There's a maxim in politics that says, "Attitudes shape policy." That small phrase also speaks volumes about film‐making. Whether it's Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, attitudes shape film. It seems obvious that such a statement is true. But, how many times do we leave a movie without thinking about the worldview of the film's creator, let alone the message of the film?
Today's movie audiences, although quite knowledgeable, seem intent on being entertained, not challenged. To critically examine one's viewing habits requires too much effort; euphemistically, we're cerebrally challenged; realistically, we're lazy. This article seeks to confront this laissez faire attitude and asks the question: are there significant worldview differences between the film‐makers of today and yesterday, and if so, what are the effects on society?
To answer this question, let's look at two influential directors and their films: Frank Capra and his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Quentin Tarantino and his Pulp Fiction. Both film‐makers and their films are representative of the spirit of their times‐‐their generation's zeitgeist. Even a child can sense that there is something palpable behind Capra's films: a message of hope; a love for America (After Mr. Smith, Capra himself enlisted in the Army for four years to serve his country); an indefatigable faith in the God‐given value of all men. Regardless of one's position in life, Capra made all men and women feel like they could obtain a piece of the American pie, if not bake it.
Capra, after making a string of successful pictures, had an epiphany‐like experience which pushed him past the myopic focus plaguing many of today's young film‐makers. As a result, he decided his films would incorporate principles that surpassed the ersatz and, instead, promoted the eternal. For the remainder of his life, unlike today's young film‐makers, Capra said that there would be a message attached to his work.
His films, especially Mr. Smith, carried a message of the common man overcoming tyrannical powers with God‐given abilities. Film critics of the time called this message film "Capra‐corn" because these films patriotically promoted democracy. Was Capra's love of America simply a generational thing? What about young film‐makers today? What is their raison d’être?
No better example of today's film‐makers can be found than in Quentin Tarantino, one of Hollywood's most respected directors. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and was heavily favored by the critics at the prior year's Academy Awards where Tarantino earned a screen‐writing Oscar for Pulp.(2) He got his first break with Reservoir Dogs, setting the modus operandi for other projects with sharp, eclectic dialogue and pathological characters set in the criminal underworld.
Although Capra and Tarantino have in common a deep love for the medium itself, the worldviews that shape their films are significantly different. Capra was hooked on film‐making after bluffing his way onto a San Francisco set to direct his first film. Capra, sans television and film, shaped his films with previous faith‐based experiences and classical erudition. Tarantino, however, grew‐up watching hours of television and frequently going to movies with his parents (he would later incorporate the homosexual rape scene he saw in Deliverance, at the age of eight, into Pulp Fiction). (3) Both television and film played key roles throughout Tarantino's childhood. His mother, in fact, acknowledges that her son was named for a western movie character ‐‐ Quint Asper. (4)
One could argue that while Capra's worldview shaped the medium of early film itself, Tarantino's worldview, conversely, was shaped by a steady diet of film and television. Capra took the sinew of the American life that De Tocqueville wrote about, and placed it on celluloid for the world to see. Tarantino, however, glamorizes a worldview of pop‐culture because it is all he knows. He offers this slickly packaged modernity – “McDernity” for the fast‐food set ‐‐ to a post‐boomer generation looking for life's answers; answers Tarantino is unwilling to understand or incapable of giving. This inability and indifference seems ubiquitous in the films created by today's young cinephiles.
Tarantino routinely swings his characters from one violent scene to the next on vines of witty dialogue and rich sub‐text. The conversation between Jules and Vincent in Pulp is a prime example. The two hit‐men, en‐route to "settle" an account for their employer, discuss the fine nuances between fast food in America and Europe. This dialogue is typical for Tarantino's consumer‐driven films. Yet, no matter how many humorous catch‐phrases they utter, his characters say nothing transcendent.
Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now.(5) There is little doubt about the impact that Tarantino's films are currently having on American culture. He brings wit to any script he touches. He was brought in to bring life to Crimson Tide's moribund script, and the results paid‐off. (6) The catchy dialogue that fills and links many scenes of Tide were his touch. Tide was clearly a blockbuster in '95, and Tide's video sales are also benefiting from Tarantino's signature dialogue. Besides writing Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino also wrote Natural Born Killers and True Romance ‐‐ violent films all. Tarantino has said that he abhors the violence seen every day on U.S. streets, but that violence in film is "cool." (7)
It's doubtful that Tarantino will ever undergo a similar experience that Mr. Capra went through; realizing that film is not simply to please oneself, but to affect positive change in others as well. The primary difference between Mssrs. Capra and Tarantino is real‐life experience. Mr. Capra's muse was comprised in a lifetime's worth of living, while Tarantino has only been able to draw from a shallow pool of commercial pabulum. After all, Capra gave up millions to serve his country, as did many other Hollywood elite of his generation, during W.W. II. He earned France, Britain, and the U.S.'s highest honors for his service to America and the allied powers through film; his life reflected the same values that were displayed in his films.(8) One can only imagine the horror if Tarantino's life reflected what his films advocate; one wouldn't have "Capra‐corn" but "Terrortino" or "San Quentin Tarantino."
Undoubtedly, Frank Capra, though accomplished in both science and film, would marvel at Tarantino's prodigiousness. After all, Tarantino's derivative work results largely from his admitted ability to stand on the shoulders of film giants. Tarantino is a masterfully skilled filmmaker and there is something awe‐inspiring about watching an expert work his craft. If only his vision matched his enormous talent. Because Tarantino's films are derivative in nature, and primarily influenced by previous film‐makers and their work, the result is a "closed system." Tarantino draws inspiration not from external sources ‐‐ a la Capra ‐‐ but from the medium itself. In any closed system, a state of entropy exists, and ultimately leads to a slow deterioration of the quality of the base. The base in question here is the message of Tarantino's films ‐‐ which has suffered degradation to the point of non‐existence.
While Capra's films are tagged as "say‐something" movies, Tarantino's have nothing redemptive to say, even to themselves. Although Tarantino has his Palme d'Or, there is one French award that he surely will never achieve, an award that Capra would surely not trade. Prior to the permanent banishment of English films in France during the Nazi occupation, one French theater played Mr. Smith Goes to Washington continuously for one month saluting the themes of Liberty and Freedom imbued in Capra's film. As those words appeared in the film, and Old Glory waved majestically above the Lincoln Memorial, the French audiences cheered‐on. (9) One can say with confidence that no current Tarantino film could be offered if called upon for a similar task. Perhaps, that film is yet to be made.
1. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1971), 240.
2. John Fried, "Pulp Friction," Cineaste, 1 April 1995, 6.
3. Tim Farrand, "Filmmaker Mapped Path to Top Like Army General," Reuters, 27 August 1995, 1.
4. Farrand, 1.
5. Fried, 5.
6. Cindy Pearlman, "Quentin Tarantino's Destiny," Sacramento Bee, 23 April 1995, EN13
7. Farrand, 1. 8. Capra, 367. 9. Ibid., 293.