Quentin Tarantino As A Modern Auteur Film Studies Essay
The auteur theory originally began as a reaction against criticism of the Hollywood studio system of the 1910s. As cinema exploded into the American mainstream popular culture, the entertainment industry, eager to satisfy the growing demand of mass audiences for films of all varieties, began to manufacture films in assembly line fashion. Because of the impersonal, assembly line production of its films, critics began to suggest that American films were not creating art, as seen in the filmic quality of overseas and underground markets, but was in fact deconstructing film into a mere commercial entertainment commodity. One main defender of the Hollywood studio system, and American films respectively, and likewise a forerunner of the auteur theory, is Francis Truffaut, who in the 1950's declared that an author, or auteur could be distinguished in many American Hollywood films. This title of auteur he specified as the film's director, whose individual fingerprint or "signature" could be identified by carefully viewing the entirety of a director's filmic contributions. Therefore, the auteur theory, in this essay, will refer to a director's role as auteur, and designating his ability to establish a continuous essence, look, and feel common to all of his works as his signature on his films, indicating him as such, an auteur.
Expanding on Truffaut's basic definition of the auteur theory, Andrew Sarris later contributed to the working theory by seeking to institute more specific criteria for directors to truly be called "auteur." Not limiting the theory to the vague and simple presence of a director's personal impression on the film as signature, Sarris went on to propose "not only the distinguishable personality of the director is a criteria of value but also that the 'meaning' which he is able to impose on the material with which he must work is the 'ultimate' glory of the this cinema" (FTC 556). Admitting the sometimes rather strict constraints put upon by studio executives, producers, and investors of the films, directors had to comply with limitations and the surrendering of control over their work. However, Sarris argues that the ability of certain directors to overcome these obstacles by superimposing their characteristic traits on the material nevertheless is evidence that the director is in fact an artist, or auteur. This means, therefore, that the director, regardless of other outside and irrepressible factors, remains the central, creative force of the film, giving the director's collective film resume an idiosyncratic quality that is directly associated with that particular director alone, setting him apart from the rest as an auteur.
But what exactly are the criteria needed for a director to qualify as an auteur? Sarris has presented three levels of criteria that a director must meet to be deemed worthy of the title auteur. First, and foremost, the director must prove technical proficiency. While Sarris realizes any idiot can direct a film by relying on technical crews to compensate for his own technical ignorance, he simply implies this type of director, lacking technical knowledge himself, eliminates his potential to become an auteur. The second level of criteria for auteur is the director's establishment of a personal signature that remains consistent and identifiable across each and every film he directs. This signature often comes in the form of recurring motifs and habitual characteristics of style. The last rung on Sarris's ladder of criteria pertains to the relationship between the director and his influence on the interior meaning of a film. Unfortunately, it is here that the auteur theory becomes a little uncertain. Essentially, this interior meaning is a reflection of the director, that the film somehow is evidence of a delicate and unique tension between the director and the film. Or, that is, the director is able to successfully project certain flair reflective of the director's attitude that plays out on the screen and is perceived by audiences. Although this flair or soulfulness of the director is often un-nameable or can not be coherently defined, it is nonetheless present, and remains recognizable to viewers. Directors like Hitchcock, Ford, Welles, and Hawks stand as examples of classic Hollywood auteurs, and as modern directors hope to achieve their ranks, they must withstand the scrutiny by which past directors have withstood and succeeded. Often mentioned as a potential modern film auteur, Quentin Tarantino is seen as a clear candidate to attain such status.
Certainly, if Quentin Tarantino is to be allowed rank among such notable directors as Hitchcock and Welles, he must comply with Truffaut's and Sarris's working definition of auteur, and if any director in present times does, it is him indeed. First, Tarantino expresses technical competence and therefore, successfully passes Sarris's first level of auteur criteria. Infamous for playfully borrowing from a wide-range of past films, Tarantino has developed a tradition of using similar technical strategies throughout all of his films. These similarities are evidence of a conscious compulsion to express technical unity throughout his films, and indicate he is, certainly, quite technically capable. Here, his repetitive use of parallel camera angles and shots are typical. For instance, Tarantino often finds naturally existing frames to frame his shots, like doorways. Also, he favors filming his characters, usually central ones, from the back, untraditional in style. Next, Tarantino enjoys manipulating the use of the close-up shot to emphasize scenes of importance as an attention-getting device. For example, close-up, quick editing cuts of hands in action are common, as are still close-ups of central characters' faces on screen as another character talks off-screen. Another shot Tarantino frequents is the use of the "trunk shot" whereby the camera looks out and up at characters talking over an open car trunk, as if the spectator was the person enclosed in the trunk and observing his captors from below. Although Tarantino has been criticized from his superfluous borrowing from other films (scenes, shots, camera angles, characters, dialogue, plot lines, etc ) he staunchly defends his methods claiming, "I lift ideas from other great films like every other great filmmaker" (Wikipedia). Obviously, then, through his repetition of technical devices, and self-conscious admission of technical borrowing, Quentin Tarantino proves he is a director with obvious technical aptitude, and ironically, this stylized technical competence is also one of his signatures as director.
