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House of the Devil

tn_houseofthedevilA conversation between me and the internet about HOUSE OF THE DEVIL:

INTERNET: Man, have you heard about this movie HOUSE OF THE DEVIL? It’s supposed to be a totally ’80s style horror!

ME: Huh.

INTERNET: You know, like ’80s style! They even have Mary Woronov in it!

ME: From DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)?

mp_houseofthedevilINTERNET: Yeah, probly. Have you seen this retro poster?

ME: Oh, that’s pretty cool.

INTERNET: I got a boner!

ME: Who directed it – anybody?

INTERNET: Ti West!

ME: Ti West. He did, what was it? THE ROOST?

INTERNET: Yeah!

ME: Oh, was that good?

INTERNET: I haven’t seen it, but I’m so psyched!

ME: Well, what’s this new one about?

INTERNET: Satanic cults!

ME: Oh. Well, not really my thing.

INTERNET: The ’80s!!!!!!!!

You know what internet, I’m a nostalgic guy. When I heard they were doing a pan and scan VHS of this movie I was impressed. It even has a Gorgon Video logo on it like FACES OF DEATH. (They should do that for MACHETE too, but with one of the big porn-sized boxes and a Super Video style painting with lots of detail but only about a 90% grasp of human anatomy.) But all the buzz surrounding this one didn’t pull me in, for two main reasons:

1. I guess I’m not really into the occult shit. Satanic cults and ouija boards and shit – those were stupid things to be scared of. I mean, what are these great satanic cult movies of the ’80s the internet is so fond of? I can’t even think of one. I guess I pictured this as being like one of those movies where people have to stay in a mansion and it turns out some weirdos in hooded robes have a bunch of candles set up in the basement so they can chant and make cuts on a 25 year old naked virgin. And I don’t really have an urge to see that subgenre revived.

2. If you said ’70s style you might’ve got me, but “’80s style horror” isn’t really at the top of my list like it is for the internet. I guess my mind jumps to late ’80s. I’m thinking post NIGHMARE ON ELM STREET 3, when everything was heavy metal and colored lights and killers who make evil puns.

Good news! All my assumptions were wrong. It’s not that type of movie, and it’s early ’80s, like between ’80 and ’82, almost looks like ’70s. My expectations might’ve been lower than yours, but I thought this was pretty good.

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student trying to pay first and last month’s rent on her first apartment, and she doesn’t have enough money. She finds a flyer on campus for a babysitting job. After some weird incidents trying to get the job she finds herself dropped off at a remote house (which she does not realize is of the devil) where a strange gentle-voiced Tom Noonan tells her he lied and she’s actually watching after his elderly mother, but just stay downstairs and don’t bother her in her room.

The opening title card mentions satanic cults, but most of the movie is her alone in the house not knowing that’s hanging over her head. It’s very slow and deliberate, all about atmosphere and tension. Before it deals with genuine threats to her safety it milks the discomfort of her being in a stranger’s house and you not wanting her to wake up the unseen old lady. Instead of “don’t go in the room!” somebody might yell “be more quiet so you don’t wake her up!” to the screen.

Although the plot’s not at all similar, the look and tone reminded me most of BLACK CHRISTMAS. The 1980 fashion and cinematography is accurate enough that I’m positive people who catch it on cable will believe that’s when it was made. I was actually a little disappointed to see what Donahue looked like with modern hair, it was like seeing Godzilla with the mask off. But the only part of the movie that really ruins the illusion is when Greta Gerwig’s character says “Yo, check it.” No white college girl said that in the early ’80s. But I can see why it would be important to get that in there, I guess. (?)

For me the enjoyment is in the journey, not the destination. Or, it’s in the housesitting, not the going home. But I do like what happens at the end. The threat is not as big as in most horror movies. The bad guys are kind of pathetic. I like that. Hell, that’s authenticity. If this plays like a forgotten early ’80s horror movie, this is why it was forgotten.

This movie’s already been debated heavily in another comments thread, and you guys had more to say about it than I did. So I’ll end here. It’s a real slow burn with a small pay off, nothing I’ll be revisiting too often. But a small pleasure is still a pleasure.

p.s. Doesn’t this guy from the movie look like this guy from the Top Chef show?

houseofthedevil-topchefAlso there’s a character who I think looks like Eric Stoltz in MASK, but I couldn’t find a photo for comparison.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 11th, 2010 at 1:39 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

94 Responses to “House of the Devil”

  1. Many people say that directors like Michael Bay ruined modern cinema and while I agree with them to a certain degree, I also wonder why they always let Tarantino get away with what he did. He made so much money with lame nostalgia-cut-&-paste, that everybody just wants to “pay hommage” to their favourites from 20-40 years ago. (Not to mention what he did to modern dialogue and “gangster” movies, but that’s a different topic.)

  2. People have been nostalgic forever, ie the Hollywood new wave with Chinatown, and the black and white of The Last Picture Show or the 50’s nostalgia of Happy Days or American Graffiti, but I think nostalgia is the type of thing that is often only apparent in the present.

    As for the Tarantino/Michael Bay thing, I think that is entirely to do with the kind of people of talk about movies (as a whole) liking Tarantino better than Bay – although Bay to me seems to be following what Bruckheimer started earlier, rather than being a kind of trendsetter himself.

  3. Oh CJ, that one again? Come on man. If Tarantino is just “cutting and pasting” I gotta wonder why he has such a unique voice and such great films that are beloved by multiple generations and watched over and over again and nobody else makes movies like that. Does everyone else just choose not to due to some code of honor? Because it sounds so easy.

    Anyway if you’re saying HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is inspired by GRINDHOUSE I don’t see it. It’s actually nostalgic for a serious tone and deliberate pace, that’s a good thing to be nostalgic for. Also this is a pretty good movie, so if it was caused by Tarantino somehow that doesn’t support your “ruined cinema” argument.

  4. I can’t really speak for the overall quality of “House Of The Devil”, because I haven’t seen it yet, but I don’t really see anything unique or remotely interesting in Tarantino’s movies. Mostly because everytime I think that I see something in it that I like about them, I learn later that it’s just a lift from some movie, that Tarantino saw before. I often even learn it from Tarantino himself, when he goes in interviews: “There is this one scene, in that one movie I made, and it’s exactly like in that other obscure Italian movie from the 70’s, because I thought it was so cool.”
    And while, as the Great Unwashed said, there has been some kind of nostalgia in cinema pre-Pulp-Fiction, it seemed to get worse during the last 10 years, when all the 1st time filmmakers, who saw Pulp fiction as teenies on VHS, decided to just copy scenes and styles from their other faovurite childhood movies. (Not to mention of course all the independent filmmakers from the 90’s who decided that it’s more important to have “cool” dialogue than an interesting story.)
    I will probably write more later, but I’m at a school-esque place right now and always get distracted by what’s going on around me and I’m sure that I forgot more than the half that I wanted to say.

    (I also gotta admit that Tarantino makes me more angry and annoying than usual and I apoligize for this, but if you think that I bring up my Tarantino-issues way too often these days, you should have seen me back in 2005! Compared to then I behave.)

  5. Even most Tarantino fans (at least days) would agree that some shitty, shitty films followed in Pulp Fiction’s wake, but in general, whether the original be Rushmore, The Matrix or Die Hard (and whether you like the original or not), I don’t believe in blaming the maker of that original for the imitations. That’s all on the imitator, in my opinion.

  6. caruso_stalker217

    February 11th, 2010 at 4:42 am

    JACKIE BROWN is where it’s at. That’s all I know.

  7. “I mean, what are these great satanic cult movies of the ’80s the internet is so fond of?”

    Um…GHOULIES?

  8. Blaming an original great film for its imitations is like blaming Gloria Gaynor for the entire 90s mainstream “R&B” genre of pop music.** “I will survive” was a great song, but people still had to buy the other stuff.

    **(I don’t want to pay to hear a group of multi-ethnic women complaining about how their menfolk ain’t no good; I can go to one of our family parties and get it for free, thanks.)

  9. If Tarantino would have made just one “best of” movie, I would agree, but he never did anything else than writing scripts around his favourite scenes and elements from other movies and then telling everybody how cool that is! I’m not blaming ONE movie, I blame his whole filmography and the bad influence it had!

  10. I have to go against the grain here and say that for me, Pulp Fiction holds up the worst out of any of his films. Jesus, some of the dialog is embarrassing.

    I think he gets better with each film.

  11. caruso_stalker217

    February 11th, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Naw, man. DEATH PROOF definitely has the worst dialogue.

  12. PULP FICTION doesn’t have bad dialogue, it just has dialogue that’s been ripped off and misused so often in the 15 years since that the power of it has been diluted. The movie itself is still fantastic, it’s the bullshit imitators that need to kiss the end of a shotgun and be forgotten forever.

    And I’m with Vern, if all Tarantino is doing is ripping off other movies, then how the hell is he the only one making good Tarantino movies? I’ve seen lots of movies clearly trying to capture the same thing he’s working with and they all suck, so what magical entity did he make a deal with so his movies wind up not just watchable, but great?

  13. Yeah, I don’t buy that Tarantino is “just” ripping off old movies. He might steal bits and pieces of things he liked (much like a dude you may have heard of named Bill Shakespeare) but his finished work feels NOTHING like any of his influences. That’s the original touch that his imitators never get right. You can work with the same ingredients but it takes a master chef to whip them up into something delectable.

