If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, one thing you might guess about me is that I’m a big, ol’ nerd. I’m such a nerd that I make Forrest Gump look like Ken Jennings. (Er, wait–I hate Forrest Gump. Scratch that.) The reason why I’m saying all this is that I’m going to start out talking about something that seems completely irrelevant to Hollywood or Quentin Tarantino, which is Ancient Rome. The reason why I’ll be talking about it is that part of being a nerd is seeing parallels between things that seem unrelated, such as ancient Roman generals and narcissistic big name Hollywood directors. So, before your eyes glaze over as you read the following, just know that it will lead somewhere. I promise.
That Time Ancient Rome Burned Down Carthage–and a Roman General Cried Like a Bitch About It
Ancient Rome has become famous throughout the ages for many things. Besides leaving behind majestic architecture and beautiful art, Rome became legendary for its military power, and with good reason. By sheer blood and guts, a little pissant nation-state with an army comprising of illiterate peasant farmers grew to completely obliterate or conquer anything within striking distance. By conquer, we’re not talking about small fry here, but the great civilizations of Greece and Egypt. The reason why the Romans were able to do this is that they were the pit bulls of the ancient world; nothing could take them down, no matter how tough their opponents or how battered they became.
When Ancient Rome began its hack and slash campaign within Italy itself and eventually beyond its borders, it had its sights on the Phoenician empire of Carthage. At the time, Carthage was the undisputed master of the sea and a very real threat to Ancient Roman’s master plan to completely take over what was then the “entire world.” Rome learned how powerful Carthage was the hard way with not one but two wars (aka The Punic Wars), in which the second gave history one of the best military generals of all time–Hannibal Barca, who did some really cool shit at the time, like cross the Alps on a herd of elephants.
Frustrated at Carthage’s refusal to not be Ancient Rome’s little bitch–Romans decided that it wasn’t enough to defeat the empire in a third Punic War. The great seafaring civilization had to be completely eradicated off the face of the map and out of history–figuratively and literally. By literally, this not only meant killing or selling off into slavery every man, woman and child, but burning the city down to the ground and sowing the earth with salt, so that nothing could grow there, not even so much as a weed.
No longer able to coexist with Carthage in any way, shape, or form–not even as annexed territory–Ancient Rome launched the Third Punic War, fought by the general, Scipio Africanus. As the saying goes, third time’s the charm, and this time, there was no cool badassed Hannibal on elephants to strike enough fear and awe in the Romans to spare Carthage.
Carthage was destroyed in spectacular fashion, and to such an extent that literally all that remains of the empire are pillars, with virtually no artifacts lending any clues about who or what Carthaginians were or how they lived. The destruction of Carthage was literally, in every sense of the word, a holocaust.
Not everyone was happy about the pillage of Carthage, ironically, including the Roman general responsible–Scipio Africanus. As Roman soldiers happily murdered, enslaved, raped and pillaged with glee, he started to cry. When asked why, he said:
“It is glorious, but I have a dread foreboding that some time the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”
In short, just as Scipio Africanus was getting off to the sight of Roman soldiers hard lopping off heads left and right, raping women and toppling temples of worship, he had a terrible flash of insight–if an empire as great as Carthage could be destroyed in a matter of time, so would Rome, which, as deadly as it was at the time, still stood in its shadows as an upstart.
And sure enough, Scipio Africanus was right. Several centuries after he said this, barbarian savages stormed the Western half of the Roman empire with no less savagery than the Romans had done in Carthage. And now Ancient Rome is no less a pile of rubble than Carthage.
This leads me to Quentin Tarantino.
Quentin Tarantino’s Scipio Africanus Moment is Coming Soon
Quentin Tarantino has been running off at the mouth lately. He’s been shitting all over Bruce Lee and Francois Truffaut. Now he’s patronizingly calling out Martin Scorsese–the director who made a name for himself for not having compromised his entire career–of having compromised in Taxi Driver.
There’s nothing really new about Tarantino flapping his gums; since the beginning of his fame and notoriety, his off-the-cuff remarks were always part of his charm. This aspect of this personality was also forgivable. The reason why is that part of what defined both Xoomer and GenX culture was their snark, irreverence and willingness to shoot from the hip. So, being an ambassador of Generation X, it was practically a requirement for him to be irreverent. Not only that, he had an image to live up, to–a brand, if you will–of Hollywood’s resident enfant terrible. So, while he annoyed the blue hairs with his behavior, for the most part he was seen for what he was–cool, edgy and funny.
Fast forward 25 years, and Tarantino is no longer the cool, badass GenX punk of the 1990s. He is now just a punk, and in a way that is not only vindicating his long-time haters, but putting him in a far worse light than even they had cast him in.
To explain further, the biggest thing that Tarantino’s critics have always accused him of being was that of a plagiarist. However, I’ve always disagreed. The reason why is that if there was anything that could be said in his defense, it’s that he did shake things up in the movie world with Pulp Fiction and bring something new to the table. Maybe he copied, riffed and homaged, but calling him a rank plagiarist has never been fair. In spite of the riffing and copying, he invented a new crime sub-genre and opened the door to Xoomers and GenX filmmakers who–up until 1994–had been locked out of Hollywood by older generations of filmmakers and producers.
