August232011

Quentin Tarantino: a Renegade Raconteur

"When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’"

—Quentin Tarantino 

The twisted, angry, vengeful face of Donny Donowitz glares down at his prey.  The camera looks up at him as he fires his machine gun, relishing every round leaving the barrel.  Cut to over the Basterd’s (Donny’s) shoulder.  Donowitz’s bullets tear into the flesh of Adolf Hitler, mutilating his face.  Flames engulf the cinema where the most prominent figures of Nazi Germany are being slaughtered.  Only Quentin Tarantino can change history this way.  Everybody knows that that’s not how the “story” goes, and we enjoy what we see.  This creativity gives Tarantino a reputation that draws audiences in with certain expectations—they expect to see the eccentric, the violent and the surreal; they expect to be entertained, confused, and yet pleased by the time the credits roll. 

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds came out in August of 2009.  My grandparents were visiting us in Woodbridge, CT, a few weeks later and the six of us (my parents and brother included) were bored and I wanted to go to the movies.  It was time for my first foray into Tarantino’s world.  I remember sitting in my seat, staring in awe at the screen, both because of the masterpiece I was witnessing and because I couldn’t believe I had actually brought my grandparents to see a film as bloody as this one.  Encountering the art of Quentin Tarantino for the first time most certainly changed my outlook on film and filmmaking.  His unique, pander to nobody, way of telling a story became an immediate source of attention and inspiration for me.

What, though, does “pander to nobody” mean?  Tarantino’s stories are far from simple and he makes no apologies for that, either you follow it or you don’t.  Films of his, such as Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill saga, and Inglourious Basterds are done in chapter format.  Tarantino will write his story, make the movie, and then edit it into a series of chaptered vignettes that don’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the movie until the very end—maybe.  Many chapters in the Kill Bill saga have very little to do with one another—or so it would seem.  In the end, they all lead up to what the audience expects from the title: the killing of Bill.

Budd, Bill’s brother, drives the final nail into the coffin, and lowers our anonymous heroine, The Bride from Kill Bill: vol. 1, into the abandoned grave of “Paula Schultz.”  The frame goes dark as the light is sucked from the coffin.  The screen is totally black.  The audience does not see the coffin being lowered into the ground; we only hear it.  Earth crumbles and falls onto the wooden box, as The Bride’s chances of escaping grow thinner.  She begins to hyperventilate as the gravity of the situation quite literally falls upon her.  Fear, panic and desperation consume her—she begins to hopelessly scream and cry and bang on the coffin in a pathetic attempt to break out. 

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 wouldn’t be very much of a movie if The Bride never got out, yet Tarantino takes us to a new scene before she gets the chance.  In the next chapter, “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” The Bride endures the grueling training of the legendary kung fu master, Pai Mei.  In a sparring match to test her abilities, Pai Mei takes ownership of The Bride’s arm.  From what we are shown, many of Pai Mei’s lessons are devoted to making “his” arm stronger.  The Bride is put to the challenge of putting her fist through a thick wall of wood, three inches in front of her.  We do not see her succeed until the next chapter of the movie.

Cut back to The Bride in the coffin.  She has managed to free her hands, and with a newfound determination in her eyes utters the words, “Ok, Pai Mei, here I come.”  She puts her hand up to the top of the coffin and begins to strike it with all her might.  Fist meets wood and skin breaks—but so does the top of the coffin.  With just her right arm, she punches her way from certain death, up through the ground to freedom.  This climax, though, isn’t climactic in the way it would be in the hands of a director such as Steven Spielberg, or anybody else for that matter.  If Kill Bill: Vol. 2 had been directed by somebody other than Tarantino, The Bride may have been miraculously found by a gravedigger or somebody, and would have been rescued that way.  Instead, The Bride relies on no one except herself and her previous training to get out of a deadly situation.  Few modern Hollywood directors would have come up with that kind of resolution for a life and death problem like that.

In his article “The New Disorder,” David Denby notes that “the current cycle of disordered narratives—in movies at any rate—began with ‘Pulp Fiction’” (Denby).  Denby proceeds to explain that this disjointed storytelling perpetuates the present.  He argues that, “Time is out of joint in “Pulp Fiction.” It doesn’t really advance, which means that planning for future action is meaningless” (Denby).  Denby’s argument is partially true and partially untrue.  He is right to talk about how nonlinearity creates a sort of perpetual present.  Yet, at the same time, though each of Tarantino’s vignettes are entirely in the moment, like any narrative, linear or otherwise, they generally wrap around (like in Pulp Fiction) or resolve some overlying problem (like in the Kill Bill saga) in the end.  With this pioneering tactic of discontinuity, audiences are left completely on the edge of their seats before The Bride escapes, not knowing what will happen to her—then we find out how she will escape, and then it actually happens.  It is this type of suspense, and this type of storytelling, that make audiences fall in love with Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking: with Quentin Tarantino’s art.  Yet, it seems almost a mystery when one ponders over where the art of a filmmaker such as Tarantino comes from.  Where does one get the inspiration to tell these types of stories?