  14. Tarantino did the same thing in the 90s that Lucas and Spielberg did in the 70s and 80s but you don’t hear anyone complaining that Lucas “ripped off” the Saturday Serials to make STAR WARS or RAIDERS. They homaged a genre they loved and came up with a wholly original product. I think people have forgotten just how fresh PULP FICTION was when it first came out. There is a very good reason it has been imitated so many times. And besides, while QT was homaging those older films he was also creating engaging, charismatic characters with interesting things to say and do. That’s something a lot of those old grindhouse films did not do. (it’s also something many of the PF imitators seemed to forget about) And speaking of GRINDHOUSE, I’m tired of QT’s detractors holding that film up as proof of his incompetence. QT himself has said it was a lesser work and that he was humbled by it’s poor theatrical showing. That does not dilute the quality of his other efforts. I am not a rabid fan of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS but that doesn’t detract from my pure love for the KILL BILL films.

    Back to HOUSE OF THE DEVIL – I enjoyed it. I admired it’s patience and attention to detail. The final act fell off the 80s wagon a little bit with it’s close-up, handheld camera action and the bearded fellow was not quite period for some unknown reason but all the scenes between the girlfriends were really sweet and great. Samantha’s 80s style be-bopping around the house with her cassette Walkman really plucked my strings.

    It’s funny with a picture like this. I found myself dividing my attention between scrutinizing the eighties details (Volvo with rabbit’s foot hanging from mirror) and engaging with the characters and their situations. I appreciated the homages (Halloween II, Phantasm etc.) but I really appreciated the exacting filmatism and good performances.

  15. What I liked about HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (and I liked it a lot. I watched it and the new UNIVERSAL SOLDIER back-to-back and had my faith restored in both the action and horror genres) is that the eighties stuff wasn’t just used for cheap humor. There were no MAD MEN-style “Isn’t it funny the way people thought back then?” jokes. Sure, some of the fashions were dated, but not in an over-the-top AUSTIN POWERS way. They weren’t making fun of the eighties. What struck me about the filmatism was that it wasn’t just a pastiche of eighties filmmaking styles. I got the feeling that it was made that way because the director honestly feels that it’s a better way to make a horror movie. The grainy, understated photography, the long takes, the sparse sound design, these are techniques that lend themselves to a creepy atmosphere far more than the modern usage of quick cuts, color-corrected cinematography, and unmotivated shock sound effects. I honestly didn’t like the movie for nostalgia (Okay, maybe the FUCKING AWESOME credits song) but because I think this is the right way to make this kind of movie. It’s not about aping a style, it’s about using the style that works for the movie. Setting the movie in the eighties just made that style palatable for a modern audience.

    And Darryll, I’m with you: The scene where she’s bopping around the house with her Dean Koontz paperback-sized Walkmen was sweet and sexy and just right. A totally adorable grace note that most horror movies wouldn’t have time for. I used to work third shift in halfway houses for retarded people, one of which was an old Victorian much like the one in the movie. It totally nailed the feeling of staying up late in a strange house, trying to be quiet, getting bored, getting freaked out because there’s somebody sleeping upstairs and they’ve got health problems and what if they wake up and something happened all of a sudden? Your nerves are in a jangle all night in those situations, even without any satanists involved. I didn’t listen to The Fixx back then but other than that they got it dead on.

  16. Man, I’m positive that somewhere I wrote a long rant about people who point out that Tarantino lifted such and such from X or Y, but I can’t find it in any of my reviews of Tarantino movies. Anybody remember seeing that one?

    Majestyk – That’s exactly right. Although the ’80s style was the gimmick that drew most people to the movie it doesn’t come across as a gimmick at all. It just seems like the right way to tell that story.

  17. Yeah. You know, They could’ve easily gone really cheesy with the 80s stuff. Cameos by Jamie Lee Curtis or walk-ons by Run DMC or something cooky like that but they didn’t. They went for understated authenticity instead of finger pointing reference. By understated I’m talking about just the right film grain and font choices and holding on a shot just a little bit long after a character has exited the scene. Those slow-burn touches that encouraged an audience to reflect on what has passed and wonder what was to come. In other words, thinking about what you were watching. What a concept.

  18. I love that “serious tone and deliberate pace” are such relics of a bygone era that you’ve got to have some gimmick like “it’s a throwback! You know, like the old days!”

    I was worried that hipster meta bullshit would ruin this for me, but thankfully there’s nothing like that in the actual movie. It’s actually just, you know, slow and serious and moody. Good thing they let us know this one’s all a carefully staged homage, though, or I might have just assumed it was actually just a good movie. So thanks, guys, for turning care and patience into postmodern period trappings.

    Actually I really liked the movie so I shouldn’t be so harsh on it. It’s not their fault that everyone else has abandoned this style. I just wish we could live in a world where you could make something like this and not have to justify it with some hipster gimmick (even an admittedly pretty cool one).

  19. Vern- It’s in your summer movie preview that you wrote in like April or something, when you were talking about looking forward to Basterds.

  20. Thanks Brendan. I knew I wasn’t imagining it.

    Anybody ever see that video “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” where this guy compared RESERVOIR DOGS to CITY ON FIRE and acted like he had uncovered Watergate? I think it actually played small film festivals as a short. Amazing how different things are now because of youtube. Back then you had to be obsessed to do that kind of thing. He did another one for PULP FICTION that was just embarrassing because it was just pointing out references. Like “It turns out that Uma Thurman drawing a square in the air comes from a Porky Pig cartoon! We all knew it came from somewhere but now we know specifically where. Ladies and gentlemen, we got ‘im.”

    I guess I was wrapped up in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL enough that I didn’t notice anything that seemed like nods to specific things. What were the PHANTASM and HALLOWEEN 2 references?

  21. Vern, it seemed to me that Tom Noonan’s character resembled the Tall Man from the PHANTASM pictures and that long shot of the hospital corridor near the end was right out of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN 2 (complete with Pamela Susan Shoop’s hot tub). Also, you’re right on with the BLACK CHRISTMAS vibe. Jocelin Donahue as Samantha had a real Margot Kidder look about her. She also reminded me a lot of Karen Allen from STARMAN and RAIDERS. She was adorable in her skinny jeans and big scarf.

  22. http://www.avclub.com/articles/ti-west,38002/

    Just read this interview with Ti West (I thought he was a black filmmaker). He said there was a scene where a character walks into three rooms where something was supposed to happen, and it didn’t, and that is his idea of subverting a tired and cliched genre.

    Based on that I’m in no rush to see it.

    Ebert

  23. enjoyable movie, atmosphere is perfect. the slow burn is fun, but then after a while it’s just some girl walking slowly through a house for 40 min. the ending was the undoing in my opinion. i didn’t think it fit the mood, and it felt rushed. maybe i’ll change my mind if i watch it again.

  24. For all of the 80’s trappings of HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, I personally can’t think of too many 80’s horror movies it actually reminds me of. Like Vern, I tend to think of those movies (particularly the ones about babysitters in danger) as being crass, violent and garish. Not moody and deliberately paced like this one. Like Subtlety was joking about above, I tend to see this movie more as an excellent, somewhat original horror movie, and not some elaborate homage.

    I loved the movie myself, but I do kind of hate all the reviews that harp on the 80’s thing, as if it’s the most important thing about the movie and not, you know, the atmosphere or the suspense or any of that.

  25. Guys, I can see where you’re coming from and by my count she actually wanders around the house two times. Believe me when I say, though, those scenes are arrived at quite organically. Her first walk through the house results from her natural teenage curiosity. She’s being brave and shaking out her nerves. It’s an effective character moment sans dialogue. Her second search of the house ratchets up the tension. She’s pretty sure there is something going on and so are we.

    I think what Ti West was talking about was the idea of drawing that tension out just a little longer than is currently accepted by modern audiences. We almost but not quite begin to believe that maybe the house is just creepy and nothing more. Not quite.

    dan – I had some problems with the ending, also. The framing was a little to close to the action for period authenticity. I also felt the Satanists should have been more blabbernous. Lording over their victim and over explaining their madness in exquisite detail. It would have been an effective contrast to the silent moments that preceeded it. After all, what’s the point of being satanic if you can’t brag about it. Right?

  26. and enough with the 80’s talk. this movie is 70’s through and through.

  27. I believe Greg Kihn might take issue with that statement. The use of his 1981 hit “The Breakup Song” might be the closest thing the movie had to an in-joke, what with its chorus of “They don’t write ’em like that anymore.”

  28. Right on the cusp, I would think but the Fixx gives the 80s the advantage. If I were programming a double feature, though, it would be HOUSE OF THE DEVIL with ROSEMARY’S BABY or BLACK CHRISTMAS. Advantage 70s.

  29. It’s that period in the very early eighties when the outfits hadn’t gone neon yet and the color brown still reigned supreme.

  30. Also, I think it would make a pretty good double bill with LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH.

  31. I was the guy in the other thread who hated this movie. I’m staying out of this one, you people scare me.

  32. But Simulacrum of Roger Ebert – regular Roger Ebert already saw it and gave it 3 stars. Now I gotta stop bragging to my friends about whose simulacrum reads my websight. At least I still have Albert Pyun.

