“Taking This from This and That from That”: Examining RZA and Quentin Tarantino’s Use of Pastiche

Phillip Lamarr Cuningham, Melinda Lewis

Abstract


In his directorial debut, The Man with the Iron Fists (2012), RZA not only evokes the textual borrowing techniques he has utilised as a hip-hop producer, but also reflects the influence of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who has built a career upon acknowledging mainstream and cult film histories through mise-en-scene, editing, and deft characterisation. The Man with the Iron Fists was originally to coincide with Tarantino’s rebel slave narrative Django Unchained (2012), which Tarantino has discussed openly as commentary regarding race in contemporary America. In 2011, Variety reported that RZA had joined the cast of Tarantino’s anticipated Django Unchained, playing “Thaddeus, a violent slave working on a Mississippi plantation” (Sneider, “Rza Joins ‘Django Unchained’ Cast”). Django Unchained follows Tarantino’s pattern of generic and trope mixology, combining elements of the Western, blaxploitation, and buddy/road film. He famously stated: “[If] my work has anything it's that I'm taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together… I steal from everything. Great artists steal; they don't do homages” (“The Directors of Our Lifetime: In Their Own Words”). He sutures iconography from multiple films in numerous genres to form new texts that stand alone, albeit as amalgamations of references.

In considering meanings attached particularly to exploitation films, this article addresses the significance of combining influences within The Man with the Iron Fists and Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and the ideological threads that emerge in fusing exploitation film aesthetics. Ultimately, these films provide a convergence not only of texts, but also of the collective identities associated with and built upon those texts, feats made possible through the filmmakers’ use of pastiche.

Pastiche in Identity Formation as Subversive

A reflection of the postmodern tendency towards appropriation and borrowing, pastiche is often considered less meaningful than its counterpart, parody. Fredric Jameson suggests that though pastiche and parody share commonalities (most notably the mimicry of style and mannerisms), they do so to different effects. Jameson asserts that parody mimics in an effort to mock the idiosyncrasies within a text, whereas pastiche is “neutral parody” of “dead styles” (114). In short, as Susan Hayward writes, “In its uninventiveness, pastiche is but a shadow of its former thing” (302). For Jameson, the most ubiquitous form of pastiche is the nostalgia film, which attempts to recapture the essence of the past. As examples, he points to the George Lucas films American Graffiti (1973), which is staged in the United States of the 1950s, and Star Wars (1977), which reflects the serials of the 1930s-1950s (114-115).

Though scholars such as Jameson and Hayward are contemptuous of pastiche, a growing number see its potential for the subversion and critique that the aforementioned suggest it lacks. For instance, Sarah Smith reminds us that pastiche films engage in “complicitous critique”: the films maintain the trappings of original texts, yet do so in order to advance critique (209). For Smith and other scholars, such as Judith Butler and Richard Dyer, Jameson’s criticism of pastiche is dismissive, for while these scholars largely agree that pastiche is a form of mimicry in which the distance between original and copy is minimal, they recognise that a space still exists for it to be critical. Smith writes: “[W]hile there may be greater distance between the parody and its target text than there is between the pastiche and the text it imitates, a prescribed degree of distance is not a prerequisite for critical engagement with the ur-text” (210). In this regard, fidelity to the original texts is not only required but to be revered, for these likenesses to the original “act as a guarantee of the critique of those origins and provide an opportunity for the filmmaker to position [himself or herself] in relation to them” (Smith 211).

Essentially, pastiche is a useful technique in which to construct hybrid identities. Keri E. Iyall Smith suggests that hybrid identities emerge from “a reflexive relationship between local and global” (3). According to popular music scholar Brett Lashua, hybrid identities “make and re-make culture through appropriating the cultural ‘raw materials’ of life in order to construct meaning in their own specific cultural localities. In a sense, they are ‘sampling’ from broader popular culture and reworking what they can take into their own specific local cultures” (“The Arts of the Remix: Ethnography and Rap”). 

