarantino might have been influenced by Scorsese, and for all the comparisons made — at least early in Tarantino’s career — between them, it is, at best, a tenuous, wholly superficial connection. Lean back and squint, and maybe they look related. Close up; not so much.
Scorsese had been a frail and sickly child, unable to run the vibrant streets of his Little Italy neighborhood like the other kids. Instead, there were hours spent in front of the TV with the then movie-heavy New York channels. His father, a film buff, tried to compensate for young Scorsese’s home-bound days by taking him to the local movies houses, sometimes twice a week or more. Between what he caught on TV and what his father exposed him to at Manhattan cinemas, Scorsese was introduced to a wildly eclectic range of films and filmmakers at an early age, from Ford and Fuller to Powell and DeSica; Hollywood schlock like Land of the Pharaohs (1955) to the dark poetry and startling color palette of The Red Shoes (1948).
He may have been too often stuck in his family’s lower East Side apartment, but he was not oblivious to the world around him. He soaked up the drama, the humor, the color of the New York streets, of the urban Italian-American experience, came to understand the double-edged sword of family/tribal loyalties — how they brought belonging but also how they stifled and strangled, and how they could cultivate a culture of compelled, sacrificial self-destruction. After years percolating and ripening, that sensibility would become one of the most vivid and integral textual colors — almost a character in itself — in movies like Mean Streets, Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and others. It morphed and mutated, transposing itself to the Boston crime scene for The Departed, and to a New York long gone and nearly forgotten in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002).
He acquired more than a passion for movies from his upbringing. His was also a spiritual family, devoutly Catholic, and that sensibility imprinted on Scorsese’s creative self just as deeply as his feel for The City and his sense of his Italian blood. It was a feeling held deeply enough that Scorsese considered the priesthood as a vocation, even attended seminary school for a year. He never gave up his spiritual quest, continuing his investigation of conscience and soul, of spiritual uplift and human foible, in his films, sometimes overtly (The Last Temptation of Christ ; Kundun ), sometimes obliquely (Mean Streets’ Charlie [Harvey Keitel] oblivious to the paradox of trying to stake out his nobility amidst the ignobility of his street hood existence). “My whole life,” Scorsese has said, “has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”
He gave up pursuing one passion — religion — for another, dropping out of his studies for the priesthood to study film at New York University.
In the early 1960s, the two great centers of film study were NYU and the University of Southern California, but their philosophies were markedly different. Admittedly speaking purely in broad strokes, USC looked at film as a trade (unsurprisingly as the USC film program had been co-founded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences), concentrating on practical skills and the business of making movies; NYU looked at film as an art — film not just as a form of entertainment, but as a means of personal expression. NYU was the perfect greenhouse for the soulful Scorsese.
At NYU, Scorsese’s already broad film sense was widened still further. The French New Wave, the cinema verite documentary movement — all made their mark on the avid young film student. Look at Mean Streets with Scorsese’s bio in mind, and it’s impossible not to see the interplay of Italian neo-realism, French New Wave, and cinema verite combining with Scorsese’s view-from-the-stoop of life on the New York streets, and his own search for a spiritual centeredness in a non-spiritual world.
His appetite for all things cinematic was — and remains — voracious. Ben Kingsley, who plays film pioneer Georges Melies in Hugo, recently told USA Today, “We overuse the term until it’s meaningless, but Marty truly is passionate, especially about the legacy of movies…I’m not sure there’s a movie Martin hasn’t seen.” In 2011, Sight & Sound posted a video interview with Scorsese where he commented on the passing of British director Ken Russell. Watch how easily Scorsese references Russell’s obscure early work, the black & white shorts done for the BBC profiling figures from the arts like Isadora Duncan, Rosetti, Sibelius, Coleridge. What strikes me watching that clip isn’t just how Scorsese’s knowledge of cinema seems bottomless, but how he also seems well-acquainted with the subjects of Russell’s BBC works. It’s not hard to imagine the self-admitted obsessive watching Russell’s film on Sibelius, say, then, ignited by what he saw, going on to read up on the Finnish composer, listening to recordings of his work, and on and on and on.
