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Top Filmmaking Podcasts: Oscar® Winners & Nominees

The Indie Film Hustle Podcast has been blessed to have the opportunity to speak to many Oscar® winners and nominees. These craftsmen and women had amazing insight into what it takes to make it to the top of the filmmaking craft. Enjoy these remarkable conversations, and we hope to see you at the Oscar®, too, one day.

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Oliver Stone

Today on the show, I bring you one of the most influential and iconic writers/directors in the history of cinema, three-time Oscar® winner Oliver Stone. Throughout his legendary career, Stone has served as a writer, director, and producer on various films, documentaries, and television movies. His films have been nominated for forty-two Oscars® and have won twelve.


Richard Linklater

We are joined by indie film icon and Oscar® nominated writer/director Richard Linklater. Richard was one of the filmmakers who helped launch the independent film movement we know today with his classic 1991 indie film Slacker. As a bonus, we will dive into not only the extraordinary career of Richard Linklater but also that of collaborator and longtime friend writer/director Katie Cokinos, the filmmaker behind the film I Dream Too Much. 


Edward Zwick 

We have been on a major roll lately on the podcast, and this episode keeps that going in a big way. Today’s guest on the show is Oscar® Winning writer, producer, and director Edward Zwick. Edward made his big shift from his childhood passion for theater to filmmaking after working as a PA for Woody Allen in France on the set of Love and Death.


John Sayles

John Sayles is one of America’s best-known independent filmmakers, receiving critical acclaim for films including Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996), and Men with Guns (1997). He’s also written screenplays for mainstream films such as Passion Fish (1992), Limbo (1999), and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) and did a draft of Jurassic Park (1993) for Steven Spielberg.


Neill Blomkamp

Ever since I saw District 9 and learned of all the mythical stories behind the short film becoming a feature, I have been a massive fan of today’s guest, Neill Blomkamp. Though Neill is here today to talk about his new sci-fi horror fiction film, Demonic, we also chatted up about his other films that have been successful over the years.


Taylor Hackford

Sitting down with one of the big names in this business this week was a really cool opportunity. I am honored to have on the show today, Oscar® winning director, producer, and screenwriter, Taylor Hackford.

Taylor’s has directed films like An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), White Nights (1985), Proof of Life (2000), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Against All Odds (1984), Parker (2013), the iconic Ray Charles biopic, Ray of 2004, and The Comedian (2016) just to name a few. He also has served as president of the Directors Guild of America and is married to the incomparable acting legend Helen Mirren.


Sean Baker

Sean Baker is a writer, director, producer, and editor who has made seven independent feature films over the course of the past two decades. His most recent film was the award-winning The Florida Project (2017) which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was released by A24 in the U.S. Among the many accolades the film received — including an Oscar nomination for Willem Dafoe for Best Supporting Actor — Sean was named Best Director by the New York Film Critics Circle.

His previous film, Tangerine (2015) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won an Independent Spirit and two Gotham Awards. Starlet (2012) was the winner of the Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award, and his previous two features, Take Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008), were both nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.


John Lee Hancock

I have an epic conversation in store for you all today. Our guest is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and filmmaker, John Lee Hancock. While working as a lawyer by day back in 1986, John moonlighted as a screenwriter, writing script after script. His spec script, A Perfect World, caught the eye of Steven Spielberg and was eventually directed by Clint Eastwood

Hancock’s famous five-year hiatus comeback film, The Blind Side, an adaptation of Micheal Lewis’s 2006 book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game yield and performed outstandingly. The film received countless major awards nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and a win for Best Actress for Sandra Bullock.

The Blind Side is the story of Michael Oher, a homeless and traumatized boy who became an All-American football player and first-round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family. The Blind Side went on to make $309.2 million internationally on a $29 million budget. Not too bad.


Simon Kinberg

Today on the show, we have Oscar® and two-time Emmy® Nominee Simon KinbergHe has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, having written and produced projects for some of the most successful franchises in the modern era. His films have earned more than seven billion dollars worldwide.  

Kinberg graduated from Brown University and received his MFA from Columbia University Film School, where his thesis project was the original script, “Mr and Mrs Smith.” The film was released in 2005, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. 


Kevin MacDonald

On the show today is academy award-winning documentary and film director and producer Kevin Macdonald. He is one of few directors who seamlessly dance the line of film and documentary. He directed documentaries like Whitney (2018), the crowdsourced documentary – Life in a Day (2011), and Marley (2012), among others.

He is famously known for his 2006 drama film, The Last King of Scotland, starring Oscar-winning best actor Forest Whitaker. Kevin has made a huge name for himself and his work over his 27 years in the industry – dabbling in commercials, films, and documentaries.

As a boy, his granddad, Emeric Pressburger, a legendary filmmaker in the 1940s, lit his passion for filmmaking. When his grandfather passed, Kevin wrote a biography in 1994 about his grandad’s life journey, titled, ‘ The Life and Death of a Screenwriter’, which he later made into a documentary, ‘The Making of an Englishman’ (1995). This was the start of his becoming a documentary maker.

In 1999 he directed the Box office hit and Oscar-winning documentary, One Day in September, which is about the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre, featuring a lengthy interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, the last known survivor of the Munich terrorists.

This project catapulted his career big time. He then made the adventure-docudrama, Touching the Void, another critically acclaimed film that won Best British Film at the 2003 BAFTA. The true story of two climbers and their perilous journey up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.


Reinaldo Marcus Green

Reinaldo Marcus Green is a writer, director, and producer. He most recently directed the critically acclaimed Warner Brothers film King Richard starring Will Smith. The film is nominated for Best Picture at the Critics Choice Awards and was named one of the Top 10 Films of the Year by both AFI, the National Board of Review, and an Academy Award® nomination for Best Picture.


SCREENWRITERS

Eric Roth

This week, I sat down with one of Hollywood’s most legendary and successful screenwriters/producers, Oscar® Winner Eric Roth. Over a 50+ years career, he’s well-known for writing or producing films like Forrest Gump. A Star is Born, Mank, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Munich, Ali, and the list goes on.


Jordan Peele

Get ready to have your mind blown! I’ll be releasing a 3-Part Limited Series of conversations between the legendary screenwriter James V. Hart, the writer of Hook, Contact, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, and Tomb Raider, just to name a few, and some of the top screenwriters in the game.

First up is the screenwriter that took the world by storm with his Oscar-Winning screenplay Get Out, Jordan Peele. If you have been living under a rock for the past few years, here is what the film is about.

This was recorded before Jordan’s next hit film, Us, was released. Listening to these two masters discuss character, plot, theme, and more is a rare treat. It’s like being a fly on the wall. When you are done listening to this conversation, you can read some of Jordan’s screenplay here.


Damien Chazelle

Today on the show, we have Damien Chazelle, the Oscar® Winning director and screenwriter of La La Land. He burst onto the scene with his debut film Whiplash. The film is about a young musician (Teller) struggling to become a top jazz drummer under a ruthless band conductor (Simmons).

James and Damien discuss how he wrote and structured La La Land and much more. Enjoy this rare conversation between James V. Hart and Damien Chazelle.


PRODUCERS

Jason Blum

I’m excited to talk to a fellow low-budget independent filmmaker today. Granted, he does low-budget films on a completely different level than I or most people do at this point. But if we are going to talk about budget filmmaking, it is only fitting to have expert horror film and television producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.

That is a testament to his company’s high-quality production. Blumhouse is known for pioneering a new model of studio filmmaking: producing high-quality micro-budget films and provocative television series. They have produced over 150 movies and television series with theatrical grosses amounting to over $4.8 billion.


Chris Moore

Every once in a while, I have a conversation on this show that blows my mind; this episode did just that. Today on the show, we have Oscar® Nominated producer Chris Moore. He produced films like Good Will Hunting, American Pie, Waiting, The Adjustment Bureau, and Manchester by the Sea. Chris’ profile grew from his appearance as the producer on the early 2000’s filmmaker reality show Project: Greenlight.

After graduating from college, Chris Moore moved to Los Angeles after working in a major agency’s mailroom; he got promoted to a literary agent. He championed projects like The Stoned Age, PCU, Airheads, Last Action Hero, and My Girl. 

When ICM acquired Chris’ agency, he left and became an indie film producer. With some friends, he raised the budget to produce the indie film Glory Daze, which starred an unknown Matt Damon. Damon turned down the leading role in favor of paid work on another paid project but introduced him to his friend Ben Affleck, who ultimately starred in Glory Daze.

Afterward, Affleck and Damon wrote the screenplay for what would become the Oscar® winning Good Will Hunting, and they asked Chris to help them produce the film that Gus Van Sant directed.

Chris and I had a remarkable conversation about how to produce films in today’s eco-system. We also discuss what it’s like working in the studio system, some of his issues with the system, how filmmakers are treated, and so much more. This an EPIC 2-hour conversation full of knowledge and truth bombs, so prepare to take some notes.

Enjoy my conversation with Chris Moore.


Gary W. Goldstein

Today, we are hearing from one of the cultural influencers of the 90s film industry, and that’s non-other than Gary Goldstein, the Oscar Nominated producer of the iconic rom-com Pretty Woman, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts.

Pretty Woman was most of your introduction to Gary’s work, but mine was Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. I know. After all these years, the title still makes me chuckle. Years later, I would reference the title to people. And in case you were curious, Gary goes into the movie title origin story in this interview.

Gary films have generated well over one billion dollars – consistent box office hits. Pretty Woman, for example, grossed $463.4 million – more than 30 times it’s budget. After the massive success of Pretty Woman, Gary collaborated once more with his filmmaking partner, writer Jonathan Lawton to produce the action thriller, Under Seige, in 1992. Like Pretty Woman, this too performed successfully at the box office and critically – including an Academy Award nomination. An ex-Navy Seal turned cook is the only person who can stop a group of terrorists when they seize control of a U.S. battleship.

In 2013 he authored Conquering Hollywood: The Screenwriter’s Blueprint for Career Success, which is a compilation of strategies to help anyone, whether looking to sell a spec script, option a screenplay, land a writing assignment, and get hired, attract an agent or manager of your dreams…or get a producer to take a meeting with you. Gary blessed us with knowledge bombs in this interview, including tips on entrepreneurship and film as a business. Enjoy my conversation with Gary Goldstein.


David Permut

The first interviewee in my Sundance Film Festival Interview Series is legendary producer David Permut. David has produced almost 40 feature films in the course of his career. From Blind Date and Dragnet to Face/Off and the Oscar® Nominated Hacksaw Ridge. His new film, The Polka King starring Jack Black,  just got released on Netflix.

Enjoy my interview with David Permut.


Marshall Herskovitz

Our guest today is producer, director, and screenwriter Marshall Herskovitz. Many of his production projects have been in partnership with his long-time filmmaking collaborator, Edward Zwick, whose films he’s produced and written half of. Their decades-long filmmaking partnership was launched as co-creators of the 1987 TV show, ThirtySomething.


ACTORS

Billy Crystal 

Some performers impact your life without you even knowing it and today’s guest fits that bill. On the show, we have comedic genius, multi-award-winning actor, writer, producer, director, and television host, Billy Crystal. We’ve seen Billy’s versatile work across all areas of the entertainment world, stand-up, improv, Broadway, behind and in front of the camera, feature films, television, live stages like SNL, and animated movies.


Edward James Olmos

Our guest today is 80s star, multiple-award film and theater actor, and activist Edward James Olmos. Olmos’s roles in films or TV shows like Stand and DeliverBattlestar Galactica, broadway musical and film Zoot SuitBlade Runner as detective Gaff, and many others are some of the most memorable of all time, and he’s still dominating our screens. While I could not resist discussing his iconic roles over several decades, we mainly discussed Olmos’s new must-see film, Chasing Wonders.


Robert Forster

This week we are joined by legendary actor Robert Forster. Robert has been a working actor for decades, appearing in classic films like Medium Cool, the iconic John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye80’s action classic Delta Force (love me a good 80’s action flix), and Disney’s The Black Hole (one of my favorite films growing up).

He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1997 for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which he credits with reviving his career. Since then, Robert has been on fire in the second half of his career, appearing in The DescendantsLike MikeMulholland Drive; Me, Myself, & IreneLucky Number Slevin and Firewall, just to name a few.


CINEMATOGRAPHERS & PRODUCTION DESIGNERS

Jeff Cronenweth A.S.C.

Today on the show, we have Oscar® nominee Jeff Cronenweth A.S.C. 

Cronenweth worked as a loader and 2nd assistant before graduating high school and then enrolled in film school at USC, where he studied cinematography. Among his classmates were John Schwartzman and Robert Brinkmann, as well as [director] Philip Joanou.

After graduation, Cronenweth resumed working with his father, joining a core camera team that included operators John Toll and Dan Lerner and 1st assistants Bing Sokolsky and Art Schwab.

Jeff worked with their father, Jordan Cronenweth (cinematographer most notable for Blade Runner), as a camera loader and second assistant camera during high school, working his way up to the first assistant camera and then camera operator until the mid-1990s.

Moving up to the first assistant, Cronenweth began working with Toll, who was just beginning his work as a cameraman, and veteran Sven Nykvist.

David Fincher’s masterpiece Fight Club was the first major motion picture where he acted as a DP. Other notable feature films on which he worked as a DP are One Hour Photo, K-19: The Widowmaker, Down With Love, The Social Network, Hitchcock, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl.


Dean Cundey A.S.C

Today, my guest is Oscar® nominated prolific cinematographer, accomplished photographer, and member of the American Society of Cinematographers, Dean Cundey A.S.C.

Dean rose to fame for extraordinary cinematography in the 1980s and 1990s. His early start was working on the set of Halloween.  Dean is credited as director of photography on five Back To The Future films and Jurassic Park.

Cundey holds over one hundred and fifty cinematography & photography credits for movies, television, and short films. That is no small feat in this business. The man has stayed busy and booked since graduation from film school. That kind of consistency in Hollywood is only doable with extreme persistence and excellence.

One of the many things he did to stay prepared and on top of his craft was investing in building himself a ‘super van’ or one couple call it a cinematographer’s heaven that contained every equipment (cameras, editings tools, etc.) required to help him get work get and do work easily.
We also talk more about Dean joining The Book of Boba and The Mandalorian crew.


Russell Carpenter A.S.C

I can’t tell you how excited I am about today’s guest. I sat down with the legendary and Oscar® Winning Cinematographer Russell Carpenter A.S.C. Russell has been shooting blockbusters for over 40 years and has shot films like Ant-Man,  xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Charlie’s Angels, The Negotiator, True Lies, Monster-in-Law and classic 90’s action flicks like Hard Target, The Perfect Weapon, and Death Warrant. He just finished Avatar 2: The Way of Water.

He won the Oscar® for his cinematography on the second highest-grossing film of all time, Titanic. We go down the rabbit hole on shooting Titanic, working with James Cameron, crazy Hollywood stories, how he approaches each project, and much more. This episode is a treasure chest of behind-the-scenes stories and cinematic techniques from the highest levels of Hollywood.


Erik Messerschmidt A.S.C

Award-winning director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, ASC, has a natural eye for arresting and spellbinding images, thriving in a role that allows him to combine his love of art, craft, and science. Recently, he lensed Devotion for director J.D. Dillard, based on the real-life story of a Black naval officer who befriends a white naval officer during the Korean War, with both becoming heroes for their selfless acts of bravery.

He also is currently shooting Michael Mann’s biographical film Ferrari, starring Adam Driver, Shailene Woodley, and Penélope Cruz, and recently completed shooting David Fincher’s The Killer, starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton.


Janty Yates

Today on the show, we have Oscar® winning costume designer Janty Yates. Janty Yates has had a collaborative relationship with Ridley Scott since the great success of Gladiator in 2000, for which she won an Academy Award®, one of the eight Oscars® garnered by the film.

Ultimate Guide To Ti West And His Directing Techniques

TI WEST’S STUDENT WORKS (2001)

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As an avid read of independent filmmaking blogs and news sites, I was first exposed to indie horror director Ti West around 2011, when his feature THE INKEEPERS was making the rounds at film festivals.  He was praised for his old-fashioned aesthetic, and for making scary movies that were actually artful and high quality.

I became a firm believer in West after watching THE INKEEPERS and finding it to be one of the most energizing horror films I’d seen in years.  That impression was further reinforced by watching his 2009 feature THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and finding it to also be a brilliantly crafted film.  As a filmmaker with the grand majority of his career still ahead of him, West may seem an odd choice for a retrospective essay series such as this one.

He really only has a few high-profile features to his name, and even then he hasn’t caused a significantly large ripple in the film community yet.  However, with each film he makes, his profile grows a little more, marking him as a director to watch.  His commitment to bringing the genre back from the uninspired dregs of such studio horror franchises as the SAW series or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is both refreshing and promising.

As his career grows, he’ll almost certainly become our preeminent director of scary content, redefining horror for a whole new generation.

Born in Delaware in 1980, West is one of the few working directors that is close to me in age, so thusly, he belongs to my generation of filmmakers: old enough to remember the days of VCRs and video cassettes, but young enough that we’ve always had access to cheap digital video cameras.  As such, a lot of us have been making films quite economically from a very early age.

We were also the first generation of filmmakers to directly benefit from online video and the rise of Youtube, which allowed us to distribute our films directly to fans without the need for conventional theatrical releases or film festivals.  West’s formative years were no doubt spent watching and re-watching videocassettes of horror classics until the tapes wore out.  The fuzzy, lo-fi aesthetic of the format played a huge role in influencing his own.

He studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he found himself under the tutelage of noted indie director Kelly Reichardt (WENDY AND LUCY (2008), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)).  From her, he learned the value of minimalism, resourcefulness, and conviction of vision.

It was his relationship with Reichardt that led to his internship at Glass Eye Pix, run by director/producer/actor Larry Fessenden.  Fessenden had starred in Reichardt’s debut feature RIVER OF GRASS (1994) and had since carved out a niche for himself as a producer of grindhouse genre exploitation films in the vein of Roger Corman.  Fessenden took an active interest in his talented young intern, and agreed to executive produce his first few features, bringing West some instant indie cred.

While he was at SVA in 2001, West completed three short works titled PREY, INFESTED, and THE WICKED.  PREY appears to be the only of these shorts that is publicly available, so I only have that go off on in exploring West’s first forays behind the camera.  PREY concerns two young men who are chased through snowy woods by a bloodthirsty creature.

It’s a pretty standard horror story, with the bulk of the action focusing on the protagonists evading the unspecified monster.  What it lacks in story, PREY makes up for in execution— West’s confidence behind the camera is already apparent.

PREY was shot on 16mm film, as were his other two student shorts, so the film is naturally constrained to a square 4:3 frame.  The cinematography by West himself is unadorned, with the young director hand-operating his camera and employing zooms for dramatic effect.  He takes a lot of visual cues from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), like the woodsy setting and handheld camera shakiness but he also employs his own visual language with the monster, giving its POV an eerie, supernatural feel with a monochrome negative filter.

We only see the Monster in extreme close-ups, its snapping jaws most resembling a wolf.  Even then, West knew that the key to effective horror is that our imaginations can conjure up something far scarier than what he could realize on-screen.  PREY also shows West’s affinity for immersive sound design, an aspect on which most horror films live or die.

Despite the lo-fi nature of the cinematography, PREY comes off as pretty polished thanks to a high quality sound mix.

In his student films, we can already see West’s defining characteristics emerging.  His influences and inspirations are incorporated into his work in the form of old school techniques and suspense.  Make no mistake, PREY is very much a student film, much like the subpar shorts I saw in my own days as a film student at Emerson College, but it also has a distinct confidence behind it.

Without being able to see THE WICKED or INFESTED, it’s still clear that West knows what he’s doing, and that he already possesses the skills that will make his feature work stand out from the pack.


THE ROOST (2005)

These days, it’s extremely rare that an internship will lead to a full-time job.  It’s rarer still, as an aspiring filmmaker, for an internship to lead directly to your first professional directing effort.  However, that’s what happened with director Ti West, who interned under producer/actor Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix.

Fessenden was impressed by West’s student films, so when West pitched him a feature idea about a pack of killer bats called THE ROOST, Fessenden was quick to come onboard as executive producer.  Released in 2005 with intentions as a modest, low-budget throwback to cheesy horror films from the 1980’s, THE ROOST exceeded all expectations.  West’s confident direction propelled it to a warm reception at various film festivals, effectively launching his career as a feature filmmaker worth watching.

THE ROOST follows four friends driving through dark woods en route to a Halloween wedding, when suddenly a renegade bat surprises them and causes the car to swerve into a ditch.  Unable to free the car, the friends set off into the night to search for help.  They come across a dilapidated barn and take shelter from the elements, but it’s not long until they discover that they’ve wandered directly into the bats’ roost, and their bite has the power to turn the bitten into bloodthirsty zombies.

One of the film’s peculiar quirks is the use of a framing device that resembles those late-night horror movie presentations introduced by a ghoulish host.  West’s fictional show, which he calls Frightmare Theatre, places the macabre host inside of a chintzy, gothic castle and takes time out of THE ROOST’s narrative so that he can crack blackly humorous jokes.

This bookending conceit boasts the film’s one recognizable face, in the form of Tom Noonan (famous for his portrayal of The Tooth Fairy in Michael Mann’s classic MANHUNTER (1986).  Noonan is pitch perfect as the droll, Vincent Price-esque Master of Ceremonies, his naturally-gangly physicality adding to the cheesy spookiness on display.  Securing the services of Noonan was THE ROOST’s ultimate coup, as his name brought a great deal of legitimacy to West’s efforts.

The cast inside of THE ROOST’s main narrative doesn’t fare as well, unfortunately.  West casts a quartet of unknowns (Karl Jacob, Vanessa Horneff, Sean Reid, and Will Horneff) that are most likely friends of his from film school or from local auditions.  The characters are standard horror archetypes: the bookish nerd, the sassy girl, the stubborn stoner, and the virtuous alpha male.

Not a lot is required of the actors other than to scream and run on cue, which to be fair, they all do effectively.  Otherwise, the performances are wooden and uninspired.  There’s a reason why none of them broke out along with West in the wake of the film’s success.  On the brighter side, Fessenden himself appears towards the end in a cameo as a tow-truck driver attacked by the flock of bats.

Of the filmmakers in my generation, West is unique in that he mostly shoots on film.  Since he’s also shot a feature on video, I don’t think he necessarily prefers film to video, but I do think his old-fashioned aesthetic demands film because video can’t replicate it (at least it couldn’t when THE ROOST was made).

West is a capable cinematographer in his own right, but he’s probably like me in that his shooting on actual film tests the limits of his skills when he’s also directing.  The mechanics and mathematic calculations inherent in film is best left to a dedicated cinematographer, so West entrusts the Super 16mm photography to DP Eric Robbins.

The aesthetic of THE ROOST is relatively unadorned, with the majority of camerawork being handheld.  Robbins’ lighting setup is low-key, with lurid colors similar to the carnival-esque aesthetic of Rob Zombie’sHOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003).  It embraces the lo-fi natures of 16mm film, creating a similar look to the heyday of VHS horror.

The color red is used specifically for effect, popping out of the darkness and flashed in gory freeze frames.  The Frighthouse Theatre segment gets its own particular look, with black and white photography filtered to resemble an old TV broadcast.  Production Designer David Bell populates the set with loads of cheesy gothic objects and dressing, completing West’s tongue-in-macabre-cheek vision.

West also incorporates storytelling elements whose influence comes from unexpected places, like Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997).  Three quarters of the way through the film, the story abruptly ends with the surviving characters giving up and accepting their fate.  Noonan’s unhappy host returns, expressing his disapproval of the ending, so he actually rewindsthe film and plays it back to show the alternate, definitive ending.  Haneke did the same thing in his film, toying with his audience by presenting false hope only to snatch defeat from the jaws of triumph.

Composer Jeff Grace also received a modest breakout with THE ROOST, having previously assisted Howard Shore in his work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY for Peter Jackson and GANGS OF NEW YORK for Martin Scorsese.  He crafts an ominous, discordant suite of cues where shrieking string instruments evoke the terror of killer bats.

He also uses a gothic organ in the Frighmare Theatre scenes that further lends to the intended cheesiness.  Diagetically, West incorporates a few underground punk songs into the mix, giving us a little view into his own particular musical tastes.  The sound mix as a whole is incredibly strong for a film this low-budget.  Graham Reznick serves as the sound designer, turning in what would be the first of many mixes he’d create for West over the years.

THE ROOST immediately differentiates itself from other indie horror films because of its old-school aesthetic.  While most directors of our generation are trying to make slick, glossy horror films with digital cameras, West is appropriating the look of a by-gone era and making it his own.  There’s a distinct charm in his approach, a palpable soul.

In taking this old-school approach, the evidence of West’s craft and direction becomes more visible.  Filmed mainly in West’s native Delaware, THE ROOST is the first appearance of a peculiar signature of West’s, namely that the story revolves around a singular locale.  This signature may be borne out of the needs of low-budget indie filmmaking where the locations budget is sorely lacking, but inTHE ROOST, West uses it to his advantage to paint a compelling portrait of the abandoned barn in which our characters take refuge.

THE ROOST is stuffed with references to various non-filmic Halloween-time media traditions, like spooky radio shows and the aforementioned Frightmare Theatre presentation.  It’s difficult to tell how much—if any—inspiration is sourced from Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, which was a similarly old-fashioned horror jaunt that premiered only two years prior to production on THE ROOST.

Knowing their shared affinity for 80’s horror, it’s unlikely that West didn’t like Zombie’s film—which makes the similarities to Zombie’s own debut hard to ignore.  For example, both films open with the cheesy, late-night Frightmare Theatre conceit.

THE ROOST leveraged Fessenden’s name to draw attention to itself during its South by Southwest festival premiere.  But once West filled out the auditorium, attention shifted directly on him, with several critics and horror blogs naming THE ROOST as one of the best films of the year.  Now, THE ROOST isn’t a great film by any stretch of the imagination.

It’s a serviceable entry in the genre, mostly notable for that fact that it is West’s debut.  His direction shows the signs of a young filmmaker, frequently indulging in awkward, unnecessary exposition.  But with his effective direction of the horror sequences and convincing visual effects, West is able to hit where it really counts.  The film was eventually picked up for distribution by Showtime—quite the feat for any aspiring filmmaker.  With the success of THE ROOST, West had staked his territory in the genre and established himself as a director to watch.


TRIGGERMAN (2007)

Director Ti West enjoyed the modest success of his feature debut THE ROOST (2005), but quickly found himself languishing back in the same obscurity as his peers while he was trying to get his next project off the ground.  After about two years, West approached his executive producer and mentor Larry Fessenden with an idea for a film that he could shoot down and dirty with little money, about a group of friends hunted by a sniper in the woods.

He pitched it as a subversion of the “hunters become the hunted” subgenre, but made in such a realistic way that the banality of key moments could go by without audiences barely registering.  West based his idea off a purportedly true story (I call bullshit), and convinced Fessenden to finance and produce the film.

With $10,000 in hand and seven days to shoot, West ventured once again into the woods of Delaware and shot his second feature, TRIGGER MAN (2007).

The story concerns three old friends who get together and head out of Manhattan for a weekend hunting trips in the woods. We can tell they’re old friends because they’re so stylistically different from each other that the only way they’d be friends is if they went way, way back.  Sean (THE ROOST’s Sean Reid) is about to get married and dresses like he just scored a shopping spree from Abercrombie & Fitch.

His friends, Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) and Ray (Ray Sullivan) are still in an adolescent, grungy, punk phase and lead seemingly aimless lives focused on getting drunk, stoned, and laid.  What promises to be a relaxing weekend of camping and hunting gives way to terror when the trio is attacked by an unseen sniper that’s been relentlessly stalking them.

Keeping true to his minimalist approach, West keeps his cast at a bare minimum, having them use their actual names as their character names.  He once again directs Reid, who previously played the stubborn stoner in THE ROOST, and gives him a character in TRIGGER MAN that’s the polar opposite.

The character of Sean, as played by Reid, is rich, well-groomed/dressed, and is clearly leaving his two old friends behind as he climbs the social ladder of life.  This adds a degree of simmering tension with Cunningham and Sullivan, the two greasy punk types.  Cunningham emerges as the unlikely protagonist of TRIGGER MAN, making for one of the more unconventional leads in recent memory (what with his unpleasant mullet and, frankly, thuggish countenance).

I took this as another sign of West’s unfettered bravery and confidence in his craft despite his early age.  The fact that we come to care about this conventionally un-savory character by the end is perhaps West’s most substantial accomplishment in the entire film.  And like THE ROOST, Fessenden himself appears in a cameo at the very end as the sniper’s henchman who ends up on the wrong side of Reggie’s gun barrel.

What’s immediately apparent upon watching TRIGGER MAN is how starkly different it looks compared to THE ROOST– so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking West made the former first as a shoestring feature long before his 2005 breakout.  West slimmed down his crew considerably by also acting as the Director Of Photography and shooting on digital video with primarily natural lighting.

He opts for an untreated, unfiltered, inherently “video” aesthetic, letting the natural earth tones of his location dominate his muddy color palette.  This allows the bright orange of hunting vests and the visceral crimson of gore to really pop out and jar the audience.  West shoots almost entirely handheld, reveling in slow, quiet stretches of observational camerawork that’s only broken by in-camera rack zooms.

The zooms themselves have no motivation or logic behind it, other than making the camera itself a living, breathing participant.  It also echoes the visual sensation of acquiring a target through a sniper scope.  West chose the forested Delaware location because he grew up in the area, and could secure a singular park permit to shoot anywhere he pleased, thus wringing as much production value as he could out of the concept.

Jeff Grace once again collaborates with West to create the score, crafting an ominous, pulsing energy that propels his ambient soundscapes.  It’s an effective and perfectly serviceable score, but nothing truly stand-out.  West also peppers in several underground hardcore songs for a punkish vibe that reflects the musical sensibilities of his protagonists.

The unglamorous, amateur nature of West’s video aesthetic is bolstered by Graham Reznick’s accomplished sound design, proving the old age that sound is instrumental in the audience’s perception of a film.  If it sounds good, they’re much more adept to watch something that may not be quite up to par, visually.

West’s aesthetic continues to be influenced by the heyday of 1980’s VHS chillers.  While utilizing the relatively new medium of video to shoot TRIGGER MAN, his dedication to the old-fashioned ways is reflected in, among other things, the yellow, vintage font of his titles.  The action of the story occurs around a singular structure, which is another recurring trope within West’s filmography.

In THE ROOST, it was an abandoned barn, and in TRIGGER MAN it manifests as an abandoned factory in the middle of the woods.  Really, the main deviation from West’s style is his decision to shoot on video, as he has shown himself to be a staunch advocate for film-based acquisition as his career has progressed.

West’s second feature turns out to be a taut, surprisingly entertaining little thriller.  TRIGGER MAN has a few flaws in logic indicative of a young filmmaker at the helm, like the main character completely not once calling for help despite the working cell phone in his pocket.  Such flaws only amount to minor quibbles, and ultimately the film premiered to a warm reception at South by Southwest, further reinforcing West’s reputation as a director of finely-crafted, old-fashioned thrillers.

Soon enough, West found himself in the company of like-minded filmmakers in the SXSW social circle, like mumblecore king Joe Swanberg and splatter master Eli Roth.  But it was his friendship with Roth specifically that would lead to his next project—and his first major studio film.


CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009)

My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant at Lionsgate Entertainment in Santa Monica.  On my first day, I had a lot of downtime, so I delved into the script library and, out of pure boredom, chose to read director Eli Roth’s early draft of CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER.  It was as awful as I expected.

I only mention this because it was my experience with Lionsgate and approach to filmmaking that gives me some insight into the subject of this essay.  The movies that came out of Lionsgate at the time were juvenile, uninspiring works of commerce whose story elements were coldly calculated by the marketing department to wring the maximum amount of money from fiercely loyal niche groups.

It explains why Lionsgate is such a successful studio- they have a theoretically great business model, but their movies are devoid of soul or any real cultural value.  Because of this single-minded drive for profit, a lot of filmmakers get burned when they work with them.  It happened to director Ti West when Roth, his friend and the helmer of the first CABIN FEVER in 2002, personally nominated him to direct the sequel and helped to set West up at Lionsgate with his first major studio gig.

Executives loved West’s unconventional take on the concept, which had already seen two rejected screenplays previously, and when shooting began in 2007, he was more or less left to his own devices.  But then, something went seriously wrong in the editing stages, and these same executives unhappily ripped the film out of West’s control.

Subsequent re-edits sullied his original vision, so he campaigned to have his name removed from the credits altogether.  However, because he wasn’t a member of the DGA, he wasn’t privy to the same Alan Smithee privileges that a more-established director would have.  His only other option was to publicly disown the film, so it languished on Lionsgate’s shelf until it was quietly released in 2009 to critical pans and dismal box office performance.

CABIN FEVER 2 takes place immediately after the events of Roth’s original film (which I never saw, so I have no idea what transpired there).  The flesh-eating disease upon which the series centers itself around spreads from a rural camp setting to a local private high school.  John (Noah Segan) is your typical, nerdy virgin character who wants to ask his crush to the prom.

The only problem is his crush, a girl-next-door type named Cassie (Alexi Wasser), is part of the popular clique and already has a boyfriend.  Meanwhile, the skin-eating disease quietly spreads amongst the population until prom night, where it rages fiercely inside the contained school grounds.  Now, John must fight to save himself and the girl he likes from a certain, gruesome death that they can’t begin to comprehend.

As far as teen horror goes, the story has been done to death.  There’s nothing original for West to play with, so he tries injecting a great deal of humor into the proceedings and embracing the inherent absurdity of his premise.

CABIN FEVER 2 makes no bones about what kind of movie it is: a disposable adolescent gross-out flick.  As such, it can skate by with a cast of unknowns to save a couple bucks.  I won’t even mention Rider Strong’s presence—he’s in so little of the film he was better off staying home.  It’s the first of many red flags in the film, because you know you’re in trouble when the biggest name actor the film has is killed off in the first minute.

As John, Segan is handsome in a geeky sort of way.  You could see him being the type of nerdy dude who comes into his own in college, but with this disease running rampant, prospects that he’ll even make it far that look pretty dim.  Alexi Wasser plays Cassie, the popular girl with shades of geekiness of her own.  The true highlights of this film, however, lie in the supporting cast and cameos.

Michael Bowen plays the toupee’d, disgruntled principal while Mark Borchardt of AMERICAN MOVIE (1999) infamy and 30 ROCK’s Judah Friedlander make memorable appearances.  West’s producer and mentor Larry Fessenden shows up as Bill, a tow truck driver whose graphic death in a diner alerts the townspeople to the presence of the flesh-eating disease.

CABIN FEVER 2 marks the first of several collaborations between West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett.  West takes the opportunity of major studio funding to shoot on 35mm film, amplifying his cinematic conceits with the panoramic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  It’s hard to tell who exactly is responsible, but the visual presentation of CABIN FEVER 2 is seriously messed up.

I can’t tell if the color timing, with its super-crushed blacks and gauzy cream highlights, is intentional or not.  The overall color palette skews towards warm autumnal colors, which seems odd given the film is supposed to take place in the spring.  But the true elephant in the room is the warped nature of the image, which looks like it stems from either a strange spherical aberration on the camera lens or editor Janice Hampton seriously screwed up her media management in the cutting room.  There’s no way it’s intentional.

Ultimately, CABIN FEVER 2 just might be the most vile–looking film I’ve ever seen.  I get that it’s supposed to be exaggerated body horror, but it goes too far several times.  I tend to have an iron stomach when it comes to gore, but even I was left feeling queasy for hours afterwards.  I simply have no desire to ever revisit this film– its aesthetic was thatoppressively unpleasant.  I don’t blame this on West’s participation, or even Rockett’s,  but rather on Lionsgate for unceremoniously dumping the film in post without the resources it truly needed.

The music is even more atrocious than the visuals.  For whatever reason (probably Lionsgate again), West foregoes Jeff Grace’s services in favor of Ryan Shore, who crafts an uninspired industrial score.  Its shortcomings are propped up by heavy source cue usage that draws from the psychobilly genre.  It might have seemed a bold, edgy move at the time but the result is an awful sonic experience.

I can’t imagine too many copies of the soundtrack were sold.

Because CABIN FEVER 2 is such an obvious chop job, it’s hard to tell which elements of the film bear West’s mark.  There are a few obvious ones, such as the use of handheld POV shots, and the fact that the story is built around a singular location (the school).  There’s still something of an old-fashioned 80’s aesthetic, but it’s much more downplayed (most likely as a result of Lionsgate’s meddling).

One of the film’s only bright spots are a pair of animated bookend sequences that render the uncontrollable spread of the virus in a comedic way.

CABIN FEVER 2’s utter failure on all fronts is easily the lowest point of West’s career so far.  The satisfaction of working on his first major studio film was replaced with the disappointment of having it taken away, shelved for years, and ultimately dumped by the same uncaring entity that hired him in the first place.  Still, it was a valuable learning experience for the young director.

Whereas most directors would retreat into the relative safety of working within their wheelhouse, West instead doubled down on his desire to work in the independent realm and forego safety altogether.


THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

Every week, it seems like a handful of new horror films hit store shelves, coming seemingly from nowhere and looking like complete and utter garbage.  The market is literally flooded with these derivative shlock films, but why?  A staggering majority of independent filmmakers have clued into the fact that horror films are proportionally higher sellers than other genres.

It’s a genre where quality doesn’t matter, which explains why a horror film that looks like it was made by the high school AV club would be bought and distributed by boutique labels while a high-quality dramatic film would be left behind like a redheaded kid at an orphanage.  A lot of these films are styled after current genre trends like “torture porn”, or “found-footage”, and as such, they are quick to fall out of style and thus languish in eternal obscurity.  In other words, these films are meant to be disposable entertainment, nothing more.

But director Ti West doesn’t his work to be seen as “disposable”.  He wants his films to stand the test of time and scare generation after generation of cinephiles, and his intentions of timelessness are evident in his work.  After getting burned by studio meddling with his third feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER, West was back in the independent realm and found he needed to do something really special to distinguish himself from all the product that was over saturating the indie horror market.

But rather than embrace current trends, West decided to stay true to his character and tapped into his nostalgia for the old-school horror films of the early 1980’s—a nostalgia he was surprised to find was shared by a great many horror aficionados.  His resulting vision, 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, was a hell of a comeback after the disappointment of CABIN FEVER 2.  It’s easily West’s best film, and arguably his masterpiece.

The time is circa 1983.  The place is rural Connecticut.  Samantha (Joceline Donahue) is a college co-ed who is looking for her first apartment so she can escape an oppressive dorm environment.  She scores her dream pad, but her joy turns to anxiousness when she remembers she doesn’t have the money to afford it.  She sets about looking for a job, eventually finding one as a babysitter.

She travels out to a big house in the woods with her friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), and despite both of their misgivings about the situation, the owner’s offer of $400 for one night of work is too much for Sam to pass up. So she musters up the courage to hang out in this huge house all alone, but as she explores the dark corridors to stave off her boredom, she uncovers clues that suggest she just might be dealing with a murderous cult of Satanists intent on offering her up as the mother of the devil’s child.

West is lucky in that his inspired casting choices were fully onboard with an admittedly risky conceit.  As the sweet and virginal Samantha, Donahue is a great find—her subdued, involving performance suggests that she’ll one day be a huge star in her own right.  When someone can pull off the high-waisted mom jeans look and actually make it look good, you know you’ve found something special.

She has to carry the weight of the film, and she does so effortlessly.

After Tom Noonan’s campy appearance in West’s debut film, THE ROOST (2005), he once again collaborates with the young director and plays the role of Mr. Ulman, the quietly strange owner of the house.  Noonan’s physicality is perfect for the role, what with his imposing slenderness and sunken facial features.  He’s almost like a walking corpse in a tuxedo.

Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig rose to attention through her collaborations with the movement’s forefather, Joe Swanberg—himself a friend and colleague of West’s.  The role of Sam’s sassy friend Megan is a small one, but Gerwig’s spunky personality is highly memorable.  Dee Wallace rounds out the cast as the kindly, maternal Landlady of Sam’s new apartment, but it’s more of a cameo role honoring madam’s rich legacy within the horror genre.

Eliot Rockett returns as the cinematographer, proving that West’s experience on CABIN FEVER 2 wasn’t all for naught.  The film was shot on Super 16mm film, as West desired to make the film appear as if it was actually shot circa 1983.  This meant appropriating camera techniques like slow zooms instead of what would usually be accomplished with a dolly move today.

The image is grainy and lo-fi, using moody intimate light to cast key portions of West’s classically-composed frames into the dark shadows of the house.  Colors are mostly subdued, save for pops of crimson blood when things really start going down.

A lot of credit goes to Jade Healy, the production designer, who absolutely nails the period elements.  I’ve never seen such a flawless recreation of the 1980’s, right down to the feathered hair and mom jeans.  THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL absolutely succeeds in convincing audiences that it is a lost film from the VHS format’s heyday.

The score by returning composer Jeff Grace is slow and haunting to match West’s razor-taut, patient pacing.  The musical palette is appropriately creepy and moody, using different instruments to create an old-fashioned aesthetic that further enhances our sense of the time period the story takes place in.

There’s a great sequence where West drops The Fixx’s energetic “One Thing Leads To Another” onto the soundtrack and simply lets Donahue spazz out around the house in one last moment of unbridled youth and innocence before the horror truly sets in.  Graham Reznick supports Grace’s score with another excellent sound mix.  West’s films have placed such a priority on immersive sound design that by this point in West’s career, Reznick has emerged as the young director’s most valuable collaborator.

Obviously, West’s affinity for the 80’s aesthetic conceits run rampant throughout THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.  It serves a very real story sense, in that there was a very real “Satanic panic” in the early 80’s that fueled mainstream paranoia over murderous cults, which informs West’s approach to the film.

However, the 80’s conceit goes one step further in amplifying the suspense because it places the story at a point in time where breakdowns in communication were still possible.  With no cell phones or internet, Samantha is truly isolated in the house, which generates that kind of terror that comes with being helpless and alone.

It’s a specific type of terror that you simply can’t get with a story set in our current, always-connected day and age.  West furthers the structural aesthetic of 80’s horror filmmaking by mimicking old-fashioned freeze-frame opening titles, right down to the vintage yellow type.

The film bears another of West’s signatures in that it takes place in a singular location.  In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, the locale is a spooky Victorian mansion in the woods—charming and idyllic by day, but instantly foreboding once the sun sets. West also attempts to create something of a contained universe across his work, like the reference to Frightmare Theatre, the late-night horror TV show that Tom Noonan hosted in THE ROOST.  In THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, Samantha is watching late night programming on the television via—you guessed it—Frightmare Theatre.

The show’s presentation that night (George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)) is another instance of West overtly acknowledging his influences and idols.  It also helps that he didn’t need to pay licensing fees to use Romero’s footage in the film (thanks, public domain!).

The supreme care that West put into THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL was immediately apparent to audiences when he premiered it at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009.  Praise was so abundant that his association with CABIN FEVER 2 was almost erased entirely before it had even begun (CABIN FEVER 2 actually came out several months after THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, despite being shot two years prior).

His commitment to the 80’s aesthetic extended to the film’s home video release, which featured a very clever promotional release in the VHS format, indulging in our shared nostalgia for the glory days of videocassette horror.  If ever a modern film were more perfectly suited to release on an anachronistic format, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is it.

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Ultimately, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is not just a rousing success, but a crucial turning point in West’s career.  It’s where he went from rising star to the de-facto horror director in the independent realm.  By taking his cues from Kubrick or Polanksi, and not from what was currently selling, West has made an effortlessly smart slice of horror that’s several cuts—nay, slashes– above the rest.


DEAD & LONELY (2009)

With the advent of his career occurring squarely in the middle of the social media age, director Ti West created opportunities for himself by befriending and collaborating with like-minded contemporaries, much like the Film Brat generation had done decades before.  The SXSW success of his earlier films THE ROOST (2005) and TRIGGER MAN (2007) led to burgeoning relationships with tastemakers within the Mumblecore movement—most notably Joe Swanberg.

Their friendship paved the way for West using Swanberg’s muse, Greta Gerwig, to great effect in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), but it also opened doors and granted access to some of Swanberg’s executive friends at IFC.  In a bid to build buzz for the imminent release of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, West decided to collaborate with IFC on a short web series called DEAD & LONELY (2009).

Released daily during the week leading up to Halloween that year, the series split its story over five separate episodes- “DATE OR DIE”, “MAKING CONTACT”, “SECOND THOUGHTS”, THE DATE PART 1”, and “THE DATE PART 2”.  One narrative spans the episodes, telling the story of a lonely, nerdy guy (Justin Rice), who invites a strange girl named Lee (Paige Stark) that he met on the dating site dateordie.net to his home, only to find that he’s just invited a bloodthirsty vampire intent on sucking his blood.

Each big story beat is spaced out so that each episode ends with a little cliffhanger that leads directly into the next story beat.

West’s collaborators on DEAD & LONELY are some of the biggest names in Mumblecore cinema.  Swanberg himself serves on the crew, as well as David Lowery, an editor/director in his own right that would later go on to great success at the 2013 Sundance film festival with his feature AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS.  Justin Rice, of the band Bishop Allen, rose to indie prominence when he starred in MUTAL APPRECTIATION (2005), directed by the founding father of Mumblecore, Andrew Bujalski.

In DEAD & LONELY, Rice doesn’t stray too far from the awkward, nerdy character he usually plays, which is basically just a fictionalized version of himself.  Paige Stark plays Lee, the predatory vampire.  She’s expectedly eerie in her behavior, but she doesn’t quite pull of the sultry sex appeal that West aims to imbue her character with.  Swanberg also provides his voice as an unhelpful friend over the phone, as does Lena Dunham of TINY FURNITURE (2010) fame in the role of Justin’s ex-girlfriend.

West even gives himself a little cameo in the form of a profile photo on Date or Die’s website.

IFC may have produced DEAD & LONELY, but it certainly looks like the burden of funding was shouldered by West.  The web series was shot (probably by West himself) on a prosumer DV camera like the kind Mumblecore director Aaron Katz shot his early features DANCE PARTY USA (2006) and QUIET CITY (2007) on.

West throws a black matte over the image in post to approximate a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the camerawork seems mostly made as up the filmmakers went along.  By this, I mean that West composes his shots mainly in extreme close-ups and unmotivated rack zooms— all aesthetic hallmarks of the Mumblecore movement.  By appropriating the lo-fi video look of his contemporaries, West shows he is very much a filmmaker of his generation.

Even the film’s location, a dumpy apartment in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood—a hipster mecca and my former (and hopefully future) stomping grounds—reinforces the cultural trappings of this particular indie movement.

West’s regular sound designer Graham Reznick pulls double duty, doing both the mix and the score.  He creates a pulsing ambient soundscape, with drums that pump like the rhythm of a heartbeat.  The score buzzes under the entirety of the episodes, propelling the story along and sustaining dread where it might otherwise be lost.

The lo-fi look is part of West’s aesthetic, but it doesn’t have the same old-fashioned patina that usually comes with shooting on film.  Instead, the digital video format creates something at once both new and disposable, and West is forced to appropriate the style of Mumblecore while applying horror genre conceits to it.

The result is almost a casual, indifferent horror—not truly horrifying but darkly quirky and detached.  As West’s first foray into the peculiar, nebulous format of the web series, it generated a healthy amount of buzz on blogs but didn’t make much of a splash beyond that.  It was a great way to introduce West to audiences who might otherwise be familiar with him, but the final product probably needed to be of a higher quality to lure people into investing their time in his feature work.

West’s career growth here lies instead on the social side of things, as he strengthened his bonds with the Mumblecore crowd, and used their influence to realize his next round of works in inspiring new dimensions.


THE INNKEEPERS (2011)

After the success of 2009’s THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, director Ti West teamed up once again with his mentor and producing partner Larry Fessenden to realize his vision for an old-fashioned ghost story titled THE INNKEEPERS (2011). He was inspired by a charming, spooky hotel in Connecticut called the Yankee Pedlar Inn, where he purportedly stayed during the production of THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL.

His idea was a return to the haunted-house chillers that he had loved as a kid, the kind that were popular in the 1980’s and didn’t take themselves too seriously.  THE INNKEEPERS was the first West film I had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen, and it was maybe the most visceral experience I’ve had watching a horror film in quite a while—I saw it with two other guy friends of mine, and we were literally jumping out of our seats.

When we begin the story, we find the Yankee Pedlar Inn on the eve of it’s closure—the historic old hotel’s glory days are far behind it, and it is slowly being forgotten in the rush of the modern world.  Two concierge clerks, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healey) keep the hotel running, despite the fact that there is nothing to run.

There’s maybe one or two guests staying in the entire building, so they spend their days and nights goofing off and recording their nightly ghost hunts for their paranormal website.  For the most part, any paranormal activity seems to have departed with the hotel’s business, but their luck changes when an ex-actress and spiritual mystic named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) checks in and helps them contact the spirit of a bride who was murdered on the grounds.

Claire and Luke soon get more than they bargained for when the spirits multiply and began to exact punishment for having their slumber disturbed.

West is an unconventional independent filmmaker in that his rise hasn’t necessarily been dependent on casting well-known names and faces.  He instead prefers talent that’s well-known to loyal niche groups, such as Tom Noonan or Dee Wallace. With THE INNKEEPERS, his highest-profile performer is Lena Dunham, and she only has a brief cameo as an over-talkative barista.

His leads are unknowns—Paxton is cute and spunky as the nerdy, asthmatic tomboy Claire, and her general physicality is very unconventional for the female lead of a horror film.  As her counterpart Luke, Healey is the other kind of nerdy: aimless and aloof.  Rounding out West’s cast is McGillis as the acerbic, chain-smoking mystic Leanne Rease-Jones.  She brings a somewhat granola gravitas to the role, and helps transition the film from a realistic state of mind towards one that’s open to the presence of the supernatural.

West once again collaborates with cinematographer Elliot Rockett, this time shooting on 35mm film with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Because this results in an inherently cinematic, somewhat modern look, West’s old-fashioned aesthetic is instead rooted in his approach to the camerawork.

The film’s obvious influence is Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), what with its long, slow takes moving down empty hallways and parlors.  His movements are indicative of a substantially larger budget, and he utilizes various dolly and steadicam shots to add a classical touch and a sense of high production value.

He supplements this with several handheld POV shots when things get really hairy, which is true to his stylistic roots as a director.  He favors wide compositions, with a deep focus that has our eyes constantly scanning the frame in anticipation of a ghost emerging.

Returning production designer Jade Healy doesn’t need to do much in the way of set design, as their real-world location was so moody and evocative to begin with.  Rather, she works within the generous confines of the location to reinforce West’s naturalistic, subdued color palette and timeless sensibilities.

The scale of Jeff Grace’s score is expanded to match West’s visual upgrade.  He crafts a lavishly orchestral suite of cues that are appropriately creepy and suspenseful, while also playful during several moments to reiterate the several instances of comedic relief that West uses to inject levity into the proceedings.  It’s almost something like the spooky score you’d get in an early 90’s horror TV show, like Nickelodeon’s ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?

Returning sound designer Graham Reznick really outdoes himself this time around, creating an immersive mix that plays to West’s carefully-cultivated sense of creeping dread.  When you boot up the film at home, it advises you to play it loud—this should give you a sense of how important the subtle bits & pieces of Reznick’s mix are to the overall experience.

A standout sequence concerns Luke and Claire stalking the back hallways and grand parlor rooms of the Yankee Pedlar while recording Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVPs)—aka voice recordings not present during the time of capture, but manifesting instead out of the white noise of the recording itself and commonly believed to be of supernatural origin.

West effortlessly builds suspense in this sequence with nothing but silence, leaving us hanging on the edge of our seats as we strain to hear whatever the microphone is picking up.  It’s a lo-fi, un-showy technique but its use results in some of the spookiest moments I’ve ever experienced in a horror film.

With THE INKEEPERS being West’s fifth feature film, his style has been well-established.  An old-fashioned approach guides every decision, typified by a slow, brooding pace and a great deal of importance placed on the sound mix.  Even when he’s working with high production values and a contemporary story such as this one, his old-fashioned aesthetic demands that he doesn’t rely on cheap “jump out” scares like modern horror films do.

While he does acknowledge it within THE INNKEEPERS, he appropriates it to make a mockery of audience expectations, fooling us into bracing for a shock scare but continually giving us cinematic blue balls by never delivering (until the very end, that is).

This slow pacing adds an extra dimension of creepiness to his ghosts, which are easily the most viscerally terrifying depictions of apparitions that I’ve seen on-screen.  They possess all of the menace with none of the corniness, behaving much like you would expect a malevolent supernatural entity to do.

The other important element of West’s aesthetic is his placing of the story within a singular locale.  He creates in his fictionalized Yankee Pedlar Inn an insular world that’s able to block out the cynicism of our everyday reality, and allows us to indulge in superstition and belief in the paranormal.  This signature of West’s may have emerged out of indie/no-budget necessity, but he’s truly at his best when he’s guiding us through empty, foreboding architecture.

THE INNKEEPERS is West’s biggest film yet, and its release translated to a significant amount of career exposure for the young director—not just in horror circles but the larger indie world.  He always has a home for his pictures at the South By Southwest film festival, but THE INNKEEPERS propelled him to international success for the first time with screenings at Stockholm and Melbourne.

His old-fashioned approach was ironically praised as fresh, probably because the increasingly homogenized horror genre has left fans clamoring for something new, different, and bold.  THE INNKEEPERS opened may doors for West professionally, potentially providing a new path back into studio filmmaking that would be more respectful and aware of his considerable talent and vision.

While his next feature has yet to materialize, West has kept himself very busy in the independent world by collaborating with his friends on another time-honored horror genre tradition: the anthology film.


ANTHOLOGY SHORTS (2012)

While THE INNKEEPERS (2011) is director Ti West’s latest feature as of this writing, he’s kept busy with a number of directing efforts that take a page from another grand tradition of the horror genre: the anthology, or omnibus, film.  As part of the first generation of directors to come up in the age of social media, his interaction with his peers led directly to his participation in two such projectsV/H/S and THE ABC’S OF DEATH, both released in 2012.

The great thing about anthology films is that they offer the chance for a director to fully assert his or her vision.  It’s like a playground where id, ego, and superego can run around unchecked.  Omnibus films often give us a raw, unfiltered glimpse into a director’s particular aesthetic conceits.

Of his two 2012 projects, V/H/S is easily the most prestigious, having debuted at Sundance as part of their late-night programming.  His involvement with the film positioned himself alongside Joe Swanberg (his DEAD & LONELY (2009) collaborator) and Adam Wingard (2013’s YOU’RE NEXT) as emerging masters of horror.

The conceit of V/H/S is that a group of gutter punks rage across town, videotaping their exploits as they destroy abandoned houses and force women to expose themselves on-camera.  One night they break into somebody’s house to steal a particular VHS cassette tape for an unnamed client, only to find hundreds of unmarked tapes and a dead body sitting in front of a bunch of TV screens.

Undeterred by this foreboding sight, they begin to go through the tapes one by one, with each of the film’s individual segments making up its own tape.

West’s contribution appears second, and is titled SECOND HONEYMOON.  It concerns a young married couple—Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal)—on a vacation in the southwestern desert, filmed entirely from the husband’s digital video camera.  By day they explore the desert around them, but at night an unknown third entity films them with their own camera as they lie asleep in their beds.

Naturally this all leads to a bloody, surprising twist that I won’t spoil, but I will say this: SECOND HONEYMOON is easily the best segment in the film, with Swanberg’s own directorial piece (the cleverly webcam/Skype-recorded THE SICK THING THAT HAPPENED TO EMILY WHEN SHE WAS YOUNGER) coming in at a close second.

SECOND HONEYMOON was filmed on a digital consumer video camera, probably by West himself, so it fits within V/H/S’ aesthetic conceit—but it also begs the question why such a new digital format would ever be transferred back to VHS in the first place.  The camerawork is mostly handheld, utilitarian coverage- the kind you’d expect of someone who isn’t a filmmaker shooting video.

The pacing is pretty slow, as is par for the course with West, but it picks up quite luridly by the end with some excellent gore effects that only become more visceral and realistic using the found-footage conceit.

For THE ABC’S OF DEATH, twenty-six directors were each given $5,000 to make a short with complete creative autonomy. The only requirement is that the subject matter had to do with death, and should take inspiration from a singular letter of the alphabet.  West’s segment, titled M IS FOR MISCARRIAGE, is a short work—running less than a couple minutes.  It concerns a woman whose clogged toilet threatens to overflow.

What’s in the bowl?  Why, wouldn’t you know it– a dead fetus!  Charming.

The video itself is pretty grainy, with a short zoom being the only camera movement that West indulges in.  The effort as a whole is decidedly lazy, like he spent maybe $30 of the $5000 in making it and then just took off with the rest of the money for himself.  He probably knew he could do so without consequence, as he’s easily the highest-profile director associated with the work.

His laziness is pretty insulting however, and M FOR MISCARRIAGE is easily his worst, and least-inspired, work.

V/H/S brought a little more exposure for West in the form of his his first trip to Sundance, while THE ABC’S OF DEATH is (much like West’s segment) dead on arrival.  These are somewhat lackluster films to end West’s career examination on—they’re really more in-between jobs that fill out time between features, but that’s where he currently stands as of this writing.

You won’t find many instances of me dissecting the career of a director who is still very much on the rise.  But West is a special case, as he has managed to make some incredibly large waves in less than a decade of independent filmmaking. He’s brought a sense of craftsmanship, patience, and prestige back to a genre that’s been creatively bankrupt for several decades.

There’s no telling how he’ll do when he inevitably branches out into other genres, but as of right now, West represents a beacon of hope for hungry horror aficionados, as well as the indie scene at large.


THE SACRAMENT (2013)

Up until September 11th, 2001, the greatest loss of American life in a single event was not, as some may think, Pearl Harbor—or any other act of war for that matter. On November 18th, 1978, United States Congressman Leo Ryan and a small delegation visited the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project— led by a religious zealot and fanatical communist named Jim Jones and located near the northern border of Guyana.

Ryan and his delegates found a surprisingly peaceful utopia, where Temple members had settled with their families and built a new kind of society that saw everyone living in harmony and united by the teaching of their charismatic leader. However, on that fateful day in November, Jones became convinced that Ryan would return to the United States and send in the military to destroy everything they had built.

After his armed guards murdered Ryan and the delegates, Jones assembled Temple members for a meeting and announced that it was time to commit “revolutionary suicide” against the so-called fascist pigs who would most surely descend upon them in short order. They mixed cyanide with fruit punch and drank it—willingly. Over 900 people died that day, and ever since then, the specter of Jim Jones has loomed large in our collective unconscious.

Director Ti West had long held a fascination towards what came to be known as the Jonestown Massacre. He initially envisioned it as a miniseries that would follow the formation of Jones’ cult in San Francisco through their relocation to Guyana and eventual suicide. Despite being a young, upcoming independent filmmaker with a handful of well-received features under his name, West realized that his vision perhaps might be too ambitious, and subsequently scaled it back into a feature film that would apply a fictional, contemporary take on the subject matter.

Despite the failure of his first studio effort, CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009), West had gained a trusted collaborator in producer Eli Roth, and it was Roth whom West first approached with his idea for a film that would come to be known as THE SACRAMENT (2013). With Roth’s help as producer, West was able to obtain financing without having written a single page of script—a testament to the benefits of having a reputation as a fiscally responsible filmmaker working within a genre that almost always makes money.

The finished product, while far from perfect, shows a great deal of growth for West as he branches out into other forms of horror and gives us a darkly disturbing glimpse into the follies of blind faith from which we can’t look away.

West’s fictional take on The Jonestown Massacre focuses through the prism of the found-footage subgenre of horror—a conceit that has admittedly been done to death by greedy studio executives looking to trim budgets and maximize profits. However, it is an extreme disservice to West in calling THE SACRAMENT a found-footage movie.

Instead, the film presents itself as a documentary by Vice Magazine, the real-life purveyor of immersive journalism documentaries. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a young fashion photographer, has just received correspondence from his sister after several years of silence, inviting him down for a visit to her new home at a place in South American known only as “Eden Parish”. Sam (AJ Bowen)—Patrick’s friend and a journalist for Vice—volunteers to accompany Patrick and bring a videographer named Jake (Joe Swanberg) in a bid to make a documentary about this mysterious alternative community.

When they arrive at Eden Parish, located in the jungles of an unnamed South American country (but filmed in Georgia), the filmmakers are surprised to find this “utopia” guarded by aggressive men packing AK-47 machine guns. Patrick’s sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz), welcomes them and takes them on a tour of the encampment.

Along the way, Sam and Jake interview the campers, who have nothing but high praise for Father (Gene Jones)—their charismatic leader who has devoted his life to creating a community founded on the principles of clean living and independence from the modern world. They’re even granted an interview with Father himself, and they can’t help but be impressed by his charismatic intelligence and folksy, unpretentious appeal.

But the longer they stay in this utopia, the more they uncover the darkness hidden within—a growing number of campers desperately want out, while others will stop at nothing to keep their secret society contained and unduly influenced by the outside world. In spite of the uninspiring found-footage tropes that it employs, THE SACRAMENT is a riveting looking into the dark aspects of human nature, as we all a shocking exploration of the nature of cult.

West anchors his narrative between his five leads, complementing them with one of the best cast of extras in recent memory. In lieu of casting recognizable celebrities in the roles, West plays to the POV conceits of his approach by casting two independent filmmakers—Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley. Both men are collaborators and close friends of West, and have been running in the same film circles for quite some time now.

Swanberg and Audley know their way around a camera, which makes it quite easy for West to simply hand off his camera to his actors and let them shoot the movie for him. AJ Bowen, who previously appeared onscreen for West in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), is convincing as an idealistic young journalist who is unafraid of pursuing dangerous stories.

The biggest plaudits, however, belong to Gene Jones and Amy Seimetz as the film’s best revelations. Gene Jones, perhaps best known for his bit role in the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) is a spellbinding and charismatic presence as Father. His grandfatherly, southern drawl is warm and inviting to the point that it’s easily to take anything he says as the hard-earned truth, yet he’s always hiding behind dark sunglasses (even at night).

It’s an unforgettable powerhouse of a performance, and fellow directors would be wise to keep him in mind for the future. The same can be said of Amy Seimetz, who plays Caroline, Patrick’s friendly hippie sister. She’s intensely dedicated to the cause, to the point where she becomes a crucial agent of destruction as chaos breaks out amidst Eden Parish.

Throughout his career, West has cultivated a reputation for utilizing an old-fashioned, lo-fi, film-based aesthetic. This approach served him well in his debut, THE ROOST (2005), and even more so in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL—which could actually fool someone if you told him or her it was made in the mid-80’s. With THE SACRAMENT’s contemporary setting and new media storytelling conceit, West foregoes the vintage patina of film for the sleek perfection of digital.

West uses the new Canon C300 line of HD video cameras, which combine the mobility and ease of 1080p-capable DSLRs with the higher bitrate and lowered compression found in digital cinema cameras. The demands of West’s found-footage conceit result in the actors operating the camera in naturally-lit, real-world locales—yet West doesn’t forego a cinematographer here, where he probably could have gotten away with it.

Instead, he recruits Eric Robbins, the cinematographer for THE ROOST, for their first collaboration in nearly ten years. Robbins’ hand is nearly imperceptible, helping West craft a bright and sunny aesthetic that’s not auspiciously scary-looking— which of course makes the horror to come all that more terrifying. Returning production designer Jade Healey does a great job turning Georgia farmland into a convincing jungle settlement in South America with the strategic placing of palm trees and spartan dwellings.

Prior to THE SACRAMENT, West had collaborated primarily with composer Jeff Grace in scoring his films. For whatever reason—perhaps Grace’s own rising star precluding his availability—West goes a different direction here with the hiring of well-known composer Tyler Bates. The character of Bates’ score accurately reflects West’s intended tone with a tribal, ominous sound that never spills over into outright horror.

Instead it lingers at a simmer, building up pressure as the film unfolds towards its finale. West also managed to secure the use of indie rock band Heartbeats’ popular track, “The Knife” for his opening credits, further establishing the “hipster cred” of the Vice documentary framing conceits.

With THE SACRAMENT, West is clearly attempting to branch out from the specific brand of contained horror that has so far been his bread and butter. It may take place in a singular location like his previous features have done and it may be marketed heavily on its horror merits, but THE SACRAMENT is unlike anything West has ever done.

Whereas found-footage films tend to pigeonhole their makers into a strict set of rules about form and execution, here West is able to liberate himself from his own strict aesthetic rules and in the process, imbue greater meaning into the film. Take the character of Father, a compelling personification of cowardly evil who exploits blind faith towards his advantage.

Through the lens of Father, THE SACRAMENT becomes a salient meditation on how religious texts can be perverted by zealotry and distorted to justify evil intentions. West’s self-discipline and courage as an artist is highly evident in how he shoots the death of one of the key characters. It is presented in a beautifully-composed wide shot (ironic considering the haphazard, chaotic aesthetic) that continues unbroken for quite a while as the character succumbs to an injection of cyanide into his neck.

We watch the poison course through his body in real time, easily becoming one of the most unnerving deaths in recent cinematic memory. This is the point where West hammers home the true terror of his idea and exhibits his mastery of the craft.

In a market oversaturated with uninspired found-footage horror films, THE SACRAMENT stands out as one of the most original, thanks to West’s careful crafting of visceral suspense which suggests that suggests none of our characters might make it out alive— therefore hooking us deeper into the film as the objectivity of the footage is suddenly called into question.

Despite a successful premiere in Toronto, THE SACRAMENT was only given a limited release that saw mixed critical reception—many no doubt were unable to get past the found footage conceit. However, THE SACRAMENT seems destined to live on in the home video market as a cult (sorry) hit, and its success there will undoubtedly position West will as he develops his next adventure.


TELEVISION WORK (2015)

Over the course of a decade, director Ti West had been quietly building an accomplished body of independent feature film work in the horror genre.  In the absence of breakout hits, he had nonetheless managed to accumulate a notable degree of creative and cultural capital that enabled his continued output.

It was only a matter of time before the indie cred he generated with films like THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009), THE INKEEPERS (2011) and THE SACRAMENT (2013) could be leveraged towards his first gig directing for prime-time television.  That time arrived in 2015, at the height of what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Television– an age in which the proliferation of limited series and serialized content would attract a caliber of directing and performance talent normally reserved for cinematic features.

A lot of good television has come out of this era, but so has a lot of bad– and, unfortunately, West’s first two efforts in this arena would fall into the latter category.  The constricting nature of the medium ultimately stifles his creative individuality, resulting in a pair of perfectly serviceable, yet anonymous and uninspired, episodes.

SCREAM: “THE DANCE” (2015)

In 2015, MTV released its serialized reboot/sequel to the SCREAM horror franchise, becoming a part of the larger wave of TV series adapted from iconic films.  West’s experience with horror, particularly the teeny-bopper variety seen in his disowned feature CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009), positioned him as an ideal candidate to helm an episode of the show.

The series was executive produced by SCREAM stewards Wes Craven and the Weinstein Brothers, but the showrunners depart entirely from the established franchise canon in a bid to update the property for a new generation.  An inspired choice finds the show incorporating the framing device of a podcast, a la SERIAL, to detail the exploits of a new generation of beautiful teenagers trying to evade a mysterious masked murderer in the sleepy town of Lakewood.

 West directs “THE DANCE”, the penultimate episode of the first season that culminates in an eventful Halloween dance.  For such a high profile property as SCREAM, there’s surprisingly little in the way of familiar talent– indeed, the only recognizable face here is Bella Thorne, and even then you’re probably asking yourself “who?” as you read this.  The acting is fairly awful across the board, with MTV seemingly banking on the fresh-faced beauty of its young unknown cast distracting us from noticing.

Beyond the appearance of Halloween iconography enabled by the titular school dance, there’s little to no evidence of West’s hand here.  Well-known for his vintage visual style and fondness for shooting on film, here he must service the pre-existing digital aesthetic, which bears all the hallmarks of a fast TV shoot– utilitarian and blunt lighting, the deployment of faster handheld and steadicam moves instead of deliberate dolly or crane setups, etc.

All this being said, West does allow some creative ambition to shine through, staging a scene in which the town sheriff makes a shocking discovery during a house call in one, unbroken tracking shot.  The episode also includes a teaser prologue, which West renders in a harsh green color cast, and peppers with POV shots and surveillance camera angles that recalls the found-footage conceit of THE SACRAMENT.

SCREAM: “THE DANCE” is currently available on Netflix.

SOUTH OF HELL: “TAKE LIFE NOW” (2015)

West’s second directorial effort in the television realm is “TAKE LIFE NOW”, an episode of the little-known WEtv show SOUTH OF HELL.  Starring Mena Suvari and absolutely nobody else we’ve ever seen before, SOUTH OF HELL styles itself as a campy Southern Gothic series in the vein of TRUE BLOOD or TRUE DETECTIVE but faceplants in its execution.

Concerning something about demons inside people who can appear with the simple application of cheap green contact lenses, the story is a muddled mess of horror cliches and formulaic plotting.  West’s hiring for “TAKE LIFE NOW” no doubt originated with his relationship to the show’s executive producer, fellow horror director Eli Roth.

The episode finds the show’s characters getting involved with a mind-control cult disguised as a self-help program and led by a charismatic charlatan– a plot that echoes the setup of West’s THE SACRAMENT and most likely further facilitated his hiring.

Drunk on the spooky atmosphere of its South Carolinian setting, SOUTH OF HELL whole-heartedly embraces the iconography of the resurgent Southern Gothic subgenre, especially its trashier aspects.  Again, West is compelled to replicate a visual aesthetic that had been determined long before he was brought on board, gamely working with cinematographer Walt Lloyd in crafting the digital, harshly-lit image.

A muted color palette deals primarily in large swaths of teal, amber, and green– a common color scheme for the genre.  The cinematography is easily the strongest aspect of the show, at least as I could judge from this particular episode, but it still can’t overpower the distinct whiff of bad fan-fiction that stinks up the overall proceedings.

Despite the deliberate absences of his distinct directorial signatures, West nonetheless delivers competent work that plays into his genre wheelhouse.  This pair of episodes nonetheless marks an important milestone in West’s burgeoning career– by leveraging his success in the indie sector into paying work that will keep his skills sharp and his name on the callsheets, he continues to build a solid financial platform that will enable his creative freedom in larger, more-ambitious endeavors.


IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016)

With an enviable body of well-crafted and warmly-received horror features under his belt, director Ti West was no doubt eager to show the cinematic community what else he could do. He had an idea for a western that drew inspiration from classic genre touchstones like HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973), as well as recent action pictures like JOHN WICK (2014).

In short order, he managed to secure the participation of producer Jason Blum, whose production company, Blumhouse Pictures, had carved out a comfortable niche for itself in microbudget genre features and television shows– one of which, SOUTH OF HELL, West had recently directed an episode of.

Blum’s involvement also enabled access to actor Ethan Hawke, who had a collaborative relationship with Blum thanks to prior indie hits like THE PURGE (2013).  Reuniting with his producing partners on THE SACRAMENT (2013), Peter Phok and Jacob Jaffke, West and his creative team would venture into the deserts of New Mexico to commit his vision to celluloid.

The result, 2016’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, would find West entering uncharted territory in a personal artistic sense, while staying true to the aesthetic conceits that have thus far propelled his career.

Like previous West narratives, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE takes place in a singular, somewhat-confined location: the dying frontier town of Denton.  Ethan Hawke plays Paul, a civil war vet haunted by some untold tragedy.  He’s on his way down to Mexico, his only companion being his trusty dog– who he’s trained to be a ruthless killing machine on command.

Paul stops in Denton’s saloon for a quick drink before continuing on, but manages to entangle himself in a fight with James Ransone’s Gilly, a cocky lawman with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove.  He wins said fight, utterly humiliating Gilly in the process in full view of his posse (one of whom is played by Larry Fessenden, an early collaborator of West’s and an old filmmaking mentor from his internship days).

 In retaliation, Gilly and his posse ambush Paul in the middle of the night and kill his beloved dog.  A heartbroken Paul vows total revenge, riding back into town for a day of reckoning.  West spins an incredibly lean and straightforward narrative, venturing little outside of the central Paul vs. Gilly conflict save for Paul’s alliance with Taissa Farmiga’s sweet, lovestruck hotel clerk Mary-Anne, and his reluctant enmity with Gilly’s father, Marshal Clyde Martin.

 John Travolta earns second billing as the good Marshal, a morally-compromised lawman with a wooden leg.  The action builds to an appropriately-explosive climax with no shortage of bloodletting, but West’s true interest lies in the nuanced relationship between his morally-ambiguous leads.  The white hat/black hat dichotomy is a well-trod convention of the western genre, but West subverts it entirely in favor of letting the dynamic complexities of his gray-hat leads shine through.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE may be West’s first film working with bonafide star talent like Ethan Hawke or John Travolta, but behind the camera, he assembles a core creative team made up of longtime collaborators.  Some, like cinematographer Eric Robbins or sound designer Graham Reznick, have been with him since his first feature– 2005’s THE ROOST.

 Robbins imbues the 2.35:1 35mm film frame with a dusty, earth-tone palette appropriate to the Old West setting, embracing the iconography of classic westerns past while bringing its own unique identity to the table.  West and Robbins also utilize classical camerawork like cranes and dollies in conjunction with modern techniques like handheld setups and slow zooms, injecting a kinetic freshness into a genre that hasn’t seen much innovation since the days of Sergio Leone.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film’s cinematography lies in the way West and Robbins render Paul’s civil war flashbacks.  They present these sequences as nightmares, borrowing contemporary horror techniques like staging a chase in the woods at night and lighting it almost entirely by flashlight.

Longtime production designer Jade Healy returns as well, building the entirety of Denton out in the New Mexican desert quite literally as a sandbox for West and company to play around in.  Finally, frequent composer Jeff Grace returns after sitting out THE SACRAMENT, channeling the style of Ennio Morricone with an eclectic mix of guitar riffs, drums, spurs, and synth strings.

As previously mentioned, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE is West’s first genre exercise out of the horror/thriller realm, seemingly content to tackle the conventions of the western in a straightforward manner.  Indeed, on first glance, most if not all West’s features seem rather straightforward in their storytelling– another look, however, reveals these otherwise “straightforward” narratives are nevertheless born of a postmodern technical approach.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) embraced its 1980’s period setting to the point that it was physically crafted and marketed to appear like it had been made contemporaneously.  THE INKEEPERS (2011) married the visual conceits of the Victorian haunted house story with the modern technological era.  Even THE SACRAMENT used its found-footage structure to question the objectivity of the format itself.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE subverts the swashbuckling nature of the western genre by using the visual grammar of horror during Paul’s climactic vengeance spree.  Beyond narrative beats like Larry Fessenden’s character getting his throat slashed in the bathtub, West employs the type of framing and movement one expects to see in a scary movie– or not see, given West’s strategic withholding of visual information from his compositions in favor of aural suggestion.

The vintage aesthetic that’s marked West’s body of work to date expectedly surfaces IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, even if West is barely making a conscious effort to do so.  In an age where most indie films like this one would have been shot digitally, West’s choice to shoot on glorious 35mm film is an old-fashioned one by its very nature.

West further evokes the mid-century style of spaghetti westerns by borrowing (rather liberally, I might add) from the graphic style of Leone’s FISTFUL OF DOLLARS’ opening titles for his own credits.  The result is a modern, modest western that pays homage to its cinematic forebears, destined to age gracefully thanks to the timeless quality of its execution.

IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE received a high profile premiere at South By Southwest, bowing to mostly positive reviews.  However, it didn’t have much staying power at the box office, leaving the arthouse circuit almost as fast as it arrived.  Thankfully, it was made under the Blumhouse model, which it to say it was churned out on the cheap as part of a larger slate, and its failure to perform could be subsidized by the profits from Blum’s other pictures.

Despite its almost-certain destiny as a minor work in West’s filmography, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE nevertheless exhibits an ambitious young director using his established skill set in the horror realm to become a more well-rounded filmmaker overall.


“WAYWARD PINES” EPISODES (2016)

Director Ti West’s 2015 stints on MTV’s SCREAM and WEtv’s SOUTH OF HELL established him as a viable filmmaker in the television space, which, in the age of streaming and endless content, presents a far more reliable supply of paycheck opportunities than feature filmmaking can provide.  After releasing his under-the-radar western IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016), West returned to TV, leveraging his experience working with high-profile talent like Ethan Hawke and John Travolta into the bigger-budget world of broadcast productions.

He was hired to direct two episodes from the second season of the popular Fox show, WAYWARD PINES— the brainchild of M. Night Shyamalan and Chad Hodge, adapted from the eponymous book series by Blake Crouch.  He was assigned a mid-season episode titled “EXIT STRATEGY” as well as the season finale, “BEDTIME STORY”, either of which would have been a plum gig for an enterprising young filmmaker like West.

 Considering that the series has yet to get picked up for a 3rd season, West’s effort takes on an added significance: making him responsible for the finale of the entire series.  In effect, he would have to finish what Shyamalan started.

WAYWARD PINES is a mystery drama in the vein of David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, albeit with a major sci-fi twist: it’s actually the year 4032, and the small mountain town of Wayward Pines is the last bastion of humanity after a mutated strain of humans has obliterated the rest of the species.  West’s episodes in particular both circle towards the endgame, showing how the threat posed by the Abbeys (as the mutants are called, short for “aberration”) will reach its logical conclusion.

The plots of the individual episodes don’t quite transcend the well-worn plot manipulations of standard broadcast dramas, but the show’s sci-fi/horror twist provides enough intrigue to keep things moving along at a brisk clip.  Far more interesting about the stories contained within West’s episodes is the opportunities it provides to work with established character actors like Jason Patric, Djimon Hounsou, and Shannyn Sossamon.

As appropriate for the medium of broadcast prime time television, “EXIT STRATEGY” and “BEDTIME STORY” contain little to none of West’s unique artistic signatures.  He’s forced to adapt to the stylistic decisions of others– Shyamalan’s most of all, considering his role in establishing the series’ overall aesthetic by directing the pilot.

The digital cinematography is appropriately dark and moody, albeit with an intangible flimsiness, an unfortunate byproduct of TV production’s fast-paced nature.  That being said, there’s definitely a concrete style at play here– a shallow depth of field coats the background of nearly every shot in a thick veil of fuzziness, and flashier techniques like canted angles and drone photography supplement the standard coverage workhorses.

Judging from West’s episodes alone, one compelling aspect of WAYWARD PINES’ aesthetic is the recurring use of unconventional compositions, which often throw the subject off to an extreme edge of the frame in favor of a considerable amount of dead space.  This makes for a captivating, if slightly uneasy, viewing experience that pulls the audience ever deeper into the gloomy intrigue.

West’s work here is serviceable, delivering what I imagine is a satisfying conclusion to the season (or series, as it may turn out).  It doesn’t offer much in the way of personal artistic growth, other than the continued experience of working with recognizable performers, but it nevertheless solidifies West’s portfolio of commission work and positions him well for the leap into prestige TV, should he want it.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide To Quentin Tarantino And His Directing Techniques

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987)

Few directors are as high profile and equally controversial than Quentin Tarantino.  The man is a lightning rod for criticism and praise.  Make no mistake, there is no middle ground here—you either love his work or are physically repulsed by it.  However, one objective fact remains: he is syllabus-grade essential when it comes to the wider discussion of cinema during its centennial.

His impact on film has left a crater too big to ignore. Having broken out into the mainstream during the heady days of indie film in the 1990’s, Tarantino has influenced an obscene number of aspiring filmmakers my age.  80% of student films I saw in school were shameless rip-offs of Tarantino’s style and work.

 I was even guilty of it myself, in some of my earlier college projects.  Something about Tarantino– whether it’s his subject matter, style, or his own character– is luridly attractive.  His energy is infectious, as is his unadulterated enthusiasm for films both good and bad.

 Despite going on to international fame and fortune, Tarantino is a man who never forgot his influences, to the point where the cinematic technique of “homage” is his calling card.Why is this admittedly eccentric man so admired in prestigious film circles and high school film clubs alike?  Objectively speaking, his pictures are pure pulp.  Fetishizations of violence, drug-use, and sex.  By some accounts even, trash.

If you were to ask me, it’s none of those things that make him a role model.

 Tarantino represents filmmaking’s most fundamental ideal: the notion that anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, can make it in movies if they try hard enough.  Any producer’s son can nepotism his way into the director’s chair, but for the scrawny teenager in Wyoming with a video camera in her hand and stars in her eyes, Tarantino is proof-positive that she could do it too.

Born in 1963 to separated parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, Tarantino grew up without privilege or the conventional nuclear sense of family.  He was raised mostly by his mother, who moved him out near Long Beach, California when he was a toddler.

He dropped out of high school before he was old enough to drive, choosing instead to pursue a career in acting.

 To support himself, he famously got a job as a clerk at the now-defunct Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he gained an extensive film education by watching as many movies as he could get his hands on, and cultivating an eclectic list of recommendations for his customers.  He found himself enraptured by the fresh, dynamic styles of directors like Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Brian DePalma, and Mario Bava, and he studied their films obsessively to see what made them tick.

This is noteworthy, because most directors traditionally gain their education via film school or working on professional shoots.  Tarantino is the first mainstream instance of a director who learned his craft by simply studying films themselves.

Before the dawn of the digital era, aspiring filmmakers had to have a lot of money to practice their trade—something Tarantino simply didn’t have as a menial retail employee.  What he did have, however, was time, and he used it well by gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and making a few crucial connections.

When he was twenty four, Tarantino met his future producing partner, Lawrence Bender, at a party.  Bender encouraged him to write a screenplay, which would become the basis for Tarantino’s first film: MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).

While the film didn’t exactly prove to be a stepping stone to a directing career, and still remains officially unreleased, it served as a crucial crash course for the budding director.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY was intended to be a feature length film, but an unfortunate lab fire destroyed the final reel during editing.  The only surviving elements run for roughly thirty minutes, and tell a slapdash story that only emphasizes the amateurish nature of the project.

Set during a wild California night, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY concerns Mickey Burnett (co-writer and co-producer Craig Hammann), whose birthday is the day of the story. His best friend, Clarence Pool (Tarantino himself), takes charge of the planning by buying the cake and hiring a call girl named Misty (Crystal Shaw) to… entertain his friend.

Along the way, things go seriously awry and Clarence must scramble to save the evening.At least, that’s what I took away from the story.  It’s hard to know for sure when you’re missing more than half of the narrative.  My first impression of the film is that it reads like a terrible student project, which is more or less what it is.

It was filmed over the course of three years (1984-1987), all while Tarantino worked at Video Archives.  The characters are thinly drawn, performances are wooden, the technical quality is questionable, and the editing is awkward and jarring.  However, Tarantino’s ear for witty dialogue is immediately apparent.

It sounds strange coming out of the mouths of untrained actors who don’t know how to channel its intricacies and cadences into music, but it’s there. The myriad pop culture references, the creative use of profanity, and the shout-outs to classic and obscure films are all staples of Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s all there from the beginning.

There is no filter between Tarantino and his characters—it all comes gushing forth like a fountain straight from the auteur himself.

In his twenty years plus of filmmaking experience, Tarantino has been well-documented as a self-indulgent director, oftentimes casting himself in minor roles.  It’s telling then, that the very first frame of Tarantino’s very first film prominently features Tarantino himself.  Sure, it might be a little narcissistic, but it makes sense when taken into context; his characters are cinematic projections of him, each one signifying one particular corner of his densely packed persona.

Why not begin at the source?His performance as Clarence Pool is vintage Tarantino, with an Elvis-styled bouffant, outlandish clothes, and an overbearing coke-high energy.  It’s almost like the cinematic incarnation of Tarantino himself, albeit at his most trashy.

He even goes so far as outright stating his foot fetish to Misty in one scene, a character trait we know all to well to be true of Tarantino in real life.For a director who is noted for his visually dynamic style, the look of MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY is incredibly sedate.  Of course, the film’s scratchy black and white, 16mm film look is to be expected given the low production budget.

For a film where the camera never moves save for one circular dolly shot, an astounding four cinematographers are credited: Roger Avary, Scott Magill, Roberto Quezada, and Rand Vossler.  Visually, it’s an unimpressive film that contains none of the man’s stylistic flourishes, but Tarantino’s rapid-fire wit more than adequately covers for the lack of panache.

A distinct rockabilly aesthetic is employed throughout, from the costumes to the locations.  It even applies to the music, which features various well-known surf rock, bar rock, and Johnny Cash cues.

Much has been made of Tarantino’s inspired music selections, and his eclectic choices have served as a calling card for his unique, daring style.  Music is an indispensable part of Tarantino’s style, from its overt appearances over the soundtrack to certain recurring story elements like the K-Billy radio station (which makes its first appearance here).  His signature use of off-kilter, counter-conventional music sees its first incarnation in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, where he employs a jaunty pop song during a violent fist fight.

Watching MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, it’s clear that Tarantino’s films have always been unabashed manifestations of his personality and his influences.   Tarantino’s storylines and characters exist in an alternate reality, where extreme violence and profanity are more commonplace.

There are whole fan theories that draw lines between his films and connect them together into a coherent universe.  For instance, there’s a moment in the film where Tarantino’s character, Clarence, calls somebody using the fake name Aldo Ray.

Attentive listeners will note that a variation of the same name would show up over twenty years later in the incarnation of Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009).

Further adding to the theory of Tarantino’s “universe” is the fact that MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY would go on to form the initial basis for his screenplay TRUE ROMANCE (which was later directed by the late Tony Scott).  There’s even a kung-fu fight in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, which would become the genesis for his fascination with the martial art form over the course of his filmography.

It’s interesting to watch this film, as it bears every hallmark of the traditional “terrible amateur film”.  It has none of the slick polish that Tarantino would be known for, but it makes sense given his inexperience and meager budget.  Everybody’s first film is terrible.  But Tarantino’s unstoppable personality barrels forth, setting the stage for the firestorm he’d create with his debut feature.

MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY didn’t lead to anything substantial, simply because it was never released.  It’s a dynamic illustration of auteur theory at work, where the director’s personality shines through regardless of the resources or story.  We can literally see Tarantino finding his sea legs, feeling it out as he goes along.

The film is basically an artifact, but it’s much more than that:  it’s both a humble introduction to a dynamic new voice in film, as well as a (very) rough preview of the radical shift in filmmaking attitudes that would come in the wake of Tarantino’s explosive arrival.


RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

In terms of American independent film, there is Before RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and After RESERVOR DOGS.  Director Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut was a truly paradigm-shattering event, single-handedly turning a sleepy Utah ski town into something of a promised land for aspiring filmmakers the world over.  No one quite knew what to make of its razor-sharp wit and unflinching violence, but they knew that a forceful new voice had just descended with a vengeance on the complacent Hollywood system.

 It’s hard not to speak in hyperbolic terms when discussing Tarantino—the man’s style and subject matter practically begs for it.

RESERVOIR DOGS has often been voted as one of, if not the best independent films of all time.  As a hard-boiled gangster/crime picture, it wears its influences on its sleeve, but then proceeds to upend every expectation in the book like a bull in a china shop.  Despite multiple viewings, it will still grip its audiences with gritted teeth and clenched knuckles like it did the first time.

I was a senior in high school when I familiarized myself with Tarantino, having casually heard how PULP FICTION (1994) was such an incredible film throughout my life.  It wasn’t until I watched my first Tarantino film, 2004’s KILL BILL VOLUME 1 in theaters that I was compelled to visit his back catalog.

On a whim, I snatched up both DVDs of PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS, with only the faintest idea of what I was getting myself into.While his later films would sprawl out to broader scales, RESERVOIR DOGS tells a very tight, very compact story that could easily be translated into live theatre (and has, on multiple occasions).

Five common criminals team up to stage a simple diamond heist, only for it to go horribly wrong.  The dazed and confused criminals rendezvous in an industrial warehouse on the fringes of town, trying to make sense of what happened.

As they argue and debate amongst themselves, they slowly realize that there’s a rat, or worse—an undercover cop—in their midst.  But figuring out the identity of the rat won’t be so easy, with tempers flaring and unexpected loyalty defections that raise the stakes to Shakespearean proportions.

Tarantino got his break off of RESERVOIR DOGS simply by the strength of his crackerjack script.  Through some personal connections, the screenplay winded up in the hands of character actor and frequent Martin Scorsese collaborator, Harvey Keitel.

Upon reading Tarantino’s script, Keitel immediately called up the young aspiring director and asked to take part in it.  Keitel’s participation proved instrumental, bringing in $1.5 million in financing and serious name recognition for a film that Tarantino had initially envisioned shooting with his friends for $30,000.

Coupled with the opportunity to workshop his script in-depth at the Sundance Institute’s Directing Labs, Tarantino was able to come to set on the first day with all the tools he needed to deliver a knockout film. Tarantino has always had an impeccable eye for casting, and the ensemble he collected for RESERVOIR DOGS is filled with unconventional, yet incredibly inspired choices.

The aforementioned Mr. Keitel experienced a late-career resurgence as a result of his performance as Mr. White, the tough yet tender thug at the center of the story.  Tim Roth, as Mr. Orange, is convincing as both a dangerous criminal and a cocky undercover cop.

Roth’s performance is superlatively dynamic despite spending the majority of his screen time lying in a pool of blood. Michael Madsen plays one of the film’s most terrifying characters, a smooth and squinty-eyed career criminal with a volatile sadistic streak—Mr. Blonde, real name Vic Vega.

Madsen’s too-cool-for-school performance results in a simple torture sequence becoming one of cinema’s most profoundly disturbing moments.  Mr. Blonde is a sick fuck, taking great pleasure in torturing a cop by cutting off his ear and soaking him in gasoline, only for his own amusement.

Steve Buscemi plays Mr. Pink, a squirrelly, self-deluded member of the team.  Tarantino initially wanted to play the part of Mr. Pink, but Buscemi’s energetic, bug-eyed audition convinced him otherwise.  Buscemi’s performance is incredibly memorable, with his argument for why he doesn’t tip waitresses in the opening diner scene being one of the most iconic moments in the movie.

Veteran character actor Lawrence Tierney plays the gang’s curmudgeonly fat-cat boss, Joe Cabot, with a tough, yet paternal flair.  Rounding out the cast is the late Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, Joe Cabot’s vindictive rich-prick son.

As Tarantino’s first, true professional work, RESERVOIR DOGS looks slick and polished, with none of the amateur-looking roughness that plagued his first attempt, MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987).  The first film to be produced with his frequent production partner, Lawrence Bender, RESERVOIR DOGS puts every cent of its $1.5 million budget on the screen.

For his first time working with 35mm film, Tarantino chooses the inherently-cinematic 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create dynamic wide compositions and infuse the maximum amount of style.  Cinematographer Andrjez Sekula gives the film a mid-80’s Technicolor patina comprised of washed out colors to complement Tarantino’s “Valley burnout” aesthetic.

The muted color palette also makes the bold splashes of crimson blood all the more jarring and visceral. I’ve written before about how Tarantino educated himself on filmmaking primarily by the voracious consumption of films, so it’s interesting to see how he uses the camera when he has the financial resources to be creative.

For the most part, RESERVOIR DOGS assumes a somewhat formalist style, preferring wide compositions and deliberate, smooth dolly movements.  This is interspersed with jarring handheld work, especially in the use of long tracking shots—a technique that would later become one component of Tarantino’s signature style.

For instance, there’s a moment halfway through the film when Mr. Blonde interrupts the torture of his captive to retrieve a gas can from his car outside.  The camera follows Michael Madsen as he steps outside, grabs the canister, and returns inside in one continuous shot.

While admittedly simple visually, this technique is incredibly complicated to pull off in one long take—there’s exposure switches and focus pulling to worry about, not to mention the fact that film is designed in two different color temperatures (daylight and interior), and can’t exactly be switched out mid-take.  Techniques like this require a competent, steady hand that fundamentally understands the nature of film-based acquisition.

RESERVOIR DOGS is full of these understated, incredibly complicated visual flourishes. For a first-time director with no formal film education to effortlessly do this time and time again, with style and grace to boot, is truly an astonishing thing to behold.

Tarantino’s mastery of the craft on his first time at bat also extends to the film’s sonic aspects, specifically the music.  The director eschewed the use of a conventional composer or score, opting instead to create a rockabilly musical landscape of old 70’s rock songs.

This conceit is incorporated into his self-contained universe, as the broadcast content of Tarantino’s fictional, recurring radio station K-Billy.  Tarantino’s eclectic taste in music is responsible for perhaps the film’s most infamous, enduring scene—who can easily forget the uneasy juxtaposition of watching a man’s ear hacked off while the jaunty rhythm of Stealer Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” bounces along the soundtrack?

As a developing filmmaker myself, Tarantino was a huge influence in the sense that his style exposed the unlimited possibilities of inspired and unexpected musical selections.

RESERVOIR DOGS put Tarantino’s bold, take-no-prisoners style on the map.  It suddenly became very cool in mainstream entertainment to find creative combinations of wit and profanity, to play up violence to an almost-cartoonish degree, or to make left-field pop culture references.

When Tarantino used his crucial opening minutes to ramble at length about the true meaning of Madonna’s song, “Like A Virgin”, he jumpstarted the era of self-referential pop culture that gave us the likes of Joss Whedon and Wes Craven’s SCREAM (1996).  As an interesting little aside, the characters mention Pam Grier at one point, who would later go on to start for Tarantino in his third feature, JACKIE BROWN (1997).

Other elements of Tarantino’s distinct style make their first appearance here in his filmography.  He incorporates a nonlinear storytelling structure, a chronological conceit that withholds key information for maximum dramatic impact, courtesy of Tarantino’s most valuable collaborator: the late editor Sally Menke.

His penchant for twisting his characters’ motivations into Mexican Standoff scenarios manifests itself quite literally in the climax of RESERVOIR DOGS, an occurrence that accurately reflects the uncertain loyalties and hidden intentions of its characters.  Other, lesser Tarantino-esque tropes also pop up throughout, like extended sequences set in bathrooms or diners.

Tarantino, along with Generation X contemporary Kevin Smith, were two of Sundance’s first high-profile breakout filmmakers.  RESERVOIR DOGS was a game-changing picture, with its release launching the career of one of cinema’s most audacious, divisive characters.

All those years of watching countless films, hacking away at his old scripts, and good-old-fashioned networking had finally coalesced into a directorial style that was comprised of everything that came before it, yet completely unlike anything that had ever been seen.


PULP FICTION (1994)

Director Quentin Tarantino made waves in international pop culture with his 1992 debut, RESEROVOIR DOGS.  Suddenly, his explosive, unpredictable style was the one to emulate, and he found himself besieged by Hollywood power players who wanted his grubby little paws all over their high-profile projects.

 Proving himself as a true artist, Tarantino rejected the opportunity to turn himself into a big-budget tentpole director and instead retreated to Amsterdam to work on the script for his follow-up.  The result was 1994’s PULP FICTION, and if Reservoir Dogs made waves, then PULP FICTION was a tsunami.

PULP FICTION, generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, is inarguably a zeitgeist film.  Not only is it one of the definitive 90’s films, the film itself played a significant role in defining the 90’s.  It influenced trends in fashion, music, art, film…the list goes on.

It remains most of the quotable films ever produced, and continues to have a huge impact on contemporary films.  PULP FICTION is a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic event, a work that shakes the language of film so fundamentally to its core that the medium never truly recovers.

I was a senior in high school when I first saw PULP FICTION.  I had heard about it all my life, and had that iconic teaser poster with Uma Thurman lying on a bed seared into my brain by virtue of a decade’s worth of pop culture exposure.  Watching PULP FICTION was a visceral experience for me, one that I count as highly influential within my own development as a filmmaker.

Most of us have seen PULP FICTION.  It is simply one of those films that, if you don’t seek it out yourself, is forced upon you by well-meaning friends.  So much has been written about the film that I won’t go into the specifics of the labyrinthine plot.

 Chances are that I could show you a picture of a guy in a black suit, white shirt and sunglasses, and you’d instantly think “Tarantino”.   His stories and creations have entered the realm of archetype, becoming instantly recognizable across linguistic and cultural barriers.

In terms of the cast, PULP FICTION will always be remembered as the film that (briefly) resurrected John Travolta’s career.  He had been one of Tarantino’s favorite performers and was plucked from actor jail to headline the film as long-haired hitman Vincent Vega.

While its arguable that Travolta has since squandered the goodwill he earned from this film, it’s hard to deny that he’s never been better than he is here. Samuel L. Jackson also received a considerable career boost as Vincent’s jheri-curled partner, Jules Winnenfield.

 His wild-eyed performance results in a collection of some of the most memorable one-liners in cinematic history (“English motherfucker, do you speak it!  Say what again, I dare you!  This is a tasty burger!”).  I’m not sure if Jackson himself has ever topped this performance, which quickly followed after his turn as “Hold On To Yo’ Butts” in Steven Spielberg’s massively successful JURASSIC PARK (1993).

The inclusion of Bruce Willis to the cast is heavily significant to Tarantino’s development as a filmmaker.  For a guy who was on the outside for so long, who lived and breathed movies as if they were air, the signing of Willis to the cast must have felt like a monumental event.

Willis gamely leaps out of his comfort zone for Tarantino, resulting in one of his greatest performances as Butch, a gruff boxer whose dignity refuses to let him throw a fight for money.Tarantino fills out the remainder of his supporting cast with faces both new and old.

Returning to the Tarantino fold are Tim Roth as Pumpkin—a manic bloke and professional robber—and Harvey Keitel as The Wolf—an urbane, sophisticated “fixer” for Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).  Despite being the leads in RESERVOIR DOGS, here they are relegated to minor (albeit memorable) roles.

Amanda Plummer plays Honey Bonny, Pumpkin’s unstable wife and fellow partner-in-crime.  As Marcellus Wallace, Rhames gives one of his most iconic performances, completely nailing the imposing, brutish nature required of him.  Eric Stoltz and Rosanna Arquette steal their scenes as husband-and-wife heroin dealers Lance and Jody.

Christopher Walken appears in a cameo as the preternaturally creepy Captain Kuntz, who visits a pre-teen Butch to explain the significance of a watch that belonged to Butch’s father.And then there’s Uma Thurman, who is usually featured prominently in advertising for the film (see the aforementioned one-sheet poster).

Her unforgettable turn as Marcellus Wallace’s femme fatale, cokehead wife turned her into a star overnight.  Tarantino has often gone on record declaring that Thurman is his “muse”, the one talent that inspires him more than any other.  Their collaboration for the KILL BILL films began during production of PULP FICTION, when Tarantino and Thurman would hash out the Bride’s story during breaks in filming.

Indeed, Mia Wallace’s story about her work on the fictional “Fox Force 5” pilot reads like a rough draft of the character dynamics of The Viper Squad in KILL BILL.  It’s easy to speculate that their relationship was/is romantic in nature, as most director/muse relationships are, but I’m not exactly here to talk about the man’s sex life.

With the financial backing of Miramax producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein (as well as a continuing collaboration with RESERVOIR DOGS producer Lawrence Bender), PULP FICTION jumps leagues beyond Tarantino’s debut in terms of visual presentation.  Retaining the services of cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, Tarantino opts to shoot on 35mm film in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

This makes for bold, frequently-wide compositions that highlight the characters amidst the dried-out San Fernando Valley landscape.  Tarantino and Sekula cultivate a color palette that’s reminiscent of aged Technicolor—creamy highlights, slightly washed out primaries and slightly-muddled contrast.

The result is a burnt-out rockabilly aesthetic that jives with Tarantino’s Elvis-inspired, anachronistic visual style.For PULP FICTION, Tarantino also brings back his RESERVOIR DOGS production designer, David Wasco.  Wasco does an incredible job of applying Tarantino’s signature sense of “movie-ness” to a realistic world.

Everything is believable, yet just a little larger than life.  One of the film’s biggest set-pieces is the Jack Rabbit Slim’s set, which was built from scratch to evoke kitschy Americana diners that were popular in midcentury Los Angeles.

The restaurant reads as a geek shrine to Tarantino’s love of cinema, with posters adorning the walls, pop culture relics scattered left and right, and waitstaff dressed up as famous Old Hollywood icons (look out for RESERVOIR DOGS’ Steve Buscemi in an unrecognizable cameo as “Buddy Holly”).

The increased budget also means new toys for Tarantino to play with, and where RESERVOIR DOGS was compact and minimalist like a stage play, here he goes all-out with a dynamic camera that bobs and weaves as it follows its subjects.  A Steadicam provides ample opportunity for Tarantino to explore his enthusiasm for long tracking shots.

Watching the film recently, I became acutely aware of how subtly complicated Tarantino’s tracking shots are.  There’s one in particular about three quarters through the movie, where the camera follows Willis’ character as he stalks through a vacant lot and squeezes through a chain-link fence.

The camera doesn’t break stride as it glides through the hole after him.  The hole was barely big enough for Willis to slip through, so it blows my mind how someone wielding a cumbersome Steadicam rig could effortlessly slide through the same opening without getting caught up in it.

This shot in particular has stuck in my mind, and I still can’t figure out how they did it.  Tarantino’s mastery of camera movements is matched only by the sheer audacity with which he employs them.

The infamous “trunk shot”, one of Tarantino’s most well-known signatures, is employed here as well.  It had previously turned up in RESERVOIR DOGS as well, but PULP FICTION was where Tarantino’s style became really established and the awareness of the trunk POV shot was first recognized.

One of the film’s more-subtle techniques, however, was the employment of rear projection during several driving sequences.  Rear projection is an old filmmaking technique from the days before green screen that would project travelling road footage behind actors to simulate motion (i.e., driving).

More-realistic compositing capabilities were very much available during the production of PULP FICTION, but Tarantino’s employment of the outdated technology was an inspired melding with his vintage aesthetic.   What’s so brilliantly subtle about it is that the rear projection itself is in black and white, while the actors are rendered in full color.

The effect is so understated that it’s easy to miss it, but adds a sophisticated, vintage flair to the film’s look. Of course, no discussion of PULP FICTION would be complete without mentioning its groundbreaking use of music.

A sourced soundtrack comprised of prerecorded music hasn’t been this revolutionary since Martin Scorsese made the practice en vogue with his debut film, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR? (1967).  Instead of hiring a professional music supervisor, Tarantino assembled his eclectic mix from his own record collection, oftentimes sourcing it from the vinyl itself—hiss, cracks, and all.

This creates a warm, vintage sound that perfectly complements the use of various soul, pop, and surf rock tracks.  In particular, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” was rescued from relative obscurity to become one of the most iconic pieces of music of all time, all because PULP FICTION decided to use it as its de facto theme song.

It’s very rare that a piece of music becomes so indelibly tied to its appearance in a film, but Tarantino manages to do this regularly.  It’s become so much of a calling card that his fans eagerly await the soundtrack listings of every upcoming project to see what musical treasures he’ll dig up.

There are numerous storytelling conceits that make up Tarantino’s directorial style.  The razor-sharp wit.  The creative use of profanity.  Self-invented product brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Kahuna Bruger as part of a fabricated sandbox reality his character inhabit.

But it is also his structural quirks that reveal a lot about him as an artist.  Most Tarantino films begin with lengthy, simple opening credits of text over black.  To me, this reads like a reverential nod to formalistic influences from classic cinema; a humble genuflection at the altar of The Church of Film before he delivers a fiery sermon.

His tendency to construct his films in a nonlinear timeline reflect the way his mind works—those who have watched an interview with him can attest that he’s all over the place mentally, hopping around from point to point at a dizzying speed, overlapping, pre-lapping forward-lapping while still somehow making sense.

The use of book-like intertitles and chapter designations to divide up his narratives come from the pulp inspirations behind his stories and the lack of a formal education in traditional three-act writing structure.Placing himself in a small cameo/supporting role speaks to both a mild narcissism on Tarantino’s part, but forgivable given how damn earnest he is about his work.

The lingering shots on feet, well…. that’s fairly obvious why he does that.Together with his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, Tarantino has made a motif of the Mexican Standoff.  Even when it’s not explicitly included in his films, as it is in RESERVOIR DOGS, he incorporates its compelling aspects seamlessly into the narrative structure.

He uses incredibly long, drawn-out dialogue sequences to sustain suspense almost to a breaking point, and when violence finally erupts, it is quick, shocking, and efficient.  The magnitude of the carnage is amplified by the sustained build-up, a fact that Tarantino and Menke know all too well.

This dynamic is included in some form in virtually all of Tarantino’s film, with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) seemingly made up entirely of Mexican Standoff-like sequences.To prepare for writing this entry, I watched all of the supplemental features for PULP FICTION, including Tarantino’s appearance on the Charlie Rose Show in 1994.

I mention this because Tarantino regularly does something akin to The Directors Series himself, in which he watches a given director’s body of work in chronological order to determine the course of their career and the evolution of their style.  I was blown away to see the reasoning behind my efforts validated by a successful major filmmaker.

A filmmaker like Tarantino knows that it’s absolutely essential, if you’re going to make film, to watch and study the broad spectrum of film works.  One would be shocked to find that many aspiring filmmakers aren’t versed at all in the century-long history of the medium.

I forget who made this point (it might have been Charlie Rose or Siskel & Ebert), but there was an observation that those who tried to mimic Tarantino’s style as their own would cite him as a major influence, yet they showed an ignorance to the directors that inspired Tarantino himself.  They had no interest in familiarizing themselves with Howard Hawks, Brian DePalma, or Mario Bava, all of whom left an indelible mark on Tarantino’s artistic formation.

A limited sphere of influence is a major hindrance to true creativity. I don’t need to elaborate on the windfall that the release of PULP FICTION bestowed on those behind its production.  It was a major box office success, it won Tarantino his first Academy Award, and it won him one of the most prestigious prizes in all of cinema: the Cannes Palm d’Or.

It single-handedly enabled the Weinstein Brothers to become the producing and award-lobbying powerhouses that they are today.  Audiences responded to it in a manner as violent as its content, with patrons suffering heart attacks in the theatre or laughing so hard their chairs broke.

By rousing the moviegoing audience from its unknowing complacency, Tarantino had become the hottest filmmaker in the world, and one of the leading cultural tastemakers of the 1990’s.  And most importantly, he had done it entirely on his own terms.  The cinema would never be the same.


E.R. EPISODE: MOTHERHOOD (1995)

I remember E.R. as a zeitgeist show, a conceit that strikes me as odd since I never watched it.  Hospital procedurals were all the rage in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, but there was just something so off-putting about the entire concept to me.  I hate spending time in real hospitals, so why would I want to spend an hour each week in a fictitious one?

 The closest I ever got to E.R. was during my internship at Warner Bros, where the E.R. exterior set occupies a permanent place on the backlot. However, it’s not hard to see why other people would find this setting dramatic.  Hospitals are where people go to be born, die and everything in-between.  Suspense is the dominant tone of the day, followed by chaos.

 It makes sense that so many television shows have mined the field of medicine for inspiration.After the success of 1994’s breakout hit, PULP FICTION, it’s a little perplexing to see director Quentin Tarantino segue into television.  This guy practically lit the world of cinema on fire with his last feature, so why would his next move be a journeyman directing gig on a weekly episodic?

To me, it makes a weird sort of sense.  Tarantino has always been associated with pop culture and genre-fare, and it’s entirely possible that he was a huge fan of the show and jumped at the opportunity to contribute to it.

E.R. is not very different from other serials of its ilk, in that it is essentially a soap opera set in a high-stress workplace.  Tarantino’s episode, “MOTHERHOOD”, serves as the penultimate episode of the first season, so naturally the characters’ stakes are running high.

“MOTHERHOOD” takes place, appropriately, on Mother’s Day, so everyone is dealing with maternal nature in some way.  Babies are born, mothers die, futures are considered.  George Clooney rose to fame during his tenure on ER, and he’s easily the most watchable thing about the show.

 Tarantino gets his first chance to work with his future FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) co-star here, but the limitations of the episodic format means that he has to stay firmly within showrunner John Wells’ boundaries.  Other actors of note are Noah Wyle as the indecisive, wide-eyed John Carter and a cameo by Tarantino’s then-girlfriend Kathy Lee Griffin (who also pops up in a cameo in Tarantino’s PULP FICTION).

By the nature of the television medium, where the showrunner– not the director– has final say on the overall direction of the production, Tarantino eschews his recurring collaborators for E.R.’s sanctioned department heads.  He also has to forego his dynamic visual style and adapt his aesthetic to E.R.’s pre-defined look.

Thankfully, the style of E.R. is well within Tarantino’s wheelhouse, with a gritty, handheld sensibility.  Tarantino makes extensive use of a Steadicam rig for long, complicated tracking shots, but I can’t tell if that is his own design or a regular technique on the show.

Granted, you don’t sign Tarantino to direct an episode of your TV show without allowing him to sprinkle in some of his signature touches.  The dialogue is witty, laced with verbose profanity (albeit tamed by primetime TV standards), abundant references to pop culture and movies, and the inclusion of unexpected source music like hip-hop during a birthing sequence.

 There’s even an overdose character that calls to mind the infamous overdose scene in PULP FICTION, and a girl with her ear cut off serving as a callback to the ear-cutting sequence in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992).For a director known to exclusively make his own material, “MOTHERHOOD” is an interesting anomaly in his canon.

 It reads to me like an energetic, young director with a veritable buffet of opportunities laid out before him, and he wants to try one of everything.  Perhaps he wanted to challenge himself by submitting his unique style to the strict parameters of a pre-established serial.  Or maybe he just really, really likes E.R., you guys.

1995 was definitely an experimental year for Tarantino.  He was in between features, and needed to do something to stay relevant and active.  By taking a quick TV directing gig, he was able to find the unexpected creativity that comes from working under well-defined parameters.

“MOTHERHOOD” is a very minor entry in Tarantino’s filmography, owing to its more-or-less disposable subject matter, but it ultimately benefits him by throwing him out of his comfort zone.  And as any director worth his salt knows, challenging yourself is the only real way towards growth.


FOUR ROOMS: THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD (1995)

Every director experiences a misfire at some point in his/her career.  Even Stanley Kubrick, widely considered to be one of the greatest directors that ever lived, felt the bitter string of failure once or twice.  It’s as inevitable as the sun coming up each day.  For a director as strong-minded and controversial as Quentin Tarantino, it was only a matter of “when”, not “if” his misfire would occur.

It’s arguable that he may have had more than one of these ill-advised projects within his filmography, but I feel that most would agree his first brush with failure came when he involved himself in the 1995 anthology feature, FOUR ROOMS. All but forgotten within Tarantino’s own canon, FOUR ROOMS is only talked about now in hushed whispers in dark corners of movie nerd chat rooms.

FOUR ROOMS features the work of four directors—Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino—each contributing a short sequence that when put together, presents the story of Ted (Tim Roth), an anxious bellhop, and the eccentric characters he encounters during his first night of employment at a fictional Los Angeles hotel.

While the film admittedly possesses an intriguing executional premise, the film didn’t perform well at the box office, and was met with heaps of scorn by critics.  While Tarantino can’t claim 100% of the blame here, his work can certainly be viewed objectively outside of the context of the larger project.

Tarantino’s section, entitled “THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD”, occurs as the film’s climax.  Rightly so, as Tarantino is arguably the biggest name in the film.  His section finds Ted nearing the end of a long, crazy night and called up to the penthouse to deliver a few very specific items to its guests.

 Upon entering the penthouse, Ted is roped into the aftermath of a boozy Hollywood bender, hosted by film director Chester Rush (Tarantino himself).  It’s New Year’s Eve, everyone’s drunk, and their wealth has left them bored and restless.  Rush and friends devise a treacherous game- if one of the guests can successfully light his lighter ten consecutive times, he wins Rush’s cherry red Chevy convertible.

If the lighter fails to light even once, he loses his pinky finger.  Soon enough, Ted finds himself in big dilemma when Rush coaxes him into wielding the hatchet intended for the aforementioned pinkie.  Will he take the $1000 offered to him for going through this morbid gamble, or will he cave to fear and lose out on an easy payday?

This is the kind of story that’s perfect for short films.  A simple, one-off scenario that creates natural conflict between characters who don’t need a lot of fleshing out.  Roth, once again collaborating with his RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION director, assumes the effete, nebbish expectations of a stereotypical bellhop.

  It’s not much of an acting challenge on its face, but it certainly pays off in the piece’s ending moments by a huge subversion of audience expectation. Tarantino has a penchant for casting himself, and he takes advantage of the opportunity afforded by a lower-profile project to give himself a starring role.

His Chester Rush character plays like an exaggerated, in-on-the-joke version of himself in real life.  Rush is a motormouth with a short temper and a sense of self-importance that isn’t entirely earned.  Roth’s PULP FICTION co-star Bruce Willis also makes a glorious, uncredited appearance as one of Rush’s freeloader friends undergoing severe marital troubles.

Willis wasn’t credited because he violated SAG rules by appearing in the film for free.  Unexpectedly liberated by the constraints of Willis’ public image, Tarantino plays with his celebrity persona by dressing him up as an intellectual type boiling with impotent anger.  It’s a deeply funny turn by Willis, the kind I’d like to see him do more often.

Despite being an anthology film with a singular through-story, each director is allowed to collaborate behind the camera with whomever they want.  To this end, Tarantino recruits his regular collaborators—producer Lawrence Bender, director of photography Andrzej Sekula, and editor Sally Menke.

Taking a cue from Alfred Hitchock’s ROPE (1948), Tarantino strings along a series of long takes to construct his film.  Sekula and Tarantino utilize a Steadicam rig to wantonly careen around the penthouse set.  Tarantino and Roth also repeatedly break the fourth wall by talking directly to the camera, but the effect is jarring and counterintuitive rather than inspired.

THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD is most definitely a Tarantino creation, what with its creative profanity and numerous pop culture and film references.  It’s worth noting that a very striking corner has been turned here.  Now that he is in a position to directly influence pop culture, Tarantino’s signature references have begun referring back to himself and his creations.

For instance, Tarantino’s character not-so-casually mentions that a particular drink was a “tasty beverage”.  Of course, Samuel L. Jackson made the line famous in PULP FICTION.  It’s a very specific collection of words, first spoken by a black man and now—like so many arbiters of “cool” in our culture—appropriated by a white man trying to trade in his inherent nerdiness for an effortless swagger.

THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD also exists as a distilled example of Tarantino’s most potent signature conceit: the slow-burn suspense sequence capped off by a short explosion of violence.  This is manifested in the film’s pinkie bet centerpiece, and is a classic Tarantino creation.

We see the elements of this absurdly-complicated bet slowly come together throughout the entirety of the piece, with Tarantino’s character verbally building anticipation with each passing minute.  When the inevitable moment of violence comes, it still arrives with a great deal of surprise and unmitigated glee.

While they aren’t working directly with each other, THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD finds Tarantino in his first collaboration with fellow independent maverick and close personal friend, Robert Rodriguez.  Tarantino would go on to script and star in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN for Rodriguez, beginning a decade-long fascination with each other that would result in shared directing projects like SIN CITY (2005) and GRINDHOUSE (2007).

When all is said and done however, THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD, like the larger FOUR ROOMS project encapsulating it, is a dud.  Tarantino’s contribution is most likely the strongest part of the film, but it’s dramatically/comically inert.

Rather, it feels more like an indulgent victory lap celebrating Tarantino’s ascent into the Hollywood elite, painted in the broad strokes of caricature as a means to veil said victory lap.  The aftermath of the pinkie bet is easily the best part about the film, but it only comes after a long, bloated slog through boring-town.

Thankfully, the low profile of the film upon its release didn’t have any sort of long-term negative effect on Tarantino’s career.  Ultimately, THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD is forgivable as an act of experimentation, but shows no real growth on behalf of Tarantino besides more practice with long, complicated Steadicam takes.


JACKIE BROWN (1997)

Three years after his breakout hit, PULP FICTION (1994), set the cinema on fire, director Quentin Tarantino returned with a follow-up feature that again confounded his audience’s expectations.  Primarily known for directing his own material, Tarantino found himself adapting pre-existing material for the first time.

 He had always been a fan and kindred spirit of author Elmore Leonard, and found in Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” the inspiration for what he would come to call “his take” on the Blaxploitation genre.  The result was 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, a solid and surprising film that was met with modest commercial success, a warm critical reception, and indisputable proof that Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.

JACKIE BROWN tells the story of the titular character, played by 1970’s blaxpoitation icon and sex symbol Pam Grier.  Jackie is an aging career criminal, down on her luck and trying to save up legitimate money for retirement on her paltry airline stewardess salary.

To make ends meet, she smuggles cash for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) across international borders.  When she’s caught by agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearm Bureau, she strikes a deal to help the ATF catch Ordell in exchange for her freedom.

 An elaborate sting involving marked bills and a Torrance shopping mall is devised, drawing in aging bounty hunter Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and schlubby ex-con Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) into the complicated plot.Emboldened by John Travolta’s career resurgence in the wake of PULP FICTION, Tarantino runs with the idea of stocking his JACKIE BROWN with aging (yet still excellent) performers that have seen better days.

Pam Grier is a revelation as the titular heroine.  She’s a former sex symbol that is unafraid to show her age, which gives her the perfect amount of gravitas for the role of a weary stewardess with a con-man’s disposition.

It’s easily the best performance of her career, and I’m uncertain that any director will ever again use her as well as Tarantino does here.   While she didn’t exactly go on to accumulate more work in the wake of JACKIE BROWN’s modest success, her profile was raised considerably as was the level of professional respect afforded to her.

Venerable character actor Robert Forster also became a beneficiary of Tarantino’s “Travolta Effect” when he signed on to play the role of Max Cherry, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold.  Forster has certainly seen better days—a fact that Tarantino emphasizes with every close-up, revealing entire canyons of wrinkles etched into the man’s face like dry riverbeds.

 Max Cherry is an honorable, decent, and good man whose judgment is compromised by his love for Jackie Brown, but he never approaches anywhere near unlikeable because of it.  He gives the film a paternal presence that elegantly counters Grier’s feisty persona.

 Tarantino had always been fond of Forster as an actor, and used his powers of cultural persuasion for good once again to make us remember Forster’s subtle, compelling talent for eons to come.  Samuel L. Jackson, in his second consecutive Tarantino appearance, plays the film’s main heavy—the inimitable, ratty-ponytailed arms dealer Ordell Robbie.

 There seems to be a thing with Jackson and having creepy/weird hair in his collaborations with Tarantino, because the style he rocks in JACKIE BROWN makes me all kinds of uneasy.  Ordell is a cold-blooded psychopath who commits murder in the name of his business interests, and there is simply no other actor on earth that can convey that kind of charismatic menace.

 Jackson plays the character like a classic Blaxploitation antagonist, albeit updated with a Kangol hat and a 90’s sensibility.  Similar to Bruce Willis’ inclusion in Tarantino’s previous film, it must have been a dream come true for a director profoundly influenced by Martin Scorsese to sign an actor like Robert DeNiro to his film.

 De Niro, who spent much of the late 90’s and 2000’s taking uninspired paycheck roles, gives one of his best performances in years as the fu-manchu’d ex-con Louis Gara.  DeNiro wheezes and mumbles his way through his performance, giving off the impression of a weary tough guy who’s content living out the rest of his days as a total slob.

The veteran actor does a great job amping up the sleaze by going for broke with his greasy, unkempt hair and prison tattoos peeking out from underneath baggy Hawaiian shirts.  It’s a deeply funny and macabre performance that shows us a side of DeNiro we’ve never seen before.

Michael Keaton also turns in one of the best performances of his career as ATF agent Ray Nicolette.  He assumes a gum-smacking nervous energy as a man who thinks he’s cooler than he actually is.  It’s an inspired, left-field casting choice on Tarantino’s part, but then again so was Keaton for Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film of the same name.

Keaton steals every scene he’s in, which says a lot when he’s up against the likes of Grier, Jackson or DeNiro.  What makes Keaton’s participation even more charming is the fact that he reprised the role a year later in another Elmore Leonard adaptation (Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT), as a good-natured nod to Leonard’s wider literary universe.

When you’ve got a starring cast primarily composed of character actors, it stands to reason that the supporting cast might get overshadowed.  However, the supporters of JACKIE BROWN hold their own against their leading counterparts.  Bridget Fonda adopts the perfect beach bunny/stoner affectation as Melanie, Ordell’s Hermosa Beach girlfriend (he’s got them all around town).

Chris Tucker gives, frankly, his best performance ever as Beaumont, a petty criminal and squirrelly character that finds himself on the wrong side of Ordell’s good graces.  And finally, Rob Zombie mainstay and veteran exploitation film actor Sid Haig has a brief cameo as the judge at Jackie Brown’s trial—a nice nod to the long list of films they’ve done together.

Right off the bat, most people will notice how visually sedate JACKIE BROWN is compared to PULP FICTION or RESERVOIR DOGS (or even his later work, for that matter).  That’s not to say that the film isn’t visually dynamic, but it deals in metaphorical shades of grey, rather than stark black and white.

Working again with his regular producers Lawrence Bender and the Weinstein Brothers, Tarantino has a significantly-sized tool chest to pull from, but he opts for a restrained, mature approach.  Foregoing his usual cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula, Tarantino instead has hired Guillermo Navarro, who brings a naturalistic look to the proceedings.

Gone are the burned-out Technicolor hues of Tarantino past—JACKIE BROWN’s 35mm film image boasts an earth-toned color palette, peppered with bold swaths of reds, blues, greens, and yellows that harken back to the colorful Blaxploitation films that inspired it.  Returning production designer David Wasco helps translate Tarantino’s San Fernando Valley burnout aesthetic to the inner industrial wastelands of central LA.

The predominantly warm color scheme of the film further plays into the 1970’s vibe, along with the incorporation of other stylistic relics of the era, like parallel action shown in split-screen and punchy, detail-filled insert shots.  Camera movements and pacing are a huge component of Tarantino’s style, and JACKIE BROWN showcases considerable development for the young director in that regard.

He has an uncanny intuition that tells him when (and how) to move a camera, and when to keep it still.  This is complemented by his trusty editor Sally Menke’s keen ear for the natural rhythm or music of the scene.  One example occurs early on in the movie, where Ordell has just locked Beaumont in his trunk under the auspices of rolling up on some shady arms customers with bad intentions.

Once inside the car, Ordell turns on a classic soul tune that stands in stark contrast to the pitch-black events on-screen.  He drives him to an adjacent vacant lot, fires a couple rounds into Beaumont, and drives away.  What’s remarkable about this scene, however, is that Tarantino presents the action from an objective, omniscient point of view, whereas he usually opts for an extremely subjective angle.

The camera slowly cranes from the street up over the vacant lot’s fence, where Ordell’s car and his crime are framed in the distance.  Despite our emotional remove from the central action, it’s a haunting sequence because Ordell’s cold-blooded nature is emphasized even more so than if we had seen the blasts close-up.

The off-tone musical selection is the coup de grace, and a textbook example of why Tarantino stands apart from his contemporaries and copycats.  Tarantino’s visual style is easily definable due to his recurring compositional conceits.  There’s the well-known trunk POV shot (manifested in JACKIE BROWN prior to the aforementioned Beaumont murder scene, where Ordell squabbles with Beaumont about actually getting inside the trunk).

The film also sees the introduction of another major composition conceit- the profile shot.  By this, I mean his tendency to frame his characters in profile.  This is seen most often in dialogue sequences, but he also uses it to striking effect in motion, such as the iconic opening of the film featuring Jackie Brown riding an LAX people-mover while a colorful mosaic of wall tiles rolls past (which is itself a reference to the same opening shot in Mike Nichols’ THE GRADUATE (1967), that time against blank white tiles).

The use of profile shots points to parts of Tarantino’s aesthetic influenced not by film, but by pulp novels, Japanese manga, and comic books.  These influences would go on to manifest themselves to a much larger degree in his next project: KILL BILL (2004).

The opening credits for THE GRADUATE for comparison:

While JACKIE BROWN is Tarantino’s first true linear storyline, he can’t help but incorporate nonlinear elements into the narrative.  In a design inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950)—a film about a singular event retold in the differing perspectives of its ensemble—Tarantino stages the central money-switch sting as a converging event for all the characters involved.

We see the plan carried out from the point of view of each key character, and each time a little more information is revealed until we have the complete picture.  Tarantino makes extensive use of long tracking shots here to convey the size of the mall location, effortlessly weaving in dialogue of peripheral characters into the ambient sound mix in a way that conveys where the current subject is on the overall timeline.

It’s a showy technique, to be sure, but Tarantino resists the urge to showboat his directorial skills and lets his perspective shifts naturally build the story and the suspense.  Music plays an integral role in JACKIE BROWN, as it does in all of Tarantino’s films.

While it is certainly an inspired and eclectic mix of source tracks, it is admittedly more on-the-nose than the likes of using surf rock for PULP FICTION’s pulp noir.  The soundtrack throws many nods to the Blaxploitation genre by including a mix of classic R&B and soul cuts.  Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” in particular is used to striking effect in the opening credits, becoming the film’s de facto theme song.

Some hip-hop, as well as an off-tone country ballad by Johnny Cash also makes an appearance.  Unlike his previous films, there is somewhat of a score element in JACKIE BROWN, albeit it is culled from a pre-existing work: Roy Hyer’s score for COFFY (1973), a classic in the Blaxploitation genre that made Pam Grier a star.

JACKIE BROWN effortlessly crosses out each item on the Tarantino Style checklist: closeups of feet implying the director’s own admitted fetish, chapter-like inter-titles used as scene divisions, yellow-colored title fonts, long tracking shots, creative profanity, abundant pop culture references, etc.

I wrote before in my analysis of FOUR ROOMS: THE MAN FROM HOLLYWOOD (1995) how Tarantino had become such a force in pop culture that he was now referencing himself.  This trend continues over into JACKIE BROWN.

For instance, when Jackie Brown conducts the sting operation, she purchases and changes into a feminine version of the black suit and white shirt worn by the archetypical Tarantino criminals in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION.  There’s also a fictional “Chicks With Guns” TV program that the characters watch, which comes off as a satirical version of the way Tarantino’s films are negatively characterized by the press as violence porn.

Another interesting trope of Tarantino’s style that makes its first appearance in JACKIE BROWN is echoing a hard cut visual transition in the non-diagetic music mix.  In other words, Tarantino and Menke simply cut the music without a fade or transition as the shot changes.  It’s a jarring effect that traces its roots back to the innovations of the French New Wave, and I find it endlessly amusing.

Casual moviegoers might find it odd for a white man to tackle such a specific ethnic genre, but Tarantino has always been comfortable within African-American culture.  By his own account, he grew up in a housing project in Tennessee shared by both blacks and whites, so he feels right at home in JACKIE BROWN’s cultural wheelhouse.

This conceit is not without its problems, however.  Much has been written about Tarantino’s controversial use of the “n” word, and reactions to it fall on both sides of the line—director Spike Lee loathes it, Samuel L. Jackson defends it.  I’m not here to debate whether Tarantino has a right to use the word by virtue of expressing his fictional characters’ convictions, but I am here to note its significant role in his legacy.

The “n” word has always lurked in Tarantino’s filmography: dropped casually/almost unnoticeably in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), picking up steam and mild outrage when the director (acting in character) says the word himself in PULP FICTION, coming to a common, yet justifiable occurrence in JACKIE BROWN, and finally tipping the scales back into gratuitous-or-not uncertainty with its pervasive presence in Tarantino’s latest, DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

JACKIE BROWN occupies an interesting space in Tarantino’s filmography.  Upon release it was hailed as a worthy successor to the groundbreaking PULP FICTION, with influential critics like Roger Ebert going nuts for it.  It was a commercial success and kick-started the flagging careers of many of its cast.

A little less than twenty years later, JACKIE BROWN has been overshadowed by the sheer bombast of his more-recent work, enough to the point where most might consider JACKIE BROWN a minor, yet solid, entry.  It hasn’t aged as well as PULP FICTION has, but then again it always belonged to another dated era entirely.

Among his major motion pictures, it is likely the least seen, but those who give the disc a spin are instantly charmed by its unique characters and throwback vibe.  JACKIE BROWN is a love letter to a genre of films that profoundly influenced Tarantino, and this film is his way of giving back to the ideas and people that gave him so much.


KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 (2003)

The 4th film by Quentin Tarantino (as it reads in the film’s advertising copy), KILL BILL: VOLUME 1, was released during an odd time in my cinematic development.  The year was 2003, and I had just entered my senior year of high school.  By that time, I was of age to see R-rated films in theatres without any kind of hassle or sneaky spy shit—but my friends were not.

And that is how on a cold winter night in Portland, my younger brother and best friend were stuck in another auditorium watching a stale biopic on the religious reformer Martin Luther, while I was alone in another auditorium gleefully taking in the literal bloodbath that was KILL BILL: VOLUME 1. 

I had heard of Tarantino prior to this, by virtue of being a casual participant in cinematic pop culture.  However, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 was the first Tarantino film I ever saw, and I was riveted for its duration.  After leaving the theatre, I immediately (okay, maybe it was a week or two later) went out and bought PULP FICTION (1994) and RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) on DVD so I could check out his other work—the first time I had ever done so as for a given director.

I hadn’t yet gone to film school, so I had yet to learn about Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, but I intuitively understood the sentiment because of Tarantino.

Tarantino’s grand return to cinema after 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 was almost ten years in the making.  What began as excited chattering and brainstorming between Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman during the production of PULP FICTION slowly grew over the years to become a gargantuan celebration of cinema’s various forms and a legitimate pop cultural phenomenon unto itself.

KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004) was released only six months later, but Tarantino had initially conceived the idea as one epic revenge tale spanning vast swaths of time and space.  Rather indulgently, Tarantino added new scenes to the script as he shot—a testament to the unfettered, unadulterated giddiness with which he approached the project—only to find himself in the editing room with a film that ran a (bladder-annihilating) four hours.

His producing partners—Lawrence Bender, Bob Weinstein, and Harvey Weinstein—successfully argued for the film to get released in two parts.  Hence, VOLUME 1.

The KILL BILL saga tells the blood-soaked tale of The Bride (Thurman), who lost her baby and four years of her life when she was attacked and left for dead on her wedding day by her old boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine) and his gang of elite killers, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

When she comes out of her coma, she immediately sets to work planning the execution of each and every person involved.  KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 sets up the Bride’s quest, travelling as far as Japan as she pursues the first two ex-Viper Squad names on her Death List: Pasadena homemaker Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and Yakuza boss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

Along the way, she coaxes the legendary Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) into constructing a new samurai sword for her, and encounters a masked Yakuza gang called the Crazy 88’s.

Tarantino’s cast is first-rate, turning in performances that are at once both over-the-top and sincere.  This is Thurman’s show, through and through, and she soaks up every ounce of energy in the scene, channeling it into an aggressive performance.  With revenge tales, it’s easy for the protagonist to become so focused in their vendetta that they become one-note and cease being multi-dimensional.

Fortunately, Thurman imbues The Bride character with unfathomable complexity and grit.  She courageously stares down every challenge and continually summons up vast wells of strength to overcome them.  It’s one of Thurman’s most high-profile performances, and easily one of her best.

I’ll elaborate more on Carradine’s portrayal of Bill in my analysis of VOLUME 2, as he is only heard, and never seen during the entirety of VOLUME 1.  However, his seasoned growl of a voice does the heavy lifting for us, telling us everything we need to know about the chief target of The Bride’s obsessive quest.  Instead, the chief antagonist of VOLUME 1 is O-Ren Ishii, played by Lucy Liu in the role she was born to play.

O-Ren is a highly-skilled assassin and can match the Bride in sword combat blow for blow, so it was crucial that whoever plays the role can convey the appropriate amount of fierceness and conviction.  Liu pulls this off effortlessly, channeling her years of experience in other action films into a surprisingly subversive performance.

Of all the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, she is given the most amount of backstory, which paints her as the dark mirror image of the Bride and the strongest possible antagonist for her to face in the first installment.

Tarantino’s supporting cast is stuffed with scene-stealing turns, their interactions against the relatively blank canvas of The Bride’s personality serving to highlight their unique character traits.  Vivica A. Fox plays the most against type as the fierce, sassy Vernita Green, who—in a brilliant manipulation on Tarantino’s part—finds herself fighting for her life against the Bride while simultaneously trying to hide the violence from her young daughter.

Julie Dreyfus is the most conventionally-feminine presence in the film, as O-ren’s half-French, half-Japanese lawyer and protégé, Sofie Fatale.  Chiaki Kuriyama plays Gogo Yubari, O-Ren’s teenage bodyguard with a mean psychotic streak  and the appearance of a giggling Japanese schoolgirl.  Sonny Chiba is a welcome comedic presence as Hattori Hanzo, a wisened sage and retired swordmaker who is called out of retirement when he learns the intended target of The Bride’s vendetta.

And finally, veteran character actor Michael Parks plays Earl McGraw, a Texas cop and gruff, tobacco-spittin’ sonabitch. This is Parks’ first collaboration with Tarantino, and he would continue working with Tarantino in bit roles throughout the mid-2000’s.  He’d even go on to reprise his role as the fan-favorite McGraw character in both sections of the joint-Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez directorial effort GRINDHOUSE (2007).

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 is arguably one of the most dynamic and strikingly visual films ever made.  The utmost care and passion went into the composition of every shot, and Tarantino’s love for the art form and its seminal works comes through in every frame.  He enlists the services of cinematographer Robert Richardson for the first time, who gorgeously captures Tarantino’s wild vision and arresting 2.35:1 compositions on Super 35mm film.

Gone are the burnished Technicolor hues of Tarantino past; this film is slick, with brightly saturated colors and high-key, expressionistic lighting.  Each scene references some form of cinema that Tarantino loves, whether it’s a kung-fu flick, a spaghetti western, a Blaxploitation film, or even a Brian DePalma shlock thriller.

The umbrella term for Tarantino’s visual presentation here would be “grindhouse”, but he pulls inspiration from every corner of the film universe, mashing it together into a Frankenstein-ish form that’s astonishingly coherent.

Tarantino has always been a referential filmmaker, appropriating bits and pieces from his influences into a style that’s both his own and an homage to the works that came before it.  KILL BILL VOLUME 1 is arguably the most nakedly referential film in Tarantino’s canon, adapting the look and style of each scene to the subgenre of film it is paying homage to.

For instance, the use of split-screen and that unsettling “whistle” song during the sequence where the eye-patched assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah disguised as a nurse) sneaks into a comatose Bride’s room to inject poison into her veins is a direct reference to both Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (1980).

Both directors are commonly cited as huge influences on Tarantino, and he (along with the help of unsung hero, the late editor Sally Menke) manages to wordlessly reference both of them while creating something entirely his own.  The KILL BILL saga is littered with mish-and-mash sequences like these.

For me personally, the most jarringly original thing about the film is Tarantino’s inclusion of an animated sequence midway through the film.  Another reference to the director’s pulp inspirations, the sequence is rendered in the style of Japanese anime, depicting O-ren Ishii’s traumatic witnessing of the murder of her parents, and her eventual revenge on the man responsible (which makes her a kindred spirit with The Bride).

Her skill with murder leads her to becoming one of the best female assassins in the field, and her rise is chronicled in stylish animated fashion.  When I first saw the film and this scene began unspooling, my jaw dropped.  I specifically remember thinking to myself, “wait, we can do that?!”—I was literally shocked that someone would have the audacity to even include such a bracingly different animated style into a live-action film, much less pull it off with the effortless grace that Tarantino does here.

This inspired blend continues into the film’s centerpiece: The Bride’s showdown with the Crazy 88’s at the House of Blue Leaves.  Japanese samurai and Yakuza crime films are the chief stylistic influence on VOLUME 1, reaching an apex in this brutal, bloody showdown.  The extended sequence is undoubtedly one of the best pieces of work that Tarantino has ever done, containing little bits and pieces of his best techniques to delirious, expressionistic effect.

There are four key bits to this scene that illustrate Tarantino’s impeccably thought-through approach to the film. The first is the beginning, with O-Ren and her Crazy 88 entourage entering the House of Blue Leaves.  Tarantino frames the action head-on in wide shot, with the actors walking towards the camera and breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into it.

Tarantino then punches in to closer shots, revealing the performers to be walking in slow-motion.  All the while, he uses a Hotei Tomaya song, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity”, which has since become the de facto KILL BILL theme song.  Granted, this scene has been endlessly parodied nearly shot for shot (TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE did it best in 2004) in the years since we first laid eyes on it.

However, Tarantino of all people knows that imitation is the best form of flattery, and the fact that this specific pairing of motion, composition and song choice has entered into our collective cinematic consciousness as the visual shorthand for “badasses on a mission” speaks to Tarantino’s intuitive connection to archetypal scenarios.

Shortly after The Bride arrives at the club, Tarantino takes us on an expansive, bird’s eye-view tour of the House of Blue Leaves.  Over the course of a single shot, we zoom across the rafters looking down at the action, descend to eye-level and follow the Bride through the hallway into the bathroom, and pull back out again for a wide shot of the scene.

Whereas Tarantino usually opts for subtle tracking techniques that hide how complicated they actually are, here he is an unabashed showman.  It’s almost a brazen “look what I can do” kind of statement, an elegant dance between camera and director to the accompaniment of Japanese surf rock, courtesy of real-life rock band The 5,6,78’s.

(Their iconic “Woo-Hoo” song would be driven into the ground by a particularly aggressive and annoying series of Vonage commercials a few years later).  This kind of show-boaty tracking shot draws its inspiration from a cadre of influences like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Tarantino contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson.

The actual fight itself is somewhat of a tour de force for Tarantino, who up to this point had never actually filmed anything as openly “action film-y” as this before.  It helps that his location was a specially built set in China’s venerable Shaw Studios, where many of Tarantino’s favorite kung-fu films had been shot in the past (he even references the studio by including a vintage “Filmed In Shaw Scope” card at the beginning of the film).

This sequence alone has the highest body count within Tarantino’s entire canon, and is one of the most viscerally violent scenes ever put to film.  It’s so violent, in fact, that Tarantino switches from color to black and white for a large portion of it to tone down the sight of the literal ocean of blood he sheds.

Despite its cartoonish brutality, Tarantino helms the sequence with such an artful eye that it becomes more expressionistic than violent.  This is further evidenced when the sequence switches back to color, and The Bride and her adversaries are silhouetted against a bright blue grid (one of my favorite images in film, ever).

The final beat of the House of Blue Leaves setpiece is the final showdown between The Bride and O-Ren, which takes place in a gorgeously tranquil, moonlit & snow-covered garden.  The transition from blood-soaked nightclub to the peaceful, quiet and beautiful scene lying just outside is breathtaking.

Tarantino is able to harness the full beauty of this sequence, crafting some of the most aesthetically gorgeous compositions of his career.  The final battle between the two expert samurai swords-women is paired with the unexpected choice of a flamenco salsa music track.  It works surprisingly well, and is a perfect illustration of the grindhouse/arthouse, East-West dichotomy Tarantino incorporated into his story and themes.

Everything that Tarantino is trying to aesthetically express with his KILL BILL saga is effortlessly distilled down to its essence in this single scene.

David Wasco returns as Production Designer for the film, this time collaborating with Yohei Taneda in creating a series of vibrant set-pieces.  The House of Blue Leaves is an incredible set, as is the whimsical miniature model of Tokyo that The Bride watches roll by as her plane descends.  The model itself doesn’t look photo-realistic, but its sublime, old-school charm gels the highly expressionistic vision Tarantino has cultivated.

Tarantino has always been known for his eclectic, tastemaking soundtracks.  KILL BILL VOLUME 1 ups the bar considerably, drawing in a veritable potpourri of influences from every corner of the music world.  The aforementioned “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” is undeniably the highest-profile piece, achieving a level of instant recognition and fame on par with Tarantino’s use of “Miserlou” in PULP FICTION.

VOLUME 1’s disparate musical styles bear no resemblance to each other on their face, but Tarantino combines them in a way that creates a unique character for the film. Nancy Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Ennio Morricone, and Zamfir the flutist all contribute to a mish-mash musical palette, weaving into one another in a rich tapestry.

In a first for Tarantino, original score elements have been commissioned by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.  His work doesn’t particularly stand out against Tarantino’s needle drops, but it adds another layer of chop-socky/funky sound to an already-impressive landscape.

I mentioned earlier how KILL BILL VOLUME 1 was the first Tarantino film I ever saw, and for the uninitiated, it’s the clearest example of his directorial style.  Every one of his signature flourishes is in here and amplified to an almost cartoonish degree.  Creative dialogue and profanity is blended in with oddly formal language, which Tarantino cites as a callback to the formalist dialogue in the old samurai films that influenced his script.

Events are presented in non-chronological order, separated by inter-titles that divide the story up into book-like “chapters”.  The use of the color yellow in his on-screen text is abundant (although he seems to switch between colors and fonts at will, and with reckless abandon). There’s a plethora of pop culture references, even at the beginning when Tarantino flashes the “revenge is a dish best served cold” quote from STAR TREK.

Non-diagetic music stops abruptly on a hard cut.  Lots of close-ups of feet feed Tarantino’s personal fetish.  Lots of compositions featuring characters in profile during build-ups to showdowns.  A general grindhouse vibe helped by the inclusion of rack zooms and vintage sound effects.  The black suit/white shirt combo reserved for Tarantino’s professional criminals is represented in the wardrobe of the Crazy 88’s.

Even the infamous Tarantino trunk POV shot is included here, manifested in the form of the Bride delivering a cryptic threat to Bill through Sofie Fatale, who lies bound and injured in the trunk.  If one ever needs a crash course on what separates Tarantino from any other director, they only need look at KILL BILL: VOLUME 1.

Tarantino often cites Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) as a huge influence on his style.  The spaghetti western homages are liberally sprinkled through the KILL BILL saga, but one thing in particular stands out to me. The Sergio Leone DOLLARS TRILOGY famously featured Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.

The Bride has a similar unidentified persona, albeit she experiences a much wider range of emotions than her Leone counterpart.  She does happen to have a real name, but whenever the characters speak it, Tarantino physically bleeps it out.  It took me a few instances to catch on when I first saw the film, but it’s an amusing little conceit that pays off well in VOLUME 2, in addition to being a nice callback to one of Tarantino’s chief influences.

In a previous post, I mentioned how Tarantino’s characters inhabit a self-contained universe of the director’s own design. Some fans have taken his filmography as a whole and placed them along one timeline in an alternate reality branching off from ours sometime around the end of WW2.

I’m paraphrasing a loose collection of separate articles written by other people, but the general idea is that the events portrayed in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)—the murder of Adolf Hitler in a movie theatre—began a different reality in which movies play a much larger part in society, and society as a whole has become more attuned to pop culture and exaggerated in violence, profanity and sex.

The KILL BILL films don’t fit into the timeline itself, but are rather a manifestation of what kind of movie that this exaggerated society would produce—in other words, a movie whose violent aspects would be cranked up to 11 for an audience already desensitized to violence as an everyday fact of life.  When Vincent and Vic Vega go to the theatre together, they’d be seeing a movie much like KILL BILL.

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 also begins what I like to refer to as the “Tex-Mex” phase of Tarantino’s career.  It is with the KILL BILL films that he began working in earnest with good friend and fellow filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who’s own distinctly Mexican/Texan aesthetic undoubtedly influenced Tarantino.

During this period, from roughly 2003-2008, Tarantino’s work takes on a distinctly southwestern vibe removed from the SoCal Valley locales that defined his earlier work.  A great bulk of KILL BILL VOLUMES 1 & 2 takes place in Texas, Mexico, and California.  His next project with Rodriguez, 2007’sGRINDHOUSE, again takes place in Texas and utilizes a lot of the same imagery.

During this time, Rodriguez and Tarantino were partners in crime, mimicking and riffing off each other in their own separate works until their directorial styles achieved a symbiosis in which it was hard to tell the two apart.

Tarantino’s distinct style played such a significant role in defining 1990’s pop culture that some rightly wondered after the release of 1997’s JACKIE BROWN whether Tarantino was fated to be a relic of that decade.  He stayed off the screen long enough that it became a very serious question.

The world of cinema had already changed so much since the turn of the new millennium; would Tarantino still have a place at the table when he came back?  Fortunately, the extended hiatus proved refreshing for Tarantino, and he returned to the cinema world with the same fury and intensity that had propelled PULP FICTION a decade earlier.

But don’t call it a comeback—the success of KILL BILL VOLUME 1 proved that Tarantino could adapt with the times while still doing what he does best: crafting a killer film.


KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004)

Director Quentin Tarantino returned to cinemas with a vengeance with his 2003 hit, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1.  A scant six months later, he capitalized on the film’s shocking cliffhanger ending by releasing the finale to his blood-soaked saga, KILL BILL VOLUME 2.  Originally conceived as one epic film, an initial 4-hour running time prompted Tarantino to split the film in two—an inspired decision, considering that the second half of KILL BILL is radically different in tone and style than the first.

Audiences with expectations of another high-octane blood bath were shocked to find themselves watching a different kind of film entirely—a slower, more somber movie that put a priority on dialogue over action.  The Bride must have killed upwards of forty people in VOLUME 1, but her body count in VOLUME 2 can be tallied on one hand.

Audiences were understandably disappointed by what they deemed a lackluster conclusion to a brilliant set-up, but they fail to see a richer, more personal film that eloquently carries the Bride’s bloody quest to a satisfying, emotionally resonant close.

Shifting the action from exotic Japan, Tarantino brings us back to the western deserts of California and Mexico as The Bride closes in on the last few names remaining on her Death List: burnt-out strip club bouncer Budd (Michael Madsen), treacherous and one-eyed assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and the big man himself (David Carradine).

Along the way, we find out more about the circumstances of Bill’s original attack on our hero’s wedding party that began this whole story. Most importantly, we learn that The Bride’s unborn baby, thought lost in the wake of the wedding rehearsal massacre, is alive and well— a fact that complicates The Bride’s desire to kill Bill, given that he’s the father.

Uma Thurman continues her scorched-earth performance as the Bride, with VOLUME 2 requiring her to convey startlingly real vulnerability while still retaining almost-biblical levels of courage.  Her evolution from cold-blooded killer to fierce lioness protecting her cub is the film’s heart and soul, creating a surprising dramatic resonance amidst all the bloodshed. And along the way, we find out her real name—Beatrix Kiddo.

 I’d say you can’t make that shit up, but Tarantino clearly did.

The late David Carradine is a revelation as the film’s eponymous target.  Heard only in voice in VOLUME 1, Tarantino chooses to reveal his weathered visage in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion.  Carradine plays the sadistic boss as a warmly paternal poet.  It’s easy to see why The Bride once loved him; Bill is intelligent, cultured, and– despite his criminality– very fair.

His actions in massacring The Bride’s entire bridal party, while undeniably cruel, come from a place of honor that supersedes his relationships.  It’s the mark of a man with integrity and conviction—the kind of man you wouldn’t expect to be the chief antagonist.

Carradine, who featured in a variety of kung-fu films that Tarantino cites as huge influences, had largely fallen out of the public eye when he was cast as Bill.  Much like John Travolta or Robert Forster before him, he became blessed by the Tarantino Effect, whereby aging character actors experience a career resurgence after working for the director.

Unlike the others, this resurgence manifested itself in a general awareness and newfound respect to his long career, but didn’t really result in getting more high-profile work.  It’s very possible that he might have, but sadly Carradine passed away in 2009 before he could really capitalize on it.  His performance as Bill is probably the best career capstone and farewell anybody could ask for.

Michael Madsen– in his second performance for Tarantino after RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)–was barely alluded to in VOLUME 1, but VOLUME 2 allows us to experience his Budd character in all his burnt-out, redneck glory.  Essentially a recluse living out of a trailer in the desert, Budd has forsaken the assassin lifestyle and brings in a meager salary as an underappreciated strip club bouncer.

Madsen breathes palpable life into his performance, his withdrawn eyes channeling a fundamental regret and weariness.  He relishes the opportunity to ham it up in a gross mullet and a beer belly, but he still hasn’t lost his dangerous, sadistic edge.  Despite looking nothing like Carradine, Madsen makes us really believe that he is Bill’s brother.

Daryl Hannah continues her devious, eye-patched performance as Bill’s current beau and arguably the deadliest member of the Viper Assassination Squad, Elle Driver.  She gets a fantastic, no-holds-barred fight sequence with The Bride in Budd’s cramped trailer, and she plays up her insidiousness to the requisite cartoonish degree.

Hannah doesn’t seem to do much acting these days, but it’s easy to see why Tarantino wanted her in the film.  Despite her playing someone far from her type, she embraces every challenge and really puts all of herself into the role.

Michael Parks also returns, albeit as a completely different character than the Texan cowboy cop he played in VOLUME 1. This time around, he’s completely unrecognizable as Esteban, an elderly Mexican pimp and father figure to Bill.  I remember being absolutely shocked when I learned that it was Parks buried underneath some incredible makeup.

He’s easily characterized as the Texas lawman archetype, but he has a startling range that further lends credence to my personal theory that character actors are the most legitimately talented kind of actors.

This is further illustrated by Tarantino’s recurring guest stars, who continue popping up in small roles and cameos in his films, regardless of how big of a name they are.  Sid Haig, who appeared as a judge in JACKIE BROWN (1997) turns in another small cameo here as the bespectacled bartender of Budd’s nudie bar.

Tarantino mainstay Samuel L. Jackson appears as Rufus, the blind piano player caught in the unfortunate crossfire of Bill’s wrath during the Bride’s wedding rehearsal.  We don’t even see Jackson’s face in the film, so it says something about Tarantino in regards to the respect afforded to him by his actors that they’ll show up for what essentially amounts to a walk-on voice role despite being internationally-known stars.

Stylistically speaking, KILL BILL VOLUME 2 turned a lot of people off when it was released.  After gleefully taking in the frenzied bloodbath of VOLUME 1, they were shocked to find that Tarantino had chosen to make the concluding entry so drastically different.  Since both films were shot at the same time, VOLUME 2 retains many of the main visual conceits as VOLUME 1: Super 35mm film negative source, dramatic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, a brightly-hued color scheme and book-like chapter designations to divide up big sequences.

However, if VOLUME 1 represented the East with its Japanese stylings, than VOLUME 2 is full-on Sergio Leone West, placing the bulk of its action in dusty California, Texas, and Mexico.

Despite its drastic departure from VOLUME 1’s presentation, the structure of VOLUME 2 reveals it to be very much of the same mind.  The non-chronological order of sequences is retained, as are the stylized compositions that have come to characterize not only the series itself, but Tarantino’s aesthetic as a whole.

Take, for instance, the sequence where The Bride trains with ancient martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu).  One shot in particular shows The Bride and Pai Men practicing their kicks, silhouetted against an expressionistic red background.  This mirrors, as well as contrasts, a similar shot in VOLUME 1, where the silhouettes of The Bride and her Crazy 88 adversaries are set up against a similarly-expressionistic blue background.  This illustrates how each film is really half of a whole, with one thematic through-line running across both of them.

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Tarantino continues utilizing various camera techniques that are emblematic of the genres he is paying homage to, most notably the quick rack zooms that have become associated with pulpy grindhouse films.  Ironically enough, the film’s best moments come when he stops moving the camera altogether and lets the characters do the heavy lifting.  Halfway through the film, The Bride is captured by Budd and buried alive.

This terrifying scene is one of the strongest moments in Tarantino’s entire career, and he does it all by simply and subtly evoking the very real horror of being buried alive.  He throws the image into complete darkness, letting his creative sound design drive the tension in the scene.  As each shovel-full of dirt lands on top of The Bride’s coffin with a horrifying thud, we feel hopelessness and utter fear set in.  It’s pure brilliance on Tarantino’s part, making for one of the most harrowing, unforgettable cinematic experiences I’ve ever encountered.

The music also takes a decidedly different tack than VOLUME 1, opting for a spaghetti western sound to reflect Tarantino’s arid and dusty images.  Interestingly enough, the film isn’t as loaded with pre-recorded needle drops as its predecessor—which means that for the first time, Tarantino is making substantial use of original score, provided by fellow filmmaker and friend Robert Rodriguez.  Rodriguez does a great job emulating Morricone’s sound, enough so that the difference between score and Tarantino’s well-placed Morricone source tracks is hard to discern.

VOLUME 2’s ties to its predecessor are further solidified by the inclusion of a few Blaxploitation/funk tracks, but for the most part VOLUME 2 is very much its own beast.

Tarantino’s characters continue to be an exceedingly verbose lot, with filthy mouths to match their creative wits, a tendency for those of the female persuasion to not wear shoes, and an-almost meta awareness of pop/film culture.  This is most easily seen in Bill’s climactic monologue where he espouses the theory that Superman’s alter ego of Clark Kent is really his critique on what he perceives to be a weak, ineffectual race of life forms.

Another moment is the film’s beginning, which seems to achieve multiple layers of meta in its presentation.  In the sequence, Thurman is driving to kill Bill, and she’s talking directly to the camera.  That’s one layer of meta, the 4th wall-breaking that Tarantino loves to do.  Her dialogue is basically re-capping the events of VOLUME 1, but said in such a way as if she just came from the movie herself—she even references critic quotes from the trailer.  Now that’s two layers of meta.

Finally, no effort is made to conceal the old-school rear projector technique that throws up a moving background behind her as she speaks.  At this point, I’ve lost track of how many layers of meta we’re dealing with here.  The important thing is that it works.

There’s a lot of other stylistic conceits I could list here, like characters being shown in profile, long dialogue sequences building up to violent outbursts, professional criminals clad in variations on the black suit/white shirt aesthetic, long tracking shots, etc.  Tarantino’s style is one of the most well-known in all of cinema—so much so that I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence by even writing it here.

His style has been more or less established since day one, and each film builds on it according to the demands of the story.

Many are divided over which volume of KILL BILL is actually better.  Personally, I find them so different that it’s hard to compare them.  If I had to choose a favorite, however, it would be VOLUME 2.  In my eyes, it is the stronger film because the substance, and not the style, is driving the plot forward.  It’s one of the most subversive films Tarantino has ever made.

VOLUME 3 has been rumored for years, tentatively featuring the exploits of Vernita Green’s daughter as she seeks out the Bride for her own vengeance, but given how Tarantino regularly speculates but never follows through on sequels to his films (nothing ever did come of that Vega Brothers film, I highly doubt a VOLUME 3 would ever come to fruition.

I would be remiss to mention the cut that combines both films into a semblance of Tarantino’s original vision, titled KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR.  Currently unavailable on home video, this rare print premiered at Cannes and has been shown in arthouse theatres across the country (most notably at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, which Tarantino just so happens to own).

I’ve been curious to see this four hour cut, which reportedly contains a longer animation sequence and restores the color to the Massacre at House of Blue Leaves sequence.   It seems to me like THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIRwould be the superior version of either film, but who knows if I’ll ever get to make that conclusion.

KILL BILL VOLUME 2 finds Tarantino at the apex of his “Tex-Mex” phase, with his closest collaborator (outside of editor Sally Menke, of course) being Robert Rodriguez.  The film is Tarantino’s own personal zeitgeist, where his tendency for homage and imitation reaches its zenith.  The KILL BILL saga is the biggest thing he’s ever done, and he pulled it off with obscene style.

Literally no other person could dream up what Tarantino did here, and the result is a piece of pop culture that helped to define the Aughts, just like PULP FICTION did for the 90’s.


SIN CITY SEQUENCE: “DESIGNATED DRIVER” (2005)

In 2005, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and comic book auteur Frank Miller collaborated on a film adaptation of Miller’s seminal work, “Sin City”.  Shot digitally entirely against a green-screen virtual “backlot”, the film told three lurid stories in the tone of classic noir and pulp fiction.  The film was released to critical and audience acclaim, and to date stands as the biggest hit of Rodriguez’s career.

It was around this time that Rodriguez began regularly collaborating with his close friend, director Quentin Tarantino. Similarly influenced by little-known classics of the grindhouse genre, the two formed an easy rapport in their working relationship.  Rodriguez, wanting Tarantino to experience the pleasures of an original score, performed said duties on KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004) for the price of one dollar.

To return the favor, Tarantino charged Rodriguez a dollar to shoot a special segment in Rodriguez’s SIN CITY (2005).  This segment was titled “DESIGNATED DRIVER”, and features the actors Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro conversing with each other as Owen drives through a particularly soggy night.

I remember going to see a midnight screening of SIN CITY when it was released.  I was a sophomore in college, and was becoming acutely aware of Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory after learning about it in my Media Studies class.  2004 had been a particularly energizing year for me in that regard, thanks to the release of Tarantino’s KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 and Rodriguez’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO.

The prospect of both men teaming up for a slick neo-noir promised to be a hell of an experience.

Oddly enough, Tarantino’s segment isn’t presented with any kind of moment that alerts you to the scene’s director.  The trailers billed Tarantino as a special guest director, but no one knew which scene was actually his; each scene flowed so effortlessly into the next.  I spent the entirety of my first viewing trying to figure out which sequence it was, only to later learn that it was the DESIGNATED DRIVER scene.

It’s one of the film’s strongest moments, so I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that fact.

In the film, Owen’s character- Dwight- has just killed Jackie Boy (Del Toro) outside Sin City’s Red Light District.  His prostitute allies have hooked him up with a stolen car to drive to the tar pits so that he can dispose of Jackie Boy’s body, and thus of the murder evidence.  As he drives, Jackie Boy appears to come back to life—a macabre sight with his throat slit and the barrel of a gun lodged firmly through his head.

We realize that Jackie Boy’s re-animation is only a manifestation of Dwight’s imagination, taunting him with the gravity of the situation, which is only made worse when his gas runs out and a cop pulls him over.

The performances are consistently great throughout the feature, but this scene in particular belongs to Del Toro as some of his greatest work.  The dull glimmer in his eyes, along with that painted on grin is absolutely haunting.  I can’t be the only one who thinks he’d make a perfect Joker in a future BATMAN film, right?

Because he’s acting as a special guest director, Tarantino doesn’t get to impose his own style on Rodriguez’s pre-established aesthetic.  As such, DESIGNATED DRIVER marks Tarantino’s first brush with the digital format and the Sony CineAlta series of cameras.  Rodriguez serves as the Director of Photography, deftly lighting the car set against a green-screen so as to believably convey motion.

Shot in full color, the footage was later digitally de-saturated to a high contrast black-and-white, with punches of color and the stormy, wet environs added later via CGI.

After shooting, control of the film was taken away from Tarantino so Rodriguez could conform the footage to his vision.  This meant he, not Tarantino’s usual editor Sally Menke, edited the dailies, and he also composed the scene’s ominous score together with John Debney and Graeme Revell.  Really, the only dead giveaway that this is Tarantino’s scene is the handful of references to famous films in the dialogue.

DESIGNATED DRIVER is admittedly a very small part of Tarantino’s oeuvre, but it’s incredibly notable for its digital production aspect.  A vocal proponent of celluloid, Tarantino has famously eschewed digital filmmaking out of a purist mentality, and its entirely possible that he would never have touched the format if it weren’t for SIN CITY.

Whether it convinced him that film is the only way to go, or made him reconsider the usefulness of digital, he won’t say.  But what we do know is that he can make the jump between formats with ease, while still delivering some of the most arresting moments in cinema.


CSI “GRAVE DANGER” EPISODES (2005)

The crime procedural is a staple of primetime television.  There’s at least three different shows focused on criminal investigations for every major broadcast network.  As someone who doesn’t regularly watch these shows, much less primetime broadcast TV, I frequently joke that they’re all the same show.  One of my best friends works on USA’S BURN NOTICE and I frequently ask him what antics David Caruso is getting into this week.

If I have to explain that joke to you, perhaps it’s better that you don’t have to put up with me on a regular basis.

The chief target of my impotent assassination attempts is the CSI brand, which seemingly has a separate series for every major American city.  Until recently, I had never watched an episode and had no intention to start.  I was surprised to find that the mainline series takes place in Las Vegas, instead of where I thought it logically took place (NYC).  Like the hospital drama genre, the crime procedural held very little appeal to me due to the overexposed, cliché-ridden story conceits that litter this particular corner of the medium.

So color me surprised when, after the massive success of his KILL BILL saga, director Quentin Tarantino signed on to direct the two-part finale to CSI’s fifth season.  Then again, at the time I hadn’t known that Tarantino directed an episode of E.R. almost ten years prior.  Upon learning that the storyline for the episode involved a detective who is buried alive, I immediately remembered the harrowing live burial scene from KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004), and thought “well of course.”

Aptly enough, his episodes were titled “GRAVE DANGER: VOLUME 1” and “VOLUME 2” in a further nod to Tarantino’s blood-splattered opus.

I suppose if I had watched the entire season, Tarantino’s episodes would have accomplished their required dramatic weight. Of course, I can’t be expected to care about people I’ve only just met.  However, the cast does a good job of endearing themselves quickly.  I had always wondered what happened to William Petersen, the dashing star of Michael Mann’sMANHUNTER (1986), and I finally got my answer: he gained some weight and started slumming it in disposable primetime TV series.

Years of taking TV movie roles has largely kept him from the big screen, and his leading-man muscles have atrophied.  And now he’s the weirdly-goatee’d leader of Las Vegas’ crime scene investigation unit. I found it hard to empathize with his character, and couldn’t stop my (completely unfounded) speculation that he’s probably the type of actor who’s a total dick in real life.

Again, that basis has no claim in fact.  For some reason or another, I just assume all these crime show stars are bitter about their fading celebrity and compensate by being prima donnas on set.  Probably because David Caruso is a prime example of that.  Christ, he ruins everything.

George Eades, who plays the unfortunate detective that’s drugged by an unknown assailant and wakes up in a glass coffin underground, gives the best performance by channeling the sheer terror that such a scenario would generate.  Personally, I can’t think of anything more horrifying than being buried alive.  And a glass coffin, where it can really hit home that you’re surrounded by at least a meter of solid earth on all sides?  Fuck that, man.

Because Tarantino is working in a medium where the producer traditionally has creative control over the director, he has to reign in his own personal style so that it meshes with the aesthetic of the overall series.  However, you don’t hire someone of Tarantino’s stature and not have him inject his personality into the damn thing.

As a result, the look of the episode becomes like a strange hybrid: unimaginative compositions and lighting interspersed with energetic camera movements.  Oddly enough for a show set in the desert, the color palette skews towards a cold, bluish cast.  Stock helicopter footage of Vegas is peppered throughout to cheaply convey a sense of scale.

The crime investigation office is overly designed, with a high-tech feel that, honestly, is far out of reach for most private sector budgets, let alone a public service like law enforcement.

There are a few giveaways that Tarantino was involved with the episode.  He sprinkles in various signatures like pop culture references, the casting of the short gravedigger from KILL BILL VOLUME 2 as a cowboy lawyer, a Johnny Cash music track, and a poster for filmmaker friend Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER (2002) on an apartment wall.

There’s also a stylized black and white autopsy scene, done from the perspective of the detective who was buried alive.  He imagines that he dies from bites sustained by a legion of (terribly-CGI’d) fire ants, and his guts are splayed out for his uncaring parents and supervisors to irreverently dismiss.  Most of the coverage is captured from the victim’s POV looking up, which is a regular visual trick that Tarantino employs.

I have a feeling interior perspective sequences like this are rare in CSI, so I’m pretty confident in saying this was Tarantino’s handiwork.

In retrospect, it’s fairly easy to see why Tarantino was brought on board to direct these episodes.  In my opinion, the producers stunt-casted him as a contrived way to revive interest in their flagging show.   Tarantino’s first television directing effort in ten years shows a great degree of competency, but lacks the flair of his feature works.  It’s a journeyman effort done by a rock star, treading water with subject matter that he’s already done before (and better).  In other words, a well-executed “meh”.


DEATH PROOF (2007)

The series of collaborations between directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez reached their apex in 2007 with the release of GRINDHOUSE.  The project was an ode to a bygone era from their youth, where cheesy genre and exploitation films where shown on a double bill in cheap art-house theatres.

As the megaplex and the blockbuster rose to prominence, both the double feature and the grindhouse tradition fell to the wayside.  Because this kind of cinema had so profoundly influenced the styles and careers of both Tarantino and Rodriguez, they felt compelled to keep the grindhouse tradition alive.

So plans were hatched for each director to make a feature typical of the low-budget cheese that held such a special place in their hearts, with the aim to present both films together as one big experience.  Rodriguez shot a sci-fi zombie film entitled PLANET TERROR, and Tarantino paid tribute to the shrinking stunt industry with his auto slasher picture DEATH PROOF.

They even went so far as to include fake trailers for other, nonexistent films shot by like-minded directors (such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, to name a few).  Working out of Rodriguez’s Texas-based Troublemaker Studios, the two men feverishly constructed this passion project of theirs, eventually releasing the final 4-hour film to cinemas in the spring of 2007.  The reward for their all that hard work and passion?  Widespread disappointment and failure.

There’s a story from my own experience with GRINDHOUSE that I think perfectly sums up why the film failed.  I went to the opening day screening with a college buddy of mine, and a great deal of excitement—we both knew what to expect and were looking forward to 4 hours of trashy fun.  A small crew of bros sat in the row ahead of us, no doubt buzzing with anticipation for the jeager bombs they’d slam later that night.

An usher stood up in front of the audience and announced that the film we were about to watch ran for almost four hours.  The bros in front of us, who had obviously not done their homework, immediately balked.  “Fuck that bro, let’s go watch TMNT instead!”  I’m not joking—they literally said those exact words.

Naturally, my buddy and I found this and their subsequent march out of the auditorium hysterical, but in retrospect I can’t help but wonder if this was going on in every theatre across America.  Audiences today are different than they were during grindhouse’s heyday.  Their attention span literally can’t handle the idea of a four film, regardless of who made it or how good it might be.  In many ways, GRINDHOUSE was doomed to failure before the directors even began writing it.

Personally, I loved GRINDHOUSE.  I found each entry to be tremendously entertaining, especially the fake trailers that played between the features (Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING trailer is easily superior to anything else he’s ever done).  DEATH PROOF, Tarantino’s entry, is the better film on almost every level, and while it could be counted as the director’s first high-profile failure, it is also something of a triumph on many levels.

DEATH PROOF is the hokey slasher film that John Carpenter never made.  It concerns a salty character named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who drives around in a jet-black hot rod that’s been outfitted to sustain the driver’s life in the event of a horrible collision.  Initially designed to allow stuntmen to walk away without a scratch after performing their daredevil feats, Stuntman Mike now uses this car to stalk and kill hapless young women.

The story is divided into two acts.  In the first, a group of girls, led by a sassy, Amazon queen and radio host named Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), are en route to a lakeside cabin vacation for the weekend.  They stop off at a local Austin dive for some drinks, where they meet and ultimately fall victim to Stuntman Mike.

In the second half, Stuntman Mike has relocated to rural Tennessee and stalks a group of young girls on leave from a film shoot, only to find that they’re just crazy enough to play his own game against him.

DEATH PROOF exists in two versions: a two hour director’s cut that screened at Cannes as well as on its own during a European theatrical release, and a heavily-streamlined cut that was included in the American GRINDHOUSE theatrical release.

Mostly available now in its longer form on home video, DEATH PROOF can be a bloated film prone to long stretches of dialogue that subverts the very nature of the type of film its trying to be.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s cast is so charming that you don’t mind these long stretches.

Kurt Russell is perfect as the deceptively disarming Stuntman Mike.  Firmly ensconced in middle age, Russell is in the perfect window to benefit from the Tarantino Effect, and like John Travolta or Robert Foster before him, he saw his celebrity rise in the wake of his devious performance.  Russell doesn’t act much these days, but DEATH PROOF became a cause to look at his career in a different light, one that afforded more respect and recognition of his contribution to the art form.

Russell’s psychopathic cowboy demeanor is captivating, making for one of the most fully-realized movie monsters in recent history.  I could watch him play the role all day.  Hell, he’s a psychotic murder and I want to be friends with him!

In the first half, Sydney Tamaiia Poitier (yes, as in the daughter of that Sydney Poitier) leads the story as the sultry Jungle Julia.  She’s a Tarantino creation through and through, with a firm command of obscure pop culture to match her large vocabulary.  To help her get into character, Tarantino reportedly told Poitier that Jungle Julia is to music as what Tarantino is to film.

Relative unknown Vanessa Ferlito scorches up the screen as Roxanna, a no-nonsense Brooklynite who is cajoled into giving Stuntman Mike a lapdance (one of DEATH PROOF’s centerpiece sequences).

Rose McGowan, who headlined PLANET TERROR for Rodriguez, appears in a small role as Pam, a bubbly, ditzy platinum blonde bimbo that finds herself the unwitting occupant of the one seat in Stuntman Mike’s car that isn’t death-proof.  Fellow director Eli Roth–whose breakout film HOSTEL (2005) was produced by Tarantino–plays Dov, an aggressive frat dude hellbent on getting laid.

Omar Doom plays Dov’s Jershey-Shore-styled buddy, who pursues girls in an effete, whiny manner that suggests heterosexual sex may not really be his bag.  And finally, Tarantino himself appears as Warren, the dive bar owner who’s getting just a bit too old to be partying alongside his young customers.  Like his performance in 1995’s FOUR ROOMS, he mentions a particular drink being a “tasty beverage”, yet another reference to the endlessly-quotable lines he’s concocted for his fictional characters throughout his work.

The second half is comprised of an even livelier cast than the first.  This group of girls is arguably the most archetypically Tarantino-esque that he’s ever created.  They all work in various positions in the film industry as actresses, makeup, and stuntwomen.  This means that they’re all incredibly well-versed in pop culture and can act as Tarantino’s mouthpieces through which to reference obscure cult films.

Rosario Dawson plays Abernathy, the sassy, sensible member of the group. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Lee, the dainty, feminine actress in a cheerleader outfit.  Tracie Thoms comes off as the female Samuel L. Jackson in her performance as feisty stunt-driver Kim.  And finally, Kiwi revelation Zoe Bell, who performed as Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman in the KILL BILL saga, plays a leading role as a fictionalized version of herself.

For a stuntwoman, she has a remarkably charismatic screen presence that allows the audience a window into the story.  She just seems like a person who’s endless fun to be around, and her unmitigated zeal for life and adrenaline is infectious.

Rounding out the supporting cast are a few familiar faces.  Veteran character actor Michael Parks reprises the Earl McGraw/cowboy sheriff role he originated in Rodriguez’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996) and continued on through KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (2003), each performance more exaggerated than the last.  Jonathan Loughran, a member of Adam Sandler’s repertory of performers, plays a redneck mechanic played Jasper.

Nicky Katt, who has been well-utilized by such directors as Christopher Nolan and David Gordon Green, has a small cameo as a shady convenience store clerk who hawks European versions of Vogue Magazine under the table like they’re narcotics.

Because he’s working away from his home base in California and setting up shop in Rodriguez’s Texas studios, Tarantino doesn’t have the luxury of working with most of his regular collaborators this time around.  Sure, he’s got editor Sally Menke and the Weinstein brothers as his producing partners, but he’s firmly in Rodriguez’s territory.

For the first time in his career, Tarantino takes a stab at being the Director of Photography, which works out pretty damn well.  Having taken a film class or two, I know firsthand how difficult it is to light for, expose, and shoot actual celluloid film.  Despite never receiving a formal education in this arena, Tarantino pulls off the feat effortlessly.  It also probably helps that the film is supposed to look junky and battered.

Shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Tarantino cultivates a look that’s very much like they shot using the cheapest film stock around.  The colors are burnt-out, with a strong magenta cast that suggests the fading that comes from storing film in improper conditions.   The image is littered with scratches and frame drops that give the appearance of a film that’s been beaten up and dragged across rough terrain– which is what Tarantino and company physically did to achieve this look (no digital trickery was used!).

Menke–one of the greatest editors to have ever lived–does a great job emulating an amateur hack job with dropped frames, jumpy edits, and repeated takes.  Strangely enough, both Menke and Tarantino are fully committed to this stylistic conceit during the first half, only to all but abandon it for a cleaner, clearer approach in the second half.

In terms of the cinematography, Tarantino lenses the film in a way that stays consistent with his earlier work.  When shooting close-ups, he tends to show his characters in profile instead of the standard over-the-shoulder composition.  In the first half’s dive bar sequences, he uses high-key, expressionistic lighting and copious amounts of neon to create a lurid, foreboding look that also evokes the surrounding Texan desert.

In the beginning of the second half, Tarantino chooses to show the convenience store sequence almost entirely in black and white, like he did for the House of Blue Leaves massacre in KILL BILL VOLUME 1.  Why he does this, I’m not entirely sure. It seems to be a pure style indulgence on Tarantino’s part, as it doesn’t call attention to itself as a grindhouse-specific homage.

Tarantino’s camerawork is solid and unencumbered, moving with deliberate purpose.  He uses tracking shots and circular dolly shots to decent effect, which is appropriate considering the grindhouse films he is evoking weren’t necessarily known for their virtuoso camerawork.  His restraint pays off when the film abruptly changes gears and becomes a breathless car chase.

The undeniable highlight of the film, this sequence contains some of the imaginative chase coverage put to film, thanks to Tarantino’s surprisingly confident eye for action.  When a list of Tarantino’s best film moments are eventually compiled, the driving sequences of DEATH PROOF will easily rank within the top five, if not higher.

Tarantino’s eclectic mix of pre-recorded music for DEATH PROOF stands out as one of the best amongst his entire filmography.  He’s compiled a truly inspired mix of southern rock, soul, surf rock, and other sounds that bolster and complement the grindhouse aesthetic.  The two most notable tracks are The Coasters’ border town booty-shaker “Down In Mexico”, as well as a hyper, slasher-movie appropriate theme song by April March called “Chick Habit”.

Once again, Tarantino rescues a handful of excellent songs from obscurity and pairs them with the visuals in such a way that one can never be disassociated from the other ever again.  Just try listening to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s “Hold Tight” again without thinking of a dismembered leg flopping onto the highway:

Tarantino has gone on record stating that he personally believes DEATH PROOF to be his worst film.  This is most likely because it is by far his most indulgent film, where all his signature techniques and tropes are cranked up to eleven.  What can you expect from a film directed by a noted foot fetishist when the opening credits play against a women’s foot in close-up?

The extreme gore, the yellow-colored title font, abrupt non-diagetic music stops, seemingly-interminable sequences of clever dialogue and profanity combinations, the trunk shot (this time from the hood’s POV) Kurt Russell breaking the fourth wall by smirking directly at the audience—all the Tarantino tropes are here in some form.

By now, the components of Tarantino’s self-contained universe are well-established amongst his followers, so he treats DEATH PROOF as one big in-joke.  Characters mention Big Kahuna burger, order Red Apple cigarettes (both Tarantino-created brands), one character has the Twisted Nerve song that Daryl Hannah whistles in KILL BILL VOLUME 1 as her cell ringtone, the action takes near his birthplace in Tennessee, and (in a well-hidden nod to the fake trailer he directed), Eli Roth toasts to Thanksgiving before pounding a shot of Wild Turkey.

Tarantino fans will undoubtedly enjoy discovering each hidden reference, but for the casual viewer, this all might fly right over their heads.

DEATH PROOF may be Tarantino’s weakest feature, but it is still a recklessly entertaining ride that I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit.  Its vintage charms make for one of the most bracingly original films in years, despite the fact that it’s essentially a pastiche of exploitation film conventions.  DEATH PROOF marks a stylistic saturation point, the end of Tarantino’s Tex-Mex phase and his last (so far) collaboration with Rodriguez.

Whether the failure of DEATH PROOF and the complete dismantling of their original distribution plan for GRINDHOUSE caused him to back away from this direction is open to debate, but I’d suggest it’s likely.  For a lot of directors, creating an overly-indulgent film can have career-wrecking consequences, but by getting it all out of his system in DEATH PROOF, Tarantino is able to clear the way for new ideas and concepts that will elevate him even further into the pantheon of great directors.


INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Director Quentin Tarantino’s seventh feature film, 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, is a very personal film for me, in that various facets of its existence coincided with my own at the time.  I had moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2008, and my first job was as an intern floater at Lionsgate Entertainment.  During this period, I was assigned to cover reception for weeks at a time, where I developed a strong rapport with the co-receptionist, who has gone on to a successful writing career and has also become a very dear friend and writing partner.

He was always getting his grubby little mitts on high-profile scripts that were typically shielded from public consumption, and one day he slipped me the leaked script for Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (I’ll never forget the title as it looked on the cover page, scrawled haphazardly by Tarantino’s own hand).

 It was the first time that I got to see this angle of Tarantino’s work—the script itself.  The man had always been hailed as a visionary screenwriter, beginning from his early days when he famously sold the scripts to TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS to Tony Scott and Oliver Stone, respectively.

His talent for dialogue had always been well-known, but this was the first time I got to see it on the page with my own eyes.  It was like having intimate, unrestricted access to Tarantino’s brainwaves, undiluted by the restrictions of production or budget.

My personal connection to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS continued in the wake of the film’s release the next summer.  A few days before, I was killing time browsing the sea of DVDs in Hollywood’s Amoeba Records, oblivious to the surging crowd that was buzzing in the hangar-like space below me.  Then that familiar, manic voice boomed over the PA system.

  Tarantino took the stage of the store’s little performance space and began whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his infectious enthusiasm.  I couldn’t believe it—Tarantino had such a formative effect on my filmmaking development and here I was looking at the man himself, in the flesh.  He was just like how he is in interviews, all antsy and motor-mouthin’, even a little sweaty.

I’ve seen very few great directors in person (the others being Gus Van Sant and Ridley Scott), so this was an electrifying moment for me.  Like being nailed by a bolt of lightning.

There’s a third connection that I didn’t even realize I had until today.  The film’s centerpiece sequence, the massacre of Hitler and his top lieutenants, takes place in a French theatre that Tarantino and his production designer, David Wasco, modeled after the Vista in Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood.

The Vista is my favorite theatre in all of LA, which is saying something for a city that boasts veritable film cathedrals like the Arclite and the Cinerama Dome.  The Vista is a small, Art Deco one-screen theatre on an unassuming block in Silverlake, but its marquee signage and the auditorium’s hokey Egyptian design theme are anything but.  It’s an endlessly charming cultural landmark that I love seeing movies in any chance I get. The $6 matinee price doesn’t hurt either.

Tarantino had been gestating the concept for INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS for nearly a decade prior to its release, scratching out and scuttling numerous drafts in the pursuit of perfection.  He came to see the film as his magnum opus, and he felt that every word had to be perfect.  After the disappointment of 2007’s DEATH PROOF, Tarantino felt that it was an appropriate time to seriously tackle his long-in-development WW2 film and return to cinemas with his guns blazing.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was initially conceived as a men-on-a-mission film, similar to THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) or its own namesake, Enzo Castellari’s THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).  Tarantino mainstay Michael Madsen was supposed to star as a character named Babe Buchinsky, and Adam Sandler was intended to play a role that made it into the finished film:  Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a role eventually filled by Tarantino’s filmmaking colleague Eli Roth.

As it did with hisKILL BILL saga before it, Tarantino’s script inevitably got away from him.  It sprawled in scope and size, and before he knew it, Tarantino’s small band of Nazi scalpers found themselves as supporting characters in a larger ensemble piece about the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Tarantino’s finished film follows two separate threads that eventually combine.  The first is the story of the Basterds, headed by a tough SOB named Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who charges his men with a personal debt to him—one that can only be repaid in 100 Nazi scalps.  Meanwhile, a young Jewish girl named Shoshanna hides in plain sight under an assumed name and occupation as a French theatre owner after escaping the massacre of her family at the hands of the ruthless Jew Hunter, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

When events conspire to hold the premiere of a prestigious Nazi propaganda film at her theatre, she hatches a plot to burn the theatre down with the Nazis inside.  The Basterds learn of this premiere separately, hatching their own plot when they learn from their German film star-turned-double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) that Hitler and his top officers will be in attendance.  What follows will change the course of history as we know it.

For a film about World War 2, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is infamously short on action, choosing instead to create a handful of setpieces featuring the actors sitting around a table and talking.  Naturally, the performances have to be compelling, and Tarantino coaxes career-best performances out of every single one of his cast members.

Even though he gets top billing on the poster, Pitt is simply one cog in Tarantino’s complex machine of a plot.  The widely recognizable film star crafts perhaps his most outlandish persona yet as the Tennessee-bred Lt. Aldo Raine, better known by his enemies as The Apache.  Pitt plays the character as a charmingly vengeful force of nature—a tough, gruff proto-American with a mysterious neck scar that’s never explained but alludes to the magnitude of his resilience and grit.  He’s a perfect avatar to convey Tarantino’s cartoonish take on history.

I initially found Tarantino’s casting of the remaining Basterds to be surprising, given the earlier rumblings about Madsen and Sandler.  In retrospect, the casting is inspired and fits the tone very well.  Eli Roth had left a bad taste in my mouth after seeing his film HOSTEL (2005), but he won me back over after performing as the Bear Jew, Sgt. Donny Donowitz.

He assumes a boarish demeanor and a heavy Masshole accent as he bashes in Nazi brains with a bat bearing the names of Jewish friends and family back home.  He’s not the best actor in the world, but he has an unexpected degree of talent in this arena that serves the film very well.

THE OFFICE’s BJ Novack gets his first high-profile film role here as Pvt. Smithsen, as does DEATH PROOF co-star Omar Doom as Pvt. Omar Ulmer.  Finally there’s Til Schweiger as the stoic Nazi hunter Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz.  In addition to getting his own grindhouse-esque backstory sequence, Schweiger gets some of the film’s best lines, like “say goodbye to your Nazi balls”.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS also features some fierce females, in the form of Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent.  Kruger uses her natural glamor to striking degree as the elegant German film star, Diane Von Hammersmark.  In such a testosterone-laden film, she’s a breath of fresh air—but make no mistake, she’s just as tough as any Basterd, if not more so. She plays a crucial role as the Basterds’ inside woman, and her participation helps pave the way for Hitler’s downfall and the end of World War 2 (at least in Tarantino’s timeline).

Equally as determined is European revelation Melanie Laurent, who is heartbreaking as the vulnerable Shoshanna.  After suffering the horror of having her family massacred by Nazis, she channels her trauma into a strength that helps bring down the entire Nazi regime.  It’s a career-making performance, and I hope to see her utilized in more American films down the line.  Shoshanna is a perfect example of Tarantino’s nuanced understanding of the fairer sex and his penchant for empowering them.

Less fierce is Julie Dreyfus, who serves in a similar capacity to her Sofie Fatale role in KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (2003).  Here, she plays Francesa Mondino, Joseph Goebbels’ French interpreter and sexual plaything.  It’s really more of a small cameo, but her reprisal of the glamorous assistant/interpreter/confidante archetype points to running themes and in-jokes across Tarantino’s entire body of work.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender finds in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS his mainstream breakout role as British film critic and serviceman, Lt. Archie Hicox.  He only appears in one chapter, but, Christ….what an appearance.  Fassbender effortlessly assumes the droll, aristocratic nature of his character.  He has a subtle confidence that somehow makes him even more badass than his Basterd colleagues.

There’s a moment in a tense Mexican standoff at a basement bar crawling with Nazis, whereby Fassbender has a pistol pointed directly at him under the table.  Sensing his impending demise, he calmly takes a shot of whiskey and drops his cover as a fellow Nazi officer by stating: “since it appears I’ll be rapping at death’s door very shortly, I hope you don’t mind that I go out speaking the King’s.”  Ugh, so badass.  So fucking classy.  In this single sequence, Fassbender assured his stardom in addition to capturing the lusty hearts of women (and men) the world over.

Suprisingly, Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as Hicox’s commanding officer, General Fanny.  Prior to seeing the film for the first time, I was aware that Myers was in the film.  However, I strained to find him until I suddenly realized that the balding British general giving Fassbender his orders was in fact, Austin Powers himself.  Myers serves up a positively chameleon-esque performance that makes great use of his comedic talents to subtle, engaging effect.

And then there’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERD’s big revelation.  The man that anybody who saw the film could not stop raving about.  The man whose performance was so striking that it launched him from European obscurity to American Oscar-winner overnight.  Yes, I’m talking about Christoph Waltz, the seasoned character actor who until recently was completely unknown to our shores.

As the chief antagonist Col. Hans Landa, Waltz is positively electrifying.  He’s at once both charming and cold-blooded, concealing a very deadly ferocity with a dandy, effete demeanor.  He goes against every single villain expectation in the book, even going so far as to defect to the Allied side when he realizes the Nazis can’t win.

Waltz is endlessly entertaining in the role, and it’s baffling to think that Tarantino once wanted Leonardo DiCaprio in the role. Literally no one else could have played this part as well as Waltz has.  His performance single-handedly elevates this film from a great film to cinematic history.

Tarantino once again utilizes the talents of cinematographer Robert Richardson to render the somber French locales in vivid, bright color.  They style the film as a modern-day spaghetti western, albeit set in World War 2.  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio allows for dramatic, expansive compositions, and the high-key lighting scheme allows for a deep contrast that gives the film a palpable weight.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS boasts an autumnal look, with desaturated greens and wet, drab stone-greys that allow for the bright red of blood and Nazi flags to really pop.  Camera-wise, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Tarantino’s most low-key work yet.  He chooses to keep the camera locked-off for a vast majority of the film, employing the strategic use of dolly and crane shots only when it serves a strong purpose.

As Tarantino’s first period piece, production designer David Wasco faithfully creates authentic costumes and sets for the cast members to inhabit.

Tarantino initially wanted legendary composer Ennio Morricone to score the film, owing mainly to the fact thatINGLOURIOUS BASTERDS took so much inspiration from spaghetti westerns.  Unfortunately, Morricone was unable to commit, and Tarantino subsequently used selects from the maestro’s existing score work for his own purposes.  He also includes a few cues that he previously utilized in his KILL BILL saga, which ties his self-contained universe closer together.

Tarantino has to be the first director in memory to use scores for existing movies as source tracks, almost as if they were pop music or rock and roll.  To Tarantino, film music is rock and roll—there’s no difference.  What it was initially created for or when it was created bears no difference to the story, only that it should strike to the core of whatever emotional truth Tarantino is trying to convey at any given moment.

This is best exemplified in the use of an anachronistic David Bowie track during an introductory montage to the cinema-house massacre.  In perpetuating this practice, Tarantino has given a huge gift to cinema; he has unshackled music from the context of its time and allowed for unparalleled levels of commentary and thematic expression.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an unconventional war film, in that it doesn’t concern itself with battle but with the thematic conceit of language.  Right down to the misspelled title, Tarantino makes no bones about language as the driving force of the film.  The majority of the film is in a language other than English, with several characters switching between languages as easily as you would slip out of a t-shirt and into a new one.

Christoph Waltz flits from German, to Italian, to English and French without so much as a second thought, making his Hans Landa character a truly formidable foe in a world where language means the difference between life or death.  Tarantino also plays the cultural linguistic divide for laughs, such as a truly hysterical moment where Brad Pitt’s American character must butcher the elegant musicality of Italian through his thick Southern drawl.  And who can forget Waltz’s absolutely ridiculous delivery of “That’s a bingo!”?

Indeed, the film itself is structured like that perennial celebration of language: the novel.  Tarantino’s use of book-like chapter designations has never been more appropriate and justified than it is here, whereby he eschews typical three-act film structure and bases his story around a handful of distinct, elongated set-pieces he deems as “chapters”.

And just like a novel, Tarantino isn’t afraid to dwell on the minutiae of a single moment.  The longest scenes in the film—the opening in the French farmhouse and the basement tavern rendezvous with Hammersmark—go on for almost half an hour each, dragging out the suspense to an almost unbearable degree until it is released in an explosion of blood and violence.  For most directors, this approach would be highly ill-advised, but Tarantino’s preternatural talent for engaging dialogue keeps his audience dangling on every well-chosen word.

Tarantino’s signature structural trademarks are all present and accounted for—the yellow title font, the creative profanity, abrupt music drops, a victim’s POV shot looking up at his aggressors, elaborate tracking shots, the Mexican standoff, etc. However, here they mark a profound change in maturity; that is to say, there’s a refined, worldly sophistication to his techniques where they were once vulgar, coarse, and undisciplined.

It’s fitting that Tarantino’s story uses a movie theatre as an important element, so much so that it plays a hand in ending World War 2.  The film references in his previous films have all built up to this, wherein a movie premiere becomes a watershed moment in world history and turns a generation of Americans into film buffs (albeit, only within Tarantino’s self-contained universe).

He uses Shoshanna’s theatre as the climax’s venue, showing it off in an elaborately elegant tracking shot similar to how he presented the geography of KILL BILL VOLUME 1’s House of Blue Leaves set.  Whereas the latter sequence tends to come off as showboat-y, here Tarantino exercises a degree of restraint that builds tension and anticipation by expertly setting up the dominos for an explosive finale.

Despite being consistently hailed as an auteur, Tarantino has always relied on the talents of an elite pool of collaborators. The aforementioned Richardson and Wasco have played an integral role in bringing Tarantino’s vision to the screen, as have regular producing partners Lawrence Bender and the Weinstein brothers.

Past Tarantino performers like Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson appear in voice cameos as an OSS Commander and an omniscient narrator explaining nitrate film’s flammability, respectively.  Tarantino also finds another use for Eli Roth’s talents by commissioning him to direct NATION’S PRIDE, the film-within-a-film whose premiere the Nazis are celebrating.

Throughout his career, Tarantino has shown considerable respect towards his collaborators.  There are stories from the set of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS about how he’d hold screenings for his crew featuring the movies by their co-stars and fellow craftsmen.  Not many directors show such reverence towards the people they work with; it’s no wonder that Tarantino is so highly regarded amongst actors and below-the-line talent alike.

