Tarantino has morphed into such a pop culture phenomenon that it is impossible not be influenced by him, consciously or subconsciously. Quentin Tarantino has become synonymous with the word “cult” over the years but this cult has now gone mainstream and obliterated the very definition of cult. We are now eagerly awaiting his next film Hateful Eight and so I think it is a good time to take a look at his career spanning two genre bending decades.
That’s thirty minutes away. I’ll be there in ten. – The Wolf
–Pulp Fiction (1994)
Tarantino’s rise to stardom was quick. He did make an amateur film in the late 80s, which is now considered lost. So, one can assume Reservoir Dogs (1992) as his big debut as a writer director and what a debut it was! He used classic props such as an unreliable narrator and a band of outlaws assembled to perform a task, something that has been done since the time of Seven Samurai. But still the result was a refreshingly different whodunit that blended crime, violence and humour like never before. There was hardly anything new in a group of people trying to rob a bank, but it was the style and the flair for sharp dialogues and clever plotting that set it way apart from the crowd. He followed up with Pulp Fiction (1994), another watershed film that redefined the way stories are told. Another bunch of baddies, another string of crimes but this time he had multiple storylines linked to each other. Pulp Fiction is by no means the first ever hyper linked film. My personal favourite hyperlinked cinema dates back to 1965 in the form of Saragossa Manuscript by Wojciech Has and also to 1962 in the form of Kanchenjunga by Ray. But the success of Pulp Fiction finally provided this complex style of film making with the requisite pop culture thrust which resulted in an array of such films in the next decade or so.
In the 90s Tarantino also got involved in several other projects as producer, writer as well supporting actor and met with varied degrees of success. Especially as a writer he achieved more applaud with films like True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994). These years also saw the beginning of his collaboration with another upcoming cult filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, which still continues. They both co-produced, each other’s films and Tarantino even acted in some of Rodríguezes’ films. Their joint endeavours still continue to churn out crowd pleasing films that effortlessly marry nostalgic B movie sensibilities with cutting edge techniques. Towards the end of the decade, Tarantino directed Jackie Brown (1997), a tribute to 70s Blaxploitation films. While the film itself was a lesser success compared to his first two outings, this set the tone for much of his later works where he kept paying tribute to various forgotten genres that he loved.
I want him to know, I want him to know. And I want them all to know they’ll all soon be as dead as O-Ren. – The Bride
-Kil Bill Vol I (2003)
After a few years of lull, Tarantino returned to direction with a bang in the next decade with Kill Bill Vol I. Most of the younger generation probably started identifying with Tarantino with Kill Bill. A swashbuckling tribute to oriental action cinema, this film outdid his earlier efforts in terms of stylized and aesthetic violence. The final sequence in the film, “Showdown at the house of blue leaves” is probably boasts of one of the highest body count in a single sequence ever and beats any other such sequence in terms of action choreography. Portions of this sequence were shown in black and white considering their violent nature but if you really feel like catching it in its full and gory glory, do check out the Japanese version of the film which exercises no such restraint. He followed it up with Kill Bill Vol II and if the rumours are to be true, a third part is already in development.
After the success of Kill Bill films, Tarantino continued with his formula of picking up long lost B movie genres and paying tribute to them. First came Grindhouse (2007), which included two films, Planet Terror directed by Rodriguez and Death Proof by Tarantino, dealing with horror and action elements of yore. So passionate was this tribute that they deliberately shot the film with low budget aesthetics, included fictional trailers of other B movies and even had “lost reels” pop up once in a while in the midst of the film. In fact one of the fake trailers Machete got so popular that it was turned into a real film by Rodriguez later on. In between Tarantino produced a moody and psychedelic Graphic novel adaptation Sin City, directed by Rodriguez and the author Frank Miller himself and also the popular exploitation horror series Hostel.
His last release was of course the Inglorious Basterds (2009), this time a tribute to the popular Hollywood war movies which were always far far away from any kind of realism and often contained exaggerated action sequences. While the film had an array of A-List actors including Brad Pitt, the biggest success of Tarantino was in unearthing the talent of Christoph Waltz, whose villainous role was probably the deadliest in recent memory along with Heath Ledger’s Joker. The film itself is true to its real inspirations but enriched by stylistic flourishes including a terrific fictional Nazi propaganda film within a film.
The success of Tarantino is often puzzling in a world where breaking the norms may offer cult popularity but seldom leads to mass acceptability. In fact he comes across as a delightful aberration in a world where people mostly play too safe and too boring to achieve mainstream success. Tarantino pays tribute to B grade genres that were impoverished and ignored by the intelligentsia. But his own films do not compromise with production values and he often casts top stars, thus making sure that his B movie tributes do not end up being B movies themselves. Much of his success can of course be attributed to clever writing. Anyone can pay a tribute to older films and even replicate certain sequences but hardly anybody can create something independently attractive on its own. This is what Tarantino achieves with his writing and sharp witted dialogues and that is why you can enjoy his films even if you are not aware of the films he is paying tribute to.
Another unmistakable aspect of his films is the soundtrack. Most of his music is not fresh compositions but works that he picks from older gems that he admires. As a self-trained filmmaker who learned simply by watching thousands of other films, he uses his experience to pick the best piece of sound for every sequence he films. In fact I think he is singlehandedly responsible for bringing back Italian maestro Ennio Morricone from oblivion by repeatedly using his older works in his films. For that matter, I always thank him for introducing me to the works of Romanian pan flutist Gheorghe Zamfir, whose excellent piece “Lonely Shepherd” was used in Kill Bill. These are only a couple of examples but in general I think the soundtracks of Tarantino films can only be compared to those of Wong Kar Wai in terms of eclectic selection and all of them work well as independent albums too.
One may criticize him for never tackling with any realistic topics, but I think he is an auteur who will be identified in the future more for his own cinephilia, as a man who existed just because of his love for cinema and that itself should be considered a huge service to the medium. I found his last work Django Unchained a bit underwhelming but I hope Hateful Eight really works after so much controversy.