By now, Torrance, California’s own Quentin Tarantino has etched his name onto the wall of great American filmmakers. Along the way QT has won a slew of awards, both here at home and abroad, become wildly rich, and established a trademark style that is as visceral as it is distinctive. The teaser for his new film The Hateful Eight leaked this week and it promises to be another thoroughly Tarantino-esque affair, which is to say a fun-filled ride full of carnage, gore, and sadism.
Eschewing film school for an apprenticeship as a video store clerk, Tarantino watched thousands of hours worth of material, cherry picking bits and pieces from a number of disparate genres to create his own genre. His wild mayhem mashups feature action, comedy, and drama that is heavy on violence and light on sex of the romantic variety. There are sexual situations in his films, but they are used to provide either a motive for revenge (the way Beatrice Kiddo’s comatose body in Kill Bill is sold to creeps by an orderly) or for comedic effect (think of the Gimp in Pulp Fiction as he emerges from his box, bound in leather and chains, his voice a muffled squeal behind his zippered face mask).
Along with Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino’s films have a highly specific voice that is unique to him and him alone, and this voice begins with the writing. QT is a great director certainly, but perhaps an even greater writer, a fact born out by his two screenplay Oscars for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained, whereas the award for Best Director has eluded him thus far. Apart from the material he has directed himself, QT also wrote the screenplays for the brilliant films True Romance and Natural Born Killers, directed by Tony Scott and Oliver Stone respectively. Through it all, Tarantino’s dialogue- heavy scenes are filled with quotable lines and his character’s back stories are elaborate, infusing the scenes with layers of meaning that help to contextualize the action. And what characters – a strange mixture of hitmen, palookas, thieves, bounty hunters, and assassins all sparkling with hilarious, ruthless life.
Owing to his literary skills, Tarantino’s films often feel like foreign films. He incorporates sub-titles across a variety of languages, uses voice over, and dispenses with traditional A-Z narrative structures, preferring instead an ordered juxtaposition of chapters that occur out of sequential time – techniques not often found at work in the multi-plex.
Tarantino has said that he will retire from filmmaking when he turns 60 in order to focus on writing novels and film criticism, believing that most directors lose their edge as they get older. That gives us ten more years of his dazzling work, but we’ll have to wait for 2015 before The Hateful Eight hits theaters. In the meantime, we can re-watch his other seven feature films.
My list from worst to first:
Taratino’s half of the 70’s horror film homage collaboration with director Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse, is the weakest of his films since 90% of the movie is a girly gabfest, and the truly psychotic, menacing character of Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell, is turned into a joke in an ending that while deliberately cheesy is still too cheesy to take. Despite that, the crash scene is a highlight, a front row seat for what it must be like to die in a high speed car accident.
6. Jackie Brown
Based on the novel Rum Punch, by legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard, who QT has always been an admiring fan of, Jackie Brown is QT’s homage to 70’s blaxsplotation films starring Pam Grier and rounded out by a fine supporting cast including Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda. Jackie Brown is a good film by most standards and typically regarded as one of the best adaptations of Leonard’s work, but its faithful adherence to the book leaves me feeling slightly cheated and missing QT’s grander weirdness.
5. Reservoir Dogs
This was the film that launched QT. The story of a heist gone wrong, it features some memorable patches of dialogue, including a discussion of Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin,” and whether or not it is appropriate or necessary to tip diner waitresses. It also features one of QT’s most cringe worth torture scenes as Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, mutilates a policeman, the camera moving away at the pivotal moment to allow our imaginations to make the scene worse than anything on the screen.
4. Django Unchained
QT’s most recent film has been his most successful, earning almost 500M at the box office. This slavery revenge epic starring Jaime Foxx and Christoph Waltz as two bounty hunters is nearly perfect for the first 75% of its run time before an unnecessary fourth act drains away some of the dramatic tension. Leonardo DiCaprio rounds out the cast in the role of the villainous Calvin Candie, a slave owner who delights in the bloodsport of “mandingo fighting” in an outstanding performance.
3. Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2
The story of Beatrix Kiddo, played by QT’s muse Uma Thurman, once a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, who is ambushed and left for dead on her wedding day by her former lover, the Bill of the film’s title, played with wicked calm by David Carridine in one of the best performances of his career, the film is a merciless quest for revenge. The action sequences are astonishing as Kiddo strikes the names from her list in bright red ink, murdering off those who have tried to murder her. The final scene is beautiful and touching, providing us with a sense of justice and closure, and demonstrating how love gone wrong can turn any of us into killers.
2. Pulp Fiction
QT’s ascent into the big leagues won the Palm d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Even 20 years later, the film is still hilarious and retains its metaphysical mystery. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Bruce Willis, the film is a disjointed, non-linear three act multi-plot movie, where the threads do not all add up. What is in the briefcase? Marsellus Wallace’s soul? If so, how could a couple of college students have ended up with it? Why is Mr. Wolf dressed in a tuxedo at a cocktail party at nine in the morning? We may never know for sure. It doesn’t seem to make sense, which is sort of the movie’s calling card, and why it can be watched over and over again.
1. Inglourious Basterds
QT’s masterpiece to my way of thinking. Set in an alternate reality during the time of World War II, the film has a unique structure where two distinct narrative threads intersect at precisely the same moment. On the one hand, there are the Basterds, a group of allied Jewish soldiers, lead by Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, a part Apache sporting a scar across his throat from ear to ear, sworn to kill, maim, and mutilate every German they can find. On the other hand, there is the story of Shosanna, played by French actress Melanie Laurent, who narrowly escaped death at the hands of German Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz in one of the most coldly terrifying performances ever seen, and for which he was justly awarded a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Shosanna now finds herself the proprietor of a cinema where a number of high ranking members of the SS are holding a screening of a new propaganda film, including Hitler himself. As Shosanna sets fire to the theater, the Basterds unleash hell, riddling Hitler with bullets and providing one of the most satisfying endings in the history of film.