Influenced by the Past: The Work of J.J Abrams and Quentin Tarantino

Last week Brad asked me if I was interested in writing an article examining the work of two top Hollywood directors, J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds). Both filmmakers often wear their influences on their sleeves to the point some have accused both men of being derivative at times and, in Quentin’s case, some have gone as far as to call him a plagiarist.

At the time Brad brought the idea to me I had not yet seen Abrams’ new flick, Super 8, but that was remedied last Saturday, a day that quickly turned into more than just research and a movie.

As I dutifully waited in line, who should walk up and get in line right behind me? Why none other than Mr. Tarantino himself. I glanced back to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, and then waited in line like any good Angeleno. We don’t like to bug our celebrities in LA, it’s considered gauche and in bad taste. Still, I couldn’t help but mention to him the piece I was about to soon be working on.

“Well, happy comparing,” he said in that unmistakable voice of his and then he leaned in and said, “As you can observe, we’re fans of one another.” It was then that I remembered Tarantino had a recurring role on Abrams’ hit TV show “Alias” back in 2002 and 2004.

In some ways the mutual admiration society makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Abrams and Tarantino have a mutual love for strong, butt kicking women as evidenced in the aforementioned “Alias” TV show in Abrams’ case and Jackie Brown and Kill Bill 1 and 2 in Tarantino’s.

Both filmmakers also have an obvious love for the films and TV shows of their youths. In many ways, their combined films, up to this point, have been either remakes, sequels, reboots or homages to the movies and television they grew up watching. Tarantino’s taste may be a bit more esoteric but that may well come from his time as a video jockey in the South Bay as much as anything else. J.J., on the other hand, is the consummate Hollywood insider. Yet, only one of them has been accused of plagiarism and stealing and that would be Tarantino.

The first time it happened was in the early ’90s when several cinephiles started pointing out the similarities between Ringo Lam’s City on Fire and Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs. A major article on the subject was featured in Empire Magazine over in the UK where Tarantino’s freshmen film was a major hit. The mag would later name it “The Greatest Independent Film Ever Made“.

On a side note, it should be interesting to hear Lam discuss Tarantino’s work himself and the influence Asian cinema has had on his work in the French documentary “Tarantino: The Disciple Of Hong Kong,” which you can watch the trailer for embedded to the right. The doc played in France only eleven days ago.

Beyond Reservoir Dogs, plagiarism charges have dogged Tarantino so continuously that when he was roasted at the Friar’s Club last December, comedian Sara Silverman told the crowd, “Tarantino is a Japanese word meaning film plagiarism.” Ouch.

I have always felt this take on Tarantino’s work was oddly misplaced because in my mind he is one of the only truly original voices to come along in cinema in the last 20 years. When you see a Tarantino film you know it is a Tarantino film, unlike the many pretenders who tried to ape the director’s personal style in the late nineties. There is a decided difference between those dreaded “Tarantino rip-off” films like Suicide Kings or 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Tarantino masterpieces like Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown.

Abrams, on the other hand, has met with few claims of stealing despite the fact almost all of his work is completely derivative of earlier works by other filmmakers, Super 8 being, perhaps, his most derivative work yet. I didn’t get a chance to ask Quentin what he thought of the film on his way out, but I am personally stunned at the many positive reviews the film has received so far. I wanted to like it, especially after his wonderfully fun Star Trek from a couple of years back. Unfortunately, plot holes, ridiculous action sequences, cheap scares and bombastic music were the order of the day in this “homage” to ’80s Spielberg films.

Where was Abrams’ voice in all of this? I saw Spielberg, “The Twilight Zone” and then some, but what part of it was J.J.? I couldn’t tell you. Then again I’m not sure what a J.J. Abrams film looks like at this point in his career.

His Mission: Impossible III didn’t distinguish itself as being that much different from the first two films in the franchise. His Star Trek reboot was fun and entertaining but it owed more to Gene Roddenberry than it did to J.J. Add in films that he has written and produced like Joy Ride and Cloverfield and you still don’t really get a feel for what it means when a movie is labeled a “A film by J.J. Abrams”, though you can rest assured it will most likely be shrouded in mystery and have plenty of viral websites associated with it.

That may be why Abrams is rarely accused of stealing in the way that Tarantino has been by so many people. Because his films so closely hew to the filmmakers he admires that there is no mistake about what he is doing. Plus, Abrams is considered to be a mainstream Hollywood director, and I get the sense critics and filmgoers are simply glad he isn’t a complete hack like say, McG or Brett Ratner. Most fans also believe J.J. loves movies as much as they do and, at the very least, he wants to entertain us. That alone gives him a certain credibility.

Quentin, though, is someone many of us truly treasure. Maybe that’s the reason he often takes more flack. He’s the man who went from being our favorite video store clerk to our favorite film director. He’s not just a director, he’s an embodiment of all of us. That’s why I wasn’t afraid to say hello to him last Saturday. We don’t want him to simply entertain us. We want him to wow us. That is why his occasional slips ups are that much more disappointing. We take it personal because he’s one of us.

I’m curious how the audience feels about these two major filmmakers. Do you think Tarantino gets a fair shake regarding his originality? Does Abrams get too much of a free pass? Or does it matter who imitates whom if both men give us entertaining films?

On the horizon for the two filmmakers is a spaghetti western from Tarantino called Django Unchained and for Abrams it will likely be Star Trek 2, though that remains unconfirmed. Should things work out as they are to be expected, 2012 will be 2009 all over again. I, for one, can’t wait.

FYI: One similarity I think should be mentioned before I leave, is that both men are notoriously nice guys. Quentin used his own money to save one of the few revival theaters in Los Angeles and J.J. has been known to help anyone who has ever worked for him move up the ladder in Hollywood. Beyond any talk of their films, this alone is commendable.

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