Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Quentin Tarantino
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"The violent intensity of Pulp Fiction calls to mind other violent watershed films that were considered classics in their time and still are. Hitchcock's Psycho [1960], Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde [1967], and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange [1971]. Each film shook up a tired, bloated movie industry and used a world of lively lowlifes to reflect how dull other movies had become. And that, I predict, will be the ultimate honor for Pulp Fiction. Like all great films, it criticizes other movies."-Gene Siskel

"I steal from every movie ever made."-Quentin Tarantino

In the 1970's, widely considered the best decade in cinema, a wave of directors appeared on the scene who changed everything. Quickly gaining great freedom in Hollywood to make movies that fit with their own personal views and pet themes (this was helped by the death knells of the traditional studio system), this generation of directors, this batch of auteurs, are collectively known as the film school brats. Scorsese, Coppola,Lucas, Spielberg and several others emerged from film schools in the late "˜60s and by the early "˜70s were making movies that permanently changed the face of cinema. However, there is a law of physics that tells us for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and while this column doesn't set out to make the argument that this always holds true in Hollywood, I think there is a certain potency in the view that the video store brats of the early 1990's can be seen as the equal and opposite reaction to the film school brats. Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Kevin Smith are all members of this cadre. Yet the reason the video store brats can even be counted within the same league as the film school brats is a pretty simple one. It's because the most acclaimed of the video store brats is Quentin Tarantino.

There is an argument to be made that Tarantino has influenced film in the last two decades more than any other single director. Think of all of the Tarantino-lite fare that has been released since Pulp Fiction. Most of the Tarantino "inspired" movies are little more than rehashes of his style that ape his pop-culture hyper-literacy, banter heavy dialogue, and ultra-violence. I can't imagine Tarantino minds this phenomenon too much, though, as he freely admits that all of his own movies are giant homages to the films and the genres that he loves.

Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs, was widely seen as a sea change in American cinema. At the time of its release, Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News compared it to L'Arrive d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, the 1895 film that depicted a train coming at the camera and lead audiences to scream and scatter in fear. In short, he said, "I don't think people were ready for it." His use of non-linear storytelling, strong language and graphic violence shocked viewers and raised expectations immeasurably for the quality and verve of independent cinema. The film follows the planning and botched execution of a diamond heist by six "nameless" criminals, using colors as aliases, a crime lord (Lawrence Tierney), and his rough edged son Eddie (Chris Penn). After a brief introduction to the gang as they eat breakfast before pulling the job, the film leaps immediately to the bloody aftermath, with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) gutshot in the backseat of a car being driven by the sympathetic Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). The two head to a safehouse, where they are joined by the paranoid Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) who believes that one of them is a rat. As the men try to determine who among their numbers betrayed them, the film jumps back and forth to the formation of the group, the planning of the heist, and the histories of some of the people involved.


Heralded as blazingly original and the arrival of a completely unique cinematic voice at the time of its release, Tarantino quickly, and often, rattled off numerous influences to the film that shaped the characters, the style, and the story. He says it was most directly influenced by Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, calling Reservoir Dogs, ""¦my Killing, my take on that kind of heist movie." Tarantino has also listed Kansas City Confidential (in which an undercover cop has infiltrated a heist), The Big Combo (in which a cop is tortured while tied to a chair), and the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (in which the people involved in the crime name themselves after colors to preserve anonymity). The title is also theorized to be a reference to Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants and to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. In spite of all its filmic antecedents, Reservoir Dogs is still completely infused with Tarantino's flourishes, from the banter between the characters to the "˜70s heavy soundtrack, and manages to be a film that is in many ways greater than the sum of its parts.



While showing Reservoir Dogs at a variety of European film festivals, Tarantino began work on his next screenplay, which he hoped would be a movie version of the hardboiled crime fiction magazine Black Mask, aiming to tell three stories that would fit into the crime fiction genre with a hardboiled pulp feel. Originally, Tarantino was to write one story, his friend Roger Avary was to write a second, and an unknown third director would write a third. The three would then each shoot their story and create an anthology film. This idea was quickly abandoned when a third voice never materialized and both Tarantino and Avary's stories became longer than was intended. Tarantino described his intent with the film thusly: "the idea was basically to take the oldest chestnuts you've ever seen when it comes to crime stories"”the oldest stories in the book." What emerged from this exercise was Pulp Fiction, which would win Tarantino and Avary Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and would change movies for the foreseeable future.

Pulp Fiction is centered around three classic crime fiction stories: the idea of the heavy (John Travolta, who was nominated for Best Actor and had a major comeback due to the film) taking out the boss' wife (Uma Thurman, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actrss), the idea of the boxer (Bruce Willis) paid to take the fall in a fight, and the idea of two hitmen (Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, who as nominated for Best Supporting Actor) taking on a seemingly simple task. Tarantino cites Kiss Me Deadly, a short film called Curdled,Jean-Luc Godard's Bande a Parte (which was also the inspiration for the name of his production company, A Band Apart) and dozens of other films as inspiration. Yet Tarantino's non-linear storytelling, predilection for letting these venerable tropes of crime fiction veer off the established rails, use of surf-rock and "˜70s tunes, and pop-culture savvy dialogue are the real legacies of Pulp Fiction, inspiring legions of imitators.


Following the widespread success and critical praise of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wanted to adapt the work of another, both to alleviate the pressure of following up what some were calling a masterpiece, and to put his own touches on the work of another. He adapted Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, changing the race of the main character and creating a noir movie that also commented on the conventions of blaxploitation. The result, 1997's Jackie Brown, follows the titular smuggler (Pam Grier) as she plans to play her gun-running boss Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) against the ATF and agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) to talk away with $500,000 of smuggled money. With the help of an infatuated bail bondsman (Robert Forster) and working against some of Ordell's heavies (including Robert De Niro), Jackie plays both sides against each other in an increasingly elaborate game of cat and mouse.

Inspired by Leonard's novel, as well as many blaxploitation films, especially those actually starring Pam Grier (including Black Mama, White Mama, Coffy, and Foxy Brown) and even including an opening homage to The Graduate, Jackie Brown continues to be Tarantino's least appreciated and referenced movie, which leaves the film criminally underrated. Smart, savvy, complex and flat-out fun, Jackie Brown is certainly Tarantino's most straight forward film to date, yet it still retains his artful touches.

Tarantino has spent the last decade exploring the genres he most loves exceedingly closely, making films that can at times seem more like long-form homages than blazingly original works, yet he has never lost the ability to make his movies his own. Kill Bill, his fourth film (and his fifth, if you consider the cleaved movie two separate films) is at heart his most epic homage, a four hour love letter to the revenge drama that is heavily influenced by the traditions of Hong Kong martial arts films, Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese Chanbara films and exploitation movies. The movie follows the vengeful quest of The Bride (Uma Thurman) an assassin left for dead on her wedding day by her ex-lover Bill (David Carradine) and his cabal of assassins, who awakens from a coma four years later and sets out to take bloody vengeance on those who tried to kill her. The film(s) follow her gore-filled quest for revenge in a (who's surprised) non-linear fashion as she tracks down and dispatches Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Budd (Michael Madsen) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) all on her path to finally coming face to face with the love of her life and the man who tried to murder her, the shockingly sympathetic and intuitive Bill.

Directly inspired by Lady Snowblood (which follows a woman murdering the gang that killed her family), the film also contains direct references to Samurai Reincarnation, Kage no Gundan, and Shogun Assassin, as well as more subtle homages to en grym film, Jackass: The Movie, Grease and dozens of others. At the core of the movie, though, is Tarantino's deeply felt passion for the character, his pop-culture sensibility, his musical taste, and his nigh-magical way with words.


Tarantino followed Kill Bill with his most direct homage yet: Grindhouse, a double feature anthology he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez as a mainstream re-creation of the run down nature of B-movies and the theaters that the two had frequented as kids. As such, both halves of the film (Rodriguez' zombie movie Planet Terror and Tarantino's vehicular slasher flick Death Proof) are shot on grainy film, contain missing reels, and are generally written and performed to evoke the poor production values of the exploitation movies of the "˜70s.

Tarantino's half of the film, Death Proof, tells of a deranged stuntman (Kurt Russell) who stalks women and murders them by causing car crashes, which he is sure to survive because he has made his car "death proof." Tarantino structured the movie on slasher films, but did not want to make a direct slasher film because of the rigid rules of the genre. So instead he used the basic plot points to create something different, a film about a misogynist that becomes a triumphant celebration of feminism by its closing shot.

Following Grindhouse, which was critically acclaimed but did poorly at the box office, Tarantino finally put into production the screenplay he had been working on for over a decade: Inglourious Basterds. A World War II epic more satisfyingly read as a Tarantino treatise on how he makes his films, the movie includes references to all of his previous works in addition to having as its thesis the idea that cinema can completely reform the world, changing history and our perceptions for at least the run-time of a great movie. Ostensibly following the titular band of Jewish soldiers turned ruthless Nazi hunters, lead by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and including BJ Novak, Eli Roth, and Samm Levine, the film quickly becomes more of an espionage thriller than a war film as The Basterds, with the help of a British spy (Michael Fassbender) and a German double Agent (Diane Kruger) aim to use the premiere of a new German film as a chance to assassinate the German High Command, including Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke). As they prepare to execute their plan, a similar effort to destroy the attendees of the premiere is being plotted by an escaped Jew who owns the cinema under an assumed identity (Melanie Laurent) and her lover (Jacky Ido). However, each plan may be foiled by the brilliant, seductively evil Nazi "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won Best Supporting Actor for his seductively sinister, linguistically acrobatic performance) who seems constantly a few steps ahead of his adversaries.

Where each of Tarantino's previous films heavily references cinematic history, Inglourious Basterds focuses more heavily on referencing the way that Tarantino himself makes movies. His tendency towards pop-culture references, "˜70's music and non-linear storytelling are all given attention, and he directly references each of his own films within the movie. Perhaps most telling, then, is the film's last line, when Aldo Raine looks right into the camera and says, "This just might be my masterpiece."

Tarantino has built his career on his near encyclopedic knowledge of film history and his ability to rework and recycle the best of genre fare, yet his true success as a filmmaker comes from his ability to make what he "steals" his own. While Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Grindhouse, and Inglourious Basterds all owe huge debts to movies that came before, none of them are as excellent as they are because of the movies they reference. Each has a distinct sensibility, and a unique sense of humor that belongs to Tarantino alone. Like many people of the generation in which Tarantino came of age (and in subsequent generations, including my own), the world is best viewed through the lens of pop culture. Yet using the realm as a looking glass into the world at large need not distort one's individual voice and perspective. Rather, in Tarantino's case, it appears to have magnified that distinct authorial voice, and helped to cement him as one of the most influential and important filmmakers of our time.

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Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

3/13: Hal Ashby

3/27: Michael Bay

4/10:Aaron Sorkin

4/24: Christopher Nolan

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