For some an itch and for others a yearning, but we all like some subtlety. So it’s completely natural to love the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Baz Luhrmann—simultaneously. Some of the most sensitive, subtle material in current American film comes from these two directors.
Draw a line between the subtle and the obvious, and you’ll often cross both out. Subtlety is a layer (or six) down. If you strip away all discernible surface what was subtle is suddenly bare and becomes what’s obvious. Being obvious actually produces the potential for subtlety. Subtlety’s real danger is the cliché. To be sure, inspiration from art or incorporation of others ideas is the stuff which keeps art going. But original thought get trashed into cliché if the idea is carelessly repeated. It’s like wearing all your clothes inside out to redesign your entire look. You’ve just reversed the gesture and it often ends up being another cliché. The trick to being subtle is to skirt around clichés without being cliché.
I’ll test this in the details for both directors.
For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann had this challenge: the potential snares of period-style pieces. Realistic vintage clothing is notoriously distracting from the actual story. I know several Downton Abbey circles who are “just watching for the costumes.” Luhrman glides through the problem hilariously. The gaudier, more garnish and tawdry his costumes get, the less distracting they are. The costuming—particularly in the party scenes—is similar to MTV music videos. And unlike MTV in recent years, this actually works. Pop culture has a strong visual language of the garish and gaudy. With it, Luhrmann is able to shade off the indications that this is a period piece. He cuts off our associative links to old high school curriculums and Robert Redford by gesturing to the current day. And he does it without turning a single shirt inside-out.
Tarantino’s Django takes a different route. How are Westerns revived? Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the Cohen Brothers True Grit remake have already broken new ground in visual and conceptual redesign. So Tarantino charts a new course through the soundscape. Right from the first scene—all those spurs, stirrups, bits, guns, chains, and giant springs with a nodding, fake tooth for a plume. They pop as though the editor put less effort in the blending and overlapping process. It’s not an interruption; it’s non-representational dialogue. Then there’s the actual accent of Dr. King Schultz. After all, what’s a Western without all the accents? Wait…which accents? There’s one loophole in the cliché which Tarantino dives into, creating a strong contrast with Calvin Candie’s all-too-familiar southern verbal syrup. And all throughout, the audience is hearing a seamless blend of Gospel and rap, Spirituals and Ennio Morricone. What we tend to separate, genre by genre, Tarantino appropriates into one big bite of cohesive art.
Together, these films both follow a gentle but significant curve away from traditional love stories. Both trace the outcome of men who, desperately in love, turn tyrannical, insisting that any relationship with their women is better than none. As a recently freed slave, Django’s first choice is his choice of clothes. He opts for an azure blue, pre-colonial gentleman’s suit. His partner attributes it to his “flair for the dramatic.” That flair explodes when Django embraces his acting role as a freed-slave-turned-slave-dealer, showering slaves, freeman, and dandies alike with charmless sass. And in a climactic grasp for freedom, he crosses from freedman to outlaw, condemning his wife to be on the run with him for life.
Meanwhile, Gatsby’s gives the overall impression of a man with boundless power, yet he doesn’t have enough self-control to listen to the woman he loves. Nick gets a taste of how limitless Gatsby’s influence is when Gatsby’s servants descend, uninvited, to transform Nick’s humble home for one afternoon of tea with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby continues to draw near to Daisy on the basis of his endless means. After all, his power seems to sets him free to do anything he wants. The day he wants Daisy to choose him over her husband, he cannot let her be free to do it. He inserts himself to make the choice for her. The story of what lengths a man will go to in order to get a woman has been told. Tarantino and Luhrmann take that and nuance it, giving less room to justify what the man wants and more space to depict how much fear, hatred, and other antithesis of love infiltrate that man’s journey.
Both of these directors understand that making movies which build up raw and spectacular awe inside of us requires a subtle touch. Christopher Nolan and his predecessor, the Wachowskis, have delivered films with refined, intellectual design and they work well enough to generate conversations and deeper thinking. But the subtlety of Luhrmann and Tarantino sets them apart. Their subtlety is a force that pounds past your head, your boredom, and your wariness and into those secrets—sensual and violent and vulnerable—which aren’t always visible to your mind. In this way, their subtlety brings our peripheral vision into focus, either to strike us with new beauty or indicate places of possible self-deception.