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Cinematic Grammar [Or: How I am Finding It Harder and Harder to Respect Homage]


Recently, I have become more and more disillusioned with a number of my favourite filmmakers [namely Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson]. I put this down, mainly, to one thing: the amount of cinema I am watching, and the originality I am seeing within it. I do not [fully] get that when I watch a Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson film anymore. I am becoming more and more interested in the idea of cinema as an intelligent, complete art form, where all the elements come together to help the director say something of meaning. While both know what they're doing in a technical sense, I don't feel that Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have anything of their own to say at the moment.

I believe in cinematic grammar, but not in the sense that there is only one set of rules. I think that, with the great directors [old or young or somewhere in between], you can see that they have, in essence, developed their own cinematic language over time, based on their vision [which is also constantly developing] and nothing else. Their grammar might borrow from that of others, but not for the purpose of being cool, clever or shocking. It borrows only to aid the vision, and I think that's the thing. I think that's the line. Borrow, but not for any superficial reason.

I don't feel, as yet, that Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino have developed their own cinematic languages, and I don't feel that [at the present] their borrowing from the past is anything other than chic homage. The Wise Up sequence of Magnolia demonstrates that Anderson definitely has the ability to develop a personal, distinct grammar, and I feel that Punch-Drunk Love was a step in the right direction for him. Kill Bill, for Tarantino, was a step backwards.

Love them or hate them, it's people like Lars von Trier, Wes Anderson, Pedro Almodóvar, Steven Soderbergh and [more recently] Gus Van Sant that are truly forming their own cinematic rules and theories at present [of course, people like Polanski and Scorsese and Weir keep developing theirs over time]. And they do it not with the intent of being hip, but with the intent of supporting their individual directorial vision, and what it is they have to say. And for me, I now realise, that's the difference between good and what is great.

A novel adaptation.
That was quite an eloquent treatise on syntax.

I agree with some of your points, and I understand what you're getting at with the cinematic grammar concept, but I'm not sure I understand or agree with all of it.

For instance, I'm not sure of the inherent difference you're implying between something that Scorsese borrowed from Godard to make Mean Streets and something Tarantino borrowed from Godard (or Scorsese) to make any one of his films.

Is it an emotional intelligence, or simply having something to say?
"We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm."
--Winston Churchill

Well, when Scorsese takes inspiration from Godard or Ford or Visconti, he filters it in such a way that it isn't a direct restaging, rather a reimagining using similar thematic elements - approaching the mood or tone of a previous film moment. With the likes of Tarantino and P.T. Anderson, they quote moments exactly, painstakingly to the letter, with a self-assured wink, so that you can't help but notice the reference (assuming you're familiar with the original movie) - so much so that it often seems to be the only point. Personally, I find it distracting more than anything.
"Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It bosses the enzymes, directs the pineal gland, plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin, the antidote to Film is more Film." - Frank Capra

It was beauty killed the beast.
Originally Posted by The Silver Bullet
I don't feel, as yet, that Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino have developed their own cinematic languages, and ...
But, could one argue that borrowing heavily from other sources and then shuffling these moments and resetting them within a new story, with new characters, locations, etc. is in fact their "language"?

Taken scene by scene Tarantino's and Anderson's films may seem like restagings of things done by their cinematic heroes, but when looked at in their entirity Kong feels they have still constructed original works.
Kong's Reviews:
Stuck On You
Bad Santa

Both Tarantino and Anderson have their strengths that point to their originality - Tarantino's is dialogue and special juxtopsition of dark humor, Anderson's is an easy mastery of visuals and ability to immerse his films in a tone. But for me, I find they use all their thick hommage as a crutch far too often. Yes, it is obviously their cinematic language thus far, but I too hope in the future they find something more completely their own, abandoning the constant references to and restagings of movies they know by heart.

