The Man Behind The Myths
Quentin Tarantino is one the world's foremost controversial independent film-makers. Born on 27 March, 1963, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Quentin is a tall, gangly man1 and has a reputation as a script-writer and director of films with highly original, violent, and dialog2 -laden content. Wildly popular in the 1990s, Tarantino faded from the limelight, perhaps due to some over-exposure in the popular media, finally to return to the big screen with the recently-released first installment of "Kill Bill." But first, here's more about the man's history and notoriety.
Quentin rose to popularity with the release of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, which premiered at the Sundance Film festival and the then-unknown Tarantino became a small sensation in the UK and the cult film crowds of the USA. After his 1994 film Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival in 1995, and an Academy Award for the best original screenplay in 1994, everyone was talking about (and hearing about) Quentin Tarantino.
Much has been made of the fact that his movies contain (or seem to contain) a lot of violence. A lot of what Tarantino does involves violent content, it must be said. However, when one observes very carefully, one sees that Tarantino's films make numerous references to violence, as well as using violence as a means to tell a story, show the consequences of violence, and to even express the very moral that violence never solves anything but causes, ultimately, far more problems. Usually, Tarantino does not like to include the actual violence on camera in graphic detail,3 and he says he strongly detests both violence and drugs.
As one researcher points out:
QT gets a lot of flak because he's confident and brash and motor-mouthed, but I think his work stands up for itself. He has this weird way of writing completely unnaturalistic dialogue in a way that appears casual and improvised (though once you've seen a few of his films you kind of spot it a mile off ...). But I love the way his films are recognisably him without being too [similar]. The playing with narrative in all of his scripts, the way the camera is always so knowing (like the way it pulls away from the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, the on-screen square that Uma Thurman draws in Fiction and the way details are revealed in Jackie Brown at just the point you need to know them for it to be dramatic).
Quentin also has a tendency to appear in cameos or very small roles in most of his films, although he is usually among the first to say that he isn't the greatest actor in the world. He claims, with ambiguous conviction, that he was taught how to act by James Best, who to US audiences is much better known as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane from the infamous TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard."4
Quentin Tarantino's Biggest Films
Quentin has been directly involved in the writing and directing of at least eight5 films: My Best Friend's Birthday, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Four Rooms, Jackie Brown, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the very recently released Kill Bill (part 1, with part 2 to shortly follow). However, it can be argued that five of his more popular, successful, and critically acclaimed films form up a sort of core of his style: Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill.6
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney. Dry-as-dust Boston comedian Steven Wright makes a cameo appearance as a 1970s retro music radio show DJ,7 and Tarantino himself has a small role as a crook ("Mr. Brown") who dies early. Written and directed by Tarantino, with some brief radio dialog written by Roger Avary.
Plot: Six crooks attempt to pull off a diamond heist. After it goes wrong, the survivors regroup in a warehouse and discuss who set them up. The story is told by using a number of flashbacks, and Tarantino keeps an element of mystery to the film by never showing us the actual heist. A major characteristic of the film is Tarantino's very witty dialogue set right alongside a lot of implied gore and violence. Many viewers of the film have criticised it as being unnecessarily violent, but in fact very little violence actually seen on camera (with the notable exception of the incident with an ear and a razor blade). The vast majority of violence is implied or referred to by the actors without actually being seen.
A trademark dialog and character development method of Tarantino's is through the incredible amount of dialog he puts into his films, with the opening scene in a restaurant providing one of the most lasting first impressions ever achieved for a writer/director. From the opening sequence around a lunch table to a later scene involving assigned nicknames (to provide anonymity the crooks who pull off the heist given names based on colour - Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, Mr. Pink, Mr. Brown, etc), to scenes involving dialog between crooks and cops, it becomes plain that this is not a film for the easily offended. For those that are willing to put aside a little bit of sensitivity, however, they might find that underneath it's a solid and highly entertaining thriller with an excellent soundtrack.
Trivia tidbits: The woman in the car who is shot by Tim Roth's character was, in fact, the British-born actor's dialect coach for the film. Tim Roth has said he really wanted to "shoot" her since she was so hard on him developing a perfect, nondescript midwestern American accent. Several references are made to other movies, some of them Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1980s such as John Woo's "Yinghun Bunsik" (the black suits) and Ringo Lam's "Long hu feng yun" (plot elements). Tarantino has said he loves movies made in Hong Kong in that period, at the infamous Shaw Brothers studios, and is greatly influenced by their visual style and storytelling methods.8
True Romance (1993)
Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Rappaport, Saul Rubinek, and others.9 Written by Quentin Tarantino (with Roger Avary), and directed by Tony Scott.10 This script was sold by Tarantino to make money for filming Reservoir Dogs, though this film came out just after that one. Written with Roger Avary, the script for this film was originally part of a much longer script, the second half of which became the bulk of "Natural Born Killers."
