Perpetual bad boy Quentin Tarantino has outraged the Twittersphere with remarks he made in a New York Times interview with novelist Bret Easton Ellis this week. Egged on by Ellis, a fellow traveller who applauds Tarantino shamelessly throughout, the filmmaker dismisses other people's work in ways calculated to offend feminists, African-Americans and media critics. Ellis, meanwhile, celebrates Tarantino's Gen-X sensibility while criticizing "earnest 20-something millennials" for their political correctness, a slur that gives the whole interview the unfortunate tone of whining by yesterday's rebels. And then, buried beneath the sneering and the chest-pounding, the two guys make some legitimately provocative observations about the differences between television and film.
In the interview, Tarantino stupidly breaks the No. 1 rule for people who lose contests – don't speak of it because anything you say will only sound like sour grapes – when he insinuates that director Kathryn Bigelow only won the 2010 Oscar for The Hurt Locker (beating out his movie Inglourious Basterds) because "it was exciting that a woman had made such a good war film."
He complains that black critics of his slavery revenge fantasy Django Unchained kept mentioning the colour of his skin, as though it weren't relevant to the conversation about race he had started in the first place. The condescending tone of this is particularly remarkable as he begins his complaint by saying, "If you've made money being a critic in black culture in the last 20 years you have to deal with me." It's a weirdly nasty way for a Hollywood millionaire to refer to professional critics, whether in academia or the media, as though their jobs were somehow inherently exploitative of the art they discuss. Are we all making our living off Tarantino's back or is he making his off ours? After all, he's giving interviews because he has a new movie, The Hateful Eight, coming out at Christmas.
That Western set after the American Civil War was shot on wide-format, 70 mm film, and Tarantino, who owns an old rep cinema in Hollywood, has cut a slightly longer version for its limited release at Christmas (before the regular 35 mm film and digital formats hit the multiplexes in January). This kind of so-called "roadshow release," complete with reserved seats and an intermission, is an industry practice that was used to distinguish movies from TV in the 1950s and 60s but mainly disappeared in the 70s; in other words, Tarantino believes not only in the superiority of celluloid but also in film itself as a big event that needs to be seen on a big, wide screen.
Ellis reports that the two discussed how television relies on relentless storytelling to continually impart information, while the movies depend on mood and atmosphere – one is a writer's medium; the other a director's. It's an interesting observation that makes you think about why television's best shows so often degenerate into melodrama in their later seasons. As he retired The Sopranos, David Chase remarked that the characters were, after all, just criminals and there were only so many crimes he could invent.
Finally, Tarantino rants about the digitization of the movie experience, suggesting that if we get to a point where the kid at the concession stand can be relied on to hit the play button, "We're just watching HBO in public. And I don't know about you, but I don't need to watch HBO with a bunch of strangers."
Then why, one wonders, does he need to watch movies with a bunch of strangers? Simply to get access to the big screen? Or perhaps there is something different about the stories movies tell – more epic; less intimate – that demands they be experienced communally in a social setting, while television's domestic dramas insinuate themselves into our living rooms. Would Walt, the school teacher-turned-drug dealer of Breaking Bad, seem as subversive on the big screen? Would the satire of the heroic, the extreme violence and the narrative disruptions of Tarantino's own movies seem as culturally important on Netflix?
Ellis and Tarantino's conversation ends there, just as it's getting interesting, and the strange thing about the competitive tone – Ellis suggests that a golden age in television is a media-made joke – is that it displays an improbable lack of faith in Tarantino's chosen medium. Movie studios may be locked in a battle for audiences against small screens of all kinds, but in artistic terms media don't compete against one another, they distinguish themselves from one another. Some pundits predict film and television may effectively merge when only the rare special-event movie plays in public theatres, while the bulk of features are made available alongside serials on whatever mobile or in-home device you want. However rarefied film might become, it will always remain a different form that excels at different things. Did radio somehow become an inferior medium to television? It may be less popular or less lucrative, but that is not what claims to artfulness are based on.
When The Hateful Eight appears, let's hope that those pathetic scribes still earning a few paltry crusts by airing their opinions can see their way to reviewing the film and not Tarantino's oddly insecure personality. And let's hope, for the sake of a great medium, that the movie is every bit the cinematic event that the filmmaker intends.