Thursday, 24 December 2015

Before The Hateful Eight: A Quentin Tarantino Retrospective



No director in recent history deserves his name to become an adjective as much as Quentin Tarantino. One of the most controversial figures of modern American film emerged from video store geek to Sundance sensation with his both unique and familiar take on the crime film, and immediately ‘Tarantino-esque’ was coined as an exciting way to describe a slew of (often less than exciting) imitators influenced by the new director. Now Tarantino is back with what promises to be a bit of a return to his roots with The Hateful Eight looking a bit like a Western version of Reservoir Dogs.

Dabbling in genres from samurai and kung-fu flicks to historical war films, Tarantino has a definite style, numerous trademarks and a love of cult cinema that shines through in every screenplay. A writer and director often criticised for the levels of violence in his films, he is an auteur unafraid to court controversy. From sadistic bank robbers to sadistic Nazis, Tarantino’s movie worlds are littered with low-life scumbags that make life miserable for other characters.

Tarantino has been known to divide critics, filmmakers and audiences with his vicious violence, repeated racial epithets and the odd accusation of style over substance. Spike Lee called him ‘infatuated’ with the ‘N’ word after its regular use in Jackie Brown (1997) and notable uses in his previous two films. The BBFC decided to pass Reservoir Dogs (1992) uncut but only after much debate over an infamous torture scene. His later films like Death Proof (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) have received somewhat less critical adulation than his earlier, more startling and fiercely independent works.

Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992 is the genre defying debut of an ambitious young video store geek burning to show his skills as both writer and director. It features a cool cast including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi, buckets of blood and in the middle of it all; joker Michael Madsen dancing, ear slicing and ensuring the film a place in cinematic history. Inspired by the likes of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and its colour coded criminal names, Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and its fractured narrative structure and from further afield Ringo Lam’s City of Fire (1987), whose final act it virtually steals wholesale; it breaks the fundamental convention of a heist film. By barely showing the actual robbery and only the fallout, it focuses on characters including Tim Roth’s undercover cop and Madsen’s cold blooded psychopath and fizzes with energy, wit and bloody sadistic violence.


Only two years later, Tarantino returned with Pulp Fiction (1994), his undisputed masterpiece. Borrowing liberally from French New Wave influences such as the films of Godard and Truffaut and telling three stories linked only by gangster Marcellus Wallace, it is a tour de force of film making; stylish, sexy, swear-y and sickening. Samuel L. Jackson makes his first appearance in a Tarantino film beginning a long collaboration that continues today. Never has Tarantino’s dialogue flowed as richly as between the similarly clad gangsters to Reservoir Dogs' characters, Jules and Vincent. And never have Tarantino’s monologues been so juicily delivered as Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic delivery of Ezekiel 25:17. The non-linear narrative, brutal violence and chapter titles crystallised, confirming Tarantino as a unique director, borrowing continually from his cinematic heroes and creating memorable and original works of crime fiction.


He then adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel Jackie Brown into an infinitely more mature, but less stylish and snappily scripted homage to Blaxploitation films of the 70s. It bears all the marks of a director comfortable in his new shoes as the king of independent cinema, constantly imitated but never bettered. There is less showing off here; no memorable monologues, a mostly linear structure and a move away from the regular appearances of Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, and Steve Buscemi that had featured in Tarantino’s films so far. Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Robert De Niro all appear with Samuel L. Jackson returning as another ruthless criminal. It may bear less of the Tarantino-esque trademarks but it still stands as a classic crime caper, clever and assured filmmaking, and a wonderful homage to films that influenced Tarantino.


Kill Bill Volumes 1&2 (2003 and 2004) are the first of Tarantino's foolishly split double bills. Originally meant to be one film, a decision was made by Tarantino with most likely a great deal of input from Harvey Weinstein to cut the film down the middle and unfortunately turned one roaring rampage of revenge into two volumes that decreased in quality as a result. Kill Bill Vol. 3 might be alive and possible according to the most recent reports, no doubt due to the original films having a lot of fans with their samurai-flavoured, Shaw brothers inspired bloodletting. Owing a considerable debt to Lady Snowblood (1973) which provides a template for The Bride’s story of vengeance, it is filled with references to little known kung-fu films and proved that Tarantino was a director as comfortable with fight scenes as with dialogue. The pair of films also marked his second collaboration with his muse Uma Thurman after her iconic part as Marcellus Wallace’s moll in Pulp Fiction.


