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The Experience Of Film

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I find little pleasure in the cleverness of a movie like Pulp Fiction.

My reaction to PF was: "So much talent, so little of value actually said. Some day Tarantino might make a great film, but that was not it."

So little, in fact, that any discussion about the film's aesthetics seems immaterial. But I certainly wouldn't be doing my job as a critic if I completely ignored the question of Quentin Tarantino's style, superficial though it may be.

The critic should, from my point of view, not only address what a filmmaker is saying, but how the filmmaker goes about saying it (and whether we like or agree with what the filmmaker says). At times, there's simply more to say about the one thing than the other, and with Tarantino, the "how" is more enlightening than the "what." But for some critics (and I understand the impetus) in such cases the "how" is very much the "what."

As a film student, it took me awhile to warm to the "style is substance" approach (a concept both sophisticated and unequivocal), but now it's quite clear that films do speak loudly through their own singular language; it's up to the viewer to interpret and evaluate what is being said.

Yes. And one of the educational issues I like to focus on is how the "style is substance" view affects interpretive grids. There are positive aspects to it (spiritual and theological) and negative (see my comments on Memento above).

I would love to one day have a conversation with you about A Man For All Seasons, a film which I find transcendent despite being rather pedestrian in filmmaking terms. But that will have to wait for another day!

Somewhat pedestrian visually, I'd agree -- but what a screenplay! Bolt's words delivered by the likes of Scofield and Welles... Wow. And an admirable adaptation of Bolt's drama, as well. A completely different narrative technique, but just as effective as the play's.

But I'd have to go back and watch it again before talking much about it... It's been at least ten years since I've last seen it.

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Greg Wright wrote:

: If Pearce's condition is psychological, there's no fatalism involved at all.

Oh, there might be. It all depends on how much control you think we have over our own minds. Confusion over one's identity and one's ability to make choices is a key part of noir, too.

Just wondering, have you ever watched Memento in chronological order? I think the "limited edition" DVD (not the original DVD) has an Easter egg that allows you to do this, but I've never tried it; a friend of mine had already re-edited the film himself and sent me a copy on CD. It's an interesting experience, but one major narrative problem I had with the film, after seeing it that way, was the question of why Teddy always leaves and comes back, leaves and comes back. Given what he wants, and how urgently he wants it, it seems to me he ought to be trying a little harder.

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Greg Wright wrote:

: If Pearce's condition is psychological, there's no fatalism involved at all.

Oh, there might be. It all depends on how much control you think we have over our own minds. Confusion over one's identity and one's ability to make choices is a key part of noir, too.

Yes, certainly. But I didn't get the impression that was the sense in which you found Memento explored fatalism. (If Pearce's character is contributing to his own demise via psychological elements, that does not bring the fatalism of the genre into stark relief; it mutes the fates and paints fatalism in shades of grey.)

Just wondering, have you ever watched Memento in chronological order?

No... But the first time I saw it, I immediately went back and flipped through the scenes in more-or-less chronolgical order to see if those nagging little things that were bothering me were actually there. And they were. And I was shocked that none of the glowing reviews I'd read had mentioned any of those inconsistencies. (Of the type, for instance, that you mention.)

Edited by Greg Wright

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I've not had time to drop into this thread for several days. It's a fascinating conversation about trickery etc.

I do share Greg's frustration with cheating, and I don't like the arrogance which says, nobody will notice this. People notice all kinds of things and miss others, so why sprinkle motifs through a film or have some foreshadowing elements early on and expect viewers to process them (albeit perhaps subconsciously) and yet not care about cheating in a particular shot?

To give some allowance to film-makers, it sometimes is the result of genuine mistakes rather than carelessness. Greg's example of the shadow in All The King's Men might be one (though I have never got round to watching it so I may be on shaky ground here). Almost certainly the two successive shots weren't filmed consecutively, and if the shadow was the result of a later idea, it might not have occurred to anyone that there was a lighting problem until it was too late.