Plot: Christian Slater plays Clarence, a comic-book lover who meets a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and falls in love with her. Slater and Arquette eventually steal $5 million worth of cocaine from her pimp (Gary Oldman), sparking a cross-country chase and the usual mayhem that always follows that sort of thing. A signature Tarantino-ism occurs at the end (Mexican standoff) when a roomful of guys wind up pointing guns at each other, waiting to see who shoots first. Other common Tarantino trademarks are in evidence again, including profanity, violence, and excitement. With a supporting cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, and Val Kilmer (as the ghost of Elvis), it is likely that one who enjoys good acting along with Tarantino's style will enjoy this film.
Though described by at least one viewer as "a good kick in the ass," there is something about this film that tends to keep it from being mentioned amongst Tarantino fans as their favorite, something that keeps critics from naming it first amongst Tarantino's films. To some, it might feel like a cheap imitation of Tarantino's work, or perhaps more accurately an incomlete idea of Tarantino's that never fully saw the light of day. There are so many similarities between this film and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (especially in dialog styles), that it might becomes painfully obvious to the viewer that this was, in fact, just a part of a much larger saga of crime stories as told in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (what happened to the other half of this script, in "Natural Born Killers," is another story entirely). Although highly entertaining, the fact that this was a part of something larger keeps the film from being a true Tarantino classic.11
Trivia tidbits: Quentin Tarantino sold the script for $50,000 which was the minimum amount of money that can be paid for a script at the time. Actor Tom Sizemore stars as a cop in both True Romance and its unofficial sister script, Natural Born Killers. The line, "from a diddled-eyed Joe to a damned if I know" is said by both Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) in True Romance and Mr. Orange (Harvey Keitel) in Reservoir Dogs.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Christopeher Walken, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, and Ving Rhames. Steve Buscemi and Tarantino make cameo appearences, the former being much more difficult to spot than the latter.
Plot: Three short stories from the underworld of an American city overlap. Jules (Samuel L Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are hitmen sent to retrieve a mysterious suitcase for their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is an aging boxer paid to throw his last fight and on the run from Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the middle of all of this, Vincent (Travolta) takes out Macellus Wallace's wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) for a night of entertainment and harrowing terror. Several of Tarantino's trademarks are evident: the plot is revealed through flashbacks, there's plenty of witty and crude dialog for character development, a restaurant scene, an incredible soundtrack, and a lot of nods to various films that the writer/director's favorite films.
Pulp Fiction is a movie that seems to inspire strong opinions for or against it - relatively few people have no opinion about it - which is in many circles considered a good reaction for a film to have. Notably, or perhaps notoriously, until the South Park movie came out, Pulp Fiction was the film with the most swearwords in it.12 An element of mystery is involved with the unknown contents of the briefcase collected by Travolta and Jackson, another Tarantino trademark.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its near-perfect marriage of music and mood setting. The opening riff of the legendary Dick Dale song, "Misirlou" heralds the film's swagger and style as if it were the Duke of Death coming to surf his way into the theater.13 The entire soundtrack is peppered with California surf rock as well as some very enjoyable and appropriate covers of such classic oldies as "Son of A Preacher Man," "You Never Can Tell," and "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon." Not to be forgotten, there is even a classic funk hit (Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie") that makes for a great counterpoint moment. There's a rape scene reminiscent of the 1972 film, "Deliverance," which might be a little hard to take for some viewers, but it allows for some of the most satisfying retribution (and classic lines) ever seen in a film.14
Trivia tidbits: The actress who plays the waitress in the coffee shop in the beginning (and the end) of the film is, in fact, the music consultant for the movie. Keep an eye out for Steve Buscemi, who makes a very brief cameo as Buddy Holly in the (completely ficticious) retro-restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim's. There are many links between this and Tarantino's first big hit, Reservoir Dogs - Jack Rabbit Slim's is mentioned in a commercial on the radio during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, the character Vincent Vega (Travolta) is the brother of Reservoir Dogs' Vic Vega (Michael Madsen), the character Lance is eating a bowl of Fruit Brute cereal (a recurring theme of Tarantino's, this is a discontinued breakfast cereal) which also made an appearnce in Reservoir Dogs, and finally the Big Kahuna Burger makes an appearance in both films. Not to be forgotten, the hapless bystander that is shot by Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) is in fact, the same dialog coach/actress that was shot by Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Stars: Pam Grier, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro, and Michael Bowen. Chris Tucker makes a cameo.