At a purely intellectual level, Scorsese’s closest filmmaking relative would be, to my mind, Woody Allen. Though stylistic and thematic opposites, both inform their films not just with their passion for classic and art-house cinema, but in drawing from centuries of western art, culture, and thought. Allen digs into it all — philosophy, spirituality, psychology, the whole shmear of western intellectualism — and boils it down to an on-the-nose joke (in Hannah and Her Sisters , Allen’s character grapples with the idea of persistent evil in the world, asking his father how God could permit the existence of Nazis; “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father replies, “I don’t even know how the can opener works!”). Scorsese dips into the same, big pool, only instead of a joke, brings it to a tragic — and often violent — demonstration of human frailty and fallibility (Mean Streets’ Charlie doomed by his self-appointment as savior to Robert DeNiro’s reckless, impulsive Johnny Boy).
If he somewhat resembles Woody Allen intellectually, the course of his career mirrors, to some degree, that of his good friend Steven Spielberg. Thematically, they’re night and day. Even Spielberg at his darkest believes in an ultimate demonstration of good, whereas Scorsese’s work usually works from the idea that we’re born into shit, then things go downhill from there. They’re polar opposites stylistically as well. Spielberg is a classicist and will take a graceful dolly shot over a smash cut any day. It’s hard to imagine Spielberg putting together a sequence as fragmented and fevered as Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled, rock-scored down-spiral into Goodfellas’ climactic dope bust.
But they are both cinematic adventurers. It came late to Spielberg. Liberated from an over-reliance on audience-friendly fantasy and romanticism by the grim material of Holocaust drama Schindler’s List (1993), Spielberg has since felt free to follow his interests, light and dark, through an impressive, increasingly eclectic body of work ranging from the Capra-esque The Terminal (2004) to the controversial political thriller Munich (2005); from the breezy chase flick Catch Me If You Can (2002), to his disturbingly brutal re-envisioning of World War II in Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The difference is Scorsese has always been such an explorer, adamantine in chasing off after whatever engaged him oblivious to its commercial appeal. Look at just his early years: he pinballed from the Mean Streets of New York to the sun-baked southwest in one of the best women’s movies of the 1970s, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), then back to New York for the near-surreal Taxi Driver (1976), then a jump back in time for the period musical New York, New York (1977), and then off to San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom to film the final performance of The Band for the rockumentary The Last Waltz (1978).
He didn’t hit the mark every time: New York, New York‘s pair of unlikable lead characters (played by Robert DeNiro and Liza Minelli) left audiences cold; some felt his Ophuls-influenced The Age of Innocence could have used a little less Ophuls and a little more Scorsese heat; by his own admission he was trying to make too big a movie for too little money in The Last Temptation of Christ; his remake of Cape Fear (1991) — one of his few admitted mercenary forays into the commercial mainstream — doesn’t have the same low-key queasiness of the 1962 original; Gangs of New York has a second-act sag; Leonardo DiCaprio comes close but doesn’t quite cut it as Howard Hughes in The Aviator…
But the point isn’t that he’s made a number of flawed films. The point is that despite Scorsese’s close identification with violent crime stories, almost three-quarters of his nearly 30 theatrical features are about something else: romance, music, history, the quest for spiritual inner peace. Hugo is his passionate tribute to the medium which has meant so much to him.
As the range of his interests has widened, his technical ability has also grown, sometimes in quantum leaps. Look at the rough-edged, near-documentary feel of Mean Streets, then look at Raging Bull seven years later, exchanging Streets’ lurid neon colors for Bull’s harsh black-and-white, the gritty hand-held camerawork of the former for balletic swoops and swirls inside the boxing ring. Then jump ahead again for the Ophuls-like classicism of The Age of Innocence, and then again to see him take command of CGI for Gangs of New York and The Aviator, growing so deft in its application he knew how to use it to sweeten even a naturalistic, contemporary work like The Departed, adding a computer-generated rat scurrying along assassinated Matt Damon’s apartment balcony as a punctuation mark to a film about betrayal layered on betrayal layered on betrayal.