If Tarantino’s career could be divided up into chapters like one of his films, there would certainly be a chapter called “The Rodriguez Situation”. Best buddies Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined forces on iffy anthology Four Rooms (1995), directing separate episodes in the odd collection of stories centring on Tim Roth’s hotel bellhop. Tarantino later guest directed a scene in Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) before the pair officially collaborated on their Grindhouse (2007) double feature, directing one film each to be marketed and screened as one cinematic experience.

Tarantino’s Death Proof suffered in comparison next to the gloriously gory thrills of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror but still has Kurt Russell as a stunt driving psycho and a fierce car chase that puts stunt woman Zoe Bell (Uma’s stunt double in Kill Bill) right where she belongs; wriggling around on the bonnet of a speeding car being slammed by Kurt Russell's death machine. Death Proof deserves the style over substance accusation of many of Tarantino’s films but the physically scratched image is wonderfully grimy and though it is completely chronological, it still features plenty of typically Tarantino-esque dialogue. Americans got to see the double bill as intended complete with fake trailers in the middle. However Britain got shafted again by the money men with another terrible decision to release both films separately.


Inglourious Basterds was a serious return to form for Tarantino. It is another blood thirsty tale of revenge and the first of what could potentially become his historical trilogy. Mixing biggest-star-in-the-world Brad Pitt with up-and-coming actors like Michael Fassbender and introducing English speaking audiences to the majesty of Christoph Waltz, it is possibly Tarantino’s most brutal and bonkers creation. Waltz’s Colonel Landa is another of Tarantino’s ingenious creations, a smooth-talking sadist who is as comic as he is hideous, almost as over the top as the astonishingly violent cinema-set climax. Nazi’s hunt Jews, Jews hunt Nazi’s and Hitler appears only long enough for Tarantino to completely rewrite the history books.


Django Unchained is a typically brutal and sadistic look at slavery in the South. Samuel L. Jackson reappears, Tarantino takes another small role as in many of his previous films, and Leonardo DiCaprio joins Tarantino’s memorable list of sick and twisted nasty bastards. It's a tough watch; both funny, cathartic and occasionally unbearable.

Untouchable Tarantino can work with anybody he chooses. From the moment he caught Keitel for Reservoir Dogs to snatching John Travolta and Bruce Willis (at career low points) in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has a knack for canny casting. His collaborations with Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and most recently Christoph Waltz have proved that he is a dream director to work for, despite apparently strangling Diane Kruger on the set of Inglourious Basterds. Ticking off two of the biggest and best males stars in Pitt and DiCaprio, he has confirmed that he and Johnny Depp wish to work together one day in the future. Promising to retire at 60 after a couple more films, we must savour every drop of Tarantino that he has to offer, with or without Depp.

So what is Tarantino-esque and why has it become such a commonly used word for cool characters, cooler dialogue and quality filmmaking; both cult-inspired and mainstream-influencing? His soundtracks are slick hand-picked play lists; his casts revive the careers of has-beens and introduce bright new stars and his ripping off of obscure cult cinema creates fitting homage to little seen movies. His worlds are filled with furious revenge fantasies, sadistic violence and shot through with distinctive style. From out-of-the-trunk-of-car shots, non-linear narratives, occasional uses of black and white to his foot fetish and corpse eye view shots, Tarantino is recognizable from his films' stylistic flourishes as much as his monologues and often dazzling dialogue. His influences are many; he is a cinematic magpie, taking from what he pleases, unchained by genre conventions and creating something new from the old. His impending retirement is just another reason to revisit his cinematic oeuvre ahead of The Hateful Eight’s UK release on 8th January 2016.