Next, Tarantino must prove he has developed and sustained his own unique, assessable, and identifiable signature throughout the whole of his filmic career as director. By looking at his major film contributions, namely Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003), and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) there are undoubtedly similar motifs and stylistic tendencies that make his films recognizable as "Tarantinian." It is these qualities that allow audiences to view a film and say "This is obviously a Tarantino film, I can just tell." While many attributes suggest that a certain film carries the mark of Tarantino's presence, here a few examples should sufficient. One of his stylistic traits is his persistent use of intertexuality within his films. Proof of his early days as a video store clerk, it is clear that Tarantino had access to, and is influenced by, an enormous knowledge of films from a wide-range of genres, among them: French New Wave, Western, Detective, Horror, Japanese Anime, Martial Arts flicks and much more. Often emulating and referencing other movies, characters, and stylistic inclinations of those movies, Tarantino habitually intermixes these elements in new and unsuspecting ways, making the audience aware of the familiar being made quite unfamiliar. These frequent allusions, whether subtle or flashy, are common to all his films and therefore have become a stylistic feature often associated with Tarantino. Another characteristic of Tarantino films is his unusual use of violence pervasive in each of his films. Violence is almost always present in his films, but it is the way he portrays violence and not just its presence which makes him distinctive. Although Tarantino favors graphic scenes of violence and mayhem, with lots of gratuitous blood for deliberate shock value, he finesses this violence with elements of humor and casualness that makes the violence surprisingly witty, often said to create a cartoonish feel to them. The spectator laughs at these violent scenes, at once realizing the inappropriateness of such reaction. Another stylistic tendency is Tarantino's interest in distorting classic film narrative form, instead preferring non-linear narratives filled with flash-backs, flash-forwards, discontinuous storylines, and fragmented chapters designed to intentionally confuse the audience. While he provides hints throughout the film, this disconnected narrative form relies on the audience to put the pieces back together and arrange them in plot coherence. Other stylistic propensities particular to Tarantino include: sharp and edgy dialogue, references to popular culture, recurring characters/actors and locations, crime and crime based plot lines, drug use, and bathroom scenes. Clearly then, Tarantino does possess certain stylistic qualities which he applies to each of his films, reminding the viewer of other Tarantino films, and perhaps, of Tarantino himself. Since these peculiarities, as a whole, are all uniquely attached to Tarantino exclusively, these peculiarities have become his filmic signature, thereby fulfilling Sarris's second set of criteria for auteur.
Lastly, Sarris suggests that a director most invoke interior meaning into a film that shows the can director can transpose his persona through the film material. Because Quentin Tarantino is a famous public figure, this set of criteria is easily achieved. In short, his "public persona as a motor-mouthed, geeky hipster with an encyclopedia knowledge of both popular and art house cinema" (Wikipedia) as well as his dyslexia can be felt in his films, that is his personality is able to transcend any mechanical or studio limitations and manifest themselves on screen whether through editing, camera angles, camera movement, subject matter, or character dialogue. The film itself reflects through its director, an "intangible difference between one personality and another, all other things equal" (FTC 563). Each element in the film is an extension of Tarantino, period. By fulfilling this last requirement of Sarris's, Quentin Tarantino can indeed be argued our modern version of a film auteur. While the auteur theory is widely criticized for its lack of concrete definition, and its constant reworking of the criteria thereof, whereas, "different critics developed somewhat different methods within a loose framework of common attitudes" what definitions and opinions are available on the subject all tentatively suggest that Quentin Tarantino is an example, or a close example of what the French had in mind as a film auteur.
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