Mari Jones continues her exploration of the fascinating cinematic language of Quentin Tarantino.
In Part 1 of my detailed look at the Tarantinoesque, I talked about his use of structure, genre and character. But there’s still so many other traits that we can recognise in each of his films – characteristics that he regularly uses to bring his exceptional cinematic worlds to life.
(NOTE: Lots of spoilers ahead for Tarantino’s films!)
VIOLENCE AND THE MACABRE
Let’s face it, think of a Tarantino film and the first thing that comes to mind is the violence. The spectacular fight scenes, the gallons of gore, the horrid ways his characters are dispatched – his stories are rarely free from blood, particularly towards the end. However, Tarantino’s violence isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. During his later films, Tarantino plays on his own reputation for viscera, using an overstylised, exaggerated amount of gore to turn what he’s known for into his own language of revenge.
From the torrent of bullets to the Nazis’ faces in Inglourious Basterds (2009), to the cascades of blood spilling across The House of Blue Leaves as The Bride (Uma Thurman) enacts her revenge in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), to the almost cartoonish massacre of racists in Django Unchained (2012), it’s as if the violence is an extension of the characters’ anger, their rage literally exploding onscreen. Indeed, when Tarantino does show violence being inflicted on the slaves in Django… it’s never exaggerated or tinged with dark humour as it is when Django (Jamie Foxx) kills. Instead, Tarantino portrays their brutal treatment with a realism that is shocking and incredibly hard to watch, something that King (Christoph Waltz) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with as he continues to pretend he wants to purchase slaves.
Other times, Tarantino plays on the viewers’ thirst for violence, his depiction a lot more macabre and dark than we are expecting it to be. In Death Proof (2007), we know the car crash is coming and we almost want it to happen, Tarantino hiking up the tension as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) prepares to ram Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and the other unsuspecting girls. Except when the crash does come, it’s horrific, Tarantino repeating it from different angles and putting us inside the car with them, refusing to let us be detached from such a gruesome scene. It’s as if Tarantino is making us complicit in their deaths, punishing our anticipation for violence with something so much worse.
In The Hateful Eight (2015), the violence towards Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is used in a similar way. While Daisy is repeatedly and savagely beaten by the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), Tarantino undercuts each of these brutal moments with comedy, from stew being thrown in her face, to her being kicked out of a moving stagecoach (her chains meaning Ruth flies off right after her). However, when she meets her later demise, all the humour stops, her breath choked from her and her body convulsing in the most terribly realistic way. Tarantino is berating us for ever having found any of the violence against this woman funny, her criminal status no justification for how she has been treated throughout, and even how she meets her end.
What is more fascinating than Tarantino’s use of violence and gore though is when he moves away from this, the writer-director consciously deciding to leave out the viscera that we so expect. Of course, the most obvious example is Reservoir Dogs (1992) when Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts off the ear of a kidnapped police officer (Kirk Baltz), the camera panning away to a nearby wall rather than showing the actual body part coming off. It’s one of the most effective uses of violence in all of his works, the shocking sounds echoing around the warehouse while our imagination fills in what we can’t see.
A similar lack of violence is used in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) for the final showdown with Bill himself (David Carradine), Tarantino building up the suspense as we eagerly anticipate a fight to rival the conclusion of Vol. 1. But when The Bride finds her way inside Bill’s home with her gun drawn, all ideas of revenge suddenly melt away when she is faced with the daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) she thought she lost years before. Pointing back at her Mummy with her own toy gun, her daughter pretends to shoot her, The Bride participating in this make-believe showdown by falling to the ground dramatically. In the end, this is the final battle she has to face – a battle that’s a hell of a lot harder than simply confronting Bill with the barrel of her gun.
Although Tarantino’s decision to focus on a dialogue, tension-filled ending might go against the spectacular set pieces of Vol. 1, by teasing our expectations here he actually delivers something much more poignant and real. For me, it’s a perfectly fitting conclusion that rounds up the integral themes of both volumes of Kill Bill: a powerful woman seeking revenge and fighting for her own identity, and a woman finally having the chance to become a mother.
