Probing into the world of Tarantino’s genius
A cult icon on his own, Quentin Tarantino is arguably the most influential director of 1990’s. As a writer, producer, actor and director, Tarantino’s works have been so immensely popular right from the moment he was recognized for his film-fest-worthy movie. Known for his talent at intelligently blending elements of pop culture, intense violence, and witty narratives in his films, he has earned critical appraise for his work, the first of which was the 1992 Sundance Film Festival entry, Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. Other films such as Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and Death Proof added to his merit, nominations from various award giving bodies such as the Academy, Emmy, BAFTA and Grammy Awards. In a sense, in just over a decade, Tarantino has achieved such great heights with his innate talent and genius.
It is not such a wonder then that his passion for the art of filmmaking took its deep roots early in his life. Having dropped out from high school at 15, he initially pursued an acting career and enrolled in theater classes. The defining moment in his life as a director and film icon, however, came when he found a job at the Manhattan Beach Video Archives in California. With that, Tarantino became, primarily, a film geek. Rapidly becoming a cinephile, he learned about films and cinema from the racks of a video archives and it had helped that he was in an environment where easy discussion of everything cinematic was available. His interests grew and soon he delves not only on the classics but also on the weird, unconventional, and independent film types as well. This opportunity provided avenues for establishing his style and cinematic talent and it also provided for him to meet and establish friendships with fellow film buffs. This has sparked his unending love affair with films and as such, greatly influenced his work
The depth and extent of Tarantino’s knowledge in films is evident in the variety of his film’s inspirations. His postmodern views are rooted from a wide array of films; from blaxploitation films to spaghetti westerns, martial arts films to Japanese samurai movies. His taste in film even transcends culture and race as evident when he cited Filipino directors Eddie Romero, Gerardo de León and Cirio Santiago as his personal movie icons. (Tejero , 2007) Other directors that influenced his work included Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Goddard and Sergio Leone. His production company, A Band Apart is named after Goddard’s film, Bande à part. Tarantino’s work is also greatly influenced by the people around him. One of his long time friends, Roberto Rodriguez had a number of collaborations with him. Rodriguez also influenced his style, converting Tarantino from a traditionalist, to digital-film worshipper.
Moreover, the strong fact is, he is so much engrossed, even obsessed, with films that most of his works are ‘borrowed’ heavily from existing films. His, unfortunately unsuccessful work, Four Rooms, was derived from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Elmore Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch, is the basis for Jackie Brown. The intro titles to this film reference to the intro titles in The Graduate. His famous unconventional narrative composition was directly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. In his Death Proof, he gives tribute to 1970’s sordid exploitations car chase films. Moreover, the Don Siegel version of The Killers influenced the critically acclaimed Pulp Fiction, and the adrenaline-injection scene was similar to a story in Martin Scorsese’s American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. Similarly, lines such as “to work on homes here with a pair of pliers and a blow torch” resemble “You know what kind of people they are. They’ll strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” taken from Charley Varrick, one of Don Siegel film. Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction recites a Bible verse that can also be seen in the 1970’s action film Karate Kiba.
Kill Bill, as Steven Rose investigates, has the most heavily referenced movies. The Quentin Tarantino Archives fansite lists around 80 movies that motivated Kill Bill. The fight scene wherein The Bride battles are portrayed as silhouettes is roughly a direct reproduction of a scene in Hiroyuki Nakano’s Samurai Fiction. Some shots are also immensely similar to those in Branded to Kill. Steven Rose adds that three foreign films: the Toshiya Fujita film, Lady Snowblood, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, and the aptly titled Thriller: En Grym Film, from Sweden prefigured Kill Bill’s fundamental theme of victimized women looking for revenge. Lady Snowblood is a swordswoman in the 19th century, seeking justice for the murder of her mother’s husband; Scorpion is an escaped convict seeking to get even with her brutal warden. Thriller is a story of a young, innocent girl turned into a mutilated sex slave, who then exacts retribution on her captors. Tarantino intently used Daryl Hannah’s character’s eye patch as a tribute to Thriller’s heroine. Remarkably, Tarantino has lifted very much from these movies. In particular, Lady Snowblood is virtually the outline of Kill Bill Vol 1. (Rose, 2004)
The sheer number of the movies that influenced Tarantino’s works is overwhelming. As such, Tarantino may be viewed as the hero of marginal films. His work has brought a lot of long-forgotten movies back into the mainstream, paying tribute to them in his works. When asked why he so adored B-grade films to the point of making his movies appear like one, he related that those movies were the films of his youth that he enjoyed so much and that this is his way of “giving back to a generation that had missed that stuff.” (Tejero, 2007)
On the other hand, the various similarities of Tarantino’s films with other movies create a sense of unease in other people. He may be seen as just a mere copycat who cannot put up anything that is entirely his own, and thus resorts to mere aggregates of films that have long been buried in people’s memories. However one may see it, Tarantino’s works, are undeniably, wildly original, if not in the cinematic stories or ideas, then at least in the wonderful craft of the films themselves.
