The recent anniversary of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes twenty years ago last month, was met with a plethora of articles extolling the film and its legacy. This is hardly surprising. Tarantino's sophomore effort continues to hold up well, in no small part due to its dime-novel pedigree, which rendered it archaic the moment it was made while also imbuing it with a certain timeless quality. Its legacy is perhaps more debatable: that it remains one of the most influential films of the 1990s is without question, though whether or not the world needed its conga line of imitators is more doubtful.
What very few of the articles have explored is the manner in which Tarantino has been unable to realise his full potential in the wake of Pulp Fiction's success. Within the context of his oeuvre as a whole, the movie continues to represent the high watermark.
[ Watch: Original Movie Show review of Pulp Fiction ]
None of Tarantino's subsequent films are without their charms, of course. Even in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, in which the dialogue sounds like it was written by one of the filmmaker's lesser imitators, sports sequences that cannot be surpassed for the sheer love of cinema they both represent and encourage. But unlike Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown or even, to a lesser extent, Reservoir Dogs, at no point have Tarantino's films of the past fifteen years transcended their pulp origins. Nor has his wall-to-wall quotation ever cohered into something morally or thematically greater than the sum of his stylistic hat-tips.
There is nothing especially wrong with this. I love genre films as much as the next guy and think that Australia could stand to make a few more of them. (Coincidentally, Tarantino likes to make this point whenever he visits the country, too.) What I have a problem with is the tendency to see transcendence and moral purpose where there is none, as many have done in the case of the filmmaker's most recent and successful films.
[ Watch interview: Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Travolta ]
With Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has hit upon a winning formula. It's not so much that he's taking historical events and using genre elements to explore them, but rather that he's taking the genres he wants to work in and then finding suitably loaded historical events to apply them to. (As Adrian Martin once wrote of Spielberg, in a scathing review of Schindler's List, "One must wonder about a filmmaker whose primary approach to the Holocaust is not as a historic human reality but as something fixed in a media archive of recorded images and sounds.")
The heavier the historical event, the better: by dealing with the Holocaust and American slavery, however flippantly or ignorantly, Tarantino imbues the films with a moral weight that is not their own and which they would not earn without the crutch of the audience's projected sum of prior knowledge. There is certainly no evidence in the films themselves to suggest that the filmmaker gave much thought to the moral questions posed by his subjects or by his decision to represent them on screen. All he seems to be aware of is the fact that they lend themselves to certain genres and, perhaps more importantly, have about them a certain awards-season cache. If Tarantino has once again become a regular fixture at Hollywood award shows, it has less to do with a return to form than with the fact that he has started to hit all the right bases. In all of Tarantino's oeuvre, there are no films that have exhibited such cynicism or bad faith.
It didn't have to be this way. Tarantino's follow-up to Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, came close to matching the earlier film's inherent sense of moral consequence while also allowing him to indulge his love for cinematic quotation. It is easily his most adult film and represents the darker, more interesting direction he could have taken, which he ultimately abandoned in favour of the adolescent, morally simplistic entertainments that have followed. If Pulp Fiction is Tarantino's high watermark, then Jackie Brown, to borrow from Hunter S. Thompson, is the point at which the wave finally broke and rolled back. To mark the anniversary of either picture is to remember what might have been.
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.