DIALOGUE AND TENSION
Characters in Tarantino’s worlds don’t always talk like us, but that hardly matters. His dialogue is always pitch perfect, Tarantino often revelling in the humour that comes up in their conversations, especially with the many, many pop culture references that they mention. From the opening Madonna diner talk in Reservoir Dogs (“Let me tell you what ‘Like a Virgin’ is about”), discussions of burger name differences in Pulp Fiction (1994) (“A Royale with cheese”), or the debate as to whether Elvis or Brando is a better actor in his unfinished short My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) (“This is where we differ”), his characters always bring up interesting titbits of information, Tarantino using them as a way to make his fictional world real.
Yet the normalcy of these conversations can be jarring, those doing the talking often about to carry out some horrible act. When Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) hang back before a job, we expect them to talk about what they’re about to do. Instead, Tarantino has them standing in a hallway, talking nonchalantly about foot massages. It’s unsettling how ordinary they are, and a moment that’s still on our minds as we watch them mercilessly threaten the terrified group of guys they’re there to see.
But where his dialogue really sings is when he uses it to create tension, something that he does throughout all of his work. Tarantino knows how to pace his scenes to get the most out of them, starting out small with inconspicuous dialogue before gradually amping it up, the atmosphere steadily growing until it eventually hits boiling point. And when that happens, it usually all goes wrong for one or several of his characters.
In his segment in Four Rooms (1995), Chester (Tarantino) lets Ted (Tim Roth) and us know almost immediately why he’s there – to help re-enact the plot from an old Hitchcock TV episode which involves a hatchet, a block of wood, and a little finger. Yet Tarantino keeps us dangling, breezing through the fast-paced dialogue as he tries to persuade Ted to get involved. We know where it’s going, and Tarantino plays on this anticipation, running rings around us until we’re breathless.
In The Hateful Eight Tarantino similarly hikes up the suspense as he slowly unravels his whodunit narrative, dropping clues across each dialogue-filled scene while the uneasy atmosphere threatens to turn sour at any moment. Again, we know the blood is going to start flying – we just don’t know exactly when it’ll happen. However, the big turning point is between Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the General (Bruce Dern), their conversation both riveting and terrifying to watch. The racist General lets his hatred of Warren be well known as soon as he enters the snowy shack, his cutting comments seeming to amuse Warren more than anything. Yet when Warren sits down to talk to him, he turns the tables almost immediately, Warren revealing that he met the General’s son one wintery day – the same day that he also killed him. His talk of what he did to him horrifies the General with every word, the tension becoming increasingly awful as the General’s face contorts with rage and emotion. With a gun close at hand for both of them, we know there’s only one way for this particular scenario to end.
Yet it is Inglourious Basterds that most perfectly portrays how he uses conversations to build suspense throughout his narrative. The opening moment of Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) talking to Monsieur LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), is possibly one of the best scenes of Tarantino’s career, their conversation balancing on a knife-edge, even as they nonchalantly discuss his farm and the need for a glass of milk. It’s to Tarantino’s credit that we know something will happen the instance Landa steps inside, the tension simmering away in the background while he practically teases the nervy French farmer with all the information he has on him. When Landa unexpectedly switches the conversation to reveal that he knows he has Jews hiding under the floorboards, the tearful LaPadite can do nothing other than point out exactly where they are, Landa’s horrid visit quickly ending in a shower of bullets and wood.
Tarantino brings up this moment again in another incredibly taut scene later on when Landa, who killed Shosanna’s (Mélanie Laurent) entire family, appears at a meeting she has been forced to attend by the simpering Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Landa’s voice instantly takes her back to hiding underneath those floorboards all those years ago, the suspense almost unbearable as he insists they talk alone for a while about the security at her cinema. When he orders her a glass of milk, we’ve no idea if it’s merely a coincidence or if he’s sussed her out, Landa keeping their discussion light and airy, yet also uncomfortably sinister. Never has the eating of strudel been so intense.
MUSIC AND DANCE
Truly one of the other most recognisable Tarantino traits is the music he uses. Whether it’s an original work (Ennio Morricone’s rousing score for The Hateful Eight), a song from another film or TV show (the theme from Ironside used throughout the Kill Bill films to signify The Bride’s rage), or more popular tunes (Death Proof’s ‘Hold Tight’), the care and pride he has for his music is endearing, his own jukebox (named AMi) even making a cameo appearance in Death Proof. While a whole load of tracks featured in My Best Friend’s Birthday (Sweet, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry), it’s not until Reservoir Dogs that he really understood the power music can have when used onscreen, with a song able to heighten the narrative tension, or add a hint of irony to make an awful incident even more so.