Of course, I must mention Tarantino’s biggest collaborator, the superbly-talented Sally Menke.  Out of all the people who could lay claim to helping Tarantino become the director he is today, Menke’s contributions put her head and shoulders above every single one.  She is the shaper of Tarantino’s vision, finding the music in his dynamic compositions and harnessing the raw energy of his direction into a coherent experience.

The flawlessly-edited INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS marks the high point, the culmination of their work together.  Unfortunately, it also marks the last time they will ever work together.  Sadly, Menke passed away in 2010 as she was hiking in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, and with her death Tarantino lost his co-author and his platonic partner.  It remains to be seen how this will play out in Tarantino’s work going forward, but the success of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is promising.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was an unprecedented success for Tarantino, besting even 1994’s PULP FICTION.  Until it was unseated by DJANGO UNCHAINEDINGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was Tarantino’s highest-grossing film and still remains as his best-reviewed.  True to form, the film was met with considerable controversy upon its release.

Some were uncertain whether the concept of Jews aggressively pursuing revenge on the Nazis was in poor taste or not, or if it was respectful to survivors of the Holocaust.  Still others were frustrated by Tarantino’s blatant historical revisionism, which takes the apocryphal tack of gunning down Hitler in a gleeful hail of bullets during the theatre inferno sequence (as opposed to shooting himself in a bunker like he did in real life).

Personally, it’s an act of wish-fulfillment that’s firmly on-tone with the story that precedes it.  By taking such a cartoonish attitude towards his aesthetic, Tarantino grants himself the license to alter history as he sees fit, making for a much more cathartic ending to World War 2 than we actually got.

As far as Tarantino’s career development goes, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS marks the beginning of a new phase for the controversial auteur.  If DEATH PROOF saw the end of his Tex-Mex/grindhouse phase, then this film begins something much more prestigious.  Indeed, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the closest that Tarantino has ever come to Oscar respectability in the Academy’s eyes (PULP FICTION’s screenwriting win notwithstanding).

The reverence bestowed upon his follow-up, DJANGO UNCHAINED, only reinforces the notion that he is in a prestige phase.  Perhaps it’s only appropriate, given that Tarantino is now firmly in middle-age and has gone on record to state that he would be happy only having ten features to his name (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the seventh).  Faced with the possibility of his career winding down, it’s only natural that Tarantino would be concerned with his legacy.

The film’s final moment has Pitt carving a swastika into the forehead of a screaming Waltz.  Admiring his handiwork, he muses: “you know what, I think this just might be my masterpiece”.  All cheekiness aside, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS might very well be just that: Tarantino’s masterpiece.


DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

The success of 2009’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS sent director Quentin Tarantino off on another career high.  It was the realization of an idea that had been a long-time coming, with Tarantino purportedly first conceiving the idea around 1994, after the production of PULP FICTION.  In 2012, he realized yet another idea he had been developing for a long time.

For years, Tarantino had talked about his take on the spaghetti western, a genre that had profoundly influenced him.  However, he wanted to use the genre to explore America’s uneasy relationship with slavery using a revenge story set in his native Tennessee—a concept he dubbed a “southern”.

The final result, 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED was a massive commercial and critical hit, eclipsing that even of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (at least financially).  True to the director’s form, its release also ignited a firestorm of controversy over it subject matter and the heavy use of the racially-loaded “N” word.  It continued a prestigious phase in his career (one which he currently still enjoys), netting him his second Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, as well as actor Christoph Waltz’s second consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

  Few directors remain relevant within a twenty-year period of their careers, and the fact that Tarantino keeps scoring hit after massively-influential hit is a testament to the man’s innate talent and unique vision.

Set in 1858 in America’s deep South (the antebellum years before the Civil War), DJANGO UNCHAINED concerns itself with the plight of its namesake—a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) who’s wife was ripped away from him after a failed escape attempt and sent to another plantation, never to return.

He is sent to auction himself, but on the way, he is rescued by an eccentric bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist: Dr. King Schultz (Waltz).  Schultz needs Django to identify a number of targets he’s pursuing, but soon enough Django proves to be a formidable partner and a skilled bounty hunter in his own right.  The pair find Django’s wife—the demure Broomhilda Von Schaft (Kerry Washington)—has taken up residence as a house slave to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of Mississippi’s wealthiest and most-feared slave traders.

They infiltrate Candie’s plantation compound under the guise of wealthy dealers of gladiator slaves—also known as mandingos—and set about trying to secure Broomhilda’s freedom through duplicitous means.  Unbeknownst to them, Calvin’s confidante—an elderly slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)– senses their treachery and works to root them out before they con his beloved master.

This being a Tarantino film and all, the performances are expectedly top-rate.  The part of Django was initially written for Will Smith, but he turned it down because he rather foolishly thought Django wasn’t the lead.  Instead, the part went to Jamie Foxx, who is an exponentially better choice.  His self-serious, grim demeanor gives the comedic moments an ironic flair, making it all the more hilarious.

Foxx always surprises me when he really applies himself to his performances.  He seems to have this narcissistic, over-confident persona in public that he continually subverts with the kind of roles he plays in films like RAY (2004) or COLLATERAL (2004).  In DJANGO, he is convincing as the humorless badass archetype, but he also shows a considerable ability to poke fun at himself (see the Lord Fauntleroy costume he wears early in the film, which got a huge laugh in the theatre).

Christoph Waltz’s two Oscars have both stemmed from his collaborations with Tarantino, and while I admit I was (pleasantly) surprised to see him take home the gold statue again this year, he certainly earned his keep as Dr. King Schultz. Waltz steals nearly every scene as Schultz, a radically different character from the Col.

Hans Landa role he made famous in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.  He’s still a German, but Schultz sports a full beard and a dandy’s approach to monotone clothing.  He’s every bit as eccentric as Landa, prattling on in a verbose manner as he scuttles about the frontier in a rickety wagon with an oversized tooth swinging around on top.  However, his jovial nature belies his deadly ferocity as a bounty hunter and marksman.

Many thought it would be for hard Waltz to top his performance in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and while I don’t know if this one necessarily supersedes the former, it definitely rivals it.

Tarantino had been trying to work with Leonardo DiCaprio for a while—he had been the first choice to play Landa before Waltz was cast.  In a rare villainous turn, DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie as a dandy playboy.  A wealthy Southern charmer, DiCaprio hides his villainy behind a warm smile and a hospitable nature.  Make no mistake, though—he is a ruthless, volatile man who must not be crossed.

DiCaprio commits himself entirely to Tarantino’s demented vision, unabashedly digging into his character’s inbred, racist leanings and nefarious desires.  The extent of his commitment can be witnessed in a scene where he smashes a skull in front of his dinner guests, bleeding out all over his hand.  During the take used in the film, he cut his hand badly upon smashing the skull, yet continued to stay in character despite his own, very real, blood leaking all over the place.

Tarantino’s supporting cast is rounded out by a cadre of new and familiar faces alike.  As Broomhilda, Kerry Washington brings a much-needed sense of femininity to Tarantino’s machismo revenge tale.  She appears to Django throughout the film as an ethereal vision amongst the cotton fields, and we feel that we’ve come to know her just as well as the other characters when we finally confront her flesh-and-blood form.

Frequent Tarantino performer Samuel L. Jackson is fabulous as Candie’s key confidante, Stephen.  Acting under heavy prosthetics and makeup, he assumes an elderly, feeble affectation that enhances the comedic value of his impotent rage and suspicion.  After not being prominently featured in a Tarantino film since 1997’s JACKIE BROWN, Jackson’s presence is a welcome one that helps to reinforce Tarantino’s signature charms.

Seasoned character actor James Remar plays two roles, one as Ace Speck—a gruff slave poacher—and Candie’s silent associate, the bowler-derby’d Butch Pooch.  MIAMI VICE star Don Johnson plays Big Daddy, a rival Colonel Sanders-esque plantation owner and progenitor of the Klu Klux Klan.

There’s also a few notable cameos peppered throughout the film.  Jonah Hill is funny and memorable as Big Daddy’s son and a fellow proto-Klansman.  DEATH PROOF’s (2007) star Zoe Bell plays a deadly, masked tracker that silently lurks in the fringes of her scenes.  She initially had a much larger subplot, but for whatever reason it was cut and her screen-time became significantly reduced.

Michael Parks, who was so memorable as Texas Sheriff Earl McGraw in KILL BILL: VOLUME 1(2003) and DEATH PROOF, plays a sunbaked poacher here.  Tarantino himself also pops up in the same scene as an Aussie-accented poacher.  The accent isn’t terribly convincing, and he’s carrying a few extra pounds., but I don’t say that as a necessarily bad thing; it’s just a far cry from his well-acted and talkative cameos in PULP FICTION and RESERVOIR DOGS(1992).  Even powerful Hollywood directors are subject to the ravages of old age.

I remember when I first saw a trailer to DJANGO UNCHAINED, my immediate reaction was that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a Terrence Malick film.  By this, I mean that DJANGO UNCHAINED is easily Tarantino’s most beautiful film to date.  Working again with cinematographer Robert Richardson, he captures the expansive vistas of the West and the sun-dappled willow trees of the South in stunning 35mm filmic beauty.

Utilizing the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Tarantino opts for a richly-realized cinematic look, complete with deep contrast and natural earth tones and bold, saturated primary colors.  A sepia tint casts a nostalgic glow over the Mississippi sequences during the day, and at night is replaced by a handsome amber candlelight that romanticizes the otherwise horrific Candieland plantation.

Flashback sequences are even more stylized, employing a low-contrast bleach-bypass technique to suggest faded, heat-baked film.  The camerawork adapts to the scale of the story, favoring sweeping crane shots reminiscent of old spaghetti westerns as well as frenetic rack zooms typical of the grindhouse genre.  Tarantino’s signature compositions of characters in profile are considerably less present here than in his previous work.

DJANGO UNCHAINED finds Tarantino working with a host of new collaborators, replacing several of his key craftspeople for reasons unknown to this devastatingly handsome author.  For the first time in Tarantino’s career (not counting DEATH PROOF), Lawrence Bender isn’t a producer.  This responsibility instead goes to Pilar Savone and Stacey Sher (in addition to regular executive producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein).

Tarantino’s usual production designer David Wasco sits out this round as well, with J. Michael Reva filling in to recreate an authentic sense of the antebellum period.  Tragically, Reva passed away midway through the shoot, but he leaves behind a strong legacy and a singular vision for Tarantino’s revisionist take on history.

And finally, due to Tarantino’s editor Sally Menke passing away in 2010, DJANGO UNCHAINED finds him working with a new editor for the first time since his career began.  It remains to be seen whether this new collaborator, Fred Raskin, will become Tarantino’s new Menke, but he more than makes up for the lack of Sally by crafting an explosive, exhilarating edit that proficiently captures Tarantino’s storytelling dynamics in a way that feels continuous with his earlier films.

The soundtrack is classic Tarantino, featuring obscure needle-drops that give the film a unique, offbeat, and vintage vibe. For the first time, Tarantino also uses original songs commissioned for the film (but not an original score).  As a result, contemporary artists like John Legend and Rick Ross share album space with Johnny Cash, Wagnerian opera, and the spaghetti western sounds of Ennio Morricone.

It’s an incredibly eclectic mix that favors Morricone’s sound more than any others due to the genre it deals in.  Oddly enough, Morricone has since stated that he would not desire to work with Tarantino again due to his “incoherent” approach to film music.  I would imagine that Tarantino would be greatly dismayed and disappointed to hear one of his heroes and primary influences publicly disparage him in so personal a manner.

Despite its pitch-dark reckoning with America’s original sin of slavery, DJANGO UNCHAINED is absolutely hysterical.  One of the best scenes in the film is an extended sequence lampooning the Klu Klux Klan and the absurdity of their disguises.

Like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, the violence is gleeful to an almost-cartoonish degree.  The film is absurdly gory, with veritable geysers of blood vomiting from bullet wounds; the climax even utilizes an expressionistic sound design that likens bullets striking flesh to bombs dropped on loose soil.  Despite being grotesque, the violence is almost cathartic in a way.

Like the riddling of Hitler’s face with hot lead in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS before it, the messy obliteration of white slave-owners serves as safe fantasy for a group of people who were so horribly wronged and dehumanized by their oppressors.  It may not be the most tasteful tack to take with such delicate subject matter, but Tarantino exhibits no reservations about being an agent for bloodthirsty indulgence.

With the success of DJANGO UNCHAINED, Tarantino doubled down on the notion that he is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.  The notion of a white man taking revenge on slavery on behalf of the black man is understandably offensive to some (Spike Lee is still furious about it).  However, racial relations have always been an integral part of Tarantino’s work, and the only ones who really seem to be offended are the advocates of so-called political correctness (and knee-jerk reactionaries like Spike Lee).

Yes, it’s true that the N-word flies around carelessly throughout Tarantino’s work, but he has always leveled with us about why, citing his responsibility to write his characters true to personality—regardless of their own politics.  White, black, or Asian, he treats all as equals but has the courage to openly acknowledge that there are social customs, language, and habits exclusive to their respective races.  These characters feel inherently authentic, as opposed to a “politically-correct” character who is whitewashed of any racial identity whatsoever.

With each new entry, Tarantino manages to satisfy his acolytes with the continuity of creative/profane dialogue, explosive violence, punchy insert shots, or vintage touches (such as the use of old studio logos at the start of his films).  However, he has also become a master of subversion, surprising even those who think they’ve got him all figured out.  One never truly knows what they’re in for when they go to see Tarantino’s films, but it can be guaranteed that it’ll be a wild ride.

Unlike his contemporaries, the middle-aged Tarantino isn’t content to rest on his laurels.  He’s still actively prepping his next magnum opus, excitedly dropping tidbits to the hungry press that he loves to engage.  We don’t know what it is yet (as of this writing) but rest assured it will be every bit as challenging and entertaining as what came before it.  DJANGO UNCHAINED marks Tarantino’s eight film, and if his recent comments about stopping at ten films is to be believed, then the world only has two more Tarantino creations to look forward to.  But what an incredible set of films those ten will be.  Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker’s oeuvre been so small yet so consistently excellent.

From indie maverick, to incendiary provocateur, to seasoned craftsman of international prestige, Tarantino has carved out quite the legacy for himself.  Not many people can claim two screenwriting Oscars in one lifetime.  He’s reinvigorated the careers of many “washed-up” performers.  His characters and dialogue have captured an entire generation’s imagination and woven themselves into the fabric of American pop culture.

He could retire tomorrow and still remain one of the most profoundly influential voices of the medium.  Quite a remarkable set of accomplishments for a former video-store clerk with no connections, a VCR full of classic films, and a head full of dreams.


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Sometime after the runaway success of 2012’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, director Quentin Tarantino was taking in a viewing of John Carpenter’s horror classic, THE THING (1982).  He came away from this particular screening with complicated feelings– an impression that compelled him to take to his writing as a way to process his reaction (1).

 The idea that would eventually become his eighth feature film, 2015’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, was initially envisioned as a novel he called “Django In White Hell”, a sequel of sorts to his previous film.  Naturally, a director with as feverish a cult following as Tarantino’s is going to be the subject of intense scrutiny during the creation of a new project; somehow, an early draft (complete with his signature hand-scrawled title page) leaked to the internet and was widely circulated amongst the filmgoing public.

 A despondent Tarantino hastily announced he was canceling any further development of the film in light of the leak, but after a warmly-received live table read at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, he was ultimately persuaded to continue forward with the project (1).

Having dropped the “Django sequel” aspect early on in the writing process, Tarantino structures THE HATEFUL EIGHT as a chamber piece in the vein of his 1992 debut, RESERVOIR DOGS— albeit filtered through the prism of a harsh Wyoming winter in the post-Civil War era.

He began with a basic premise: what would happen if you stuffed eight hateful and untrustworthy miscreants into a room and slowly started turning them against each other?  The answer, obviously, is a total bloodbath.  Though the film’s shoot in Telluride, CO during an unseasonably warm and pleasant winter might suggest otherwise (1), the story finds a monstrous blizzard forcing several shady and unpredictable characters to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a rustic cabin in the woods outside of the fictional town of Red Rock.

 A perennial Tarantino repertory player since 1994’s PULP FICTION, Samuel L. Jackson is finally given top billing for his performance as Major Marquis Warren– a taunting and tempestuous bounty hunter whose journey to Red Rock is cut short when he’s stranded out in the middle of the storm.

 He hitches a ride to Minnie’s with an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter, John Ruth The Hangman, played by Kurt Russell in his second collaboration with Tarantino after 2007’s DEATH PROOF.  Russell enthusiastically hams it up with his best John Wayne impression, turning in a performance that, in any other director’s hands, would steal the show at every juncture.

But this isn’t any other director’s film– it’s Tarantino’s, and both Jackson and Russell have stiff competition in the gallery of murderous rogues drawing ever closer around them.  The remainder of the titular gang of disdainful scoundrels is comprised of the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and longtime Tarantino players Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.

Leigh was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Daisy Domergue, the stubborn and vicious prisoner chained to John Ruth’s hip.  As the ringleader of a roving gang of bandits, Leigh’s devious presence unifies this seemingly-random assortment of killer oddballs into something resembling a cohesive conspiracy that plots to free her from the clutches of The Hangman.

 Fresh off the heat from his acclaimed turn in Alexander Payne’s NEBRASKA (2013), Bruce Dern gets to spend the entire shoot reclining in a cushy chair in his role as a cranky Confederate general named Sandy Smithers.  Initially a happenstance visitor at the Haberdashery, Smithers’ personal history is found to be intermingled with the other guests in surprising fashion, but none more so than his “intimate” connection to Major Warren– the man who murdered his son.

Also seemingly there by total coincidence, Roth, Madsen, and Bichir’s characters are revealed to be members of Domergue’s gang; Roth being the well-dressed executioner with a British accent, Oswaldo Mobray; Madsen being a gruff and reclusive cowboy named Joe Gage; and Bichir being the squinting ranch-hand, Mexican Bob.

After a minor supporting turn in DJANGO UNCHAINED, Goggins receives an increase in screen-time with his role as the goofy hayseed Sheriff-elect of Red Rock, Chris Mannix.  His folksy drawl helps sell his background as a Confederate rebel, an affiliation that initially aligns him with Dern’s General Smithers before forging an unlikely alliance with the person who by all accounts should be his mortal enemy, Major Warren.

Tarantino’s cast is slightly larger than the eight advertised on the marquee, incorporating James Parks (son of another Tarantino regular, Michael Parks) as an irritable cart driver named O.B, DEATH PROOF’s Zoe Bell as a bubbly frontier Kiwi named Six Horse Judy, and Channing Tatum as the rakish Francophile bandit (and Daisy’s brother), Jody, amongst others.

 Tarantino engineers his films entirely around the interactions of these characters, strategically employing surprise revelations and backstabbing double-crosses to ratchet up the tension until it explodes in grandiose, bloody fashion.

hateful-eight-quentin-tarantino

Tarantino initially broke out on the strength of his unique voice as a screenwriter– a voice that fueled a highly-identifiable energy and visual style.  As his voice has matured, his aesthetic has mellowed out; relying less on kitsch and pop flash and more on beautiful, technically-accomplished cinematography.

This shift began in earnest with 2009’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and continues with THE HATEFUL EIGHT by retaining Tarantino’s regular cinematographer Robert Richardson.  The affected retro vibe of his earlier work feels uniquely organic here, owing to the fact that Tarantino and Richardson shot the film in the Ultra Panavision 70mm format– the first film to do so in fifty years.

The decision to utilize an otherwise-extinct format subsequently informed every technical decision down the line.  Shooting on 65mm film stock that would later be projected in 70mm, THE HATEFUL EIGHT boasts an ultra-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio (the widest around).  Tarantino’s compositions and camera movement are tailored accordingly, framed into a wider panorama to compensate for the snow-capped vistas that tower in the distance behind Minnie’s Haberdashery.

Majestic crane and dolly movements appropriately evoke the sweeping scope of westerns past while also enabling modern stylistic conceits like split-focus diopter compositions, slow-motion bullets that hit home with the sonic force of bombs, and Tarantino’s own signature low-angle POV shots.

Tarantino’s old-school approach continued on to the film’s post-production.  While 35mm prints for the shorter theatrical version were struck from a digital intermediate, Tarantino specifically avoided the D.I. suite when it came time to color the 70mm Roadshow version, which means the cold blue exteriors, warm amber interiors, and the rich hues of the period costumes are the result of organic photochemical color-timing.

 THE HATEFUL EIGHT also marks Tarantino’s second consecutive collaboration with editor Fred Raskin, who stepped in to replace Tarantino’s longtime cutter Sally Menke after her unexpected death in 2010.  Raskin proves an invaluable ally in helping Tarantino achieve the unique retro flavor of the bygone “roadshow” presentation format.

A staple of midcentury American cinema, the “roadshow” is a term typically ascribed to 3 hour+ epics that adopted a presentation style not unlike stage performance, complete with an orchestral overture and intermission.  Whether its due to dwindling audience attention spans or a desire to cram more screenings into a single evening, the roadshow has long fallen out of fashion.

The last high-profile roadshow presentation was relatively recent, for Steven Soderbergh’s s CHE (2008) — a sprawling, 4 hour portrait of the eponymous revolutionary fighter — but even then, it was regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly.  The 187-minute 70mm roadshow presentation, containing an overture, intermission, alternate footage and six minutes of extra footage over its shorter 35mm sibling, is Tarantino’s preferred version of THE HATEFUL EIGHT— yet it’s also the least-seen.

Tarantino and his producers (Stacey Sher, Shannon McIntosh, Richard N. Gladstein, and longtime collaborators Harvey and Bob Weinstein) knew that the considerable cost (reportedly $8-10 million) to retrofit enough theaters with analog 70mm projectors capable of handling over 250 pounds worth of film reels was going to be an extremely limiting factor in distributing Tarantino’s intended vision (1).

Instead of simply giving in to the realities of the market, however, they aggressively pushed to install the necessary equipment in 50 theaters around the world while promoting the roadshow version as a special, must-see limited engagement.  The 35mm version saw a much wider circulation, and as of this writing is currently the only version of THE HATEFUL EIGHT available on home video.

However, Tarantino does manage to nod towards his preferred vision within the 35mm cut by using the occasion of his opening credits to allude to an informal overture via a long, glacially-paced shot that allows the music to take prominence.

In addition to THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s considerable technical innovations, the film also marks Tarantino’s first time using a wholly-original score, courtesy of legendary spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone.  A longtime idol of Tarantino’s, Morricone had lent some pre-recorded cues to the director for use in THE DJANGO UNCHAINED, only to publicly express his displeasure at how his music was handled and vow to never work with the provocative auteur again (1).

Morricone obviously changed his mind somewhere along the way, as THE HATEFUL EIGHT boasts a suite of new cues that would land the venerated composer his first-ever Academy Award.  Combining a grandiose, lumbering new sound with a few of his unused cues from THE THING, Morricone’s score benefits from the total creative freedom afforded him by Tarantino.

This being a Tarantino film, however, THE HATEFUL EIGHT would be remiss not to include a few choice, anachronistic needledrops (and to drop them just as suddenly in transitioning to a new scene).  Towards this end, Tarantino incorporates an inspired mix of tracks from the likes of Jack White and Roy Orbison, and even throws in a poignant piano rendition of “Silent Night” to hammer home the film’s Christmas-time setting.

There are few voices in cinema as singular as Tarantino’s, each of his films proudly bearing his unique stamp.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT is undoubtedly a piece with Tarantino’s efforts to expand his interconnected cinematic universe while simultaneously drawing it closer together (see the surprise revelation that Roth’s character is actually an ancestor of Michael Fassbender’s Lt. Archie Hicox from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, or Madsen’s musings that “a bastard’s work is never done”, also from the 2009 film).

Like his previous films, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is structured in his distinct format– self-contained sequences that are partitioned off into book-style chapter intertitles yet presented in a nonlinear fashion as a means to bring further illumination and context to previous events.  Within the story itself, his characters are gifted with an almost metatextual awareness about the greater universe around them.

They seem to know they are inside a Tarantino film, readily breaking the 4th wall as if acknowledging their shared creator.  Indeed, Tarantino himself is often a character in his own films, deploying himself into a range of capacities from full-fledged characters (RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION), to cameos (DEATH PROOF, DJANGO UNCHAINED), and even as an omniscient narrator, as seen in THE HATEFUL EIGHT during the feverish “Domergue’s Got A Secret” sequence.

The characters within THE HATEFUL EIGHT— like Tarantino’s other iconic creations dating all the way back to RESERVOIR DOGS — all possess a sharp wit, a profanely florid speaking prose, and a gleeful eagerness for borderline-sadistic violence against their fellow man.

Tarantino has always worn his B-movie influences on his sleeve, and the trajectory of his career has seemingly organized his favorite genres into distinct eras.  His love for 70’s crime and heist films is evident throughout RESERVOIR DOGS, while his passion for Blaxploitation pictures from the same era fundamentally inform PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN.

Schlocky kung-fu and bloody grindhouse flicks merged with westerns to create a distinct hybrid of styles that gave us KILL BILL (2003) and DEATH PROOF (2007).  Starting with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, however, a very curious thing is unfolding.  The western genre continues to inform Tarantino’s storytelling, but rather than simply homaging that particular period, he is actively deconstructing them to discover the nature of the engine that fuels them.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED, and now, THE HATEFUL EIGHT come together to form a loose trilogy of Revisionist revenge westerns that directly confront America’s ugly racial history.  Tarantino’s longtime, almost-casual use of racial and sexist epithets in his work has earned him several enemies in addition to a reputation as a deeply divisive and controversial voice in mainstream American cinema.

A truly equal-opportunity offender, he has never shied away from carpet-bombing his narratives with some of the most egregious profanity known to man.  However, it’s hard to argue that Tarantino lacks empathy with his minority characters– they are frequently empowered to take up arms in their own defense or to right the wrongs of their persecution, and nowhere is this more evident in his last three features.

INGLORIOUS BASTERDS reveled in depicting a coalition of American soldiers hunting Nazi scalps to avenge their Jewish brethren.  DJANGO UNCHAINED showed a slave rising up to annihilate his white masters without losing his own humanity in the process.  THE HATEFUL EIGHT evokes the profound racial tensions between Union and Confederate ideologies while simultaneously suggesting they might be more alike than they are different.

Tarantino’s usage of contentious terms like the N-word in this context, while coming at great risk to his own personal character, evidences his unwillingness to shrink away from the ugly racial nature of America’s engine, pointing it out plainly for all to see.

His placing of these interactions firmly in the past only highlights their importance to our modern times, and considering the fact that America’s first black president will be succeeded by an openly-racist, xenophobic sentient tangerine, the conversation is far from over.  Tarantino’s voice may be abrasive and offensive to a lot of people, but it’s hard to argue that his voice isn’t more relevant than ever.

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Another aspect of this period in Tarantino’s career has been the huge critical and financial success of his work.  After a long awards-circuit dry spell, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS marked Tarantino’s return to the Oscar shortlist– a return he cemented with the even-larger success of DJANGO UNCHAINED and its subsequent win for Best Original Screenplay.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT was similarly praised, earning mostly-positive reviews that noted his continued excellence in both writing and direction.  The film grossed $155 million against its $44 million budget– a notable downturn in the recent trend, but far from his worst showing.  Well-earned Oscar nominations for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance and Robert Richardson’s cinematography followed suit, calcifying THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s reputation as an excellent addition to Tarantino’s canon.

As the eighth picture in what Tarantino vehemently insists will be a filmography totalling only ten films, THE HATEFUL EIGHT’s warm reception positions the controversial auteur for success going into what is expected to be his last two films.  Rumors that his ninth film will be about Australian outlaws in the 1930’s suggests that Tarantino plans to continue his run of revisionist westerns, but one thing we know for certain is that, whatever form the film takes, it undoubtedly will shock, surprise, and outrage.


ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

It’s often said that the 1960’s came to an end, not on New Year’s Eve 1969, but several months earlier, on August 9th— the night that film actress Sharon Tate and her houseguests were murdered in her home in the Hollywood Hills. The shocking event signified a collective innocence not so much lost as it was slaughtered— the progressive ideals that embodied the decade having met a grisly, untimely end at the hands of a magnetic cult leader named Charles Manson and his acolytes.

With this singular act, followed the next night by the murder of a upper middle class couple a few miles east, the hippie mantra of “peace & love” had been twisted and perverted to the whims of a persuasive psychopath who wished to ignite a vicious race war he dubbed “Helter Skelter”. Especially for those living in Los Angeles during the time, the murders became a shared cultural flashpoint akin to the JFK assassination— the world had changed almost instantaneously, and nothing would ever be the same. The dream was dead.

Somewhere beneath the layer of collective anxiety and fear that blanketed the southland’s suburban sprawl, a six-year old Quentin Tarantino was just beginning to discover his insatiable love for cinema. Even in a neighborhood as far removed from Hollywood as Long Beach, the glamorous atmosphere of LA’s movie industry was palpable enough that Tarantino could soak it into the fabric of his very being, where it would marinate over the next fifty years while he embarked on a film career of his own.

The idea to make a film about this period, however, would not arrive for quite some time: it was around the time of KILL BILL’s production, when Tarantino found himself struck by the fascinating dynamic between an actor and an accompanying stunt double whose continued employment was very much tied to the actor’s success (4). When he married this to the memories of his formative years, he realized he had the seeds of an idea that he could enthusiastically commit years of his artistic energies to; an idea that he would come to call ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD.

The form this story would take, however, was initially uncertain. Tarantino initially envisioned it as a novel, but as the years stretched on, he found he couldn’t deny its potential as a screenplay, and subsequently, a motion picture (5). That he would be able to make the film at all was a foregone conclusion — this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking about here — but he did face an immediate wrinkle in regards to his producing partner.

His longtime home, The Weinstein Company, was in flames, embroiled in a massive scandal involving producer Harvey Weinstein’s long and terrible history of extreme sexual, mental, and physical abuse. Associated for decades with awards circuit domination and a tempestuousness that had heretofore been tolerated as the cost of doing business, the Weinstein brand had become radioactive overnight, subsequently kickstarting a cultural reckoning that would topple many other famous and influential figures.

Tarantino cut ties with the Weinsteins immediately, his back catalog now tarnished somewhat by his association with them. As he navigated these turbulent waters, Tarantino knew he had to be more protective of his work than usual. He was well aware of the cultural and economic value of his name, but even that couldn’t be relied upon in a rapidly changing & globalizing industry that had become addicted to compound franchises and connected cinematic universes of superheroes.

Indeed, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a film that simply would not be made today by any major studio specializing in theatrical releases— that is, if not for Tarantino’s name on the marquee. Tarantino “The Brand” was far more valuable than any individual work, so he knew he had to capitalize on it while he still could.

The news of Tarantino’s free agency sparked a bidding war, and the outcome would depend on whoever could meet a set of demands that, frankly, no one else outside of maybe Steven Spielberg could ask for in this climate: a $95 million production budget, final cut, so-called “extraordinary creative controls”, 25% of the first-dollar gross, and his regaining of the film’s rights after a period of ten to twenty years (8).

Sony would eventually emerge as the winner, subsequently setting up the project under its heritage Columbia Pictures banner. Even then, Sony would need to co-produce with entities in the UK and China— a sign of the increasing globalization of film financing, whereby the profit potential of international markets compels other countries to share in the risk.

If producing a Tarantino picture could be called a gamble (which, let’s face it, is a stretch), then Sony’s gamble paid off handsomely. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD stands as another contemporary (and profitable) classic in Columbia’s venerated library— and another sparkling jewel in the crown of a director who continues to prove that there is still more life yet in original, character-driven stories for adults.

Produced by David Heyman and Shannon McIntosh, in addition to Tarantino himself, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD was shot in Los Angeles from June to November of 2018 (6); a rather shocking feat considering studio filmmaking’ s mass exodus to venues like Toronto or Atlanta in pursuit of generous tax credits to balance their runaway budgets.

Furthermore, production was able to faithfully recreate the LA of 1969 with minimal CGI (7), going so far as to transform an entire section of Hollywood Boulevard — multiple city blocks — into a veritable time capsule of the era that required the cooperation of countless businesses and government entities.

Such a sprawling production scope encompasses the scale of Tarantino’s story, which primarily concerns the relationship between struggling television star Rick Dalton and his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth, all while the go-go optimism of the 60’s curdles into something altogether more cynical and sinister.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two of the biggest movie stars in the world as well as prior Tarantino collaborators, headline the film as Dalton and Booth, respectively; each taking home a $10 million payday for their trouble (which actually was a pay cut for DiCaprio (9)). Both men prove their value by delivering career-best, endlessly-watchable performances.

An amalgamation of figures like Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds, DiCaprio’s Dalton is a successful actor by any conceivable metric — a fancy car, a big house in the Hollywood hills, and his own television show — but has grown bitter and paranoid over his inability to break free of his TV cowboy typecasting and become a superstar of the big screen.

Further compounding his insecurities are a slight stutter that pops up in moments of extreme anxiety and, apparently, undiagnosed bipolar disorder (10). Booth is Dalton’s best friend and creative partner, a stuntman by trade who has only grown more laidback and carefree with age. He seems to have no insecurities at all, utterly at peace with his station in life— a middle-aged bachelor sharing a junky trailer behind a Van Nuys drive-in with his beloved pit bull.

His cheery disposition, however, hides a darker side— rumors persist that he might be directly responsible for his wife’s premature death, but until it can be proven, he is determined to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Even if he didn’t do it, events ultimately transpire that show he is quite capable of the deed.

However, his display of these hidden “talents” is carried out in the name of self-defense and under the heavy influence of illicit narcotics. Although not quite a redemption arc, Tarantino nevertheless presents this climactic development as a comparative good: the snuffing out of darker forces intent on destroying something as beautiful and fragile as the dreams of a generation.

Nowhere are those dreams more embodied than in the guise of the ill-fated actress Sharon Tate, resurrected through Margot Robbie in an elegantly ethereal performance. The real life figure of Tate has ballooned into something of a cultural myth, known far better for her grisly end than her life’s work. Robbie’s performance endeavors to take back her narrative somewhat, imbuing the character with a poignant idealism.

She’s living the California Dream— married to a world-famous director in Roman Polanski (played here by literal doppelgänger, Rafael Zawierucha), her own career in the movies poised on the verge of lift-off. In the context of Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, his Tate is an avatar for the magic of the movies, as well as a bittersweet vision of what could have been.

Even though she lives right next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive, she operates in a totally different social strata, enjoying flashy movie premieres and partying with celebrities at the Playboy mansion while he labors through the sweaty production of western TV serials.

Tarantino’s at-times meandering plot ultimately builds to the inevitable moment that these two worlds collide, but the manner in which it happens is surprisingly sweet, giving Tate the Hollywood happy ending she never got in real life. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Tate’s inclusion would draw criticism— indeed, a key part of Tarantino’s appeal lies in his career-long flirtations with what one could call questionable taste.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Tarantino was quick to reject some critics’ arguments that his rendition of Tate was inherently sexist on the basis that she has only a few lines throughout the film’s nearly three-hour runtime. Their trivial line counting betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of character, if not a takedown made entirely in bad faith.

It also diminishes Robbie’s performance, which doesn’t necessarily need words to convey the complex interiority of the character. Indeed, it’s the deliberate lack of characterization that gives Robbie’s Tate her humanity, allowing us to fill in the missing pieces with our own humanity in a bid to capture her spirit— and what we lost collectively as a culture with her passing.

These three figureheads anchor a huge ensemble of supporting players, enough to populate a small town. As the story splits off to follow the exploits of Dalton, Booth, and Tate individually, each character essentially gets an entire movie’s worth of supporting characters to interact with. Dalton’s social circle primarily concerns his western co-stars.

Tarantino mainstay Michael Madsen makes a brief appearance early in the film as Sheriff Hackett, a character on BOUNTY LAW, whereas his hippie-appropriating villainous turn on LANCER — itself predicting the same appropriation Charles Manson would use to attract followers to his murderous cause — makes memorable (if brief) use of Scott McNairy and Luke Perry, the latter of whom would receive the film’s dedication following his untimely passing from a sudden stroke in 2019.

Timothy Olyphant leverages his smarmy handsomeness as James Stacy, the hero of LANCER and a friendly rival competing for the same roles, his own career ascendancy highlighting the sharp downward slope of Dalton’s. Julia Butters outright steals the show as precocious child star Trudi Fraser, a pint-sized acolyte of the Stanislavski method and a harbinger of the sweeping sea change in acting style set to overtake the industry in the early 70’s that would leave old-school performers like Dalton in the dust.

Then there’s Al Pacino, who slips so effortlessly into Tarantino’s cinematic universe it’s a wonder it took him this long to get involved in the first place. He delivers a delightful performance as Marvin Schwarz, a Hollywood producer of the oldest school. Rarely seen without his coke bottle glasses and a fat cigar in his hand, Schwarz has taken a special interest in Dalton’s career; he’s hellbent on recharging Dalton’s fading star with an unconventional plan that involves starring in Italian westerns.

Pacino brings the same intensity he’s always brought to his performances, only this time the character allows him to display the soft edges of grandfatherly charisma.

Like Dalton, Booth’s journey involves a wide range of colorful characters— only with much more dangerous capabilities. His roadside flirtations with Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a cheery hippy girl and frequent hitchhiker, unwittingly leads him to the maggot-infested snake pit that is Charles Manson’s Spahn Ranch commune.

The dusty, forgotten movie ranch has been commandeered by Manson’s family members and turned into an isolated community where their supposedly “utopian” ambitions can be put into practice. Manson himself is something of a non-presence, played by Damon Herriman in only a brief visit to Tate’s house on Cielo Drive during broad daylight— a development only we the audience realize as a harbinger of imminent doom.

Herriman, who has effectively been typecast as Manson seeing as he plays the same character in Netflix’s MINDHUNTER series, leans into Tarantino’s rendition of the real-life figure with a searing creepiness that leaks out from behind a crooked grin.

Manson’s relative absence nonetheless looms large over the proceedings, given its sinister weight through the actions of acolytes like Qualley’s Pussycat, Dakota Fanning’s Squeaky Fromme, or even Lena Dunham’s Gypsy. Together, Dunham and Fanning embody the two-faced nature of Manson’s cult mentality, Dunham as the soft-spoken “earth mother” who welcomes new faces with open arms, and Fanning as the protective Squeaky who wields a bitter malice in order to maintain her fragile position.

Squeaky in particular is tasked with the important mission of keeping Spahn Ranch’s eponymous owner happy and oblivious to the cult’s complete takeover of his property. Bruce Dern, who previously appeared in Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, plays the blind, bedridden George Spahn with an impotent irritability that shows how easily he can and has been taken advantage of. Without Spahn’s cranky complicity, there is arguably no soil for Manson’s hateful ideology to take root.

Booth’s career as a stuntman is also illuminated through the famous and not-so-famous faces he comes into contact with on set. One of the film’s more memorable sequences finds Booth getting into a scrap with none other than Bruce Lee— played by a conflicted Mike Moh as a pompous prima donna.

Like Robbie’s performance, some critics and audiences would find fault with this depiction of Lee, blasting it as racist caricature. This aspect even led to the cancellation of the film’s premiere in China (11). While Tarantino’s portrait most definitely doesn’t cast Lee in a reverential light, it does give a degree of volume or complexity to a figure otherwise reduced to a two-dimensional “cut down in his prime” narrative by Hollywood mythmaking (while alluding to the outsized ego recounted by some of his collaborators).

This sequence also coincides with memorable performances by Tarantino regulars Zoe Bell and Kurt Russell, both belonging to the same stunt world as Booth— and a reflection of the success Booth himself might have attained had he not hitched his wagon so intensely to Dalton’s. As Janet Miller, Bell leverages her own outsized persona so as to give her vocal disapproval of Booth a comic edge.

As her husband and stunt coordinator Randy Miller, Russell shows us the flip side to the psychopathic Stuntman Mike character he played in Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF, regarding Booth somewhat more diplomatically out of professional obligation while nevertheless sharing in his wife’s disdain. Russell’s participation gets even more mileage by serving as an omniscient narrator in select scenes.

Of the rest of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD’s huge ensemble, Emile Hirsch, Maya Hawke and Damien Lewis stand out. Hirsch, once groomed as a leading man in his own right, seems to settle quite naturally into character work as Jay Sebring, a music industry player and Tate’s ex-fiance & now-best friend (it’s complicated).

In real life, Sebring would also meet his untimely end on that fateful August night on Cielo Drive, but Hirsch’s easygoing performance as this alternate-history version of the man works similarly to Tate’s, in that he brings out and preserves the humanity that’s otherwise been reduced by his victimhood to Manson. Damien Lewis makes a memorable, if brief, appearance as acting legend Steve McQueen, painted by Tarantino as a would-be rival for Tate’s affections who never really had a shot to begin with.

Maya Hawke, daughter of acclaimed actor Ethan Hawke, plays Flowerchild, the rare Manson acolyte with a conscience. 2019 proved a breakout year for the emerging actress, who also made waves with a starring turn in Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS series, and her performance here solidifies the notion that her career is built on natural talent, not nepotism.

Though her scene is brief, she brings an unexpected levity to an otherwise dark, pivotal moment where Manson’s flunkies decide to leave their car and commit murder. Her last-minute abandonment of the group— taking their sole means of transport along with her — is emblematic of Tarantino’s pitch-black sense of humor, but it’s also based on a real-life episode that actually happened on the second night of the Manson murders.

The remaining cast is far too sizable to go into further detail, but only in Tarantino’s career is the prospect of what might have been as intriguing as the actual final product. Deleted scenes would have seen reprisals from prior Tarantino players like Tim Roth and James Remar as Sebring’s butler and a western character named Ugly Owl Hoot, respectively.

A brief appearance by James Marsden as a young Burt Reynolds in a deleted Red Apple commercial also provides a glimpse of what might have been. Speaking of Reynolds, the late actor himself would have appeared in the film as George Spahn, but as fate would have it, his final performance would be at the initial table read (12).

Early development reports would also suggest a much different thrust to Tarantino’s story, detailing the negotiations of Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson for a major role and a reconfigured plot where the Tate murders were actually carried out as they were in real life. In this version, Tarantino intended Pitt to play a detective investigating the killings, and the role of Cliff Booth would have been played by Tom Cruise (13). Pitt, however, didn’t particularly respond to this iteration of the story, leading to the story recalibration that ultimately went before cameras.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD easily counts among Tarantino’s most stunning work from a visual standpoint, suffused with a high degree of stylistic flourish while never imposing itself on the narrative. Tarantino’s fifth collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson yields its biggest return yet: an impeccably-lensed feast of composition and color, all of it bathed in the golden glow of Los Angeles sunshine.

Though the story unfolds in the present tense, Tarantino and Richardson immerse their visuals in a warm bath of nostalgia— as if the camera itself were looking back fondly on its heyday. Indeed, a special sort of energy courses through the film, evidenced most potently in frequent driving sequences that Tarantino lets run for extended periods of time.

There are moments when, driving around LA on a warm sunny day, unencumbered by traffic, that you become acutely aware that your heyday is here and now. It’s the feeling of being alive and in your prime, and it’s easy to believe this feeling will stay with you forever— your youth, your virility, your association with other young and beautiful people, your “coolness”.

The film’s long driving sequences show that Tarantino understands this notion— that it’s nothing less than the foundation of the Hollywood Dream; a fragile and delicate thing that can quickly curdle into a nightmare if one dreams too much.

Tarantino’s love letter to cinema asserts its passion through a dizzying mix of formats, genres, aspect ratios and techniques— nearly all of which are achieved through technical in-camera means rather than with digital emulations. He and Richardson shoot the primary storyline on Super 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

They roll a combination of Kodak 200T and 500T film through Arriflex 435 and Panavision Millennium XL2 cameras, ably replicating the premium cinematic look of the Hollywood films they pay so much homage to while taking advantage of recent developments in film stock’s low-light sensitivity.

This means a lot more of Tarantino’s vision can be captured with natural light, leading to the voluminous golden glow that envelopes the story— further complemented by the use of vintage Cooke, Angenieux, Panavision Primo and ultra-speed “golden” lenses.

The filmmakers also shoot in the lower-gauge 16mm format in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for television sequences like BOUNTY LAW or FBI, the former shot on Kodak’s Eastman Double X black-and-white stock and the latter on their Ektachrome 100D offering. These sequences adopt the stylistic vernacular of their era, limiting themselves to the techniques and tools available to crews of that time.

That they feel so effortlessly authentic is a testament to Tarantino’s self-immersion in the long and varied history of the motion picture.

Though a ton of energy is expended on simulating these styles, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD sees Tarantino working at the zenith of his aesthetic. His gleeful embrace of dynamic camera work enjoys the benefits of his lavish budget, leaning into the decadent excess of its 60’s setting with a delirious mix of lens flares, whip pans, jump cuts, soaring crane moves, creeping zooms, slow-motion moments, and punchy detail inserts.

The crane shots in particular distinguish this film from the rest of Tarantino’s filmography, showing off the sheer scale of his world while suggesting a kind of swooping omniscience — or fateful inevitability— as it tracks his characters through the landscape. At the same time, the personal sophistication that comes with age evidences itself in Tarantino’s restraint; exaggerated though it may be at times, Tarantino’s aesthetic is clearly calibrated towards the demands of his story rather than the self-aggrandizing motivations of a younger artist.

For instance, several scenes unfold with only one static setup; we don’t notice the extended duration because Tarantino converts kinetic momentum into conversational energy via his gift for endlessly captivating dialogue.

Production designer Barbara Ling complements the quiet elegance of Richardson’s cinematography by comprehensively replicating the story’s “summer of ‘69” setting, while avoiding the typical signifiers and visual cliches of the era. A lot has been written about the attention she and her team paid to detail, faithfully recreating their locations exactly as they were at the time.

Tarantino’s name recognition — and the logistical doors it opens — gives Ling license to transform several city blocks at a time; and not just the aforementioned sequences on Hollywood Boulevard. The production’s large-scale recreations extend to other iconic LA locales like Westwood Village, or long stretches of Wiltshire Boulevard.

That said, some aspects of 60’s Hollywood have been completely lost to the ravages of time, requiring a little more craft in the way of their resurrection. Keeping in line with Tarantino’s “no CGI” mandate, detailed miniatures allow production to bring back lost-lost locales like the Van Nuys drive-in. Naturally, CGI couldn’t be totally avoided— DiCaprio had to be digitally inserted into a scene from THE GREAT ESCAPE for a gag, but even then the effect is done so as to achieve the look of something captured in-camera.

Returning editor Fred Raskin further sells the illusion in creating a temporal and narrative continuity between setups. His work is nothing less than magical, erasing the seams of the film’s making while eliciting a genuine emotional response. Indeed, one of the film’s most sublime, memorable moments can be attributed to Raskin’s unique ability to create meaning between disparate setups.

A short, wordless sequence heralding the arrival of August 9th, 1969 finds several Hollywood landmarks firing up their signs and lights as dusk settles over the landscape and Mick Jagger croons over the soundtrack. Raskin strikes a perfectly-calibrated poignance that rests at the convergence between the story’s two competing tones: wistful nostalgia for a bygone era and the dread of inevitable calamity that we know is coming but can do nothing about. It is the last, gleaming moment of the 1960’s just before it all comes crashing down.

After working with Ennio Morricone on the score to THE HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino once again foregoes original music in favor of the eclectic jukebox approach that has been a defining characteristic of his career. The story’s period setting allows him to indulge in the tunes of his youth, constantly beaming out across the sprawl via LA’s radio station KHJ— notably not the fictional KBilly that pops up throughout the Tarantino universe in previous films, but the actual station Tarantino listened to himself back in the day.