As will be evidenced here, Tarantino utilises pastiche as an unabashed genre poacher; similarly, as a self-avowed Tarantino student and hip-hop producer known for his sampling acumen, RZA invokes pastiche to reflect mastery of his craft and a hybridised identity his multifaceted persona.

Plagiarism, Poaching, and Pastiche: Tarantino Blurs Boundaries

As a filmmaker, Tarantino is known for indulging in excess: violence, language, and aesthetics. Edward Gallafent characterised the director’s work as having a preoccupation with settings and journeys, violence (both emotional and physical), complicated chronological structures, and dissatisfying conclusions (3-4). Additionally, pieces of Tarantino’s cinematic fandom are inserted into his own films. Academic and popular critics continually note Tarantino’s rise as an obsessive video store clerk turned respected and eccentric auteur. Tarantino’s authorship lies mostly in his ability to borrow (or in his words, steal) narrative arcs, characterisations, and camera work from other filmmakers, and use them in ways that feel innovative and different from those past works. It is not that he borrows generally from movements, films, and filmmakers, but that he conscientiously lifts segments from works to incorporate into his text.  

In Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange, Keith M. Booker contends that Tarantino’s work often straddles lines between simplistic reference for reference’s sake and meditations upon the roles of cinema (90). Booker dismisses claims for the latter, citing Tarantino’s unwillingness to contextualise the references in Pulp Fiction, such that the film is best described not an act of citation so much as a break with the historical. Tarantino’s lack of reverence provides him freedom to intermingle texts and tropes to fit his goals as a filmmaker, rather than working within the confines of generic narratives. Each film feels both apart and distinct from genre categories. Jackie Brown, for example, has many of the traits attached to blaxploitation, from its focus on drug culture, the casting of Pam Grier who gained status playing female leads in blaxploitation films, and extreme violence. Tarantino’s use of humour throughout, particular in his treatment of character types, plot twists, and self-aware musical cues distances the film from easy characterisation. It is, but isn’t. What is gained is a remediated conception of cinematic reality. The fictions created in films of the past are noted in Tarantino’s play with tropes. His mixes produce an extreme form of mediated reality – one that is full of excess, highly exaggerated, and completely composed of stolen frameworks. 

Tarantino continues his generic play in Django Unchained. While much of it does borrow heavily from 1960s and 1970s Western filmmakers like Leone, Corbucci, and Peckinpah (the significance of desolate landscapes, long takes, extreme violence), it also incorporates strands of buddy cop (partners with different backgrounds working together to correct wrongs), early blaxploitation (Broomhilda’s last name is von Shaft suggesting that she is an ancestor of blaxploitation icon John Shaft, the characterisation of Django as black antihero enacting revenge on white racists in power), and kung fu (revenge narrative, in addition to the extensive training moments between Dr. Schultz and Django). The familiar elements highlight the transgressions of genre adherence. The comfort of the western genre and its tropes eases the audience, only for Tarantino to incorporate those elements from outside the genre to spark interest, to shock, to remind audiences of the mediated reality onscreen. 

Tarantino has been criticised for his lack of depth and understanding regarding women and people of colour, despite his attempts to provide various leading and supporting roles for both. Django Unchained was particularly criticised for Tarantino’s use of the term nigger - over 100 instances in the film. Tarantino defended his decision by claiming historical accuracy, poetic license, and his desire to confront audiences with various levels of racism. Many, including Spike Lee, disagreed, arguing Tarantino had no claim to making a film about slavery. Lee stated through Twitter: “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them” (“Spike Lee on Django Unchained: Filmmaker Calls Movie ‘Disrespectful’”). Not only does Lee evoke the tragedy of the American slave trade and the significance of race within contemporary filmmaking, but he uses genre to underscore what he perceives is Tarantino’s lack of reverence to the issue of slavery and its aftermath in American culture.

