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Quentin Tarantino is one of the world's foremost controversial independent film makers. Born on 27 March, 1963, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Quentin is a tall, gangly man, standing about 6'3" (191 cm) when he isn't slouching, and has a reputation as a script-writer and director of films with highly original, violent, and frequently very crude, dialogue-laden content - albeit often clever and funny. Wildly popular in the 1990s, Tarantino seemed to have faded from the limelight - perhaps due to some over-exposure in the popular media - until he returned with the two volumes of Kill Bill followed by Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. Here's more about the man's history and notoriety.
The Man Behind The Myths
Tarantino first became popular with the release of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, which premiered at the Sundance Film festival. The then-unknown Tarantino became a small sensation in the UK and to the cult film crowds of the USA. After his 1994 film Pulp Fiction received the 1994 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival in 1995, everyone was talking about Quentin Tarantino.
Much has been made of the fact that his movies contain, or seem to contain, a lot of violence. After all, a lot of what Tarantino does involves violent content. However, when one observes very carefully, one sees that Tarantino's earlier films make reference to violence rather than show it on camera. Violence is used as a means to tell a story and its consequences are shown, often to demonstrate the very moral that violence never solves anything but causes, ultimately, far more problems. Usually, Tarantino does not like to include the actual violence on camera in graphic detail, and he says he strongly detests both violence and drugs.
As one researcher points out:
QT gets a lot of flak because he's confident and brash and motor-mouthed, but I think his work stands up for itself. He has this weird way of writing completely unnaturalistic dialogue in a way that appears casual and improvised (though once you've seen a few of his films you kind of spot it a mile off ...) But I love the way his films are recognisably him without being too [similar]. The playing with narrative in all of his scripts, the way the camera is always so knowing (like the way it pulls away from the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, the on-screen square that Uma Thurman draws in Fiction and the way details are revealed in Jackie Brown at just the point you need to know them for it to be dramatic).
Tarantino also has a tendency to appear in cameos or in very small roles in most of his films, although he is usually among the first to say that he isn't the greatest actor in the world. He claims, with ambiguous conviction, that he was taught how to act by James Best, who to US audiences is much better known as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane from the infamous TV show The Dukes of Hazzard1.
Quentin Tarantino's Films
Tarantino has to date written and directed six films, with some form of cameo in each:
- Reservoir Dogs (1992) as Mr Brown.
- Pulp Fiction (1994) as Jimmie Dimmick.
- Jackie Brown (1997) as an answering machine voice.
- Kill Bill (2003/2004) as a member of the Crazy 88.
- Death Proof (2007) as Warren the Bartender.
- Inglourious Basterds (2009) as Colonel Landa's hands, an America soldier's voice and, in dummy form, a German corpse being scalped.
My Best Friend's Birthday (1987)
The above list should in fact begin with My Best Friend's Birthday, Tarantino's first attempt at writing and directing in which he played Clarence Pool. However, the film was never really released or shown widely, apart from to a few hundred people in 1987 - which still hasn't stopped some determined movie fanatics from seeing what had been made of it so far. The film was technically completed, but the final reel was destroyed in a lab fire that broke out during editing. The rest of the movie is only about 40 minutes long, but can be purchased from speciality video stockists if one is very diligent. Although it is an interesting look at what Quentin Tarantino was capable of and something of a foreshadowing of what would be to come, most of the film was recycled later by Tarantino.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney. Dry-as-dust Boston comedian Steven Wright makes a cameo appearance as a 1970s retro music radio show DJ2, and Tarantino himself has a small role as a crook ('Mr. Brown') who dies early. Written and directed by Tarantino, with some brief radio dialogue written by Roger Avary.
