Tarantino, connoisseur of trash
Although we should probably now give up on the notion of Quentin Tarantino as a serious filmmaker, let us still gather here to praise him, not to bury him.
Others, with a taste for the job, can do the burying and, with his incoherent and embarrassingly ill-wrought new movie, Inglourious Basterds, imminent, there will soon be plenty of spadework for his detractors. But not here: it’s just too depressing.
Let’s instead remember and honour Tarantino, the foremost movie geek of the past 20 years, and remind ourselves of the huge influence he has exerted on the tastes and viewing habits of a generation of filmgoers and filmmakers. When he first started making public appearances, around the time of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino reminded me of the young Martin Scorsese.
Not as a director (in his dreams), but as a next-generation motor-mouthed hyperbolist and enthusiast for movies many of us had never heard of. Here was a one-man education in trash cinema, the Version 2.0 of the Scorsese human movie encyclopaedia.
Scorsese taught film at NYU in the 1960s; Tarantino spent the 1980s behind the counter at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach. Both shared a similarly obsessive movie love.
Nowadays Scorsese lends his cultural weight and knowledge to movie-restoration projects and documentaries, producing subjective, quasi-autobiographical surveys of American and Italian cinema that are more interesting than many of his recent films.
Tarantino remains a tireless advocate for trash cinema, a filmmaker who draws no hidebound hierarchical distinctions between, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night and the horror movie Screams of a Winter Night.
In the 1950s Scorsese was devouring films considered genre trash (by Budd Boetticher, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, for example). Tarantino, similarly, has an unabashed passion for movies such as Hot Summer in Barefoot County and The Swinging Cheerleaders, films that will never appear on anyone’s Ten Greatest Movies Ever list.
He has always put his money where his mouth is. In the mid- 1990s, at the zenith of his influence, he founded the short-lived revival DVD brand Rolling Thunder Pictures and distributed or rereleased a number of movies: Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, Jack Hill’s forgotten all-girl Switchblade Sisters among them.
The project didn’t make much money but it offered a tantalising glimpse of an interesting idea. As Tarantino said at the launch (in words that foretold its inevitable demise): ‘You can’t make the people see [these films]—it’s just your job to turn on the lights.”
Honourable words for an honourable failure and one wishes that Tarantino’s desire to reissue spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, Hong Kong chop-socky and Shaw Brothers trash had met with a heartier response.
Tarantino sticks with his obsessions, too. He was a major contributor to the 1996 documentary, The Typewriter, The Rifle & the Movie Camera, a survey of the life of primitivist Sam Fuller and, notwithstanding his reputation as an idiot savant of instant recall and recondite knowledge, his appearances in such ventures always yield insights.
Here, he reminds us that Fuller most often worked not independently, but for Darryl F Zanuck. He is also astoundingly well versed in all kinds of cinema: if he tells you that Jack Hill’s 1973 chick-revenge flick Coffy is ‘the Johnny Guitar of blaxploitation”, be assured there is some substance to his claim.
He even used his cameo in the 1994 indie movie Sleep with Me to launch into an extraordinary riff on the homoerotic subtext of Top Gun.
Another of his obsessions, the indigenous trash cinema of 1960s and 1970s Australia, became the subject of a highly enjoyable 2008 documentary, Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!, which probably wouldn’t have been financed without Tarantino.
Mark Hartley, the director, used a filmed interview with him as the basis for his pitch for funds to celebrate this delinquent elder sibling of the Australian New Wave, which included early work by the likes of Fred Schepisi.
Tarantino proselytises for his causes like an old-time evangelical preacher. Before Grindhouse was released in 2007 he created a film festival at Los Angeles’s New Beverly Cinema and programmed two weeks of grindhouse garbage from his own collection.
The titles alone were mouth-watering to a committed trash hound like myself: Kung Fu: The Punch of Death, The Muthers and The Blood-Spattered Bride.
With John Waters, Matt Groening and Joe Bob Briggs, Tarantino has taught us that trash—as with shit, in Gore Vidal’s formulation—‘has its own integrity”.
Trashy food will kill you, but trashy cinema won’t—even if it’s not always good for you.—