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The independent who made it

Thesis shows Tarantino as a singular filmmaker who is based on plurality


The lenses of American filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, are focused on paradox. At the same time that they flirt with icons of the industry of culture, they play down its rules and move off in a new direction. For this subversive look – which blends references of the past with the present -, his films are regarded as the perfect translation of the post-modern seventh art. “He is the best American filmmaker of the 90s, because he shakes up the formulas for narratives that ruled supreme in the previous decade”, says researcher Mauro Alejandro Baptista y Vedia Sarubbo.

With a grant from FAPESP, Sarubbo drew up his thesis Quentin Tarantino: History, Comments and Pop Culture, defended at the School of Communication and Arts, of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP). His work discusses the reasons why the director of Pulp Fiction is a singular filmmaker, despite drinking from the source of contemporary plurality. “He is a director with a post-modern sensitivity, who displays a celebration of the culture of the masses in the globalized metropolises”, he explains.

The fact that he has managed to be an independent filmmaker, but a successful one, calls attention to Tarantino’s work. After winning over the critics with his violent film Reservoir Dogs (1991), he grabbed Hollywood heart, with Pulp Fiction (1994). The film inverted linear narrative, won enormous success with the public, reached the US$ 100 million mark at the box offices, and received several nominations for an Oscar. But, as one more paradox, its entry into the big circuit did not mean any loss of the earned affection from the critics. With the same film, the director won the Palm of Gold, the highest prize of the prestigious Cannes Cinema Festival.

Three years later, the director failed to grip the public with Jackie Brown, his latest full length film. The cool reception, however, did not tarnish the aura of a provocative filmmaker, faithful to his own style. “He is a filmmaker who is situated in an ‘in-between place’ with his cinema of rupture. Tarantino is at the frontier”, the author explains.

To unveil Tarantino’s identity in the dream factory, Mauro Sarubbo resorted to two currents: the theory of the genre, and the policy of authors. “This insight seems to me to be the appropriate one for analyzing a director who makes genre cinema from the self-conscious point of view of the author”, he reckons. Using these paradigms, the researcher analyzed the form, the style, the dramaturgy and the cultural and ideological discourse of the director’s cinematography.

According to thinkers on the policy of authors – a movement that arose in the pages of the French magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, in the hands of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut -, every kind of cinematographic canons must be rejected, as well as any prejudices against genre films. They think that only the analysis of each film can say whether it has artistic value or not. This perspective proposes the absolute abolition of the opposition crystallized in the western thinking of the 20th century between erudite and popular culture. “This implies thinking of culture as something dynamic, with a permanent interaction between its various manifestations”, is his analysis.

The starting point for his research, therefore, was to regard originality as an element not devoid of history. “Tarantino appropriated for himself elements of the classic cinema, the modern cinema, and even of the post-modern one, and transformed them into something new”, the author asserts. “There is always a discussion as to whether the artist invents or reinvents. In this case, it is a question of the new derived from the old. Tarantino makes a parody of the police film as the Italian director Sergio Leone did with the western, 30 years ago. “In considering this space of the cultural industry, Sarubbo took care to differentiate Quentin Tarantino’s films from films ‘for revenue’.”

According to him, the Tarantinian cinema rejects and is opposed to the productions of the contemporary conventional cinema, the main characteristic of which is their linear narrative, codified in myths and special effects. “It is formula cinema that has been dominating Hollywood since the 80’s, the typical representatives of which are George Lucas and Steven Spielberg”, he explains. In the perception of the researcher, formula cinema follows the creed of Syd Field, an important American screenwriter and author of manuals on the cinema, who defends a didactic explanation of the story in the first 20 minutes of the screening of the film.

Tarantino is indeed light-years away from ET and Star Wars. His films have as their trademark precisely the break-up of the chronological order. “The great challenge of Pulp Fiction was the character of John Travolta dying in the middle of the film and coming back to the narrative, alive”, Mauro Sarubbo points out. “But it’s not anything supernatural. It is just an artistic device”. He thinks that this expedient creates a sensation of weirdness in the spectator, and indicates an intervention by the narrator.

In Jackie Brown, the opening scene is also removed from the notion of temporality. This strategy, according to Sarubbo, also an effect of movement from the fiction. “In this context, the film puts itself forward as a fictional game. Tarantino never makes the story a mirror of reality”, he upholds. The same happens with his first film, Reservoir Dogs, in which the flashbacks do not depend on a given personage. “This is a characteristic of the modern cinema, which proposes the manipulation of time, without it being justified by the subjectivity of the personage”, says the researcher.

In this case, the main reference is to the first stage of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, in the 60’s. In the author’s view, this is not justa cultural quote. He sees it as the appropriation of elements of narrative, such as the leap in time itself, without the use of the typical voice-over of the classic flashback. In the classical cinema, the flashback is a strategy used to develop the subjectivity of the characters: the step back in time is for the spectator to accompany someone’s memory. “This is the case in Titanic, which uses flashback structure, with the introductory voice of a dramatic figure. With Tarantino, the jumps in time occur purely from the whim of the narrator”, he explains.

Sarubbo says that the current formula films reduce even the classic paradigms of the cinema (from 1915 to the end of the 50’s). Tarantino, though, drinks at the source of this genre: he incorporates its conventions, the pleasure of telling stories and the mastery over dialog. But, at the same time, he transcends it, by integrating the modern cinema of the 50’s and 60’s with post-modern cinema, made up of parody”, he explains. Another quote, therefore, is through the many digressions to Sergio Leone and Godard. Just like the films of these directors, the dialogs do not take the narrative forward. “The central principle in Tarantino’s full length films is chance. He often breaks up the narrative causality, which is also a trait of the classic cinema”, he explains.

A third way in which Tarantino differentiates himself, despite his closeness to it, is from the conservative post-modern cinema. These productions quote and evoke the cinema of the past, without making a distinction. The best examples are Body Heat and Silverado, both by Lawrence Kasdan, and Dressed to Kill, by Brian De Palma, which do a pastiche, by rehashing other films, but they refuse to deal with the present. “The difference between the pastiche and Tarantino’s cinema is that, in spite of both using the same references in traits and styles, Tarantino has the conscious intention of dealing with the present”, asserts the researcher. “Even in Pulp Fiction, which is replete with references to pop culture, he transports these quotations to the present time of the culture industry.”

Within this broad universe, defining which cinematographic genre into which Tarantino’s films should be slotted is difficult to figure out. According to the researcher, the exploitation of violence in his films comes from the cannibalistic appropriation of exploitation movies, a genre of films of the 70’s, made outside mainstream cinema. Their main characteristics are the constant presence of scenes of sex and violence, far beyond what the industry allowed. “The clear purpose was to attract a bigger audience to the cinemas. They were films made outside the circuit for a public from the poorer suburbs, or for the younger.”

Tarantino elicits from the exploitation movies the interest in excessive sex, violence and drugs. “Both the exploitation films and Tarantino’s have scenes of violence, sex and drugs in which the narrative is suspended too”, he compares. In Jackie Brown, though, there is a clear tribute to the genre, by having actress Pam Grier, a star of these films, as the protagonist. For Mauro, the attraction is a sensorial assault on the spectator, taking him out of his passivity. “Tarantino is an antidote against the inertia of the formula cinema”, he concludes.

The project
Quentin Tarantino: History, Comments and Pop Culture (nº 95/03030-8); Modality Doctorate grant; Supervisor Antonio Luiz Cagnin – USP’s School of Communication and Arts; Researcher Mauro Alejandro Baptista y Vedia Sarubbo – ECA/USP