I think Memento was such a bold idea that it was probably impossible to construct in a fully consistent way and still have the audience make sense of it. It seems to me that Nolan needed to affect viewers in two fundamental ways that are in an inescapable tension with each other. First, he needed to completely disorient us. Second, he needed us to be able to follow what was going on. It's impossible to maintain both, so he's heavy on disorientation at first - but because we need to be able to catch on fairly soon, he also has to pile in stuff that within a few minutes we can start to assimilate and connect together. It's a totally unconventional approach and it's a puzzle film, but if we don't start to get the drift we'll give up and walk out. So Nolan has to massively overcompensate on giving us information - very high levels of redundancy. We're told over and over at first that Leonard Shelby can't remember anything, and there are masses of really explicit links between the beginning of one scene and the ending of a later (chronologically earlier) one. Yes, he has to cheat by allowing each scene to move forward but there's no way he could avoid it and still make an understandable movie.

One brief thing on Pulp Fiction which everyone here seems to think is without merit morally. Isn't a huge part of it an exploration of the idea of grace? How does Jules react when the bullets miss him, for example? The word Grace is explicitly drawn to our attention on the motorbike. It was (is?) the name of Tarantino's girlfriend - which suggests a motivation for why he was exploring the theme. It also has a lot to say about honour.

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sometimes [cheating] the result of genuine mistakes rather than carelessness...

Yes, I think that's true. And yet what struck me about Zaillian's film in particular was how meticulously his images were all constructed. Hence, I concluded that the two shots I mentioned were quite deliberately filmed and juxtaposed. I could, of course, be wrong. If I'd had an opportunity to interview Zaillian, it's certainly one of the first questions I'd have asked.

I think Memento was such a bold idea that it was probably impossible to construct in a fully consistent way and still have the audience make sense of it.

Yes, I agree completely. And your analysis of how that conundrum presents itself is excellent.

One brief thing on Pulp Fiction which everyone here seems to think is without merit morally. Isn't a huge part of it an exploration of the idea of grace?

Yes, you're right, it does. And honor does come into play, too. For me, though, Tarantino's sheer revelry in the prurient and gratuitous just overwhelms the themes. At the same time, I can understand how the film might be literally transformational for certain people. Moral repugnance can certainly be a relative thing.

For instance, The Last Temptation of Christ literally turned my life around -- but I would consider it neither essential nor recommended viewing for anyone.

Authoritative pronouncements on art deny the ability of God to reach people where they are rather than where they ought to be. And none of us, I think, are where we ought to be yet. So a measure of humility in assessing these things is always essential.

Edited by Greg Wright

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For me, though, Tarantino's sheer revelry in the prurient and gratuitous just overwhelms the themes. At the same time, I can understand how the film might be literally transformational for certain people. Moral repugnance can certainly be a relative thing.

I entirely agree. If a viewer is used to ultra-violent, stylistic films, they are perhaps more obviously aware of these other themes. I have to make myself see through the surface nature of the film.

Authoritative pronouncements on art deny the ability of God to reach people where they are rather than where they ought to be. And none of us, I think, are where we ought to be yet. So a measure of humility in assessing these things is always essential.

Exactly!! Yes, yes, yes! Humility is so key. We all lose it once in a while because we're not where we ought to be on anything - but we should be bending over backwards to engage with each other with truth and grace.

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FWIW, Tony, I am a fan of Tarantino's films -- but more Reservoir Dogs than Pulp Fiction. And I adore the Kill Bill movies, partly because they are such unabashed love letters to Tarantino's favorite genres; I am being perfectly serious when I say that, the first time I saw the two films back-to-back (my second viewing of Volume 1 on DVD, followed immediately by my second viewing of Volume 2 on the big screen -- I literally ran down to the theatre right after finishing the disc), the first word that came to mind once the final credits rolled was "love". Tarantino clearly "loves" these genres, these actors, the process of filmmaking, even the themes of honour and redemption and grace -- and I find that "love" contagious.