  33. I’m curious about your opinion on Tarantino, Vern (as well as you other pro-Tarantino fellows). I think some of his movies are entertaining, but I also think it’s pretty clear that he’s a plagiarist, and I find it upsetting that he continues to get away with that. I think we can all agree that if the author of a critically-acclaimed novel did interviews where he admitted stealing the structure, plot, and mood of entire sequences of his book, he’d be a plagiarist. But because film is such a young medium, maybe, we don’t seem to have a way of conceptualizing cinematic plagiarism. So my question to Vern or anyone else who wants to defend Tarantino is what makes Tarantino different from my hypothetical author?

    As far as whether Tarantino destroyed film in some ways, my personal belief is that Tarantino is basically the god of postmodern cinema, and I hate postmodernism. So I guess I’d rather he never existed, or at least that people would renounce him as a plagiarist instead of revering him as a genius. But that’s just personal.

  34. e poc,

    It’s just the old homage/inspiration vs. plagiarism argument. Plenty of authors find inspiration in others writings without being plagiarists, by putting their own spin on the material. Tarantino may wear his inspirations on his sleeve, but I don’t think he ever copies whole scenes word for word, shot for shot.

    I mean, there are movies out there that really HAVE stolen the plot from other movies. There’s this Indian director Sanjay Gupta who has, from what I’ve read, essentially made scene for scene remakes of movies without crediting the originals. I’d say there’s a world of difference between that and, say, Tarantino using 30 seconds of the score from a Leone movie, or references a line of dialogue from THE WILD BUNCH, or whatever.

  35. Or now that I think about it, what about A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which is an almost scene for scene copy of Kurosawa’s YOKIMBO? That’s much closer to “plagiarism” than any of Tarantino’s movies, but I feel like most of us acknowledge that Leone brought enough of himself to the table that we don’t just consider it theft.

    Also, there’s a semantics argument here that I think e poc was getting at, which is that “plagiarism” specifically refers to language; there’s not cinematic version. Then again, same thing with paintings. At worst, we just consider an artist to rip-off another artist.

    And what about all those blues songs that sound alike and cover the same thematic topics? Is that a form of plagiarism too?

  36. Didn’t see the other thread Vern mentions with the extensive “House of the Devil” discussion, but has anyone else seen Ti West’s “Trigger Man”? I liked it even more than “House of the Devil” — apparently the inspiration was to take the style of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” and tweak it into a horror film. Ultra-low budget, but I loved that shit. One caveat, though — anybody who’s got a problem with the pace of HotD should stay the fuck away from it, as, if anything, it’s even more deliberately paced.

  37. “Greg”

    The folks who thought HotD was too slow would probably become comatose if they ever tried TRIGGER MAN.

    I can’t say I liked it more than HotD, but I respected its balls and ambition. I think the difference is, HotD is slowed paced in the early scenes, but it builds atmosphere, introduces creepy details and definitely seems to be progressing. TRIGGER MAN is literally about 3 guys walking in the woods for its first half, but it lacks the visual poetry and desperation of GERRY. It’s just kinda uneventful, with cheap looking cinematography (hated those fast zooms) and bad acting. Then it genuinely gets engrossing in the second half, but I’m not sure the first half was worth the wait.

  38. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL: Really good flick. Jocelin Donahue truly is adorable, kind’ve a greatist hits compilation of Margot Kidder, Karen Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Brooke Adams and Linda Hamilton. The walkman scene both recognized that tons of films in the late 70s and early 80s had these often totally inappropriate musical interludes with entire songs playing for their full length: and it seemed like something of an homage to THE TERMINATOR and Ginger’s immortal dance to “Tryanglz”.

    Overall, DEVIL truly does evoke a whole style of genre films, sci-fi and horror, that seemed to flourish most between ’71 and ’83 and then mostly vanished (as Vern said, post-NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET). They relied heavily on atmosphere and that atmosphere was usually “sad, slightly desperate people living boring, average lives” as much as it was menacing or uncanny. Halloween, Alien (whose real novelty isn’t the alien monster, but the idea that even in the future, people will still trudge through dull, unpleasent jobs with co-workers they don’t like very much), The Shining, (a lot of the Stephen King adaptations, actually, such as Silver Bullet) Black Christmas, Don’t Go In The House, Last House On The Left, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, My Bloody Valentine, Alice Sweet Alice, The Changeling, The Brood, The Dead Zone….HOUSE reminded me of all of them without ever having any groaningly obvious ripoff moments. (Well, maybe the presence of Tom Noonan.) The last scene, in particular, really recalled Cronenberg’s early classics–a downbeat epilouge with haunting, mournful music.

    Amusing that an original indie film is probably the best of all the recent horror remakes.

    My only real gripe is that by casting 80s horror icons, that may actually have worked against the film. The guys who made Black Dynamite didn’t want any real blaxploitation stars in the film because a 70 year old Jim Brown is not a 38 year old Jim Brown, and the same thing applies here. If you’re a genre fan, those actors yank you right out of the story and you’re thinking, “Well, geez, they don’t look like they did in CUJO and MANHUNTER, huh? Oh, yeah, cause the 80s have been over for 20 years.” I mean, Noonan and Wallace are good in their roles (Noonan is creepy as always), but…It works, but I still have to raise the point that it cuts against total authenticity.

  39. e poc and Dan — a very interesting point. Plagerism in writing is easy to spot, because all you really have are the words there. If you have the same words, it’s plain fo everyone to see that its the same thing. The more layers you add, the harder it is to really decide what “too much” similarity means. Even if one part is very similar, the other parts may be different enough that it has its own life (After all, “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” sounds really fucking a lot like Neil Young’s “Helpless,” but no one seems to be calling Dob Dylan a plagerist hack).

    Partially this is beause there are certain simple formulas which inform almost all art today. Guess what? A lot of songs are structured very much like “Jonny B. Goode.” Among other artists, John Lennon was very opened about how much Chuck Berry had influenced the style and stucture of his (and his genre’s) songs. It’s not just that it makes sense to build a song this way (and of course, Chuck wasn’t the fist to do it, either) but later artists always want to capture the juju of the stuff that inspired them. Like Dan points out about the blues, a big part of art is tying yourself in with an artistsic tradition which inspires you. And a part of that is emulating forms and tweaking them, trying to see what you can get out of them in a different context, using a different voice.

    Which may be your problem with Tarantino, e poc, if I may be so bold. Most directors just utilize their influences — Tarantino trumpets his. I mean, there’s hardly a sci-fi movie made today that doesn’t hve elements of ALIENS or STAR WARS in it. But its assumed as a given in the genre. They don’t need to say it. But Tarantino is more interested in reminding us where all this stuff has its origins. As you absolutely correctly point out, he’s a thoroughly postmodern director, almost a postmodern fetishist. And that’s really annoying to some folks (and he doesn’t exactly help with his abrasive personalty and smug assertion of his own greratness). But that doesn’t make him a plagerist, any more than Andy Warhol was a plagerist for painting soup cans or screenprinting photos of Marilyn Monroe. It’s not about theivery, its about reconstructing narrative using pieces of culture, bashing them together and seeing what makes them tick. At this, Tarantino has no equal in modern pop culture. And his experiements do seem to have educated him in why things work — in fact, his emulations often work better than the originals. By contrast, no one who is ripping off Tarantino has come even close to touching the effectiveness of his work. And, arguably, the fact that he is so explicit about his intentions makes his work a little more honorable. His interviews are like a work cited page for his movies.

    So that why I say Tarantino deserves credit even while freely admitting that a lot of his work (particularly his work in the naughts) is in some ways vey derivative. But we can allow that as long as the work itself is fundamentally unique and compelling. Otherwise, David Lynch should be sheepishly looking down at his shoes while a very stern Maya Deren and Judge Judy glare at him.

    Still, your basic question remains an interesting one. At what point do similarities across all the disparate elements which make up a film coincide to create an end result which is similar enough that it goes too far? Is PANDORUM too much like ALIEN in its design? Is MAGNIFICENT SEVEN too much like SEVEN SAMURAI in its story? Is BLOW-OUT too much like BLOW-UP in tone (or THE CONVERSATION)? Unlike writing, these things are very slippery, subjective definitions, and I don’t know if there will ever be a definative answer. Oddly, there seems to be little need to find one at the moment. I can’t think of many times this sort of thing has been asserted with film, in court or out, despite a ridiculous number of films such assertions could be made about. For the record, video games are even more shameless about this sort of thing, and are an even younger medium for storytelling, so perhaps you’re on to something there.

  40. CC,

    I must disagree with you on the HotD casting: I thought Tom Noonan’s performance was one of the best things about the film. He strikes the perfect balance between creepiness and geniality, and it sets the stage for everything that follows. Also, his third awkward reminder about the pizza delivery phone number might have been the funniest line delivery in the whole film.

    Subtlety and e poc,

    Also, what about actors? Over in another thread we’re all talking worshipfully about Kurt Russell in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (rightfully so), even though 75% of his performance is just imitation of Clint Eastwood in the DOLLARS films. Can actors be plagiarists by borrowing heavily from another actor’s performance?

