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.
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.
A 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 UNCHAINED, INGLOURIOUS 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.
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.
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 <———