Published on August 30th, 2019 | by Jamie Davies0
Tarantino And The Commodification Of Art
Jamie treats us to an alternate take on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the commodification of art, addressing the film’s naysayers.
Tarantino’s newest release: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems to be a product of lengthy rumination about the industry that brought the legendary director success as well as a lamentation for what could be his diminishing place within it. Sprinkled throughout its mesmerizing and enjoyably loose plot are scenes that delve deep into Tarantino’s inner thoughts and feelings; it’s undoubtedly his most introspective film. Sadly – and understandably – while critics and audience have lauded the film as his best in years, it’s causing some upset amongst a few die-hard Tarantino fans.
The legendary director is known for his tight, punchy scripts that tell clear, if sometimes elaborate stories. It’s only natural that audiences the world over would flock to theaters expecting a plot with the same sense of purpose, but that’s not the film’s intention, it never was. Is this minority of the audience justified in feeling betrayed by Tarantino’s 9th major release? The answer isn’t simple, it’s buried at the bottom of a longstanding debate surrounding all expressive mediums and their reception as primarily art, or as consumer products.
Let’s say you and some pals go to your trusty, regular pub. You order whatever alcoholic beverage best gets you comfortably buzzed, and before too long you find your glass empty, so obviously another drink is in order; after that comes a third, fourth and fifth. At this point you pause for a moment and realize that it’s been several hours and you aren’t any more drunk than when you woke up that morning, and neither are any of your friends. The bartender hears your collective confusion and chimes in: “Yeah, we’re running an alcohol-free night tonight.” You’d feel a little cheated right? Sure, you received a drink that more or less tasted as it should, the bottle looks normal and so does the bar, yet you still feel misled.
The folks feeling cheated by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood place the films they watch in the same mental space as the drinks they consume, as a product, plain and simple. In the same way everybody would expect beer to get them drunk, these viewers would expect a Tarantino flick to have a certain kind of drive that’s, for better or worse, lacking in his newest release. They paid for their ticket, and they expected a cinematic buzz that just never came.
David Lynch’s The Straight Story comes to mind as another example of this stylistic rebellion. With an eerie, surreal tone long since being the Lynchian standard, the 1999 release took a drastic left turn into… well, normality. The thoughtful, wholesome tale stands out amongst Lynch’s other work as being significantly less likely to induce nightmares, despite most reviews of the time making comment on the ever-present expectation for the film to descend into insanity. In the music scene, David Bowie’s drum and bass inspired album ‘Earthling’ turned away many fans of his Ziggy Stardust days, and Bob Dylan’s infamous switch from acoustic folk to electric rock caused major uproar. It’s a common trend for artists to branch out from their initial styles and experiment, unfortunately the reality of business means that even successful experimentation will inevitably drive some customers away. Hardcore fans of an artist may be willing to embrace their creative tangents, but not the regular consumers who form the majority. For those folks, a film that utterly breaks expectations brings about the same disappointment as New Coke did for soda drinkers in the 80s.
What does this mean for musicians, filmmakers and artists of all shapes and sizes? If success brings on an intense pressure from the public to stop innovating, to wander the same tired steps year after year until they fade into irrelevance, how can any artist risk sharing their work with the world? The entertainment industry seems designed to force creative stagnation upon all but its bravest artists who – whilst admired by some – are so frequently punished by the world at large for their persisting creativity.
For once, history can shine some small hope on the rather dire situation modern artists find themselves in. The countless beloved works that found popularity and worked their way deep into popular culture years after their initial releases, and often long after their creator’s own deaths sometimes seem to outnumber the ones discovered and properly appreciated in their own time. From Vincent Van Gogh to Edgar Allan Poe, Phillip K Dick to Emily Dickinson; time is the filter that brushes the dust off of long forgotten masterpieces, immortalizing the geniuses behind them and burying the rest deep in obscurity. With this in mind, it becomes clear that business’ seemingly oppressive effect on the creative world is only ever temporary. The coming decades will see today’s artists credited properly, and the unfairly judged or condemned artists of the future will have to wait even longer for their time in the spotlight, but it will come eventually.
It’s rare that an artist lives to witness their work ascend to its ultimate glory, and in a sense that’s actually quite uplifting. To share a part of yourself that continues to grow and develop after your body has withered and decayed is an altogether more meaningful kind of success than the monetary and status focused rewards of modern popularity. Maybe that’s why some artists subject themselves to the restriction and ridicule of the entertainment industries, to plant the seeds that grow over centuries and reach people who won’t be born until long after we’re all dead.
When it comes to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I think audiences are completely justified in feeling let down. They are customers in a consumer industry, and they bought a product that didn’t meet their expectations. Today in 2019, it’s as simple as that. However, in 2069 for instance, the industry will have long since moved on from Tarantino’s work and it will therefore cease to be a product; all viewers will be watching it through an artistic lens and making judgements in that context. Nobody can say how positively it will be received on that day, but whether loved, hated or forgotten, at least it will have earned that judgement on its own merits.