Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tarantino and Mozart

Quentin Tarantino and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may not seem to have much in common, and let me assure lovers of high culture that I’m not going to claim that the American director is as important or influential as the famous Austrian composer. But I do think they are alike in one interesting respect: there is a huge disconnect between their personality and their work. Now I must admit that I’m basing my knowledge of Mozart’s character largely on the film Amadeus. I did once read a biography that confirmed he was actually a womaniser and a spendthrift, but that’s kind of beside the point: I’m not accusing Tarantino of such things. What I’m basing my thesis on is really just the moment in the movie when F.Murray Abraham as Salieri first encounters Tom Hulce as Mozart. He can’t believe that this childish, asinine, foul-mouthed boy (it’s right that he’s not played by a distinguished actor but by Hulce, previously known to most people only for National Lampoon’s Animal House) is the one who creates this beautiful music he’s heard. Salieri assumes God must be playing a practical joke on him.

Now once again I’m not saying that Tarantino is asinine or childish. But he is rather unprepossessing and gauche whenever you see him in interviews. He is usually a very bad actor (although his small role in Django Unchained, with what I think was an Australian accent, was his best so far, and I like the preposterous death he gives his character). And generally he doesn’t come across well in person. It’s not just that he hasn’t got the smoothness of an actor-director like George Clooney. He hasn’t even got the quiet dignity of your average low-key director who is comfortable only behind the camera. He talks a lot but he’s not a good talker; listen to his DVD commentaries and you’ll probably want to give up after 5 minutes. And sometimes he can be positively cringe-inducing. I once saw behind-the-scenes footage of him filming the famous John Travolta-Uma Thurman dance scene in Pulp Fiction and when he got up and started boogeying around - to show them how to do it! - it was like your most embarrassing great uncle making a fool of himself at a family party.

And yet his films are nearly always wonderful. Not just good, they’re usually way ahead of the competition. I didn’t think Django Unchained was one of his very best, yet still it has to be one of the year’s top 5 because his scenes and characters are so damn vivid. The movie is alive in a way so much other cinema isn’t. George Clooney, who has directed quite a few very good films, would kill to be able to direct the way Tarantino does. And for me only Michael Haneke challenges him for the accolade of most important director to have emerged since 1990. Like Haneke, Tarantino is also a great writer. The sophistication of the time-scheme in Pulp Fiction alone would qualify him for that designation. And one of the films he’s only written, True Romance, is an underrated gem. He's got a flair for using music in a startling and witty way. He casts brilliantly and gets amazing performances out of actors. His ability to build tension is unparalleled. Two amazing scenes in Inglorious Basterds are amongst the many in his work that testify to that: the opening scene in the farmhouse and the Michael Fassbender scene in German in the underground bar. And from Reservoir Dogs to Django, when Tarantino does violence, it’s just better than when any other director does it: more kinetic, more explosive, more shocking.

So that’s why I make the Mozart analogy, or at least the Amadeus analogy. Surely a few other directors in Hollywood have looked on with envy and asked: how can this doofus be such a cinematic genius?

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