Many years ago, when I was doing design in college, and post-modernism was at its height, one of my lecturers famously said (to a student who'd based his unfortunate design on something that was unfortunate to begin with), 'If you're going to rip off an idea, make sure it's a good one'. Tarantino took this to heart obviously but added a crucial caveat: '...and in order to appear original pick something obscure that nobody's seen before'. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Quentin Tarantino, the erstwhile insufferable know-it-all video-store clerk, became the great and original auteur who single-handedly re-created American cinema.
In amongst the pastiche/homage (let's shorten it to 'pastage' ha ha), Tarantino can be relied upon to deliver his two trademark devices. These are his famous cooler-than-thou dialogue and his eclectic soundtracks comprised of obscure pop songs. Depending on what day of the week it is, these will either comprise the flesh that Tarantino adds to the skeletons he dug up in some out of the way Asian graveyard, or instead be the skeleton on which he hangs some other flesh of his choosing. Either way, the result is a jerky beast that excites in parts but never quite makes sense as an entire creature. It's like Bruce Lee's head with Uma Thurman's tits and Lucy Liu's arse, kind of thing.
Soundtrack v score
Let's deal with the music first. Any given piece in a soundtrack is primarily there to add a mood to a scene. Okay, in this regard we give Tarantino a tick. We could pick any number of scenes in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and Death Proof that are maxed out by some song that no one ever thought much of until Tarantino laid it over some intense (and usually blood-spattered) images. Thus within the scene the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. But the scene is merely a part within the whole that comprises the film. What of that whole?
In those terms, we need to consider the other aspect of the soundtrack, which becomes clearer if we were to call it a 'score'. A score, as written by a single composer, will fulfil the aforementioned brief of intensifying a given scene but will also perform another role - that of tying the movie together as a coherent whole. Sure enough: Tarantino. Doesn't. Do. Scores. If you want to see how this works, or more precisely doesn't work, watch Pulp Fiction. I know everyone went completely nuts for Pulp Fiction, but don't think of it as this-scene-that-scene (each breathlessly following the other), instead think of it in its entirety. Did it have one? Really? What was it?
Super cool dialogue
Tarantino's preference of a tactical scene-by-scene soundtrack over a strategic film-as-a-whole score is perfectly replicated in all of his super cool dialogue. Take your pick: Mr Pink discussing Madonna's rejoicing over a huge dick; Jules and Vince discussing foot massages and cunnilingus; Ordell explaining to Louis about the joys of AK-47's - each only work viscerally in and of themselves and are completely meaningless within the larger context of the film as a whole. They're merely pet dialogues held together by what passes for a plot.
Tarantino's dialogue's purposelessness in terms of plot is echoed in its purposelessness in terms of meaning. They're about nothing more than a cool variety of posturing. In a society where people would rather push popcorn up their nose than discuss anything even half way philosophical it's the perfect template for all who wish to be cool. Don't tell me that Hollywood has no effect on how we all talk. Just come to Australia and see how many teenage boys call each other 'bitch'.
A totality of bits
Both the soundtrack and the dialogue are typical of Tarantino's approach to film-making as a purely visceral exercise of 'in-the-moment'. With Tarantino, in-the-moment is all there is. I'll go out on a limb here and declare that our Quentin probably never walked out of a cinema impressed with any given film's big-picture message. Here's a rudely imagined conversation between Tarantino and yours truly as we sit in a cafe after having seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (say):
QT- Man that was cool! Michelle Yeoh is a goddess! That fight where she works her way through every weapon on the rack completely rocked!
n- Yeah, it was wild.
QT- And Zhang Ziyi's fight in the tavern was a masterpiece! That bit where she flew up spinning through the air and landed on her feet while delivering that poem about Wudang Shan was awesome!
n- Yeah, pretty cool. And what did you think of the central theme of the impetuous self-impressed nature of youth encountering the boundless patience and forgiveness of the sage? I liked how Chow Yun Fat always offered redemption, and effectively gave his life for it, and that it was only through this sacrifice that Zhang Ziyi finally learnt the worthlessness of self-gratification.
QT- Man, what are you talking about? Forgiveness? Shee-it! Cheng Pei Pei's knife in the head!!!
Never mind me imagining, the proof is in the pudding. Tarantino's films are only 'films' insofar as they're a collection of intense moments, one after the other until he's filled ninety minutes. In light of this, his exotic and 'innovative' narrative structures are not so much a Kurosawa-esque serving of the central message (à la Rashomon and Ikiru) but rather a desperate striving to tie a series of otherwise unconnected pet-scenes, pet-characters, pet-dialogues, and pet-pop tracks into something that vaguely resembles coherency.
Okay, dandy. But what of Death Proof? What with having exhausted Asian cinema with his mad lumbering Kill Bill opus (perversely stitched together from the bodies of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers and Japanese chambara exploitation flicks), Tarantino has decided to plunder the graveyard of obscure early 70's muscle car chase flicks - to wit: Vanishing Point; Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry; and Gone in Sixty Seconds ("The real one, not that Angelina Jolie bullshit"). We know these are the films that are being referenced because the film's characters actually say so in one of Tarantino's cool dialogue scenes.
