FILM REVIEW – QT8: QUENTIN TARANTINO, THE FIRST EIGHT. A documentary written and directed by Tara Wood. Featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, Jamie Foxx. Unrated but contains profanity and violence. 120 minutes.
No filmmaker of the past three decades has inspired as much adulation or more controversy than Quentin Tarantino. The video store geek turned rock star auteur is a bigger celebrity than most of his cast members, a household name in a field that has historically had room for very few. (Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Spielberg might be the only other directors boasting comparable brand recognition among casual moviegoers.) Tarantino films – nearly all of them unlikely, enormous blockbusters – are bona fide cultural events as well as rich, deeply idiosyncratic texts rewarding close examination. There’s a fascinating documentary to be made about the massive footprint Quentin Tarantino has left upon cinema history. QT8: QUENTIN TARANTINO, THE FIRST EIGHT is not that documentary.
Written and directed by Tara Wood, who previously served as co-director on the similarly rah-rah “21 Years: Richard Linklater,” the film gathers longtime Tarantino friends and collaborators – and notably not the filmmaker himself – to gush for a bit about what a genius Quentin is and share an amusing anecdote or two. It’s not unenjoyable to watch, even if most of these tales are old hat to film fans by now. “QT8” dutifully ticks off the origin story of the overzealous Video Archives clerk whose potty-mouthed heist script found its way into the hands of Harvey Keitel and caused a phenomenon at the Cannes Film Festival. A goofy animated sequence depicts the director’s sudden celebrity status after that first screening of “Reservoir Dogs,” when all of the sudden Oliver Stone, Paul Verhoeven, and James Cameron were climbing over each other to meet this kid.
I was 17 years old when I ducked out of school at lunchtime and went to see “Reservoir Dogs” on opening day at the long-gone Loews Harvard Square Cinema. (I’d read a bit about the stir it caused at Sundance and back then had a standing rule to automatically go see any movie that had Harvey Keitel in it as soon as possible. Actually, I still have that rule.) I spent the following months dragging everyone I could convince to see it at other vanished venues like the Charles or Allston Cinemas, as the film struggled and sputtered in its initial theatrical release. “Dogs” didn’t really find its audience until home video, when all of the sudden everyone you knew wouldn’t stop quoting it.
“Pulp Fiction” came out when I was a sophomore in film school, an event we students received with similar composure to those shrieking girls watching The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In “QT8,” producer Stacy Sher attempts to explain the sense of liberation – the combination of high art and low culture that made Tarantino’s sensibility so shockingly exciting and new. Like the French New Wave before him, he filtered disreputable genre tropes through a post-modern sensibility, turning “trash” into “art.” SXSW founder Louis Black is on hand for some surface critical analysis of why Tarantino struck such a chord, but for the most part the movie’s content to stick with “that was awesome” as a default approach.
What you won’t find in “QT8” is any consideration of the controversies that have followed Tarantino throughout his career, nor a word about his personal life. There’s no mention of the messy falling out with his “Pulp Fiction” co-writer Roger Avary, or “Natural Born Killers” producers Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy, the latter of whom Tarantino famously brawled with at a restaurant. The accident that seriously injured Uma Thurman on the set of “Kill Bill” is glossed-over in two minutes of screen time, and her lack of participation in this project is telling. The disgraced Harvey Weinstein gets a scant six minutes near the end, despite their careers being so entwined his Miramax Films used to be known as “The House That Quentin Built.”
Tarantino’s famous feud with Spike Lee is dismissed by Jamie Foxx, who profanely brushes the whole thing off without Wood giving fair airing to legitimate qualms about Tarantino’s unseemly infatuation with the n-word. I can tell you from recent re-viewings of “Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” that these days it clangs coming from certain white characters’ mouths, feeling more like a young man’s naughty art-punk posturing than the verisimilitude with which it is deployed in his later historical films.
But then I am of the opinion that most Tarantino films are controversial because they deserve to be, and are often designed to inspire extreme reactions in the audience, which is why I’m always kinda surprised when they become consensus blockbusters. Wood’s upbeat, collegial “we all have so much fun on the set” vibe of the documentary runs counter to the deliberately provocative content of the pictures being made, and to my mind gives the work short shrift. These are complex films worthy of much further discussion than all this anecdotal back-patting. I mean jeez, it’s a two-hour documentary about Quentin Tarantino movies that never once mentions women’s feet.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.