Nearly every review of Hugo calls it an uncharacteristic work for Scorsese; that the last thing anyone expected from Martin Mean Streets/Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Goodfellas/Casino/The Departed Scorsese is a gentle, lovely, period piece dedicated to childhood wonder and curiosity. But looking at his body of work, in its supposed uncharacteristic-ness Hugo is actually quite in character for the filmmaker; it’s right in line with his willingness to follow his own sense of wonder and curiosity, to tell a story he hasn’t told before in a way he hasn’t told one before. His use of 3-D for the film — a first for Scorsese — is considered the best application of the process since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), even by Cameron himself, who has called it “absolutely the best 3-D photography that I’ve seen.” This, too, is quite in keeping with Scorsese’s ongoing evolution — Scorsese remaining the committed, voracious student he was in his NYU days. “The fun part,” Scorsese told USA Today recently, “is trying new things. It’s still magic. Someday, movies will just be holograms. I’d like to make one of those, too.”
Hugo also showed — despite what Tarantino might have meant those years ago — that Marty’s still got it.
From the ground up, Tarantino is a different animal. But then, he’s traveled a wholly different route to the director’s chair than Scorsese.
Scorsese was born to a tight-knit family in what is certainly one of the most colorful — to say the least — cities in the world as well as being, inarguably, a cultural and media Mecca. Tarantino, in contrast, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He never knew his father, and his teen-aged mother relocated them to a drab, downscale Los Angeles neighborhood when he was two. He was lousy at school, felt very much the loner, the outsider, finally dropping out before finishing high school. He found company with comic books and TV, famously taking a job as a clerk at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach.
Video Archives was Tarantino’s NYU. He became a connoisseur of cinematic junk food, fed on a steady diet of Hollywood classics mixed with grindhouse cinema. The way the UCLA tradesmen could talk about Hitchcock and the NYU cineastes about Trauffaut, Tarantino could talk about splatter-master Herschel Gordon Lewis, and the subtle differences between the low-budget chop-socky flicks turned out by the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. “When people ask me if I went to film school,” Tarantino once said, “I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”
He had a passion for cinema and an almost frightening gut-level understanding of how movies worked. And, as Peter Biskind put it in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Tarantino, “(he) could write like an angel, Richard Price on acid, providing a heady mix of B-movie attitude and nouvelle vogue cool…”
During his video store days he hammered out the screenplays for True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). In 1990, he landed a job at Cinetel, a production company, and when he couldn’t get Romance financed to make himself, his Cinetel contacts got the screenplay into the hands of director Tony Scott, who picked up the rights.
Scorsese’s first film had been the self-financed, little-seen indie, Who’s That Knocking On My Door? (1967), and his second feature was a hunk of drive-in fodder for low-budget king Roger Corman called Boxcar Bertha (1972). Scorsese’s career didn’t break big until Mean Streets the following year. But high school drop-out Tarantino had hit the big time while still in his 20s with that first sale to a major director.
Two years later, he made his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. Scott’s rendering of True Romance followed the year after that, and provocateur Oliver Stone added to Tarantino’s cachet with one of the most controversial releases of 1994, Natural Born Killers. That same year, Tarantino entrenched himself indelibly as one of the enfants terrible of the ‘90s indie scene with his second directorial effort, Pulp Fiction. The film copped seven Oscar nominations and a win for Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary for Best Original Screenplay.
Like Mean Streets, for all the buzz Reservoir Dogs had generated, it hadn’t been a particularly big hit, or much of a hit at all, pulling in less than $3 million. But Pulp Fiction was a monster, grossing $108 million domestic, and nearly doubling that worldwide, against a budget of just $8 million. For years, Pulp Fiction, the first indie to cross the $100 million box office barrier, would hold the record as highest-earning indie release.
In contrast, it took Scorsese three decades to hit the magic $100 million number. Prior, he’d done no better than moderate hits, and had actually produced a fair number of duds like New York, New York ($16.4 million against a budget of $14 million), and King of Comedy ($2.5 million/$20 million). Even some of his most memorable works were no better than mid-rangers. Goodfellas, for example, had done a respectable but hardly towering $47 million; Taxi Driver did $28 million (roughly equivalent for its time); and Raging Bull had been considered something of a stiff, earning $23 million against an $18 million budget. In fact, until the early 2000s, Scorsese’s biggest hits hadn’t been his more personal films, but his gun-for-hire gigs: The Color of Money (1986) at $52 million; the remake of Cape Fear at $79 million. It wasn’t until The Aviator that Scorsese finally turned in a big earner ($102 million).
