Where to begin with Quentin Tarantino

A beginner’s path through the pulp fictions of Quentin Tarantino

23 July 2019

By Martyn Conterio

Death Proof (2007)

Why this might not seem so easy

Quentin Tarantino is not only the filmmaker as iconoclast, but as film historian. His work is shaped, guided and defined by an obsessive appreciation for the movies. The ex-video store clerk popularised film geekery, making the minutiae of obscure genre cinema and its faded stars a hot topic of conversation. In his motormouth style, on screen and off, he reels off encyclopaedic knowledge of film, television and pop music. With Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), plus his scripts for True Romance (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Tarantino became a veritable cultural phenomenon, as well as a publishing sensation when his screenplays were printed for the mass market. 

Quentin-dialogue is foul-mouthed, funny, postmodernist and sticks in the brain. The naturalistic street-patter is saturated in pop culture references and uses anti-authoritarianism to comic effect (“You kill anybody?” “A few cops” “No real people?”), while his habitual use of the n-word has frequently drawn criticism. Mario van Peebles referred to this appropriation of a reclaimed racial slur as a “tragic white-boy fantasy”, while Spike Lee accused him of being “infatuated” with the term, and mockingly asked if Tarantino wished to be an honorary African American.

Not just a gonzo wordsmith, his films are marked by a potent visual style, a tendency toward epic running times and editing which draws maximum tension from scenes. His takes are often long and fluid, his approach to plot structure atypical for Hollywood fare, and his soundtracks typified by their use of country, rock and soul, alongside snippets of themes from 1960s and 70s spaghetti westerns and giallo titles.

Postmodernist or plagiarist, then? A magpie who pilfers liberally from a multitude of source materials, he remixes and revitalises them, serving his own artistic intentions. The aim, as his late editor Sally Menke put it, is “all about recontextualising the film language to make it fresh within the new genre”.

The director of nine films so far, not including a desultory contribution to anthology farce Four Rooms (1995), if we include television assignments, uncredited script-doctoring gigs, acting roles and producer credits, Tarantino’s filmography and its tributaries prove more expansive than they might first appear.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The best place to start – Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction is a benchmark in 1990s American indie cinema. Classic scene follows classic scene: John Travolta and Uma Thurman doing the Twist, Samuel L. Jackson’s cold-blooded Old Testament speech, two low-rent crooks robbing a diner. Winner of the 1994 Palme d’Or and a 1995 screenplay Oscar, shared with Roger Avary, who contributed the gold watch story to the film’s triptych of tales set in suburban Los Angeles, Pulp Fiction remains the best gateway into Quentin world. 

Building on Reservoir Dogs’ marriage of Hong Kong cinema and American cool, his second feature revitalised Travolta’s moribund career and established Tarantino’s brand of shockingly violent, endlessly quotable, baroque genre hybrids. The prologue’s segue into a credits sequence set to Misirlou, by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones is as electrifying an opener as modern cinema has to offer. The twanging, fast-paced surf guitar riff, slamming like a gunshot over a momentary freeze-frame on Amanda Plummer and co-star Tim Roth, sets the tone for what follows.

Jackie Brown (1997)

What to watch next

Jackie Brown (1997), though it stays firmly within the parameters of his playful aesthetic and early interest in City of Angels criminality, is a relatively restrained affair, marking the start of an era focused on kick-ass female characters (continued with Kill Bill and Death Proof). As a celebration of Pam Grier and her place in the B-movie canon, his film nerd credentials were out in force.

It’s curious Tarantino’s ‘hangout movies’, released a decade apart, proved his resounding box-office failures. Death Proof (2007) was part of the double bill nostalgia trip cooked up with Robert Rodriguez, titled Grindhouse, with QT’s contribution being a cross between the slasher movie and the muscle car film popularised in the 1970s by the likes of Vanishing Point (1971), Gone in Sixty Seconds (1974) and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974).

In Death Proof, Kurt Russell’s misogynistic psycho, Stuntman Mike prowls Texan dive bars for women to kill in his souped-up rides. “This car is 100% death proof. Only to get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat.” The film’s riotous finale pits Stuntman Mike against a gang of women who unexpectedly fight back.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Where not to start

The Third Reich. Slavery. Post-American Civil War turmoil. Tarantino’s dives into history aren’t the best place to start. Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) sit apart via their historical settings and themes, engagement in empathetic perspectives and their savage, cathartic violence. 

With a focus on minority figures taking on their oppressors, QT cheerfully bulldozes the past. Some found this ahistorical tactic uncomfortable, as if genre movies couldn’t or shouldn’t deal with heavyweight themes or relish in fantasy payback. Tarantino’s impulses to be the sensationalist showman and serve up movie-justice to real-life tyrants didn’t sit right with detractors, but Eli Roth’s Basterd, Donnie ‘The Bear Jew’ Donowitz, shooting Hitler’s face off with a machinegun remains an image and a half, and provides a moment of great emotional catharsis. 

In Django Unchained, the heroic ex-slave rescues his wife from servitude with a magnificently mounted bloodbath that leads to the total destruction of the film’s white power structure. The Hateful Eight, easily his bleakest film, and released during the Black Lives Matter movement, plays like a horror film about race relations past and present (the film’s final chapter is titled Black Man, White Hell).

All three films display solidarity, empathy and ‘furious anger.’ Hitler having his face turned to mush, Reich goons burned to a crisp, a vile slaver and his minions wiped out, an African American man taunting racists with his unbreakable dignity. History told through the codes, conventions and unbridled thrills of exploitation cinema might seem pie-eyed to some, but these films represent a growing maturity in Tarantino’s imagination.

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