. Tarantino is so adept at his craft that he is able to spin stories in popular culture, with extreme violence and sharp dialogues all enmeshed in each other. And he does so with flair and with an uncanny ability of making low-budget films into high quality, wildly entertaining movies. His nonlinear, splintered narratives and artistic portrayal of extreme violence simply work. His style earned him an adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ which has become an embodiment for both pop culture and popular postmodern cinema. Tarantino-esque has sometimes become synonymous to ‘postmodernism’ especially for film journalists. Tarantino’s dedication to postmodernism is apparent in his obscuring the cultural limits, especially those between exploitation and mainstream films, and between genres, such as the From dusk ‘til dawn’s mid-movie change from crime thriller to horror film. Tarantino also sprinkles his works with various intertextual references. These may be seen through discussions, either internal or explicit of reference subjects such as in the discussion of Madonna in Reservoir Dogs. Another aspect makes use of props and character situations to reference; like simply putting John Travolta up for a dance competition in Pulp Fiction reminds audiences of Saturday Night Fever. (Tasker, 2002)
All these and more make Tarantino an exceptional figure in cinema, extremely influential in his art. Beyond the cinematography and artistic techniques, however, lie themes that are recurrent on his works.
In all or Tarantino’s works, there is a sense of effort in imposing on its audience a more liberal and broad-vision, approach to life. It has not been a struggle. He has created a world where taboos and unacceptable language and behavior are the norm and casualness of life with such panache that the people do not even know what hit them. One example of this is the frequent use of bathroom humor in his works. The characters in Tarantino’s films spend much of their time in bathrooms and in doing so, “the bathroom acquires a dramatic centrality in his work” (Willis, 1997). Where most films use the bathroom as mere snippets and as an element of private reclusion and unimportant sentiment, Tarantino fills his work with countless scenes and dialogues about and taken in bathrooms. In a sense, he aims to present to his viewers not a polished view of the world, but the actual unadulterated perspective, right to its very bare essentials. “It links affective release with getting caught unawares and exposed.” (Willis, 1997). In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta’s character was killed when he was caught with his pants down, an evident metaphor that illustrates how much people would avoid being stripped bare. To stretch it a bit, it is a metaphor that depicts how people protect themselves from being vulnerable; that their core beliefs and principles may not be shattered by mere bombardment of all things unusual and the exposure of the forbidden.
The aestheticization of violence has been a central theme in Tarantino’s movies. Most of his films have three or more characters pointing guns at each other simultaneously. His films have massive amounts of blood making scenes graphically violent; all done in an artistic sense. His portrayal of violence is known for its macabre humor and seemingly casual treatment. Because of this, he is widely criticized. To these disapprovals, however, he answers, “Sure, Kill Bill’s a violent movie. But it’s a Tarantino movie. You don’t go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down.”
