Quentin Tarantino is both overrated and underrated, sometimes for the same reasons claims Satyen K. Bordoloi of the director who turned 50 yesterday as he critiques the violence+vengeance man while praising him.
Can any director clothe one basic idea with the same emotions over and over again and present them as different films and yet be hailed as one of the greatest ever? Can even critics and serious cinephiles be so mesmerized by the tricks of this grand illusionist that most wouldn’t even notice, and the rest would conveniently ignore it?
If you look at Quentin Tarantino - hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers alive - you’ll realize you can. Consider, as an example, a brief synopsis of some of his last few films:
Kill Bill: A woman left for dead at her marriage altar, comes back from the dead to plot and execute her vengeance on her husband and his colleagues – a gang of fearsome killers.
Death Proof: A group of women realizing the murderous intent and past of a stunt car driver chasing them, plot and execute their vengeance on the man.
Inglourious Basterds: A gang of American Jews during World War II, plot and execute their vengeance on Nazi leaders in Germany.
Django Unchained: A black rebellious slave in America, after being helped by a white German, plots and executes his plan to save his wife and wreck vengeance on the whites.
That Tarantino loves the two V words – Violence and Vengeance, is like saying that the sun is bright. Indeed, he loves it so much that if you twist your vision a little bit and look at it, his last few films have been nothing but rehash of the same vengeance and violence idea, presented in different contexts and time frames all over again.
And yet we have loved every second of it. Why?
The answer lies in one word: shock. Quentin Tarantino knows how to deliver the Indian, proverbial 440 volt shock straight into your spine and give you a big hit. He shocks you with his violence, with the profanity in his dialogues which are stylish and never vulgar for the sake of it. This, you’ll argue, is something almost every filmmaker does or can do. So does that mean that there’s no difference between a Tarantino and our very own action men like – Rohit Shetty or Abbas Mastan?
The first big difference is in the idea and treatment of shock or the action. For Tarantino this does not just lie in his visuals, or in the ‘action’ happening on screen. Rather they exist in everything, especially the dialogues. Just like plot elements that take a sharp ‘u-turn’ in a thriller, so does his dialogues that have often been seen to have the power to literally throw people off their chairs.
Secondly, his films - despite being wonderful flights of fancy – never leave the sociological plane in which most of us operate. Tarantino has a keen sense of violence, not just of the visible kind, but of the structural kind.
Thus, while violence to a Rohit Shetty or Abbas Mastan would only mean kicks and punches and cars exploding, for Tarantino the biggest violence is in how some characters treat others. Thus the surprised, nasty and violent look of villagers while Django rides through a village on a horse, is much more violent than a big fat punch anyone could throw him. Tarantino understands and thus bothers to set up the structural violence. In this setting, the actual rebellion and the physical violence of the protagonist is unleashed.
Thus Django is not just taking vengeance on a band of white men. He is fighting the system that looks at a man as being inferior not because of the capacity of his body or mind, but because of the colour of his skin.
Thus, the greatest shock that Tarantino seems to have mastered - is the shock of delivering all the other shocks inside the framework of a historically impossible scenario.
You would never imagine a ‘black’ ‘woman’ (both words denoting a separate disability in a white, patriarchal world) – Jackie Brown not only plot her crime-violence-vengeance on others, but also succeed in it with panache.
In Kill Bill for instance, would you imagine a blonde Uma Thurman not only do a Bruce Lee but also have a single minded, pursuit of her vengeance – a trait reserved only for ‘men’ in the past?
Or have you ever imagined the persecuted Jews giving it back to the Nazis, or a single, black lone ranger out in the Wild, Wild West doing the same when his very face is enough to trigger mass reprisals against him?
Situating his blend of stylized or aesthetic violence in the emotion of historical injustice is a style he has become conscious lately. But mind it; these are not simple historical injustices. Instead, he handpicks from the vineyard of history, the best grapes to create his intoxicants. Contemporary just doesn’t cut it for a Tarantino chained by the idea of a deadly concoction of vengeance, violence and history. He needs a grand injustice to succeed.
Consider what many consider his weakest film – Death Proof. The film doesn’t work for most because in it the vengeance is of an average, run-of-the-mill variety. A loony, but single villain just won’t work in a Tarantino film. But when his films set a lone hero fighting a loony, mad system or their representatives, they just scorch their way into our cinematic imaginations.
Where his films work best, which he has figured out, is in the grandness of the historical perspective and the stranger the pitting of the history and its vengeance seeker, the better it works.
In his own words, Tarantino wants to do nothing but entertain, which of course, he does with aplomb. And at the face of it, an intellectual is bound to question, does his film even offer any new perspective on the topic represented? Not really. Yet, in his ability to shock you, he does manage something entirely different, but no less fascinating.
With his shock factor, he raises the intellectual curiosity of the unaware, often enough for them to want to figure out the source of the shock they have just received at the hands of Tarantino. Thus someone with even little intellectual leanings will wonder if there was indeed a renegade band of Jews and Black Americans seeking vengeance or even violence in the time frame the films are set in. They will realize, much to their surprise that they indeed did exist. Jews in Nazi Germany and Blacks in a predominantly south of USA before the civil war did raise the sword of rebellion and not in ones or twos, but sometimes in thousands.
Thus without trying to raise the flag or activism, like some ‘activist’ films do, Tarantino ends up doing a better job. And a much more entertaining one at that.
There’s a lot that Indian filmmakers can learn from Quentin Tarantino, about setting historical or sociological setting to their saga of action and violence. Bollywood’s Rohit Shetty and Abbas Mastan would go up in the league of directors if they put their action capers in the context of real sociological and if possible even historical injustices rather than in an absolutely imaginary world that they do. Writers Salim-Javed did just that in the Amitabh Bachchan films of the 70s. That’s why their films despite being full of cliches (one could say like Tarantino’s films), are considered classics today.
Tarantino excels in pouring the liquid of vengeance into the cup of historical injustice. Of course, if one were to critique him one could say that if he wanted to be truly, really revolutionary, he’d have poured the same liquid into contemporary injustice. But he’s perhaps too lazy to do that. Perhaps he’ll figure that out someday. Whatever be the case, most of us don’t mind what he serves us.
All we care about is that in the game of illusion that filmmaking is about, Tarantino is perhaps the grandest illusionist of them all.
Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.