The Endless Appeal of the Tarantinoesque: Part 1
I still remember the first time I ever watched a Quentin Tarantino film. Sat in front of the TV one evening, I happened to catch a showing of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – a film I’d never heard about before and a title that sounded so bizarre I just had to see it. While I might have been a little younger than the certificate recommended, I eagerly devoured every second, suddenly finding myself immersed in a whole new world of fast-talking dialogue, incredible characters and unexpected plot twists. I was so taken with it that I would later watch a part of the film every day, literally wearing down my VHS copy (thank God DVDs were just around the corner) and researching everything I could about it. In fact, so monumental was this first viewing of Reservoir Dogs that I instantly knew I wanted to be involved with film in the future in any way possible. I have Tarantino himself to thank for several years on a brilliant film studies course and for my current camera assistant job, as well as my continued enthusiasm for writing both scripts and reviews.
Part of what draws me, and many others, to his work is his obvious love for cinema itself – an infectious passion that he wants to share with all of his viewers. Whether it’s by referencing another film with a piece of dialogue (Reservoir Dogs’ re-working of the line “You slap me in a dream…” from Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)), or a costume (Uma Thurman’s yellow outfit in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) which alludes to Bruce Lee’s in Game of Death (1978)), or even the overall characteristics of a piece (the Spaghetti Western look of Django Unchained (2012)), Tarantino enjoys mixing ideas and techniques from other works with his own imaginative stories, creating his own compelling cinematic worlds in the process. The end result is an engaging, postmodern filmmaking method that rewards those who recognise his many references, while hoping it encourages others to look further into the ones they don’t get.
Although, this sometimes lumbers him with the label of ‘stealing’ (a ridiculous concept as most filmmakers use homages – just look at the French New Wave influences of Martin Scorsese), what is fascinating is how often his references become something entirely different from the works they are originally used in, Tarantino looking at them from new, interesting angles in order to mess with our expectations. Indeed, he does this so much, and so well, that a new cinematic language has emerged throughout all of his films; a Tarantinoesque vocabulary that is unmistakeably his, even when he does include nods to other people’s works. With the use of certain elements that turn up time and time again in his films, we always know we’re in Tarantino Land, often before the title credits have finished rolling.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)
STORY AND STRUCTURE
While most films like to hide the fact that you’re watching a story unfold, Tarantino likes to announce it immediately, sometimes using chapter titles to signify what is about to happen. Rather than jarring though, this episodic structure is inviting, almost as if he is opening a book for us right there on the screen. This use of chapters also allows him to mess around with the usual linear narrative layout we’re so used to, his tales regularly jumping back and forth in time to keep things interesting. Often, this is simply to give us insight into certain characters and their motives, such as the flashbacks to Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs. But on a more complex level, Tarantino uses structure to reveal something to us that the characters don’t yet know. The repeated instance of the money exchange in Jackie Brown (1997) means we see it from several different viewpoints, allowing us to slowly piece together just who is double crossing whom, while certain people are left chasing (and even killing for) an empty bag of money. And in The Hateful Eight (2015), he jumps back to what would have been the first scene in the film’s timeline, playing with the tension as we queasily anticipate what is about to happen to the unsuspecting folk of ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’.
However, Tarantino’s greatest use of structure is in Pulp Fiction (1994), the unexpected death of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) suddenly erased when we return to an earlier timeline for the final chapter (‘The Bonnie Situation’). This time jump not only means that Vincent returns alive and well to the narrative, but that he is even enjoying a hearty breakfast right until the end of the film (diner robberies notwithstanding). While it might just seem Tarantino is simply using this as a stylistic flourish, he’s really hinting at a greater idea to do with fate – something that emerges at the start of this chapter when Vincent and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) miraculously avoid getting hit by several bullets at a job. Jules literally sees it as an act of God, immediately deciding to quit the business – a decision that we now know will ultimately save him. Tarantino doesn’t actually care whether it’s a miracle or not though, opting instead to use it as an intriguing piece of foreshadowing, and ultimately showing how their lives are as expendable as the people they go after.