Lastly, Tarantino was the perfect heir apparent to New Hollywood’s crop of Italian-American directors like Scorsese, De Palma and Coppola. He was, in other words, to the New Wave crime drama what Kurt Cobain was to rock. Just as Cobain reinvigorated rock as it was about to die out, Tarantino reinvigorated the urban gangster flick when it was in real danger of dying out in an age when more and more GenXers were edging out Baby Boomers at the box office. Because Tarantino does deserve credit as a filmmaker and screenwriter, he can’t be called a rank copycat artist or plagiarist.
Yes, Tarantino definitely took a lot of scenes, dialogue and imagery from earlier works. However, it was very easy to give him the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he was riffing and copying out of affection for the filmmakers that inspired him. In fact, this image of Tarantino being a geek who was just making movies that he loved to watch as a video clerk was also a signature part of his brand.
Decades later, what his remarks of late have done is not only expose his media-created image as disingenuous, but prove both his critics and defenders wrong. As it turned out, Tarantino was never a plagiarist or copycat artist like the critics said. But neither was he another De Palma affectionately riffing his favorite filmmakers. He riffed, copied and referenced for a different reason–not because he admired the people he was riffing, copying and referencing, but because he thought he could do better.
To his credit, Tarantino did do better. For example, even though the diner scene between Jimmy Conway and Henry Hill on Goodfellas (1990) became celebrated for Martin Scorsese’s use of the dolly zoom, it’s Tarantino’s diner scene from Pulp Fiction that became the one that everyone else riffed to hell and back. The reason is that few audience members remember the dialogue between Jimmy and Henry in Goodfellas; everyone remembers the “royale with cheese” dialogue in Pulp Fiction.
So, Tarantino did “better” Scorsese. But, define “better.” Tarantino bested Scorsese, in the sense that he made his diner scene from Pulp Fiction more iconic, in the same way that William Friedkin made the car chase scene in The French Connection (1971) more iconic than the one in Bullitt (1968).
But did Tarantino surpass Scorsese as a director and cinematic pioneer? No. Because in the end, even though his “royale with cheese” diner scene was more memorable to the unwashed masses who couldn’t give a shit about filmmaking, Scorsese’s diner scene is the one that aspiring film students and appreciators of filmmaking technique will be studying to hell and back as long as people are making movies. Not only that, the rest of Goodfellas and Scorsese’s other notable movies will also be required viewing, study and analysis at any film history or moviemaking course worth their salt.
Ditto, Bruce Lee. Ditto Francois Truffaut or any other pioneer that Tarantino wants to talk shit about or start second-guessing. He may have “bested” these and other filmmakers by improving on some of the things they did. However, it’s not surpassing or being equal to a director by capitalizing on their mistakes, seizing a missed opportunity or taking advantage of the limitations that they faced. It’s also not surpassing or being equal to any director by successfully taking some of their weaker scenes and doing them over or making them more memorable. It’s being a script doctor who also happened to be blessed with filmmaking ability.
Not only is Tarantino nothing more than a script doctor, in terms of his visual storytelling, he is a remix artist in the same vein as Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook). The reason why Cook comes to mind is that Slim’s claim to fame was taking old songs, remixing them and making them catchier to a new generation of music lovers. Yet, when all was said and done, he wasn’t a one-of-a-kind legendary music composer who had surpassed the legends and innovative artists whose artists he sampled. He was just a guy who was really good at taking music hooks and mashing them in a way that was catchier than what was before.
Another reason why Norman Cook comes to mind is that he begs comparison to Quentin Tarantino in terms of how he perceives himself and his art. As far as I know, Cook never harbored any illusions about what he was, nor was disrespectful towards or about any of the artists that he based his songs on. Not only that, he always labeled his songs as remixes, so that it was always made known that he wasn’t the guy who made these songs but only sweetened them.
Tarantino, on the other hand, has become increasingly delusional about what he truly is and where he stands in the annals of filmmaking, confusing his ability for fixing other people’s mistakes and capitalizing on their missed opportunities as a bona-fide filmmaker who surpassed them.
I can see how this happened, too. In creative classes, you’re taught that one of the ways you can improve is to take a work that is lacking and make it better, based on something new you learned. For instance, if you just learned about light and shade in art class, one way to practice is to take a mediocre painting or drawing and improve it with lighting and shading techniques.
In Tarantino’s case, what could’ve happened is that he started out using this technique with poorly made B movies and grindhouse. Then he moved on to A list movies shot by pioneering filmmakers. However, instead of realizing that he was now learning from masters, he still copped the attitude that he was really improving on their movies by reshooting scenes, recycling characters and reusing scores using the techniques he was learning at the time.
And now here we are, decades later, with an arrogant Tarantino feeling comfortable enough to start calling out or trashing the pioneers whose works he felt he’s “improved” on, while ironically having gotten worse over time as a director and screenwriter.
Like I said–delusional. However, if there’s any bright side to this, it’s that Tarantino will have his Scipio Africanus moment and when he does, it’ll be all the more painful for him. The GenX enfant terrible will brashly continue down this path of dogging Truffaut, Lee, Scorsese and whoever else he wants to disrespect. But one day, it’s going to hit him. He’s going to realize that after toppling these pioneers off their pedestals, his day will come soon when a new generation of filmmakers more arrogant than him will do it, too.
And when that day comes, instead of saying something this eloquent:
“It is glorious, but I have a dread foreboding that some time the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”
He’ll be saying this: