Directors – Quentin Tarantino

Right then cool cats and hip mamas, I’ve done it – or re-done it anyway. I’ve re-watched all the Quentin Tarantino directed films over the last fortnight or so and thought it would be a nice idea to write a summary blog to close the case. So… here goes…

Tarantino made his directorial debut back in 1983 with a short film called “Love Birds in Bondage” that he co-wrote and co-directed with Scott Magill. His next turn came about in 1987 when he wrote “My Best Friend’s Birthday” with Craig Hamann, which he was a solo director for. He featured as a main actor in both these early and low-budget films. It is hard to come by either of these pieces of work these days, but one that is easier to find is his 1992 breakthrough that he wrote and directed “Reservoir Dogs”. He funded that with the sale of his screenplay for “True Romance” which was released in 1993. He would also go on to sell another script that helped him make money for his own projects, namely “Natural Born Killers” (1994).

The concept for his breakthrough film was written while working in a video store, which gave him plenty of ammunition and ideas that he would use later in his career. His breakthrough film came about thanks to the script been given to friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to his wife, who gave it to Harvey Keitel who loved it. He didn’t only love it and see a part for himself in it, he also helped get funding by signing on as a co-producer and helped get casting sorted. “Reservoir Dogs” went down in history as one of the most important pieces of independent film made, if not one of the most important of the 1990’s.

Next in line in for his time in the directing chair came “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, a film that many fans and critics hailed as his masterpiece. This made Tarantino a cult icon as well as Hollywood’s next ‘up and coming‘ most important director of the time. He went on to write the screenplay for “From Dusk till Dawn” (1996) too, which was directed by Robert Rodriguez – a director that Tarantino would work with in the future. As well laying the foundations of a successful career, his films had introduced a few hallmarks that would follow Tarantino’s films into the future – certain styles and characteristics, certain ways of shooting and what was included. While this was being released Tarantino was already working on his next films, “Jackie Brown” (1997), which was hailed as a homage to blaxploitation films of the 1970’s.

While his entire fan-base did not fully enjoy his homage to blaxploitation with the film he adapted from Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” it was still commercially successful. It also continued to display the hallmarks that were being noticed by certain audiences – nonlinear storytelling, violence, plenty of strong and occasional risky language, complex dialogue, and dark humour. “Jackie Brown” was not as violent as certain people wanted, but Tarantino made a point of making it this way. He had read reports suggesting that he glorified violence in film, and as if sticking a middle finger up to the critics he made a point to hardly show any brutality on film. Think back to the last time you watched it, can you remember seeing Chris Tucker getting shot in the head and chest, or was it suggested? Can you remember seeing Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro, or even Samuel L. Jackson getting shot? You heard it, it was suggested, but you didn’t get to see it play out like you saw the violence in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”. This was all about to change with his next film though!

In 2003, after a 6-year gap, the next films released under the Tarantino name were “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and then a year later “Kill Bill: Volume 2”. Bloody revenge served at the hands of a lone female assassin. Coupled with the hallmarks that Tarantino had already established this film was a massive hit. According to interviews he wanted this to a be a single film, but with a runtime that would have almost touched the 5-hour mark, the films were split in two. Tarantino also suggested that he wanted to make a trilogy of films like writers manage when they make in literature. He had tried this previously with “Pulp Fiction” which contained 3 main story lines, but so far, the trilogy was missing. He sure did like they idea of a trilogy, and this is something that might harp back to his time in the video shop watching spaghetti western trilogies, none more famous than the “Dollar/ Man with no name” trilogy. While “Kill Bill” only appeared as two films instead of three, if you read film website gossip columns you might have read that “Kill Bill: Volume 3might be in the pipeline for 2022.

In 2007 Tarantino went on to work with Robert Rodriguez (and other directors) on a project that was titled “Grindhouse”. Initially this was meant to be a massive film with lots of contributions from fellow directors. It promised to follow the style of B-movie grind-house films that came to video rental shelves and drive-in cinemas in the 1960’s and 1970’s. What eventually happened was a standalone film of his own being released in the shape of “Death Proof”. It featured Kurt Russell as a psychopathic stunt man who terrorizes young woman in a slasher film style. At the time, Kurt Russell wasn’t doing many tough guy roles and Tarantino weaved his magic to put him as top billing for this. Resurrecting actors’ careers is something that Tarantino has done well over the course of his directorship. Famously he re-birthed John Travolta’s career, he helped elevate Bruce Willis into tougher roles, he reignited Pam Grier’s star power, and he helped Robert Forster live out an ambition of being on the big screen. That’s before even realizing that he helped elevate the likes of Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Uma Thurman, and many other actors to new heights too.  While “Death Proof” followed in the same suit as “Jackie Brown” as far as fan popularity went, Tarantino was flexing his muscles and trying on different genres, something he would continue to do with his next films.

