I love Tarantino. I don’t think he’s made a bad film. His worst film, Death Proof is still entertaining if not quite where it could be. He’s a massive film nerd and has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and its history that makes my own personal knowledge seem infantile by comparison. That massive knowledge bank manifests in several different ways.
Tarantino actually got very early direct encouragement from Terry Gilliam. Gilliam, as an established filmmaker, took part as a mentor in a seminar for up and coming filmmakers, one of whom was Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino came with the script for Reservoir Dogs, and, of the three mentors assigned to him, Gilliam was the only one who seemed to understand what Tarantino was trying to do.
Reservoir Dogs wasn’t the movie that made Tarantino, though, that was, of course, Pulp Fiction, the intelligent and highly entertaining crime comedic drama heist film that jumped between several different timelines, creating a world of characters using highly entertaining dialogue. He followed up with Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and finally Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
One criticism that gets leveled at Tarantino a lot by his detractors is his unoriginality because his movies are so filled with references to other, earlier works that they feel his work doesn’t have a life of its own, that without the references, there’d be nothing there. And there’s no denying the references and, to expand it slightly, the fact that Tarantino largely works in pastiche. He’s mimicking the things he loved before, but to say that that is the limit of his work is a disservice to his talent and the actual work he outputs.
The title of Django Unchained is a reference to a series of Spaghetti Westerns starring Franco Nero about his titular character Django (who makes a reference as another character in Tarantino’s film). And yet, to limit Django to just a rehash of Spaghetti Westerns is to ignore a lot of what goes on in the film.
You could say the same thing about Kill Bill and its Kung Fu influences or Inglourious Basterds (another title that’s a reference to a previous movie, Inglorious Bastards) and its World War II movie influences. Yes, they are there and they are prevalent, but if that’s all that one is seeing, then one is missing the forest for the trees.
When talking about characters on the Opie and Anthony show, Tarantino talks about how the characters in his movie arise from his DNA, about how writing the best character is one of the most important things to him, and I think it shines through in his films. It’s also what makes his movies stand apart as more than just flash in the pan pastiches that only film nerds can appreciate. If you needed to get the reference in Calvin Candie getting shot through the flower on his lapel relating back to Jack Palance getting shot through the same rose in The Mercenary, then the moment wouldn’t work for anyone who hadn’t both seen The Mercenary and could recall that fact in the moment. What makes it work is the fact that Calvin Candie is a great character and villain, that Dr. Schultz, the man who shoots Candie, is such a well written character where his decision makes perfect sense in the moment. The reference is fun for those who get it, but it’s not required. What makes the moment work dramatically is the work that Tarantino has put into characters (through both writing and everything around the actors) leading up to that moment so that such a large dramatic turn in the film ends up both surprising the audience and making perfect sense to them at the same time.
And it’s obvious that Tarantino puts the time into the characters. From writing, to casting, to directing, to editing, his movies feel like they were made for the characters. The worlds of the movies feel like playgrounds for Tarantino to have them run around which is why we’re allowed so much time in them and his movies tend to run long. The dialogue, punctuated by profanity, feels natural without really aging. Even the first major speech in a Tarantino film (given by Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown) is about a piece of popular music (“Like a Virgin” by Madonna) and it doesn’t feel dated even now because it’s about more than just a reference to a song released in 1984, eight years before Reservoir Dogs came out, but because he makes it about a character revealing himself (essentially Mr. Brown’s only real character moment). Suddenly, Mr. Brown isn’t just that Tarantino cameo, he feels like a character whose life extends beyond the borders of the plot of the film.
As with most directors, Tarantino has a certain set of ideas that he revisits through his films. Where Hitchcock focused on voyeurism and Gilliam focuses on fantasy, Tarantino’s is revenge. From Reservoir Dogs to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, revenge comes up as at least a minor part of the film. Mr. White killing Mr. Orange after Mr. Orange reveals his true identity, bleeding out, is revenge for what Mr. White sees as a betrayal. Kill Bill is all about one woman’s revenge against the men and women who destroyed her new life and left her for dead. His revisionist history films (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood) are all about Tarantino using his single tool of cinema to try and write what he sees as the wrongs of history.
And it’s pretty obvious that Tarantino is pretty pro-revenge. Just to take Kill Bill as the main example, the Bride goes through two movies, dozens of Yakuza, and four highly trained hitmen to reach her main target, Bill. When she finally completes her long quest, she’s seen as whole for the first time in the film. She was always missing something, and that something was her little girl, BeeBee whom Bill had stolen from her while she was in her four year long coma. Could she have just taken BeeBee from Bill without killing him? No, she couldn’t have. In order to live the life she felt she deserved, with her daughter, Bill could not be alive. If she were to leave him alive, she’d never be at rest, always on the run. The only way forward was to kill her past since her past was never going to leave her alone.