Six crooks attempt to pull off a diamond heist. After it goes wrong, the survivors regroup in a warehouse and discuss who set them up. The story is told by using a number of flashbacks, and Tarantino keeps an element of mystery to the film by never showing us the actual heist. A major characteristic of the film is Tarantino's very witty dialogue set right alongside a lot of implied gore and violence. Many viewers of the film have criticised it as being unnecessarily violent, but in fact very little violence is actually seen on camera (with the notable exception of the incident with an ear and a razor blade). The vast majority of violence is implied or referred to by the actors without actually being seen.
A trademark dialogue and character development method of Tarantino's is the inclusion of an incredible amount of dialogue in his films - the opening scene in a restaurant is one of the most lasting first impressions ever achieved by a writer/director. From the opening sequence around a lunch table to a later scene involving assigned nicknames3, to scenes involving dialogue between crooks and cops, it becomes plain that this is not a film for the easily offended. Those that are willing to put aside a little bit of sensitivity might find that underneath it's a solid and highly entertaining thriller with an excellent soundtrack.
The woman in the car who is shot by Tim Roth's character was, in fact, the British-born actor's dialect coach for the film. Tim Roth has said he really wanted to 'shoot' her since she was so hard on him developing a perfect, nondescript Mid-west American accent. Several references are made to other movies, some of them Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1980s - such as John Woo's Yinghun Bunsik (the black suits) and Ringo Lam's Long Hu Feng Yun (plot elements). Tarantino has said he loves movies made in Hong Kong during that period, at the infamous Shaw Brothers studios, and is greatly influenced by their visual style and storytelling methods4.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, and Ving Rhames. Steve Buscemi and Tarantino make cameo appearances, the former being much more difficult to spot than the latter.
Three short stories from the underworld of an American city overlap. Jules (Samuel L Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are hitmen sent to retrieve a mysterious suitcase for their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is an ageing boxer paid to throw his last fight and is on the run from Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the middle of all of this, Vincent (Travolta) takes out Macellus Wallace's wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) for a night of entertainment and harrowing terror. Several of Tarantino's trademarks are evident: the plot is revealed through flashbacks, there's plenty of witty and crude dialogue for character development, a restaurant scene, an incredible soundtrack, and a lot of nods to the writer/director's favourite films.
Pulp Fiction is a film that seems to inspire strong opinions for or against it - relatively few people have no opinion about it - which is in many circles considered a good reaction for a film to have. Notably, or perhaps notoriously, until the South Park movie came out, Pulp Fiction was the film with the most swearwords in it5. An element of mystery is involved with the unknown contents of the briefcase collected by Travolta and Jackson, another Tarantino trademark.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its near-perfect marriage of music and mood setting. The opening riff of the legendary Dick Dale song, 'Misirlou' heralds the film's swagger and style as if it were the Duke of Death coming to surf his way into the theatre6. The entire soundtrack is peppered with California surf-rock as well as some very enjoyable and appropriate covers of such classic oldies as 'Son of A Preacher Man', 'You Never Can Tell', and 'Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon'. There is even a classic funk hit - Kool and the Gang's 'Jungle Boogie' - that makes for a great counterpoint moment. There's a rape scene reminiscent of the 1972 film, Deliverance, which might be a little hard to take for some viewers, but it allows for some of the most satisfying retribution, and classic lines, ever seen in a film7.
The actress who plays the waitress in the coffee shop at the beginning and end of the film is, in fact, the music consultant for the film. Keep an eye out for Steve Buscemi, who makes a very brief cameo as Buddy Holly in the, completely fictitious retro-restaurant Jack Rabbit Slim's. There are many links between this and Tarantino's first big hit, Reservoir Dogs - Jack Rabbit Slim's is mentioned in a commercial on the radio during the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, the character Vincent Vega (Travolta) is the brother of Reservoir Dogs' Vic Vega (Michael Madsen), the character Lance is eating a bowl of Fruit Brute cereal (a recurring theme of Tarantino's - this is a discontinued breakfast cereal) which also made an appearance in Reservoir Dogs, and finally the Big Kahuna Burger makes an appearance in both films. Not to be forgotten, the hapless bystander that is shot by Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) is in fact, the same dialogue coach/actress that was shot by Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs.
