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To what extent can you commodify eccentricity?

Reservoir Dogs

At the beginning of last semester, I was faced with a question in my screenwriting class: Our professor had asked us each to say our favorite movie. Even before we started going around, I knew I was going to say “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a brilliantly scripted crime drama and it’s written by mad genius Quentin Tarantino. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there was a smug part of me that thought my screenwriting professor would be proud that a student would have such a cultured response. I mean, “Pulp Fiction” is the holy grail of pop culture. To me, liking “Pulp Fiction” was the equivalent of “getting” film, and I was sure that my professor would appreciate that.

Then my heart started dropping as one-by-one, students began saying “Pulp Fiction” as their favorite film. “Pulp Fiction.” “Pulp Fiction.” “Pulp Fiction.” By the time it got to me, my professor stopped and said, “Is there anyone in this room whose favorite film isn’t “Pulp Fiction”?” I was at a loss. I quickly said “The Dark Knight” and “Brick,” but also threw in that I too was a big fan of “Pulp Fiction.” I couldn’t believe I was that naïve. I had really thought “Pulp Fiction” was an artistic, underrated masterpiece, but that moment made me realize how wrong I was.

To me, Tarantino had always been one of those directors who worked from the outskirts, an artistic anomaly who surveyed the more mainstream directors…and then went the other way. He’s a director whose voice and vision bleed through everything he does. You know when you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino film. And sure, there are an abundance of directors like that now, but to me, Tarantino has always been the first name that came to mind when thinking of famous directors with distinct styles.

And yet while still distinct, I think Tarantino’s style has shifted of late—minutely, yes, but minutely in the way that tectonic shifts are minute, which is to say that they’re not. His films are still as eccentric an ever, but they’re not so much cult favorites anymore—they’re blockbusters. And while it’d be nice to chalk up Tarantino’s acclaim to an evolving, maturing palate of the movie-going populace, it’s really more of the opposite: Audiences haven’t grown to like Tarantino as much as Tarantino’s grown to resemble what audiences like.

Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (Image via Letterboxd)

Every time a new Quentin Tarantino movie gets released, it’s an EVENT. The director has a tendency to take breaks in between projects, so when he does decide to make another movie, it’s usually a big deal. His latest movie, “The Hateful Eight,” is going to be interesting just based on its tumultuous backstory alone. Tarantino had planned on making the movie for awhile, but then a draft of the script got leaked and he swore he would never make it after being betrayed like that, but then there was a live table reading and he changed his mind and then he decided to go ahead and make it anyway.

For a lot of directors, it doesn’t matter if projects get scrapped and they move on, but there was something about a lost Tarantino script that fans just weren’t happy with. His style and his projects are so different than anything else in the industry that the outcry over one of his scripts not being made into a movie was tremendous. There has never been a director with quite as much name brand recognition and I don’t think there ever will be one again.

How did this happen? Looking back at Tarantino’s earlier work, it’s clear they were ahead of their time. His first major film, “Reservoir Dogs,” is a bloody gangster film with a bleak world view and bad men at its center. Violent films have always always a staple of the entertainment industry, but there was an unapologetic glee in the director’s early work that was unprecedented.

I would like to think Tarantino had a big hand in ushering in the new age of ultra-violent, self-aware films, but he of course wasn’t the main factor. He was more of a product of the times. With his films, it’s easy to tell how much he’s influenced by the past. The old, classic directors were great because they blazed their own paths.

The ’70s brought the first wave of independent filmmakers that worked to develop their own flourishes and style. Out of this era came Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, etc. They weren’t influenced by anything other than their own artistic vision. More modern directors are different. They all grew up watching those iconic old-school directors, and they all jumpstarted their careers off of their shoulders. All the great directors now are ones that were film fanatics growing up and turned their passion into their own styles of art.

Christopher Nolan, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson and of course Quentin Tarantino, are film lovers turned-film makers. There’s such a strong sense of admiration for the past in all of their films, but it’s executed in extremely creative ways. We want see these directors’ movies because they’ve proven time and again that their style works. And perhaps more than any other director, Tarantino’s name carries a tremendous amount of weight. We seem inclined to see anything with Tarantino’s name on it because he gives us what we really want: Some sort of crime, original characters, quick-witted dialogue and (usually) a big, bloody finale. He’s violent, but somehow he makes us not only condone the violence, but root for it.

I can still see the crowd going wild after Jaime Fox shot and killed Miss Laura with his pistol at the end “Django Unchained.” That a lone bullet somehow sent her flying back into another room in a completely exaggerated fashion only upped the audience enjoyment. And I remember how amped up I was after watching Brad Pitt’s Basterds burn down a movie theater full of Nazis and riddle Hitler’s face with bullets until it was a gooey mess.

We as an audience have not only enabled Tarantino’s love of violence but encouraged it. We cheer the hardest when he gets exceptionally brutal, and in fact now look to his films in eager anticipation of the new ways he’s going to mutilate characters. This isn’t an odd expectation given that mainstream commercial entertainment seems to live and breathe sex and violence, but it’s odd because carnage is a pretty low-hanging fruit, and Tarantino’s early work didn’t really reach for it.

His first two films, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” are nowhere near family-friendly, but they end surprisingly subdued. “Reservoir Dogs” cuts to black before the big final shoot out, and “Pulp Fiction” ends on interestingly optimistic note, where Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) talks two dangerous criminals out of robbing a diner. This always made me think that Tarantino began his career less violent, and that it was the audience that was responsible for egging on his more violent tendencies. We seem to like it when he goes bigger and bolder with his violence (see: “Kill Bill Vol. 1”) and come away disappointed when it’s a little quieter (see: “Kill Bill Vol. 2”).

“Inglourious Basterds” ends with mass destruction, so does “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” looks like another violent outing. There’s no doubt it’s going to make a lot of money, and there’s no doubt that it’s going to continue Tarantino’s ante-upping carnage streak, but maybe it’s not because Tarantino wants it that way, it’s because we do. So now we live in a world where everyone’s favorite movie seems to be “Pulp Fiction.” I used to think that Tarantino was too different and violent to ever be fully embraced as a mainstream film director, but now I see how wrong I was. Tarantino’s art carnage is the new mainstream for cinema, and whether he helped usher in this new status quo or he’s simply a byproduct of it, the outcome is the same. The entertainment industry is different now, and people like Tarantino will be at the forefront of it for many years to come.

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