Friday, August 21, 2009
It struck me the other day while I was down in Memphis that so many of my favorite artists, ranging from Elvis Presley to Andy Warhol to Brian De Palma, have at one time or another been accused of ripping off other people's work. These accusations have always rang extremely false to me as I have always looked upon art, whether it be painting, film or writing, to be in some way an assimilation of something that has come before. The thing that keeps art interesting and progressive are new artists ability to take elements of what came before them and essentially introduce them to each other, and in the process create something new. So Elvis Presley didn’t rip off Little Junior Parker but he did introduce him to Dean Martin, just like Brian De Palma didn’t steal from Alfred Hitchcock as he was in fact fusing him instead with Dario Argento. There is of course out and out plagiarism, but folks guilty of this crime aren’t artists and the difference is obvious even to the most untrained eyes.
Since the very beginning of his career when Reservoir Dogs borrowed plot elements and visual touches from Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, Quentin Tarantino has been accused of being nothing but a grand rip-off artist by his harshest critics. It’s the same thing that has plagued De Palma since he used Bernard Herrmann to score Sisters in the early part of his career. People seem more forgiving of sly incorporations than they do obvious tributes, which is why directors ranging from Sergio Leone to Michael Mann haven’t come under the same savage criticism, although one can easily detect heavy ‘borrowing’ in each of their fabled careers.
The thing I love the most about Quentin Tarantino is the same thing I love about the early work of the New Wave directors (whose work was fuelled by lifts and tributes) and that is that they are clearly in love with cinema and film history. You can bet that if Quentin Tarantino is lifting from an older film it is because he loves it, and he’s looking to introduce folks to it. Rip-off artists by their very nature don’t own up to their influences, but Tarantino has always been extremely vocal about the films he tips his hat to in his own work. Like his fellow Tennessee native Elvis Presley did, Tarantino’s ability to create something totally unique by combining at times extremely different elements is quite astonishing. There might be hundreds of different references in a film like Kill Bill, but the work is finally uniquely Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs might contain some of City On Fire’s plot points, but Tarantino’s work isn’t about the story, it is about the dialogue and there is nothing in City on Fire that even remotely resembles the pitch perfect and hyper-realistic language found in Tarantino’s famed first feature. More than anything else, Quentin Tarantino is one of only American directors who is truly a succesful product of Rock n' Roll, as the purity found in his films is due to his ability to fuse together sometimes completely random and different elements.
While they keep many fans away from his work, the many tributes found in the films of Quentin Tarantino are one of the things that keeps me coming back to them. I thought it might fun over the next week to mention a few of my favorites that might not be as obvious as others. Of course the problem with this is that I might be totally off the mark on some. One of the fun aspects of watching a Tarantino film is attempting to name check the many references, but in doing this one has to admit at times that they could be totally wrong. So again, let me say up-front, I might be totally off the mark with these as I am not working from any interviews or anything of that sort.
First up we have William Girdler’s 1975 feature Sheba, Baby starring Pam Grier. I have written on the film before, and just recently Marty McKee wrote a piece on it as well. It’s really not that great of a film, but the fact that it was shot in Louisville, Ky (a town I have haunted a great deal in my life) makes it quite special to me. The film is made extremely interesting though by its final moments with a scene that foreshadows the haunting last section of Jackie Brown (also starring Grier) quite closely. Here are some stills from that scene in Sheba, Baby, that I am guessing might have influenced the incredible ending to my favorite work from Tarantino. Again, I am just guessing but it does make this admittedly minor mid-seventies feature starring the legendary Grier a little more interesting.