Plot: Flight Attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) regularly ferries money for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). He is planning to recieve $1/2 million from Jackie soon to retire after making a big deal. But after Jackie has to be bailed from jail and Ordell intially decides to kill her, Jackie begins to get other ideas. Quenten Tarantino wrote this movie based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Jackie Brown has been labelled by many as Tarantino's "worst" film, though such a view is necessarily handicapped by the incredible success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. This might be due to the fact that Tarantino never learned to make films the "professional way" from any single school of filmmaking. In his own words, Tarantino "didn't go to film school - I went to films." In light of that, it's easy to see other film genres being distilled down into each one of his films, and Jackie Brown is no exception. While the film has not reached the level of public acclaim and fandom as his previous works have, perhaps this is due to the specialized nature of the 1970s film homage that Jackie Brown represents.
There are, in addition, references throughout the film to other contemporary films that the various actors and actresses have been in, a real Quentin Tarantino trademark. Examples are: Michael Keaton's character is the same one he played in the unrelated 1998 film, "Out Of Sight." One of Samuel L. Jackson's lines is the same as lines he had in Pulp Fiction and 2000's "Shaft," and Jackson's lines about hand-washing appear in this film as well as Pulp Fiction and 1998's "The Negotiator." Sid Haig (the Judge) was also an unpleasant character in 1974's "Foxy Brown," also starring Pam Grier - and, incidentally, the inspiration for Tarantino choosing Pam to star as Jackie Brown.
Trivia tidbits: Look very carefully in the background during the the arraignment of Jackie Brown - that's actress Mira Sorvino's very small cameo. Sorvino was at one time dating Quentin Tarantino, and starred in such movies as Mighty Aphrodite and as Marylin Monroe in the US TV documentary about her. Besides that, there are the afore-mentioned film references, and the fact that Tarantino missed that Jackie was a white woman in the original book; he wrote the part specifically for Pam Grier without realizing the disparity, which eventually became something of a Tarantino-ist take on the entire story.
Kill Bill (2003-2004)
Stars: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Vivica Fox, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Michael Jai White, and Sonny Chiba (a legendary Japanese martial artist, actor, and choreographer).
Plot:The tagline for this film is "Uma Thurman will Kill Bill!" "The Bride" (Thurman),15 once a member in an all-female assassin group (the DIVAS, a [slightly inaccurate] acronym for "Deadly Viper Assassination Squad."), she is attacked at her wedding by "Bill" (Carradine) and the rest of the DIVAS and left for dead. Instead of dying, she ends up in a coma, wakes up five years later, and begins her revenge. The story is told in a "chapter" format, making for yet another example of non-linear storytelling by Tarantino.
Tarantino was so keen for Thurman to play The Bride that he held up production until her baby was born, which explains why this film was conceived on the set of "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, but took this long to make and release. Kill Bill will be released in two parts - the first was recently released in the USA in October of 2003, and the sequel16 to be released some five to eight weeks later (depending on which source one listens to). This was allowed (many say required) by Miramax studios in order to make the movie more manageble for audiences while avoiding cutting any of the story out. The film is allegedly three hours in length, and hence each installment will be about an even 90 minutes.
The film is extremely violent and graphic - it's hard to imagine any other film released by a major Hollywood production company with more blood in it than Kill Bill. However, this serves a point in expressing the nature of violence with swordplay and its inevitable consequences, although the excessiveness is more for homage to an older Chinese film genre than for any trademark of Tarantino's own style. Having said that, this film is likely to inspire (indeed, already has) an outcry amongst those who oppose such violence on many grounds. Again, ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide how this enhances or detracts from the quality of the film.
Trivia tidbits: Keep your eyes peeled for these recurring Tarantino trademarks: Red Apple cigarettes (a ficticious brand) in a poster ad, a shot from the trunk of a car, and multiple nods to other films. Although too many to list here, there are some obvious nods to Shaw Brothers films of Hong Kong cinema.17 Most of the film is an obvious homage made to the entire genres of Hong Kong martial arts movies, Japanese samurai movies, and their own special blend of violence and code of ethics and behavior. The film even goes to the extent of using some of the same actors in recurring roles (Sonny Chiba reprising his Hattori Hanzo role), and the exact same methods for special effects involving fake blood.18 Some references to other films include the suit that Uma Thurman wears (the same as one worn by Bruce Lee in 1978's "Game of Death"), the masks worn by the Crazy 88 gang are the same as those in "The Green Hornet" late 1960s TV series, and the Sheriff in El Paso is the same one as in "From Dusk Till Dawn." Theme music from "The Green Hornet" (played when The Bride arrives in Tokyo), 1968's "Twisted Nerve" (the spooky theme whistled by Daryl Hannah's character in the hospital), and from 1967's "Ironside" are heard in Kill Bill. More references exist, but may take repeated viewings for anyone to pick up, just another way Tarantino likes to reward fanatical viewers of his films.