Django Unchained is both physically and emotionally brutal. The world created by Tarantino is culturally messy, as Italian composers rub elbows with black hip-hop artists, actors from films’ referenced in Django Unchained interact with new types of heroes. The amounts of references, people, and spectacles in his films have created a brand that is both hyperaware, but often critiqued as ambivalent. This is due in part to the perception of Tarantino as a filmmaker with no filter. His brand as a filmmaker is action ordered, excessive, and injected with his own fandom. He is an ultimate poacher of texts and it is this aesthetic, which has also made him a fan favourite amongst young cinephiles. Not only does he embrace the amount of play film offers, but he takes the familiar and makes it strange. The worlds he creates are hazier, darker, and unstable. Creating such a world in Django Unchained provides a lot of potential for reading race in film and American culture. He and his defenders have discussed this film as an “honest” portrayal of the effects of slavery and racial tension in the United States. This is also the world which acts as context for RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists. Though a reference abandoned in Django Unchained, the connection between both films and both filmmakers pleasure in pastiche provide further insight to connections between film and race.

Doing the Knowledge: RZA Pays Homage

As a filmmaker, RZA utilises Tarantino’s filmmaking brand techniques to build his own homage and add to the body of kung-fu films. Doing so furnishes him the opportunity to rehash and reform narratives and tropes in ways that change familiar narrative structures and plot devices. In creating a film which relies on cinematic allusions to kung fu, RZA—as a fan, practitioner, and author—reconfigures kung fu from being an exploitative genre and reshapes its potential for representational empowerment. 

While Tarantino considers himself an unabashed thief of genre tropes, RZA envisions himself more as a student who pays homage to masters—among whom he includes Tarantino. Indeed, in an interview with MTV, RZA refers to Tarantino as his Sifu (a Chinese term for master or teacher) and credits him not only for teaching RZA about filmmaking, but also for providing him with his blessing to make his first feature length film (Downey, “RZA Recalls Learning from ‘The Master’ Quentin Tarantino”). RZA implies that mastery of one’s craft comes from incorporating influences while creating original work, not theft. For instance, he states that the Pink Blossom brothel—the locus for most of the action in the film—was inspired by the House of Blue Leaves restaurant, which functions in a similar capacity in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (“RZA Talks Sampling of Kung Fu Films for Movie & The Difference Between Biting vs. Influence”).

Hip-hop is an art form in which its practitioners “partake of a discursive universe where skill at appropriating the fragments of a rapidly-changing world with verbal grace and dexterity is constituted as knowledge” (Potter 21). This knowledge draws upon not only the contemporary moment but also the larger body of recorded music and sound, both of which it “re-reads and Signifies upon through a complex set of strategies, including samplin’, cuttin’ (pastiche), and freestylin’ (improvisation)” (Potter 22). As an artist who came of age in hip-hop’s formative years and whose formal recording career began at the latter half of hip-hop’s Golden Age (often considered 1986-1993), RZA is a particularly adept cutter and sampler – indeed, as a sampler, RZA is often considered a master. While RZA’s samples run the gamut of the musical spectrum, he is especially known for sampling obscure, often indeterminable jazz and soul tracks. Imani Perry suggests that this measure of fidelity to the past is borne out of hip-hop’s ideological respect for ancestors and its inherent sense of nostalgia (54).

Hallmarks of RZA’s sampling repertoire include dialog and sound effects from equally obscure kung fu films. RZA attributes his sampling of kung fu to an affinity for these films established in his youth after viewing noteworthy examples such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Five Deadly Venoms (1978). These films have become a key aspect of his identity and everyday life (Gross, “RZA’s Edge: The RZA’s Guide to Kung Fu Films”). He speaks of his decision to make kung fu dialog an integral part of Wu-Tang Clan’s first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers): “My fantasy was to make a one-hour movie that people were just going to listen to. They would hear my movie and see it in their minds. I’d read comic books like that, with sonic effects and kung fu voices in my head. That makes it more exciting so I try to create music in the same way” (Gross, ““RZA’s Edge: The RZA’s Guide to Kung Fu Films”).

