Once upon a time, there were two guys who worked in a video shop in Manhattan Beach, California – a semi-suburban area a little south of LAX – named Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. It was here that they became very good friends and developed a working relationship. They both wanted to be in the movie business and started writing scripts together. Reservoir Dogs was written by Tarantino, but came out of a project that started off amongst the two of them; True Romance was a co-written script; the Natural Born Killers script had Avary portions in it. They then co-wrote Pulp Fiction, the film for which they both received screenwriting Oscars. It made Tarantino a household name. After that, they never worked together again.
There are different theories about why the fallout between the two occurred, but I’m not interested in rehashing them. What I am interested in is the way these two guys created great stuff together – and how all of the projects they produced post-fallout, apart from one another, weren’t nearly as good.
I sort of think of Avary and Tarantino like Lennon and McCartney, with Roger the Lennon figure and Tarantino the Macca. Without his song writing partner, John Lennon could be a bit too introspective and self-serious; without Lennon as ballast, McCartney’s solo career often veered into the fluffy and insubstantial. Avary’s work I find can be a little slow moving and navel gazing; Tarantino post-Fiction tends to be a little empty. Very action packed but without a lot of substance most of the time, with too much reliance on pastiche.
There’s a theory that floats around in some circles that Avary was the true genius and that the reason Tarantino’s output went downhill post-Fiction was because Quentin no longer had the real talent doing the dirty work for him anymore. This is a very unconvincing argument; if it were true, Avary’s own films would be masterpieces of world cinema, which they are definitely not. No, it’s clear to me that both Tarantino and Avary were lesser artists without each other and that their collaboration – the way their two minds melded when working on scripts together – was something special.
One scene in particular makes me think about the way they might have worked together after 1995. It’s from Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, a motion picture that was made well after his collaboration with Avary had ceased and that, like all of his post-Fiction work, is vastly overrated. The scene I refer to is the one which introduces us to the “Basterds” themselves. In the sequence, a Nazi soldier is captured and talks about how he came to be the titular characters’ prisoner. It essentially involves great valour and self-sacrifice on the part of the German infantryman. After this, the Basterds beat him to death.
I bring it up, partially because I really hate this scene – if you’re going to make the bad guys Nazis so we don’t have to question anything that happens to them, why have a scene which humanises one of them completely unnecessarily? – but mostly because I think it provides insight into why Avary-Tarantino works. While watching the Nazi scene, I recall imagining Avary going, “Quentin. This is stupid, leave it out”. Which Tarantino would have listened to. Perhaps Avary’s greatest strength was as an editor to Tarantino’s wild, often uncontrolled imagination.
But I can only speculate obviously. However their partnership worked, it worked. And it’s shame for all of us that instead of a host of great films over the past two decades, we’ve instead had Avary’s Easton-Ellis obsession and Tarantino’s video nasty regurgitations. We’ll never know what we missed out on.