Tarantino’s uses his non-linear narrative for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in a similar way, using it to gradually reveal what started The Bride (Uma Thurman) on this vengeful path, and also as a way to keep us one step ahead of his characters. At the start of the film when she crosses Vernita’s (Vivica A. Fox) name off her ‘Death List Five’, Tarantino shows that O-Ren’s (Lucy Liu) name is crossed out too – an opponent we won’t actually see her face until much later. He’s almost certainly using this time jump so he can work up to the more impressive showdowns, but what I find particularly interesting is how he still manages to eke the tension out in these moments, keeping us biting our nails even when we know what the outcome will be. That’s the power of Tarantino’s exquisite writing though – he’s able to so immerse us in his worlds that it doesn’t always matter what will happen, just how we get there.
GENRE AND STYLE
The most immediately noticeable aspect of the filmmaker's distinctive style is the genres that he so deftly plays with throughout all of his works. Western, War, Kung Fu, Crime, Mystery and so on: it’s an eclectic array, Tarantino excitedly delving into each new category and recreating them with the use of music, themes, settings, motifs and shots. It’s often an almost overwhelming array of homages and stylistic flourishes, the repeated Kung Fu references he uses in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 so plentiful that even the most ardent fan might miss some. Yet Tarantino’s way of immersing us so fully in these worlds is fascinating, his commitment to each of the genres he picks allowing him to replicate so many of the cinematic moments he loves, albeit in a new, thrilling way.
Although his earlier films tend to stick to one specific category, what emerges in his later works is much more intriguing – a different use of genre that defies easy classification. Keen to play on our expectations, Tarantino has begun to test the limits of certain genres, often merging several of them in one film to create an entirely new narrative.
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) was a deliberate step away from Vol. 1, Tarantino introducing tension-filled standoffs, majestic landscapes and sweeping scores straight out of Westerns while continuing the previous Kung Fu references from the first (returning to fast zooms and impossible acrobatics during Pai Mei’s (Gordon Liu) training). He then merged Western elements in his later works too, Inglourious Basterds (2009) becoming a sort of War-Western - in which Tarantino tested the limits of historical accuracy by rewriting what actually happened - while Django Unchained was a love letter to both the Western genre and Blaxploitation films, mixing components of both to give us something completely different. In this, the viewpoint of Django (Jamie Foxx), the freed slave, makes his narrative all the more fresh and unexpected, the underlying race tensions setting up a riotous story full of much-needed revenge. Indeed, by experimenting with genre and using such an interesting time and setting, Tarantino has made a Southern rather than a Western, one of the characters (King played by Christoph Waltz) even declaring that Django will be called “the fastest gun in the South”.
It is this daring experimentation that keeps us glued to the screen and makes us redefine what cinematic categories actually are, especially as he continues to add to his filmography. Even when he recreated his beloved Grindhouse genre with Death Proof (2007), Tarantino still mixed in elements of Horror and Slashers, turning a nasty tale about a stuntman (Kurt Russell) terrorising women with his killer car into a film all about female power and redemption. He also seems to be declaring exactly when his narrative moves away from the Grindhouse into his own, more modern world, the grainy footage of the first half suddenly disappearing when we jump ahead to meet the second set of women who will inevitably turn things around on the bewildered stunt driver. As such, if Tarantino weren’t messing around with elements of genre, it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film, and it really would just be a work dropping other references.
CHARACTERS AND CAST
No-one can ever be trusted in a Tarantino tale. People double crossing others, pretending to be someone they’re not, and often killing to get what they want. Indeed, in his earlier films the lines between heroes and villains are never as clear-cut as we expect them to be, each character as morally dubious as the last.