Much like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and his other musical endeavours, The Man with the Iron Fists serves as further evidence of RZA’s hybrid identity., which sociologist Keri E. Iyall Smith suggests emerges from “a reflexive relationship between local and global” (3). According to popular music scholar Brett Lashua, hybrid identities “make and re-make culture through appropriating the cultural ‘raw materials’ of life in order to construct meaning in their own specific cultural localities. In a sense, they are ‘sampling’ from broader popular culture and reworking what they can take into their own specific local cultures” (“The Arts of the Remix: Ethnography and Rap”). The most overt instance of RZA’s hybridity is in regards to names, many of which are derived from the Gordon Liu film Shaolin and Wu-Tang (1983), in which the competing martial arts schools come together to fight a common foe. The film is the basis not only for the name of RZA’s group (Wu-Tang Clan) but also for the names of individual members (for instance, Master Killer—after the series to which the film belongs) and the group’s home base of Staten Island, New York, which they frequently refer to as “Shaolin.”

The Man with the Iron Fists is another extension of this hybrid identity. Kung fu has long had meaning for African Americans particularly because these films frequently “focus narratively on either the triumph of the ‘little guy’ or ‘underdog’ or the nobility of the struggle to recognise humanity and virtue in all people, or some combination of both” (Ongiri 35). As evidence, Amy Obugo Ongiri points to films such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, a film about a peasant who learns martial arts at the Shaolin temple in order to avenge his family’s murder by the Manchu rulers (Ongiri 35). RZA reifies this notion in a GQ interview, where he speaks about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin specifically, noting its theme of rebellion against government oppression having relevance to his life as an African American (Pappademus, “This Movie Is Rated Wu”). RZA appropriates the humble origins of the peasant San Te (Gordon Liu), the protagonist of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in Thaddeus (whom RZA plays in the film), whose journey to saviour of Jungle Village begins with his being a slave in America.

Indeed, one might argue that RZA’s construction of and role as Thaddeus is the ultimate realisation of the hybrid identity he has developed since becoming a popular recording artist. Just as Tarantino’s acting in his own films often reflects his identity as genre splicer and convention breaker (particularly since they are often self-referential), RZA’s portrayal of Thaddeus—as an African American, as a martial artist, and as a “conscious” human being—reflects the narrative RZA has constructed about his own life.

Conclusion

The same amount of play Tarantino has with conventions, particularly in characterisations and notions of heroism, is present in RZA’s Man with the Iron Fists. Both filmmakers poach from their favourite films and genres in order to create interpretations that feel both familiar and new. RZA follows Tarantino’s aesthetic of borrowing scenes directly from other films. Both filmmakers poach from films for their own devices, but in those mash-ups open up avenues for genre critique and identity formation. Tarantino is right to say that they are not solely homages, as homages honour the films in which they borrow. Tarantino and RZA do more through their poaching to stretch the boundaries of genres and films’ abilities to communicate with audiences.

References

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Iyall Smith, Keri E. “Hybrid Identities: Theoretical Examinations.” Hybrid Identities: Theoretical and Empirical Examinations. Ed. Keri E. Iyall Smith and Patricia Leavy. Leiden: Brill, 2008. 3-12.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. London: Pluto, 1985. 111-125.

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Filmography

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Dir. Chia-Liang Lui. Perf. Chia Hui Lui, Lieh Lo, Chia Yung Lui. Shaw Brothers, 1978.

Django Unchained. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz. Miramax, 2012. 

Five Deadly Venoms. Dir. Cheh Chang. Perf. Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu. Shaw Brothers, 1978.

Jackie Brown. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster. Miramax, 1997.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Darryl Hannah. Miramax, 2003.

The Man with the Iron Fists. Dir. RZA. Perf. RZA, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu. Arcade Pictures, 2012. 

Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson. Miramax, 1994.

Shaolin and Wu-Tang. Dir. Chiu Hui Liu. Perf. Chiu Hui Liu, Adam Cheng, Li Ching.


Keywords


RZA; Quentin Tarantino; pastiche; The Man with the Iron Fists; Django Unchained; Kill Bill; kung fu; blaxploitation



Copyright (c) 2013 Phillip Lamarr Cuningham, Melinda Lewis

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