Early success turned out to be a double-edged sword for Tarantino. He followed Pulp Fiction with his first non-original project, Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. While Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s homage to grindhouse era blaxploitation flicks, it also turned out to be his most — for lack of a better word — human effort. It lacks — to its credit — the video store sensibility underpinning all of his other work, and has, reflectively, been considered one of his most overlooked and underappreciated efforts.
It was also rated — quite unfairly — a flop. Jackie Brown earned $40 million against a budget of $12 million, which is an ROI any producer would be happy with. But judged against the high orbit performance of Pulp Fiction, it looked like a loser…maybe even in Tarantino’s eyes. Biskind quotes a Tarantino associate as saying, “I think he (Tarantino) thinks he fucked up.”
It’s easy to look at Tarantino in the years after Jackie Brown and judge him to be a guy who couldn’t come up with the answer to, “ What do I do now? ” He wrote, working on the scripts for Inglourious Basterds and the Kill Bills; he palled around with friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez in Rodriguez’ home ground of Austin, hanging out with film geeks and running mini-film festivals of obscure video-store-back-shelf directors, and he pursued another of the passions of his youth — acting — although judging by the pasting he took from critics as the villain in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, it was hardly one of his strong suits. He seemed to be doing everything but make another film.
The perceived failure of Jackie Brown may have left him gunshy. Biskind quotes a Tarantino friend as saying, “He doesn’t trust himself as an artist to be able to make something that is not popular.” And, from Uma Thurman: “(Quentin) was waiting for something to be extraordinary, something he could top himself with, to pull him out of his house.” It would be six years before another Quentin Tarantino movie hit theaters.
This is not to say that Scorsese, in contrast, was one to respond to disappointments with Tibetan monk-like philosophical equanimity. Hardly. Biskind, in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, reports Scorsese reacting to box office duds like New York, New York and Raging Bull with self-medication, therapy, failed relationships, violent outbursts. Yet the ever-obsessive Scorsese, even while still choking on the commercial failure of one film, seemed to already be chasing his next one, typically a project just as risky and daring as the one which had just withered and died at the box office. Within the six years after his first and biggest failure — New York, New York — Scorsese turned out the rock documentary The Last Waltz the following year in 1978, Raging Bull in 1980, and The King of Comedy in 1983. Though highly respected now, at the time they were, in fact, a string of box office duds which extended into 1985 with After Hours. It was a losing streak Scorsese didn’t break until 1986’s The Color of Money.
When Tarantino did come back with the Kill Bills, it was with an even stronger commitment to the hyperbolic grindhouse/graphic novel sensibility which had flavored Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It was not just a matter of the filmmaker turning for his comfort zone, but an acknowledgment that this was where his fan base lived. Biskind quotes another Tarantino friend: “Quentin has always felt that his core audience is adolescents, geeky boys.”
Tarantino held fast to that sensibility thereafter through Grindhouse, the 2007 homage to the films of his video store clerk days done in collaboration with Robert Rodriguez; and Inglourious Basterds, his biggest commercial hit ($120.5 million), and a critical triumph. Inglourious received eight Academy Award nomination,s including Best Picture and — for Tarantino himself — Best Screenplay, his first Oscar nods since Pulp Fiction. After the so-so returns of Kill Bill (Parts 1 & 2 grossed a combined $136 million against a combined $60 million budget) and a flop with Grindhouse ($25 million against $67 million), Basterds seemed a confident reclaiming of his King of the Indies status.
It is that sensibility — more than temperament, more than style, more than career course — which is the defining difference between the two filmmakers.
Back in the mid-1990s, filmmaker/author John Sayles was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly for one of those what’s-wrong-with-the-movie stories they do periodically (again, I hope I’m not misremembering something from an article I can’t run down). Sayles was comparing the filmmakers who’d come up in the 1960s/1970s with the following generation, using Scorsese as an example of the former. Though he didn’t mention Tarantino by name, I couldn’t help, based on the thrust of his comment, but think at the time Tarantino was at least one of the filmmakers Sayles had in mind.