    Everyone,

    Sorry about typing YOJIMBO as YOKIMBO in an earlier post. And thanks for no one pointing it out.

  41. I studied YOKIMBO for years under sensei Dob Dylan.

  42. Vern,

    To jump off on a different tract here, I seem to recall a while back, when a bunch of us nerds got into a big debate about the best horror films of the past decade, and how they stack up against previous decades, you came out strongly in favor of 80’s horror movies. In fact, I just found it, you said:

    “The 70s and 80s were the best decades for horror, but the 90s weren’t all bad.” on the HIGHWAYMEN thread.

    But here you make it sound like you were not a big fan of 80’s horror movies, so much so that it almost convinced you not to see this one. Now I gotta wonder Vern, has something happened between then and now to make you reconsider the 80’s? Were you just trying to be noncontroversial in that earlier thread by including the 80’s? Is it just the late 80’s that you have a problem with, and you feel like the early 80’s makes up for it? What’s the deal, sir?

  43. I have never heard of a movie getting sued for plagiarism, just a script. Is film immune to this kind of thing, while there is hundreds of years of precedence for plagiarism in print so it’s much better established?

    Songwriters get sued constantly for plagiarism. Men at Work just lost a huge case over a flute solo (however distinctive) in “Land Down Under”. Coldplay got sued, Vanilla Ice got sued, MC Hammer got sued, the dudes who stole that Rolling Stones riff and played it over and over and over in that one song got their asses handed to them. Record companies seem to have gotten wiser about this kind of thing in the last 10-15 years and make sure they have permission first, but there for a while people were stealing every riff they could get their hands on and I’d bet most of them never bothered to ask James Brown or George Clinton or whoever if it was okay. And a lot of the “cooler” artists understood that if you pay homage to their song by taking some really cool part from it and make something entirely new with it, that’s a good thing and it’s not an opportunity to get paid in court.

    As far as Tarantino, I am not a big 70s movie fan so I don’t “get” barely any of the nostalgia references that he comes up with so I don’t mind one bit. I just know that he puts together some cool stuff, and I’d watch one of his movies 4 times in a row before I would subject myself to any of the lousy movies he is referencing 30 seconds of ***. Because truthfully… most of the movies he references are probably pretty lousy with a brief flash or two of inspiration, or they would be famous in their own right.

    *** Except for his Bruce Lee references in Kill Bill ***

  44. Subtlety and Dan,
    Kurosawa successfully sued “Fistful of Dollars” for plagiarism, so that’s probably not the best analogy to use in defending Tarantino. Neither is “Magnificent Seven,” which is an adaptation. Neither is “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” or slasher or action films, which utilize the conventions of their genre. Nor are blues standards, which are covers (just like adaptations). Nor is acting in a way that’s similar to the way someone else acts, which is just imitation. Nor are Andy Warhol’s paintings, which don’t have anything to do with a discussion of plagiarism (what other artwork are they copying?). In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, there can’t be any analogy to painting at all, because the singular physical item is what’s at issue in painting (or sculpture, etc.). That’s not the case in film or literature or music. And of course, just because other people (e.g., Sanjay Gupta, who I’m not familiar with) plagiarize doesn’t excuse Tarantino.

    Anyway, what Tarantino does seems different than all the examples you’ve provided. He directly copies the work of other people and incorporates it into his own, but claims that his work is original. The only appropriate analogies I can think of are to plagiarists. I still think the best analogy is to that of a writer who admits to having copied the structure and plot of entire scenes (or even entire books) for use in his own novels. Everyone would be really upset with that guy, but people seem to love Tarantino.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to like Tarantino, by the way. I like some of his movies. I just think that it would be more rational to say, “Yeah, he steals from other people. That’s kind of a shitty thing to do, but he makes good movies,” then to say, “He steals from other people, but that’s totally acceptable and something we should all approve of, more or less.”

    This next part here isn’t related, in my opinion, but I disagree with your claim, Mr. Subtlety, that Tarantino’s collaging of cinematic references is in any way illuminating or illustrative or explores “what makes them tick.” He’s not deconstructing or interrogating anything. He’s not even making new meaning that’s unrelated to the intertextualities. He’s just telling stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I strongly disagree that he’s stealing things for any other reason than because he thinks they are cool/fun/entertaining.

  45. e poc,

    I just got to ask for more examples of Tarantino’s alleged thefts. Mostly what I see are homages and inspirations, not much of what I consider to be outright theft from other works. Also, Tarantino seems pretty open about citing his sources in interviews and whatnot.

    I didn’t mean for any of my examples to be perfect analogies. I just mean, its kind of hard to define what constitutes as stealing another’s work. You act like there’s a clear line that Tarantino crossed, but I’m not sure I agree.

    Also, I wasn’t referring to blues standards. I was referring to the fact that so many blues songs sound alike and have similar lyrical content.

  46. e poc — weird. I had no idea that Kurosawa actually sued over that, let alone won. That does seem to establish a precedent under which Tarantino might arguably be convicted. You make a good point that similarity to genre is a very different beast from similarity to a specific source.

    In an effort to figure out exactly how this would play in court, I tried to get some transcripts from the court case, or at least a summary of the arguements made there, but I can’t seem to find any specifics. Sources seem to dispute whether or not Kurosawa and co. won their suite, or if the producers of FISTFUL eventually settled out of court. This link

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1161271

    seems to suggest the producers settled the lawsuit and hence have not (and are not required to) credit YOJIMBO or its writers. Which makes things a little different. Basically, I still don’t know how you would prove the kind of similarity which amounts to plagerism in a film, except in the script itself. How similar do the plots have to be (especially since both films have such a simple, iconic structure). How much influence is too much? After all, ironically, (wikipedia claims that) Kurosawa himself admits to copying several sequences almost shot-for-shot from THE GLASS KEY and admits the great influence Hammett’s “Red Harvest” had on the plot (though the film doesn’t give credit to either source). I wonder how similar things have to get before you really have a case against them? I guess it’s up to the court to decide, if it comes to that (FLIGHT OF FURY notwithstanding). Tarantino, whatever he does, tends to take bits and pieces of things, rather than the whole plot. Does that make him less of a theif? Um, I dunno. I guess to me FISTFUL itself seems unique enough that I never imagined Kurosawa might sue (even though I know plot and even cinematogaphy is very similar and sometimes identical). I guess I find it interesting that a movie as a whole could be plagerism (rather than, as rainman suggests above, some specific copywrighted part of a film, like the script or the score).

    It’s an interesting point to make and you may well have changed my mind. However, I stand by my interpretation of Tarantino’s postmodernist phase (see my comments in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for explanation).

  47. Roger Meyers Jr.: Okay, maybe my dad did steal Itchy, but so what?! Animation is built on plagiarism! If it weren’t for someone plagiarizing The Honeymooners, we wouldn’t have The Flintstones! If someone hadn’t ripped off Sgt. Bilko, there’d be no Top Cat! Huckleberry Hound, Chief Wiggum, Yogi Bear… Andy Griffith, Edward G. Robinson, Art Carney! Your honor, if you take away our right to steal ideas, where are they gonna come from?

  48. Dan,
    If you acknowledge the “homages,” then you already know what I’m referring to (though I guess I’d consider the debt that “Dogs” owes to “City on Fire” to be in itself pretty criminal [in a non-literal sense], apart from all the other stuff). The difference is just that I think on the whole it constitutes a bunch of petty theft which (I’m arguing) you wouldn’t tolerate in a novel, for instance, but you’ll tolerate and even possibly revere in Tarantino’s films. I mostly agree with you that QT never crosses a clear line (again, with the exception of “City”), but plagiarists seldom do (except for in college). I’m just wondering why he gets a pass, such that, for instance, Vern is sick of people mentioning the fact that he rips off a lot of shit. It’s at least a valid criticism, I think, even if you don’t agree that it matters much.

    Mr. Subtlety,
    I kind of glanced through that “Basterdz” thread, but I didn’t read very closely. It seemed like you were saying that QT isn’t really interested in creating meaning, which I agree with. I also agree that that’s totally po-mo. So I think we’re on the same page.

  49. Actually, Dylan HAS been accused of plagiarism over the course of his career:

    http://ralphriver.blogspot.com/2006/09/more-dylan-thefts.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/12/arts/music/12DYLA.html?pagewanted=1

    He’s also been accused by a number of figures in his past of hanging around with them just long enough to absorb their styles, and then moving on, like a vampire sucking its prey dry. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, for one. But we forgive him because the final result far surpasses the artists that he swiped from.

    It’s kinda like Leo Sayer and Leonard Cohen. Sayer’s big hit WHEN I NEED YOU sounds a whole lot like Cohen’s FAMOUS BLUE RAINCOAT — but because he’s LEO, and Cohen is just some schmuck, we let it slide.

  50. e poc,

    I think the difference is that I don’t consider his references/allusions and inspirations to be theft. I can think of plenty of novelists and filmmakers who are heavily influenced by other works but I still don’t consider them plagiarists. Tarantino may borrow elements from other movies, but he I think he reconfigures, translates, recontextualizes etc etc, his execution is different, yadda yadda, enough that it counts as his work. He puts his spin on it, he doesn’t simply copy or regurgitate.

