The James Clayton Column: Quentin Tarantino - Necromantic movie maestro
As Django Unchained revives the spaghetti western, James salutes Quentin Tarantino's ability to reanimate forgotten actors and genres...
“Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” But that’s okay, because Quentin Tarantino can probably bring him back to life. It’s one of his specialities, though it’s not as widely discussed as his amazing gabbiness, his knack for sharp, highly-quotable dialogue or his talent for painting stylish violence on screen. With Django Unchained now in cinemas, I reckon it’s an ideal time to reassess his dark artistry and raise his reputation as a necromancer.
Death is not a certain state in Tarantino’s world, and that’s not just because the director favours non-linear timelines - a storytelling structure that means murdered characters may reappear on screen again before the credits roll.
QT is outstanding as a moviemaker in manipulating what was presumed extinct, plucking ghost trails out of the ether and then making them manifest on celluloid so they move in harmony with other disparate elements - some of which may also have been presumed dead.
He’s an auteur with paranormal energy and a determination to fire the inert and apparently demised full of adrenaline and re-animate it to rock ‘n’ roll in the here and now. He did that to Uma Thurman in both Pulp Fiction (overdose) and in Kill Bill (comatose) and those resurrections stand as two on-screen moments that encapsulate Tarantino’s lifegiver gift and his all-round approach to filmmaking. Spiritually attuned to the arcane mysteries and essence of the movieverse, he conjures magic and produces sublime pulp fictions that will resonate across aeons to come.
With his latest film he’s brought back Django - an iconic character no one had any reason to expect to see return again. I am, of course, asking you to accept the protagonist as a symbol, and not saying that Jamie Foxx’s black Django Freeman is the exact same man played by Franco Nero in the original 1966 film. We’re in loose spaghetti western land here, and this realm favours imagery and nebulous myth. It doesn’t matter if The Man With No Name, Sabata or Django are the same person they were in other movies. What’s important is the vital essence and notion of the character.
I’ll return to the reworking of Western lore later, but for now I’d like to draw attention to other cinematic characters that QT has reclaimed from history. In building the martial arts mythos of vengeance epic Kill Bill, he pulled a pair of ancient heroes out of the past. One was the master ninja and samurai swordsmith Hattori Hanzō - Sonny Chiba reprising a role he played throughout the 80s on Japanese TV. The other was Pai Mei (portrayed by Gordon Liu), one of the legendary Five Elders of Shaolin and star of multiple Shaw Brothers chopsocky features.
These characters weren’t dragged out of obscurity by Tarantino to indulge his own geekstreak and pad things out with a few contrived campy cameos - Hanzō and Pai Mei function as key figures that progress the narrative and, as mentor/helper protagonists, propel Beatrix Kiddo on her retribution quest.
In addition to long-forgotten characters, the director has also repeatedly dipped deep into cinema history to retrieve iconic actors who’ve slipped off the radar or slid into a career quagmire. See how the stars of, for instance, Pam Grier and David Carradine were rekindled following their title roles in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill and note how Pulp Fiction revitalised John Travolta’s career in the early 90s.
Beyond resurrecting cult individuals, what really makes a QT joint a QT joint is the necromantic method of reviving the styles and filmmaking ideas of the past to mix up in his own postmodern cocktail.
Some lazily dismiss Tarantino as a ‘hack’ and have him pegged as a thieving smartass hipster, but I completely disagree with that assessment. Austin Kleon’s creative maxim “steal like an artist” is important here and, indeed, the American auteur steals like a true artiste by lifting from the things he loves and filtering through his own distinct vision to fabricate some of the finest works in modern cinema.
It’s quite possible that the former video store clerk is the most film literate person on the planet, and he uses this power and an exploitation movie attitude for good. All his encyclopaediac knowledge, his in-references and his smart riffs on genre come together to a worthy end. What’s more, the worthy end kicks with a bitchin’ mix-tape soundtrack.
Is it all self-indulgent? Perhaps, but I’d personally rather see uncompromising film directors making idiosyncratic flicks weaved out of their own genuine affections instead of producing a lot of unimaginative, homogenous product. Modern audiences are so lucky that they’ve got Tarantino to blaze the trail as both a maverick moviemaker and as a curatorial touchstone to cult cinema.
Through his homages, the popcorn necromancer has repeatedly revived interest in out-of-fashion genres and forgotten films, fuelling audience fascination and bringing them back to life for the experience of a new generation. QT’s early works no doubt encouraged a fresh interest in the French New Wave, and likewise, Jackie Brown turned people on to blaxploitation, while Kill Bill compelled viewers to seek out Lady Snowblood and vintage kung fu flicks. With Death Proof, he was partly responsible for the modern Grindhouse revival, though the stuntman ‘stalk and crash’ feature has more nuance and depth than the movies that followed riding entirely on schtick and shock value. (That’s not a bad thing at all, by the way. It’s just that Tarantino’s surface schlock and kitsch are the surface coating for powerful muscle and never the salient point of the production.)
It’s erudite, discerning exploitation cinema that Tarantino trades in and Django Unchained now comes on strong as both a spaghetti western resurgence and a serious attempt to represent America’s ugly past. Django, a cultural legend of a long-distant sub-genre, is re-appropriated in fresh, personal style to both entertain cinemagoers and batter them with the brutal truth about historical slavery.
He’s raising huge, solemn issues as well as raising dead traditions to inform his stories. You’ve got to admire his ambition, enthusiasm and adept ability to dance with the dead, reanimate all the disparate elements and derive a powerful, essential movie experience from it all.
The auteur was the necessary jolt of life to reinvigorate American independent cinema in the early 90s, and subsequent filmmakers owe so much to Tarantino that you never have to go far to catch a hint of his influence on the motion picture industry (and possibly wider pop culture).
Scanning his filmography again ahead of Django Unchained, I can only conclude that the man has a mystic touch and is operating on a different level to mere mortals. He’s the ultimate empowered and unconstrained independent filmmaker, freely following through his whims to whip up epic spectacles of soul, style and sophistication.
I’ve got no reason to believe that the Django revival that digs up the bones and shackles of antebellum-era slavery will be anything less than a masterpiece. The same is true for whatever else QT stirs up before calling time on his directorial career, and departs to either retire in his video dungeon or walk the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu.
Alternatively, it might be like From Dusk Till Dawn, where he comes back as a vampire. Whatever happens, his legend will transcend death, and the alchemical works of Quentin Tarantino’s will resonate for eternity.
James Clayton is on a roaring rampage of revenge and will achieve bloody victorious satisfaction by referencing obscure spaghetti westerns while a mix-tape of Ennio Morricone scores and 60s surf pop boogies away in the background. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.
You can read James’ last column here.