The Edgar Wright and The Tarantino Question
I am a big fan of Edgar Wright. When I first read he was working on an action packed heist film called Baby Driver, I was excited. It was a decent film; I liked it, but it was more about being fun than being deep. I think what was more interesting was its style and tone. It was basically a live action cartoon that incorporated or parodied a number of other works, all set to a decent soundtrack. It was over-the-top, very stylized, visually captivating with strong editing, and it had carefully crafted dialogue that added humor to balance out the abundant amount of violence. As I was watching it, I asked myself: did Edgar Wright just make a Tarantino film? From the mixtape soundtrack to the focus on criminals being charming and monstrous, Baby Driver felt like a film that was made in a Tarantino mold. I thought I was being unfair by attributing everything the film had to offer to Tarantino’s influence, especially when Wright has already proven he’s an influential and stylish director in his own right. Then, as the end credits rolled, I noticed one peculiar name among the “special thanks” section: Quentin Tarantino. It almost felt like a passing of the torch.
Again, I thought Baby Driver was just good. I won’t act like it’s up there with Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, or Inglorious Basterds, but it is a film worth talking about because it was Edgar Wright’s first notable step away from British comedy or niche comedy toward a more action/crime oriented Hollywood mainstream film. It’s a glimpse into what kind of director Wright could be if he focused more on that genre of filmmaking.
Baby Driver is, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker puts it, “an imitation of generation’s worth of imitations (most conspicuously, those of Quentin Tarantino’s neo-heist-ism), each of which exists solely as a vehicle for the personal obsessions and originality of style with which a director infuses it.” It was a Tarantino-esque mash of different influences, but all the different pieces were there to tell an original, if thin, story propelled by Wright’s desire to push himself. It wasn’t a film that was made to be easy; I think that’s why it got so much attention and why Edgar Wright continues to be one of the most relevant writer-directors working right now.
I don’t know if Edgar Wright plans to continue making this kind of film, but if he does, would Tarantino still be a relevant filmmaker?
The obvious answer is, yes, of course. Ignoring all of his recent controversies, hard as that may be, he’s earned his place as a Hollywood heavyweight. Edgar Wright is just edging his way into the mainstream; Tarantino’s been defining the mainstream for a while now. He’s a great writer when it comes to dialogue, pacing, and general story. He’s a known name and his work is generally in the upper tier of what’s out there. What I’m really asking is, did Tarantino peak with Pulp Fiction, or would he still be thought of as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation even without that one masterpiece?
Tarantino was part of the 90s indie Renaissance, a member of the Sundance Generation of auteurs alongside Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and others. He came up at the right time when Hollywood was dying for scripts and new directors. He wanted to remix films, mashing all of his influences into a 90s pastiche of 60s-70s cinema. His debut, Reservoir Dogs, made critics and audiences curious, but his 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction, is what got their attention. The nonlinear narrative, the ironic use of humor and violence, the aesthetic, and the use of music all built off of what was in Reservoir Dogs to create a film that stands as one of the greatest of all time. Since then, and to his credit, he’s never really tried to make the same film. The films he made, instead, all basically had one gimmick each; blaxploitation from a White writer-director, a martial arts Western, a grindhouse camp horror, a war film, a slave Western, and finally, Reservoir Dogs as a Western. I say gimmick because Tarantino basically just uses genres as a window dressing to tell the same kind of revenge/crime story in different settings. No matter the genre, it’s usually the same tricks.
Let’s face it, we’re all sick of Tarantino’s assumed n-word privileges. I’m not overly sensitive to it or particularly offended by it, but it’s an unneeded, outdated, and an egotistical crutch. He’s trying to be controversial and edgy while claiming to be the one moving the dialogue forward on race issues. The truth is, he’s writing around loopholes so he can say “Nigger” and call it art.
Second, he’s a thief. He steals scenes and ideas directly from other films when he makes his own films, and he admits it. That’s his thing. He famously bragged, “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films.'” He wears his love of films on his sleeve, and that’s always been one of his greatest assets. In a way, though, I think that’s what’s holding him back: he’s only as good as whatever inspiration he’s mimicking/repurposing.
After watching through Edgar Wright’s filmography, I feel like he’s added more to the conversation of film in recent years than Tarantino has. They’re both film nerds, but I wonder if Quentin Tarantino’s reliance on being a film nerd is all he has to add to the conversation at this point. Take, for instance, Kill Bill Vol.1. That film is nearly a two hour homage to Shaw Brothers Studio martial arts films, Akira Kurosawa samurai films, more than just a touch of Sergio Leone spaghetti Western films, and a bit of blaxploitation. It’s recognizable as a Tarantino film because it’s recognizable as so many other films. There isn’t really anything new in that film, but it stands out in the culture because it has the veil of being new. It has its fans (including me), but all it really did was take disparate influences and condense them into a pill that Hollywood audiences could swallow. That was Tarantino’s mission, and he succeeded.
On the other side, you have Shaun of the Dead. With that film, Edgar Wright kept his influences focused: George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and his own work on the sitcom Spaced. That’s the major difference. Wright took what he had done, added his love of what others have done, transplanted his work into a new setting, and created a horror-comedy that furthered the conversation of film in terms of writing and directing. His own voice was the core to his work, and he used his influences to bolster what he had to say; not as a substitution for substance. That may sound like an overly harsh criticism of Tarantino, especially coming from one of his fans, but really, the difference between Pulp Fiction and Shaun of the Dead gets to a deeper issue. Beyond the other two films in Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy (Hot Fuzz and The World’s End), Wright continues to push himself as a filmmaker. When he falls short, it’s not as a result of being too familiar to past works or uninspired.
I’ve been a film student; I know that 90% of freshmen film students go in saying that Quentin Tarantino is their favorite filmmaker, but just as many will place Wright at number two. Whereas Wright earned his stripes as the director for Millennials through the Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Tarantino stands as the infallible icon. People like liking Tarantino because he has an accepted reputation as cool and counterculture (which is absurd given how he purposefully tries to make those things mainstream). He serves as an inspiration, the outsider making it big as a Hollywood auteur, the big shot director, and the White guy who can say the n-word and get awards for it. He’s many aspiring directors’ first gateway into the world of cinephiles, at least in America. He’s also celebrated as one of the most influential directors of all time, but I personally think that’s just a result of Pulp Fiction itself being one of the greatest and most influential films made. He’s still a good director and a great writer, but his reputation as one of the greatest rests mostly on a film he made nearly 25 years ago; close to the start of his professional career.
I doubt that most audiences would agree with me if I told them that, but there’s no denying facts: Baby Driver made over $266 million at the box office, more than The Hateful Eight, either of the Kill Bill films, or Deathproof (even including Grindhouse sales). I think that’s a fair sign that even though Edgar Wright isn’t as well known, people can get excited to see his films.
I know Pulp Fiction won’t ever become irrelevant, but I feel like Quentin Tarantino could. Other Tarantino imitators, like Guy Ritchie, fade into second-tier status pretty quickly. Edgar Wright isn’t really an imitator, but if Baby Driver was his first attempt to be one, he could outdo the original in time. For what it’s worth, I’m dying to see Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It sounds like a return to form for Tarantino, a film about relatable bad guys in California. There aren’t any gimmicks, although the title does suggest more Western influence. Maybe it will serve to remind audiences that there is only one Tarantino.