Instead of P.T. and Quentin, look at a Scorsese contemporary: Brian DePalma. For the first part of his career, he was clearly obsessed with Hitchcock. Made no secret about it certainly, but when you look at Sisters, Obsession and Dressed to Kill, while there is definitely DePalma with the Hitch and there is evident talent, it's still too much like Hitchcock-lite when all is said and done. But, when you look at Blow Out and Carrie, he's still using Hitchcockian elements and references, but not to the degree or specificity that he had in the previous movies I mentioned. Consequently, I think Blow Out and Carrie are much, much better films - DePalma finally finding a language that was more his than Hitchcock's.

But, to each their own.

Originally Posted by Herod
Is it an emotional intelligence, or simply having something to say?
It's the purpose behind the borrowing that matters. The moment you borrow for the sheer sake of borrowing, your film becomes "less". In my opinion, anyway. There has to be a better reason that, "Well, Altman did it, so it'd be cool to do the same..."

I am having a nervous breakdance
I'm no Altman expert but have seen about ten of his films with great interest and I like his work a lot. Some of his films are true masterpieces and I would consider him a master, or an auteur, if you will.

I remember when Paul Thomas Anderson was considerably unkown for the big audience and I read a review of his Magnolia in a swedish magazine. I recall the author of the review saying that it had the same narrative as Altman's Short Cuts sort of, but where Altman treated his story and characters in a "horisontal" matter, Anderson did it "vertically". Well, I guess I understand more or less what that reviewer meant but I didn't pay too much attention to it. But since that review (who praised Magnolia enormously, btw) I haven't really heard much about Anderson's debt to Altman. And judging from my own experiences with both directors' films, I have myself never thought about it again.

To me, except for the occasional episodic narrative and the large number of rather important characters whose stories are weaven into each others (mainly in Magnolia), I have problems finding examples of Altman Style similarities in Anderson's films. I haven't looked for it, so it might be there. But since I think Altman has a very personal style that is recognizable from a far distant, I think I should at least have thought about it when seeing any of Anderson's films.

The Gingerbread Man is an Altman film that wasn't especially successful and that didn't have much of an impact on the world of cinema compared to some of his other films. But I like it a lot because if we lift our attention from the story, and focus on style instead, it is a school book example of Altman's style. The flowing movements of the camera that is rather peeping in on the characters than participating in the scene and the seemingly nonsense conversations in the shadow of the "real" dialogue. Stuff like that. Even if Anderson is working in Altman's tradition I think he has different motives with his films than Altman has. I experience Altman's films as journeys, you go with him for a ride to check out the people you pass by, but you don't have time to stop or you will miss the big picture. Anderson seems to be wanting to stop and investigate every person he meets on the way in depth and detail. It's not until he does that that we (supposedly) understand their connection. (Just speculating here....) And I guess this is what that reviewer meant with "horisontal" and "vertical".

The narrative filmmaking that Altman has been associated with and perhaps also invented (or at least pioneered); I think to use that as a filmmaker and be accused of plagiarism would be like building a Ferrari and then being called a copycat because you didn't invent the wheel.

Before I knew about De Palma's obsession with Hitchcock I saw Dressed to Kill and was left with my jaw hanging when I saw that it was a remake of Hitchcock's Psycho straight up. I have never noticed anything in the same area as that when it comes to Anderson's films and his Altman influences. And De Palma is often regarded as one of The Great Ones of American Cinema.

When it comes to Tarantino, I can understand and to a degree also agree with a lot of what you are saying. But I think that in at least Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction he has done something completely fresh with the things he borrowed. (Haven't seen Kill Bill yet).

I just would like to see a few examples of where Anderson is actually copying Altman. Paying homage or borrowing something and after that making something personal from it don't count.
The novelist does not long to see the lion eat grass. He realizes that one and the same God created the wolf and the lamb, then smiled, "seeing that his work was good".


They had temporarily escaped the factories, the warehouses, the slaughterhouses, the car washes - they'd be back in captivity the next day but
now they were out - they were wild with freedom. They weren't thinking about the slavery of poverty. Or the slavery of welfare and food stamps. The rest of us would be all right until the poor learned how to make atom bombs in their basements.