Quentin Tarantino may be the king of cinephiles.  At the age of fifteen, the future director dropped out of school (with his mother’s blessing) to pursue acting.  Tarantino soon realized, however, that his admiration for directors far exceeded his admiration for actors.  From that age, Tarantino was surrounded by film as he worked in a local video store.  He has said that he gained inspiration for his directorial career from customer rental trends while working at the video store.  This exposure gave him an eclectic collection of genres, motifs, styles and techniques on which to capitalize in his own films.

In each of his movies, Tarantino creates surreal situations in a very real world in ways that have become signature to his films.  Most people are familiar with Greater Los Angeles, or are at least aware of its existence, but rarely does one hear, on the evening news, that events similar to those in Pulp Fiction have transpired.  One does not often see a car driving down a city street, soaked with blood because a gangster shot somebody in the head.  Though his originality is at the forefront of every film, the styles of his influences manage to seep through as well.  In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot praises artistic originality, but also exclaims that, “The best…most individual parts of [his] work may be those in which the dead poets…assert their immortality most vigorously” (Eliot 270).  While Tarantino is obviously an original filmmaker, his influences are clear and unhidden.  The Japanese-Western hybrid style used in the Kill Bill saga is a clear homage to Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa is, perhaps, the most well known Japanese filmmaker, and is most certainly the most influential upon western filmmaking.  His highly stylized and visually appealing films usually tell very long, but clear stories that, generally, leave nothing out.  In his 1954 masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, Kurosawa combines the action and excitement of samurai warfare with the tranquil, yet rigid, customs of ancient Japanese culture.  The film emphasizes the latter far more, and is filled with paradoxes regarding the social culture in 17th Century Japan.  The villagers who hire the samurai are of lower social status and would never be allowed to mix with the samurai under normal circumstances.  However, the samurai, by code, are morally obligated to come to the villagers’ assistance—even if their pay is a handful of rice per day.  Though the battle scenes are exciting, well shot and crucial to the story, they are not emphasized, nor are they extravagantly produced.   

In a beautiful display of swordplay, choreography, fury and absolute vitriol that is so typical of Tarantino, The Bride cuts down an entire legion of Yakuza assassins called The Crazy 88’s.  She is now one step closer to achieving her revenge against her former lover (and employer), Bill, and his squadron of assassins who massacred her, her unborn child, and her wedding party four years prior.  A battle with former assassin-colleague O-Ren Ishii follows shortly after, leaving The Bride with a long gash across her back, and O-Ren Ishii with a slice across the top of her head.  One of the five people whom The Bride has set out to kill—one of the five people who destroyed her new life four years earlier—perishes at her hand, and at the blade of a legendary Hattori Hanzo sword.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Kurosawa and Tarantino is that Kurosawa is creating a commentary of, or window into, 16th Century Japanese culture, while Tarantino uses the beauty of samurai battles to add excitement and aesthetic violence to his scenes.  As a Japanese filmmaker, Kurosawa’s motives make sense—it is his culture that he is depicting in his movies.  Tarantino, the worldly yet, still American, filmmaker has a fascination with this style of filmmaking and therefore uses it—with his own particular flavor—in his films.  It seems to be a combination of Tarantino’s fascination with Japanese culture and the typical, somewhat outlandish Tarantino style that gives films such as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 their form.  This is exemplified quite obviously throughout both films, but a more subtle instance of this is at the very beginning of Vol. 1, where Tarantino uses a title card from an old Chinese or Japanese (one would have to know either the film or the language to determine where it came from) movie.  Where a director such as Quentin Tarantino will include katana battles in which limbs are severed and blood literally sprays everywhere, Kurosawa’s battle sequences are more refined and dignified, far less gory and, at least in a manner of thinking, less ridiculous.  Though Kurosawa clearly influences Tarantino, and though Tarantino obviously pays homage to the styles of Japanese directors, his execution of this tribute is very different from the original Japanese masterpieces. 