The film’s ample budget allows for high-profile needle drops from the era like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”, Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and The Rolling Stones’ “Out Of Time”, while Tarantino’s own stack of deep cuts enables him to drag out several gems from obscurity.

Of all these, José Feliciano’s laidback acoustic cover of “California Dreaming” proves an unexpected grace note, perfectly complementing Tarantino’s wistful nostalgia with its elegiac tribute to a beautiful dream that may have already passed by. In his hands, KHJ becomes something like an omniscient period narrator, constantly playing in the background across the disparate story threads and uniting his characters in a shared existence.

As Tarantino nears the end of his oft-promised ten-film filmography — indeed, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD very well may be his penultimate film — the stakes couldn’t be higher for a filmmaker with as sustained a track record for excellence. The film often feels like nothing less than the Ultimate Tarantino Film, crammed to the gills with his artistic signatures and stylistic flourishes.

It’s no coincidence that the color yellow, a kind of chromatic motif throughout his work, is so dominant throughout ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. Countless accent details bear a bold saffron hue, from his signature title cards, to a television director’s turtleneck (sweater) or even Tate’s outfit at the Playboy Mansion party.

Other surface trademarks repeatedly stamp Tarantino’s name all over the material, like his supernatural gift for creatively profane dialogue, indulgent shots of women’s bare feet, the iconography of the Western genre, and a general bloodthirstiness that manifests in gnarly explosions of violence. That said, save for the film’s climax and a short scrap between Booth and a Manson acolyte at Spahn Ranch, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is Tarantino’s least violent film by a mile.

His careelong homage to cinema and self-referential fascination with pop culture (and his own place within it) reach their zenith here, with a celebration of Hollywood as a mecca of culture, the pulsing center of the universe. The presence of certain character archetypes and fictional brands like Red Apple cigarettes connect Tarantino’s latest efforts to his previous work, further expanding the cinematic universe he’s spent his entire career building. Tarantino being… well, Tarantino… he can’t help but pepper the film with winking references to his position as the creator of this universe, itself a sizable pop culture phenomenon.

If Dalton’s cream-colored ride looks familiar, that’s because it should: it’s the hero car from RESERVOIR DOGS (3), now owned by Michael Madsen. There’s also a beat that acknowledges Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema, whereby the characters notice a premiere at the sleazy “adult theater” down the road, in effect mapping out its location relative to the infamous El Coyote restaurant where Tate had her unwitting last supper.

The film stands alone within Tarantino’s filmography, however, in its unconscious acknowledgment of a core — if little-discussed— aspect of his legacy: his commitment to the perpetuation of photochemical film. Joining fellow filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Tarantino has used his influence to ensure the continued availability of celluloid in an industry that’s been completely overtaken by digital formats.

With the exception of generational cohort Paul Thomas Anderson and the battle between film and video seen in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, Tarantino stands apart in his treatment of the format as dramatic subject matter itself. One needs only look at the sequence where Tate spends an afternoon at one of her own movies to see the reverence and awe he clearly holds for the communal experience of cinema; of watching real film unspool through the projector.

Just as his characterization of Sharon Tate is meant to show us what we collectively lost as a culture with her death, so too does ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD try to convey what we stand to lose in our spurning of the theatrical experience for the comforts and convenience of streaming at home. The sharing of laughter or tears with a bunch of strangers in the dark is a sacred experience not dissimilar from churchgoing; it fosters empathy, and stitches us ever deeper into the fabric of community.

The spectre of moviegoing’s complete obliteration has hung over the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic— the recent announcement of the closure of LA’s beloved Arclight theater chain is a particularly sobering blow— and while it’s still too soon to see if the media’s breathless proclamations of cinema’s total demise will pan out, Tarantino’s film is nonetheless an urgent reminder to preserve this beautiful dream before it’s gone forever.

Tarantino is no stranger to success— indeed, he’s had one of the most remarkable runs in the entire art form. The success of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, as assured as it may have been, nevertheless represents a new height in his career. After premiering at Cannes with a seven minute standing ovation (1) and a nomination for the prestigious Palm d’Or, the film would go on to gross $374 million in international box office receipts.

Though his prior films were fairly polarizing among critics, Tarantino’s latest effort met with positive reviews across the board. Ten Oscar nominations would follow, honoring the film’s achievements in sound editing, sound mixing, costume design, cinematography, direction and production, among others. DiCaprio and Pitt were also nominated for their performances, with Pitt ultimately taking home the gold statue for the Support Actor category.

Though it may not qualify as a full-stop phenomenon like PULP FICTION or even RESERVOIR DOGS, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD nevertheless poses several opportunities for its continued presence in pop culture. Tarantino will be releasing his own novelization, and is reportedly working on an extended 4-hour cut for Netflix (14). If that wasn’t enough, he’s also developing a BOUNTY LAW television series, for which he plans to direct every episode. Where he gets the time or energy to do all of this, this author has no idea.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a bookend to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, in that it neatly concludes a run of revisionist historical pictures that seek a kind of lopsided justice for the industrialized world’s racial inhumanities. Tarantino’s “alternate history” period, if it can be called that, and which may or may not be over depending on the as-of-yet-undetermined subject matter of his next film, employs exaggerated violence to cathartic ends.

The victories may not be moral, but they are most definitely personal. Though ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD similarly ends in a carnival of bloodshed, Tarantino’s underlying motives for said revisionism finally becomes clear. If anything, these films are about choice— things may seem destined or inevitable when viewed through the rearview of history, but nothing is pre-ordained.

As ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD unfolds, the wistfulness we feel about Tarantino’s ode to Old Hollywood is tempered by a mounting dread; the knowledge that the fateful night of August 9th is drawing close. That a simple, almost thoughtless, intervention from Dalton redirects the Manson cult’s murderous attentions is nothing less than a seismic historical shift that would reframe the entire remainder of the 20th century.

The cult’s humiliating, cartoonishly-absurd demise at the hands of a party much better prepared to defend themselves than Tate is itself a kind of revenge.

Where INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED saw Tarantino create revenge fantasies for the benefit of people other than himself, this alternate take on the Manson murders is his own personal revenge: revenge for killing the dream of the 1960’s, for killing the Hollywood he loved so much. In the process, however, Tarantino uncovers a much more poignant truth— one that better speaks to the unconditional love of cinema that has fueled his career. More so than Charles Manson, or the free love generation, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is about the magic of the movies.

Through cinema, we can create new realities that fix the broken aspects of our own; the dead can be resurrected, horrible fates can be averted, dreams can live on. Perhaps even he didn’t realize it until now, but Tarantino knows this better than anyone. It is why his figure continues to loom so large over the industry, and why he has become such a singularly successful force; his passion for the art form is infectious, sure, but it’s also restorative. As long as Tarantino’s work endures, the dream of a new golden age of cinema will always lie on the horizon— its contours ringed by the bright, promising glare of the California sun.


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

Ultimate Guide To Martin Scorsese And His Directing Techniques

FIRST SHORT WORKS (1959-1966)

In the United States, feature films are given ratings by the Motion Picture Association of America as a means to prohibit members of certain age brackets from exposure to mature content. The R rating in particular is meant to prevent anyone under the age of 17 from gaining admission to a film that’s been deemed either too violent and/or sexual for their age.

Thanks to home video, I had seen plenty of R-rated films before I turned seventeen, but once I did, damned if I didn’t go straight to the theatre to enjoy some hassle-free Restricted film viewing. The first R-rated film I ever saw in theatres was director Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002).

The subject matter and historical period attracted me more to the film than the authorship of its director—indeed up until then, I had only been tangentially aware of Scorsese’s influence on the medium. Nevertheless, it was one of the most visceral filmgoing experiences of my young life, and I became acutely aware I was in the hands of a master filmmaker.

In many ways, it was the beginning of my filmic literacy and education.  As of this writing, Scorsese is currently 72 years old, and shows no signs of slowing down or retiring. He belongs to the Film Brat generation of filmmakers, amongst contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Steven Spielberg.

Theirs was the earliest generation to attend and graduate from dedicated film schools like New York University or University of Southern California, and as such, the first generation to truly bring the idea of “community” to filmmaking.

The 1970’s and 80’s were heady days for Scorsese’s generation of filmmakers, with their overlapping social circles causing them to feed off of each other’s creative energies and funnel it into a collective stylistic movement we now call New Hollywood.

In the decades since, Scorsese has emerged as something of a national treasure—he’s not only one of the most significant and influential filmmakers in American history, but he’s also one of its most prolific producers as well.  Scorsese’s body of work largely deals with stories about the Italian-American experience, Roman Catholic concepts of sin and redemption, modern masculinity, and organized crime.

He was instrumental in the development of modern cinema, popularizing many of its core conceits like dynamic camera movement, fast-paced editing, and laying popular music into the soundtrack.  His depictions of the Italian American experience in his native New York City is rivaled in influence only by Woody Allen’s documentation of the Jewish experience.

Younger filmmakers like Spike Lee, James Gray, and even Lena Dunham have followed his example in using the city as a prism with which to focus on certain subcultures (the African-American, Polish/Eastern European, and Millennial/hipster cultures, respectively).

Scorsese is also one of the most decorated filmmakers of our time—he has the most Oscar nominations for Best Director (eight, with one win) of any living director. When considering the total nominations of ALL directors living or dead, he comes in second only to William Wyler, an honor he shares with Billy Wilder.

“Marty” Scorsese was born November 17th, 1942 in Queens, New York to Charles and Catherine Scorsese. Both parents worked in the Garment District in addition to being actors. They were emigrants from the Italian island of Sicily, which meant that Scorsese was a first generation American, and thus better positioned than his parents to pursue the American Dream as he saw fit—a quest that would become a key theme in his body of work.

Having moved to Manhattan’s Little Italy shortly before attending school, Scorsese grew up as a sickly child—his severe asthma prevented him from playing sports, so he would go to the movies instead. The Scorsese household was strictly Roman Catholic, and little Marty had initially planned on becoming a priest when he grew up.

After taking in a screening of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s BLACK NARCISSUS one day in 1947, however, he found himself bit by the film bug. Hard. He began mainlining a steady diet of films—mostly historical epics and the Italian neorealism of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.

Films like BICYCLE THIEVES (1948) and ROME OPEN CITY (1945) gave Scorsese a deeper appreciation of his Italian heritage, but the idea of pursuing filmmaking as a career didn’t occur to him until independent director John Cassavetes released his self-financed debut feature, FACES, in 1959—a flashpoint event that forever dispelled any excuse an aspiring director had for not actively making his or her movie.

That same year, Scorsese followed Cassavetes’ example and made his first short filmVESUVIUS VI. Like the historical epics he loved growing up, the film was set in Ancient Rome and drew inspiration from the then-popular television series 77 SUNSET STRIP.

For whatever reason, VESUVIUS VI is unfortunately unavailable for public viewing, but it was enough to land the academically challenged Scorsese a spot in New York University’s class of 1964. From 1960-1964, Scorsese worked towards a bachelor’s degree in English while making two short films that would serve as his first true experimentations with the art form and help solidify his aesthetic.

WHATS A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963)

The ideas and practices of the French New Wave can be felt heavily throughout Scorsese’s earliest publicly available work, WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? The short is about an anxious writer who becomes so entranced by a particular photograph that it gives him terrible writers block.

He meets and marries a young bohemian girl whose carefree ways release him from his internal struggles—that is until her art begins to take a crippling hold on him as well. Scorsese tells a very fractured narrative, switching between subjective first person perspective to documentary-style testimonials and various non sequiturs with reckless abandon.

Shooting in black and white, Scorsese wields his handheld camera with a dynamic, exaggerated sense of reality that’s almost cartoon-like in nature. His compositions and lighting setups are bold, confident, and very impressionistic- indeed, the influence of Fellini and his distinctly magical style is felt in every frame.

WHATS A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? closes with the line, “Life is fraught with peril”—an interesting conclusion that feels very prescient when we consider the films yet to come from the young Scorsese.

ITS NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! (1964)

The next year, Scorsese made his third work, titled IT’S JUST NOT YOU, MURRAY! It starred Ira Robin as the titular Murray, Sam DeFazio as his buddy Joe, and Andrea Martin as Murray’s aloof wife. Catherine Scorsese even appears, beginning a long tradition of making cameos in her son’s work.

The short follows the black and white, French New wave conceits of its predecessor, going a step farther by exposing its artificiality as a film by acknowledging the presence of a sound man. The film is mostly comedic, but it introduces several ideas that Scorsese would incorporate into his dramatic aesthetic.

Examples include weaving the story specifically into the fabric of New York City and the depiction of violence in a hard-hitting, messy, and realistic manner. IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! also sees the first appearance of a common trope within Scorsese’s work—the introduction of the love interest (in this instance, Andrea Martin) as a blonde in a white dress.

It’s not that Scorsese just has a thing for blondes—the frequent appearance of this scene throughout his body of work can be traced back to his Roman Catholic background and the dogma that gave birth to the madonna/whore complex that drives his films’ sexual conflicts.

As a whole, IT’S NOT JUST YOU, MURRAY! is the first of Scorsese’s works to follow his signature narrative framework: a man hailing from an immigrant family (usually Italian) and living in New York City gets involved in shady dealings with a business partner, becomes rich, marries above his social caste, and achieves the American Dream only to lose it all to hubris and ego.

The titular Murray of this short film introduces himself by saying he wants to learn how to live A Good Life—it’s the pursuit of “The Good Life” that Scorsese’s films are all about, and his characters are determined to get it by any means necessary.

Scorsese graduated from New York University’s undergraduate program in 1964, and then went right back in to earn an MFA in Film. He finished in 1966, the same year he made NEW YORK CITY…MELTING POINT, a film about which little is known other than the fact that it’s a documentary.

My guess is that it was Scorsese’s master’s thesis film, but until it is publicly available, we’ll never know for sure. Thankfully, however, we have the above short films to show us that his aesthetic was already highly developed, thanks to a firm command of the craft that he’d cultivated from a childhood spent in the movie theatre. They prove, without a shadow of a doubt, Martin Scorsese was a natural born filmmaker from the very start.


WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967)

Nowadays, going to college to pursue filmmaking is almost as commonplace as studying law or economics. Nobody bats an eye when a young man or woman declares his or her intentions to become a filmmaker (except maybe for the parents shouldering those insane tuition fees).

It’s hard to believe, in the late 60’s when the idea of “film school” was new and untested, that pursuing a profession in film carried a certain stigma with it. That first class of school-taught filmmakers, comprised of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian DePalma, or George Lucas, would prove invaluable in legitimizing the idea of film schools as a breeding ground for tomorrow’s top cinematic talents.

Sometime in the mid-60’s, a young man named Martin Scorsese was sitting in a film history course at New York University and found himself struck by his professor’s sheer enthusiasm and love for cinema, beginning a journey that bring him to the forefront of his particular generation of filmmakers.

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The young Scorsese would try his hand at filmmaking by directing two shorts during his undergraduate studies—WHAT’S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS? (1963), and IT’S JUST NOT YOU, MURRAY! (1964).

However, the real test would come in the form of a student short he embarked on the following year—a film about rambunctious young Italian men called BRING ON THE DANCING GIRLS. He might not have known it at the time, but what he was reallyembarking on was his very first feature film—albeit the process of how it came to be deviated greatly from conventional processes.

In 1967, Scorsese added a romantic sublot with actress Zina Bethune to the short and changed the title to I CALL FIRST, eventually screening it at the Chicago Film Festival the following year (and even earning high praise from a young Roger Ebert).

This led to the film’s acquisition by exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner, who forced the young director to add in a gratuitous sex scene (spliced quite literally into the middle of a dialogue scene) and retitle the film to WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.

The film takes place in a world the young Scorsese knew quite well: the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan. JR (Harvey Keitel, in his first of several collaborations with Scorsese) is a young hood who spends his days raising hell around town with his no-good friends, and his nights getting his kicks with an endless rotation of loose women he dismisses as “broads”.

He’s a little bit of a dreamer, but for all his open-mindedness, he can’t help fall in line with the community mentality towards women. One day, he meets a girl (the aforementioned Bethune and the first of many Scorsese blondes) on the Staten Island Ferry and is taken with her effortless charms and virginal purity.

They begin a courtship, bonding over their differences as well as their similarities (for instance, a shared obsession with movies). When JR announces to the girl that he wants to marry her, she reveals a dark secret about her past—a few years ago, she was raped while on a date with another boy.

JR is unable to deal with the revelation and storms off into the night for a round of raucous partying with his friends. Unable to forget her, he returns to her apartment the next morning to say that he’s forgiven her—but it’s not forgiveness that the girl seeks, and their incompatibility as a couple is ultimately revealed.

A relatively simple narrative told in an endlessly complex fashion, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR shares its provocative insights into the double standards that men impose on women. It has lost none of its relevancy considering today’s problems with rape culture and attitudes of entitlement that perpetuate the objectification of women.

WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was cobbled together over the course of several years and different shoots, so the cinematography varies throughout its brisk running time. Michael Wadleigh and Richard Coll are credited as the directors of photography, shooting on a mix of 35mm and 16mm black and white film.

At first glance, Scorsese’s stylistic approach here reads like a grab bag of French New Wave tricks: handheld camerawork, jump cuts, fast-pacing, cross-cutting, non-chronological ordering, and impressionistic flourishes (like a party sequence rendered in slow motion).

Independent filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes was a big influence on Scorsese, and the mark of Cassavetes’ 1959 film SHADOWS can be felt in every frame of Scorsese’s debut. Thelma Schoonmaker had the unenviable job of piecing together no less than three separate stories and shoots into one coherent whole in the editing room.

For her efforts, she would be rewarded with a long, fruitful working relationship with Scorsese as his regular editor—a relationship that continues to this day.  Scorsese is credited with helping to popularize the use of contemporary rock music in modern American cinema, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR gives us our first glimpse at the young director’s musical affectations.

Scorsese populates the soundtrack with several jukebox and doo-wop hits. They may sound antiquated to us today, but back in the 1960’s, these songs had the establishment clutching their proverbial pearls. The standout is the use of The Doors’ “This Is The End” during JR’s sex fantasy in the middle of the film, predating Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the song in APOCALYPSE NOW by nearly twelve years.

The sound of Scorsese’s music may have changed over the course of his career, but the character remains the same— full of vitality, energy, and rebellious spirit.

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Scorsese’s early work deals heavily with Catholic concepts of redemption and guilt, as well as how it relates to the Italian American experience in New York. In this regard, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR is perhaps the bluntest instrument of the bunch, hammering its themes home with extended montages of old world Catholic iconography—cathedrals, statues of Mary, Christ on the cross, prayer candles, etc.

The love plot serves as a prototypical form of the classic Scorsese romance archetype—a man comes to love a woman who appears like a vision out of a crowd (usually a blonde wearing white), promising to be his salvation from a brutal world— but when she fails to live up to his exacting, ultimately unrealistic standards of purity and innocence, discord most surely ensues.

This Madonna/Whore complex runs through Scorsese’s work—it even pops up in his most recent narrative feature, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013). It’s a conceit deeply rooted in the social and religious structures of Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Other hallmarks of Scorsese’s work—depictions of violence as messy and chaotic and cameos by his mother Catherine Scorsese—make their first appearance in the young director’s scrappy debut.

WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR was a strong, albeit technically flawed debut that heralded the arrival of a major new voice in American cinema. It brought Scorsese to the attention of commercial production companies as well as the studios, and it saw the beginning of a long series of fruitful collaborations with Thelma Schoonmaker and Harvey Keitel.

It may have been overshadowed by the visceral power of his better-known masterpieces, but it holds it own as a daring entry in the annals of independent film. After an adolescence spent idolizing the cinema as a spectator, Scorsese was now officially a participant—and the art form would never be the same.


EARLY PROFESSIONAL WORK (1967-1970)

After the release of director Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), he found himself the recipient of attention from advertising agencies, who wanted him to bring his fresh, bold style to the world of commercials.

The relative infancy of educational filmmaking institutions at the time meant that there was a relatively small pool of directing graduates, thus it was relatively easy to gain attention after making a film and parlay that into a full-time career. That’s not to belittle Scorsese’s achievement, it’s simply a statement of fact— the odds of something like that happening in today’s media-saturated world are slim to none.

As the 1960’s drew to a close, the young Scorsese’s world was opening up. He made his first trip to Europe, immersing himself in its culture and applying his expanded worldview to his art while he made a living directing commercials.

THE BIG SHAVE (1967)

During this busy, exciting time, Scorsese was able to fit in another short called THE BIG SHAVE—his first work in color. The film takes place entirely in a colorless bathroom as a man undergoes his morning shaving ritual—only this particular morning he shaves until his face bleeds profusely, finishing it off by slitting his throat and letting the blood pour into the sink.

Shot by cinematographer Ares Demertzis mostly in punchy closeups, THE BIG SHAVE acts as something of a color study, studying the contrast of dark red blood against the pristine ivory sink with an almost fetishistic curiosity.

While the short definitely stays consistent with Scorsese’s career-long fascination with visceral violence and bloodshed, it also plays to the iconography of his Roman Catholic heritage—specifically the Old World notion of self-flagellation and punishment as a way to redeem one’s sins. It’s a pretty morbid piece of work, especially because of the playful big-band jazz song that Scorsese uses to counterbalance the macabre action.

ARMANI COMMERCIAL (1968)

As I previously mentioned above, Scorsese’s first commissioned gigs saw him traveling abroad for the first time. I was only able to find out about three commercials he made during this period, and only one of them is actually available online.

Scorsese’s spot for ICELANDIC AIRLINES is generally credited as his first commercial, and whatever information is available for his REVLON spot doesn’t leave a lot to go of off. The commercial that is publicly available—done for ARMANI—is interesting in how it is at once both anonymous in authorship (as most commercials are) and indicative of Scorsese’s hand.

Presented in artful black and white, the spot features a young woman teaching a young man Italian—so right off the bat there’s the nod towards Scorsese’s Italian heritage. Furthermore, the spot takes place in a baroque space that suggests something not unlike a Catholic cathedral.

STREET SCENES (1970)

Perhaps Scorsese’s most significant work from this period remains publicly unavailable—the 1970 feature documentary STREET SCENES. The first of many documentaries that Scorsese would make throughout his career, STREET SCENEScovers two historical rallies held to protest the war in Vietnam: New York City’s Hard Hat Riots and the Kent State protests in Washington DC.

The New York protest turns violent, which no doubt resulted in visceral footage. The film also features interviews with his WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR star, Harvey Keitel, as well as feature collaborators Jay Cocks and Verna Bloom. Coincidentally, one of Scorsese’s camera operators on the film was a young Oliver Stone.

Unfortunately, STREET SCENES was never released on home video, which seems like a huge oversight given the historical importance of its subject matter. The creation of STREET SCENES illustrates Scorsese’s desire to explore social issues not just in a narrative context, but also in a real-world one.

Indeed, Scorsese is one of the very few filmmakers who can regularly alternate between fiction and documentary and provide consistently brilliant quality.  This busy time saw the young Scorsese developing and experimenting with his aesthetic while mingling with an older generation of artists who recognized his considerable talent.

After WHO’S THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR, Scorsese cultivated a friendship and mentorship with independent film icon John Cassavetes, but his next feature project would come as a result of his association with an independent filmmaker of a very different kind—exploitation king Roger Coran.


BOXCAR BERTHA (1972)

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the first crop of film school graduates began entering the work force. Many were lured into the lucrative world of commercials, while others struggled to get their own films off the ground. Music videos hadn’t been invented yet, so that was not yet an option.

One of the biggest employers of filmmakers during this period was B-movie kingpin Roger Corman, who built an empire off of cheaply made exploitation schlock pictures. He’s still doing it, aided and abetted by an even cheaper production pipeline thanks to the digital revolution, and he’s still pulling promising young film school graduates to work for him (a good college buddy of mine recently starred in one of Corman’s producing efforts, 2010’s SHARKTOPUS).

It was through the Corman production pipeline that generation-defining filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma first came up, and in the late 1970’s, Corman roped yet another promising filmmaker into his fold: director Martin Scorsese.

Fresh off the release of his 1967 debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, Scorsese was hired to direct Corman and co-producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s production of BOXCAR BERTHA, based on the novel “Sisters Of The Road” by Ben L. Reitman.

For Scorsese, it was his first color feature, and it was strictly a for-hire project—Corman cast lead actors Barbara Hershey and David Carradine himself and oversaw the creative direction of the project. To his credit though, he recognized Scorsese’s immense talent and handed him a significant amount of artistic freedom.

The result is an artfully realized film that transcends its exploitation flick roots and joined an emergent wave of lovers-on-the-run films from the era like Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and, later, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).

Shot over the course of twenty-four days in Arkansas, BOXCAR BERTHA takes place in the deep South during the rail-riding heyday of the Great Depression. Bertha (Hershey) is a young girl in mid-blossom, on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman.

When her pilot father is killed in a plane crash, the newly orphaned Bertha falls in with a charismatic union organizer named Big Bill Shelly (Carradine). Big Bill is an outspoken critic of capitalism, and he’s followed wherever he goes by authorities suspicious of his Communist sympathies.

After Bertha shoots a wealthy gambler following a heated argument at a card game, she ropes Big Bill into going on the lam with her, along with their friends Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and Von Morton (Bernie Casey). The foursome embarks on a life of crime, riding the boxcars from town to town and stealing from the rich to give to…well, themselves.

As their notoriety grows throughout the land, they become aware that this won’t end well for them, so they might as well enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Their devil may care attitude turns them into folk heroes, admired for their open defiance of the authorities—right down to the bitter end.

Though he may not have had a say in the casting, Scorsese gets great work out of his performers, particularly Barbara Hershey as the titular Bertha. Hershey projects a virginal innocence to the undereducated and impressionable girl who grows into her own as she quickly adjusts to a criminal life on the road.

The late Carradine, who enjoyed a brief career resurgence as a very different Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004), plays the rakish folk hero Big Bill Shelly with a calm, inviting demeanor. Rounding out the band of crooks are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey as the foppish Yankee Rake Brown and the strong, quiet Von Morton, respectively.

The inclusion of Casey’s character is especially effective, as it gives off a real sense of period authenticity to the film and gives the film a racial tension that helps us sympathize with the criminal antics of our protagonists as they fight against authorities painted as reprehensible racists and sexual sadists.

Director of photography John M. Stephens helps Scorsese craft a naturalistic look for BOXCAR BERTHA, punctuated with a heavy dose of techniques popularized by the French New Wave—handheld, documentary-style camerawork, realism and immediacy, impressionistic compositions and edits, rack zooms, etc.

Scorsese applies these touches particularly well during the artfully rendered lovemaking scene, which plays out in fleeting closeups and echoes Scorsese’s prior use of the style during the love scenes in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR.

Scorsese has built his career off of dynamic camera movements that bring an unparalleled sense of life and energy to his work, and BOXCAR BERTHA is certainly no slouch in that department. The climax in particular sees Scorsese bravely experiment with new visual techniques, such as assuming the POV of someone getting blown back by a shotgun blast.

While the technique itself is a little crude thanks to what little resources he had on set, Scorsese succeeds in injecting the scene with an exhilarating sense of impact and carnage. All in all, BOXCAR BERTHA’s low budget results in a lo-fi feel, an aesthetic that both works for and against Scorsese’s vision.

Given what we know about Scorsese’s immense interest in blues music and culture, BOXCAR BERTHA becomes very relevant indeed when it comes to talking about its music. Gib Guilbreau and Thad Maxwell provide a folksy score heavy on the harmonica and violin, resulting in a sound that’s very much country-bumpkin.

Outside of the score, Scorsese uses a plethora of blues songs—specifically of the Mississippi Delta variety—, each selection curated and informed by his lifelong love for the genre and an intimate knowledge of its culture and history that he showed off in his 2003 documentary THE BLUES: A MUSICAL JOURNEY.

This same knowledge and passion soaks through in every frame of BOXCAR BERTHA, making for a much richer experience than its makers probably aspired to initially.  Scorsese had little to do with the film besides on-set directing and editing, but BOXCAR BERTHA still manages to bear the mark of his participation (outside of his brief cameo as a brothel customer).

For instance, he depicts the film’s violence as rowdy, chaotic, and messy. Like many of the protagonists that populate Scorsese’s work, the heroes of BOXCAR BERTHAaren’t actually heroes at all—they’re likable criminals, or antiheroes whose misdeeds eventually catch up to them and result in their downfall.

It’s in Big Bill Shelly’s downfall that the film most overtly shows the authorship of its director. Bill Bill is nailed to the side of a train—essentially crucified. It’s a very potent image that brings to mind Scorsese’s Catholic heritage and the iconography of his religious upbringing, and it wouldn’t be the last time Scorsese crucified someone onscreen during his career.

BOXCAR BERTHA didn’t make much of a wave when it was released—Corman’s business model was to cheaply make films, quickly release them and reap as much profit as possible before moving on to the next one. Corman specialized in disposable entertainment, but Scorsese made a film that has somehow endured through the ages as a film that can’t be disposed of.

While it lacks the authenticity of his NYC-based work, Scorsese’s vision manages to elevate the mediocre material to the level of historical curiosity.

Despite its status as one of Scorsese’s lesser films, BOXCAR BERTHA acts as unexpected turning point in the young director’s career. He could have very easily gone on to work with Corman again and become an especially good exploitation filmmaker.

Thankfully for us, Scorsese’s friend and mentor, indie icon John Cassavetes, had the courage to tell him that “he had just spent the past year making a piece of shit”—his next work needed to be more personal, or else he ran the risk of struggling in B-movie obscurity.

It was a very fruitful piece of constructive criticism for the young Scorsese to receive—and perhaps the most impactful—as his next project would take that advice to heart and subsequently launch his career in earnest.


MEAN STREETS (1973)

Director Martin Scorsese may have made his first feature in 1967, but it wasn’t really until six years later that his filmmaking career kicked off in earnest with the release of his third feature, MEAN STREETS. Fresh of the whirlwind shoot of 1972’s BOXCAR BERTHA for producer Roger Corman,

Scorsese was sat down by his friend and mentor, John Cassavetes (a fellow independent filmmaker who resided on the opposite side of the artistic spectrum from Corman) and told that while BOXCAR BERTHA was good, he had “wasted a year of his life making shit”.

Cassavetes feared that Scorsese might end up boxed in as an exploitation director, so he challenged Scorsese to tackle something intensely personal as his next project. Scorsese took Cassavetes’ advice to heart, and immediately began writing a feature film inspired by the culture he experienced in his youth in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Scorsese called this script SEASON OF THE WITCH, and it was a story about a young hood rising up the ranks of the Mafia while dealing with his religious beliefs and guilt. Corman offered Scorsese money to make the picture, but true to the producer’s exploitation form, his funding was contingent upon Scorsese assembling a cast comprised entirely of African Americans actors.

While this would be great from a diversity standpoint, Corman’s insistence was most likely rooted in making a proft from the “urban”/”blacksploitation” market, and it was ultimately a tone deaf demand that missed the point of Scorsese’s story entirely.

Thankfully, Verna Bloom (who Scorsese had worked with previously in his 1970 documentary STREET SCENES) was able to set Scorsese up with Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for The Band and was looking to get into producing.

This relationship would prove mutually beneficial in that Scorsese would later direct a documentary on The Band called THE LAST WALTZ (1978), but in 1973 this association was already proving quite fruitful in getting Scorsese’s vision off the ground.

The film was released as MEAN STREETS, named after a passage in Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, and it would become instrumental in launching not only Scorsese’s career, but those of his collaborators as well.

MEAN STREETS takes place entirely within the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City (although ironically a great deal of the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Charlie (WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR’s Harvey Keitel) is a small time hood, quickly rising up through the ranks of the Mafia.

Far from the elegant, old-world, and moneyed mafia depicted in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER only a year prior, these “made men” are living in slummy, crumbling tenements and are barely eking out the money with which to buy their fine Italian suits.

Charlie is still somewhat on the outskirts, not yet a made man himself. He’s held at arms length by his higher-ups, mostly because of his lack of seniority but also because of his jerkoff friends, whose wild ways constantly get him into trouble by virtue of association.

His good friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) is the worst of the bunch—an unpredictable loose cannon who owes money to just about everybody in the neighborhood and can’t ever seem to pay anything back. Johnny Boy’s in hot water with Michael (Richard Romanus), a local loan shark whose patience is growing quite thin.

Charlie feels responsible for Johnny Boy, partly because of the fact that their circle of friends looks to him as their unofficial leader, but also because he’s romantically involved with Johnny Boy’s cousin, Teresa (Amy Robinson).

As he schmoozes with the sharks in a bid to solve Johnny Boy’s debt problems before they get out of hand, Charlie finds himself dragged into Johnny Boy’s downward spiral, and realizes he has to cut his ties from everything he’s ever known if he’s to make it out of this alive.

Take away all of its technical and aesthetic brilliance or its groundbreaking approach to music, and MEAN STREETS would still be one of the most important films of Scorsese’s career, because Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro are practically joined at the hip as far as cinematic history is concerned, and through the decades both men have continued to collaborate together to make truly incredible, unimpeachable masterworks of cinema.

MEAN STREETS was their first time ever working together, and their volatile chemistry literally explodes off the screen from De Niro’s first appearance. De Niro had acted in movies prior to MEAN STREETS, but the role of Johnny Boy—a wild anarchist and financial delinquent—would become his breakout.

Keitel’s brilliance remains consistent in his second starring role for Scorsese as a Roman Catholic man who questions his faith and tests himself by seeing how long he can hold his finger to flame, which points to a very Old World, self-flagellating view on religion.

As the chief antagonist—the loan shark Michael—Richard Romanus projects an icy, restrained demeanor that’s quite effective. As the sole female presence amidst all this unchecked machismo, Amy Robinson holds her own as a force to be reckoned with as well as Charlie’s refuge from a brutal, cold world.

Scorsese also peppers in a few cameos from his BOXCAR BERTHA cast (David Carradine as a drunk and Victor Argo and Harry Northrup as a Mafia underling and returning Vietnam vet, respectively), in addition to making one himself as a gunman for Michael that plays a crucial role in the film’s climax.

Stylistically, MEAN STREETS marks a return to the aesthetic that Scorsese cultivated in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, shooting this time on color 35mm film instead of the mix of 16mm and 35mm black and white film that he shot his debut with.

Lensed by cinematographer Kent Wakeford, MEAN STREETS incorporates Scorsese’s affection for the techniques of the French New Wave as well the aesthetic of John Cassavetes’ work, which– combined with the physical limitations of his budget—results in the predominant use of handheld camerawork.

The naturalistic immediacy of the handheld camera gives MEAN STREETS a very gritty and tough feel that lends well to fast cuts and bold compositions—the boldest of which is undoubtedly the strapping of a camera onto Keitel’s body and pointed to his face for a woozy, drunken feel that Darren Aronofsky would use even more effectively a generation later in his 1999 film REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

The overall effect is a realistic, yet expressionistic aesthetic that would become a flashpoint in the development of the modern crime film.  The experimentation that gives MEAN STREETS its vibrant originality extends to the editing, which was performed by Scorsese himself under the consultation of Sidney Levin (who ended up receiving the onscreen credit because of his membership in the editing guild).

Throughout his career, Scorsese would go on to shoot his projects in a variety of different formats, often even mixing them together and embracing the technical incongruities. MEAN STREETS sees the beginning of this aspect of Scorsese’s work in his use of 8mm footage during the opening credits, which results in a “home movie” feel.

There’s also Scorsese’s interesting use of voiceover in the film, which he recorded with his own voice—despite it belonging to Charlie’s inner monologue. Apparently, this was done as a way to separate Charlie’s thoughts and his actions, almost like two separate people were living inside his head.

A very interesting technique, no doubt—one that Scorsese pulled from a similar conceit of Federico Fellini’s in his 1953 film I VITELLONI. One of MEAN STREETS’ most enduring legacies can also be ascribed to Scorsese’s work as a whole, which is the popularization of the “jukebox” soundtrack, or the wall-to-wall incorporation of prerecorded needledrops—a boon to record labels and a curse to score composers everywhere.

MEAN STREETS in particular uses a lot of music from popular acts of the era like The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes, combining it with Italian folk music and opera to give us a sense of history and cultural heritage existing in concert with a fast-paced modern world.

MEAN STREETS marks the first time that Scorsese’s key aesthetic fascinations really come emerge. It’s a New York City-set story about the experience of Italian American immigrants chasing their own version of the American Dream—but as a put-upon, disenfranchised minority, they must cheat if they hope to even play the game.

They accumulate money and power through illegitimate means, and hold on to it through the use of violence and intimidation, which Scorsese depicts as messy, chaotic, and unorganized as it is in real life. The Feast of San Gennaro, the world famous festival that unfolds annually in the streets of Little Italy, factors heavily into MEAN STREETS’ plot, a further illustration of Scorsese’s fascination with his Italian heritage as well as a device in which to introduce religious imagery and dogma into a film about amoral, murderous mobsters and imbue his scrappy, low-level protagonists with a great deal of likeability.

The burden of religion hangs heavily over the film, looming large in the consciousness of Keitel’s character especially. He’s always testing how long he can hold his finger to an open flame, which calls to mind the fire and brimstone imagery of Roman Catholicism at the time as well as their self-flagellating approach to atoning for one’s sins.

Keitel’s character’s motivations are driven out of a fundamental Catholic guilt—from his association with his friends to his courtship with his girlfriend— but his constant doubt about his worthiness in Jesus’ eyes gives MEAN STREETS a rich ideological complexity that feels just as relevant today as it did then.

MEAN STREETS debuted to near-unanimous critical applause, hailed for its boldness in storytelling and technical mastery of craft despite its low budget. And rightly so—MEAN STREETS is essentially a cinematic declaration by Scorsese, announcing his presence to the world and just what he thought of it.

It was a career breakout for both the young director and his two leads, and with De Niro in particular it was the blossoming of a long, fruitful working relationship that would last decades. MEAN STREETS plays like Scorsese’s true first feature, wherein his aesthetic was solidified and the potent cocktail of elements that constituted a “Scorsese film” first gained traction as a tangible idea.

In the years since its release, Scorsese has gone on to fulfill the initial promise of MEAN STREETS with a string of inarguably classic works, becoming one of America’s most treasured auteurs in the process. It may not have won a great deal of awards in its day, but MEAN STREETShas proved its staying power with its inclusion into the National Film Registry in 1997, ensuring that Scorsese’s groundbreaking breakout will be accessible to film lovers for generations to come.


ITALIANAMERICAN (1974)

Director Martin Scorsese has built a decades-long career off of his explorations of his Italian American heritage, mostly through the more lurid aspects of his culture like the Mafia and criminals which, while they certainly gets butts into the seats, only represents a small slice of his people’s immigrant experience in America.

After his directorial breakout MEAN STREETS brought the young director to mainstream Hollywood attention in 1973, Scorsese wanted to shed some light on an underserved aspect of Italian American culture—the humble, everyday working family. In 1974, he created the documentary ITALIANAMERICAN, turning the camera on his own parents in a bid to chronicle the simpler pleasures of his heritage, like the communal experience of dinner.

ITALIANAMERICAN takes place entirely within Scorsese’s parents’ apartment in Little Italy, with the director himself appearing onscreen as he casually interviews his father Charles and mother Catherine. They talk about their forty years of marriage to each other, as well as their early lives as first generation Americans and children of Sicilian immigrants.

Catherine and Charles’ chemistry still sparks, even after four decades of marriage, and we can see how they informed and shaped key aspects of Martin’s own personality. Catherine in particular is quite the firecracker, joking to Martin and his friends and lovingly busting Charles’ balls at every opportunity.

ITALIANAMERICAN resembles documentaries of the era, with Scorsese and his cinematographer, Alec Hirschfeld, using natural light to capture the (what appears to be) 16mm film image. The handheld camerawork feels very improvisational, lending a cinema-verite feel to the proceedings.

Scorsese accentuates the natural banter and atmosphere by splicing in family photographs, stock footage of Little Italy at the turn of the century, and Italian folk music in a bid to weave his parents’ story into the larger tapestry of the Italian-American experience.

The documentary finds Scorsese intimately engaging with his roots, both in the superficial aspects like when he asks his mother how she makes her spaghetti sauce (the recipe for which is actually included in the end credits), as well as the deeper aspects about the immigrant experience.

One compelling part of the film concerns the idea of 1st generation Americans, born from immigrant parents, who as a result of their assimilation into American culture at birth gives them a worldview directly at odds with their parents—they see their cultural homeland, indeed their own flesh and blood, as exotic.

They have a distant concept of a place they may never get to visit. They experience their heritage in black and white still frame, while their parents remember it in glorious Technicolor. For instance, Scorsese’s parents recount how they didn’t visit Italy themselves until their honeymoon—forty years after their wedding.

That alone is a baffling concept to most second, third, fourth, etc- generation Americans, who have enjoyed the benefits of an upward mobility built on the foundation of their ancestors’ pursuit of the American dream. In exploring his heritage in this way, Scorsese is able to connect with a larger audience that may not share his Italian ancestry but shares a common human experience within their own family history.

While it’s a relatively minor work within Scorsese’s canon, even within his body of documentary work, ITALIANAMERICANis still an important one. It’s an unfiltered view into the young director at his most intimate and private—sharing a meal with the people who shaped him into the man he is today.


ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)

In 1974, director William Friedkin released THE EXORCIST and created a genuine phenomenon. His lead actress, Ellyn Burstyn, was vaulted into a position of creative power off the strength of her performance in the film, bestowed with the enviable privilege to choose whatever role she wanted next.

A brilliantly gifted performer, Burstyn was dissatisfied with the limited number of options available to actresses—she didn’t want to play another supportive housewife or put-upon mother, but ironically her next role would be just that, albeit with a twist that would allow her to own the role completely— all the way to a Best Actress win at the Academy Awards.

She chose a script by Robert Getchell called ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, and acting as the de facto executive producer, she went about searching for a young, up-and-coming director to helm the film.

Burstyn started by soliciting suggestions from director Brian DePalma, who would serve as her conduit into the larger pool of young directors. Interestingly enough, they all knew each other from film school—they were an entire generation linked together as a social community, something that young filmmakers take for granted now.

DePalma led Burstyn to Francis Ford Coppola, who in turn recommended a young hotshot named Martin Scorsese, fresh of his breakout third feature MEAN STREETS (1973). Burstyn liked the gritty immediacy of Scorsese’s film, but was unsure his sensibilities would translate to a feminine perspective.

During their meeting, Burstyn reportedly asked Scorsese what he “knew about women”, to which Scorsese replied, “nothing, but I’d like to learn”. Burstyn hired him on the spot, and before he knew it, Scorsese was on the set of his first true studio feature film.

ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE takes place in the arid deserts and crumbling dwellings of the American Southwest. Alice (Burstyn) is a humble housewife living in New Mexico with her rowdy, rebellious son Tommy (Alfred Lutter), and a husband who only pays attention to her when he’s angry with her.

Alice is fundamentally unhappy with her situation—not that she’d ever admit it to anyone. One day, her husband is killed in a trucking accident, leaving Alice and Tommy’s future very uncertain. With little money to go off of, they decide to pack their things in search of a better life in Monterey, California—the idyllic town where Alice spent her childhood.

They hit the road, stopping along the way so Alice can find work as a singer. While this provides some cash flow, it also attracts bad characters, like a philandering, abusive young buck named Ben (Harvey Keitel) who is no better than the dead husband she left behind. Alice gets another job as a waitress in an Arizona diner so that she can more reliably provide for her young son.

It’s here that she meets David (Kris Kristofferson), a quiet rancher with kind eyes. Alice and David eventually fall in love, but like any relationship, it’s not without its share of turbulence. Ultimately, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is a character test—Alice has to go through a crucible of her very own in order to prove her mettle as a modern woman and take charge of her own destiny.

As I wrote above, Burstyn won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice, a modern woman with old-fashioned sensibilities. She’s put through the veritable wringer and somehow comes out the other end not just intact, but better than before.

The same year that ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE was released, Scorsese’s friend and mentor John Cassavetes released his acclaimed A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, and Burstyn’s performance in the former film sharing some character traits with Gena Rowlands’ performance in the latter leads me to wonder if Scorsese’s direction wasn’t informed by Cassavetes’ work somewhat.

The Oscar win was just the icing on the cake of a banner year for Burstyn.  Burstyn is surrounded by an ensemble of fine actors, led by Kristofferson’s strong silent-type rancher, David. Harvey Keitel, in his third collaboration with Scorsese, bring his signature New York-style machismo to the role of Ben, a foppish, philandering cowboy with a serious anger problem.

Alfred Lutter makes his film debut as the nerdy smartass Tommy, and while he makes quite a splash here, he couldn’t quite generate the momentum he would need to sustain a serious acting character as he grew up. A young Jodie Foster also appears as Audrey, a tomboyish delinquent and latchkey child.

Scorsese was pleased enough by Foster’s performance to bring her back for his next feature, 1976’s TAXI DRIVER and set her on her way to becoming the world-famous actress she is today. The film also contains a few cameos by early Scorsese regular Harry Northrup as a bartender and the director himself as a barely-visible patron in Alice’s diner.

Scorsese reteams with his MEAN STREETS cinematographer Kent Wakeford for ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, giving the film a brighter color palette and overall feminine touch to distinguish it from their previous effort.

Scorsese and Wakeford use a variety of handheld, dolly, and crane movements to inject an immediate sense of reality and grit to the 35mm film image, which contrasts quite starkly with the opening sequence set in idyllic Monterey, which—with its nakedly theatrical soundstage look—serves as an homage to THE WIZARD OF OZ and conjures up the idea of Monterey itself as this mythical place full of happiness and innocence that may have never actually existed to begin with.

Scorsese also incorporates touches of French New Wave technique, like rack zooms and jump cuts as a way to add some edge to an otherwise conventional “flyover-country melodrama”. His inspired approach to the execution of the film extends to the selection of his key collaborators behind the scenes.

As a young man, Scorsese wisely assumed he had no proper frame of reference to authentically portray a female point of view, and as such he turned to strong, talented women for help at every opportunity. For instance, Toby Carr Rafelson (wife to Bob Rafelson of FIVE EASY PIECES (1970) fame) served as the production designer, while George Lucas’ then-wife Marcia performed editing duties.

Finally, Richard LaSalle is credited for the film’s music, but ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is another instance of Scorsese’ affection for rock music bleeding into his art, incorporating contemporary tracks from artists like Mott the Hoople and Elton John in a bid to flesh out Alice’s particular world.

While Scorsese may be way out of his comfort zone in terms of locale and subject matter, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE still bears his undeniable stamp. The men in Alice’s life are impulsively violent and quick-tempered, and when they indulge in their impulses, the results are messy, chaotic and unpredictable.

Indeed, even out in the vast expanse of Southwestern desert, Scorsese still can’t escape the random violence of urban life, such as the scene where Alice and Tommy lay in bed listening to a couple loudly fighting in the next hotel room over. Like their east coast counterparts, the characters that populate Scorsese’s Southwest don’t put on any airs, unafraid to utter casual profanities or rough up their spouses in the presence of others.

ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE was released to near unanimous praise from critics, leading all the way to the aforementioned (and well-deserved) Best Actress Oscar win for Burstyn. The film was so well received that it even went on to inspire a sitcom called ALICE, set in the same diner as the film and featuring some of the original cast members in regular roles (Burstyn herself would not reprise her role).

For Scorsese, his great work here would eventually be overshadowed by the outstanding legacy of his later works, and thus remains a minor entry in his canon—a curious departure from the east coast world he knew so well and the hard-edged mentalities of the people who inhabited it.

Nevertheless, the production ofALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE broadened Scorsese’s worldview and bestowed him with the necessary creative momentum to get his next feature off the ground—a feature that would undoubtedly become his first true masterpiece.


