Published: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
When you can look back on the kind of filmography that renowned do-it-his-own-way filmmaker Quentin Tarantino can, you might start asking yourself where to go next. Have I written and directed my own scripts with my own production company? Yes. Have I established a personal style recognized by my last name with the suffix “esque” tagged on the end? Yes. Is every actor in Hollywood dying to work on my films in order to act out dialogue that is almost guaranteed to make them look brilliant on screen? Yes. And have I, as Orson Welles hoped to do, left the craft in which I am working better for having done what I did? Yes, arguably.
Tarantino does not need an Oscar or Palme d’Or to reflect his art’s worth, though. Now that even your corner grocery store is offering a prize for film submissions, a golden-coated hunk of metal is no longer conclusive. His opinion in film festival judging rooms holds enough weight for a committee of 25. What he needs cannot come from any more adornments. It can only come from the execution of a final master plan.
But before I delve into what I think that plan is, let us remember that Tarantino is the film student par excellence. Few others today seem to know and appreciate the history of motion picture as he does. His stories about his own movie making are legendary. His references to past films and television fly far over the “late night” audiences’ heads, but he is not an academic huddled in film anthology libraries. He is actively making the history he is so enamored with. Robert Richardson, who shot so many of Martin Scorsese’s films, is a subject of rigorous study for any student of cinematography. Tarantino now gets to keep him close. The art and production design of J. Michael Riva pops up in every other hit film in the last decade. Tarantino uses him too. But the salient mark of his commitment to film is the constant demand he makes of everyone on his set when opting for another take: “Why?” Tarantino asks rhetorically. “Because we love making movies!” shouts everyone in unison. It takes true zeal to keep the grizzled grip enthusiastic about that one.
Now, to the plan. If I were a student and competitive player of chess who has made a name for myself, I would wish to spend the back end of my career doing something nuanced and personally enriching with the game. I have studied the progression of typical strategies, players and famous moves. I have somehow won tournaments by my own decision-making processes. Why not start trying to win by using each historical style and my own finishing flare? I would take every strategy from chess class to its fruition and make novel moves as well, leaving everyone asking, “What could anyone do in chess after that?”
This, I believe, is just what Tarantino is doing in film. He is taking the most ingrained genres he grew up studying and trying to cap them off with a guttural bang. The path of the Ronin samurai in feudal Japan became a western norm through the handiwork of Kurosawa. Tarantino took it and threw in a blond bombshell, whose number of near-death experiences is exceeded only by her overall kill count (77 over two films). With Inglourious Basterds, he made the World War II Nazi film to end all Nazi films. He killed Hitler, found actors who could speak every European language, and sent a band of Jewish-Americans on a suicidal vendetta. Tarantino was obviously fed up with films about world wars in which everyone spoke English, making the assumption that, if these American spies are really attending this German officer’s dinner party incognito, they must have acquired flawless and unerring accents at some point in their lives.
Soon he will release Django Unchained, a spaghetti western mapping the revenge of a newly freed slave. It will have gun-slinging montages, bounties collected, and plenty of slave-driving bigots to be killed. Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz will also be on the same screen. And it will not lack the slow building, high-tension dialogue that mark Tarantino’s greatest achievements.
His antagonists are never short of wife murderers, sexual slavers, and Europe-ravagers. He could be making films just to annihilate the evil archetypes easiest to demonize, but I think he has a greater plan to retire motion picture’s archetypes themselves. If we see a trailer for a Tarantino prohibition-era mob film in a few summers, we’ll know.