First, Silver Bullet gets rep points.

I don't believe a director needs a 'great vision' of his/her own in order to make a great movie. All he/she needs is a sense of how to best use the camera in a way that speaks to people. Kill Bill, for example, is the best movie Tarantino will probably ever make, and a proper understanding of it is almost entirely contingent upon the viewer's reference points - this, in my eyes, does not discount it as an original artistic achievement. That movie is like the most lucid and well-blended mix show you'll ever hear. The medium is the message in Kill Bill - it's not about anything other than what is onscreen, and what has been onscreen before it. And everything you will ever need to know about movie love can be found within a single frame of the Lucy Liu fight sequence. Tarantino's devotion to cinema bleeds from every shot, pulses with the blood of King Hu and Foxy Brown. Better that, one might contend, than a bastardization of Patrick O'Brian by a filmmaker who hasn't made a great film since Picnic at Hanging Rock, two decades ago.

The directors who matter are those that aren't afraid to do anything. What Tarantino does in Kill Bill is on par with L'avventura or Belle Du Jour - perfect expression of the filmmakers' vision. They may not have Bergman-like aspirations, but Antoinioni, Bunuel, and now Tarantino are great artists. I think that Spielberg's last three movies exemplify this as well: his entirely separate visions in A.I., Minority Report, and Catch Me if You Can are unified only by his technical mastery - whether dealing with philosophical issues or just great fun, he never feels old in spite of the many homages in all three movies.
**** the Lakers!

Both of you have some very valid points, some that I agree with, some that I do not. Unfortunately, I'm not like Chris, and the idea of breaking both those posts down into smaller pieces makes me want to vomit. I'll keep on watching Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson pictures, because the question at hand is not one of enjoyment. It's one of respect. I don't feel I can consider these filmmakers to be artists just yet.

And by the way, I've been meaning to say, Steve, that your analytical passion for Kill Bill is really quite inspiring to me personally. The first time you used the expression "emotionally engaging by way of aesthetics", well, I nearly died. I maintain that, more than anyone else, it's people like yourself and Holden that I want to reach with my films. People that, you know, really get and love movies.

And now, a quote that quite effectively sums up my current opinions:

"You can also learn cinema, to a lesser extent, by watching films. Here, however, the danger is that you might fall into the trap of hommage. You watch how certain master filmmakers shoot a scene, and then you try to copy that in your own films. If you do it out of pure admiration, it can't work. The only valid reason to do it is if you find the solution to one of your own problems in someone else's film and this influence then becomes an active element in your film.

One could say that the first approach – the tribute – is borrowing, whereas the second is theft. But for me, only theft is justifiable."

– Pedro Almodóvar in Moviemakers' Master Class (2002, Laurent Tirard)

I am having a nervous breakdance
Ok, I couldn't find a pic of the famous scene from Victor Sjöström's silent film The Phantom Carriage, but this other famous scene from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal is a direct hommage to Sjöström, except Bergman has a crowd of people (plus Death) walking over the hill while Sjöström has a carriage going over it:

Just thought it was interesting since we're discussing this anyway.

My life isn't written very well.
OK, if no one else sees the significance of Silver's first post in this thread and does not give him any rep points, then you have no business being here. Matt, welcome to moviemaking. Please share with us all that you do!!!!
I have been formatted to fit this screen.

r66-The member who always asks WHY?

A novel adaptation.
Originally Posted by r3port3r66
OK, if no one else sees the significance of Silver's first post in this thread and does not give him any rep points, then you have no business being here.
Sorry, I assumed this forum was for discussion, as opposed to fellatio.

All the same, nice thread, Matt:

there's a frog in my snake oil
Oh go suck an egg Herod.

Cool thread. I think i might have to brush some silveryness from my mouth too b4 i speak . I'm not nearly as well versed in film-lore as you guys, so i can't comment as much as i'd like to. From my not-versed-enough background tho i agree with Silv's assessment that using powerful elements/techniques from previous films must serve a purpose, not just be a carbon copy. In Kill Bill i felt there was a brittleness to it that probably sprang from the amount of "homage" as Silv has described it and as Steve has praised it.