Other Films Involving Quentin Tarantino
Natural Born Killers (1994)
Although this is perhaps one of the most infamous films of the 1990s made in the USA, Quentin Tarantino has virtually disowned the film, claiming deep dissatisfaction with how the story and script was changed by subsequent writers. However, Tarantino is still credited with having written the background story for the film. What is unknown, to the general public, is just how much of the remaining film is Tarantino's work and how much is someone else's. If one were to watch Natural Born Killers right after, say, Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, one might notice a much greater tendency towards actually filming violence and violent sequences instead of relying upon dialog and off-camera, inferred violence that are the hallmarks of Tarantino's work. It is perhaps ironic that a film made to criticise the purveyance and portrayal of violence in the media has been disowned by a filmmaker who is both one of the most oft-criticized for violence in his films as well as avowedly independent. In the end, the film was roundly criticized for its violent content, yet another ironic fact in and of itself.
Four Rooms (Segment: "The Man From Hollywood") (1995)
This film consists of four segments spliced together as a complete film. The four segments were written and directed as follows (in order of their appearance): "The Missing Ingredient" by Allison Anders, "The Wrong Man" by Alexandre Rockwell, "The Misbehavers" by Robert Rodriguez, and "The Man From Hollywood" by Quentin Tarantino. The film is really a situation comedy involving one poor bellhop (Tim Roth) having to deal with four separate, bizarre and/or uncomfortable situations at a fading-fast hotel on New Year's Eve in New York City. This film didn't receive as much critical praise as it perhaps could have had maybe the segments involved less slapstick comedy (if not slap-sex comedy), and more of the slick comedic style the directors can be capable of. Perhaps a biased opinion might state that the Tarantino and Rodriguez sequences tend to skew the other two, making them seem clumsy and out of place by comparison. In any event, as far as Tarantino fans are concerned, this film should be considered a must-have for completists only.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Although fellow auteur Robert Rodriguez directed this film, Quentin Tarantino collaborated with Robert Kurtzman for the story, executive produced, and starred in it (with George Clooney). Clooney and Tarantino are two brothers who kidnap a family and take them to a bar, which they quickly discover is infested with vampires. A difficult movie to judge next to Tarantino's other work, the film comes across as a confused mass of campy vampire gore and hellfire special effects. The story is surprising in places, in and of itself, but at times the viewer may find it hard to suspend belief and just have a good time. It must be noted at the very least that the dialog is not nearly up to Tarantino's benchmarks set in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The presence of Salma Hayek may well be the only redeeming feature of the film for many viewers (assuming one happens to like seeing Salma Hayek, that is), but the fun the actors are having is readily apparent (particlularly George Clooney in his feature film debut). This film, like many involving Quentin Tarantino, inspires two sorts of comments from viewers: "it's a load of indulgent crap!" or "it's super stylish, clever, and hip!" Both claims seem to have quite a lot of justification, so personal taste is what ultimately will draw the line here. It should be noted, however, that by this time there was a significant public backlash against Tarantino's widespread exposure in the film industry. The fact that Rodriguez and Tarantino seem to bring out the worst (or best) in each other cannot be overstressed in describing this film.
Other Trivia tidbits: Quentin has appeared on various television shows in the US, usually either as a guest on a variety or talk show or lampooning himself and his style. Perhaps most comically, however, he once played an Elvis impersonator in a 1988 episode of "The Golden Girls." He's also had a small role in the show "Alias" playing a character called McKenas Cole.
Unreleased or Upcoming Films
Tarantino has had some, even more peripheral involvement in other films besides those cited above. Some have never really seen the light of day, or are just semi-official details about his upcoming work. Tarantino's next release (officially) is the second part of "Kill Bill," which is to be released around February of 2004. Tarantino is scheduled to release his another new film, tentatively entitled "Inglorious Bastards," sometime in 2004 or 2005. Perhaps he's mounting a comeback after some time in the shadows and background of popular filmmaking (compared to his wild popularity in the early 1990s). How well this works with the general movie-going public is yet to be seen.
My Best Friend's Birthday (1987)
This movie was never really released or shown widely past a few hundred people in 1987, which hasn't stopped some determined movie fanatics from seeing what had been made of it so far. Well, to be technical, the film was completed, but the final reel was destroyed in a lab fire that broke out during editing. The rest of the movie is only about 40 minutes long, but can be purchased from specialty video stores if one is very dilligent. Although an interesting look at what Quentin Tarantino was capable of, something of a foreshadowing of what would be to come, most of the movie was recycled later as the script for True Romance.
Inglorious Bastards (2004)
All Quentin Tarantino is saying about this film in his announcement is that it will be about some WWII soldiers on their way to be executed, when they get some sort of second chance. Tarantino has described the soldiers as "Not your normal hero types that are thrown into a big deal in World War II." That's pretty much all the information about this film that there is at the time of writing this.