    I’ve heard that about CITY ON FIRE and RESERVIOR DOGS too, but I haven’t seen that one so I don’t know. Maybe it’s really as bad as some people claim, in which case shame on Tarantino. But as for the rest of his work, I see a strong authorial voice that may be influenced by other works but always manages to craft it into something original and unique.

  51. As long as we’re on the topic, listen to The Kinks song SHE’S GOT EVERYTHING and tell me who had a big hit by recycling the last part of the guitar solo. It’s a minute thirty-five into the song, and you can’t miss it. Shocking, really. But since they wrote a whole new song around the riff, I guess it’s okay.

  52. Quoting Vern from upthread:

    “If Tarantino is just ‘cutting and pasting’ I gotta wonder why he has such a unique voice and such great films that are beloved by multiple generations and watched over and over again and nobody else makes movies like that. Does everyone else just choose not to due to some code of honor? Because it sounds so easy.”

    Vern knows what’s up.

    Throwing around the “plagiarist” label always seems petty to me, like it stems more from a reaction to the man’s fame and ego than from an honest appraisal of his body of work.

    frankbooth: Woman From Tokyo? Or am I missing something more obvious?

  53. e poc — yup, that’s my thesis (that’s also why I mentioned Warhol — I think Tarantino is up to the same kind of deconstructivism of iconography that he pioneered). And yeah, its about as postmodern as you can get, so if that pisses you off, you’ll hate him even more. And I certainly don’t begrudge anyone that (actually, I was amazed, fucking amazed, that BASTERDS wasn’t profoundly rejected by most people). I think Vern is sick of people complaining about Tarantino ripping people off just because its such old hat by now. No one is disputing it, really, and, in fact, Tarantino is the one telling everyone he’s doing it. So, there just doesn’t seem much to discuss anymore — if you’re going to a Tarantino film, you know what you’re getting. I think the guy has the chops to take pieces of things he’s picked up along the way and make a better and more unique whole than most of the source material. But I can easily understand why lots of folks find him and his work insufferable.

  54. frankbooth — is it The Rolling Stones, Brown Sugar? Does this mean I win two tickets to the show tonight?

  55. No, Mr. S, you do not — but I can see where it’s also kind of similar to that one, perhaps proving the point. If it’s debatable which song it sounds like, how can theft be proved?

    Franco wins. The show is in Peru, Franco — can you make it?

  56. Have llama, will travel.

  57. Reply will follow soon, I’m just busy. Don’t think of me as an ass who just disappears when the discussion gets too hot.

  58. Dan – good point. I guess when I was referring to ’80s horror before I was thinking of all the slasher sequels and stuff I like from that decade (some of which are cheesy) but in the context of “’80s style satanic cult movie” I was thinking more of the even cheesier ones that combine demons with big hair and electric guitars.

    You know, I was watching a DVD that had the videos Michael Jackson did in the ’90s and I realized that enough time has passed that now the ’90s are the enemy. I’ve become okay with the ’80s nostalgia because it’s the ’90s that make me cringe. You should see some of the shit he’s wearing in those videos.

  59. Maybe I’ll write a longer essay about this some day, but let me try to explain in a little more detail why I hate this argument about Tarantino supposedly ripping everything off: number 1, because I think it’s a huge exaggeration, number 2 I think it ignores what art is, number 3 I think in order to make it you have to pretend not to notice the qualities of the movies that everybody likes in order to be indignant about something irrelevant.

    1. CJ keeps says that “every scene” he likes turns out to be lifted from some other movie. I don’t buy it. Which scenes? Give me three good examples. Shit, give me two. I can think of tons of homages (to Leone, De Palma, Seijun Suzuki, Shaw Brothers, etc.) a couple references (“My name is Buck”). Entire scenes? Like what?

    2. People have already pointed out some obvious precedents (Tarantino takes from Leone taking from Kurosawa taking from Hammett) and I think those are relevant, because FISTFUL OF DOLLARS takes far more from YOJIMBO than Tarantino has ever taken from anything, and I think we all agree that FISTFUL is a masterpiece. We don’t care that it’s ripped off. It’s not relevant. In fact, it’s part of why it’s good – it uses a great story, puts it in a different context, gives it a different style.

    But Tarantino also exists after a generation of sampling, remixes, mashups etc. More than 20 years ago Public Enemy made ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back.’ Back then, maybe even still now, there are people who argue that it’s not even music because it’s not played on instruments. Those people are known as “idiots” or “completely wrong,” but at the time they were probly the majority.

    Now most would agree that it’s a masterpiece. It speaks heavily to the time in which it was made but also would work great as just a set of instrumentals without anything to say. It still sounds futuristic, but it’s made out of pieces of the past. It’s created entirely by collaging other people’s sounds, so it owes much more debt to other works of art than Tarantino’s movies do. (And it couldn’t be done legally today without millions of dollars for sample clearances – great job, corporations.) Yet it’s the context and the combination that makes it a unique work of art. It’s like mixing chemicals.

    It was Daryll “Hassan” Jamison that played the feverish trumpet solo in “The Grunt” by the JB’s, but it was The Bomb Squad that turned it into a menacing air raid siren on “Rebel Without a Pause.” (And by the way, Wikipedia informs me that “Large parts of ‘The Grunt’s melody and arrangement are borrowed, uncredited, from The Isley Brothers’ song ‘Keep on Doin”, which was released earlier in the same year.”)

    Let’s say CJ is not exaggerating, and Tarantino’s movies really are entirely made out of lifts from the movies he grew up on. Then wouldn’t that make him a great DJ, like a DJ Spooky of film? If we can respect Dangermouse’s “Grey Album” for the way it masterfully and unexpectedly meshes the Beatles with Jay-Z can’t we respect KILL BILL for doing the same with the 25 different genres it mixes up? (Especially since KILL BILL is a better movie than many of its influences, but The Grey Album is not as good as either of its sources?)

    Or maybe we don’t even have to go that far. Wasn’t it cool that Neil Marshall combined ALIENS with werewolves in that DOG SOLDIERS movie? Wasn’t it cool that THE SUBSTITUTE mixed b-action with inner city teacher dramas? Yes, it was. And it’s cool that Tarantino made an emotional yakuza/samurai/kung fu/rape revenge spaghetti western love story.

    3. What would you say was the primary reason why Tarantino won the best screenplay Oscar for PULP FICTION? Was it because a guy got shot by accident in the car, something that is mentioned as something you don’t want to happen in DOG DAY AFTERNOON? Was it because there is a glowing briefcase and the Academy voters didn’t know that was “ripped off” from KISS ME DEADLY? No, I would guess it was because they loved his dialogue, they loved that it was a movie about talking and they loved to hear the characters talk. They loved that it was a movie that shows the parts of the character’s lives that are usually cut out of the other movies, like the mob enforcers waiting around in the hallway killing time because they got there earlier than they’re supposed to. They liked the non-linear structure, which at the time was pretty novel and which works really well in the movie. They thought it was clever and original in the way it was put together, and they were right.

    Why is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS nominated (and I think gonna win) for the same category this year? Is it because it has references to G.W. Pabst? Is it because the opening has some shots that mimic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST? Is it because he took bits of music from various other movies to make the score because he wanted it done in time for Cannes and Morricone couldn’t do a new one that fast? Of course not. It’s because it’s a movie in love with language, and that makes you love language while you watch it. Because it dares to fuck with history in ways nobody else would’ve been crazy enough to. Because it repeatedly wrenches suspense out of mere conversation. Because it’s so thoughtful in the way it keeps repeating its themes and motifs in different ways that it becomes almost a puzzle. Because it creates indelible characters – a hilarious and terrifying Nazi murderer who treats hunting down Jews like Sherlock Holmes treats solving a case? Did that come from CITY ON FIRE?

    No, it came from Tarantino’s imagination, and the great performance he got out of the unknown in Hollywood actor he cast. The things people love about this movie have NOTHING TO FUCKING DO WITH this argument.

    Fixating on homages or even “lifts” completely ignores what makes Tarantino Tarantino. If it’s all just lifts then how come there have been so many movies since PULP FICTION that are transparently trying to be like Tarantino? How could you tell unless he has an identifiable style and voice? And why is it that all those movies suck? How could that be unless he brings to it a particular talent?

    And which movie was Tarantino’s style of dialogue lifted from, huh? Well, I’d say he was influenced by Elmore Leonard books and The Friends of Eddie Coyle (the book, which is even more talky than the movie), but I don’t think he’d be confused for any of them, because he’s different.

    At the same time I think the people who fixate just on his dialogue are missing the big picture too. I enjoy the movies that he wrote but didn’t direct, but they’re not the same. He’s simply a great director. He has an eye for underappreciated actors and how to get great performances out of them. It’s not just a parade of cameos like Rob Zombie movies sometimes feel like. I mean, Larry Bishop, who plays the strip club manager in KILL BILL, how did he get that out of him? And all time great performances for Travolta, Forster, Grier, even Chris Tucker. He turned Samuel L. Jackson into a superstar. And now he’s got Christophe Waltz. The guy is clearly great with actors.

    And there’s plenty more to say about his camerawork, editing, and in the case of some of his more recent work the action choreography. To simplify it down to “it’s all ripped off” seems to me completely superficial and even insulting to the art of filmatism.

