REVIEW / The good, the bad and the self-referential

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The Independent Culture
'When you deal in violence you're actually penalised for doing a good job.'

Imagine this sentence delivered in wounded tones. A hit-man complaining that his professional expertise has been ignored by the jury? A loan-shark protesting that you can't make a living without breaking legs? Or a film director lamenting the fact that people won't suspend their moral instincts to admire his beautifully choreographed brutality? It is, in fact, the latter; Quentin Tarantino, flavour of this month and several others besides, sharing a moment of fellow feeling with Brian De Palma, another director whose work has been condemned for its aestheticised violence.

The hint of a whinge here was a queasy moment in Omnibus's (BBC 1) profile of the director - a little skid when the moral grip seemed to go. It suggested, oddly, that Tarantino believes he is engaged in an entirely formal activity, that his execution alone should be judged, rather than the fact that his imagination is repeatedly drawn to violent executions. Indeed, those hostile to Tarantino's films, to the narrowness of their cultural references, would have found much ammunition in David Thompson's entertaining film. Here is a director who cites Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein as his greatest influence, who appears to think that videos (and an ultra-hip Schwinn bicycle) do furnish a room, whose films are a magpie's nest of lifted lines and camera angles.

On the other hand you have Tarantino himself - funny, engaging, a man possessed by his medium. It is as if his mind runs at 24 frames a second, seeing film in everything and everything in terms of film. But he does have reasons for what he does. In fact, he suggested himself that his cult status in Hollywood was largely due to the fact that he is one of the few residents actually prepared to venture an opinion, a novelty in a cripplingly cautious town. Omnibus's film offered some novelties (clips from the director's first ventures into film and video experiments on Reservoir Dogs) and a restrained wit (the sparseness of Tarantino's essential storylines was emphasised by typing the synopses of the films on screen, as if they were single-sentence pitches to some bemused executive). It also ended with a proper note of reserve, a reminder that the loop of films about films might tighten round his neck.

Perhaps someone should send Tarantino a video of Pleasure, the last of Alan Bleasdale Presents (C4) and an efficient demonstration of how arid self-referential film can be. By coincidence it appeared to contain a reference to one of Tarantino's favourite films, James McBride's Breathless, even to a specific scene singled out by Tarantino. But Christopher Hood's script had little of the inventive energy by which such borrowings can be appropriated and transformed. Pleasure was undeniably hip, an exercise in mannerist surrealism (if such a thing is possible) shot through with nods and winks to the cognoscenti. Bit of Beineix, bit of Delicatessen, bit of Jacques Tati.

Most telling of these was, God help us, an hommage to the shower sequence in Psycho. Quite apart from the fact that this long ago ceased to be possible (you can now only refer to the act of referring to the shower sequence, so common has it become), it also betrayed a misapprehension about why the original was so shocking. Hitchcock knew that it drew its force from the fact that by then we wanted to know Marion Crane better and believed we would - it is one of the few film murders in which you feel 'This can't be happening'. In Pleasure it's just a tepid exercise in style.

Fatuous Soundbite of the Week, in a week that offered strong competition, goes to Peter Bottomley, speaking in Muriel Gray's series Ride On (C4).

Responding to an EC proposal that motorbikes should be limited to 100 bhp, he had this to say; 'It ought to be a dead duck - it ought to be any other kind of bird or animal which shouldn't be allowed to . . . (little falter here as he tries to think what they shouldn't be allowed to do) . . .

continue marching on the streets of our land.'