TAXI DRIVER (1976)

I’ve always believed that great art is born from a place of deprivation.  The state of needing something—love, companionship, comfort, etc.—can result in greater urgency and intensity on behalf of the person expressing an idea.  Conversely, some of the most banal, meaningless art comes from a place of complacency—simply collecting a paycheck. 

One of the most influential films of the 1970’s, director Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976), was born of deep, existential deprivation.  Writer Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay during a very turbulent time in his life that saw a series of escalating mishaps turn him into something of a recluse. 

Inspired by his interior monologue and self-perceived outsider status, Schrader fashioned a story about an everyday taxi driver as a study of pathological loneliness.  The script was picked up by producers Julie and Michael Phillips, and was separately brought to the attention of Scorsese by his filmmaking contemporary Brian DePalma. 

By this point, Scorsese had a handful of successful features under his belt and was teaching film at his alma mater, New York University.  He strongly responded to the script, and actively campaigned for the job.  It was only after his MEAN STREETS (1973) star, Robert De Niro, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the young Viteo Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) that Scorsese was able to leverage his collaboration with the actor into landing the job. 

TAXI DRIVER would become a transformative project for both men, propelling them to the forefront of the contemporary cinema scene with a bold piece of work that would define not only its decade, but an entire generation. 

TAXI DRIVER is striking to watch today because it depicts a New York City that simply does not exist anymore—a time before Giuliani, when crime and decay spread through the crumbling streets like a cancer.  Travis Bickle (De Niro) is an insomniac Vietnam vet without much of a social life. 

He takes on a job as a cab driver working the night shift, where he can connect with the beating pulse of the city and its eclectic mix of inhabitants.  He drifts aimlessly through his days, eating junk food and going to porn theatres.  The fog lifts when he encounters a beautiful young woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). 

She’s put-together, elegant, and motivated—everything he’s not.  He obsesses over her, lurking outside the Presidential campaign office she works for a few days before working up the nerve to ask her out.  He bungles their first date by taking her to a porn theatre, and while he tries to regain her trust, he becomes simultaneously fixated on a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster).

At first he attempts to talk her out of leaving the profession, but a growing obsession with guns, knives, and Old Testament/fire & brimstone righteousness alters the plan to include forcefully liberating her from her sexual oppressors.  Through it all, Travis Bickle is reborn as something of a vigilante—a man who will take the salvation of his beloved city into his own hands.   A man who will cleanse it with fire and blood. 

Scorsese’s second collaboration with De Niro proves so sharp that it draws blood.  As the lonely sociopath at the center of the story, De Niro channels a quiet, intense sense of judgment and superiority, giving him a buzzing latent racism while abstaining from indulgences that would make the character unlikable. 

The horror of the character comes in our recognition of ourselves in Travis Bickle, and De Niro is able to strike right to the heart of our deepest fears.  Fresh off his Academy Award win, De Niro showed no signs of complacency and dove headlong into the preparation of his role, to the extent that he actually drove a cab around New York City for twelve hour stretches at a time. 

Foster, who was only twelve years old during filming and had previously appeared in Scorsese’s ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974) plays the extremely risky and controversial role of Iris, a child prostitute who may be disillusioned and cynical through her decidedly adult activities, but still has the naiveté and innocence of a young girl.

Also returning from the pool of previous Scorsese performers is Harvey Keitel, who plays Iris’ pimp,  Sport, in a long black wig that makes him look like Tommy Wiseau.  Scorsese rounds out this trio of antisocial weirdos with otherwise normal people who seem to be visiting from another world completely. 

There’s Cybill Shepherd as Betsy, the first true Scorsese blonde and an intelligent, sophisticated, and ultimately unattainable beauty.  She’s introduced wearing all white in a slow motion shot, which would become a recurring trope in Scorsese’s later work, and she also embodies the Madonna/whore complex that the director likes to give his protagonists.  There’s also comedian Al Brooks in his younger days as the ineffectual, bookish Tom—Betsy’s co-worker and a fellow Presidential candidate canvasser at the office.  

Scorsese populates his day players with cameos from past collaborators both present in the flesh and absent yet alluded to.  Among the familiar faces we see are Harry Northup as a fellow taxi driver, Steven Prince as a black market arms dealer, Victor Argo as a racist shopkeeper, and Scorsese himself as a murderous, cuckolded husband. 

Fleeting references are made to Kris Kristofferson, the star of Scorsese’s previous feature, as well as his parents Charles and Catherine Scorsese in a newspaper photo implying they are Iris’ parents.  TAXI DRIVER is an undeniably gritty film, and Scorsese doesn’t shy away from exposing the seediness of Travis’ surroundings in full detail.

Working with cinematographer Michael Chapman for the first time, Scorsese aims to immerse us in Bickle’s consciousness while reinforcing the character’s internal dialogue with himself that permeates the film. Bickle’s New York is rendered in a sickly, lurid yellow/green patina, echoing his solitude and mental sickness, while the camerawork mixes the documentary immediacy of handheld shooting with virtuoso flourishes like the traveling God’s eye view of Bickle’s carnage after the film’s bloody climax. 

The result is a dark, expressionistic aesthetic at odds with the relative realism of Scorsese’s other crime films.  TAXI DRIVER is a fever dream of acid rain, sweat-soaked skin and cold metal, complemented perfectly by iconic composer Bernard Herrmann’s dissonant, brassy score that throbs along the long Manhattan avenues while dangling the promise of cosmopolitan happiness in the form of a sultry jazz theme. 

Hermann was an Old Hollywood maestro, composer of the scores to classics like Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941), and his hiring points to Scorsese’s deep affection for film history.  Ironically, TAXI DRIVER would be Hermann’s last work—he died only hours after returning home from the film’s final recording session. 

TAXI DRIVER sees tremendous growth in the development of Scorsese’s aesthetic, especially in the evolution of his visual language.  The cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave have informed his aesthetic from the start, but TAXI DRIVER marks the point where he’s no longer content to simply steal its stylistic conceits, opting instead to run with the ball and find entirely new visual ideas all his own. 

Take for instance the scene where Travis calls up Betsy and begs for a second date in the phone booth of some dingy elevator lobby.  As Travis’ pleas become more desperate and pathetic, Scorsese simply dollies the camera away from his original composition to look down the length of an empty hallway instead—as if we are physically looking away from the embarrassment of Travis’ phone call. 

There’s also a scene in an all-night diner where Travis zeroes in on the alka-seltzer tablet dissolving in his glass of water.  It’s a trivial detail, ultimately unimportant to the scene, but Scorsese slowly zooms in on the violent bubbles until they fill the screen. 

  Scorsese has said publicly that the shot was inspired by a Jean-Luc Godard film, but here the technique takes on a life of its own, becoming a rich metaphor for the bottled fury bubbling up under Travis’ calm exterior.  In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Scorsese directing TAXI DRIVER—its subject matter falls in line so squarely with his aesthetic fascinations that one could be forgiven he wrote the screenplay from his own idea. 

There’s the New York setting (Schrader’s original script placed the action in Los Angeles), the unflinching portrayal of seedy urban life and the use of antiheroes and/or criminals as protagonists.  TAXI DRIVER takes this latter point to its ironic conclusion, with the media hailing Travis as a hero after a violent rampage that leaves Sport and his colleagues dead, whereas if he’d only been a little more organized in his earlier assassination attempt of Presidential candidate Palantine, he’d be condemned as a villain. 

While Travis does not share the Roman Catholic heritage of previous Scorsese protagonists, his inner convictions take on a somewhat religious bent and provide him with an almost biblical desire to purge the city of filth and sin.   TAXI DRIVER is easily Scorsese’s most darkly disturbing film when it comes to depictions of violence onscreen. 

While the action is staged in the chaotic, unorganized way that Scorsese is known for, it is rendered in exaggerated form.  Bullet wounds don’t just cause bleeding—they cause profuse bleeding.  Hands don’t just absorb a gunshot– they blow apart into millions of pieces. 

It’s not enough to kill somebody with a single shot—it takes several.  Indeed, it’s because of TAXI DRIVER’s bloodbath finale that Scorsese found himself having to deal with real censorship for the first time.  To avoid an X rating that would doom the film before it was ever released, he had to desaturate the colors during the climax so the blood wouldn’t be so bright and red. 

When it was released in 1976, TAXI DRIVER was met with healthy box office numbers, heaps of critical praise, and even some prestigious awards like the Cannes Palme d’Or.  It was, without a doubt, Scorsese’s biggest success to that date.  When the Academy Awards came around, it was rewarded with nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Foster), and Best Original Score. 

 TAXI DRIVER is something of an apex in terms of the kind of gritty dramas that Hollywood made in the 1970’s, but by 1976, the tide was turning against them—Steven Spielberg released the first modern blockbuster JAWS the year prior, and George Lucas would essentially blows the doors wide open the following year with STAR WARS

In the decades since its release, TAXI DRIVER’s legacy has continued to grow, positioning itself as a critical film within Scorsese’s filmography.  Several of its scenes would become iconic in cinema history, especially the “You Talkin’ To Me?” scene that everybody and their mother has imitated at some point or another. 

On a more unfortunate note, the film would go on to inspire vigilante actions in the real world, with the most famous case being John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan—all so he could impress Jodie Foster.  Nevertheless, TAXI DRIVER’s importance to the film medium cannot be overstated, and in 1994 it was inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation, ensuring the perpetuity of Scorsese’s first true masterpiece. 


NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)

There seems to be a particular aura about American life in the 1940’s that’s ripe for nostalgia.  While we were engaged in the biggest, most devastating war in history, we ascribe a certain romantic, optimistic idealism to the period.  We continue to celebrate the decade– especially within Los Angeles in particular, which came of age during the time and was fundamentally shaped by its cultural values and styles.

Even as I write this, I will be going to a 1940’s-themed song and dance show in downtown tonight, where my wife dances for a troupe that specializes in songs and styles from the era.  The midcentury design and lifestyle aesthetic is an inescapable part of Los Angeles daily life, even today.

The 1940’s appears to have also had quite the profound effect on members of the Film Brat generation of filmmakers.  Steven Spielberg is the most visible example, with a substantial majority of his works either taking place in or directly influenced by the 1940’s.

To a lesser extent, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas also took artistic cues from the period, with Coppola making THE COTTON CLUB in 1984 and Lucas drawing inspiration for INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS from the serialized format popular during the era.

 In the late 1970’s, rising young director Martin Scorsese was coming off the runaway success of TAXI DRIVER (1976), and found himself in a position of power.  For his follow-up, Scorsese desired to make a film that harkened back to the era of 1940’s MGM musicals that he had adored and grown up with.

But as a battle-tested acolyte of the French New Wave, Scorsese could not simply make a straight musical—he saw the idea as an opportunity to experiment with the boundaries of the genre and subvert its lavish production values.  Working with screenwriters Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin, Scorsese developed NEW YORK, NEW YORK– an oversized musical about the city he called home and the artists that inhabited it.

It was the biggest film of his career to date, and when it was released in 1977, it would also become his first high profile failure.  NEW YORK, NEW YORK begins in, where else, New York City on a momentous day: VJ Day, 1945.

The end of World War II.  A young, brash jazz saxophonist named Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) shows up at a big USO celebration gala, where he proceeds to use the same pickup lines on every attractive girl in the room.  He eventually winds up at the table of Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a pretty young singer sitting alone.

Her witty rejection of his lame lines only emboldens him, and from that point on, he dedicates himself to winning her heart.  While he aggressively woos her, Jimmy tries to find a regular performing gig, but his tendency to improvise outside the lines of the sheet music grates on the ears of his potential bookers.

   In a twist of fate, Jimmy and Francine are booked on a cross-country tour, boosting each other’s careers significantly.  While on the road, they fall in love and are quickly and quietly married.  As a gifted singer, it’s only a matter of time until Francine’s star starts to rise faster than Jimmy’s.

Envious of her success, he leaves Francine at a critical juncture—the birth of their son.  NEW YORK, NEW YORK may be presented in a happy-go-lucky visual style, but it tells a very modern, complicated story about love’s waxes and wanes over the course of several years, as well as the explosive chemistry that can result from mismatched artistic styles.

Despite the lavish production values and large groups of bodies constantly moving through the frame, NEW YORK, NEW YORK really is an intimate examination of two people.  De Niro’s third collaboration with Scorsese results in yet another bold protagonist—a womanizer and self-interested man whose very ambition will doom him to a life of loneliness if he can’t change.

  Like just like had driven a taxi cab for twelve hours a day while preparing for TAXI DRIVER, De Niro prepared for his character here by not just learning how to play the saxophone, but mastering it to the point where it feels like he’s played all his life.

 Every time I see Liza Minnelli on screen, I only see Lucille 2 from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but her performance here as Francine Evans positioned her as a glamorous starlet following in her mother, Judy Garland’s, footsteps.

 She’s a natural fit for the role, bringing a strength and grace that’s slightly off-kilter in her signature Minnelli way.  Barry Primus, who previously appeared for Scorsese in BOXCAR BERTHA (1972), shows up in NEW YORK, NEW YORK as Paul Wilson, a pianist in Jimmy Doyle’s band and a wedge that comes between the two lovers.

Scorsese intended for NEW YORK, NEW YORK to be a break from the gritty realism that had made his name, and to that extent, the film is quite successful.  In a bid to achieve the old-fashioned grandeur and slickness of MGM musicals, Scorsese turned to venerable cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs to lens his film.

Shooting on the real MGM soundstages in LA, Scorsese used all the studio resources at his disposal to create a sweeping, operatic film quite unlike the gritty immediacy that marked his earlier work.  Like the polished Hollywood musicals of old, Scorsese paints in the broad strokes of sweeping dolly and crane movements, framing his subjects in wider compositions while abstaining from close-ups as much as possible in a bid to emulate the stylistic conceits of the genre.

The central relationship between De Niro and Minnelli plays off the dynamic between structure and improvisation—Francine’s composed, controlled singing and Jimmy’s off-the-cuff rebellion against sheet music.  Naturally, this dynamic is reflected in the actual look of the film, which juxtaposes realistic, Cassavetes style method improv acting against the palpable artifice of studio sets and theatrical lighting schemes.

Scorsese and his Production Designer Boris Leven never try to hide the fake facades and sets, opting instead to embrace the artifice as a means to evoke our collective romantic memory of old New York.  Stanley Kubrick used this same approach, albeit to a more realistic degree, in the New York street sets for 1999’s EYES WIDE SHUT.

Naturally, music is a key focal point in the musical genre, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK is perhaps strongest in this area.  Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the film’s music perfectly captures the jazzy, big band sound of the era.

Even if you’ve never seen the film, you know its music—the “Theme For New York, New York” came into existence because of this film, and it would go on to become an iconic theme song for the city itself when Frank Sinatra covered it in 1980.  The song has gone on to outshine the film from which it sprang, and serves as perhaps NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s biggest contribution to pop culture.

Though NEW YORK, NEW YORK might be a huge stylistic departure for Scorsese, his unique worldview bears an unmistakable imprint on the film itself.  The New York City setting falls in line with Scorsese’s career-long examination of the city’s history and people.

The film’s naturalistic approach to drama and conflict also results in outbursts of violence that are rendered in the chaotic, messy way that Scorsese is known for.  The subversion of musical genre tropes is also indicative of Scorsese’s habit of filtering classical filmmaking techniques through the lens of postmodernism as a way to comment on the art form itself while finding new forms of visual expression at the same time.

The 1970’s were a triumphant era for personal filmmaking and experimentation.  It was a perfect confluence of factors that gave rise to filmmakers with anti-establishment sensibilities like Scorsese and turned them into household names.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK is very much in line with this string of challenging, personal works, but it may have come too late to the party.  Only a week prior, Scorsese’s contemporary George Lucas released STAR WARS to unprecedented success.  The audience changed nearly overnight, effectively killing the market for smaller, unconventional films like NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

The box office and critical failure of the film reportedly drove Scorsese to depression and drugs, but reports from the set suggested that his downward spiral was already in motion—his insistence that the actors improvise their lines led to a lack of control on his part, and a rapidly worsening cocaine addiction wasn’t doing anything to help matters.

The disappointment over NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s reception would cause Scorsese to embark on something of a hiatus from narrative filmmaking for the rest of the decade.  The newly humbled director turned his attention to documentary works while his wounds healed, but the time away would reset his approach while setting the stage for a triumphant return in 1980.


THE LAST WALTZ (1978)

After the disappointing reception of 1977’s improvised musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, director Martin Scorsese retreated from the narrative realm for a couple years.  It was something of a crucible for his burgeoning career, and an escalating cocaine addiction threatened to derail everything he had built.

However, Scorsese’s recuperation period was by no means a dormant one.  He embarked on a series of documentaries, the first being 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ—a concert film chronicling The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. 

Scorsese became involved through Jonathan T. Taplin, a manager for The Band who had previously produced 1973’s MEAN STREETS.  Rock and roll has played an integral role throughout Scorsese’s career, and though he would go on to make several more concert documentaries as the years went on, THE LAST WALTZ is generally considered his finest work in the arena. 

THE LAST WALTZ is relatively straightforward, featuring The Band performing their hits in full, joined by a veritable who’s who of 1970’s rock like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters. 

Scorsese also peppers interview footage throughout of the film in which he appears onscreen talking to members of The Band about their experiences with the group, focusing particularly on Robbie Robertson.  The cinema-verite feel of the film’s presentation is complemented by a few instances of staged performance, shot a few days later in a nearby soundstage. 

To accomplish a multi-camera shooting scenario while capturing artful footage, Scorsese recruits his TAXI DRIVER (1976) cinematographer Michael Chapman, who leads a small team of fellow venerated cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. The mid-to-late 1970’s were something of a “rock star” period for Scorsese—a time when his national profile soared as a director. 

His success was offset by the hazards of fame and fortune, the most dangerous of which was his fondness for cocaine (which no doubt the green rooms backstage were awash in).  In a way, Scorsese was the perfect guy to chronicle this event, further solidifying his artistic association with and importance to rock and roll music. 

A concert film might not provide a plethora of opportunities for artistic indulgence, but Scorsese still manages to make his mark known by referencing his cultural heritage in the form of an Italian waltz during the opening credits, as well as continuing his examination of urban street life by showing the fans waiting in line for the concert. 

THE LAST WALTZ may be a minor work within Scorsese’s filmography, but it was formative in his approach to music documentaries in the future.  Even today, the film is still considered as one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time.  For Scorsese personally, it would be a major development in his career in that his relationship with Robbie Robertson would result in him becoming a key music producer for Scorsese’s later works.


AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE (1978)

In addition to his prolific narrative output, director Martin Scorsese has also built up a healthy body of work on the side that focused on his personal fascinations with people and culture from a documentary standpoint.  He had previously explored his Italian heritage through the stories of his parents in ITALIANAMERICAN (1974), and chronicled The Band’s final farewell concert in 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ

For his next documentary work, Scorsese turned his camera on a bit player who could be found in several of his early narrative features—Steven Prince.  Best known for his role as the gun-dealer Easy Andy in 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, Prince has arguably lived an even wilder life than Scorsese’s fictional protagonists.

Inspired by Prince’s wild stories and effortless charm as a raconteur, Scorsese pulled together producer/co-editor Bert Lovitt and his TAXI DRIVER cinematographer Michael Chapman to make AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE (1978). 

Filmed over the course of fifteen hours in a nondescript house in Los Angeles, Prince captivates Scorsese and his crew with various stories from his life—his days as a road manager for the biggest bands of the 70’s… his tales of drug addiction… even the time he shot and killed a guy who was trying to rob a gas station he worked at. 

AMERICAN BOY is shot in the improvisational, unstructured way that Scorsese shot ITALIANAMERICAN, making the two documentaries companion pieces of sorts.  One might think an hour-long film about a guy sitting around a couch and telling stories might be boring, but Prince’s personal eccentricities and lively stories make for a compelling watch. 

Scorsese organizes these stories into vaguely-defined chapters, punctuating them with home movie footage of Prince as a young boy.  At this stage in his career, Scorsese appears to have a few stylistic trademarks he regularly implements in his documentary work. 

As he does in AMERICAN BOY, he appears onscreen himself as he interviews his subjects, making for a very personal, intimate mood.  There’s also the use of rock music, evidenced here by the inclusion of a Neil Young track during the opening and closing credits. 

There’s even a quick bout of violence—Prince and another man playfully wrestle each other—and Scorsese captures it in the same chaotic, spontaneous way in which he depicts fictional violence in his features. AMERICAN BOY is undoubtedly an oft-overlooked work within Scorsese’s filmography, but it has influenced pop culture in an unexpected way. 

At one point in the story, Prince recounts the story of how he saved someone who had overdosed on drugs by stabbing him in the heart and injecting him with adrenaline.  This story reportedly inspired Quentin Tarantino to include a cinematic depiction of it in his 1994 breakout film, PULP FICTION

In relation to Scorsese’s work as a director, AMERICAN BOY doesn’t show a distinct growth—in fact, it shows Scorsese at something of a low point; his dabbling with drugs and surrounding lifestyle can be seen at their most intimate here.  The film makes no mention of Scorsese’s personal drug use, nor does Scorsese’s appearance clue us into cocaine addiction.

Yet, the dangers of his lifestyle hang in the air like the Ghost of Christmas Future.  With this in mind, AMERICAN BOY becomes much darker than its intent, telling us just as much about Scorsese’s junkie days as it does Prince’s.


RAGING BULL (1980)

Every director, no matter how good he or she may be, will have to face failure at one point in his or her career.  It’s an inherent part of making art—the personal nature of expression doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive, objective impression on the receiving end. 

Thus, true artistic success or failure cannot be measured by financial or cultural metrics; it is how the director handles praise or rejection that decides his or her fate as an artist.  By all accounts, Martin Scorsese in the late 1970’s was decidedly failing. 

The cold reception of 1977’s postmodern musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK sent his career into a tailspin—a dive worsened by an escalating cocaine addiction.  He retreated into the world of documentaries, releasing THE LAST WALTZ and AMERICAN BOY: A PROFILE OF STEVEN PRINCE in the same year (1978) and toying with idea of retiring from feature filmmaking forever.

Scorsese no longer felt the burning passion for narrative film that had fueled the likes of MEAN STREETS (1973) and TAXI DRIVER (1976), so when his frequent collaborator Robert De Niro pitched him a movie based off the tumultuous life of middleweight boxing champion Jake La Motta, Scorsese shrugged with ambivalence. 

It would take Scorsese nearly dying from a cocaine overdose for him to come around to the idea—when De Niro visited him in the hospital and repeated his plea to take on the job, Scorsese suddenly found himself connecting to Jake La Motta’s story of glory and ruin. 

In relatively short order, Scorsese and De Niro turned to trusted writing collaborators Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader to translate the book to a script they called RAGING BULL.  They set the project up through United Artists, an independent studio noted for its director-friendly approach to filmmaking—an approach that led their 1976 film, ROCKY, to Oscar glory. 

To further cement their boxing bonafides, Scorsese and company brought the producers of ROCKY—Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler—onboard.  And so it was that Scorsese found himself with the opportunity to redeem his narrative feature career, and if by chance he went down for the count, it would be on his own, uncompromising terms. 

RAGING BULL tells the story of champion boxer Jake La Motta (De Niro) during his rise to glory in the New York boxing scene during the 1940’s.  He’s a relentless fighter, and he won’t stop until he achieves greatness.  However, his proclivity for violence extends outside of the ring, affecting his wife and his brother and manager, Joey (Joe Pesci). 

His eyes are dead set on winning the title belt, but it isn’t long until those same eyes wander towards a young neighborhood girl named Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) and he sets about claiming her as his own as well.  Soon enough he has both and retires to a life of luxury in Miami in 1956—but just like the hardscrabble New York life he left behind, Jake finds that retirement isn’t all daiquiris at the poolside. 

Once the very image of fitness, Jake is now flabby and too complacent to fix his life as it crumbles around him.  Ultimately, RAGING BULL is a cautionary tale as old as time, about the rise and fall of a man whose dreams exceed his grasp.

De Niro soars in his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, arguably delivering the best performance of his career (and one rightfully recognized by the Academy with the coveted golden statue).  As Jake La Motta, De Niro ably channels the Bronx Bull’s brutish charisma and explosive fury. 

De Niro has a history of extensively preparing for his roles, and with RAGING BULL he trained with the real La Motta until he was up to professional boxing standards, and subsequently ruined it all when he put on the significant amount of weight required to play an older, obese La Motta in retirement. 

La Motta is a fundamentally unlikable character, but De Niro imbues him with a relatable pathos, giving the audience a window into our own ambitions and the lengths at which we’ll go to achieve them.  Joe Pesci, who would go on to become a regular Scorsese cast member in his own right, finds his career breakout here through the role of Joey, Jake’s brother and manager. 

A character actor who had struggled in obscurity for decades and was just about to call it quits, Pesci’s anxiously combative performance in RAGING BULL is a revelation.  To portray the role of La Motta’s duplicitous wife Vicki, Scorsese found an unknown named Cathy Moriarty, and her chilly, tough (but no less feminine) performance here rocketed her straight to an Academy Award nomination.

Out of all of Scorsese’s leading ladies, Moriarty is arguably the purest example of the “Scorsese blonde” archetype—a beautiful, calculating woman who knows how to manipulate the men around her to get what she wants.  Finally, there’s Frank Vincent in the bit role of Salvy, a neighborhood thug and a rival of Jake’s for Vicki’s affections. 

He was a non-actor when he was cast, but his compelling performance in RAGING BULL was enough to turn him into the go-to actor for Italian/Mafia type characters.  RAGING BULL is infamous for its revival of black and white cinematography in a time dominated entirely by color. 

This was done to give the film some period authenticity while also differentiating it from ROCKY.  Scorsese enlisted his regular cinematographer Michael Chapman to lens the film, and together they create a hybrid aesthetic that deals in both documentary-style realism and impressionistic experimentalism. 

They save the naturalistic cinematography for La Motta’s life outside the ring, punctuating it with documentary-style intertitles to quickly establish when and where we are.  Additionally, they supplement the realism with color 8mm footage meant to evoke La Motta’s home movies.  However, it’s inside the ring where RAGING BULL really distinguishes itself and leaves it mark on the history of cinema. 

Whereas most boxing films prior to RAGING BULL covered the action from an outside perspective, Scorsese and Chapman literally step inside the ring.  In that simple switch from an objective to a subjective perspective, Scorsese grants himself an unprecedented amount of creative freedom. 

We first see hints of it during the opening credits, where La Motta is depicted in distant silhouette, pacing around the ring in slow motion, set to the mournful dirge of Pietro Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from the Cavalleria Rusticana.  As the boxing sequences unfold, Scorsese turns the ring into a smoky, molasses-slow hellscape where La Motta must do battle with his own internal demons manifest in physical form.

Scorsese and Chapman’s expressionistic camerawork is complemented by editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s fearlessly dynamic cuts.  Schoonmaker, who had previously worked with Scorsese on his feature debut WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), had been unable to work with the director ever since—barred entry into the editing guild simply because she was a woman. 

The guild finally came to their senses in time for Schoonmaker and Scorsese to reunite on RAGING BULL, and the pair has been inseparable ever since.  Scorsese has a habit of eschewing conventional original scores in favor of needledrops from his own record collection, resulting in films that feel like they inhabit the same world as ours. 

Towards that end, RAGING BULL is consistent among Scorsese’s works in that it utilizes a mix of period music from the 1940s through the 1960’s—both popular jukebox tunes as well as traditional folk ballads that flesh out the Italian heritage of La Motta and the neighborhood that surrounds him. 

Scorsese also uses a few works from classical composer Pietro Mascagni, most notably the aforementioned “Intermezzo” to add an air of melodrama, subverting the image of a brutish lout with a sophisticated, elegant sound.  Funnily enough, the most powerful aspect of RAGING BULL’s soundtrack is silence. 

The film is a master study in the strategic absence of sound during crucial moments, like La Motta’s final fight against Sugar Ray.  Scorsese’s initial reluctance in taking on RAGING BULL stemmed from his distaste for sports and a general emotional disconnect from the psyche of a man who earned his living by knocking people out. 

He must have been surprised then to find that RAGING BULL falls right in line with his artistic aesthetic and thematic fascinations.  His affection for the Italian American experience in New York City provides colorful background detail to La Motta’s home life, perfectly capturing the shouting and random fights that constitute the chaos of an urban existence. 

This acknowledgement of the messy violence in the streets allows Scorsese to draw compelling comparisons with the disciplined, almost elegant violence inside the boxing ring.  An archetypical Scorsese protagonist is both saint and sinner, and Jake La Motta is no exception to the rule.

Despite associating with thugs and gangsters and being a lowlife himself, he lives by his own, principled code.  La Motta isn’t outwardly religious, but he shares a similar Roman Catholic tendency for self-flagellation with protagonists like Harvey Keitel’s character in MEAN STREETS

La Motta takes a lot of abuse in the ring (at one point even giving himself entirely over to his opponent in atonement for throwing an earlier fight), denies himself sexual pleasure, and beats himself up in a jail cell.  Unlike a typical Scorsese protagonist, however, La Motta’s gospel doesn’t come from the bible– it comes from the streets. 

Take the ending scene, where a plump, washed-up La Motta gives himself a pep talk in the mirror before going onstage for his nightly lounge act.  He recites Marlon Brando’s seminal “I Coulda Been A Contender” monologue from director Elia Kazan’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), a film which no doubt would have struck a profound chord with people of La Motta’s persuasion and background at the time. 

On a surface level, the scene could be read as Scorsese paying homage to a cinematic influence of his own, but it really serves to illuminate the inflated “noble victim” mentality that La Motta uses to shield himself from actually changing for the better. 

Scorsese couldn’t have known it at the time, but this scene in particular would go on to become one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, rivaling even that of the scene in ON THE WATERFRONT that it references, as well as directly inspiring the final scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)—a film similarly about the rise and fall of a showman whose greatest asset is his own body. 

RAGING BULL is an incredibly significant milestone in Scorsese’s filmography, whereby he demonstrates his maturation as an artist and fulfills the promise of his early work.  It is arguably Scorsese’s most pure and uncompromised film– indeed, he fought tooth and nail over every little artistic choice in a bid to make sure every frame demonstrated his vision. 

All this passion wasn’t unwarranted—after the failure of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Scorsese truly thought RAGING BULL would be his last film, so he summoned all his creative energies to make it just the way he wanted. 

The result was a cinematic rebirth for Scorsese, who went on to secure Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director, alongside the film’s other nominations for Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, and Editing. 

In a stunning display of short-sightedness on the Academy’s part, RAGING BULL was only awarded two Oscars—one for De Niro’s performance and the other for Schoonmaker’s groundbreaking edit.  The film’s direction and cinematography have proven massively influential over the years, completely overshadowing the legacy of Robert Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE—the film that the Academy passed RAGING BULL over for. 

Thankfully, RAGING BULL isn’t an easy film to forget, and it has stood the test of time.  When it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990 (its first year of eligibility), RAGING BULL’s cinematic legacy was finally assured, marking it as the point in which Scorsese had emerged as a true master of the art form.  


THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)

There’s something about show business that attracts the most delusional, self-absorbed and borderline-psychotic of people.  We’ve all seen the lurid tabloid headlines about the bizarre behavior exhibited by celebrities, as if being rich and famous were a license to flagrantly disregard any semblance of normal social standards and decency. 

Perhaps even more interesting is the behavior exhibited by those who aspire to fame but for whom success has been elusive.  One of my best friends has an acquaintance from film school that completely embodies this particularly noxious brand of ego and desperation. 

His social media posts are single-mindedly about his meetings with studio heads to direct the next installment of a major franchise, or his interactions with A-list celebrities that consist of nothing but said celebrity’s effusive praise for his genius and unparalleled talent.  That’s a pretty remarkable career for a guy without even an IMDB page to his name, let alone a single film. 

His boasts are almost reckless in their falseness, yet he broadcasts them widely to his social media audience as if it were truth.  Nothing can ever truly prepare someone for encountering that kind of wanton delusion in the real world.  Judging by the reception of THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)– director Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to his career comeback RAGING BULL (1980)—we apparently don’t even know how to deal with that delusion in a fictional world. 

After the success of 1980’s RAGING BULL, Scorsese wanted to focus on a passion project he had developed for quite some time—a radical take on Jesus Christ and his crucifixion called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, starring Robert De Niro as the titular Son Of God.  De Niro didn’t greet the touchy subject matter as enthusiastically as Scorsese, and instead suggested the idea of doing a comedy together. 

He reminded Scorsese of a script he had brought to the director’s attention way back in 1974—a script by film critic Paul D. Zimmerman titled THE KING OF COMEDY

Back then, Scorsese found that he couldn’t really connect with the material, but in the tumultuous years that followed—years that would see him skyrocket to fame with 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, then nearly lose everything from overindulging in eccentric projects and substance abuse, only to then reinstall himself at the top of the art form with RAGING BULL—Scorsese had gained a lifetime’s worth of experience in the trappings of fame, suddenly finding the content of THE KING OF COMEDY much more relatable. 

Scorsese and De Niro’s explosive collaborative chemistry had fueled each other’s careers to ever-loftier heights, but 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY would slow their ascent to an abrupt halt with its disappointing reception.  It would be their last collaboration for seven years.  Despite the film’s perceived failure, the quality of Scorsese and De Niro’s work has endured, and THE KING OF COMEDY is now regarded as something of a minor masterpiece in the director’s filmography—a grand satire of fame, ambition, and the ravenous appetite of the media. 

As Scorsese’s first outright comedy, THE KING OF COMEDY doesn’t try so much for hearty belly laughs as it does for the nervous laughter elicited in awkward situations we’d rather escape.  Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is an aspiring comedian—emphasis on “aspiring”. 

He’s currently living in his mother’s basement in an outer borough of New York City, and completely preoccupied with meeting his idol, a Johnny Carson-type late night show host named Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).  One night, he finally succeeds by saving Jerry from the other rabid fans outside the stage door, throwing himself into the getaway limousine as it speeds away. 

Finally face to face with his idol, he does what most desperate wannabe’s do—immediately pitch his act.  Jerry brushes Rupert off in the worst way possible; he tells him to call his assistant to set up an appointment to listen to his act, assuming that Rupert will never actually follow up. 

Much to the chagrin of Jerry and his employees, Rupert dutifully (and repeatedly) shows up to the show’s offices until he has to be thrown out of the building by security.  Undeterred by this minor “mishap”, Rupert continues his bid for Jerry’s attention, indulging in fantasies wherein he and Jerry are best friends. 

His daydreams grow increasingly more delusional, with Jerry praising Rupert’s act as nothing short of revolutionary and inviting him out to his house in the Hamptons for the weekend.  The extent of Rupert’s disconnect from reality becomes painfully apparent to everyone around him when he actually shows up at Jerry’s Hamptons house unannounced. 

Feeling that his “friendship” with Jerry is slipping away, and by extension his chance for his big debut on Jerry’s show, Rupert concocts a last-ditch scheme to launch his career by kidnapping Jerry and leveraging his hostage for a spot delivering the opening monologue on the show.    

In his old age, De Niro has tried to soften his tough guy image by appearing in comedies like MEET THE PARENTS (2000), so one could look at THE KING OF COMEDY as the beginning of De Niro’s desire to try his hand at comedic roles.

  As the wannabe fanatic Rupert Pupkin, De Niro excels at projecting a disturbingly needy and desperate vibe—the complete opposite of the aloof tough guys he played in previous collaborations with Scorsese.  This complete lack of machismo and posturing on De Niro’s part results in an unforgettable performance that Scorsese reportedly considers the actor’s best within their own work together.

THE KING OF COMEDY would serve as De Niro’s last appearance in a Scorsese film until 1990’s GOODFELLAS, a development that the director attributes to the uncomfortable nature of the story and the subsequent difficulty in shooting said uncomfortable moments.  Real-life comedian Jerry Lewis plays the object of Pupkin’s idolatry- the conceited and egotistical Jerry Langford.  Lewis has a reputation for being somewhat of a dick, so naturally he excels at capturing the authenticity of an impatient, rich asshole here. 

De Niro’s then-wife, Diahnne Abbot, plays Rita—a bartender and a romantic interest for Rupert.  Abbot is for all intents and purposes the straight character, giving a grounded performance that establishes perspective for the delusionary characters that populate the film. 

While she had cameos in a couple of Scorsese’s films previously (most notably as a lounge singer in 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK), her performance in THE KING OF COMEDY is the first real instance of substantial screen time in a Scorsese film.   Sandra Bernhard plays Masha, a contentious friend of Rupert’s and a fellow nutbag with a dangerous, unpredictable edge. 

Additionally, THE KING OF COMEDY features brief appearances by Scorsese’s friends and family—both of his parents make respective cameos, with mother Catherine as Rupert’s heard-but-not-seen mother and father Charles as a patron at the bar.  Scorsese’ longtime writing partner Mardik Martin also makes an appearance at the same bar, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK’s Liza Minnelli appears in cardboard cutout form in Rupert’s basement apartment.  Finally, Scorsese himself appears briefly as a television director for Jerry’s show. 

THE KING OF COMEDY greatly deviates from the established Scorsese “look”– that signature blend of grit, immediacy, and lurid color– opting instead for a straightforward, unadorned look.  For whatever reason, Scorsese’s regular cinematographer Michael Chapman is absent from the proceedings, replaced by director of photography Fred Schuler. 

Like most comedies, Scorsese emphasizes broad, even lighting and wide compositions to better capture the physical comedy on display.  THE KING OF COMEDY makes no distinction between Pupkin’s humdrum, everyday existence and the ego-stroking daydreams he indulges in; indeed, the fantasy sequences are presented so mundanely they often feel more realistic than the grounded sequences. 

Whereas works like 1973’s MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL spliced 8mm color home movie footage into the 35mm presentation, THE KING OF COMEDY marks an early acknowledgement of the aesthetic of television video.  For the opening of the film as well as Rupert Pupkin’s big monologue delivery, Scorsese shot these sequences on broadcast video, the medium’s scratchy fuzziness standing in stark contrast to the crisp film visuals. 

The rise of Steadicam in the early 80’s also allows Scorsese to experiment with long takes and sustained camera movement, often walking with characters for extended charges down the long Manhattan boulevards.  The absurdity of the film’s humor is balanced with a straightforward, non-flashy edit by Thelma Schoonmaker, a key creative partner of Scorsese’s. 

At first glance, THE KING OF COMEDY seeks like an odd choice of project for Scorsese to take on.  There’s no swaggering masculinity, no Catholic imagery, no room for popular rock songs, or insights into the Italian American experience.  On a surface level, the film’s setting of New York City and the participation of De Niro are the only markers of Scorsese’s participation. 

However, closer inspection reveals the presence of a few more directorial trademarks, like the depiction of chaotic street life in the form of rabid, screaming fans and autograph hounds lurking outside the backstage door of Jerry’s show.

Scorsese’s filmography is also characterized by protagonists who are thugs, miscreants and lowlifes—Pupkin may not be a thug per se, but he’s most certainly a lowlife, dwelling haplessly at the bottom of the New York food chain, and he’ll have to resort to illegal means if he’s going to stand a shot at achieving his own version of the American Dream.    

THE KING OF COMEDY proved something of yet another career setback for Scorsese, who had previously been riding high on the success of RAGING BULL.  The film was a flop at the box office, with many people turned off by the awkward, uncomfortable nature of the comedy. 

They might not have understood how a film this “unpleasant” would be nominated for the prestigious Palm d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but as the years have passed, the Cannes jury’s judgment would prove itself as remarkably ahead of its time.  THE KING OF COMEDY has aged surprisingly well, growing in appreciation and critical regard over the years as an underrated gem within Scorsese’s filmography. 

Scorsese’s “uncomfortable” satire has proved eerily prescient, predicting our media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed age, where anyone can become famous despite a total lack of talent or conviction.  As long as there’s a little a little Rupert Pupkin inside all of us, THE KING OF COMEDY will endure as one of Scorsese’s most relevant achievements. 


AFTER HOURS (1985)

The 1980’s was a turbulent decade for director Martin Scorsese—he kicked things off in high form with RAGING BULL (1980), overcoming a substance abuse problem that had nearly killed him and regaining his artistic relevancy in the process.  However, the rest of the decade would not be so kind to him.  He began to move away from the kind of projects that made his name (gritty urban crime dramas) and explored other avenues like comedic features (1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY), television, and music videos. 

All the while, he was feverishly developing his true follow-up to RAGING BULL, a passion project called THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.  Shortly after the release of THE KING OF COMEDY, it looked like Scorsese would have his shot to make his dream film.  He had his cast assembled and funding secured, and had even gone out to Morocco to scout locations.  However, it all came crashing down when the studio called Scorsese on Thanksgiving Day (of all days) to inform him they had abruptly pulled the plug. 

Scorsese had just turned forty, firmly crossing the barrier into middle age.  Now that his longtime passion project was dead, he was at a crucial crossroads in his career.  What kind of filmmaker did he want to be?  Were his best days, his best films, already behind him?  Would the legacy he left be one of a swift rise to glory followed by excruciating decline? 

It was at this time that his old MEAN STREETS (1973) star, Amy Robinson, contacted him with a project she was producing with her partner Griffin Dunne.  She had a script called AFTER HOURS, written by a recent Columbia University graduate named Joseph Minion for his student thesis. 

On a surface level, it seemed an odd choice for an Oscar-nominated director to adapt a script by a fresh-faced kid straight out of film school, but THE KING OF COMEDY had just bombed and the struggling director would try almost anything to get out of his current rut.  He saw in AFTER HOURS an opportunity to return to his independent roots, using the mobility afforded by a small budget and crew to creatively reinvent himself. 

In a way, it was almost like he was going back to school—only it wasn’t his grade that was at stake, it was his career.

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) is a mild-mannered word processor content to live out his days at the office and his nights inside of his well-appointed (but personality-devoid apartment) in Manhattan.  One night, he decides to break up the routine by going out to eat at a local coffee shop—a decision that he could never have guessed would have absurdly outrageous consequences. 

He strikes up an innocent conversation with a pretty blonde a few tables over named Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette).  She indirectly invites him over to her apartment by giving him the number of her roommate, a local artist specializing in plaster paperweights—a product which Paul feigns some interest in.  As soon as he returns to his apartment, Paul arranges to come over to her loft to “see the artist’s work”. 

However, once he finally arrives in the unfamiliar neighborhood of Soho and starts getting to know Marcy, he decides that they aren’t exactly a great fit for each other.  He tries to sneak out, beginning a cascading chain of events that will see him dodging the varied, colorful characters of the neighborhood and a series of absurd scenarios that no ordinary man could possibly encounter in the course of one night.  He just wants to get home to his cozy apartment uptown, but as he finds out, that will prove to be a task far more difficult and dangerous than he ever thought possible. 

In keeping with the “reinvention” conceit that he applied to the production of the film, Scorsese mostly dispenses with his habit of re-using actors from previous projects– including Robert De Niro.   Indeed, the only familiar faces in AFTER HOURS include Victor Argo and Verna Bloom in a pair of unremarkable cameos. 

Griffin Dunne proves himself a Scorsese protagonist of an entirely different kind– a reactive yuppie and beta male fine-tuned for the Wall Street-obsessed New York of the Reagan era.  Rosanna Arquette equally embodies the classic Scorsese blonde archetype retooled for a brave new world characterized by prescription medication and open acknowledgment of mental health issues. 

The rest of the cast is populated by the bizarre, mysterious characters that Griffin’s Paul Hackett encounters over the night, the most notable of which being Linda Fiorentino’s punk sculptor/artist Kiki Bridges and stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong as a pair of burglars stalking the neighborhood in their junk-filled van.  

As appropriate for a scrappy, low-budget feature, the cinematography of AFTER HOURS is quick on its feet and unburdened by cumbersome equipment that would’ve been employed to sell a sense of scale.  AFTER HOURS marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would go on to lens a majority of Scorsese’s future works. 

Scorsese’s camerawork has always been dynamic, but in AFTER HOURS the camera threatens to run off the rails entirely, giving the film a reckless energy that’s aided and abetted by the mobility of the Steadicam.  With the exception of the bookending sequences in Paul’s office, the film takes place entirely at night, so Scorsese and Ballhaus adopt a high contrast lighting scheme to better convey the lurid colors of Soho—providing a marked contrast to Paul’s drab, beige apartment.

  This aesthetic dichotomy (that of young urban professional against urban bohemian artist) illustrates a major theme of AFTER HOURS, which is the convergence and collision of subcultures that marks the vitality and unpredictability of living in New York City.  Scorsese’s regular editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, returns to lend her talents to AFTER HOURS, creating an unrelenting pace that drives our wearied, haggard protagonist ever forward with nary a chance to catch his breath. 

Revered composer Howard Shore, who would become a regular collaborator of Scorsese’s during his string of works in the early 2000’s, establishes his relationship with the director here in AFTER HOURS with a score marked by an electronic synthesizer and the propulsive percussion of a ticking clock. 

This being a Scorsese film, AFTER HOURS naturally makes potent use of an eclectic mix of needledrop cues ranging from classical, mariachi, jukebox rock, and punk.  This diverse musical landscape cannily reflects the film’s focus on the collision of radically different subcultures that New York City enables.

The early 80’s marked a period of Scorsese’s career in which he experimented with different aesthetic and filmmaking techniques, exploring his range as an artist and branching out into new genres.  AFTER HOURS is much more of an outright comedy than the pitch-black farce of THE KING OF COMEDY, yet it still retains some of the qualities that signify Scorsese’s vision—the requisite New York city setting, the explosive chaos of urban life, and the messiness of passionate violence (like the scene where Paul witnesses the murder of a husband by his wife in the apartment across the street, via several angry bullets delivered haphazardly into his abdomen). 

Despite these consistencies with Scorsese’s aesthetic, AFTER HOURS deviates greatly from other thematic conceits like the exploration of the Italian experience in America and protagonists who deal heavily in crime.  In a stark contrast from films like MEAN STREETS and RAGING BULL, the protagonist of AFTER HOURS is not a thug—rather, he’s a well-adjusted yuppie who’s main goal in life is to not rock the boat.  

The story’s developments constantly seek to emasculate him, so Paul Hackett’s growth trajectory becomes reliant on him taking charge of his own masculinity—an idea that falls in line with Scorsese’s career-long exploration of masculinity as an engine of conflict and drama.    

AFTER HOURS marks the end of a curious comedic phase of Scorsese’s career, managing to end said phase on a high note after the disappointment of THE KING OF COMEDY.  By embracing his indie roots and scaling back his approach, Scorsese was able to rejuvenate himself creatively while delivering a lifesaving jolt of electricity to his career. 

A warm reception at the Cannes film festival resulted in an award for Best Director, and while it may not have gotten any Oscar love, AFTER HOURS took home top honors (Best Feature and Director) at the indie sector’s equivalent gala, The Independent Spirit Awards. 

Today, AFTER HOURS is something of a cult favorite amongst Scorsese’s followers, and while it may not rank among his most significant works, it is significant in the context of his filmography for re-establishing his value in the minds of Hollywood executives and giving him another shot at realizing his longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

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AMAZING STORIES: MIRROR, MIRROR (1986)

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The mid-1980’s saw director Martin Scorsese experiencing a bit of a rough patch in terms of his career, with his attempts to branch out and experiment with his aesthetic largely falling flat.  When his 1985 independent feature AFTER HOURS experienced modest success, he was able to pull out of his tailspin and right himself.  In a bid to get more work under his belt, Scorsese would turn to the realm of television for the first time. 

