Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch?

A reader writes:

Dear Ray Harvey: Who’s the better filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch?

P. Durango

Dear P. Durango: Are you kidding me? But there’s no comparison. That’s like asking me: who of those two has better hair?

As a filmmaker, David Lynch possesses innumerable shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that he’s an obscurantist extraordinaire — and this is no small thing.

The symbolic in art, you see, must never supersede the literal — or to put that another way, the symbolic meaning must always remain secondary to the literal meaning, and the literal must hold up on its own without reference to the symbolic. When an artist makes the symbolic meaning the tail that wags the dog, as David Lynch so often does, she defaults on art’s primary function: making the abstract concrete.

Yet for all this, David Lynch is not only the better filmmaker: he’s better by light years.

Quentin Tarantino barely makes it above average. He makes good B movies.

It’s true that Tarantino can tell a story (at times, not consistently). This isn’t really his problem.

His problem is that he lacks depth.

If theme is the meaning that a story’s events add up to — and it is — then Tarantino’s movies are almost all themeless because they add up to nothing. They’re action movies, which, even as action movies go, are often boring and wildly gratuitous. (Inglorious Basterds was a notable exception.)

Tarantino’s dialogue at its best is good, but it, too, is inconsistent. Pulp Fiction, slightly campy now, remains by far his best movie.

Reservoir Dogs? You can see skill there, in flashes, despite its wobbly plot. But there’s no getting around the fact that Quentin Tarantino could never in a million years create Wild at Heart and Sailor Ripley, let alone the John Merrick that David Lynch gave us in his awesome version of the Elephant Man — John Merrick dancing alone in his room with tophat and cane, the pure poignancy of which scene is unforgettable.

Tarantino has yet to match Pulp Fiction. It seems to me now that he never will.

Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand imitators — and for good reason: it was funny and it was original. And yet its appeal has dated a little: many scenes still hold up and are as fresh today as they were fifteen years ago. But an almost equal number (i.e. “The Bonnie Situation”) have grown stale and are unconvincing. Time has sunk them.

The David Lynch of Twin Peaks and the David Lynch of Blue Velvet has a depth and intelligence that Tarantino cannot match. Wild at Heart, which is half a decade older than Pulp Fiction, has proven more durable by far.

Just incidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood” (his Four Rooms contribution) was taken from a Roald Dahl short story called “The Gambler,” and if you want to see where Tarantino got his idea for the ending of Reservoir Dogs, please watch this movie, which was based on the novel by Lawrence Block.