Aaron R. Davis
It’s hard to believe – and it makes me feel past my prime – but it’s been 15 years since Pulp Fiction firmly established Quentin Tarantino’s fame and reputation as a filmmaker. Since then, he’s become first a polarizing celebrity, and then a maker of polarizing films. When speaking of Tarantino, one is often told either that he’s a hack, a plagiarizer and a terrible writer – or that he’s one of the few geniuses in the last 30 years of American filmmaking.
What I’m trying to get at here is that most people have made up their minds about Quentin Tarantino already.
He’s establishment now. There are film fans too young to remember what a breath of fresh air Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction felt like in the stodgy, characterless early nineties. Tarantino’s was a fun, edgy, pop-oriented voice in a sea of grungy, flavorless, humorless cinematic landscape. What he did, and used to get credit for, was to change the direction of popular filmmaking. That others followed and imitated badly is something he gets rather unfairly maligned for. Instead of being mad at those who try and fail to imitate Tarantino, people are mad at Tarantino for unleashing the people who sought to be like him. For some reason, a certain kind of film fan can’t stand it when a fellow film fan gets his chance and takes it. You tell me.
Tarantino’s success has put him in a place of honor with Harvey Weinstein, once the head of Miramax Films and Dimension Films, now the head of The Weinstein Company (he retains Dimension). He was one of the people responsible for the independent film explosion in the nineties, and he was also a champion of Quentin Tarantino. He began as a distributor of independent films but, once he became successful enough, he sold the company to Disney and started producing films. Other filmmakers came flocking to Miramax for chances to make the personal stories they wanted to make, to tell their own stories free from studio interference. And that’s how it was, for a little while.
When interference came at Miramax, it came from Harvey himself. Sure, Harvey liked the prestige of being associated with respected, award-winning films. But what he really wanted was money and power. He wanted to make bank while being respected as an artist. So he began poking into projects. He tried to make these personal stories more commercial, more of a hit with a wider audience, in the undying – and untrue – belief of studio executives that just because a movie is popular the movie is also good. For Harvey, as so many before him, money became a signifier of quality. Ironically, he became obsessed with winning Oscars, trying to make films both prestigious and populist. He earned the reputation “Harvey Scissorhands” because of his editorial interference, which burned many people and, by many accounts, ruined some potentially great films. Ever see a movie with Harvey Weinstein’s name on it that had massive narrative problems? I blame him.
Still, Harvey was hands-off with some people: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith. People who hit with a large enough segment of the audience and amassed enough of an almost immediate cult following that their films would pay off no matter what. These were his golden children, and he didn’t interfere with their work; as a result, they’ve stayed loyal to him and were among the few who followed him to his new company after his Disney contract expired. Harvey stood by Smith when Disney refused to release Dogma; he patiently waited for six years for Quentin Tarantino to make another film after Jackie Brown. To them, he was the best boss in the world.
So why does Harvey Weinstein want Quentin Tarantino to cut 40 minutes out of Inglourious Basterds?
I know it has something to do with the film’s reception at Cannes, which was reportedly mixed. But Cannes reactions are meaningless; lots of moves get mixed reactions at Cannes. I consider myself a longtime fan of filmmaking, but I’ve frankly never given a shit about the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t buy into the prestige of them any more than I buy into the prestige of the Oscars. The majority opinion of a select audience (whether the highbrow elite of film gentry or an industrial community devoted to one product) has no bearing on whether or not you, or I, or anyone else will enjoy a film. Getting a mixed reaction at the Cannes Film Festival is like getting junk mail – it’s not special and nobody pays attention to it.
What’s more pertinent – and what the Cannes reception has provided cover for – is the story going around that The Weinstein Company is having financial problems. Some of it has to do with restructuring around our broken economy, but some of it has to do with, simply, underperforming films. And in his desperation, Harvey is finally cooking the golden goose. He’s taking Quentin Tarantino’s new film, a film which has already become legend if only because Tarantino’s been talking about it since 1996, and cutting down the running time to make it more commercial and squeeze in more showings in a day.
Let’s go back to what I said before: most people have made up their minds about Tarantino already. People are excited to see Inglourious Basterds, or they’re ignoring it and aren’t going to go. Anyone who’s already made up their mind not to see it aren’t going to be swayed by finding out it’s 107 minutes long instead of 147. And besides, Tarantino’s movies have always been on the long side. So what? The man can fill the time, and he made the mistake of taking Harvey at his word that he could do what he wanted. But now that money’s a factor, Harvey is doing what he did to everyone else – he’s asserting that he knows better than the author how to tell the author’s story, and doing what every frustrated artist does: he’s pissing all over someone else’s work.
I think what Quentin Tarantino is finding out is that Harvey Weinstein’s best friend is Harvey Weinstein. And when you don’t bring in the money anymore – Quentin Tarantino’s last picture, Grindhouse, was a financial failure – you’re no longer the golden child and loyalty means nothing in the face of commercial concerns. You guys aren’t Selznick and Hitchcock; you’re employer and employee. I hope Tarantino learns his lesson and moves on.
And hey, didn’t Zack and Miri Make a Porno underperform, too? I guess that means you’re next, Kevin Smith.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.