    So yes, I’m sick of this argument, because I think it’s so off base and it was already old when I started writing about movies 10 years ago. Ironically it’s an unoriginal argument that puts too much importance on originality. Also I was just annoyed that the first comment for a movie that Tarantino had nothing to do with had to dredge this shit up. I would’ve been just annoyed if it was the “torture porn” bit.

    But I see this has been a thoughtful discussion, so it’s fine. No hard feelings, CJ. Just don’t do it too often.

    p.s. Okay, I guess I don’t need to do the long essay version. But I had this whole bit comparing Tarantino to Elvis because of his “everyone is an Elvis or Beatles person” thing in TRUE ROMANCE. It was gonna be deep, man.

  60. Vern, I think this might just be your masterpiece.

  61. Vern, thanks for taking the time to write such an illuminating post.

    I wonder if you’d care to comment on a point Spike Lee made ages ago regarding the way Tarantino used the n-word in PULP FICTION, that is, how he appropriated of the word, divorced it from its historical context and used it to sound cool, as opposed to, say, a white rapper like Eminem or a white jazz musician who more successfully acculturates himself to the larger political context of the idiom that he is borrowing.

    I know that this is an old argument, that Tarantino and Lee have made up and even spoofed their arguement, and that Tarantino doesn’t blithely throw around the n-word just to sound cool anymore. Still, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the issue.

  62. I don’t know the specifics of the argument, but I think I agree with Spike Lee on that one. The “dead n-word storage” speech always makes me cringe. Maybe a better actor could pull it off, but I doubt it. He uses the word very effectively in JACKIE BROWN, but that’s not a white dude saying it.

    Tarantino was a script doctor on CRIMSON TIDE, and supposedly Denzel confronted him about that issue. That must’ve been tense, gettin chewed out by Malcolm X.

  63. Vern – Wasn’t this the same Denzel who (allegedly) advised Will Smith back in the day to not take any “gay” film parts (whatever that means) because it would irrepairably hurt his image with black audiences?

    Now that is something I don’t get: Real black cultural hostility to gays. I think there is a real irony that southern whites for generations used loopy bullshit from the Bible to excuse slavery and Jim Crow prejudice. Now many black church groups use the Good book to “fight the gay out.” (Don’t look at me, I heard that on TV some years back.)

    I’m reminded of that awkward Spike Lee flick SHE HATE ME, you know the one about the black white collar worker moonlighting as a breeding stud for lesbians? Don’t these bitches ever hear of a sperm bank?

  64. “Vern, I think this might just be your masterpiece.”

    You know you get to Carnegie Hall don’t ya?

    But seriously, great posts guys, epic thread here.

  65. i messed up my quote in my sleepiness

    should have read “You know how to to get to Carnegie Hall don’t ya?”

  66. Thanks for the response, Vern. Your use of the word “cringe” pretty much sums up my response to that particular scene as well. There’s probably no other word in American history as contentious as the n-word, and Lee’s argument with Tarantino’s appropriation of it isn’t that the word is used but rather that it is often thoughtlessly used. At one point he said: “I want Quentin to know that all African-Americans do not think that word is trendy or slick.” It’s hard to watch Tarantino’s character in PULP FICTION and not see a white director who thinks he’s being slick and edgy, which probably isn’t the smartest posture to adopt with a word that causes such deep reactions in so many people. To Tarantino’s credit, the writing in JACKIE BROWN, and the use of the word, is much more organic and true to Jackson’s character than it was in PULP FICTION.

    I’m sure you remember in BAMBOOZLED that Michael Rapaport’s character, when confronted by a character over his problematic appropriation of black idiom, delivers the line: “Fuck Spike Lee, give me my man Tarantino.” I always assumed that Rapaport’s character was a comment on this kind of thoughtless appropriation of black idiom. And it shows that Lee has more humour than his critics sometimes credit him with.

    I also like to think that Tarantino’s self parody in Lee’s GIRL 6 indicates that the two directors took the whole exchange productively.

  67. Is it significant that the white character who used the N-word had a black wife? Perhaps this detail was only added as a fixative for the potential fallout from the use of word in the first place, but is it not possible that a character who has a black spouse, lives in a black neighborhood, and has black friends like Jules might start thinking he has the right to use the word, like he has a free pass? I’m not saying he does, but as a fictional character he doesn’t have to be right; he just has to be true. I think there are enough details about the character to support him using the word beyond just Tarantino thinking it’s hip to do so. Or maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse and Tarantino started with thinking it’s hip and then worked backward, putting in all those details to justify it. Either way, it doesn’t make me cringe. If it had been any other actor but the director himself saying those lines, we would have taken them simply as a piece of characterization, not as evidence of the filmmaker’s racial insensitivity.

  68. It’s a grey area, Mr. Majestyk, and individual reactions will vary. I can certainly appreciate that “dead n-word storage” is a witty line, but I still question the motives of the guy who wrote it.

    If we take Rapaport’s Dunwitty character in BAMBOOZLED as Spike Lee’s position on the discussion, having a black wife and interacting with black characters are little more than props used by Dunwitty to justify his various appropriations and sense of entitlement; Dunwitty’s proximity to black characters hasn’t made him any more aware of the issues that bother the Wayans character, or that black people face in general; if anything, he’s more of a prick because he feels his proximity to black people gives him an excuse to say whatever he wants. I think BAMBOOZLED argues that racism is predicated on the visibility of the person being oppressed, and no matter how close you are to whiteness or blackness, your experience is not transferable. Wayan’s Delacroix character isn’t any more successful at being white, despite his silly affectations, and the one white guy in the black terrorist group is the only guy to not get killed by the cops (he even melodramatically cries out “why not me?” during the shooting – no one said Spike was subtle).

    The film is full of comments on Dunwitty’s cluelessness when it comes to how being black effects the other characters.

    Dunwitty: Sorry I’m late. I had trouble catching a cab.
    Pierre Delacroix: Perhaps they thought you were Danny Glover.

    I’d venture to say that Spike Lee didn’t see PULP FICTION as the same kind of movie as BOYZ N THE HOOD, that Tarantino wasn’t really connecting his characters to any particular social reality, and that the danger of divorcing the n-word from its history is more problematic in this kind of film. All of the background to the Tarantino character that you describe for PULP FICTION is entirely plausible, but it all kind of floats around ahistorically in a world that is as much the 1950s as it is the 1990s.

    Maybe if we were talking about something like the remake of SHAFT Lee would cut us some slack in the name of characterization. I’m inclined to think that PULP FICTION is another kind of film, something more like AMELIE or BLUE VELVET.

    Then again, I’m getting into territory where I’m guessing Spike’s arguments, and I don’t really want to do that.

  69. If Denzel had a problem with Quentin, is it safe to say that Sam Jackson had no problem apparently with him, considering he’s appeared in every QT picture* since FICTION?

    *=I count KILL BILL as just one movie, two halfs released seperately.

  70. RRA: Sam Jackson was very vocal in his support of Tarantino when Spike Lee mentioned how many times the n-word was used in Jackie Brown (imagine Spike sitting there in the theater with his abacus keeping score). The exact Jackson quote is: “The word is not offensive in the context of the film. Spike Lee has a problem with it, we all agree with that. He should just move on. He uses the word himself in all his films.”

    I agree with Jackson as it pertains to JACKIE BROWN; I agree with Lee as it pertains to PULP FICTION. In terms of maturity, JACKIE BROWN is way more sophisticated than PULP FICTION. The word is more deftly employed in JACKIE BROWN, much in the way Spike employs the word himself; it’s more grounded in a reality we can recognize around us, it isn’t grafted on like an accessory, and the characters are far more nuanced and naturalistic. It would be a different story if the Robert Forester character in JACKIE BORWN threw the n-word around to sound cool. Thankfully, he doesn’t.

    There’s no consensus among black people about the use of the word. I tend to defend the manner in which the word is used in hip hop as a reclamation and refurbishment of a former insult, much in the way that the word “queer” has been reclaimed by many members of the gay community. But I can also see Spike’s point that sheer repetition of the word in music and movies can be deadening when it serves no real purpose. No one will ever agree. Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington will have positions that echo the Harlem Renaissance; Sam Jackson, John Singleton and RZA are more like the beboppers, hep cats and blaxploitation directors.

  71. I saw PULP FICTION again a few weeks back, and the only part of it that jarred was that QT’s cameo (although there was also something strange when John Travolta arrives to pick-up Uma Thurman, but I don’t remember exactly what it was)… It got me hoping that it was a last minute thing, like Sofia Coppola in GODFATHER III, and the actor who was supposed to do it dropped out at the last minute.

    (that actor was Spike Lee, naturally. Perfect casting right there…)

  72. QT’s cameo in PULP FICTION always struck me as purposefully out of place. This is a white guy mixed up in organized crime who is clueless. He’s a useful idiot and the other characters only treat him with respect because they desperately need his help at the time, but I got the feeling that if he pushed any of them too far they’d pop a cap in his ass just because they were having a very, very bad day and they didn’t want to take any more of his stupid suburban white boy n-word spewing mouth. Look at QT’s character whining about the sheets and bedspreads that Mr. Wolf wants to appropriate for the cause. Wolf sits him down like a child and explains to him that Marsellus gave him the damn sheets and if they need the sheets they need the sheets and he can buy some more goddamn sheets with the money Marsellus pays his dumb ass. But in nicer words, because QT’s character is a moron and that’s how you have to reason with morons.

