In defense of Quentin Tarantino
You hear endlessly about how the movie director is obsessed with low-budget 1970s junk films, but his default cinematographic style is old-fashioned classic, with a big budget Golden Age of Hollywood sheen. Many of his films look like Victor Fleming directed them, with David O. Selznick sending a flurry of memos to make sure the set looks perfect.
Tarantino would have been a fine director of Technicolor films, which required a heavy three-strip camera and bright lighting. Tarantino likes to find the single best spot to place his camera and then leave it there. He`s not exceptionally good at either moving the camera or at choreographing movement in front of the camera, but his camera is always planted pointing in just the right direction.
No shaky-cam for Quentin. Not much grainy video, either. He interpolates a number of cheesy-looking segments, but his default look is grand.
He likes bright sunshine and rich colors. He`s one of the few contemporary directors who doesn`t believe that dark themes require dark palettes.
He likes nice scenery for the sake of nice scenery. In Texas, his German hero announces: We`ll go north to the mountains for the winter and then we`ll go to Mississippi after the snow melts (which he repeats three times because everything is repeated in the movie). So, then you see the cowboys picturesquely wandering around on horseback in six feet of snow with the sun rising on the Grand Tetons.
Because it looks nicer that way:
Like a late 1930s director, Tarantino figures the canyon country northwest of L.A. makes a reasonable substitute for just about anywhere that snow isn`t required. Thus, the incredibly bad scene late in Django Unchained with Quentin, looking awful, doing a cameo as an idiot with — for no apparent reason — an Australian accent. It`s supposed to be set in the mountains of Mississippi, but L.A. area viewers will be debating whether that`s Malibu Canyon or Placerita Canyon standing in for America`s least canyonish state. In either canyon, you can be sure of bright sunshine most days other than late spring, and, in the final analysis, isn`t that what truly matters?
Tarantino`s 1997 film Jackie Brown was the turning point in his career. It made a nice profit on its modest budget, and was well regarded, especially by those who hadn`t much liked Pulp Fiction. He then turned his back, however, on making mature movies.
I have a vague theory that his lack of affection for Jackie Brown has to do with it being unspectacular looking. Tarantino did a good job of capturing what the South Bay area of L.A. looks like in spring — soft and unthreatening, with a little ocean haze muting the sunshine, and a lot of fairly pleasant but mundane sprawl to look at.
But, Tarantino is not in business to make realistic-looking movies, he`s in business to make movie-looking movies.
Encyclopedist David Thomson remarks somewhere that movie stills have more power to colonize the imagination than actual movie footage because the mind remembers still images better than moving images. Tarantino is one of the great creators of glamorous pictures, even if he`s not all that at moving pictures.