And FWIW, in a couple of articles that I wrote at the time, I drew a direct parallel between Jules's (presumably successful) attempt to quit the hit-man lifestyle in Pulp Fiction and The Bride's (unsuccessful) attempt to quit the hit-woman lifestyle in Kill Bill. In each case, a criminal is awed by a "miracle" that others would easily dismiss (bullets missing you, an unexpected pregnancy), and in each case, the criminal tries to respond to this "miracle" by changing his or her ways. The difference is, one criminal is ALLOWED to change his ways, while the other is NOT allowed to change hers ... and away we go from there!

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FWIW, Tony, I am a fan of Tarantino's films -- but more Reservoir Dogs than Pulp Fiction. And I adore the Kill Bill movies, partly because they are such unabashed love letters to Tarantino's favorite genres; I am being perfectly serious when I say that, the first time I saw the two films back-to-back (my second viewing of Volume 1 on DVD, followed immediately by my second viewing of Volume 2 on the big screen -- I literally ran down to the theatre right after finishing the disc), the first word that came to mind once the final credits rolled was "love". Tarantino clearly "loves" these genres, these actors, the process of filmmaking, even the themes of honour and redemption and grace -- and I find that "love" contagious.

And FWIW, in a couple of articles that I wrote at the time, I drew a direct parallel between Jules's (presumably successful) attempt to quit the hit-man lifestyle in Pulp Fiction and The Bride's (unsuccessful) attempt to quit the hit-woman lifestyle in Kill Bill. In each case, a criminal is awed by a "miracle" that others would easily dismiss (bullets missing you, an unexpected pregnancy), and in each case, the criminal tries to respond to this "miracle" by changing his or her ways. The difference is, one criminal is ALLOWED to change his ways, while the other is NOT allowed to change hers ... and away we go from there!

Interesting. I need to watch Kill Bill eventually, but I keep putting it off in favour of the myriad of less violent films I still need to see. Why do you think the Bride is not allowed to change?

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Tony Watkins wrote:

: Why do you think the Bride is not allowed to change?

Because she was Bill's lover -- the film is pretty explicit on that, though it doesn't go into all the details until Volume 2. I'm assuming Jules was not Marcellus's lover. ;)

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Tarantino clearly "loves" these genres, these actors, the process of filmmaking, even the themes of honour and redemption and grace -- and I find that "love" contagious.

From my perspective, it would seem that Tarantino only loves the themes of honor, redemption and grace insofar as they are part and parcel of the cinema he is obsessively committed to. He wears them around like a pair of samurai swords, busting them out whenever the mood dictates. Much as I'd like to believe otherwise, I feel they are no more important to his aesthetic than the other fetishes (the gratuitous torture, the trivial doubletalk, the eclectic soundtrack) that dominate his oeuvre.

Tarantino's love of movies (especially gritty, grungy, violent ones) was never in question. His taste and intelligence (not to mention his integrity as an independent thinker) are still a matter of dispute.

On the other hand, if people are genuinely moved by Tarantino's films, who am I to call them easily deceived? Or the director false?

Edited by Nathaniel

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Nathaniel wrote:

: From my perspective, it would seem that Tarantino only loves the themes of honor, redemption and

: grace insofar as they are part and parcel of the cinema he is obsessively committed to.

But even if that were true (and I don't necessarily concede that it is), isn't it still noteworthy? Remember how the 1990s were cluttered with poor imitations of Tarantino films? I always got the impression that all those other filmmakers were merely aping the blood and pop-culture references -- the "fetishes", as you call them -- but completely missing out on the moral elements that are pretty central to Tarantino's films.

If Tarantino is, as you suggest, merely mimicking the films that he loves, then he is, at least, better than many of his peers, inasmuch as he has retained these elements, whereas many of his peers have not.