Influences aside, another aspect of Tarantino’s signature is the passionate fervor with which he writes.  This has lead to disputes over his excessive use of the “n-word” in his movies with director Spike Lee.  Lee, at one point, said of Tarantino, “I’m not against the word… and I use it, but Quentin is infatuated with the word. What does he want? To be made an honorary black man?” (Lee).  Tarantino publicly responded, “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write… And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white, but the Hughes brothers can do that because they’re black, that is racist. That is the heart of racism… I do not accept that. […] I have the right to tell the truth. I do not have the right to lie” (Tarantino).  Tarantino’s stories are his own—and he is passionate about telling them the way he wants to tell them.  For Tarantino, nothing is off limits—ever.  He wants the world in his movies and he wants to be able to say whatever he wants.  Perhaps he finds criticism trivial.  Perhaps he makes his movies for himself, and only after he is satisfied, does he share them with the world. 

When thinking about, or watching, the films of Spike Lee, it is typical to think about some grand cultural message underneath the surface.  Netflix synopsizes Lee’s film Do the Right Thing as, “…a number of minor misunderstandings — and an effort to boycott the local pizza parlor — a young man (Bill Nunn) lies dead, the pizzeria lies in ashes, and the racial schism is wider than ever” (Netflix).  Stories such as these are signature to a director like Spike Lee.  His films make a point; they send a message.  Could it be that Tarantino makes his movies primarily because he just wants to tell a story?  Perhaps his love of filmmaking—for creating art and for telling a story—inspire him to push the boundaries of visual storytelling in each and every film.

Mia Wallace, newlywed wife of Los Angeles crime lord, Marcellus Wallace, welcomes Vincent into her home—but it isn’t she doing the welcoming—it is a note left by her, then her voice over the intercom system.  Vincent walks slowly and somewhat suspiciously around the foyer, looking for the source of his boss’s wife’s voice.  Vincent finds the intercom and puts his lips up to it, communicating with the still undefined Mia.  The first we see of Mia is an extreme close up of her lips, speaking delicately into the intercom.  Intercoms and walls aside, their lips are close enough to be kissing.  This is the first of many examples of passionate, but subtle sexual tension between the two characters.  Their interaction at the 50s nostalgia restaurant—from their conversation to their silent gazes, to their winning of the dance contest—exemplify Vincent’s suppressed attraction to his boss’s new wife, and Mia’s seductive, devil-may-care personality.

Does Quentin Tarantino make movies for cinema’s sake?  Are his films about style?  No.  Style is the fuel that gives his stories life—it is not the substance of the film itself.  Tarantino’s defiance of the norms and standards of Hollywood narrative have given him a voice where many filmmakers who attempt to emulate his style would not be able to find one.  Though his films have a certain “indie” sense to them, he is still commercially successful in Hollywood.  Tarantino’s passion for filmmaking and for storytelling is both recorded and reflected in his art.  Each of his films involves some sort of passion that is typically conveyed through crime or lust—or both.  The sexual tension and brutal murders in Pulp Fiction, the bloody, vengeful quest of The Bride in Kill Bill, and the butchering of Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are all examples of passion at work in Tarantino’s films.  

Every element that comes together to create a signature style that audiences expect from Tarantino’s work contributes to his appeal.  This is not without its opposite though.  The engaging nonlinearity of Tarantino’s stories is what keeps audiences guessing and it is part of what makes his films so exciting.  Paradoxically, the fact that these movies do not always move in a coherent, sequential order makes them more confusing, which makes them harder to watch.  Unlike other filmmakers, such as Spike Lee, Tarantino’s films do not always have an obvious underlying social message to convey.  Tarantino’s movies are driven by style.  This is another aspect of the filmmaker’s signature, however, this has also been a point of criticism, as some people will allege that Tarantino lacks substance.  Tarantino’s signature is heavily laced with paradox.  What some audience members will love, others will hate.  Such is the case with many filmmakers, but Tarantino is different.  With him, the question is not, “will the audience love it, or will they hate it?”  It is more likely, “who is this film made for?  The audience or the director?”  

Works Cited

Denby, David. “The New Disorder.” The New Yorker 2007 йил 5-March.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Forrest, Darlene A., et al. Writing the Essay: Art in the World/The World Through Art. New York: McGraw Hill, n.d. 269-274.

Lee, Spike. Interview. Variety Magazine.

Netflix. Netflix: Do the Right Thing. <http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Do_the_Right_Thing/448860?trkid=2361637#height2573>.

Tarantino, Quentin. Interview. Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose.

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