In our latest beginner’s guide, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the films of Quentin Tarantino…
With the recent Cannes premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s latest magnus opus, I thought it high time that the latest directors beginners guide focused on the cinematic legend. An auteur of invigorating flair upon breaking in, with an unconventional approach to the system, Tarantino appears to have had carte blanche since his debut. Such was the strength of his Reservoir Dogs screenplay, he managed to convince heavy hitters like Harvey Keitel to come on board, and despite the low budget, find a large audience. It was a long way from the days of working in a video store, or picking up dog shit off the beach whilst working as a production assistant on a Dolph Lundgren workout video called Maximum Potential. It didn’t take long for Tarantino to realise his maximum potential.
Reservoir Dogs, which still remains my favourite Tarantino film, is also still his most lithe. It may toy with the narrative structure but it retains a delightful simplicity and perfect run-time. It’s a faultless piece of work with rule-breaking approaches to dialogue. An opening dialogue sequence set out the ragtag group of characters, without particularly saying too much of note. It’s an indulgence. It’s not key for plotting. In fact it’s a scene 99% of screenplays, which included similar, would be told to cut out. It went against the rules, but this was a new, young, fresh, rule-breaker. To hell with textbook approach to cinema. With Tarantino, even a random dialogue scene is not really random. Not instantly apparent, it still says a lot about dynamic, and in centralising his own character within the random musing about a Madonna song, he introduces the world to himself, a scattergun, rambler, but a creative thinker.
After Reservoir Dogs came out, it began a slew of copycats trying to mimic that style, even if it owed a little to the vibrant, rough dynamism of something like Mean Streets, crossed with Tarantino’s love of Hong Kong cinema and Godard. Many of the copycats almost do a slight disservice to Dogs, making the film seem somewhat formulaic, but in its approach and characterisations, in what could work brilliantly as a stage play, it is anything but. Characters feel unique and the superb cast, was an absolute gift for a newcomer (very few have been quite as lucky as Tarantino was with their first cast). Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Harvey Keitel and a scene stealing, ear chopping Michael Madsen are all excellent. There’s nothing elaborate in the way QT shoots and cuts the scenes. He keeps it simple and unobtrusive. He never takes focus or overpowers attention away from the stellar cast and they get ample time to shine. It’s the kind of expert delivery that comes from a master maybe 3-4 films into their CV when they’ve honed their craft, but this was his opening gambit.
By the time he followed up, a few years had passed. Sometimes this is enough to be forgotten about, but there was a huge clamour for his next and Pulp Fiction did not disappoint. As an aside, around that time Tarantino handed a script (he’d been long pitching) to Tony Scott. True Romance is pure unadulterated Tarantino in every respect and allowed a certain visual glamour that someone like Tony Scott could bring to it. It’s an amazing movie which includes something that Tarantino also had in Pulp Fiction…a near film stealing, one scene cameo from Christopher Walken.
Pulp Fiction was a dazzling, complex, pulpy (as the title suggests) and instantly iconic piece of work. It had a mix of established actors, some of whom (Travolta) had fallen out of favour in recent years. Tarantino again injected the film with the seemingly inane. Discussions about fast food outlets. They seem out of place until they’re not. There was a method to Tarantino’s indulgent madness. Again, the narrative structure was sliced, diced and reassembled out of chronology, but played out engagingly and never becomes a chore to decode. It wasn’t merely for the sake of it, which is something many Tarantino-clones fail to see in their dubious photocopies.
Fiction would also continue a trend that we first saw in Dogs and has become part and parcel of the Tarantino film. Every actor raises their game. No one is ever below par in a Tarantino film. Samuel L. Jackson is immense here, as is Uma Thurman, Travolta, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Peter Greene, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel, basically everyone who appears. It perhaps only ever goes to accentuate, in those director cameos, that Tarantino really isn’t an actor.
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