Maybe it’s because we indulge Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why he gets worse. There was a time when irony was cool – it’s true. And maybe even a time when nothing but irony seemed to proliferate (witness Seinfeld). But the trouble was, as we found out, irony is just another way of saying nothing matters. And if nothing matters but irony, aren’t it’s purveyors in danger of sounding hollow, even depraved? A movie like Death Proof isn’t out to shock viewers exactly. That’s its problem. It’s made by someone who thinks style is all there is, that affectation counts as worth.
What do you do when the world comes undone? Movies about the Apocalypse offer a variety of responses. You could be a hero, like Mad Max, or Kevin Costner (before The Postman). You could cringe in fear, like a disposable character, huddle with the masses and wait while The Hero decides what to do. Or you could be the reluctant hero, like Clive Owen in Children of Men, who gets to cringe in fear and to act heroic. Your only problem with option C: what if you come along too late?
I like movies that just f—ing go for it. Unabashedly is my favourite adverb. Movies like Magnolia, Amadeus – hell, even Point Break… Better a movie led astray by its convictions than a movie made without conviction, or risk. I’m not about to argue here that The Fountain makes perfect sense, or even that it offers profound insights. But I would argue that it’s worth seeing. It’s going to baffle and (unintentionally) amuse audiences. But my God, is it felt.
Guilt is fleeting in most movies. People do something bad and they’re forgiven for it: the end. Character arcs that halt aren’t worth investing in. Even the Three Colours Trilogy said it was alright to say you’re sorry. But in literature people feel bad for longer. The kind of books that win prizes show there are no endings, only events. People in novels can do something bad one day and then return to that moment, re-live it. Movies need to move a story along. That’s why Atonement doesn’t work. It isn’t that the movie isn’t good; it’s what it wants from us. It wants us to invest in a story that someone else tells to alleviate their guilt. But there’s no forgiveness for the movie audience.
Sometimes reputation doesn’t tell you anything. Art-house movies are a classic example of this, especially when they’re old and no-one remembers the movie itself. The Seventh Seal is defined in the popular imagination by a static image of a man playing chess with Death. It’s an iconic image – dark, brooding, fantastical. But while it tells us what the movie is about, it doesn’t tell us what the movie is. After the chess match – what then? The action of The Seventh Seal recedes in the popular imagination, it becomes “a film about death” by Ingmar Bergman. Agonisingly long takes seem inevitable; people imagine a movie that’s austere, cerebral, opaque… I’m not about to say it isn’t. But while those qualities might describe the movie, they really belong to the movie’s reputation. The Seventh Seal is about death, but it doesn’t play out the way you think.