    In this respect I didn’t see QT’s character constantly saying the n-word as him trying to be “cool”, but as him trying to show just how clueless this character really is. The guy probably thinks it’s okay for him to say the word because hell, his wife is black! His boss is black, he’s got black friends and coworkers, therefore he’s obviously not racist and he can say the n-word and everybody is cool with it. But it’s not cool, and he’s just too clueless to know it.

    Perhaps QT’s poor acting talents give me these impressions and this wasn’t his motivation at all when including this character, dialogue, and scenes into the movie, but considering how careful QT is about all other aspect of his movies I would not doubt that it was intentional.

  73. QT as an actor is OK, just don’t hinge your whole movie on him. Like maybe FROM DUSK TILL DAWN did. But on the side, he’s harmless.

    Remember him as the preacher in LITTLE NICKY?

  74. Okay, here is my reply. Sorry that it took so long, but I was busy as hell.
    While I without a doubt critizise(d) Tarantino for his schtick, my main point of critizism got a little bit buried. And that was that we are living in a generation on “paying hommage” in films. More than remakes, re-imaginations and other re-things pisses me off that – especially in genre-filmmaking* – many (young) filmmakers are more concerned about making “a film like the ones I grew up with”. Technically there is nothing wrong with being inspired by something that impressed you in any way when you were young(er), because filmmakers are doing this for decades (DePalma/Hitchcock, Burton/Bava…), but usually they are able to build something substential around their hommages. The hommage wasn’t the star, it was a bonus! But over the last 15 years the hommage-movies not just seemed to increase radically, they became less original and apparently built only around the purpose of “making a movie like…”. It seems like whenever a director wants to get some attention for his movie, he just has to copy another movie(-genre) and then tell everybody about it and advertise it as a hommage. And I seriously blame Tarantino for this trend, because he made a successful career out of making “a movie like…” and then telling the world proud about it.
    That was my point in the first post and yes, it was badly verbalized. (But it taught me to not even try to write a short rant about something, when I’m not just pissed off because of something else, but also have to write it in a different language.)
    Now about Tarantino and me…well, it’s not a secret that I hate his films with a passion. Usually I’m more the “it’s a matter of taste”-person, who is even able to see in filmmakers who I don’t like, what their fans see in them. But I seriously don’t know what’s the big deal about Tarantino!** It’s not just that his movies are usually just samplers of somebody else’s ideas***, his movies do absolutely nothing for me! Apart from the aforementioned “I like it, but I wonder where he took it from this time”-problem, I can’t stand his cringe-worthy dialogue****, can’t relate to any of his characters and even think they are pretty interchangable, because they all seem to speak with same voice and I think he seriously should surround himself with people, who aren’t afraid of telling him when an idea doesn’t work and should be left out of the movie.***** And yet he is still hold up as the genius who revolutionized cinema! I think Vern asked me (sorry if it was somebody else) what I think the Oscar jury saw in Pulp Fiction and now again in Inglorious Basterds. All I can say is I DON’T KNOW!!! What did they see in Crash, but didn’t see in Fight Club? Also the argument, that Tarantino has a very good hand with actors came up. Even I won’t deny this, but how much credit can we give a director when an actor like Christoph Waltz, whose career is full of great performances, gives one more (apart from casting him)? To me Tarantino is just the guy who rusty, old feullieton critics can go to when they wanna feel cool and kids can go to when they wanna feel even cooler.
    But Vern said, no hard feelings and I don’t wanna do this too often, because even I am sick of defending my opinion on Tarantino.******
    I hope I didn’t forget anything, because I’m running out of time again. If you find typos and stuff, you can keep them.

    *Though I hate the term “Genre-film” to label fantasy-, horror-, exploitation- and other stuff like that. Isn’t drama a genre too?

    **I would also like to point out that I got se-heriously no idea why Tarantino’s fans are so much more protective and agressive than the fans of other filmmakers. Usually you just have to say something like “Pulp Fiction isn’t all that good”, to even get outside of the internet yelled at and badly insulted. And although the discussion here was (as usual) more civilized than anywhere else, you see how huge it became and how long the pro-Tarantino posts are!

    ***And this is not something I made up or got from an angry AICN talkback comment. I can’t point out enough that it is Tarantino himself who said in many interviews things like: “In my movie X, there is scene Y, where the camera moves exactly like that movie Z that I really admire. And the character A in my movie B is like the guy from movie C.” And seriously, what’s the point in lifting lines like “My name is Buck…” from an old exploitation movie and feature it prominently in your movie? Not to mention his habit of scoring his movies with scores from other movies and then justifying it with “The world is full of great filmscores, so why should I make my own one” (paraphrased, but based on a real interview quote). Vern brought the “sampling in music” argument up and while I gotta admit that it is a good argument (especially because I belong to the people who spent lots of time with defending artists like Coldcut or Norman Cook), I also have to say that music and movies are two different kind of shoes. Music doesn’t tell stories in the same way movies do and i’m not sure what you would think of Public Enemy if their LYRICS would just consist of quotes from other songs. I can imagine it would be very entertaining (see Coldcut for this) but wouldn’t have the same impact, because the “Hey, it’s taken from_____” would undermine the message of it. Public Enemy would probably be known today as great sound artists, but not as someone who had something important to say.

    ****I don’t have a problem with long dialogue or even stylized dialogue, but outside of Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill 1 I usually have the feeling that he just lets the characters talk, to fill the script pages. The characters spend way too much time with talking about nothing. I remember that Tarantino justified this with something like: “In the real world we don’t talk all the time about ‘the plot’ either”, but come on. You make highly stilized movies, with highly stilized dialogue, but then justify it with realism? On his use of the N-Word: I don’t have a problem with that, because even if the characters who use it in his movies are usually the (anti-)heroes, who are supposed to look cool and sympathetic in the eyes of the audience, they are still gangsters, so I can’t see the big deal about a fictional bad rolemodel, talking like a bad role model.

    *****While many of his ideas look cool in the first moment, they usually make me ask myself “was that necessary?” shortly after. Let’s take Kill Bill for example. Is there a reason why the story is told out of order? Okay, if the fight against O-Ren Ishii would have taken place in the beginning, everything after it would have been a huge letdown, but why not just change the script so, that she really fights Vivica Fox first and then goes after O-Ren? And talking about O-Ren, is there a reason why she is the only character who gets a long flashback about her backstory, other that it was the only way to put a stylish anime sequence in the movie? I’m just happy that this bad habit didn’t catch on. Other than Crank 2 I can’t think of any other movie that suffers that hard from the “Let’s put everything we came up with in the movie, even if it doesn’t work”-syndrome. (The talkshow scene is the pendant to the O-Ren Flashback. Nice idea, but would work better as deleted scene.)

    ******See **

  75. Cj- I agree that Coldcut and Fatboy Slim are amazing.

    But i don’t know about your anti-Tarantino arguement. In this entire thread I still haven’t seen but one reference to an actual ideal that he stole. That one ideal was the some of the opening shots of Inglorious being lifted from Once upon a Time in the West….oh and the my name is buck stuff. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say either of those movies hinged on either that scene or that line of dialogue.

    Can someone who hates Tarantino please just list his stolen ideals or point me to a site where someone else did that cause I don’t want to be a fan of some hack director with no unique vision or voice.

  76. CJ- Couple things: I absolutely agree with you about this ‘paying homage’ trend and I think genre fans and sites DO cut filmmakers slack so long as they swear up and down that they love this old movie or saw this show or played with this toy. It is annoying and should go away at least until we go back to judging films for the films themselves and not what the director was watching in the twenty or thirty years before they rolled fim.

    But I don’t think that applies in this case, because Tarantino has created a ‘Tarantino movie’ aesthetic that no one else, even people who are working from scripts by the guy, seems able to replicate, as the entire indie film movement of the ’90’s stands as testament. Whether or not he has inspired other, less talented people to dick around and waste time, Tarantino himself has passed that test, whether or not you like his films or think his dialogue sucks (to each his own) it is HIS movies and HIS dialogue that you are reacting to.

  77. Guys, this homage thing has been going on for decades now. Check out NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, a movie that will gain you major cred in the fanboy community if you bring it up. It’s got more references and nods than a dozen modern horror throwbacks. Joe Dante was doing the Rob Zombie stunt-casting thing back in the 70s. The first EVIL DEAD had that HILLS HAVE EYES poster in the background, and HALLOWEEN has the original THE THING playing on TV. The problem is not that there’s too much homaging going on nowadays, it’s that now filmmakers are homaging things that were homages in the first place. But all things considered, I’d rather have directors looking back to the classics of the genre than looking at what movie had a big opening weekend last month.

  78. Heck, you can go back further than that. How about the French New Wave? Directors like Truffaut, Godard and Rivette were constantly referencing other films in their work. Godard’s breakout, BREATHLESS, as essentially him deconstructing and reassembling gangster movie cliches, and includes a scene where the hero dotes over a poster of Humphrey Bogart. Truffaut made movies like MISSISSIPPI MERMAID and CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS where he self-consciously made Hitchcockian thrillers, but put his own spin on them.

