Creeping Tarantinism

by Patrick Taggart

Look at me.

I'm the guy who's going to tell you the way it is.

As if you couldn't see for yourself. Take a look at Get Shorty and Coldblooded, and maybe a couple of other films in the last year or so and there it is, as plain as the .45 I have stuck in your eye socket and with which I will scatter your little brains all over your solid maple futon and cause you to spill that nice cup of Ruta Maya cappuccino.

What you're seeing is creeping Tarantinism, the Pulp Fictionalization of Hollywood.

Granted, this is not such a giant stylistic upheaval as to dictate that every film rated PG and beyond from now on must star John Travolta and at least one bald black man who wears nice suits and speaks more articulately than most Ph.D. candidates. But the influence of Tarantino and his enormously vital, fun, and darkly funny Pulp Fiction is beginning to be felt. Big-time.

I was tempted to say that the first ripples came from films like Shallow Grave and The Seduction. Both are terrific black comedies involving underworld types and a few of the most appealing anti-heroes since the early 1970s -- when anti-heroes last thrived. But both were made around the same time as Pulp Fiction and may not have been influenced directly at all by Tarantino's film. I do think that the critical and commercial success of Pulp helped smooth their way into theatres. (Last Seduction had been dumped on cable before interest in noirish thrillers was rekindled.)

The first film that clearly bears Tarantino's imprint to these eyes is Robert Rodriguez's Desperado. Remember that Pulp Fiction opens with a talky scene at a diner in which two young lovers and hold-up artists discuss plans to tap into big money. That is followed by a talky scene in which two hit men (Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) discuss television pilots and the erotic-emotional implications of a foot massage. Those two scenes alone tipped us to Pulp Fiction's wry, hip sensibility, and at the same time made us aware how alone in the movie world it was.

Well, Desperado also opens with a talky scene, this one a virtual solo by Steve Buscemi, a veteran of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. This time the effect is diffuse, and no one will convince me that Rodriguez, a master of spare dialogue in El Mariachi, wrote that scene himself. It just went on and on, and did not have a terrific payoff. It may have been the worst scene in the film except for Tarantino's own cameo, in which he told a lame joke I still don't get.

Of Rodriguez's two films, El Mariachi is clearly superior -- an inspired, clean, economical, low-budget gem. Desperado is slower and slicker, but it still benefits from the Tarantino force field that surrounds it. In addition to the dialogue, which possesses a kind of street-smart literacy and lyricism, the gunplay scenes have an invention and verve not present in Rodriguez's first film. In the post-Pulp world, almost every killing is at least a little bit funny.

The new Get Shorty has more than a couple of ties to Tarantino's masterwork, the most obvious being star and cool guy du jour John Travolta. Danny DeVito, who stars as the diminutive movie star Martin Weir, was an executive producer on Pulp Fiction. Producer Michael Shamberg was involved in both pictures.

Get Shorty is far from a Pulp Fiction clone, even if it is about a small-time hood who collects mob debts and finds himself surrounded by crooks of surpassing arrogance and/or stupidity. Director Barry Sonnenfeld, working from a terrific script adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel, creates his own world that bristles with surprise, wry comedy, and actors who seem to be having the time of their lives. As with Pulp, the dialogue is smart and literate (a couple of hoods argue whether e.g. or i.e. is appropriate in a particular sentence), and the violence mostly played for fun.

While it owes little directly to Tarantino's film, I wonder if this is the same film we would be seeing had it opened five years ago instead of today. Or would it look more like Leonard's 52 Pick-Up? (Leonard once complained that movies favor plot more than character and that all of his books-turned-films were flops. It would be interesting to have his opinion on this intensely character-driven new film.)

Coldblooded bears the Tarantino imprimatur a bit more boldly. At the center of the action are -- what else -- a couple of debt collectors and hit men. The humor is droll and so dark you can take a pie cutter to it and serve it up as a big slab of Chocolate Intemperance. Jason Priestley stars as a taciturn, eternally befuddled, and possibly dim bookmaker who is "promoted" to hit man. (Forrest Gump, meet Vincent Vega.) He is taken under the wing of experienced hit man Peter Riegert, who instructs him in the finer points of the trade. (How to properly taunt before whacking, etc.) Much like Samuel Jackson's character in Tarantino's film, one of these men will find religion late in the game.

Coldblooded is the first film of writer-director M. Wallace Wolodarsky, and he is not so much under the spell of Tarantino as beneficiary of the altered landscape Pulp Fiction produced. Movies like this would have had to work much harder to find a way into the marketplace a few years ago.

Tarantino and his films will no doubt continue to influence the way movies are made -- and seen. So far, the effect seems to be positive. Some have criticized the sensibility that makes a film like Reservoir Dogs possible, and even fans of that film can perhaps see why. But if the primary fallout is to be literate scripts, layered characters, and buckets of irony and black humor, so much the better.

Hollywood films have needed more intelligent dialogue for years, and if we're occasionally presented with the unlikely situation of a couple of goons rhapsodizing about metaphysics, divine intervention, and the proper use of exempli gratia, it's a small price to pay.

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