Quentin Tarantino Critical Essays

Introduction

Quentin Tarantino 1963–

(Full name Quentin Jerome Tarantino) American director and screenplay writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Tarantino's career through 1998.

Among the most successful American filmmakers to emerge in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino is best known for his off-beat, darkly satiric gangster films Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997). Earning large box office receipts and cult adoration as a new renegade force in Hollywood, Tarantino is distinguished for his signature aesthetic (including a penchant for extraordinary, but sometimes humorously rendered) violence, long sequences of dialogue in which characters examine subjects such as cheeseburgers and pop songs in exhaustive detail, and a glorification of popular culture in general and B-movies in particular. Aside from the qualities of his movies themselves, Tarantino is noted for the fact that he achieved success outside of the Hollywood mainstream as a video store clerkcum-independent filmmaker who cobbled together $1.5 million to make his first picture. As such he has offered an example to other aspiring cineasts, and his enormous financial and critical success—Pulp Fiction won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an Academy Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, and other awards—has gained the attention of Hollywood. Thus Tarantino has emerged, as he observed somewhat derisively in a 1997 interview with New York Times Magazine, as "an adjective": "Every third script out there," he said, "is described as 'Tarantino-esque.'"

Biographical Information

Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1963, and was reportedly named after a Burt Reynolds character on television. In 1965, when he was two years old, his mother Connie left his father and moved to California, bringing Tarantino with her. Still a teenager, Connie, who later became a corporate executive, settled in Harbor City, a middle-class neighborhood that bordered on rougher areas. Among the latter was the town of Carson, which included a theatre where Tarantino regularly attended movies. Though he was a bright child, he suffered from hyperactivity, and did poorly in school. Finally, having failed several grades, he dropped out of the ninth grade when he was fifteen or sixteen years old. He went to work as an usher at a pornographic movie theatre and studied acting, but except for a bit part as an Elvis impersonator on the television show "Golden Girls" in 1990, achieved little success as an actor. At age twenty-two, he went to work at Video Archives, which he has referred to as "the best video store in the Los Angeles area." The job, which he held for five years, gave him important exposure to a wide variety of films, and he and coworker Roger Avary—another future filmmaker—would often see four movies a day. In 1990, Tarantino and Avary went to work with producer John Langley, a regular video store customer, and moved to Hollywood. There they began developing the all-important contacts, most notably with producer Lawrence Bender, necessary in the world of filmmaking, and raised $1.5 million. In film terms, it was a shoestring budget at best; but it was enough to make Reservoir Dogs, which grossed many times that sum. With the release of the film two years later, and the resulting critical attention, Tarantino was propelled to stardom on a level seldom enjoyed by the people behind the camera. Though he has acted in a number of movies, most of these are roles either in his own films, or cameos in those of others. Director Tony Scott bought one of Tarantino's early screenplays, which became True Romance (1993), and a story by Tarantino became the basis for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). Tarantino and Stone disagreed over the latter picture, however, and Tarantino disclaimed all involvement in the resulting film, even delaying release of Pulp Fiction until later that year in order to further establish his distance from it. As for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino again managed to make a film on a relatively small budget, $8 million, and this time enjoyed even greater critical and commercial success. Along with his emerging notoriety, Tarantino began to establish himself as a Hollywood businessman. Having formed A Band Apart, his production company, in 1991, he later formed commercial and music subsidiaries, and in 1995 established Rolling Thunder, a specialty distribution company. During the mid-1990s, he played small roles in the making of several films, including an uncredited rewrite on Scott's Crimson Tide in 1995. He also worked with Robert Rodriguez, another independent filmmaking sensation whose El Mariachi was remade for U.S. audiences as Desperado (with a cameo by Tarantino), on From Dusk Till Dawn (1995). In 1997, Tarantino released his third movie as writer and director, Jackie Brown, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard.