Jackie Brown (1997)
Pam Grier, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro, and Michael Bowen. Chris Tucker makes a cameo.
Flight Attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) regularly ferries money for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). He is planning to receive $1/2 million from Jackie soon to retire after making a big deal. However, after Jackie has to be bailed from jail and Ordell initially decides to kill her, Jackie begins to get other ideas. Quenten Tarantino wrote this film based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Jackie Brown has been labelled by many as Tarantino's ‘worst’ film, though such a view is necessarily handicapped by the incredible success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction . This might be due to the fact that Tarantino never learned to make films the ‘professional way’ from any single school of film making. In his own words, Tarantino ‘didn't go to film school - I went to films’. In light of that, it's easy to see other film genres being distilled down into each one of his films, and Jackie Brown is no exception. While the film has not reached the level of public acclaim and fandom of his previous works, perhaps this is due to the specialised nature of the 1970s film homage that Jackie Brown represents.
There are, in addition, references throughout the film to other contemporary films that the various actors and actresses have been in - a real Quentin Tarantino trademark. Examples are: Michael Keaton's character is the same one he played in the unrelated 1998 film, Out Of Sight. One of Samuel L Jackson's lines from Pulp Fiction and 2000's Shaft recurs and Jackson's lines about hand-washing appear in this film as well as Pulp Fiction and 1998's The Negotiator. Sid Haig (the Judge) was also an unpleasant character in 1974's Foxy Brown, also starring Pam Grier - and, incidentally, the inspiration for Tarantino choosing Pam to star as Jackie Brown.
Look very carefully in the background during the the arraignment of Jackie Brown - that's actress Mira Sorvino's very small cameo. Sorvino was at one time dating Quentin Tarantino, and starred in such movies as Mighty Aphrodite and as Marilyn Monroe in the US television documentary about her. Besides that, there are the aforementioned film references, and the fact that Tarantino missed that Jackie was a white woman in the original book; he wrote the part specifically for Pam Grier without realising the disparity, which eventually became something of a Tarantino-ist take on the entire story.
Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Vivica Fox, Lucy Liu, Darryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Michael Jai White, and Sonny Chiba (a legendary Japanese martial artist, actor, and choreographer).
The tagline for this film is 'Uma Thurman will Kill Bill!' 'The Bride' (Thurman)8. Once a member in an all-female assassin group -the DIVAS, a [slightly inaccurate] acronym for ‘Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’, she is attacked at her wedding by ‘Bill’ (Carradine) and the rest of the DIVAS and left for dead. Instead of dying, she ends up in a coma, wakes up five years later, and begins her revenge. The story is told in a ‘chapter’ format, making for yet another example of non-linear storytelling by Tarantino.
Tarantino was so keen for Thurman to play The Bride that he held up production until her baby was born, which explains why this film was conceived on the set of Pulp Fiction in 1994, but took so long to make and release. Kill Bill was designed for release in two parts - the first was released in the USA in October of 2003, and the sequel, in reality the conclusion of the film, released the following year. This was allowed (many say required) by Miramax studios to make the movie more manageable for audiences while avoiding cutting any of the story out. The film is over four hours in length - the first instalment is 111 minutes, while the second is 136 minutes.
The film is extremely violent and graphic - it's hard to imagine any other film released by a major Hollywood production company with more blood in it than Kill Bill. However, this serves a point in expressing the nature of violence with swordplay and its inevitable consequences; although the excessiveness is more for homage to an older Chinese film genre than for any trademark of Tarantino's own style. Having said that, this film is likely to inspire (indeed, already has) an outcry amongst those who oppose such violence on many grounds. Again, ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide how this enhances or detracts from the quality of the film.