In a way, the violence and brutality has become intertwined with the concept of African American culture. The African American impact is evident in much of Tarantino’s work, perhaps more than Asian culture, which is seen in the Kill Bill movies. He pays tribute to references to blaxploitation movies and soul music in his films. Soundtracks of Tarantino’s early work had mostly African American music. However, Tarantino has been condemned for an extremely casual attitude towards other cultures. Spike Lee questions the presence of racist epithets such as the word “nigger” in various Tarantino works such as Death Proof, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. Tarantino has defended his side, saying that black people appreciate his blaxploitation-influenced works and that Jackie Brown was primarily made for “black audiences.” (Wooton, 1998) Moreover, his construction of a world in which African American masculinity is composed of casual interpretations of racial references. In Reservoir Dogs, one particularly comedic scene involves that of a confusion in naming and color. Joe Cabot gives his men aliases such as the hilarious Pink, Brown, Orange, White, Blue and Blonde. Cabot attests to his naming them instead of them picking their own names. He explains, “Put four guys in a room and let them pick their own colors, everyone wants to be Mr. Black.” In this sense, Tarantino achieves to depict black as something desired and coveted, with white only as something almost equally desirable. (Willis, 1997)
His portrayal of ‘cool’ has also been the major premise of his work. Quentin Tarantino is enthralled with the iconic pop culture and depiction of coolness. His films tend to delve into the world of the cool, their origins and reputations, wonderfully fashioned in a masterpiece of rich images in popular culture. Through his “cool gaze” portrayal of things, otherwise unacceptable, the audience is enmeshed in an entertaining, enjoyable experience when they see his work. Tarantino uses words such as “nigger” and themes like homophobia and sadomasochism by turning them into an acceptable norm, something cool and hip. He infuses macabre humor for added effect and appreciation. The intelligent dialogues play a great effect on this. The opening monolog in Kill Bill puts it, “Do you find me sadistic? I bet I could fry an egg on your head about now, if I wanted to. No kiddo, I’d like to believe, even now, you’re aware enough to know there isn’t a trace of sadism in my actions… Okay — Maybe towards these other jokers — but not you …No Kiddo, at this moment… this is me at my most masochistic.” The “cool gaze” is Tarantino’s approach to upsetting and dejecting social conventions, of getting his audiences to think and reassess their personal beliefs and values. (Gleason, 2004)
In his first films, an absence of women and their feminist authority is evident, consequently having majority of his fans as young males. The absence of women in Reservoir Dogs and the intense violence may offend his women viewers who are more sensitive to blood and gore than the adrenaline-addicted and conflict-loving men. (Willis, 1997) The masculinity of Tarantino’s films however got toned down with time and the emergence of Kill Bill proved it so. The theme of dominant and brutal women perhaps may be defining elements of his work. Tarantino’s Kill Bill is the unbelievable tale of The Bride, a woman who challenges and defeats patriarchal authority. The protagonist Beatrix Kiddo is even saved from the difficulties and discomfort of going into labor in giving birth, something that is seen as a divine punishment imposed upon Eve; a story wherein patriarchal supremacy is somehow rooted from. The film may be viewed as an ideological vision of feminism and the way women exact retribution from their oppressors. As Robin Gleason puts it, “the Kill Bill saga deals with the process of creation — it is a sombre ballad about the artistic agency of an auteur in a postmodern world.” (Gleason, 2004)
The great impact Quentin Tarantino has made on films and audiences has undeniably revolutionized the world of cinema. His appeal that stems from his intense love of film transcends all boundaries of time and ethnicity, his themes highly universal. From the onset, when Reservior Dogs came out, the film industry has seen the increasing power and influence of Quentin Tarantino. His passion for what he does translates to his works, his films, his audiences. Tarantino relates, “It’s not like having a different Mount Everest to climb I just have to be good enough to climb the same Mount Everest again, and again, and again. I’m kind-of making the same movie again, and again, and again. But the thing is, it’s not about looking for a different mountain, it’s just having the energy and the tenacity to just keep climbing the mountain. Again, and again, and again.” (Utichi, c. 2008) He could not have said it any better.
List of References
Gleason, Robin (2004) The Unbearable Lightness of Being Cool: Appropriation and
Prospects of Subversion in the Works of Quentin Tarantino [online]
Rose, Steve (2004) Found: where Tarantino gets his ideas, The Guardian, [online]
Tasker, Yvonne (2002) Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, Routledge
Tejero, Constantino (2007) Tarantino raves over Pinoy B-movies, Philippine Daily Inquirer
Utichi, Joe. (c. 2008) Focus On: Tarantino Talks, [online]
Willis, Sharon (1997) High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film,
Duke University Press
Wooton, Adrian (1998) “Quentin Tarantino interview (III) with Pam Grier, Robert Forster
and Lawrence Bender”, The Guardian. [online]