Quentin Tarantino’s films exist within an interconnected world. Fictional TV shows, brands of cigarettes and cereal are shared amidst the population in his oeuvre. Characters in one movie may be related to those in another. Moreover, the Tarantino universe extends further than simple asides to amuse the faithful. It’s a world beyond big screen fandom, one built almost exclusively upon references to cinema’s past and a delight in genre filmmaking.
Tarantino’s films exist in a purely cinematic reality. They are not based in our corporeal world, but in a metaphysical one in which movies are real; a world written in the language of cinema. The characters, situations, plots and imagery are derived from movies. It is a world built on Leone, Godard, Scorcese and the Shaw Brothers; on westerns and noirs, samurais and blaxploitation, grindhouse and the new wave; on The Dirty Dozen, Vanishing Point, Fists of Fury and Gone with The Wind.
The director’s output encompasses an existence that lives beyond the frame. The individuals in these pictures are not just stock characters in service of a 120-minute plot. They are fully fleshed beings whose lives continue outside the gaze of the camera. Tarantino is not merely interested in telling stories, but creating a world for the characters to inhabit. The suggestion that Reservoir Dogs’ Vick Vega and Pulp Fiction’s Vince Vega are brothers, or a hint that True Romance’s Lee Donowitz is grandson to the Basterds’ Donny Donowitz, offers up possibilities of characters’ lives beyond the screen, existing lineages across states and generations.
In Pulp Fiction, the overlapping stories are offered as gossipy morsels, scintillating glimpses into the lives of celluloid personalities. In one story, Vince and Mia are the main characters; in the next segment, they merely share a quick greeting. To those unknowing of their past—the main characters in this second tale—this may just be a courteous hello. To the audience, knowing their past, a bit more is read into it. The danger of their relationship has been outlined earlier by Jules’ interpretation of a rumor regarding a foot massage.
The myriad interactions throughout the film add layers of depth to their story. Likewise, there is the suggestion that while these indviduals’ paths are intertwined on screen, they also have other business that we are not privy to. It may come up casually in conversation, it may give us an idea of who this person is, but it is not necessarily pertinent. Individuals move in and out of each other’s lives as if they are living their own. The audience is allowed to piece everything together, each morsel just one taste of a larger pie.
In Jackie Brown, the narrative’s linear structure facilitates the audience’s conception of the characters. When the decisive heist is played out, the viewer knows each personality, even expects how they will act. For two hours, they have schemed and bumbled for our viewing pleasure. Louis is wasted, a loser; he tries to follow a set path but just can’t seem to keep his feet straight. Melanie is an indifferent schemer; a dope-loving hanger-on who takes some abuse but is just as likely to screw you when your back is turned. Ordell has power and freedom, but he can’t use it—yet; anything that may prevent him from getting his money can be removed with a bullet. Nicolette is after the big score, a young hot shot who’s tunnel vision makes him blind to what goes on around him.
Max is in love with Jackie, and despite his morals would do anything to protect her. And Jackie, well everyone knows she’s cool, but she’s also smarter than anyone would give her credit for. In the end, Tarantino gives us each individual’s viewpoint. Moving back and forth in time, he creates an overlapping series of silver-screen-inspired capers that mesh together into a wholly created reality.
Many words have been written about Tarantino’s zest for ear-catching, quotable dialogue. Here’s a few more. It’s oversized, made to entertain. Real people do not talk like this, yet there is an interest and flow in conversation that makes it seem natural. It is casual, rarely forced, and therefore appropriate to the character’s misé-en-scene. Outside of certain aficionados, it’s unlikely to hear people talking about the make of firearms in The Killer, the foibles of Superman or innuendos of sexual prowess in Madonna songs. The dialogue serves to enrich the cinematic experience, to be a tagline, to be chewed, relished, digested and spat back out. It also suggests the motion-picture based realm the speakers’ inhabit. An exchange between Elle Driver and Budd suggests at the venomous hate of the Bride that has driven the former:
Budd: So, which “R” you filled with?
Elle Driver: What?
Budd: They say the number one killer of old people is retirement. People got ’em a job to do, they tend to live a little longer so they can do it. I’ve always figured warriors and their enemies share the same relationship. So, now you ain’t gonna hafta face your enemy on the battlefield no more, which “R” are you filled with: Relief or Regret?
Elle Driver: A little bit of both.
Budd: Bullshit. I’m sure you do feel a little bit of both. But I know damn well you feel one more than you feel the other. The question was, which one?
Elle Driver: Regret.
Such succinct tidbits tied together fuel character motivation beyond exposition. When we first meet Hans Landa, he takes pride at his post, almost reveling in his nickname: “However, the reason the Führer’s brought me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me. Because I’m aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity.” By the end of the movie, only a few days have passed on screen, but years and countless hunts unseen have taken whatever pleasure out of his job and replaced it with disdain: “It’s just a name that stuck.”
