If you’re a member of Generation X or Gen Y, chances are the films of Quentin Tarantino affected how you interact with pop culture to this day. His status as the last man standing of the indie directors who broke onto the early 90s film scene makes him a black swan. The fact that he started as a movie nerd working at a Los Angeles video store makes him a Pop Cult high priest.
Many traditionalists in the above demographics find themselves plagued by what I call the Tarantino Riddle. The conundrum resides in the following: A textbook Gen X nihilist who worships the most degenerate era in cinema made some of the most iconic, enjoyable movies of our lifetime.
Does Tarantino’s oeuvre vindicate the post-Hayes Code New Hollywood era? Does it definitively repudiate the comparatively more conservative cinema of the 80s?
Let me refer you to propaganda expert Devon Stack for a thorough treatment of just how dreary, miserable, and frankly inhuman New Hollywood’s output was:
Now consider Tarantino. He seizes every chance to lionize New Hollywood–specifically because it featured unlikeable characters who had no arcs and suffered meaningless deaths. He dismisses the concept of heroes and derides 1980s cinema for always letting the good guys win.
Stack points out that the way to analyze a movie is by examining its message and the effects that message has on the audience. Therefore, the question to ask is, do Tarantino’s own movies embody his boutique 90s relativism?
Taking a cursory glance at his freshman effort, the instant cult classic Reservoir Dogs, one is tempted to say yes. The director’s own comments, though, hint at a ray of light penetrating the film’s otherwise gray morality. The reason why Mr. Orange confesses his true identity to Mr. White is because he has found the thief to be a man of honor, and honor demands that he know the truth. In that respect, we can at least find some noble pagan virtue on display in Tarantino’s first film.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have his late-aughts love letter to New Hollywood, 2007’s Death-Proof. Not only is that movie crammed with degeneracy and bereft of heroes, it even shows early signs of Death Cult morality. Which, perhaps ironically, keeps the movie from being entirely nihilistic.
Then, on the far opposite pole, we have Tarantino’s self-described swan song Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A modern fairytale that presents an idealized vision of a bygone age, this film stands shoulder to shoulder with his others in terms of bloodshed. Yet as I noted in my review, for all his talk of nihilism, Tarantino can’t stop the violence in his films from conveying meaning. It resolves into an unvarnished good vs evil story at the end. And as in all the most memorable fairytales, the heroes live happily ever after.
It’s worth noting that Death-Proof remains Tarantino’s lowest-regarded movie, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among his most beloved.
However strange it sounds, the Tarantino Riddle has the same answer as that of George Lucas. In both cases, we have a master storyteller formed by the films of his youth who fails to understand his movies’ appeal. Whereas sheer financial power immunized Lucas to the studios’ demands, Tarantino’s maverick status shielded him from PC hate mobs and critics. The difference between a maverick and a rogue is that a maverick keeps producing quality. Tarantino’s insistence that his next movie will be his last indicates he knows which side his bread’s buttered on, and that it can only be spread so thin.
Sharp students of pop culture may suspect other reasons for Tarantino’s imminent retirement. Above and beyond his main benefactor’s disgrace, that is.
Tarantino made his bones as an indie maverick preaching the second coming of New Hollywood nihilism. His tune hasn’t changed in thirty years. Even in Current Year interviews, he sounds like a 90s hipster holding forth on moral relativism in a chic coffee house.
Listen to his recent interview on Joe Rogan for a perfect example:
The truth–and there’s reason to believe that truth has dawned on Tarantino–is that 70s nihilism and 90s relativism served their purpose and are now obsolete. The trap edgy mavericks always fall for is assuming that their edgy beliefs are ends in themselves. Tarantino admits that Hollywood is even more censorious now than it was in the 50s and 80s. What he might have realized, at least dimly, is that edgy relativists like him helped destroy the prior moral order to pave the way for Death Cult moralism.
And with bourgeois relativism having outlived its usefulness to Hollywood, there will soon be NO PLACE for reactionaries like Quentin Tarantino.
He just might be learning not to make entertainment for people who hate you.
Take a page from Quentin. Stop supporting studios that hate you. Support creators who want to entertain you.
Originally published here.