Major Works

Just as Tarantino's films are peppered with references to other directors' movies, Reservoir Dogs appears to be modeled on Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), a dispassionate post mortem on a robbery. The storyline of Tarantino's film is simple: an aging crime boss gathers a group of criminals, who are given colors (e.g., Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, etc.) instead of names in order to protect their identities, and plans a jewelry-store heist. But one of the men is a cop, and the robbery—which itself is never depicted—goes terribly wrong. The film plays tricks with time, shifting backward and forward, for instance from a long scene in a pancake house before the heist to a short vignette of a horribly wounded gangster just after it. After a series of temporal disjunctions, the action ultimately returns to a warehouse where the robbers have gathered to square off against one another in an attempt to find the traitor. As notable as the temporal shifts are the film's stylistic touches: the brutal violence against the 1970s musical soundtrack, the use of matching anonymous black suits by the color-designated robbers, and the long quasi-philosophical discussions which take place in the stage-like warehouse. True Romance similarly involves a crime, or series of crimes, that have gone wrong; but whereas Pulp Fiction takes place in a world of men, without benefit of female characters, at the center of True Romance is, as its name implies, a love story. The central figures, Clarence and the prostitute Alabama, are thrown together by circumstances, and when Clarence kills Alabama's pimp and steals a bag containing a fortune in cocaine, they are forced on a cross-country race against federal agents and a crime boss. Like Reservoir Dogs, True Romance ends in a bloodbath, but with a twist. Pulp Fiction, in contrast, actually begins with a standoff, or rather with events leading up to a standoff; but in a "Tarantino-esque" inversion of time sequence. The viewer will not return to the opening scene, and thus know what comes next, until the end of the movie. Pulp Fiction is comprised of several plots, most of them surrounding a drug lord named Marsellus. There is a subplot involving two hit men employed by him; one centering on Marsellus's alluring wife, who suffers a near-fatal heroin overdose while out on the town with one of the hit men; as well as a sequence involving a boxer who double-crosses Marsellus and flees for his life, only to find himself in a position to save the man who wants to kill him. In the final scene, one of the hit men makes a decision to leave his life of crime; already the audience has seen a segment that takes place later in time, in which the other henchman confronts the results of his own refusal to do so. "The Man from Hollywood," Tarantino's section in Four Rooms (1995), for which he and three other directors made segments, is much simpler, and revolves around an attempt to reenact a hair-raising scene from an Alfred Hitchcock television show in which Steve McQueen bets Peter Lorre his little finger than he can get his lighter to light ten times in a row. In From Dusk Till Dawn Tarantino presents an unusual combination of a straightforward bank robber getaway story with a tale of Mexican vampires. His next film, Jackie Brown, uncharacteristically features a female protagonist. The title character and heroine is an underpaid flight attendant who earns extra money by helping an arms dealer, Ordell, launder money. When she is caught by the police, Ordell, fearing that she will turn him in, wants to eliminate her. On this backbone of plot are formed numerous other subplots, most notably ones involving a tender-hearted bail bondsman who comes to Jackie's rescue, and the federal agents who goad her into helping them. All her adversaries underestimate Jackie, as a sequence surrounding the transfer of a bag containing money serves to illustrate. More complex than Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in terms of character development, Jackie Brown also follows an essentially linear progression of events that relies upon fewer temporal shifts to move the story along.

Critical Reception

Reviewers have been as quick to praise Tarantino for aspects of his style as they have been to condemn what many consider his excessive use of violence. As critics note, one of the most memorable parts of Reservoir Dogs is a gruesome scene in which Mr. Blonde cuts off a police officer's ear while the 1970s hit "Stuck in the Middle with You" plays in the background. Likewise, Pulp Fiction features a brutal S & M homosexual rape scene, along with a large body count. His penchant for violence and degradation has prompted some reviewers to compare Tarantino's early work to French dramatist Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. However, as critics observe, Jackie Brown is relatively restrained with regard to bloodshed. This has led several reviewers to suggest that Tarantino is mellowing, and many have noted signs of maturation with regard to character development and his treatment of love. Whereas Pulp Fiction takes place entirely in a man's world, Jackie Brown includes a touching, unconsummated relationship between the bail bondsman and the title character. Though Tarantino has proven less likely to exploit bloodshed or sex in his latest film, he has, as critics observe, maintained another aspect of his style: an attitude towards pop culture, including B-movies, old TV shows, and other paraphernalia of mass media, that wavers between veneration and satire. The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, in which Mr. Brown (played by Tarantino himself) offers a memorable exegesis of Madonna's 1985 hit "Like a Virgin," and the long discussion about cheeseburgers between the two hoodlums in Pulp Fiction are frequently cited as emblematic of his style. Tarantino's contributions to True Romance and Four Rooms were panned by most reviewers, and From Dusk Till Dawn received mixed assessment. While Tarantino's detractors dismiss his work as derivative, sensational, and nihilistic, others praise his films for their eccentric humor, wit, and unpretentious democratic perspective. As Tarantino commented in a 1997 interview with New York Times Magazine: "I don't believe in elitism. I don't think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience."