Sunday, May 22, 2011

Quentin Tarantino, Community, and the Art of the Homage

Crossposted on and commissioned by

Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino can be a perilous place. For people like me, his work is gold; I’ve been obsessed with most — or liked a lot, at least — everything he’s ever touched. He speaks my language. He shares my taste. He does with film what I think film was meant to do. But this isn’t necessarily the popular opinion.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been around Tarantino haters. My parents and friends were never fans of his initially, so growing up, neither was I. I had never seen a Tarantino movie, but assumed he was everything I had heard about within my limited scope: unoriginal, kitschy, overly violent, and the list goes on. It wasn’t until I was assigned a paper on him at age 17, while attending NYU, and watched Pulp Fiction that things started to change.

Now, at age 25, I adore the man, both as a visionary behind the camera and the insane ball of frenetic energy he is in person. And as much as I’ve heard people complain about his endless homaging, diluting what originality may exist in his material, I couldn’t even begin to agree. In fact, I believe the opposite. I believe that borrowing from that many genres and that many specific movies, and blending them together, creates something new and unique every time. While his films may make us think of Westerns or war movies or Kung Fu pictures or grindhouse shlock, they still always feel distinctly Tarantino.

Late last month, Tarantino’s next film Django Unchained, was announced and it reportedly “…pays homage to both the Sergio Corbucci original Django, not to mention Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django….[and] Elmore Leonard’s 40 Lashes Less One.” A summary making the Internet rounds is as follows:
Django is a freed slave, who, under the tutelage of a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) becomes a bad-ass bounty hunter himself, and after assisting Waltz in taking down some bad guys for profit, is helped by Waltz in tracking down his slave wife and liberating her from an evil plantation owner.
When this news broke, there was a wave of excitement from film fans, especially those familiar with the iconic character Django and the influence of the original film. And you know why? Because it’s Tarantino choosing to homage, however subtle or not, one of the greatest spaghetti Westerns of all time. We are excited for his take on this, whatever that may be. If anyone else announced a film by this title? I guarantee the reaction would not have been as positive. We would wonder, is this a remake? A reboot? A parody? There would be no sense of faith that something incredible was about to be shot. We trust Tarantino with our homages like we can trust few others.

And who are those few others? Strangely enough, my biggest argument in support of homaging when it works (other than from the master himself,) is the television show Community. While it’s been funny from the start, it wasn’t until homages, references, and deconstruction became a fabric of the show that it truly found both its voice and originality. So much so that I’m almost disappointed when an episode doesn’t contain some sort of gesture to pop culture from the past. The show does homages extremely well and shows off both a strong love for and understanding of everything it nods to — exactly the case with Tarantino and another great example of this, the UK television program that any proper Edgar Wright fan adores, Spaced.

But homaging doesn’t always work. In general, it fails more often than it succeeds. References can sometimes seem inauthentic or pandering when not handled correctly. For example, I have not seen Paul yet, but one of the reasons I stayed away from it in theaters was because I heard the fan service was so on the nose, so cutesy, so not backed up in quality by the movie, that it became almost cringe-worthy to watch. When I opened up this question to Twitter, and asked when references or homages seemed hokey, forced, or not genuine, I got answers like “every line of every Dreamworks animated movie in the ever?,” Family Guy, The Big Bang Theory, Scream 4, the time The Simpsons crossed over with The Critic, Dawson’s Creek, later episodes of Veronica Mars, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, even fan favorite Chuck. Because there is a fundamental difference between most of these properties and properties like Spaced, Community, and especially anything Tarantino makes — the latter group features a pure, unbridled, loving, intense addiction to film and genre at large that is funneled through the mind of pure, unbridled, intense talent.

What we sometimes seem to forget is that properly homaging something is a feat that requires such a deep knowledge and respect for the subject at hand, that it is something to be admired, not railed against.

I think Quint, in reference to the Django announcement, said it best:
Looks legit and if Django is the jumping off point for a Tarantino Western (wholly spaghetti or not) that’s only good news for cinephiles all over the world… Especially with [Franco] Nero and Christoph Waltz involved.
So if you think Tarantino should stop homaging, I urge you to take another look at his work and maybe even the films that inspired him, and reconsider. If you don’t care to do this, then hey, just see his next flick. There’s magic to his mash-ups that I’m sure Django Unchained will be further proof of. I’m salivating already.