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If Tarantino is, as you suggest, merely mimicking the films that he loves, then he is, at least, better than many of his peers, inasmuch as he has retained these elements, whereas many of his peers have not.

Oh yes, his disciples have become far more aggravating than the man himself. But isn't it a temptation to blame Tarantino for instigating them to action? The attitude he introduced to '90s cinema, one of postmodern irony and cheerful sadism, has persisted to this day. Perhaps there are other filmmakers more deserving of scorn, but he remains the granddaddy, the head honcho, the big cheese. (Though movies like Jackie Brown remind me he's capable of real feeling, even if that feeling is informed and sustained by pop culture.)

Edited by Nathaniel

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Denny asked:

>>Greg - which [of Spieberg's] films ["rely on cinematic trickery"] and in what way?

A couple instances stand out for me. The most egregious is in Hook, when Peter drives up to the ball field only to find out he's missed his son's game. The shot starts out with a closeup on Peter in his car as he's driving to the field. He takes a right turn and pulls up to the curb alongside an embankment -- still in the same shot, which is a tracking crane shot. The shot continues, and as Peter climbs out of the car and dashes up the bank, the camera pulls up and back to reveal... the empty ballfield -- AND the fact that the street Peter just drove down, before making the right turn, went right past the first base dugout and the completely empty ballfield. It's total cinematic flimflammery; but when the score is layered on, and Robin Williams' emoting pulls your heartstrings, heck! who cares about honesty in filmmaking?

Greg,

Sorry I'm just coming back to this. I've been up above Seattle speaking at a conference.

Thanks for the illustration. I must admit that HOOK is not one of my favorite films - but not for the reason you noted. That kind of cinematic techniques doesn't bother me as much as it seems to bother you. What I hear you saying is that you actually think Spielberg is divine and it bothers you when he is a mere mortal.

Denny

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[ (Though movies like Jackie Brown remind me he's capable of real feeling, even if that feeling is informed and sustained by pop culture.)

The "real feeling" in this film is due to Elmore Leonard, not Tarantino. This is just one film in which Tarantino didn't manage to squeeze the offbeat sagacity out of Leonard's characters.

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I must admit that HOOK is not one of my favorite films - but not for the reason you noted. That kind of cinematic techniques doesn't bother me as much as it seems to bother you. What I hear you saying is that you actually think Spielberg is divine and it bothers you when he is a mere mortal.

"To whom much is given, much will be required." Yes, I expect a lot of Spielberg's films, and more than I do from others. But isn't that fair? He's extraordinarily gifted, and when he misuses or abuses those gifts (granted, from my poor perspective), it bothers me.

And it affects my "experience of a film," so it's even relevant to this thread!

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"To whom much is given, much will be required." Yes, I expect a lot of Spielberg's films, and more than I do from others. But isn't that fair? He's extraordinarily gifted, and when he misuses or abuses those gifts (granted, from my poor perspective), it bothers me.

And it affects my "experience of a film," so it's even relevant to this thread!

I wouldn't argue. And it is good that you can put an actual description on what causes you difficulty with a particular film - I'm not that observant, just know its not as good!

I would also say that as a pastor I appreciate it when my congregation gives me grace when a particular sermon is not a home run. To have someone be able to actually describe what it is that made it a strike would be invaluable.

Denny

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I, too, dislike Spielberg to a very high degree and tore him a new one over Munich not too long ago.

I have a new piece of criticism up at New English Review that compares and contrasts Gunga Din vs. Indiana Jones.

It's an entertaining piece that demonstrates the difference between sincerity and artificiality in the adventure genre.

Spielberg continually demonstrates that he is great at staging action sequences, but hopelessly inadequate at human experience. He is cheap, sentimental, cliche ridden, and shallow. He's no better than Kevin Costner in his Schindler's List et al because like Costner he will always go for the lump in the throat than any serious encounter with how tragic and senseless life is without faith.

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