Monday, October 19, 2009

Classic Tarantino versus New Tarantino

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Inglourious Basterds in the theatre, and I loved it. I almost loved it more than Kill Bill, and when I said that Kill Bill was my favourite Tarantino, people look at me like I'm crazy. They want to know why Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs aren't my favourite. It turns out, that the one-two-three punch of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds retains the highest point on the Tarantino-Olympic pedestal. But why, people ask?

For the purposes of this post, we'll split his career into two. The first era spans Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, while the second era spans Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 (considered one film in this post), Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds. There's a six year gap between the two eras, and that represents a natural cut-off point. 

One of Tarantino's strengths is his gorgeous profantity-laden dialogue. As readers of this blog know, I'm partial to good dialogue. If it sounds clunky, I'm perturbed and shaken. If the conversations float gracefully, up and down like arpeggios, then I'm in heaven. The dialogue of all of Tarantino's movies are unmatched. Often imitated and never duplicated, the conversations are like operas of words. Yes, there's profanity, racial slurs, slang, patois and slight tics, but all of those things are put together to make music.

However, the dialogue of the New Tarantino is just slightly better. In the Classic Era, he wore his international  influences on his sleeve but made his vision more American. With the New Era, Tarantino wallows in the influences. His movies are made up of other movies, so what does he bring to the table that's uniquely him? His strong sense of talk. Talk, talk, talk. That's all his characters ever seem to do, with brief interruptions of shocking violence.

In his newest film, Inglourious Basterds, the opening scene, which feels like half an hour, is a tense and beautiful conversation between a Nazi who hunts Jews and a French farmer hiding the Jews under his house. Using only the power of words, the Nazi intimidates the farmer into revealing where his hidden occupants are. It's an amazing scene.

Conversely, one of the best dialogue-focused scenes in the Classic Era is the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, in which Mr Pink espouses his views on tipping. It's a fantastic scene, but it's built on observations, rather than pushing the scene forward.

Tarantino, in the New Era, has refined his use of dialogue, and perfected it. He's integrated that sense of talk into the movie. The film becomes about conversations, working to his advantage.

Secondly, a major improvement over the Classic Era is Tarantino's cinematography. He's actually learned how to shoot a scene, use proper composition, and frame his shots better. The mise en scene is better, frankly. This doesn't mean he's made his camera movements more erratic, or used jump-cuts or long cuts, but he's making the prescence of the camera less noticeable.

One of the most famous scenes of Pulp Fiction is the dance sequence, a veritable classic of the Classic Era. However, his camera placement is so intrusive, getting so close to the actors that it's claustrophobic. Pull back, I say. Let them breathe and shake and move around.

On the other hand, going to the New Era, the signature sequence of Death Proof is the car stunt near the end, in which stuntperson Zoe Bell gets out onto the car and rides the hood. It never seems like there's a dolly hovering over her. Tarantino cuts around, giving the car shape and substance and weight, making it more dangerous. It's a fantastic piece.

Really, Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 is my favourite Tarantino movie for a bunch of reasons. The plot is engaging, the characters seem like more than caricatures, the acting is superb, and the action phenomenal. What is most appealing is the tonal shift between both features. The first is an epic Japanese samurai film, while the second is more of a spaghetti western via Hong Kong  flicks. Splitting the two features means the tonal shift is less abrupt, more natural. Also, it adds the cliffhanger aspect to the first, which is always a plus for me.

I absolutely love Tarantino, and every time he makes a movie, I'm fascinated. He's not perfect, and neither are his movies. Each and every one of his movies are funny, gripping, interesting, and always entertaining. I look forward to more films from this American virtuoso.

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