(1963 - present)
Three Key Films: Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997) Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Underrated: Death Proof (2007) Since this was, and still often is, dismissed as a kind of vanity project, a bit of stunt filmmaking rather than a serious work of art, it isn’t hard to find self-professed Tarantino fanatics who’ve skipped Death Proof. But, what they’ve missed is without a doubt his most challenging, least rewarding, and possibly even his most experimental film. Virtually plotless, mostly action-free, and undeniably overrun with distracting “grindhouse” postproduction touches (jump cuts, fake scratches on the prints, continuity gaffes, etc), Death Proof is much cleverer than it gets credit for. It’s a cold, dark, terrifying bit of cinema, a truly uncomfortable riff on misogyny and sexual repression, and a fucking awesome collision of pitch perfect performances, impeccable set design, stirring musical touches, and sleazy atmosphere.
Unforgettable: Final Diner Scene, Pulp Fiction See below for my riff on Tarantino and tension, and then consider this scene, the final, extraordinary standoff in Pulp Fiction, a perfect example of his signature approach: Why? Two words: “Bad Motherfucker.”
The Legend: Quentin Tarantino was raised by his mother in the Harbor City suburb of Los Angeles. A consummate film fanatic, Tarantino learned his trade by watching movies incessantly while working at a video rental outlet in his early 20s—hence his famous quip “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘No, I went to films.’”—and broke into the industry by writing a couple of ultra-violent and dialogue-driven screenplays about mind-bendingly articulate psychopaths (Apparently, there was a market for that).
When people talk about Tarantino they generally mention his obsession with junky ‘70s exploitation movies, his love of cartoon violence, his passion for pop culture references, or his casual approach to American racial and sexual politics. And, no doubt, all of these aspects of his work have proven to be profoundly influential in the couple decades since his arrival on the scene. Imagine a voice so unique and impressive that a mere few years after dropping his first film people were already talking about something feeling Tarantino-esque, and people generally knowing exactly what that meant? It is perhaps once in a generation that a new talent will emerge with anything approaching that kind of a sudden impact. Part of the reason is, that beyond all of the other postmodern stuff, Tarantino simply, perhaps intuitively, grasps the grammar of film. No one does tension better than Tarantino.
While others do suspense—the long, carefully controlled lead-up to an apparent inevitability—Tarantino has always done something a little less satisfying and, as a result, somewhat more compelling (at least for this writer). His signature move has always been to ratchet up the violent possibilities, putting a bunch of dangerous people together in variations of a “Mexican standoff”, and then having them talk it out. But, while other filmmakers might play this for suspense (someone with a baby is about to walk into the middle of this standoff, and when she gets there all bets will be off!) he lets these scenes play out for amazingly long stretches of time, adding few new elements to build suspense. He just has them talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. As we get more and more uncomfortable, we get to imagine what might be coming next instead of being teased with suggestions about how it will end. And then, into this mix, Tarantino tickles us just enough with verbal wordplay, odd pop culture references, or shocking bursts of taboo language, that we begin to reel in the experience. This, above all else, is what makes Tarantino a genius. Stuart Henderson