While Mr. White has an almost fatherly connection with Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, he’s still a ruthless criminal, something Orange is starkly reminded of as he watches him unload his guns on two police officers. In Pulp Fiction, no-one is particularly likeable, even the seemingly honourable Butch (Bruce Willis) callously remarking “If he was a better boxer, he’d still be alive” after brutally killing his boxing match opponent. And although Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is an independent, force to be reckoned with, she uses everyone she can, from the officers she tricks (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), to the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) who she knows will do anything for her. But despite the ambiguous nature and intentions of each of these characters, Tarantino still makes us identify with them – something that makes it even more uncomfortable as we watch them carry out such horrible acts. Vincent and Jules might be ruthless killers in Pulp Fiction, yet we still laugh along with them in the moments between their jobs, the subjects they nonchalantly chat about surprisingly ordinary. And the criminals of Reservoir Dogs are all oddly appealing, the opening diner scene letting us see their normal sides, right before the bullets and accusations start flying. These criminals might do some terrible things, but turns out they’re also just like you and me.
It is only when Tarantino moves into his revenge films that the dubious nature of his main characters disappears, the heroes that exist in these works easily definable in a more classic, Hollywood way (The Bride, The Basterds, Django). In these stories, we need to undeniably root for them, especially when they’re up against such monstrous figures.
Even in Django Unchained, the character of Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) is an outright villain, despite the fact that he himself is black and enslaved, long-owned by the Candies. It’s almost as if being part of this horrid household has made Stephen forget exactly what he is and where he came from, the enticing power he’s gained from being Calvin’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second-in-command corrupting him, something that Django knows he should be punished for.
Yet when Tarantino delves into the world of Westerns again in The Hateful Eight, those blurred lines between heroes and villains return, the characters in Minnie’s Haberdashery all warranting suspicion in this mysterious tale. Teasing us throughout with who might or might not be telling the truth, it turns out they’re all just as bad as each other, the lack of heroes making the victory at the end bittersweet, especially in the way justice is served to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
What is sometimes most interesting about Tarantino’s characters though is who he chooses to play them, particularly when he uses actors who have been in one of his films before. While many other writer-director’s stick to the same cast, Tarantino seems to do so in order to mess with our expectations of what role we believe an actor will be playing this time around, often bringing them back to portray a character the complete polar opposite to the one they previously were. Whether it's actors in cameos (Michael Bowen as the officer in Jackie Brown and then Buck the rapist in Kill Bill: Vol. 1), to those with bigger parts (Walton Goggins as the racist hillbilly in Django Unchained and then the slightly more noble sheriff in The Hateful Eight), Tarantino likes to use the same actors to consciously play around with the definition of heroes and villains, literally showing us that no-one is ever quite what they seem.
Tim Roth is one of the most fascinating examples of this, his roles changing so vastly between each film that it’s almost dizzying. A cop pretending to be a robber in Reservoir Dogs, to a straight-up criminal in Pulp Fiction, to a put-upon bellboy in Four Rooms (1995), to a lying criminal with a phony, plummy accent in The Hateful Eight – Roth is never in the same type of role twice - Tarantino making us identify with his characters in starkly different ways.
However, one of the best reversals he uses is with Christoph Waltz, who went from one of the most wonderfully villainous portrayals of all time (Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds), to one of the most heroic (King in Django Unchained). Indeed, King is so different to Landa that it’s startling to see Waltz in the role, Tarantino giving his brilliant, understated performance room to breathe amongst the vengeful narrative. It’s rather telling that since his part in Basterds, Waltz has almost exclusively remained playing villains in other films. While many seemed content with reusing what had gone before, Tarantino saw a potential that he knew would convey such a perfect, kind-hearted character, and which would also allow him to mess with the audience’s expectations in the process.
While these elements are the main foundations of every Quentin Tarantino film and narrative, in Part 2 I will talk about some of the other things that are more synonymous with his works – traits that immediately come to mind when we think about this writer-director and his exceptional filmography.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino | Cast: Chris Penn, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth | Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino (background radio dialogue written by), Roger Avary (background radio dialogue written by)
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Dir: Quentin Tarantino | Cast: Ambrosia Kelley, James Parks, Michael Parks, Vivica A. Fox | Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Quentin Tarantino (character The Bride), Uma Thurman (character The Bride)