And I have to say, that watching the Bride break down and cry in one of her only emotionally unguarded moments of the film on the floor of the bathroom in that little hotel room with BeeBee watching cartoons on the other side of the door, is one of the most emotionally satisfying things Tarantino ever pulled off. Are there lessons to be learned about life from the film? Probably not, but the point wasn’t life lessons for us, it was to get us emotionally involved in the Bride’s journey so that when she feels that wave of relief we can feel it along with her.
I would be remiss talking about Tarantino as a filmmaker without dedicating a bit more time to talking about his dialogue. Chris Tucker is renowned for ad lib on every movie, using the scripts as general guidelines as he said whatever he wanted, but he did the words of his character Beaumont that Tarantino had written word for word.
Tarantino’s dialogue is fun. It’s fast, intelligent, and profane all at once.
Do you know why the Royale with Cheese scene works in Pulp Fiction? It’s not just because it’s an amusing conversation, it’s because that’s how we get to know the first information dump about Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. Instead of simple expository statements about how Vincent had lived in Amsterdam for their boss, Marcellus Wallace, we get a realistic little conversation that highlights Vincent’s views of Amsterdam that tells us so much more about him than where he’s been for the last few years. We learn of his affinity for recreational drug use, his prototypical ugly American attitude while abroad, and that he has a certain worldliness that he may be trying to hide. It’s not just amusing, it’s insightful as well.
I’ve seen Tarantino described as nihilistic, and I honestly don’t know where that opinion comes from, but I want to take a moment to address it. Tarantino loves to wallow in violence and gore, but he’s not someone who writes movies about how nothing has any meaning and there should be no morality (that would be Lars Von Trier whose movie Melancholia I watched recently and it’s on my mind). I think his love of violence and gore is window dressing on what is ultimately a very humanist philosophy about the worth of human life.
I would normally talk about Kill Bill here, but since I used the exact scene I would normally talk about when talking about character, I’ll use Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as my example.
Tarantino’s revisionist histories are him trying to mete out cosmic justice using cinema, and the subject of his ire in his latest film is the Manson Family, the hippie commune/cult that murdered Sharon Tate in 1969. Amidst all the luxurious details of life in 1969 Hollywood is the undercurrent of violence represented by the seemingly happy go lucky young females of the Manson Family. If Tarantino were a nihilist, he wouldn’t be using his film to correct the historical wrong of Sharon Tate’s murder, he would, at best, express no opinion about it, but instead he uses his film as revenge upon those who did wrong. He has the three cultists who show up at Rick Dalton’s house (in a last second decision that turns them from their historical purpose to the cinematic one) where Cliff Booth and his pitbull violently murder two of the three, leaving the third bleeding from the face so that Rick Dalton can burn her alive with his flamethrower left over from his earlier World War II motion picture, The 14 Fists of McCluskey. Sharon Tate gets to live on, even providing Rick Dalton an implied career boost as thanks.
I think you can see there the odd mix of rampant violence and surprisingly gentle humanism at the core of Tarantino’s work.
Probably the most surprising thing about Tarantino to me is how he went from directing Jackie Brown a wonderful and surprising little crime caper and blaxploitation pastiche without a single action scene to directing Kill Bill, one of the greatest action movies ever made. That’s because he is surprisingly self-aware as an artist, understanding his own limits, and finding those people who can help him learn what he needs to learn.
Bringing this back to the beginning and Terry Gilliam, one piece of advice that Gilliam, as a mentor before Reservoir Dogs was more than a script, gave Tarantino was that he was never going to know everything about making a film. Instead of trying for the impossible goal of doing every job in order to figure out how to make his vision come to life, it was about hiring the right people who he could explain his vision to who would then make that vision a reality.
From Sally Menke, his editor through all of his films until her death in 2010, to Yuen Woo-Ping, the fight choreographer on Kill Bill, to his bevy of regular actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Uma Thurman, Tarantino has surrounded himself with people who are very good at what they do and that he can communicate with. Most directors do this, but I think it’s important to note it with Tarantino since he seems to have a know-it-all reputation though he’s actually very generous in his praise for those he works with when you actually listen to him.
So, those are my thoughts on Tarantino in a nutshell, a 2,000 word nutshell. I think it’s great, and it goes far beyond anything resembling a “cool factor”. He’s talented, hard-working, and very good at what he does. He writes great characters with great dialogue and places them in stories that are steeped in film history and worlds that feel alive and expansive.
I also hope that he decides to do more than 10 movies, unlike his long promised retirement after the tenth. He should be making movies into his 80s like Bergman, Scott, and Kurosawa.