The notable shift in genres was present once again as Tarantino brought audiences “Inglourious Basterds”, a war film which plays out in alternative timeline where the Nazi leadership were wiped out in a cinema in France. This film had a whopping cast of actors attached to it including Brad Pitt, whom Tarantino had wanted to work with previously but missed out due to other commitments. While there were plenty of big and known names attached to it, this film was notable for helping to give lots of European actors their big Hollywood break, including the standouts from that film; Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz who were fantastic.

Tarantino’s seventh directorial feature came in the form of “Django Unchained” (2012). Few were surprised when he made a western themed film with him being a self-confessed fan of Spaghetti Westerns. In this film Christoph Waltz once again was able to shine brightly, this time alongside Jamie Foxx, and another name that Tarantino had been trying to work with for some time, Leonardo DiCaprio. This film became his most commercially successful film, a title that “Inglourious Basterds” had only just settled with. At this point in his career, as well as using themes and content that he was famed for, Tarantino was also courting controversy too. The problem with doing a film that deals with a time that America is ashamed of in its history, is that there will be a lot of people who reject it too. The racial elements and use of racial slurs in the dialogue of this film in a changing world weren’t necessarily gaining favour with world-wide audiences, in particularly the use of language that flowed freely in the film – however this wasn’t something new for him. While the world was changing its levels of acceptance and correctness, Tarantino was travelling down the same road he always did – if he offended somebody, he was still getting column space. Like they say (who are they?), “all press is press, even bad press”.

Sticking with the western themes, Tarantino’s eighth film borrowed from his first success with “Reservoir Dogs” and put all the action in an isolated location. The story unfolded with flashbacks to flesh-out the story, and there was a nonlinear timeline to boot. “The Hateful Eight” played out almost like a theatre show with dialogue carrying it a lot further than most of the action did. This film wasn’t as commercially successful as “Django Unchained” and it was once again courting controversy with its historical inaccuracies and choice language in the dialogue of the script, something Tarantino put down to it being a work of fiction in a different timeline. Also, in terms of language used, because he wanted it to be as authentic for the time as possible, he used language he believed to be commonplace. Racial rights activists and sexual equality campaigners didn’t cram the cinemas to take a seat for this one. In fact, the initial negative reviews due to simplicity of the plot and the isolated setting also didn’t help to bring people flocking in.

The most recent film that the Tennessee born director has released is his ode to Hollywood, a fairy-tale story that once again uses an alternative and fictional timeline. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” sees the director working with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie to look at how cinema changed when it left the golden studio-system era, and how contemporary culture was intertwined with Hollywood life. He depicts an actor and his BFF stuntman as they come to terms with changes, and he documents events leading up to the Manson family murders taking the life of Sharon Tate, in his reality though, Tarantino shows that she escaped. Although this has become his most successful film, it also received a lot of mixed reviews from fans and critics. It seems there isn’t much middle ground, and this is his marmite film, audiences either love it, or they hate it.

Styles and Hallmarks – The Auteur

Cameos

When it comes to styles, Tarantino has a fair few trait that he adds to his films. Like the great Alfred Hitchcock, Tarantino usually appears in his own films, something he has been done since the very beginning with his 1980’s low-budget films. This is not just something that he has done with the films he has directed. When working as a contributor in other forms, from writer to producer, Tarantino has not been afraid to stand in front of the camera too – or lend his voice to narration or even an answer machine voice. In his own right he has plenty of acting credits to his name appearing in TV and films like “The Golden Girls” (circa 1988), “Desperado” (1995), “From Dusk till Dawn” (1996), “Little Nicky” (2000), “Alias” (somewhere between 2002 – 2004), “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007), and “Diary of the Dead” (2007). At the last count though, Tarantino had made no less than 12 random cameos in films.

Violence and Deaths

Violence then, another of Tarantino’s go-to hallmarks. His films have courted controversy with some of the violence portrayed, he nearly fell at the first hurdle in fact with “Reservoir Dog” being denied certification in the UK because of the ‘fun’ torture scene. Whether it is “Reservoir Dogs” or “The Hateful Eight” there has been violence, and a large dose of it too. Who can forget ‘The Bride’ chopping up pretty much most of the ‘Crazy 88’ gang in “Kill Bill” for about 10-minutes of screen time? Surprisingly, when I counted deaths in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” it had less than Tarantino’s restrained “Jackie Brown”. A rule for actors going to his films though, if you aren’t a main star to lead the vehicle, you are probably going to be killed – even then, you might end up dead – look at what happened to John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”, Samuel L. Jackson in “Jackie Brown”, “Kill Bill”, and “Django Unchained”.

