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How Tarantino taught me to be a better thief

Why is it that when Tarantino liberally steals from his favourite kung fu movies he's called 'bold' and 'original', but when I steal I feel like a basket of dirty sheets?

As writers we are often told to steal and steal often from writer’s we admire. This often makes us squeamish, inferior, haunted by the thought that instead of the words ‘bold and original’ embalzoned on our desired cover, we will instead be graced with ‘run of the mill’ or decidedly worse, ‘derivative’.

To the bulk of popcorn patrons, the amount of ‘sampling’ Tarantino does in his movies arguably flys under the radar. But to those who spent, like Tarantino, a good part of their childhood lurking the shelves of video libraries, watching a Tarantino movie can be akin to taking a ride through the ghost mountain of one’s youth. It is, as the video suggests, a megamix of beta bliss.

And yet, despite his sampling, Tarantino is heralded by critics and fans alike as a director who breaks new ground in western cinema, with his flair for dialogue and mastery of pastiche.

What I believe Tarantino does so well, and something for writers to be aware of, is not the act of stealing itself, but in the curation and display of those stolen goods.

For example, if we talk about a sunset, the conversation will get dull pretty quickly. Sunsets are a completely known entity. They have been described a million times over, and hence are largely derivative.

But what if I was to shift the conversation a little and mention that in the arctic circle, a sunset can last up to forty days. The enduring beauty of the arctic dusk is such that it can infect your mind and drive you insane. Explorers stranded on the arctic tundra have been known to claw their eyes out in delirium, such is the need to escape the red horizon (I’m making all this up by the way).

So here I am taking something known, something that already exists and has been oft described, and re-presenting it to you in a different light (no pun intended). I am subverting the notion that the sunset is a thing to savour. Hopefully I have made it somewhat interesting again.

Tarantino is a master thief. He steals from a bank few of us westerners even know exists. That is one reason why his works are so surprising to us. He looks for inspiration outside the cultural sphere that his movies are ultimately pitched to.

But arguably what Tarantino really excels at is the display of this new curated selection, this pastiche, which is achieved through his own sense of order and style. He is a fan yes, but his work also manages to be self aware and surprising. He joins together elements that are both familiar and strange, and by doing that he can be perceived as original.

This process of selection and presentation is a tangible skill that all writers can attempt to master.

At the end of last year science fiction writer Paul McAuley wrote of genre writers:

Bad genre writers pander to the expectations of their readers; good genre writers subvert those expectations; great genre writers, like Philip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, or John Crowley, transcend them, completely rewriting conventions or using them for their own ends.

I’m not going to get into an argument of which of the above camps Tarantino might fall into, but suffice to say that he is indeed doing the last part of that quote: re-using conventions for his own ends.

When you steal as a writer, steal with the knowledge of how you might use that style, that character, or that description, differently to the way your admiree used it. Seek to subvert expectations, as this can be done without the need for that crystalline ’original’ idea that often proves so elusive.

As stealing from one Picasso gallery to hang in another, almost identical, Picasso gallery would be easy to dismiss. But steal a Picasso to hang in Hosier Lane, now that is something I would pay to see.

4 Comments

  • Hey Mark, thank for stopping by my site today. You know, I never really thought about putting my name on my site. It’s probably not a
    bad idea.

    Nice post. I actually think Tarantino is over rated these days and that’s not just because he shamelessly steals from films that I love. His recent efforts are too long and a bit bloated. It’s as if the studios that fund him are afraid to touch anything.

    By the way, who says that leaving comments is trending down!

    Cheers,

    Andrew

    • Andrew Nette
    • June 7, 2011
    • Hey Andrew. Yeah I just noticed that you didn’t have your name anywhere, I thought that might have been intentional. Always a good idea to have your real name somewhere, that is, if you want people to someday buy the book with your name on it.

      I’m always surprised how googling some writer’s names yields no results.

      Love your blog by the way. David Whish Wilson was actually my honours supervisor. Small world.

      • Mark
      • June 8, 2011
  • Nice post Mark, and a good explanation of something that used to bother me a whole heck of a lot. Influences are something that no writer can really avoid, as even if we deliberately try and write unlike the writers we admire, that still means they are the cause for our writing style! Being able to identify and ‘own’ the influences and genre conventions that we use is an essential step in producing works that transcend any stock-standard definition.

    • phill
    • June 12, 2011
    • Yeah I reckon we put so much pressure on ourselves to be original that we neglect the skills needed to help develop that originality (if it even exists that is) – which I think is the process of innovation.

      I’ll likely not hit an original note for a long while yet, so while that’s still a goal, it’s better for me to be honest and focus instead on getting better at stealing.

      • Mark
      • June 12, 2011
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