That same year, Scorsese’s contemporary Steven Spielberg had launched an anthology television series called AMAZING STORIES.  Over the course of the show’s short run, it would feature contributions by several key members of the Film Brat generation of filmmakers, with Scorsese in particular adapting a story by Spielberg himself that was further fashioned into a screenplay by AFTER HOURS screenwriter Joseph Minion. 

Titled “MIRROR, MIRROR”, Scorsese’s episode of AMAZING STORIES finds him tackling the horror genre for the first time.  Actor Sam Waterston plays Jordan Manmouth, a successful and famous horror novelist who doesn’t actually believe in any of the spooky hokum he peddles. 

That is, of course, until he starts seeing a mysterious black-clad phantom (played by Tim Robbins, randomly) lurking behind his reflection in the mirror.  As the intensity of the phantom’s mirror appearances mount, he spirals into terror and insanity.  But is the phantom really out to get him, or is it just another product of his overactive imagination?

After the goofy opening credits featuring positively prehistoric CGI, “MIRROR, MIRROR” unfolds primarily under the harsh light of day—a curious choice for an otherwise gothic tale that would be right at home among the works of Edgar Allan Poe. 

Due to the producer-centric model of television at the time, Scorsese doesn’t have as much creative leeway here as he does in his feature work, rendering the story instead with a straightforward, rather unremarkable look.  This approach is reinforced by production designer and regular Spielberg collaborator Rick Carter’s set design, which paints Jordan’s suburban house in the hills in a modern, yet sterile white patina that feels more like a museum than a home.   

“MIRROR, MIRROR” is a fairly anonymous piece of work, bearing almost no evidence of Scorsese’s hand at all except for surface things like the presence of his regular background actor Harry Northup in one scene as a security guard, or the open acknowledgment by the characters of movie culture. 

The appearance of Robbins’ phantom plays into this, resembling Lon Cheney’s frightening visage in the iconic Universal silent monster film, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).  As Scorsese’s first stab at the horror genre, “MIRROR, MIRROR” is a fairly effective chiller, but it doesn’t show a great deal of growth, artistically speaking. 

However, his participation with the medium of television would recapture the attention of Hollywood executives, who would give him the opportunity to reclaim cinematic glory before the close of the decade.


THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)

The modest success of 1985’s independent comedy AFTER HOURS, as well as a detour into episodic television with 1986’s AMAZING STORIES brought director Martin Scorsese back to the attention of Hollywood studio executives following a long rough patch.  Scorsese’s career had been flying through severe turbulence since the disappointing reception of 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK, but the surprise success of 1980’s RAGING BULL proved that Scorsese still had untapped brilliance to spare.

The same year that Scorsese delivered his AMAZING STORIES episode, he was given another shot at a big time feature, but it wasn’t an original work developed by the director himself.  It was a sequel to 1961’s THE HUSTLER, with Hollywood icon Paul Newman attached to reprise his seminal role of Fast Eddie Nelson in a story set a quarter of a century after the original.

  Titled THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986), the film was written by Richard Price and produced by Irving Axelrad and Barbara De Fina, who saw in Scorsese an unexpected, yet highly inspired match for their material.  THE COLOR OF MONEY was moderately successful in its day, and even earned Paul Newman a long-overdue Oscar.  Today, it’s a forgotten work within Scorsese’s canon, eclipsed by far greater films.

The legacy of the film itself may not be much to sneeze at, but THE COLOR OF MONEY is important nonetheless for giving Scorsese the strong foothold he needed to launch his career’s second act.

Set twenty-five years after the events of THE HUSTLER, THE COLOR OF MONEY finds notorious pool shark Fast Eddie Nelson (Newman) living somewhere outside Chicago.  He’s long since given up pool, scraping out a meager living hawking knockoff liquor instead—but he’s not removed from the sport entirely.

He grooms promising young men with the hopes they’ll become profitable hustlers like he once was, pocketing a share of their earnings in compensation for his mentorship.  In a dive bar in a neglected section of town, Eddie encounters a young hotshot pool player named Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise).

Impressed by his raw talent, he encourages Vincent to quit his dead-end sales job and hit the road with him, where he’ll teach him how to be a true hustler.  Thus begins something of a road picture, whereby Eddie, Vincent, and Vincent’s girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) drive down towards Atlantic City, taking every hapless sucker for the contents of their wallet every stop along the way.

Eddie and Vincent’s partnership is not without conflict, however—one of Eddie’s key strategies is losing on purpose, a skill that Vincent’s pride and stubbornness rails against.  Causing further chafe-age is the possibility that Vincent might actually be a better pool player than the aging Eddie—a possibility that will be put to the test when they go head to head against each other during a large pool tournament in Atlantic City.

Scorsese’s history of working with star-name actors is somewhat funny, as we tend to think that he’s always done so.  It’s easy to forget that Scorsese helped to discover Robert De Niro and turn him into a major Hollywood player.  THE COLOR OF MONEY, made nearly twenty years into his filmmaking career, marks Scorsese’s first time working with a true Hollywood superstar in the form of Paul Newman.

Newman is highly effective in his reprisal of one of his most iconic roles, Fast Eddie Nelson.  His seasoned, autumnal countenance provides countless layers of depth to what could otherwise be a stock “mentor drawn out of retirement” archetype.  Newman’s nuanced performance would result in his first win for Best Actor—a win that many in the industry dismissed as a life achievement award rather than recognition of his particular performance in the film.

Tom Cruise, who of course is now a Hollywood superstar all his own, was cast by Scorsese right before his national profile soared in the wake of Tony Scott’s TOP GUN that same year.  Cruise is a natural fit as Vincent Lauria- the untamed, passionate hotshot with an equally untamed bouffant.  His pride can’t compensate for his naiveté, making him the perfect foil to Newman’s wizened, humbled old-time pool shark.

While the film is framed as a battle of wits and will between these two men, THE COLOR OF MONEY sheds some light on interesting periphery characters, such as Carmen (Mastrantonio), Vincent’s street-smart girlfriend who we come to suspect might just be conning Vincent herself, or Helen Shaver as Jannelle, an aging cocktail waitress and Eddie’s on-again, off-again love interest.

Notable characters actors John Turturro and Forest Whitaker make early career appearances in the film as a failed hustler protégé of Eddie’s and a small-time hustler who manages to con Eddie, respectively.  Scorsese’s tendency to appear in his own films also manifests here in the form of a voiceover during the opening credits whereby he explains the game of Nine-Ball—a variant on classic pool that the characters play almost exclusively throughout the film.

Scorsese reunites with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to create a look that is, admittedly, not very appealing.  The entire 35mm film image is awash in a drab, grey color palette that evokes the cold winters of the Midwest as well as the cigarette haze of cave-like dive bars.  Scorsese and Ballhaus counter this unappealing look with delirious camerawork and dynamic compositions.

There’s an unrelenting sense of energy, with the camera constantly whip-panning to new tableaus, or screaming forward with a rack zoom onto pool balls scattered around the table.  Indeed, Scorsese’s expressionistic rendering of the game of pool (artfully strung together by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker) takes a similar approach to the dreamlike boxing sequences in his other big sports film, RAGING BULL.

Whereas RAGING BULL tended to emphasize the increasingly diminutive size of boxer Jake La Motta in contrast to his opponent or the ring itself, THE COLOR OF MONEYtakes the opposite approach: distorting the pool balls into titanic spheres tumbling around a tiny arena.

The Band frontman and music supervisor Robbie Robertson once again collaborates with Scorsese, generating a bluesy score as well as sourcing an eclectic mix of needledrops like rock, blues, opera, and jazz.  The effect is an energy that’s much more breathless and lively than a film about pool could ever reasonably hope to have.

Despite THE COLOR OF MONEY ostentatiously being a work-for-hire, Scorsese seizes the opportunity to stamp his distinct imprint on the material.  As a result, the film falls right in line with Scorsese’s other examinations of dishonest men as protagonists, as well as the particular brand of conflict that arises from masculine pride and posturing.  Of course, this being a Scorsese film, the violence is messy, chaotic and unpredictable.

THE COLOR OF MONEY’s third act concerns Eddie reawakening his talents at pool and mounting a comeback, ending with his victorious proclamation that whether he wins or loses, “I’m back!”.  The same sentiment can said of Scorsese, who was able to mount something of a comeback himself– thus pulling out of the funk that had hung over his work for nearly a decade.

The film’s modest success and Oscar win for Newman was enough to re-establish Scorsese’s viability as a commercial filmmaker, paving the way for a new act in his career that would not only see his longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, finally realized, but his prestige and importance to the world cinema stage grow exponentially.


MUSIC VIDEOS (1986-1988)

The moderate success of 1986’s THE COLOR OF MONEY gave director Martin Scorsese the leverage he needed to finally put his longtime passion project THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST into production.  Before the latter film would be realized, however, Scorsese’s rediscovered value as a filmmaker led to two music videos for some of the biggest names in music at the time—the late Michael Jackson and former The Band frontman Robbie Robertson.

MICHAEL JACKSON: “BAD” (1986)

Scorsese’s music video for “BAD” is arguably Michael Jackson’s highest profile music video, second only to John Landis’ groundbreaking video for “Thriller”.  The video is set underground in an archetypical New York City subway station while Jackson and his tough-looking friends aggressively dance around and mean-mug to the camera.

Scorsese’s hand is very evident in the video—not just in the NYC setting but in the dynamic camera movement, which incorporates a series of whip-pans, zooms, dolly, and Steadicam moves to match Jackson’s explosive footwork.

One very interesting aspect about the video is Scorsese’s decision to incorporate production sound into the video.  We can actually hear the chains of Jackson’s outfit clank together, boots scuffling along the concrete, and the guttural yells from the dancers.  The overall effect is a liveliness and sense of presence that’s missing from the grand majority of conventional music videos.

“BAD” is perhaps Scorsese’s best-known work within the music video genre, and it is still highly regarded today as one of the best ever made.  However, like other pop culture artifacts of the 1980’s, the video contains none of the timelessness of Scorsese’s feature work.  While Jackson’s cadre of backup dancers might have passed for intimidating, tough street hoods in 1986, today it just looks like Jackson is hosting a leather daddy party.

ROBBIE ROBERTSON- “SOMEWHERE DOWN THE CRAZY RIVER” (1988)

Scorsese and Robbie Robertson have had a long, fruitful working relationship for many years, going all the way back to their concert film THE LAST WALTZ (1978)—so when Robbie Robertson released his new single “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”, hiring Scorsese to direct the music video must have seemed like a no-brainer.

“SOMEWHERE DOWN THE CRAZY RIVER” is a minimalist performance piece, with Robertson singing and speaking to camera while he stands against a series of stylized one-color backdrops.  The lighting is very theatrical, washing over Robertson with bold, glowing color (and alternately framing him in silhouette).

Besides Robertson’s presence, the only other thing that suggests Scorsese’s hand is the appearance of a blonde woman wearing white, which we should recognize as one of Scorsese’s most-visible tropes in his narrative feature work.

Ultimately, the video is rather forgettable, as is the song.  If it does manages to stick in the mind, it can probably be attributed to the creepy, sexually over-aggressive vibe Robertson gives off, akin to a dirty old man undressing you with his eyes.


THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

From the years 2000-2004, I went to a Catholic high school whose ministries were overseen by a group of Jesuit priests.  It was an interesting time for Catholic education, as it was when Mel Gibson’s controversial film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) was released.  The film caused an uproar over its focus on the gory details of Jesus’ crucifixion—a fascination that brought the film to the brink of the torture porn genre.

As a hardcore conservative and member of a controversial sect of Christianity, Gibson’s aim was to present a very literal interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice, using the actual language of the time and showcasing the true brutality of crucifixion in a misguided bid for “authenticity”.  This approach proved incredibly divisive, with conservatives and evangelicals hailing it as if it were the literal Second Coming of Christ.

The release of the film caused me to realize that my Catholic high school was actually quite liberal—our priests-in-residence railed against the film during their homilies, calling it out as a single-minded bloodbath.  They maintained that faith doesn’t deal in absolutes; it’s not about blindly following ideology and dogma.

True faith means questioning your beliefs—digging deeper, enriching it through other interpretations and personal experience.  This is why a film like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is ultimately so ineffective, and why an equally controversial film like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) endures through the ages.

Scorsese’ film takes the opposite tack—depicting Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.   The film (and the book it was based on) serves as likely the first time that anyone dared to really examine Jesus’ humanity—by showing us his naked thoughts, doubts, and hopes, the figure of Jesus as well as his teachings suddenly become very tangible, real, and relevant.  Ironically, exploring Jesus’ humanity also makes his inherent divinity all the more powerful.

Jesus’ teachings played a hugely influential role in Scorsese’s development as a young man.  His Roman Catholic and Italian backgrounds compelled him to be devout in his beliefs, to the point that he had even considered pursuing a profession in the priesthood.  Even when he decided that he would become a filmmaker instead, a project about Jesus’ life never remained far from his list of dream projects.

The idea existed as a vague, remote notion until the production of Scorsese’s second feature film, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972).  He was given a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, “The Last Temptation Of Christ” by the film’s star, Barbara Hershey, under the condition that she would be cast as Mary Magdalene if he ever made the film one day.  Scorsese latched on to the idea of a film exploring Jesus’ humanity from an angle never before portrayed, and after a few more projects were under his belt, he hired his TAXI DRIVER (1976) screenwriter Paul Schrader to adapt the book into a screenplay.

This inadvertently began a long stretch of development hell and false starts that would prevent the film from being realized for nearly another decade.  THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was supposed to follow the making of 1982’s THE KING OF COMEDY, with Aidan Quinn starring as Jesus—but the original studio could not reconcile the film’s required budget with the risk of its anticipated reception, so it abruptly cancelled the film just prior to the start of shooting.

Scorsese was understandably depressed over the cancellation of his longtime passion project, but he channeled his energies into the production of other projects.  After the surprise success of 1985’s AFTER HOURS, Universal stepped into the fray and offered Scorsese the chance to finally make THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST under the provision that he also shoot a commercial film for them (1991’s CAPE FEAR).

  It was under these circumstances that Scorsese finally found himself in the fall of 1987 in Morocco, realizing a project he had dreamed about since childhood—a project that would become one of the most seminal, heartfelt films of his career.

We all know the story of Jesus Christ from Nazareth—the man who preached about God’s will and unconditional love and was subsequently branded as a blasphemer by his own people, crucified by the Romans, and rose from the dead three days later to prove his divinity.  There’s a reason it’s known as The Greatest Story Ever Told—it’s one of the most well known stories throughout the entire history of humanity.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST tells this same story, but from a radically new perspective.  Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a Jewish crossmaker who suffers from debilitating headaches and terrifying voices inside his head.  Scorsese doesn’t put Jesus up on a pedestal—he brings us right into Jesus’ head and lets us hear his own internal monologue as he wrestles with his faith and his doubts about his destiny.

When his good friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) rather forcefully demands that he follow his heart and begin preaching a radically new interpretation of God (one that eschews the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament in favor of a friendlier, unconditionally loving deity), Jesus finds himself cultivating a humble–yet steadily growing– following.

He finally accepts his destiny and agrees to be sacrificed on the cross in order to absolve humanity of sin, but it’s not until he’s actually up on that cross that the story diverges greatly from the established gospels.  He is greeted by an angel in the form of a young girl, who brings him down from the cross and takes him to be married to his lifelong love, Mary Magdalene (Hershey).

He is told that all of his suffering was simply a test, and his reward is a normal human life with a wife and children.  He grows old, begetting many sons and daughters, but upon his deathbed, he realizes that the angel may have actually been Satan in disguise, and in his selfish pursuit of happiness and normalcy, he has unwittingly betrayed his destiny and forsaken his people.

Right off the bat, Scorsese signals that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST isn’t your grandfather’s biblical epic.  Whereas conventional Hollywood films about biblical times would have you believe everyone spoke in British accents, Scorsese allows his actors to use their natural vocal inflections and accents—to the point that a large section of the cast sounds like they walked right out of Little Italy.

While the approach sound incongruous in principle, it’s really no less incongruous than using British accents.  On the contrary, Scorsese’s approach actually brings out a sense of truth and immediacy to the characterization while diminishing the pageantry of it all.  Willem Dafoe makes for an unexpectedly brilliant Jesus—one who is very relatable in his quiet doubt.

Far from the strong, pious image of Jesus seen in a Sunday school textbook, Dafoe’s portrayal is conflicted and frail.  Even his carpentry background is given a new complication with the revelation that he specializes in making crosses for the Romans.

Harvey Keitel had been absent from Scorsese’s frame since TAXI DRIVER, so the longtime collaborator’s gruff, self-righteous countenance is warmly welcomed here as Jesus’ friend and betrayer, Judas.  Keitel’s bright red hair matches the inner fire driving his convictions and thirst for justice, and the actor’s unquestioning love for his master provides an extremely compassionate insight into one of the most hated men in all of recorded history.

As of this writing, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST would become the last collaboration between Scorsese and Keitel—a poignant capstone to a series of projects that propelled both men to the forefront of their respective professions.

Scorsese’s supporting cast is populated by some of the most iconic names of 70’s and 80’s cinema culture.   There is, of course, Barbara Hershey’s performance as Mary Magdalene—a prostitute and the woman who would become Jesus’ wife if he were not called a life of celibacy.

BOXCAR BERTHA saw Hershey as a pretty and carefree young girl, so it’s incredibly striking to see her next collaboration with Scorsese blossom into a performance that’s world-weary and hardened.  Verna Bloom, another longtime collaborator of Scorsese’s who had previously appeared in AFTER HOURS, plays Mary the mother of Jesus.  Bloom’s Mary is frail and stricken with grief—a far cry from the traditional image of The Virgin Mary that adorns stain glass windows and paintings.

Victor Argo, who up until this point had been content to appear in small cameos throughout Scorsese’s work, is given a big job in the form of Jesus’ most famous apostle, Peter—a job that Argo handles quietly, yet powerfully.  Harry Dean Stanton plays Saul, the murderous zealot turned prophet of Christianity, while THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) director Irving Kershner pops up as one of Jesus’ earliest and most curmudgeonly followers.

Finally, there’s David Bowie as the infamous Roman judge, Pontius Pilate.  Bowie’s slender, androgynous physicality lends an urbane and sophisticated touch to yet another well-trodden biblical character.

In order to shoot THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese and company had to make sacrifices in their budget.  This meant a scaled-back shooting aesthetic, but fortunately the minimalistic look works in the film’s favor.  Scorsese reteams with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to recreate the warm, dusty landscapes of ancient Jerusalem, with the locations carefully chosen to convey a great degree of grit and immediacy.

Scorsese is able to retain the use of dynamic camera work, with the mobility of the Steadicam rig affording him the ability to convey delirious energy and movement despite limited time and resources.  Longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker weaves it all together in expectedly brilliant fashion against Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking New Age score, which combines the ancient character of the old world with contemporary rock percussion that sounds like a prehistoric antecedent to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound.

The incorporation of seminal rock figures like Gabriel and Bowie points to Scorsese’s inherent love of the musical genre while taking some out of the piss out of the conventional Hollywood bible epic genre.

As Scorsese’s longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST understandably bears the director’s mark quite heavily.  His filmography is littered with disadvantaged, sometime-criminal protagonists grappling with matters of faith and religion while navigating the unpredictable chaos of urban life.

His career-long incorporation of Roman Catholic dogma, imagery and behavioral practices (such as self-flagellation) goes right to the source in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, examining the genesis of Catholic ideas and iconography while underscoring their inherent meaning in a modern context.

Instead of a community of Roman Catholic Italian Americans attempting to eke out an existence under the established dominance of Protestant Anglo-Saxons, we are presented with a community of Jews scraping by under the watchful eye of the ancient Roman Empire.

Jesus in particular can be seen as a lowlife among lowlifes—he is a Jewish man making crosses for a foreign authority that will turn around and hang his own people up on his creations.  This causes significant discord between Jesus and his friend Judas, who deplores Jesus’ work as an act of betrayal.  Indeed, much of the film’s dramatic weight hinges on the interplay between Jesus and Judas.

Their conflicting ideologies represent the core sentiments of their respective Testaments; Judas represents the bloody righteousness of the Old Testament while Jesus puts forth the idea of a new covenant between God and his people based on love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

One of the film’s more striking directorial signatures plays into Scorsese’s membership in the New Hollywood school of filmmaking—a generation that embraced the medium of film directly into their work in a decidedly postmodern fashion.  For instance, the film is infamous for its last shot, which is a close-up on Jesus delirious with relief and shouting, “It is accomplished!” shortly before dying on the cross.

The music builds into a crescendo as the frame itself bursts into a series of colors that imply his glorious entrance into the afterlife.  In reality, this is actually a severe light leak happening in-camera and overexposing the film.  A very technical and common occurrence, yes, but one has to admit that the timing is incredibly fortuitous.  Scorsese chose to leave this “happy accident” in, taking advantage of the medium’s particular quirks to help tell his story.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was a lifelong labor of love for Scorsese, one that caused many years of grief and heartbreak in his attempt to realize his vision onscreen.  It is one of his most significant achievements– a fact that the Academy recognized when it nominated him for a Best Director Oscar later that year.

The film is remembered as violently controversial still to this day, the irony being that those spewing the most venom haven’t actually bothered to see the film itself.  Admittedly, a film that dares to show Jesus in the act of sexual intercourse with a woman is, suffice to say, going to be met with a great deal of controversy—but there’s no way Scorsese could have anticipated the level of furor that greeted the release of his film.

Forget the pearl clutching and condemnation from America’s pulpits— the global Catholic community was so outraged by the film’s existence that some individuals took to radical forms of protest.  For instance, a fundamentalist sect reportedly torched a Parisian cinema during a film screening.  This film is still banned in some countries.

In the long run, all this outrage has amounted to little more than white noise.  Time has revealed THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST for what it is:  a respectful examination of Jesus’ life and teachings that refuses to pander to blind ideology.  It’s a responsible, thought-provoking look into Jesus’ humanity that’s more relevant to modern Christianity than anything Kirk Cameron is currently hawking.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is a triumph of passion and perseverance for Scorsese, and by creating an intimate reflection of Jesus as a man just like us—a man besieged by doubt, regret and fear—he has invited us into the most intimate aspects of his own life and worldview.


NEW YORK STORIES: LIFE LESSONS (1989)

The Film Brat generation of filmmakers—directors of the Baby Boomer persuasion like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg—can be credited for popularizing the idea of filmmaking in the context of a social community.  This could be credited due to their upbringing during the emergence of filmmaking as an area of academic collegiate study.

Their close personal friendships informed and influenced each other’s work, inspiring them to take risks with the assurance that their buddies would always have their backs.  This communal, collaborative mentality also encouraged them to join forces on projects beyond the scope of conventional narrative features.  One of these projects, 1989’s NEW YORK STORIES, was an anthology film comprised of three short works from directors with a reputation for New York-centric stories:  Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese’s contribution, which opens the film, is called “LIFE LESSONS”, and follows the plight of a successful abstract paint caught in the throes of creative blockage in the wake of his lover/assistant threatening to leave him.  Written by Richard Price, the short features Nick Nolte as the aforementioned artist, Lionel Dobie.

Dobie is a revered, massively successful New York abstract painter who derives inspiration from the women in his life.  He’s got a big show coming up, but he can’t bring himself to create any work—he’s having a bit of a tussle with his live-in assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette).

For a while, they had a mutually beneficial relationship—she had a place to work on her own art and a mentor who always had some helpful paternal advice about her life and career, while he had sex, comfort, and inspiration.  The trouble begins when Paulette returns from a trip home, only to reveal she didn’t actually go home—she went off on a sordid sexual affair with a young avant-garde comedian named Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi), the kind of pretentious prick who hosts his shows in abandoned subway tunnels.

The affair didn’t end well, and Paulette has returned heartbroken and homesick.  She falls into a full-blown artistic crisis, but as her threats to give up and move out escalate, Dobie finds new creative inspiration in the turmoil—giving him the bold new work he needs for his big show and reaffirming his own creative talent.

Working with cinematographer Nestor Almendros for the first time, Scorsese gives “LIFE LESSONS” an unadorned, naturalistic look that’s complemented by an incredibly dynamic camera.  The advent of the Steadicam in the early 1980’s gave Scorsese an unprecedented freedom of movement.

He had always been inclined towards flashy, daring camerawork, but the Steadicam gave him an ease of movement that was simply impossible on a dolly or crane.  “LIFE LESSONS” also demonstrates the debut of a particular technique of Scorsese’s that I like to call the “scream-in”—a movement in which the camera rushes in on its subject (with the steadicam operator presumably running at full speed), going from a wide composition to a close-up in a deliriously forward motion.

While THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) had previously flirted with this technique, it’s in “LIFE LESSONS” that Scorsese fully incorporates the technique into his stable of visual tricks.  “LIFE LESSONS” also makes frequent use of an old-fashioned visual motif en vogue during the silent era: the iris shot, which is used to spotlight our attention on one specific detail of the frame by quite literally blacking out the rest of it.

Scorsese’s filmography is littered with casual nods and homages to notable artifacts of cinema history, so while the iris shot’s inclusion here might seem off-tone, it certainly keeps in line with Scorsese’s larger body of work.

The short anthology format, while constraining in run time, proves actually quite liberating for Scorsese, freeing him from the expectations that a studio would normally impose on him if it were a narrative feature.  The New York City setting conceit, while admittedly a recurring motif of Scorsese’s, is more so motivated by the larger ambitions of the project as a slice-of-life chronicle of The Big Apple.  

“LIFE LESSONS” is sterling example of Scorsese’s penchant for rendering a gritty, naturalistic storyline in expressionistic, colorful ways.  Working with longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese peppers “LIFE LESSONS” with signature tropes like the introduction of the blonde female lead in slow motion, or the heavy usage of rock music, blues, and Italian opera (with a particular focus on Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”).

By nature of being lumped into an anthology work with other filmmakers just as well known and revered as Scorsese is, “LIFE LESSONS” is an oft-overlooked gem within the director’s filmography.  The piece’s focus on characters grappling with their own self-doubt about art is emotionally gripping—there’s a quiet drama in denying one’s inner voice for freedom and expression in favor of taking on a “rational”, non-creative occupation.

Scorsese’s own experience in this regard makes “LIFE LESSONS” all the more potent—one could easily see Nolte’s creative frustration as a fictional stand-in for Scorsese’s own soul-searching as his career collapsed around him in the mid-80’s.

Fresh off the controversial accomplishment of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese’s work on “LIFE LESSONS” serves as something of a palette cleanser and creative refresher that would lead directly into his next feature—a project that would come to be seen as a masterful capstone to his career and would enshrine his reputation as one of America’s foremost filmmakers.


GOODFELLAS (1990)

Director Martin Scorsese had risen to prominence as a filmmaker primarily through his depiction of organized crime in the Italian American community in films like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967) and MEAN STREETS (1973).  Naturally, while he excelled at that sort of material, he didn’t want to be pigeonholed into only making those kinds of films.

Even as his national profile soared, Scorsese vowed to never make another mafia/organized crime film again—he had already said his piece on the matter, and there was an endless assortment of new stories to tell.  However, during the production of 1986’s THE COLOR OF MONEY, Scorsese came across a book by Nicholas Pileggi called “Wise Guys”, which detailed the criminal exploits of Mafioso-turned-FBI-Informant Henry Hill.

Scorsese was fascinated by Pileggi’s authentic portrayal of life in the Mob from the perspective of the grunts on the street, and not as it was classically depicted and glorified in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972).

As a young boy growing up in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, Scorsese personally witnessed the good and the bad of the mobster lifestyle—an upbringing that made him especially suitable to bring Pileggi’s book to the screen.  He enlisted Pileggi himself to collaborate on the screenplay, and reteamed with his regular producers Irwin Winkler and Barbara De Fina to set up the project with the biggest budget he had worked with to date (yet, still a modest one by mainstream Hollywood standards).

Scorsese may have reneged on his vow to never make another crime film, but the move would pay off in spades—the finished work, released in 1990 under the title GOODFELLAS— would become a seminal masterwork in the director’s career, and cement his legacy as one of cinema’s greatest artists.

GOODFELLAS tells the sprawling story of Henry Hill and his experience working for the Lucchese crime family in New York City and its surrounding suburbs from 1955-1980.  Growing up as a half Irish, half Italian kid in Brooklyn, the young Hill finds himself fascinated by the lifestyle of the Italian gangsters that populate his neighborhood.

He volunteers himself to do small odd jobs for them, and is eventually taken in under the wing of local capo Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino), who teaches him how to exploit the system for quick, easy profit.  As he grows into a young man, Henry finds himself in Paulie’s inner circle—amidst the likes of contemporaries like Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), who become his closest friends and partners in crime.

They revel in the wealth that a life of crime affords them, building up homes and families of their very own.  Not content having achieved the American Dream, however, they branch out into drugs and mistresses as if they were untouchable—a delusion that is coldly shattered when they kill Billy Batts (Frank Vincent), a made man from the rival Gambino crime family, in retribution for a petty slight.

Fearing that they might get whacked by some vengeful Gambinos, they bury their secret along with Batts’ body in the country, and turn to farther-fetched grabs for money and power.  Conway orchestrates and successfully pulls off one of the biggest scores in New York history—the infamous Lufthansa Heist, netting him and his friends a cool six million.

Naturally, a quick influx of cash and a lifestyle suited towards the lavish spending of it doesn’t mix well when the authorities are watching your every move.  As the weak links of his team begin to fray, Conway sets about silencing them permanently.  Hill sees the writing on the wall, and decides to rat his former friends out to the FBI in exchange for his safety in the Witness Protection Program.

GOODFELLAS marks Scorsese’s first collaboration with Robert De Niro in eight years—the two hadn’t worked together since 1983’s divisive production of THE KING OF COMEDY, so De Niro’s presence here is a welcome, and long overdue, one.  De Niro excels as James Conway, an Irish guy in an Italian world.

It’s a powerhouse performance, with Conway’s brutal and aggressive affectations perhaps driven by the frustration that no matter how close he gets to the Lucchese crime family, he will never be fully considered as one of their own.  De Niro’s RAGING BULL co-star Joe Pesci also returns to Scorsese’s fold here as the explosively unpredictable Tommy DeVito, a small-time gangster with a nasty comic wit and an even nastier temper that would land Pesci the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

GOODFELLAS’ real revelation, however, is Ray Liotta as central protagonist Henry Hill.  Liotta was born to play this role, that of a charmingly cavalier and somewhat narcissistic gangster.  The film proved to be quite the career breakout for Liotta, and while he may have yet to transcend his work here, he has nonetheless enriched the art of cinema with a series of notable performances that live up to his initial promise.

GOODFELLAS’ supporting cast may not match the star power of De Niro, or even Pesci, but its members more than hold their own in memorable performances.  Lorraine Bracco, who already had a longtime connection to Scorsese as Harvey Keitel’s partner and mother of his child, plays Henry Hill’s wife, Karen.  She’s the antithesis of the archetypical Scorsese Blonde—she’s feisty, hotheaded, and very, very Jewish.

The film, like much of Scorsese’s other works, is a predominantly masculine affair, but Bracco’ willful, calculating performance sees her join in the proud tradition of headstrong, defiant Scorsese leading women.  Paul Sorvino is perfectly cast as Henry’s father figure and revered criminal “Paulie” Cicero.  He’s absolutely believable as a man who is at once both ferocious and gentle—a man who is not just respected, but feared.

Frank Vincent, who previously appeared in Scorsese’s RAGING BULL alongside De Niro and Pesci, plays the pivotal role of Billy Batts, a wise-talking, disrespectful ball-breaker from a rival crime family who winds up on the wrong end of our protagonists’ wrath.  Two years before his breakout in Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION, Samuel L. Jackson shows up in the minor role of Stacks Edwards, a member of the Lufthansa Heist crew and the first casualty in Jimmy Conway’s campaign to tie up loose ends.

Of course, GOODFELLAS wouldn’t be a true Scorsese film without an appearance by the director’s parents, and the film delivers rather memorably on that front.  Mother Catherine appears in one of the best sequences of the film as Tommy DeVito’s doting mother, and father Charles shows up as a fellow inmate and cook in the spacious jail cell that Henry and Paulie occupy for several years.

GOODFELLAS marks the emergence of Scorsese’s late-era visual style, which combines flashy camerawork with an exhilarating pace, punctuated by French New-Wave-inspired techniques like jump cuts, freeze frames, extended tracking shots, whip-pans, and wall-to-wall source music.

The effect is very punk rock, and has served Scorsese considerably well from here to CASINO (1995), to THE DEPARTED (2006), and all the way to 2013’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.  The vibrant energy of Scorsese’s visual style can be attributed to the strength of his collaborations with regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

The jumping off point for GOODFELLAS’ distinct presentation was Francois Truffaut’s seminal 1962 classic JULES AND JIM, which pioneered the dizzying mix of narration, quick cuts, freeze frame and location switches that GOODFELLAS concocts so effortlessly into an intoxicating Molotov cocktail.

The pace literally screams by, compacting years into minutes and further compacting the sequences themselves into exponentially tighter running times.  By Henry Hill’s last day as a wise guy in 1980 (in a sequence which serves as perhaps the most effective depiction of a cocaine high in cinema), we feel like so much has already happened– but the momentum keeps building, threatening to careen out of control and spin off into space.

Scorsese and Schoonmaker charge into scenes like a gunshot—whip-panning, zooming, freeze framing, and “screaming in” with the mobility afforded by a Steadicam rig.  Indeed, Scorsese makes excellent use of the Steadicam throughout GOODFELLAS, the most memorable instance of which is inarguably the extended tracking shot that follows Henry and Karen from the street outside the Copocabana club, through the back door and the twisting corridors, through the chaotic kitchen, and finally to their specially-reserved table right in front of the stage.

In that one shot, the allure and excitement of Henry’s chosen profession becomes immediately apparent.  Scorsese’s unique approach proves just as effective in its subtleties, such as the observation that he frames his close-ups in such a way that other characters’ performances are incorporated into the frame—further reinforcing the film’s themes of family and community, while conveying the intimate nature of their relationships.

Scorsese also allows the characters to address the camera directly, inviting the audience into their world while implicating us in their crimes by association.  One notable instance at the end of the film sees Henry Hill delivering his voiceover directly to camera, the first instance of a storytelling conceit that Scorsese would later explore in full in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Scorsese has been a key player in integrating rock and roll into the cinematic landscape, but GOODFELLAS goes above and beyond the concept of sourcing pre-existing records.  The soundtrack is nearly wall-to-wall music, helping charge the narrative along while placing it in a proper cultural (and period-accurate) context.  The mix Scorsese looks to is quite eclectic, ranging from big band performers like Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett, to jukebox mainstays like The Cadillacs and the Harptones, all the way to modern punk and rock.

GOODFELLAS makes especially potent use of The Rolling Stones’ iconic track “Gimme Shelter”, an anthem Scorsese would incorporate into several later works.

Simply put, GOODFELLAS is a sterling example of what constitutes “a Scorsese movie”.  In addition to hitting all the requisite thematic beats, it is perhaps the best example of the classical Scorsese narrative archetype: the rise and fall of a member of a disenfranchised white minority (usually Italian or Irish) as they pursue the American Dream.

The aforementioned requisite thematic beats place GOODFELLAS squarely within Scorsese’s domain: examinations of Italian American immigrant culture, thugs and hoods as the protagonists, and explosively disorganized violence.  He builds on his past use of internal voiceover—most effectively in MEAN STREETS and TAXI DRIVER (1976)—by incorporating multiple points of view that show us characters and plot points from a different perspective (mostly Karen Hill’s).

Scorsese’s thorough knowledge of and affection for the history of cinema comes through in an unexpected, inspired moment at the film’s closing.  Knowing that the general story beats of GOODFELLAS followed that of the classic silent film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), Scorsese decided to pay homage by emulating the latter’s final shot of a cowboy shooting directly at the camera, modernizing it with the image of Pesci in full gangster regalia doing the same.

In doing so, Scorsese manages to pay respect to the cinematic pioneers that had preceded him, even while furiously blazing new artistic trails all his own.

Any bit of behind the scenes footage or interviews one could watch for GOODFELLAS shows a cast and crew well aware of the fact that they were making an extremely special, once-in-a-lifetime film.  Their collective hunch was validated whenGOODFELLAS premiered at the 1990 Venice Film Festival and Scorsese took home the Silver Lion for Best Director.

Big box office receipts and heaps of critical praise would greet the film when it was widely released, along with six nominations from the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director (Scorsese’s loss in the Director category is, to this day, still seen as an outrage).  This immediate success wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan; GOODFELLAS has seen remarkable staying power in the years since its release.

Its influence is immediately apparent in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997), or anything Quentin Tarantino made in the 90’s.  It went on to directly inspire David Chase’s THE SOPRANOS, which would itself serve as a watershed moment in the television medium– the full effects of which are still unfolding today.

The film would also be inducted into the National Film Registry for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2000, its very first year of eligibility.  Many film buffs have come to see GOODFELLAS as the apex of Scorsese’s talent, with the more cynical among them seeing his eventual Oscar win for THE DEPARTED as an apology for the Academy’s oversight here.

GOODFELLAS is consistently ranked among the very top of the best crime and gangster films of all time, locked in a constant duel with Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (or its sequel).  For Scorsese himself, the film’s widespread success would mean a return to directorial glory and the beginning of a new, prestigious act in his career—one in which he would work as a world-recognized master of the medium and the preeminent cinematic chronicler of the American experience.


MADE IN MILAN (1990)

The same year that director Martin Scorsese released his crime epic GOODFELLAS to worldwide acclaim, he also released a short documentary work shot in Milan, Italy called (appropriately) MADE IN MILAN (1990).  The latest installment in a series of documentaries about people that captured Scorsese’s interest, the short showcases high-fashion icon Giorgio Armani as its subject.

  As the film unspools, Armani talks about his influences and his passions, as well as his philosophy towards his craft.  Armani is shown to be a consummate artist, with a laser-like attention to detail and an intimate sense of connection with every single aspect of his work.  Unlike the profession in which he works, Armani comes off as very modest and unpretentious—a man who values refined simplicity over exhibitionism.

Shot by Scorsese’s NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS” (1989) cinematographer Nestor Almendros, MADE IN MILANis very artful and expressionistic in presentation.  Many of its visual techniques foreshadow the ubiquitous style of current fashion films—while they’re rooted firmly in the 90’s, Armani’s draping, baggy designs could pass for what you would see on the street in 2015.

Scorsese continues his employment of the Steadicam rig to give the film a nonstop, elegant sense of motion.  The camera glides through iconic Milanese landmarks like The Duomo, as well as quaint, tucked-away avenues, eventually transporting us to Armani’s offices.  The roaming exploration of the baroque architecture of Armani’s office combines with the designer’s reflective voiceover to create an evocative mood reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).

When the action shifts to the runway, Scorsese trades in the classical, Old-World look for a stark, modern feel that contrasts the pitch-blackness of the audience and the pure glowing white of the runway stage with the neutral tones of Armani’s clothing designs.   Working once again with regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese punctuates the naturalistic aesthetic of the documentary format with expressionistic touches like slow motion shots and subjects breaking the fourth wall.

Composer Howard Shore builds upon said expressionism with a score that infuses a traditional Italian folk sound with a sense of brooding intrigue, as well as the rhythmic pounding of tribal drums during the runway sequence.  The drums themselves seem to reference mankind’s ability to continually reinvent a technology (clothing) that’s been around for thousands of years.

MADE IN MILAN stays consistent with Scorsese’s career-long exploration of his Italian heritage, marking the first time in which he travels directly to his homeland to document his people’s traditions with fashion, family, and food—free from any American influence.

Technical signatures, like extended tracking shots and the exposure of the filmmaking craft within the piece itself mark the presence of Scorsese’s artistic vision, even going so far as to turn the camera around on the crew at one point and reveal Scorsese along with his producer Barbara De Fina and writer Jay Cocks.  As a short documentary, MADE IN MILAN doesn’t particularly lend itself towards personal artistic growth for Scorsese, but it rather quietly announces a major milestone in his career—his ascension as an equal to cultural tastemakers on the world stage.


CAPE FEAR (1991)

For just over twenty years, director Martin Scorsese had consistently achieved something rather remarkable for an artist in his field— the development and realization of original ideas and passion projects.  Outside of BOXCAR BERTHA (1972) and maybe ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974), the bulk of Scorsese’s output up until 1990 had stemmed from original visions or properties he was passionate about.

The runaway success of 1990’s GOODFELLAS—still regarded today as perhaps his finest film—gave him the opportunity to continue making the movies he wanted to make, but there was just one little snag.  In order to get his longtime passion project THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST financed in 1988, Scorsese had agreed to direct an additional, more-commercial film for Universal Pictures at some point in the future.  When they saw GOODFELLAS’ success, Universal decided it was time to collect.

The film that arose from this agreement (one could call it a deal with the devil) was 1991’s CAPE FEAR, a remake of the 1962 classic film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.  The new version had been in development for quite some time, with a script written by Wesley Strick and overseen by super-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.

Originally, CAPE FEAR was to be directed by Steven Spielberg, but Scorsese’s association with Spielberg and the larger generation of Film Brats led to the two men orchestrating a switch for the respective projects they were attached to: CAPE FEAR for SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993).  Let that sink in for a moment—we came this close to a Scorsese-directed SCHINDLER’S LIST.

It was thus that Scorsese found himself in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, directing his first mainstream thriller– a move that would exhibit his flair for thrilling narrative while giving him the wide berth he needed to explore uncharted territory.

CAPE FEAR is a story about violation, intrusion, and redemption set in the idyllic vacation town of New Essex, North Carolina.  Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a successful, respected lawyer who has recently relocated his family here in a bid to make a new start after his infidelities nearly destroyed his marriage.

However, Sam finds that his past has followed him into his new life in the form of Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a former client of Sam’s and an illiterate serial rapist.  Fifteen years before, Sam had sold Cady out to the jury instead of defending him—a betrayal motivated by his utter disgust with Cady’s transgressions.  Cady is now a free man, having spent his time in prison boning up on law books and the bible.

He makes his presence known to Sam, lurking on the edge of his property and always in his periphery in public.  As Sam and his family rail against Cady’s cultivated climate of dread and fear, Cady becomes even more vicious and reveals his murderous intent.  With the lives of him and his family now put on trial, Sam must contend with a purified force of true evil.

CAPE FEAR is a showcase for De Niro’s darkest impulses as an actor, and his longtime collaborative relationship with Scorsese allows him to go deeper and farther than ever before.

His Oscar-nominated iteration of Max Cady is a far cry from Mitchum’s original portrayal, decorating himself with ominous religious tattoos that hint at his Pentecostal fanaticism and hiding his slithery, pedophilic nature behind an almost-friendly Southern drawl.  It may not be De Niro’s most powerful performance, but it lingers in the mind as a personification of some primal evil archetype lurking along the fringes of our subconscious.

Nolte also benefits from a prior collaboration with Scorsese (1989’s NEW YORK STORIES: “LIFE LESSONS”), with their personal familiarity giving Nolte the confidence to channel the driving fire underneath the mild-mannered, WASP-y character of Sam Bowden.  Jessica Lange plays Bowden’s wife, Leigh, as a strong-willed woman who refuses to become a victim either to Cady’s campaign of terror or her husband’s unfaithful nature.

And then there’s 90’s indie queen Juliette Lewis, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as fifteen year-old Danielle Bowden– Sam’s pouty, rebellious daughter who finds herself turned on by Cady’s dark charisma.

Scorsese’s supporting cast features some surprising faces, such as Joe Don Baker (better known for his appearances in the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films) as private investigator Claude Kersek.  Illeana Douglas, a bit actor in Scorsese’s “LIFE LESSONS” as well as GOODFELLAS, plays Lori Davis, an emotional mistress of sorts for Sam and one of Cady’s victims.

In a pleasantly surprising move, Scorsese also casts the two leads of the 1961 CAPE FEAR in supporting cameos.  Mitchum plays Lt. Elgart, an elderly, dignified police captain, and Gregory Peck (in his final film appearance) plays Cady’s lawyer Lee Heller— a performance that’s reminiscent of something like Atticus Finch’s evil twin.

Working for the first time with cinematographer Freddie Francis, Scorsese gives CAPE FEAR the distinctive aura of the Southern Gothic subgenre—taking his tonal cues from Charles Laughton’s THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955), the seminal hallmark of that particular style (which also starred Mitchum, funnily enough).

Right off the bat, CAPE FEARdeparts from Scorsese’s established aesthetic in that it’s shot in the anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  As a student of film history, Scorsese had always admired the panoramic vistas afforded by a wider canvas, but he refrained from using it in his own work simply because he didn’t like the fact that he would have to compromise his original framing when performing the pan-and-scan transfer for the home video market.

He decided to adopt the anamorphic ratio for CAPE FEAR partly out of an eager optimism that true widescreen video presentations were just around the corner.  Of course, this didn’t come to pass and his nightmares were realized when he had to chop up the film to fit our square television sets.

As a mainstream studio thriller, CAPE FEAR benefits from a lavish, big-budget look that builds on classical filmmaking tropes popularized by old school masters like Alfred Hitchcock.  Indeed, CAPE FEAR plays like the best film that Hitchcock never made, with Scorsese using bold, sweeping camera movements and theatrical stage lighting to add scope and grandeur to the story.

Scorsese even steals Hitchcock’s closest collaborators, like iconic titles designer Saul Bass and composer Bernard Herrman (or rather, Herrman’s music reworked by Elmer Bernstein).  Despite his desire to emulate the style of old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking, Scorsese still injects his own dynamic aesthetic into CAPE FEAR’s veins.

He utilizes a chaotic, dizzying mix of canted camera angles, whip-pans, rack zooms, split-focus diopter compositions, and even his signature “scream-in” shots—all assembled by regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker into a coherent (if delirious) whole.  The overall effect is one of Scorsese adding his own particular brand to a familiar property while still being respectful to the original film’s legacy.  If you’re going to remake a movie, this is how you do it, folks.

Color plays an important part in the visual storytelling of CAPE FEAR.  The 1962 original was presented in black and white, and while the use of color in the remake is a no-brainer, Scorsese actually manages to justify its use as a storytelling tool that actually enhances the narrative.  Bowden’s life is rendered in large, impersonal swaths of beige, pastels, and neutral tones—this is a man who doesn’t want to make a fuss, happy to live out a quiet life in relative anonymity.

By contrast, De Niro wears screamingly bold colors, with his blood red Hawaiian shirt and muscle car acting as particularly effective agents of aggression.  In another nod to Hitchcock, Scorsese repeatedly makes lurid use of expressionistic blocks of color that bloom to envelope the frame, acting as a propulsive pulse that shifts the colors into black and white or even negative.

This creative use of color points to Scorsese’s genius as an artist and a storyteller—a lesser filmmaker would simply update an old black and white movie to color for the sheer sake of modernity, without giving it a proper justification in the first place.

As previously mentioned, Scorsese uses Bernard Herrman’s original 1962 score for CAPE FEAR to sell the old-school vibe of his modern-day update.  Herrman’s disciple Elmer Bernstein reworks, re-arranges, and re-orchestrates the late composer’s work, even including portions of his unused score for Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (1966).

The score is iconic for its orchestral, brassy sound, and Scorsese knows not to mess with a good thing.  Nevertheless, he does manage to find a few instances to include his own musical tastes, incorporating some opera as well as R&B into the soundtrack when characters play music on-screen.

In translating the story of CAPE FEAR to modern day sensibilities, Scorsese turns to his signature thematic fascinations in a bid to inject complexity and nuance.  Scorsese’s