Sayles said something to the effect that the difference between the generations was Scorsese made movies inspired by what he saw on the New York streets from his apartment window, while the new, young breed of filmmakers made movies inspired by Martin Scorsese movies.
Tarantino talks of “the movie-movie universe, where movie conventions are embraced, almost fetishized (i.e. Kill Bill), as opposed to the other universe where Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs take place, in which reality and movie conventions collide,” but, with the exception of Jackie Brown, there’s actually very little reality in any of his movies. The only difference between Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, and the likes of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, is one of degree, not nature.
The hoods and tough-as-nails situations and brutal/comedic dialogue of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction offer a patina of at-first-glance Mean Streets realism, but that’s all it is: a veneer. They don’t have so much in common with Mean Streets as they do with Sin City, the 2005 neo-noir Frank Miller adapted from his own graphic novel, which was co-directed by Robert Rodriguez, Miller, and Tarantino (billed as “special guest director”).
Sin City — like its source material — mimics, in high style, the visual tropes of noir, but in its hyperbolic characters and story-telling, it misses the heart of what post-war noir was all about. True noir was not the freak show Sin City is, but was often about how one misstep, one bad break, one lapse in judgment could take Joe (or Joan) Anybody down a domino fall of faulty remedies and cover-ups which only made bad situations tragically, lethally worse. Fed on post-war disillusionment, noir was all about there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you. Sin City, on the other hand, is a universe which can only exist on Miller’s pages and their screen offspring.
Tarantino’s crime films are the same. They ape the tough, streety tropes of Scorsese, but, at heart, they’re confections — comic books for young adult males inspired by a thousand nights of grindhouse grotesques and cheap drive-in thrills, Mix Mastered into Tarantino’s own, unique funny/scary/suspenseful/gag-inducing puree. The situations and characters may be more familiar than the sword-wielding assassins of Kill Bill, but like the denizens of Kill Bill, they cease to exist once the projector closes down.
What makes them work is Tarantino’s utter conviction in their reality, however unreal they may be. Tarantino is like a kid playing Let’s Pretend; in that moment of pretending, the most outlandish scenarios — fighting off monsters, taking Pork Chop Hill — are, for that kid, real. It’s Tarantino’s sincerity in his craziness that makes the crazy play, backed by an awesome ability with actors (he’s probably resuscitated more veteran actors’ careers than rehab), a gift for clever plotting, and the ability to make his “fuck”-filled dialogue play on the ears like great rock ‘n’ roll.
I’m not arguing who’s the better filmmaker. These are both tremendously talented guys, but despite the linkage film writers built between them at the beginning of Tarantino’s career, they are talented in distinct, separate ways. Scorsese is the baker telling you the difference between French and Italian pastry, while Tarantino is explaining why Hostess cupcakes are better than Tastycake’s. It’s not a question of “better”; it’s a question of taste.
What’s undeniable, in Scorsese’s case — and he has the benefit of a fifty-odd year career to make the point for him — is that he has created a lasting body of respected work, and that he remains a vital, exploratory filmmaker at an age when most directorial careers are slowing down, if they haven’t died completely. Hell, considering the changes in the American movie industry over the course of his career combined with his own rises and falls, Scorsese should get a special Oscar just for surviving this long.
Tarantino’s place in the American film canon is still an open question. He may very well wind up like one of his idols — Howard Hawks — in that he finds a comfortable, clearly defined niche, settles in there, and mines it comfortably for the course of his career. Which, as Hawks showed, is not necessarily a bad thing. Cautionary note: by the time Hawks remade Rio Bravo (1959) for the second time as Rio Lobo (1970), he was also showing how getting too comfortable in a niche could lead to staleness, to a dulling feeling of this-feels-awfully-familiar. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, there’s always been room for both breeds of filmmaker in the American mainstream: the artist who sometimes manages to also entertain, and the entertainer who sometimes manages to create art.
- Bill Mesce
For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.