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The Tarantino touch

For better and worse, he’s changed the face of filmmaking
/ Source: contributor

At first glance, “Kill Bill — Volume 1” looks as dead as disco. Get this: It’s a martial arts flick starring a chick in a Bruce Lee jumpsuit searching for the dude who played Kane in “Kung Fu.” Am I trippin’ or has nobody seen “The Matrix” films and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” This from Quentin Tarantino, a wunderkind writer-director whose trio of postmodern, highly derivative yet remarkably original crime films were, to paraphrase (or plagiarize), cooler than three Fonzies.

Correctamundo. Call it revenge of the nerd, but Tarantino is a cinematic savant whose indulgence rides shotgun with his talent. His long professed love for pulp has always included the Hong Kong and grindhouse genres to which “Kill Bill” pays bloody homage.

Indeed, in the influential days following his enormous success in the mid-’90s, Tarantino tirelessly stumped for the low-brow. His Rolling Thunder Pictures publicized the Honk Kong new wave, releasing films like “Chungking Express,” “Fireworks” and “Sonatine,” and re-releasing classics like, uh … “Switchblade Sisters.”

Hong Kong cinema’s mainstream acceptance — if we didn’t accept it, we at least became aware of it — showed itself in the Hollywood work of John Woo and the rise of ass-kicking movies like “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Matrix,” etc. It breaks down like this: QT is so far ahead of himself, it only seems like he’s coming up from behind. You dig?

Did I break your concentration?
Every artist faces the weight of past achievements; to be truly original he must either criticize or extend them. My man did both. Gangster films focused on the hit; Tarantino was more interested in what the hit men did before and after, which was gab like a gaggle of teenage girls. He armed them with a pop-culture awareness as sharp as his own — as well as a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. The result sent tremors through the industry.

While he didn’t invent narrative jumps, fractured time and irony, he branded them with a voice so garrulous and gutsy that he forged the postmodern gangster film, a pastiche of cool vacuity. Not quite the cornerstone of a nutritious breakfast, his work nonetheless casts a shadow that extends to this day — to his first film in six years. His style is still obvious, existing as rousing or repugnant cinema, depending on your outlook, and overriding the pop fads he so meticulously embraces.

I ain’t just buttering corn, honey bunny. John Woo isn’t the only director enjoying the largesse of Tarantino’s influence. It extends from Guy Ritchie’s Byzantine “Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels” to Tom Tykwer”s time-fractured “Run Lola Run” down to Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling “Magnolia” and right on up to last month’s Robert Rodriguez flick “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (which Tarantino suggested Rodriguez name, rather haphazardly, in honor of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “Once Upon a Time in the West”).

The upside to all this is that with “Pulp Fiction,” the $100 million-grossing art film, Tarantino smashed the barrier between the mainstream and the independents, between commerce and art. He reinvented screen language by genre-hopping and including the audience to an extent never before seen. The downside, not surprisingly, is that much of what followed in Tarantino’s wake was undigestible — burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell.

The good, the bad and the ugly You can spot a Tarantino-esque film from across the Cineplex. Along with the squirming comedy, mounting body count and Madonna references, they share certain characteristics:

A cast with indie-hipster cred. The individual presence of Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Amanda Plummer or Tarantino himself indicates some correlation to the general attitude. Their number within a film grows in direct proportion to its authenticity. If they’re all cast in the same film, hot damn, you’ve got “Pulp Fiction.” Jackson nearly got booted from this group with his role in the very un-hip “Star Wars” sequels (which deserve a cap in the ass from a Tarantino hand cannon).

Body disposal is a major issue. Ever the dilemma of the gangster, cement shoes just won’t do anymore. It’s got to be gruesome and funny. Danny Boyle took a hack at it, literally, with “Shallow Grave.” So did Doug Liman in the best of the Tarantino knockoffs, the clever black comedy “Go.” Peter Berg’s “Very Bad Things” used it, very badly.

Plot is secondary and often ignored entirely. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is a good example, although in all fairness Lynch was busting convention and blowing minds when Tarantino was still getting wedgies in the schoolyard. Tarantino acolyte Robert Rodriguez also dabbles in this category, often unintentionally. Has anybody seen the genre sludge called “From Dusk Till Dawn”?

Sprawling stories and subplots and complex coincidences became the norm. John Herzfeld’s “2 Days in the Valley” examines the six-degrees-of-separation principle with a modicum of success; Leslie Greif’s “Keys to Tulsa” does not. Gary Fleder’s “Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” about five gangsters who botch a job, is an overwrought exercise in style but hey, so is the entire genre. Peter O’Fallon’s “Suicide Kings” is so random it just doesn’t amount to much.

Nonlinear narratives are cool. Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” employs flashbacks throughout, each one earlier than the previous. The aforementioned “Run Lola Run” entertains, but uses its alternate realities so gratuitously that it blunts the films impact.

The word around the campfire
For six years, word around the campfire was that Tarantino had lost his nerve due to the pressure of living up to his reputation, not to mention the pot-smoking and fistfights. He says he’s been writing all that time — that he’s in no rush to make a movie and he’ll make it the way he wants to make it. I believe him. If he said he could change Coke into Pepsi, I’d believe him.

“Kill Bill” doesn’t need to be a great movie to cement his place in cinema history; it simply needs to be another step in his evolution. Who knows what genre he’ll try out next — he’s been working on a World War II film he calls “The Inglorious Bastards” for years — but when he does it, he’ll do it cool.