Director Spotlight: Quentin Tarantino
by Barry Wurst
April 4, 2007
Since I began teaching film classes seven years ago, I've received the same two questions every semester from at least one student: "Have you seen Pulp Fiction?" and "What's in the suitcase?" To the first question, I say "Yes". To the second, I've responded (depending on the mood I was in) with: "Nothing", "A light bulb that turns on whenever you open the case", "Untold riches… compacted in a small space", "the soul of Marsellus Wallace - everybody knows that!", "a shiny interior" and "Who cares?! No one knows! It's up to you!". That last refrain is the one I've said most recently and it's the one I like myself the least for saying. EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW. Because, love him or hate him, everyone knows Quentin Tarantino and, for crying out loud, they wanna know what's in the #@!&% suitcase!!!
April 4 - Quentin Tarantino
His films don't elicit mute, indifferent responses of "oh, it was okay" or "yeah, it was alright". His films, a visualization of his movie-crazy mind and his love of films (both truly great and entirely disreputable), are turbo-charged explosions of pop culture set to Elvis Presley. His films are not timid or forgettable but elicit passionate responses, positive and negative and create either lifetime fans or vocal loathing.
I'll try and cover everything you didn't already know about Quentin Tarantino. His first film, Reservoir Dogs, was produced by Monte Hellman, the director of Silent Night, Deadly Night 3. Hellman was looking for a low-budget film to go straight to video on the LIVE Entertainment label, which distributed films on video, cable and overseas. With an interested Harvey Keitel attached, it looked like a no-brainer. Instead of video store infamy (and video shelved purgatory), Dogs, a $1.6 million piece of ultra-violent cool, became the talk of the Sundance Film Festival. Not only did it "corrupt" the low-key fest and the world of independent features, it brought headlines, interest and neo-revolution to the phrase "indie film". While a mild art house hit in America (it topped off at two and a half million in the US), Dogs a funny, disturbing, vividly violent and undeniably hip look at criminal lowlifes became a word of mouth sensation. On video it was a blockbuster, and the cult of Tarantino was born.
If anything, the references to American and world pop culture in his films gave a charge to movie buffs everywhere and, best of all, Tarantino's consistently witty, profane and downright musical dialogue hit a nerve. More on that later.
If Reservoir Dogs made a small but distinctive ripple in the film world, than Pulp Fiction did it one better with an all out tidal wave. What you already know - it won the Palm D'Or at Cannes, was a blockbuster at cinemas worldwide, was Miramax's first $100-million dollar hit, was robbed at the Oscars (I loved Forrest Gump, but really, Pulp Fiction was the movie of 1994!) and completely rejuvenated the careers of everyone attached. Here's what you may not be aware of - movie dialogue changed after Pulp Fiction. Tarantino's viciously un-PC banter, flush with vulgarities, random musings, song and movie references and entirely different sort of movie-speak, lead to a new approach on how people talk in the movies. In all of his films it's fair to say that his characters only occasionally discuss the plot (aka, give lazy exposition to push the story forward). Few writers make this work as well as Tarantino.
Not only did a bunch of pseudo-hip, intentionally edgy, knowingly violent, wannabe-Tarantino films sprout up (everything from Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Suicide Kings, Feeling Minnesota and the wonderful The Usual Suspects), but movie dialogue as a whole got sharper. Sometimes Tarantino himself was the direct culprit (that hip, pop-culture peppered dialogue in Crimson Tide? Ghost written by Tarantino!). The careers of Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson and (especially) John Travolta were on iffy ground before the film came out - afterwards they were on board of every hot project in Hollywood (especially Travolta, who went from has-been to $20 million dollar leading man). On the whole, Pulp Fiction changed the landscape of film. Like the 90's itself, the film was neither new nor retro, but a fusing of everything that had come before (in terms of look and feel) but, unlike a lot of films over praised and forgotten from that decade, Pulp is still a masterpiece.
After this much-celebrated period, Tarantino began to annoy the crap out of everyone. Rather than make another movie he started popping up in everyone else's films, some good (Girl 6 and Desperado) but most just bad (Sleep With Me, and Destiny Turns on the Radio). He appeared opposite Marisa Tomei in a Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark (in which he played Loach, the part Alan Arkin so memorably played in the film version) and got some of the worst reviews in the history of Broadway! He directed a segment of the disastrous anthology film Four Rooms and critics trashed his episode as self indulgent (in truth, a fair assessment). He directed an episode of "ER" that didn't live up to his reputation (as if television could showcase what he was known for) and co-starred with George Clooney in From Dusk 'Till Dawn, a film directed by Robert Rodriguez from Tarantino's moth balled, anything goes, B-movie screenplay. Detractors like to argue that the film's gritty first half is better than the film's gory, supernatural second half. Overall, the film is fun and well made, though audiences were hungry for something new from the newly crowned "QT". Dusk hit two years after Pulp Fiction and, by then, audiences were beginning to tire of the clichÃ© of a Tarantino film (even Space Jam took a satirical swipe at Pulp Fiction).
Jackie Brown premiered around Christmas of 1997 with oversized expectation and negative word of mouth. Miramax was famously unhappy with the length and uneasy about an action-lite, dialogue-heavy character drama. Even with nay-sayers in Hollywood and skeptics paying to see the film in theaters, Brown did a respectable $40 million in the US alone, was (for the most part) critically acclaimed and again showcased his ability to get unexpected and undeniably great work from actors most had written off. Featuring career-best performances by Pam Grier and Robert Forster, dependably sharp dialogue and a well-crafted screenplay (adapted from Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch), the film, while overlong and uneven, is also underrated.
The teaser trailer for Kill Bill came 5 years later and solidified it as the must see film of 2003. Less than a few months from opening it was decided the film would be released in two different episodes, months apart from one another. When audiences finally see the long rumored Kill Bill - The Whole Bloody Affair, a cut that encapsulates the entire film, only then they may see why the dual release was such a wise move. As a whole, Kill Bill is a wonderful film, but the climactic battle that ends Vol. 1 is exhausting and feels like an ending of sorts (and a good place to end any movie). Vol. 1 is so good that it helped garner enthusiasm for Vol. 2, which was more dialogue and plot driven and, yes, even better. Filled with the crisp wordplay, ultra-violence and the canny performances you'd expect, Kill Bill was a return to form for Tarantino (in a way the respected but underappreciated Jackie Brown never was).
Now with Tarantino's episode of Grindhouse titled Death Proof putting him in the forefront again, it can be said that his style is firmly in place, but with his love and knowledge of wildly varying films he could very well make a film that stretches him beyond the joke-and-a-gunshot genre he more or less re-invented. His long-rumored Inglorious Bastards screenplay, depicting a WWII adventure, could be a means of reinvention. I should admit that, for all my admiration for Pulp Fiction, my favorite Tarantino film wasn't even made by him. I'm talking about the Tony Scott directed True Romance, which is far more slick than QT intended but, for my money, the best film he has written so far and the most wildly entertaining.
Tarantino has received criticism from many (including Spike Lee) over his abundant use of racial expletives in his films, a criticism that is both merited (it does seem excessive and thoughtless at times) and unmerited (he captures how his mostly motley, immoral creations would presumably talk). Others despise the hip (some say pretentious), violent (some say irresponsibly gory) and irreverent (some say over-reliance on pop culture) nature of his films. Like it or not, he is the premiere filmmaker of the 90's and he's not going anywhere. For now, while I wait in line to see Grindhouse, I'll stand there and seriously ponder, "Okay, just what the @%&$ IS in that suitcase?!?!"