Personally i found it enjoyable on the cinematic/superficial level (specifically coz of the hommage to things i did recognise and the effective use of techniques), but hollow also because it seemed to contain no message as such (tho i did think there might be a "samurai" ethics strand running through it possibly. Need the second one to decide. I never got round to disagreeing with, Holden i think it might have been, on the KB thread, that the lack of character clarity for Bill was a bad thing. I.e. i thought the potential mystery of his morality was good i.e. what we did know was that he has some "ethics" [don't kill her while she's sleeping etc], and yet the sword maker obviously felt dishonour at having been associated with him. There's a kind of samurai-like personality-subsumed by ethical-structure feel to that which appealed to me.)

Incidently, i thought Uma fitted well with the hollowness i felt, because i feel her acting has become more and more wooden and puppet-like since the Avengers farago, where she was quoted as saying she doesn't think/concern-herself about being sexy etc - it just happens she thought. It shows. Shame. She's not investing herself in her characters etc. She's become distanced from/because-of the whole proceedure perhaps. Whether or not her "fittingness" or portrayal was deliberate, again, only the last film will tell. I suspect happenstance in many ways, unfortunately

It did feel like Tarantino had scraped around for six years to find the impetus to galvanise old ideas into a new whole effectively - but i'm still not sure he's grown as a person in that time or through the making of this film - if anything he's just become a complete boy-with-his-toys/nerd-appealing-to-the-nerd-herd(on an intellectual level).

It seems interesting tho that both of Silv and Steve seem to agree in some ways that the target audience should be the knowledgable one. i.e. Steve saying it thru hommage as the bridge, and Silv talking about wanting to reach people like Holds etc, who look for meaningful re-usage of these "wheels" that keep movies going.

Personally i'm still caught up in the idea of communicating ("intellectual" and "emotional-to-instinctual") ideas to as many (types of) people as possible. But i am deciding more and more that i can't really think of any film, or examples in other media, that have achieved such a broad aim. The personalness of a book, yes, perhaps. The emotional triggering and recognition in films about specific subjects and situations, yeah. These things can change us. But reaching across to those who neither think like us nor have the same experiences. That's such a major one that i'd love to see a film achieve. (hence my disappointment in the Matrix series. Not a great example to bring to this thread, but there you go. I thought more would be brought to a popularist sphere when they decided to extend the original - in both a crisp-intellectual plus manipulative-emotional way. Heigh ho. Asking too much again)

On Steve's point about Spielberg, i agree that he keeps things fresh. But i feel his skill is to understand others' works and present, rather than to generate himself (tho in AI i suspected he failed, tho i haven't seen it to the end - just heard the ending felt traditionally-tacked-on speilberg-happy-ending - the one area where perhaps he puts too much of himself into what are others' ideas IMO).

And Piddz, what can i say, i loved the description of horizontal and vertical usage of style and content, once you'd explained it fully.

To conclude. I'm always happy to enjoy the zen-like trance an expertly, artistically made cinematic-homage movie can generate (or even a novelly created one which still focuses on the visual rather than the world-contextual/meaningful etc [heheh, i'm getting so pretentious now ]). But there's a big part of me that wants films to do more than that. To use style to evoke content, to carry it into our lives, to trick us into feeling it and thinking it. The people that achieve that are the Dons of this hypnotising world mefeels. And they have a responsability to know what they're "talking" about

Keep up the good work guys. I'll get to work on my list of a thousand films i haven't seen
Virtual Reality chatter on a movie site? Got endless amounts of it here. Reviews over here

I am having a nervous breakdance
Just another thing I thought about...