Keep your eyes peeled for these recurring Tarantino trademarks: Red Apple cigarettes (a ficticious brand) in a poster ad, a shot from the trunk of a car, and multiple nods to other films. Although too many to list here, there are some obvious nods to Shaw Brothers' films of Hong Kong cinema. In fact, part of the film was made at the Shaw Brothers' studios in Hong Kong. Most of the film is an obvious homage to Hong Kong martial arts movies, Japanese samurai movies, and their own special blend of violence and code of ethics and behaviour. The film even goes to the extent of using some of the same actors in recurring roles (Sonny Chiba reprising his Hattori Hanzo role), and the exact same methods for special effects involving a simply incredible amount of fake blood. Some references to other films include the suit that Uma Thurman wears (the same as one worn by Bruce Lee in 1978's Game of Death), the masks worn by the Crazy 88 gang (the same as those in The Green Hornet, a late 1960s TV series), and the Sheriff in El Paso (the same one as in From Dusk Till Dawn). Theme music from The Green Hornet - played when The Bride arrives in Tokyo, 1968's Twisted Nerve - the spooky theme whistled by Daryl Hannah's character in the hospital, and music from 1967's Ironside are heard in Kill Bill. More references exist, but may take repeated viewings for anyone to pick up - this is just another way Tarantino likes to reward fanatical viewers of his films.
Death Proof (2007)
Kurt Russell, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell (as herself), Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton, Marcy Harriell, and Eli Roth.
Death Proof was produced with Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror to form the double feature Grindhouse, so-called because both films payed homage to the 'exploitation' B-movies once shown in US 'grindhouse' theatres9. The films were also released separately for general consumption.
Not wanting to follow the standard slasher formula, Tarantino placed Death Proof's serial killer in a stunt car that could be crashed at high speed without killing the driver. Kurt Russell thus plays Stuntman Mike, who befriends a group of girls at a taco bar, then later crashes into them at high speed in his stunt car. Though the police suspect foul play, Stuntman Mike gets away scot free. However, when he picks on stuntwoman Zoe Bell and her friends fourteen months later, Mike is shot and the tables are turned, leading to a chase in which the hysterical stuntman desperately seeks to escape the girls' revenge.
As is typical of Tarantino's films, there is plenty of dialogue in the taco bar, and it actually comes as quite a shock when the apparently normal Mike deliberately kills one of the girls by suddenly braking while she's in the passenger seat of his car. The high speed crash that follows is particularly gory in its detail, and is portrayed from multiple angles to show the fate of each of the other car's occupants.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Other Films Involving Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino also wrote True Romance (1993), the 'The Man from Hollywood' segment of Four Rooms (1995), Natural Born Killers (1994), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2005).
True Romance (1993)
Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Rappaport, Saul Rubinek, and others10. Written by Quentin Tarantino (with Roger Avary), and directed by Tony Scott11. This script was sold by Tarantino to make the money to film Reservoir Dogs, which was released shortly before True Romance. Written with Roger Avary, the script for this film was originally part of a much longer script, the second half of which became the bulk of Natural Born Killers.
Christian Slater plays Clarence, a comic-book lover who meets a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and falls in love with her. Slater and Arquette eventually steal $5 million worth of cocaine from her pimp (Gary Oldman), sparking a cross-country chase and the usual mayhem that always follows that sort of thing. A signature Tarantino-ism occurs at the end - the Mexican standoff, where a roomful of men end up pointing guns at each other, waiting to see who shoots first. Other common Tarantino trademarks are in evidence again, including profanity, violence, and excitement. With a supporting cast that includes Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, and Val Kilmer (as the ghost of Elvis), it is likely that anyone who enjoys good acting along with Tarantino's style will enjoy this film.
Though described by at least one viewer as 'A good kick in the ass', there is something about this film that tends to keep it from being mentioned amongst Tarantino fans as their favourite and something that keeps critics from naming it first amongst Tarantino's films. To some, it might feel like a cheap imitation of Tarantino's work, or perhaps more accurately as an incomplete idea of Tarantino's that never fully saw the light of day. There are so many similarities between this film and Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (especially in dialogue styles), that it becomes painfully obvious to the viewer that this was, in fact, just a part of a much larger saga of crime stories as told in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction . What happened to the other half of this script, in Natural Born Killers, is another story entirely. Although highly entertaining, the fact that this was a part of something larger keeps the film from being a true Tarantino classic12.
