Oct 162003

My old friend and frequent critic Michael Krantz, taking exception to my criticism of Quentin Tarantino, writes as follows:

Tarantino seems to inspire strong visceral reactions of both kinds, which to my mind is at least somewhat [sic] of a compliment (who bothers arguing about most movies?).

I don’t wish to pick on Michael particularly; one sees this in arts criticism every day, and his instance is brief and near to hand.

We already know that 50,000,000 Frenchmen can be wrong, and frequently are. Here Michael goes this ancient fallacy, argumentum ad populum, one better. The opinion, in his formulation, need not be popular, so long as some people hold it. (“Strongly and viscerally” to be sure. One might think that rational opinions would count for more than visceral ones, but no matter.) Strong and visceral opinions are like — well, everybody has one, and now everybody can publish his too. Controversy, perforce, results. “Controversial” has nonetheless become a term of praise, although a shame-faced one, resorted to by publicists faced with an absence of favorable reviews. Still more debased and narcissistic terms exist, like “talked about” and, at the bottom of this barrel, “widely anticipated.” Controversy, like celebrity, is circular. Why is it controversial? Because I’m talking about it! Why am I talking about it? Because it’s controversial!

Obviously there are a great many fervently held beliefs that have no merit whatsoever. Scientology is controversial. The healing power of crystals is controversial. Everything this side of Gigli is controversial. Tarantino, too, is controversial; ergo Tarantino has merit.

Or as the girlfriend more succinctly put it, “God, that is sooo NPR.”

Michael continues, less temperately:

The plagiarism dismissal was boring and specious ten years ago.

I blog, OK? I stopped worrying about boring people a long time ago. And to the accusation that my plagiarism charge is, um, unoriginal, I certainly plead guilty. By Michael’s own lights, the fact that some people have agreed with me that Tarantino is a plagiarist might give the argument some weight. A hundred accusations of plagiarism can’t be specious.

More seriously, this is a heads-I-win tails-you-lose proposition. If your argument is original, then the reply is that no one believes that. If your argument is old, then the reply is that it’s old. It’s like being put in the asylum, where whatever you do is classified as insanity, no matter how innocuous, and taking notes, say, becomes “compulsive note-taking behavior.”

To summarize: All strong opinions have merit, or at least reflect favorably on their subject. Unless they are old, in which case they are boring and tired and need not be discussed. My thanks to Michael for clearing this up.

  One Response to “50,000 Film Buffs Can’t Be Wrong”

  1. Sorry for the delayed response, I was temporarily Internet-less…

    You have a point about my ‘controversy’ point. Just because Tarantino makes people want to argue doesn’t necessarily mean he’s any good. I would simply ask why so many people (including you) feel moved to either defend or attack Tarantino’s movies? Matrix Reloaded was a bad film, too, and ain’t nobody getting all hot and bothered about it.

    As for "boring and specious": I’ll retract the word "boring." Although I meant that line of argument in general, not this blog in particular, I wish to say that your writing, while occasionally wrong (more than occasionally when it comes to film, IMO), is never boring.

    "Specious," however, I’ll stand by. The word ‘plagiarism’ traditionally refers to a prose author who lifts actual quotes from someone else’s work and sticks them into his own work without attribution. For obvious reasons, this is impossible to do in film; you can’t take an entire clip from an older movie and pass it off as your own. You can take scene ideas, blocking and perhaps actual dialogue and integrate it into your own story, but even then, you aren’t really plagiarizing anymore, are you? I’d have to go find the old Hong Kong flicks in questions to know how directly Tarantino actually has used scenes and ideas from them in his own work, but first of all, he loves those obscure old movies so much that he has created an entire film festival in Austin to promote them, so he’s hardly hiding his influences; and second of all, I would argue that movies like "Pulp Fiction" (good) and "Kill Bill" (bad) have a cinematic "voice" that is entirely his own; if he has indeed taken stuff from other movies, he has integrated it into very original movies that have (for better and worse) their own cinematic grammar; the word ‘plagiarism’ just doesn’t apply, and frankly, ought to be retracted.

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