Indeed, if the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs had been made without music, it would be completely forgettable – a moment that could have been a part of any other crime film. Yet accompanied by the happy strains of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ it becomes truly gruesome, Mr. Blonde’s dance macabre toying with the police officer in front of him, while also making it unexpectedly funny. When the music fades as Blonde leaves the warehouse to go to his car, it’s almost a relief. But hearing the birds tweeting and children playing outside is somehow worse – a horrid juxtaposition to what we know is going on inside.
In fact, it has become a code in a lot of Tarantino films – when the music starts playing, something bad is on the horizon. Usually accompanied by an iconic dance number. While Mia (Uma Thurman) and Vincent’s shuffling twist moves in Pulp Fiction don’t exactly signify that death is round the corner, it certainly shows us that Vincent is getting a little too close to the wife of very angry gangster Marcellus (Ving Rhames). And although Tarantino didn’t direct From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), his script features a dance scene that occurs shortly before the Gecko Brothers (George Clooney and Tarantino) find themselves in their own private hell on earth.
Yet Arlene’s (Vanessa Ferlito) dance in Death Proof is particularly intriguing. Danger will certainly be racing towards the girls very shortly, but Tarantino also uses this moment to convey Arlene’s power and control over Stuntman Mike, the lap-dance she has been coerced into giving him is actually something she enjoys more than he does. Dancing doesn’t always have to be involved when Tarantino stops the narrative for a song though. Sometimes it’s just a character preparing for a battle, such as Shosanna putting on her war paint (or lipstick) in Inglourious Basterds to the thrilling ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ by David Bowie. And while Daisy might seemingly be enjoying a moment of respite in The Hateful Eight, playing guitar and softly singing ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, it’s a tune that foreshadows what’s about to happen, Daisy adding extra lines about John’s death to dig at him (especially when she knows exactly what’s in his coffee).
However, the film that uses music in the most interesting way is Jackie Brown (1997) – a soundtrack that features two iconic tunes which appear throughout. One of these is the spectacular ‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack, Tarantino using the track to open his film as Jackie (Pam Grier) happily and impossibly glides across the screen – it’s soon revealed she’s on an airport travelator – (a reference to The Graduate). Yet the song will return later in a much less joyous way, Jackie driving off to face an unknown destiny, tears in her eyes as she mouths silently along to Womack’s tune. It’s a superb juxtaposition, all hope from the opening disintegrated, Tarantino hinting that Jackie’s decision may be one she even regrets.
The other song Tarantino uses is ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ by The Delfonics, a track that Jackie first plays for Max (Robert Forster) when he visits her at home. Max is so struck by the song that he buys a cassette tape of it and plays it as often as he can, the tune representing a sort of silent connection he has to Jackie. But gradually, Tarantino turns this love song into something bittersweet, the words becoming increasingly poignant as we realise Max and Jackie won’t exactly get the happy ever after they want. Of course, what else would we expect in a Tarantino film?
CONCLUSION: TARANTINO LAND?
It’s amazing to see how this Tarantinoesque language has evolved throughout all of his films, the writer-director reworking his ideas time and time again in order to constantly keep his audience on their toes. What is also intriguing is how Tarantino draws a thread between each of his works, certain things popping up repeatedly as in-jokes and references (such as his cameos, his use of the same actors, or even his fictional brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burger). But the biggest link between many of his films is often his use of the same character names, Tarantino using these to connect his narratives in the most unexpected of ways.
From the Vega Brothers from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (a link Tarantino has talked about before), to the Hicox name appearing in both Inglourious Basterds and The Hateful Eight, to the Schultz grave in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 which is then alluded to with King’s surname in Django Unchained, these links expand each of the narratives well beyond their final frames, Tarantino hinting at untold stories that he’s already imagined, and which he invites us to think about too. Indeed, maybe it’s even possible that all of his films take place in one big cinematic universe – an actual Tarantino Land where all the characters have cool pop culture references to hand, the violence is plentiful, and revenge is a dish best served cold (an old Klingon proverb as the title card from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 tells us).
As such, it’ll be fascinating to see where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) sits within his other works, and what his next (and final) film will be. I certainly hope that retirement is actually a long way off for this master of the cinematic. After all, I’ve still got so much more to talk about, and he certainly has too.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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