In this scene, right before your eyes, you get to see cinema disappear up its own arse: the cool conversation involving the film's film-industry muscle-car movie-fan characters is the conversation had by the film's film-industry muscle-car movie-fan director in the film's pre-production meetings. I'm thinking there's only a single line from the pre-pro conversation that failed appear in the script and that is 'And we can put this whole conversation in the script!' Anyone remember Steely Dan's line about 'Show business kids making movies 'bout themselves'? Now all we need is for the needle to skip and endlessly repeat the line 'making movies about themselves making movies about themselves making movies...' etc etc ad nauseam.
The villain as structural skeleton
So we've got the climactic car chase (which is good for twenty minutes), and the disappear-up-its-own-arse conversation establishing it (which is good for ten), but what of the other sixty minutes? Obviously we need more cinematic flesh. Not forgetting a skeleton to hold it all together. Since a car chase involves two parties, one being chased and one doing the chasing, surely there must be a bad guy? Did somebody mention 'disappearing' and 'arse' just now? Oh, it was me. Sure enough, in a film that is a homage to old-school Hollywood stuntmen, the villain is, wait for it, an old-school Hollywood stuntman. Just in case we might miss it, he's called Stuntman Mike. Should we all roll our eyes? Or just have a cool conversation about rolling our eyes, and put it in the script? Perhaps we'll even put the bit about putting it in the script, in the script. Ha, I out-Tarantino Tarantino! (Sorry, I'll stop there before we all go mad).
Here the ever redoubtable Kurt Russell does the honours as villain. Whilst he might be a poor man's Clint Eastwood, that's still a pretty cool place to be and Russell is definitely good at it. What with this being a Tarantino movie, Russell's character is a pastage of himself as Snake Plissken from Escape From New York as well as himself as Jack Burton doing his John Wayne schtick from Big Trouble In Little China. Are we bored with this loop-tape self-reference yet? Don't blame me, blame Tarantino.
All of that aside, Russell's Stuntman Mike villain represents the skeleton holding the film's two acts together. The two acts are mirror image dichotomies, each of which is its own mirror image dichotomy of car-driving victimiser and car-driving victims. The first act involves four cool chicks who are graphically slaughtered by Stuntman Mike, and the second features four cool chicks who aren't, and then go on to turn the tables and kill him instead.
Best we not discuss the unexamined absurd nature of the villain. The only way he could make any sense at all is as a mind-control zombie à la Susan Ford. Hmm... keeping in mind the intense Hollywood connections detailed in Ford's book, not forgetting McGowan's Programmed To Kill and Laurel Canyon series, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Hollywood villains bear such a spooky resemblance to such otherwise unlikely creatures. Works for me. As is, Stuntman Mike doesn't make a lick of sense apart from one-who-must-kill-and-be-killed. Besides, if you stop and think about him the movie falls apart. Perish the thought!
The flesh on the skeleton
Most of the film's time is spent on the aforementioned 2x4 chicks. Ha ha ha, 2x4, nice one. They're possessed of a bit more charm than a piece of 2x4 but only barely. And like a stack of 2x4's there's no telling them apart. Each of the first four is pretty much interchangeable. As are the second lot from the first. With the first four meeting their perversely graphic Hostel-like ends, (followed by a go-nowhere interlude featuring two cops, one of whom explains that the killer is a madman who gets his jollies crashing into chicks), we meet the second lot of women and rub our eyes in amazement. These are the same chicks surely? Oh wait, one of them is a Kiwi. But that aside, it's a good thing there are no costume changes in this flick otherwise we'd have been in a world of confusion.
Best I can make out, these women comprise eight versions of Tarantino in drag. They're either black or they want to be, sex-obsessed, and all of their conversations are cool to the point of vacuous. It's my opinion that with this flick, and whether he knows it or not, Tarantino is now just going through the motions and barely a heartbeat away from self-parody. The entire first half of the film is all super cool dialogue and tedious beyond imagining. Anyone who wants to fast forward through the first 45 minutes won't be missing anything. There are no characters as such, no relationships, no big picture, no action, no comedy, nor even any great explication of plot, not that there's much of that either. In looking for a contrast I settled upon Chow's Kungfu Hustle. There, not a single shot or word is wasted, and all to a big picture purpose. Here the big picture is, truth be known, twenty minutes long and it comes at the end. Tarantino declared he wanted to make the 'best damn chase movie ever'. Ha ha ha, hey Quentin, you nearly got there mate, shy by four words. Thus you earn an honorary nobody award for the best Damn, let's cut to the chase movie ever!
Post-modernism comes full circle
With Tarantino, the means is the masturbatory end - one man, a room full of mirrors, and a perfectly realised circle jerk. Dressed in a stripey yellow go-go suit that is his homage to Death Proof's Sydney Poitier's homage to Kill Bill's Uma Thurman's homage to Game Of Death's Bruce Lee's homage to Quentin Tarantino's homage to himself, he talks to the drag queen in the go-go suit, "Yeah, you like that bitch? I bet you do! C'mon, say it you whore! 'I'm a dirty bitch and I love it!' Ooh yeah!"