Quentin Tarantino sold the script for $50,000, which was, at the time, the minimum amount of money that could be paid for a script. Actor Tom Sizemore stars as a cop in both True Romance and its unofficial sister script, Natural Born Killers. The line, 'from a diddled-eyed Joe to a damned if I know' is said by both Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) in True Romance and by Mr. Orange (Harvey Keitel) in Reservoir Dogs.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
One of the most infamous American films of the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino has virtually disowned Natural Born Killers, claiming deep dissatisfaction with how the story and script were changed by subsequent writers. However, Tarantino is still credited with having written the background story for the film. What is unknown, to the general public, is just how much of the remaining film is Tarantino's work and how much is someone else's. If one were to watch Natural Born Killers right after Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction , one might notice a much greater tendency towards actual scenes of violence and violent sequences instead of dialogue and off-camera, inferred violence that are the hallmarks of Tarantino's work. It is perhaps ironic that a film made to criticise the purveyance and portrayal of violence in the media has been disowned by a film maker who is both one of the most oft-criticised for violence in his films as well as avowedly independent. In the end, the film was roundly criticised for its violent content, yet another ironic fact in itself.
Four Rooms (Segment: ‘The Man From Hollywood’) (1995)
This film consists of four segments spliced together as a complete film. The four segments were written and directed as follows (in order of their appearance): ‘The Missing Ingredient’ by Allison Anders, ‘The Wrong Man’ by Alexandre Rockwell, ‘The Misbehavers’ by Robert Rodriguez, and ‘The Man From Hollywood’ by Quentin Tarantino. The film is really a situation comedy involving one poor bellhop (Tim Roth) having to deal with four separate, bizarre and/or uncomfortable situations at a fading-fast hotel on New Year's Eve in New York City. This film didn't receive as much critical praise as it perhaps could have had the segments involved less slapstick, if not slap-sex, comedy, and more of the slick comedic style the directors are capable of. Perhaps a biased opinion might state that the Tarantino and Rodriguez sequences tend to skew the other two, making them seem clumsy and out of place by comparison. In any event, as far as Tarantino fans are concerned, this film should be considered a must-have for fanatics only.
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Although fellow author Robert Rodriguez directed this film, Quentin Tarantino collaborated with Robert Kurtzman for the story, executive-produced, and starred in it, alongside George Clooney. Clooney and Tarantino are two brothers who kidnap a family and take them to a bar, which they quickly discover is infested with vampires. A difficult film to judge next to Tarantino's other work, it comes across as a confused mass of campy vampire gore and hellfire special effects. The story is surprising in places, but at times the viewer may find it hard to suspend belief and just have a good time. It must be noted at the very least that the dialogue is not nearly up to Tarantino's benchmark set in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction . The presence of Salma Hayek may well be the only redeeming feature of the film for many viewers (assuming one happens to like seeing Salma Hayek, that is), but the fun the actors are having is readily apparent (particularly George Clooney in his feature film debut). This film, like many involving Quentin Tarantino, inspires two sorts of comments from viewers: ‘it's a load of indulgent crap!’ or ‘it's super stylish, clever, and hip!’ Both claims seem to have quite a lot of justification, so personal taste is what ultimately will draw the line here. It should be noted, however, that by this time there was a significant public backlash against Tarantino's widespread exposure in the film industry. The fact that Rodriguez and Tarantino seem to bring out the worst (or best) in each other cannot be overstressed.
Quentin has appeared on various television programmes in the US, usually either as a guest on a variety or talk show or lampooning himself and his style. Perhaps most comically, however, he once played an Elvis impersonator in a 1988 episode of The Golden Girls. He's also had a small role in the show Alias playing a character called McKenas Cole.