It is often believed, especially among people like us; film-nerds and critics and so on, that an inner artistic vision and the realization of that vision is what makes a true master. Bergman, Fellini, Almodovar and those guys may have a vision and the power to make it happen. But how come a guy like Tarantino's the undisputable champ in every camp? The audience and the critics love(d) him and you don't have to be a cinema historian or a trained intellectual to love and appreciate his films. I like the old masters, the Phanteon of cinema, but what I sometimes like even more are the directors that moves around somewhere in between the art cinema and the mainstream and gain recognition because they are able to so brilliantly describe an era or a mindset or a group of people that makes you spontaneously shout "THAT'S IT!!!". Tarantino doesn't make films about people like me, but the dialogue and the irony together with the streetwise mentality and the "drugs-are-dangerous-but-kind-of-cool" are symptomatic for the 90's. He's not only right on spot but his timing was perfect. Furthermore, Tarantino is the perfect example of the fact that any filmlover with enough passion, talent and knowledge can become a superstar director. You don't have to go to exclusive film schools. I think that at least his first two films will be remembered as 90's classics just in the same way as we remember The Godfather and Chinatown as 70's classics. And Bergman wasn't onesidedly loved by the critics in the beginning of his career. He was utterly hated and despised. But the rebellious kids kind of liked him.

So what am I saying with this? Only that Tarantino doesn't necessarily say more about our generation and our time than Bergman said about his generation, for example. Only that he speaks in a language that an awfully lot of people can comprehend, and with the love and respect of the almighty critics and know-it-alls kept intact. (But for how long?) What has Federico Fellini meant for the 20-30 year olds of today? In most cases, probably nothing. What has Tarantino meant for the same group of people? A lot more surely.

there's a frog in my snake oil
Yeah, his first two films definitely have a lot more "body" under their skin . He's zeitgeist city (and he's achieved it by "hommaging" the past - weird ) If anything i wonder if the first two actually "created" cultural aspects - well, in the sense that everyone started saying "mother-****er" more .

Originally Posted by Piddzilla
What has Federico Fellini meant for the 20-30 year olds of today? In most cases, probably nothing. What has Tarantino meant for the same group of people? A lot more surely.
That's a ridiculously unfair comparison though. Of course Tarantino's films are going to mean more to people today. They're not "old" films.

Compare Fellini's impact on people today with Tarantino's impact on people thirty years from now. That's fair.

I am having a nervous breakdance
Originally Posted by The Silver Bullet
That's a ridiculously unfair comparison though. Of course Tarantino's films are going to mean more to people today. They're not "old" films.

Compare Fellini's impact on people today with Tarantino's impact on people thirty years from now. That's fair.
Ok, exchange Fellini's name to Almodovar's. Or we could compare the kind of impact Tarantino has today to the impact that Fellini had back then. And isn't The Godfather (to which I compared Tarantinos's films to as well) over 30 years old just like some of Fellini's work? Last time I checked on The Godfather was still considered the best film ever.

I just think it's unfair to dismiss a film as soulless or made without visions just because it isn't introvert and explicitly about the inner demons of the director. How come The Godfather (and Pulp Fiction too, I believe) is timeless? I think it might be because it speaks an universal language and deals with some issues that will always be important instead of being a demonstration of the philisophical flavor of the month. That and of course the fact that people are always suckers for good stories, great acting and breathtaking images.

A novel adaptation.
I thought the point was that Tarantino's stories weren't his.

Anyways, I think you're looking at this the wrong way; we shouldn't be considering what effect a film has had on the mass of people (the only thing demonstrated by the IMDB thing,) but rather the effect it has had on cinema as a whole.

Tarantino being a thief is only inspiring other people to be thieves.

there's a frog in my snake oil
Originally Posted by Piddzilla
I just think it's unfair to dismiss a film as soulless or made without visions just because it isn't introvert and explicitly about the inner demons of the director.
But what about if it doesn't say anything about society, people, or anything? What if it's just gloss. A well buffed piece of fluff that still tickles some recognition muscles is still better to me (beyond technical intricacies, but that's just me). And the toffs of the filmic family tree have gotta be those Godfathers with their well-weaved tapestries.