Every filmmaker is a film fan, but no one embraces their love of cinema like Quentin Tarantino. “Quentin loves movies so much, and he wants you to love them the same way,” explains fellow director Eli Roth, who Tarantino has cast in two of his features — and gave the task of helming a film within a film in Inglourious Basterds.
When Tarantino nodded to everything from Bande à part to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to City on Fire in his Sundance-wowing debut Reservoir Dogs, that affection was apparent. The trend has continued ever since — displaying the influence of specific films and putting his own spin on the genres he clearly adores is his trademark style. He’s the world’s most famous video store clerk-turned-self-taught filmmaker, and with the likes of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and The Hateful Eight on his resume, he has channelled his viewing obsession into the kind of approach that has spawned countless imitators.
Before you dive into Vice’s exploration of Tarantino’s career, we run through the basics behind his snappy dialogue-laced, genre mashup-heavy output.
The Tarantino essentials
In the opening of his first full-length feature, Quentin Tarantino announces his arrival, as well as many of the elements that’ll serve him well in films to come. Over breakfast, his Reservoir Dogs characters discuss the meaning of Madonna’s "Like a Virgin", with Tarantino himself uttering many of the scene’s best, most provocative lines. Witty wordplay-fuelled banter, peering into the private lives of bad guys, pop culture references aplenty... while his movies can’t be called formulaic, the writer/director’s nine efforts to date have been reliant upon these parts. Of course, also evident then and now is his penchant for shaping the films, genres and styles he loves into his own concoctions. It's a career built from borrowing from, and winking and paying homage to the breadth of the cinematic art form.
Reservoir Dogs was a triumph, ushering the ardent cinephile from devouring movies to making his own — or, more accurately, doing both. From Pulp Fiction onwards, whether his films were feted with prizes like the Palme d’Or and Best Original Screenplay Oscar or given a more muted reception such as its follow-up, Jackie Brown, each of his releases became an event. For movie buffs who love cinema as much as Tarantino, every new title proves an entertaining exercise in spotting his influences, enjoying his takes on different genres, witnessing his uncanny ability to reinvent past stars, and revelling in the rhythm of his smart, swearing-laced dialogue, non-linear structures and standout soundtracks. Individual lines, scenes and musical moments have become as iconic as the films they’re in, be it Inglourious Basterds’ “That’s a bingo!” and later use of David Bowie’s "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", or Elle Driver’s walking and whistling in Kill Bill.
Famously declaring he’d only make 10 films — and counting Kill Bill’s two volumes as one in the process — Tarantino has weaved everything from gangster thrills to samurai swordplay to war drama into his oeuvre, while also jumping back to '70s grindhouse with the vehicular menace of Death Proof, and nodding to westerns twice with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Further, he has extended his influence beyond his own efforts, be it in the scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers, writing and starring in From Dusk till Dawn, or lending his name as a presenter to Hero, Hostel and The Man with the Iron Fists. Onscreen, as well as appearing in his own work, his acting credits are nothing if not eclectic: — playing an Elvis impersonator in The Golden Girls, appearing in four episodes of TV series Alias and popping up in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django among them.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Tarantino’s first solo stint behind the camera came in 1987 with the black-and white My Best Friend's Birthday. After a lab fire, almost half of the 70-minute film was lost, but the story — of a man trying to do something nice for his friend’s birthday — would inspire Tarantino’s script for True Romance.
- The Keanu Reeves-starring ’90s action classic Speed was one of the many projects offered to Tarantino following the success of Reservoir Dogs.
- Kill Bill: Vol. 1’s The House of Blue Leaves, the site of the battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88, was inspired by real-life Tokyo restaurant Gonpachi, which looks just like the setting in the movie and now features a picture of Tarantino on its wall.
Five films you really need to see
Reservoir Dogs: The sharp, pithy, dynamic heist film that started it all — and changed the way everyone thought about both "Like a Virgin" and "Stuck in the Middle with You".
Pulp Fiction: Tarantino’s multi-strand look at the lives of criminals brought John Travolta back to prominence, became the film every '90s effort tried to emulate and earned the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or.
Jackie Brown: Featuring a knockout performance by Pam Grier, Tarantino’s blaxploitation-riffing adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch still remains his most mature and underrated work.
Death Proof: The director’s contribution to the Grindhouse double bill with Robert Rodriguez, Death Proof is an unashamed love letter to '70s car thrillers, with gleeful turns by its stars to match, including Kurt Russell as the menacing Stuntman Mike, and Zoë Bell, Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tracie Thoms as the friends in his sights.
Django Unchained: The spirit of spaghetti westerns courses through every frame of Tarantino’s revisionist offering, which takes its title from the seminal 1966 effort Django and fashions its tribute into an exploration of pre-Civil War American race relations.
Who’s sharing the Tarantino love?
Samuel L Jackson: After unsuccessfully auditioning for Reservoir Dogs, Jackson has become Tarantino’s most prolific collaborator, featuring in six of his nine films to date. He was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for Pulp Fiction.
Juliette Lewis: Lewis starred in Natural Born Killers, for which Tarantino has a story credit, and then acted alongside the director in the Tarantino-scripted From Dusk till Dawn.
Eli Roth: Roth’s Hostel and Hostel II were executive produced and presented by Tarantino, while Roth appeared briefly in Death Proof and as Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds. He also directed Nation's Pride, the film within the latter film.
Stacey Sher: In addition to producing Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, Sher’s credits include Reality Bites, Gattaca, Erin Brockovich and Contagion.
Rosanna Arquette: One of three Arquette siblings to feature in Tarantino’s work, Rosanna played Jody in Pulp Fiction. Sister Patricia starred in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance, while Alexis also popped up in Pulp Fiction.
Zoe Bell: The stunt double for Uma Thurman on both Kill Bill volumes and for Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds, Bell would feature as an actor in both parts of Grindhouse, plus Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
Kiva Reardon: Reardon is the founding editor of feminist film journal cléo, and a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival.
What should I watch next?
Watch Tarantino chat about The Hateful Eight, as well as his love of Australian movies, on SBS On Demand:
Seasons 1 and 2 of The Vice Guide To Film is streaming now at SBS On Demand.