I began trying to count the number of fatalities I could while re-watching his films but failed in some instances. Using my own count and resources online I have come up with the following graph to show the amount of death his films have brought. NOTE: Some of the deaths happened off-screen and are assumed, I have tried to account for these still. Also, “Inglourious Basterds” has vast number of deaths, both by the Americans and the Germans (in the propaganda film), and I have tried to account for these too.

Non-linear story and Chapters

In most of his films, Tarantino mixes up events to try and tell a story and keep audiences glued to their screens. I can remember friends saying how confused they were after watching “Pulp Fiction” – “so did Travolta die?”. Some critics of film have labelled this as ‘The Tarantino Effect‘. This was still used as recently as “The Hateful Eight”, and I have no doubt that it will continue with other films he does too.

Product Placement

I’m not talking about famous real world soft drink slogans appearing. No, no, no. Tarantino has created an in-film universe in which his own, mostly fictitious, products live. Things like “Red Apple cigarettes“, “Big Kahuna Burgers“, “G.O. juice“, “Teriyaki Doughnuts”, and “Jack Rabbit Slims” are reoccurring names that you might hear or see. He has got practically enough products in his films to go into business himself and open a shopping mall selling fictitious products – maybe that’s his retirement plan. Make and sell these things?!

Music & Soundtracks

Using recognizable and foot tapping music instead of scores is a good way to keep audiences engaged and entertained. This is a trick that is not just Tarantino’s but is widespread in film, soundtracks to films like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, “Watchmen”, and “The Crow” are among my favourite soundtracks. There is also a place in my collection for soundtracks to accompany Tarantino films too. These often feature music from the 1960’s and 1970’s and are usually toe-tappingly fun. They don’t always use the most contemporary and on-trend artists, but they sure are good.

Narrative and Discourse

Tarantino’s films often feature elaborate dialogue in scenes, sometimes to drive the story, and sometimes just because. There is an argument that in the real-world people talk about all sorts of rubbish, and this hasn’t escaped the Tarantino treatment. Discussing burgers or milkshakes immediately springs to mind – it served very little to the overall film when used in “Pulp Fiction”, but these are the kind of conversations that everyday people might actually have. Sometimes the conversations are designed to build tension, and other times they are just a way of passing the scene from one explosive part to another.

On another note, there is often a lot of strong language used, and also plenty of racial slurs too. Swearing for the sake of impact doesn’t always wash down with audiences, but when writing, Tarantino doesn’t shy away from it – in fact, sometimes he f****ng laps it up like a mother****r. In terms of the racial slurs that have been used, nearly all his films feature the un-PC “N” word or other racial slurs. While some audiences and critics have looked negatively at this, Tarantino, and usually his cast too (I am looking at you Samuel L. Jackson) have defended it as being authentic and like real life. This isn’t something I want to get too involved in really, I can see the argument from both sides, but in some instances, it has made me cringe. I guess that comes down to personal circumstances.

Revenge/ Redemption

Vengeance, revenge, and redemption are themes that pops up a lot in his films. This theme is something that has made powerful films for female leads in them – “Jackie Brown”, “Kill Bill”, “Death Proof”, and “Inglourious Basterds” all have strong female characters that seek vengeance for being wronged. It isn’t just the female leads though, and revenge has appeared in pretty much all his films at different times. The allied forces and Shosanna want revenge against the Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds”, Django seeks revenge and redemption when he fights slavers and Calvin Candie. I guess the story of a wronged person seeking some justice sells well and is a theme that a lot of people can related too. Growing up with lots of spaghetti western influences, this is a theme that Tarantino is happy to utilize.

Reoccurring actors and rebirths

The obvious names that come to mind when I think about reoccurring actors are Samuel L. Jackson (appeared in 6) and Michael Madsen (appeared in 5). Other names have popped up in his films a lot of times too, and not just actors – Zoë Bell went from stunt woman to actor after “Kill Bill” due to impressing Tarantino as Uma Thurman’s stunt double. Other names that have reoccurred include (but are not limited to) James Parks, Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Uma Thurman, Omar Doom, Bruce Dern, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio too.

When it comes to what I have branded as rebirths, I’m thinking about some of the careers that have been changed by appearing in Tarantino’s films. Famously John Travolta wasn’t as much of a headline in the 1990’s until after he appeared in “Pulp Fiction” – his last notable film was “Look Who’s Talking” (1989). Likewise, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Willis, Kurt Russel, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Don Johnson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Sonny Chiba, all benefited from the ‘Tarantino effect‘.

The Bad Guy

Crime is rife, and pretty much all of Tarantino’s films follow a bad guy of some kind at different points. Even the good guys end up flirting with doing wrong along the way too. I guess that sometimes the righteous path isn’t always as squeaky clean as other films suggest.

Feet

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been watching a Tarantino film and all of a sudden somebody’s feet have appeared on screen. Usually bare, sometimes dirty, occasionally dancing, mostly resting and in plain sight. Whether they are dancing or just resting on a dashboard in a car, Tarantino likes to include them in his films. Some say that he is embracing his freaky side, some are just baffled by it. Each to their own I guess, it’s not something I want to know too much more about but it is obvious when you watch his library of films.

POV’s, in-car shots, and mirrors

You must have noticed it by now. Occasionally when people get beaten up or killed, there will be a point of view shot from the body – the ‘corpse POV‘. It plays out like the last thing the downed person sees before their eyes close, whether for death or consciousness. These kind of POV’s have appeared in “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown”, Kill Bill”, and “Death Proof” too. Not just limited to ‘corpse POV’, Tarantino also utilises the ‘God’s eye POV’ too when his cameras are peering down from up above as if some invisible deity is watching what is happening.

When it comes to the in-car shot, similarly to the corpse POV, the director likes looking out from inside the boot of a car. Check it out next time you watch one of his films. It’s not just the boot of the car though, oh no, no, no. In most of his films too you might watch one of the central characters sat behind the steering wheel of a car as they head off to their next direction or drive off into the sunset.

In regard to mirrors, this is another shooting type that seems to crop up in Tarantino’s films. Usually, a moment for reflection or to add to intimate moments when characters are thinking. This is a lovely metaphoric shot and works well without the audience knowing too much about it other than it looking pretty. This in the know though, well they know what is going on here.

Black and White or Luminous colours

There is always a good mixture of healthy colours in Tarantino’s films. He has worked with some great photography specialists and cinematographers over the years. Don’t be surprised to see well illuminated and highly colourful shots, mixed occasionally with black and white film work to add to the richness of a film. “Kill Bill” does this well. When ‘the bride’ is breaking the fourth wall and talking to the camera in her car, she’s in black and white. When she is fighting the ‘crazy 88’ there is a good mixture of vibrant colours and black and whites too. Even something like “The Hateful Eight”, while it might appear bleak and dirty in the haberdashery, the yellow trim on Samuel L. Jackson’s coat screams for attention.

Other things

Dance scenes, torture scenes, bathrooms, eating and drinking at bars and restaurants, black suits, comics being read, television in the background – all likely to appear in a Tarantino film. He is as much of a film fan as he is a director, and really seems to enjoy adding things to keep vigilant fans and movie-goers looking out.

Wrap it up

While I realize his blog has quickly turned into an essay about the Tennessee director, I am conscious that I better start wrapping it up. When Tarantino made his breakthrough, it was a breath of fresh air for me as a movie-goer. His films were exciting and gritty, utilizing a lot of techniques that made my voyeuristic experience unique – he was the magical film maker that seemed to have plenty of tricks up his sleeves. Over the years he has made some films which have been great, and some which I haven’t enjoyed as much. I’m not alone in this thought process, all you have to do is search for the director online and you’ll find as many articles praising his genius, as you will criticizing him too. Living up to the magic he wove in the 1990’s was always going to be difficult, but he has kept on making films his way, and in most instances giving the middle finger to people who want to change things or don’t like them. These days as a fourty-something-year-old film fan I haven’t enjoyed his latest films like I did his early films, but that could say as much about me, as it does his ability to continually deliver great movies. Undeterred I will continue to look out for his next films hoping for new magic, and revel in the enjoyment of spotting his old tricks, the tropes that he has used before. One day I might be surprised when I find a completely original film from him which doesn’t pay homage to other films and doesn’t include the standard hallmarks I’ve come to expect from him. I might also one-day see a new film from him which is under an hour and half too, which would be nice as my bladder can’t take the 3 hour+ plus epics as well the older I get.  Not caring too much about the controversies he garners with his films, the strong language, occasional lack of sexual politics, the flagrant disregard for racial language, and the violence, he does things his way, or not at all. I’m of the opinion, and don’t worry, it’s just my opinion, feel free to disagree – I think that magic film director that graced us with his tricks in the 1990’s might have run out of new tricks to perform because short of a few different costumes (genre changes), it seems to be the same magician, behind the same curtain, weaving the same tricks. Has the magic man lost his ability to bring us new illusions and magic? Only time will tell.

Whether you love him, like him, hate him, or just tolerate his films, Tarantino has shown some diversity with films ranging from gangster films, to war films, slashers, and westerns. He’s not my absolute favourite director, but I still have enjoyed what he has done, and look forward to see what he does next, and if he can find a new magic touch. .

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