For dialogue scenes like these, the conventional set-up involves three cameras. An establishing shot with two actors in frame is accompanied by two eye-matching, over-the-shoulder shots of each actor’s face. Tarantino abides by these conventions, but is also fond of using long, un-broken shots that follow actors as they move and mingle within his world. This is smooth, it allows for a flow to develop.
In a more refined take on documentary style, it adds a marked realism to the world, as if a camera just happened to be following the conversation of two individuals. This stylistic choice also recalls older films, where there were less camera set-ups. In classic Hollywood, it was not unheard of for three or four characters to interact within the same unbroken frame. The events unfold naturally in the cinematic setting. The actors perform casually, responding and improvising off each other rather than the camera.
Godard used similar long takes, lulling the audience into the spectacle before using jump or smash cuts to awaken them into the artificiality of the cinematic realm. Tarantino uses this technique in a manner suited to his personality. His quick bursts of editing are used to intensify a moment of violence or ecstasy. The long shots make the short ones more impactful. Violence, action is not the norm, but rather the aberration that interrupts normal life.
Tarantino’s world is comprised of visual references to past films. Scenes and situations have been lifted from cinema’s history. His films build upon the power of deep-rooted imagery, while introducing new elements that challenge audience expectations or simply elicit delight. Past knowledge is used to comprehend the present. Even if it can’t always be specifically recalled, there is something familiar to these scenes, an itch at the back of our memories. And what are memories but discriminate recollections of the past?
The impeccable dress of the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs reflects the cool manner and control of Melville’s Le Samourai. In Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle is a driven, anti-drug war vet who hates the scum infesting the streets; in Jackie Brown, DeNiro’s Louis is a lazy, drugged-out war vet who personifies the career criminal. When both characters are shown guns by arm dealers, the use of similar shot set-ups solidifies the warped parallel. One of the opening shots of Citizen Kane is reproduced as shot of the Bride in a hospital bed; the megalomaniac who sought to buy a woman replaced by the woman who seeks revenge on a possessive megalomaniac.
To Tarantino, cinema is a constantly evolving language. He does not simply mime what was done before but refashions it. This constant contextual metamorphosis provides the basis for his cinematic reality.
Inglourious Basterds may be one of the best examples of pure narrative cinema since the Godard’s work in the ’60s. The opening Morricone music (in addition to the title “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France”) instantly recalls spaghetti westerns. The shot composition concentrated on the dichotomy of foreground and horizon is a trademark of the genre. The scene inside the hut combines Hitchcock’s dissertation on suspense and revelation with Leone’s close-ups. The setting, a cabin in the French countryside, would be at home in any frontier Western, but also recalls Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. In that film Paul Newman enters a similar cabin to find information from a former Nazi. Here, in a way, the roles are reversed.
In addition, where Hitchcock used the scene to show the difficulty in struggle of killing a man, Tarantino creates a struggle of conscience via dialogue. Colonel Landa’s sanguine argument suggests his knowledge of the Jewish stowaways, and therefore the audience, without ever seeing them, knows with uncertain dread that the farmer is hiding his neighbors. When the camera finally pans down to reveal the hidden refugees, it is a simple matter of putting human faces on the situation. Throughout the scene suspense is built-up to an inevitable conclusion. The shock is not from surprise but from human horror. The scene’s finale returns to the Western genre. As a lone survivor escapes, we watch as Landa moves out the door in homage to the famous shot of John Wayne from The Searchers.
The use of the cinema as a pivotal location in two sections of the story draws attention to the cinematic world in which this fairytale exists. This is a movie, and, in a bizarre fashion, a connection is drawn between the laughing villains in the audience within the film and the real life audience laughing at the violent exploits of the Basterds. The anachronistic use of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” while Shoshanna prepares for her death in the projector room is a pure cinematic moment. The subtitle of the song alludes to the fates that will soon unfold. Lipstick and dress of blood red is applied with fastidious, voyeuristic detail. The song, the movie it was taken from, the moon, the colors and close-ups are symbolic of a reawakening of the young girl whose family was murdered and swore revenge.
The shot of Marcel smoking, looking up at the scream; the image of Shoshanna maniacally laughing amidst the flames of the nitrate stock—these are powerful instances that build upon a history of sound and vision. A grandiose, almost sublime beauty envelops the violence, the resulting crescendo of an opera or symphony. The director is using cinema’s power to reexamine our world, to both focus and question the wonder and spectacle, the thin line between elegance and brutality.
Tarantino’s stylization looks at the past through a pop-culture lens. In a way, the director is reliving his childhood cinema experiences, reinterpreting fractured moments of memory. It is a cinema of enjoyment and immersion, one that takes care in craft, skill and entertainment. Going to the movies is about an escape from our world, a mirror world at once familiar yet different. Not a physical world but a purely preternatural one that exists in minds and memories. Yet it is also conscious of its illusion.
Past ideas are reinterpreted through the viewer’s own predisposed conceptions of cinematic norms. For the director, cinema lives as its own entity. It’s plot, structure, characters and aesthetics are defined by its own past, which in turn defines our cultural understanding. It sits within its own duality, an immaterial interpretation of a material world.