Tarantino: The Author as Cinematic Database

I’ve been intrigued by a series of recent articles discussing Quentin Tarantino’s ambivalence about reviews that attempt to identify the influences on his films.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein, Tarantino complained that

Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they’re really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it’s like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with.

According to Goldstein, Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Tarantino’s Kill Bill was one of the reviews that tested QT’s patience the most, with Zacharek referring to the film as something akin to a late night “on a moldy postgraduate couch” with the director offering a running commentary on film culture rather than, you know, a narrative feature.  Zacharek’s review may serve an extreme expression, but I think Tarantino is right to remark that his films have become overshadowed by his (highly constructed) reputation as a movie fanatic video store clerk-turned director.

In my discussion of DVD culture in Reinventing Cinema, I referred to Tarantino as a “video auteur,” as someone who was so immersed in the history of film that his movies offered a “database” of references to past films (and other images).  Although I linked this to Tarantino’s biography, I was more interested in his reputation as a director, as it has been established in a series of press accounts, DVD commentaries, and interviews.   To some extent, however, Hollywood filmmakers (and others) have long traded in visual references.  Godard’s early films are loaded with references to the history of cinema, and directors routinely describe a desired visual effect by reference to earlier films, but Tarantino has, perhaps a little unfairly, become singled out as the most visible contemporary instance of a video auteur.

In this regard, I think Tarantino’s work, especially his most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, presents an interesting case for thinking about how the nature of interpretation seems to be changing in the age of networked film criticism in the blogosphere.  As Jonathan Gray has recently argued, we always interpret films (or TV shows or whatever) in terms of their paratexts, the trailers and interviews and supplemental materials that accompany or advertise or announce the existence of an upcoming film.  And, in some sense, Tarantino’s status and reputation as a director have positioned his films so that “we” (cinephiles, film critics, and even scholars) read them first as a collection of cinematic references, which often obscures what Tarantino himself may be trying to do (and I’ll leave to the side for now the entire debate about authorial intentionality).

To be sure, many of Tarantino’s films contain homages to prior films (and he goes on to describe many of the influences on Basterds in the Goldstein interview).  Jackie Brown cannot be read without some knowledge of the history of blaxploitation or the career of Pam Grier, to name but one example.  But with the rise of the film blogosphere and crowdsourced fan sites, such as IMDB.com, what has changed is that audiences are now collectively unpacking cult and/or auteur-based films in such exhaustive detail that every scene in a Tarantino movie is now subject to the wider database and collective knowledge of a massive film audience.  The same “collective intelligence” (to use Pierre Levy’s phrase) that might be used to solve a Lost alternate reality game or to identify Survivor spoilers is now attempting to “solve” the interpretation of a Tarantino film.

In a sense, this is what literary and film critics have “always” done: use their collective knowledge to resolve ambiguities in a text or to identify meanings that hadn’t previously been recognized.  But with the rise of networked film criticism, these practices have become intensified, crowdsourced to the extreme, as film viewers seek to unpack an especially challenging film (or filmmaker) in an attempt to demonstrate a form of mastery (hence Tarantino’s antagonistic account of a “chess” battle).  And given the sheer number of films available to this movie-hungry audience, it’s inevitable that those viewers will see references that were not intended by Tarantino himself, that are, in his words, “of their own making.”

There is obviously a long history of directors complaining about being misunderstood, a complaint that has become amplified in the age of blogging, but I think that Tarantino unpacks one of the complications associated with the collective intelligence of the film blogosphere.  In that sense, I don’t think the right question to ask about Tarantino is whether he uses “too many” cinematic references, as Monika Bartyzel does, but instead, we might ask how the changing nature of interpretation, informed by crowdsourcing and social media, changes our engagement with the history of images that Tarantino so enthusiastically and astutely addresses.

11 Comments »

  1. Kelli Marshall Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    Really interesting read.

    Did you see Tarantino with Elvis Mitchell on TCM (the show UNDER THE INFLUENCE) so “enthusiastically and astutely addressing” film after film after film? His knowledge both amazes and scares me. =)

  2. Matt Thomas Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    QT increasingly seems to want people to think of him as a personal not a pastiche, filmmaker. See“Tarantino claims his movies are ‘achingly personal’”.

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Thanks, Kelli. I didn’t see the Elvis interview, but the Goldstein article shows how deeply he thinks about films (and how much fun he seems to have thinking about them).

    Matt, that’s interesting to see QT trying to “rebrand” himself. Of course, given that movies are personal, I don’t see the personal and the pastiche as opposites necessarily.

  4. Matt Thomas Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    The impression I get from this article is that he’s sick of critics thinking of him mainly as a referential filmmaker, that everything he does can be traced back to some obscure ’70s film, and wants people to think that his work springs first and foremost from his own heart and mind. But you’re right to suggest maybe that’s a false binary.

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Yeah, he says something similar to Goldstein in the interview I cited, and I can understand why he’d be frustrated.

  6. J.M. Said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    The Elvis Mitchell/Tarantino interview:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKbFn3u5Tko
    (Have a notepad handy. They’re gonna reference tons of great flicks!)

  7. Just Another Film Buff Said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Chuck,

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I agree that his own vision in IB has been unfairly overlooked by many.

    Cheers!

  8. Chuck Said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    Thanks! The Elvis/QT interview is great!

  9. Chris Cagle Said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    It does seem that one crucial difference between the video auteur and a database is that one cannot actively query the former. It’s more like watching someone else do the database searches.

  10. Chuck Said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    I’m probably using “database” a little loosely here, but I think you’re right. The former term implies quite a bit more agency on Tarantino’s part (and it’s the term I originally used in the book). In reading further in Geoff King’s book, I was struck by his use of Amazon comments to illustrate how Tarantino gets read as a having this encyclopedic memory of visual culture, and I think that gets in the way of some of the other pleasures associated with his films.

  11. Elokuvallisia huomioita maailmalta 23.02.2010 // Kuva Said,

    February 24, 2010 @ 3:01 am

    [...] How the changing nature of interpretation – crowdsourcing & social media – changes o… – [...]

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