    And, I’d argue, like Tarantino, these filmmakers managed to re appropriate and recontextualize these familiar elements in such a way that made them their own.

  79. As far as the n-word goes, there’s a great documentary on the subject called, appropriately enough, THE N WORD. In it, Sam Jackson talks at length about his perspective on using the n-word, which it turns out if pretty different than Spikes (he says, “I tell people, the first thing you need to know about me is I’m a nigger.”)* It’s pretty much your standard talking-heads documentary but its filled with interesting people who have a wide range of perspectives on the topic (including a few white people). As such, its the best cinematic discusions of the subject that I’m aware of.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417003/entary out there called

    As far as Tarantino goes, I’m inclined to agree with Rainman on this one, that his character in PULP FICTION is intentionally supposed to come across as a clueless wannabe. It could just be QT’s iffy acting, but I think his use of the n-word is supposed to sound akward, forced, and abrasive in a way which the other characters don’t. So while I cringe a his whole “storage” speech, I think that’s the intent.

    *BTW, sorry if I offended anyone by actually printing the word there. I don’t like using the n word but I find it kind of insulting and partonizing to censor it if it’s already in a quote. It’s not something I like to bring into the world, but once it’s already out there I think we do a disservice by being afraid of even looking at it.

  80. I agree Subtlety, and I even think it’s kind of absurd use “the n-word” in this discussion at all. When we’re talking about the context and consequences of the word nigger, I don’t think it should be deemed offensive to use the actual word.

  81. Chopper — I kind of agree, but I don’t mind using “n-word” to describe it in conversation. As I said, the word just has so much ugly history and is so painful to some people that I don’t like to say it if I can help it. I get annoyed by people objecting to most profanity, but I’m fairly sympathetic to people being sensetive to racial or sexual epithets. Hence, since we can say n-word and have everyone understand, it seems like a sensible alternative to actually using the word.

    I just draw the line at censoring a quote from someone else. I feel like changing language changes meaning and context and if I’m quoting something I want it to be able to speak for itself. Censorship in the interest of changing taste troubles me because I feel like it limits the way we think about history and what we can learn from it. I don’t mind self-censoring, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to try and make someone else’s words conform to my personal morals — in fact, I think there’s some danger in doing that.

    Of course, there are exeptions. Witness Kanye West’s “Gold digger,” the greatest joke on the white man ever. The n-word is there, right there in the chorus, the one part absolutely everyone knows! It’s the rhyme for god’s sake! But so now if you’re a white fellah, you’re left with the choice of singing the actual words quietly to yourself when you’re sure no one can hear them, or sounding like an idiot by singing “I ain’t saying she’s a gold digger, but she aint messin with no broke …broke…” like they say on the radio.

  82. Or you could choose not to sing along with that terrible, terrible song in the first place. That’s what I do, and it’s served me well.

  83. Finally got to see HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.

    With so much to admire about this film it’s a shame that West absolutely botches the climactic ritual scene. The shaky hand-held camera work, overly-tight framing and desaturated color just destroy the tone and mood so very deliberately set by the film’s first 70 minutes. Suddenly, we’ve shifted from a late-70s made-for-tv vibe into late-90s DTV territory.

    I understand that West was working with a minuscule budget, but when so much of your film is spent building up to what promises to be an amazing set-piece, you really need to deliver the goods. Taking the last 20 minutes as a whole, I really don’t mind the daft goofiness of the climax and denouement at all. But the basement ritual scene is just a big aesthetic letdown.

    An approach that might have worked better would have been to wind the tension up even tighter and tighter for another 10 minutes or so, and then end with a very sudden shock ending, one that left you reeling from its implications and *imagining* the unholy blasphemies that were occurring long after the credits rolled.

    Anyway, like Vern said, it’s about the journey, not the destination. I loved all the leads in this and even appreciated the cameo by Dee Wallace (Skateboard Kid II). I’m sure I’ll revisit it at some point.

  84. Okay, did anyone else think this movie was sort of terrible?

    The girl is staying in a house to watch over the mother upstairs, then after a bit she hears a noise upstairs AND GRABS A BUTCHER KNIFE to go investigate. Not very good/sane behavior from a sitter. Then the pizza guy comes and she throws money at him and clutches the pizza box flush to her chest vertically. Um, what? What human person behaves like this?

    Then for some reason she starts acting drugged before she wakes up in the attic. Too many big plot/logic questions in a movie where only about four things happen in the entire ninety-five minutes.

    And the TEMPLE OF DOOM blood drinking shtick was silly. And how can someone still be alive after we see brains exit the side of their head via gunshot wound?

    Very irritating.

    And Tarantino rules.

  85. Saw this on a Netflix Double Feature with The Innkeepers. This one just failed to hold my attention. So much so, that like Blitzkrieg, I somehow didn’t notice the pizza guy was also the killer who *SPOILER* shot her friend, and also that eating the drugged pizza was why she was acting loopy. (Thanks wikipedia!) I guess that’s the problem with slow burn movies – they run the risk of having the audience’s mind wander when something of note actually, finally, does happen. (Or maybe, that’s the problem with us these days – if a movie’s not going to hold my full attention, I’m going to be stupid and tacky enough to surf the web on my phone while watching it and miss something)

    I think it’s funny that West in one of those interviews linked above “hates the term ‘slow burn'”, when it’s basically a really nice, diplomatic way of saying “boring as shit to 80% of the audience”.

    Oh and like everyone else, the dancing-to-the-walkman montage was my favorite scene. Not just because something was HAPPENING (even though nothing was really happening), but because the movie felt alive, and had some energy to it. It’s why, despite all it’s flaws, I still watch Career Opportunities – the entire movie is like 7 of those scenes put together.

  86. There are two very large reasons why you still watch CAREER OPPORTUNITIES, neal.

  87. Once those two very large reasons are unleashed in that white tank top, Career Opportunities improbably goes downhill. The sweet-natured tone and sensitive relationship stuff gets weirdly jettisoned for sub-Home Alone slapstick, starting with that very scene. It’s like the filmmakers knew they were pissing on the wonderful 60 minutes we just watched and threw us a bone in the form of that outfit.

    Strangely, even on HBO HD, Career Opportunities still doesn’t look like it’s in the correct aspect ratio – it’s widescreen, but half of people’s faces are still out of frame and it feels off. Not sure if it still needs a proper transfer or if it was just poorly shot. Speaking of which – anyone seen House of the Devil in the pan-and-scan VHS? I actually think the widescreen cinematography was one of the best things about it and wonder if watching it pan-and-scan diminished the experience or enhanced it, like grindhouse film-scratches or something.

  88. I know there’s joking going on here, but it still irks me when people comment on actor boob size in these terms. It’s as if they’ve never seen actual boobs. Jennifer Connelly has boobs, but they certainly aren’t large much less very large. It’s a sad fact of Hollywood and the fashion industry that women in the business are attractive because of height rather than possessing a female form. The vast majority of women on TV and in film have bodies more akin to prepubescent boys enough so that I’ve seen women with B cups “accused” of having big boobs. Sorry, anything below DD is just “boobs”, when you get to F cup we can talk large.

  89. Having just watched Limits of Control, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL hardly seems “slow-burn” or “nothing-happening” at all to me…

  90. Renfield – I hear Limits of Control does have a copious amount of nudity in it, right? Is it enough to offset the slow-burn?

    Clubside – in our defense, I’m pretty sure Jennifer Connelly had some kind of reduction post-Career Opportunities. If you want to argue that her breasts weren’t large at the time though, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion. But I’d argue that an entire generation of teenage boys can’t be wrong.

    Back to House of the Devil – i’m still curious as to why they set the movie in the 80s, since as Vern mentioned, this movie doesn’t seem at all like a horror movie from the 80s (70’s, maybe). Devin Faraci suggested a lot of it was for plot convenience (lack of technology, cell phone, etc.), but I suspect it was just for an interesting gimmick. Alot of popular small movies seem to take place in a weird anachronistic time-warp (Wes Anderson movies, Tarantino movies, Napoleon Dynamite), but the period setting in those seem like a little quirky bonus on top of a good movie. It seems the 80s setting in HOTD is pretty much a gimmick in search of a script and also a kind of a weird insurance policy against people complaining about its style. (Basically I have the feeling if they made the same movie and set it in the present day, it would be even more excruciating to sit through).

  91. neal2michaelshannon-

    Paz de la Huerta is naked in all the scenes she is in. There’s probably like 90 seconds of tit onscreen over the course of a 2 hour movie. But dude if you can’t like close your eyes and instantly picture Paz naked already, you haven’t been paying attention (ie, haven’t seen ENTER THE VOID or BOARDWALK EMPIRE).

    It’s not a bad movie. I woulda liked it a lot more, I think, if it were just a smidge shorter… over the course of watching it just suddenly teetered from a mellow hang-out-in-Spain movie into something that was annoying me. DOWN BY LAW is still my favorite Jarmusch by a wide margin, followed by GHOST DOG.

    As far as HOUSE OF THE DEVIL goes, I think you guys really missed out on the proper experience here. There’s nothing gimmicky about the film, it’s wrought with just heaps of pure cinematic love. Most dreadful (as in, laden with dread) film ever made.

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