Quentin Tarantino’s Distaste for “Arty Things” Is Nothing New

Back in 1994, when he was appearing at test screenings and early previews for his indie smash Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino had a little bit he’d do with audiences. He’d ask how many of them had seen Reservoir Dogs, and there would be applause and cheers, and he’d smile. He’d ask how many had seen True Romance, and there would be applause and cheers, and he’d smile. And then he’d ask how many had seen The Remains of the Day, the previous year’s stately Merchant-Ivory production, and when audience members would applaud to the affirmative, he would thunder at them, “Get the fuck outta here!”

That story, told in many profiles and books about the filmmaker (including, ahem, this one), is a valuable bit of context when considering what has become the most controversial portion of Tarantino’s wide-ranging, candid, and fascinating new Vulture interview. He comes off as more than a little self-satisfied (“This might come across as egotistical, but I don’t really feel in competition with anybody anymore”), which I probably would be too if I’d directed Pulp Fiction; offers up some insightful retorts to the woe-is-Hollywood concerns of many a film fan (“My pessimism isn’t about franchise filmmaking. That’s been going on since I was born”); and is unsurprisingly insightful about the Western genre as commentary vehicle (“The Westerns of the ’50s reflected Eisenhower America better than any other films of the day… the big Western that came out in the ’80s was Silverado, which was trying to be rah-rah again — that was very much a Reagan Western”).

And, true to the preferences he’s expressed throughout his life and career, he offers up praise for the unloved while cutting down critical darlings. He spends nearly 200 words singing the praises of perpetual cinephile whipping boy David O. Russell (“I think he’s the best actor’s director, along with myself, working in movies today”). He dismisses True Detective — Season 1, even! — to explain how he watched every episode of the much-derided The Newsroom three times. And he admits he just wasn’t all that into such well-regarded films as The Town, The Kids Are All Right, and An Education.

Carey Mulligan in "An Education"

That’s the section that’s getting the attention, so let’s look at it in its entirety:

Tarantino: The movies that used to be treated as independent movies, like the Sundance movies of the ’90s — those are the movies that are up for Oscars now. Stuff like The Kids Are All Right and The Fighter. They’re the mid-budget movies now, they just have bigger stars and bigger budgets. They’re good, but I don’t know if they have the staying power that some of the movies of the ’90s and the ’70s did. I don’t know if we’re going to be talking about The Town or The Kids Are All Right or An Education 20 or 30 years from now. Notes on a Scandal is another one. Philomena. Half of these Cate Blanchett movies — they’re all just like these arty things. I’m not saying they’re bad movies, but I don’t think most of them have a shelf life. But The Fighter or American Hustle — those will be watched in 30 years.

Vulture: You think so?

Tarantino: I could be completely wrong about that. I’m not Nostradamus.

Now. You can take this as a fairly sexist bit of cinematic dismissal by Mr. Tarantino (and some have); of the five films he mentions by name, four are about women, two directed by them. That’s a totally legitimate read! (Worth noting: in a just-released “outtake” from the interview, he boosts the work of Pedro Almodóvar, one of the most female-centered filmmakers in the world.) But it’s at least worth considering that this little rant has less to do with his dislike of films about women than his dislike of quote-unquote Art Films. This is someone who came of age, literally and cinematically, in the 1980s (“when movies sucked,” he notes, in welcome contrast to some younger filmmakers), an era when your choices were either braindead blockbusters, turgid serious films (like Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa, and the aforementioned Merchant-Ivory oeuvre), or genre pictures and cheap-o exploitation flicks. Tarantino went for the latter, the less popular choice, and that preference has remained —to the benefit of his work.

Uma Thurman in "Kill Bill"

In other words, he just prefers genre movies, so his dismissal of female-fronted indies is just that — a preference, a personal taste (“I’m not saying they’re bad movies”), and he’s the first to admit that his predictions about what films have staying power is pure guesswork. That’s certainly true; what Quentin Tarantino considers a memorable movie rarely matches up with the common wisdom, and if you don’t believe me, ask around for opinions on Switchblade Sisters or Mighty Peking Man.

If anything, the fact that his reach for examples of “arty things” landed on so many films about women speaks to the fact that movies about women usually land in that space, and that there aren’t enough women fronting the kind of genre movies that he prefers — a problem he’s done his level best to address by writing roles like Mallory Knox and Mia Wallace and Jackie Brown and The Bride and O-Ren Ishii and Shoshanna Dreyfus and pretty much everybody in Death Proof.

Is Tarantino a sexist? Probably, at least a little bit; most men have some gender bias, consciously or not, and there’s certainly no arguing the presence of the male (specifically, the male foot fetishist) gaze in his films. But in this specific case, in the throwaway mention of some movies that just didn’t do it for him, maybe we can give QT the benefit of the doubt.