A man, desperate to revive a woman suffering a potentially fatal drug overdose, asks for a “big, fat magic marker.” He needs it to mark the spot on her chest he needs to hit with a syringe loaded with enough adrenaline to revive her. But in the urgent horror of the moment, calling a household item “magic” seems surreal and absurd to stop the woman he’s addressing cold. Boiling over with rage and panic, he tries to clarify by shouting “a felt pen, a fucking magic marker.”
Quentin Tarantino’s penned a lot of memorable dialogue. But for my money, that John Travolta line from Pulp Fiction is the best line of dialogue Quentin Tarantino ever wrote. It rings true for everyone who’s ever had to communicate with precision and speed in an emergency. Our language isn’t built for precision and speed. It’s hampered by randomness and whimsy. We talk everyday, all day, through every situation we face. We’re presented with an infinite variety of challenges and problems but have an alarmingly limited set of tools to use for solutions. Someone’s dying on the floor and we have to resort the vocabulary we use to describe wizards and witches.
After watching the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood I feel fairly certain Tarantino’s never going to write something as precise and true as that ever again. It pains me to say it but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Pulp Fiction Tarantino is the best Tarantino and we’re never getting that Tarantino back.
Don’t get me wrong. Tarantino’s made amazing movies since Pulp Fiction. Hateful Eight is an unqualified masterpiece, for example. But as great as Hateful Eight is, it’s illustrative of how Tarantino has misused and misunderstood his own talents.
It’s not evoked often today, but when Tarantino first broke into the public’s consciousness, his pre-director’s chair job as a video store clerk defined his public persona. He was a movie machine with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and an idiosyncratic way of processing it. He treasured junk entertainment and made convincing arguments that they were worthwhile, if only for fleeting moments. In interviews, he’d flit between references to the costuming in episodes of Bonanza movies, secondary characters in second-tier Brian De Palma thrillers and his favorite episodes of How I Met Your Mother.
His peculiar obsessions informed much of his post Jackie Brown work. Kill Bill is a pastiche of kung fu and revenge movies. Inglourious Basterds is named for an obscure Italian-made World War II exploitation movie and, particularly in consideration of its ahistorical ending, feels like a chopped and screwed remix of war movies gone by. Django likewise borrows a name, this time from a Spaghetti Western, and its moral anger at the shameful violence of American slavery is almost buried by how its aesthetic feels like a kid mismatching different action figure outfits. Tarantino’s said he was chasing the feel of select episodes of Bonanza for Hateful Eight.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood appears to be another shuffle of secondhand sources, with Tarantino drawing on late ‘60s American International and Roger Corman movies like The Trip, Head,, Wild in The Streets and Gas-s-s-s. It’s also a further retreat into unreality, with its celebration of stuntmen, the only credible tough guys involved Hollywood productions and either features Bruce Lee as a character or a roman à clef version of Bruce Lee as a character. Most cringingly, it raises the possibility that Brad Pitt may somehow stop the Manson family’s rampage just as his Inglourious Basterds character killed Hitler.
It’s Tarantino traveling further into his reference library. Which is a shame because moments like “a felt pen, a fucking magic marker,” the moments where I believe his movies are at their best, seem so real. Tarantino’s career didn’t take off because of his encyclopedic knowledge of entertainment and his unique interpretation of that knowledge. That was there, front and center, sure, but it wouldn’t have mattered if not for Tarantino’s innate ear for dialogue and intuitive feel for how people communicate under stress.
Think back to Reservoir Dogs. We remember the verbal flourishes—”why am I Mr. Pink”, the “Like a Virgin,” monologue and so forth. But those showy, stylish words only pop because they contrast with the jittery sincerity of the dialogue between Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth. It’s tense, honed writing, showing that Tarantino was very discerning about how words were spoken in the hours of reruns he gorges on. But it’s also surprisingly close to how people really talk.
Part of the problem lies in the “The 9th Film From Quentin Tarantino” title card in the trailer. As a film obsessive, he catalogs filmmakers’ careers into distinct periods and eras. He no doubt has a lot of thoughts on how Dario Argento’s Giallo movies relate to his later works and so forth. That’s led him to be too conscious of what a “Film From Quentin Tarantino” should be. He‘s trying to force a personal filmmaking legacy by hopping through different sections of his old video store. I’d much rather have his 10th movie be a story about people he’s met in his life and how they struggle to communicate in trying circumstances.