Let’s start with a few images: A psycho jive artist dancing around as he cuts a man’s ear off. A retired bullfighter slumped in front of a television set, masturbating furiously to slasher movies. Scenes like those, from Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Matador,” pretty much secured the bad-boy reputations of their creators. Tarantino came to be regarded as a hyped-up pop culture junkie spritzing bloodshed and movie references in equal measure. And Almodóvar was thought of as something like the post-Franco John Waters, mixing ’50s Hollywood-style melodrama with cheerful hedonism awash in sex and drugs.
But at this year’s New York Film Festival, it was Almodóvar’s latest, “Broken Embraces,” that was chosen for the stately closing night slot. And about a month or so before the festival, Tarantino’s latest film, the epic World War II adventure “Inglourious Basterds,” became the unlikeliest hit of the year. What links both of these films is that, for each filmmaker, they represent a point at which they demonstrate a mastery of craft equal to the Hollywood films that inspired them.
It’s not to take away anything from Tarantino or Almodóvar to say that their affinity to classic Hollywood narrative is more obvious right now because Hollywood movies are in such lousy shape. Spectacle, juvenilia and movies that look as though they were made by someone with ADD have taken over. Stories don’t make sense, action sequences are incoherently shot and edited (there’s often no telling where characters are in relation to each other) and by the time audiences go in on opening weekend, they’ve been so saturated by trailers and ads that they’ve already seen the most surprising moments of the movie they’re about to watch dozens of times. And then, after the hype and the weekend grosses, everything becomes old news on Monday morning and the next week’s round of hype begins.
It wasn’t always clear that Quentin Tarantino was going to stand apart from the shallowness of contemporary American movies. But the “Kill Bill” movies, though containing more action set-pieces than all his previous work put together, showed a mature confidence that was new. The story was a quest for revenge, but the movie worked as an extended metaphor for putting away the past. Uma Thurman’s Bride isn’t just killing her enemies; she’s parting with almost everything that’s made her who she is — which is why the entire epic climaxes with a breakup scene. Tarantino has always used nonlinear storytelling and multilayered narratives. By “Kill Bill, Vol. 2,” he’s come to rely almost completely on dialogue, and not compendiums of pop culture references but long, character-driven interrogations.
Even “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s half of the trash-movie homage “Grindhouse,” was a declaration of independence from the current movie scene. It’d be wrong to say that the movies Tarantino referenced were in any way innocent — they were too calculated, too sadistic for that. But there was less bullshit to them. Put it this way: the exploitation filmmakers who lured in audiences with promises of the leading lady taking her shirt off or blood-splattered action seem to be scamming a buck with a lot more honesty than the studio merchandising execs who sell toys at Burger King, or the publicists who get correspondents on the networks the studios own to interview a new movie’s stars as if that constituted news.
A popular movie that doesn’t follow that pattern is an anomaly. This summer, at J.J. Abrams’ retelling of “Star Trek,” you could almost hear the audience sigh over the luxury of seeing beloved characters given the chance to talk to one another, and at having a story with a coherent emotional arc. As they did a few years before at “Casino Royale,” moviegoers were watching something that wasn’t going to evaporate the moment they left the theater.
Disposable junk is largely what Hollywood makes now. The pictures nominated for Oscars, the ones the studios have always pointed to as evidence of their interest in making quality films, have become, in terms of the audience they attract and how they figure on balance sheets, niche movies. Even an expensive picture like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” isn’t thought of as having potential to break out. The days when the big hits, like “In the Heat of the Night” or “The Godfather,” could also be Oscar winners are far in the past.
And American indie movies haven’t filled the void. To submit yourself to the half-baked whimsy of yet another ensemble comedy with patented quirky characters, or to another 90 minutes of shaky-cam and characters who look as if they can’t be bothered to shave or iron their clothes, seems like a denial of the wit and style and beauty that drew us to movies in the first place. I couldn’t face Katherine Dieckmann’s “Motherhood.” The trailer depressed me. I didn’t want to watch Uma Thurman, one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, reduced to a frazzled frump dealing with strollers and playdates. I can see that in Park Slope.