I’ve written three blog posts in my “Movie Perfection” series where I focus on scenes in movies that represent, in my mind, the best that films can be: the finale of Seven, the sing-along to “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and the montage set to beautiful music of Carl and Ellie growing old together in Disney’s Up.
This next entry into Movie Perfection is not about a scene. It’s about a person.
Just looking at his name floods my memory with indelible scenes from his movies. Snippets of his dialogue. Performances from his films.
He’s been at it for 20 years now. There is probably no blog post I could write that properly expresses my love and appreciation for his work. I’ll try anyway.
Reservoir Dogs. Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown. Kill Bill – Volume 1. Kill Bill – Volume 2. Grindhouse. Inglourious Basterds.
In my very first blog post (way back in October 2012) I described the first time I saw Reservoir Dogs and fell in love immediately with the movie. That was in 1993 (it was released theatrically in limited form in 1992). This led me to anticipate 1994’s Pulp Fiction in a way I’d never anticipated a movie before or since. And when I did see Pulp in the theater in October 1994 on opening weekend, I’d never had a film experience like that before… and haven’t since. My expectations for that film were about as high as movie expectations can be… and Pulp Fiction exceeded them. I would see it in the theater eight times and countless times more on VHS and DVD.
These expectations were at the level they were because of the brilliance of Reservoir Dogs. This movie was a total revelation to me. I’ve seen it many, many times. Looking back now, maybe the most amazing thing about is that it’s about a robbery. And, as an audience, we never see the robbery. We see the before and after of the robbery. Of course, the film is shot out of order, which is pretty much a staple of Tarantino. He doesn’t follow the linear pattern that 99% of films follow and a lot of directors have copied that since, but not near to effect that Quentin does it.
A regular movie would’ve been about the robbery. Reservoir Dogs is about what the characters talk about in a diner before the robbery, which includes the meaning of Madonna’s song “Like A Virgin” and arguments about why people should tip or not tip waitresses. All handled with dialogue that only Tarantino can do. Brilliant writing.
Reservoir Dogs uses the obvious formula of one of the robbers being an undercover cop. A regular movie would’ve made the undercover cop the focal point and used that character as the hero stopping this horrible robbery. Not Reservoir Dogs. Nothing is obvious when Tarantino is writing the film. Instead, we see a brilliant sequence where the undercover cop, played by Tim Roth, has to rehearse telling a story to the other robbers that will convince them he’s one of them. The story involves having drugs on him and walking into a bathroom where some law enforcement officers and a drug-sniffing dog just happen to be. It’s an incredibly well-done and exciting sequence that has you on the edge of your seat and we know the whole time it’s completely made up. Only Quentin.
Pulp Fiction continues those themes in many ways. When John Travolta and Sam Jackson are on their way to find that suitcase and kill the people who stole it, the preceding scene isn’t about them discussing how to handle those guys. It’s them talking about Travolta’s character Vincent being in Europe and what they call a Big Mac there. And a Whopper. But, as we all know, Vincent didn’t go into a Burger King, so he doesn’t know. And then as they prepare to enter the thieves apartment, it turns into a discussion on whether it’s appropriate to give another man’s wife a foot massage. This is after they discuss that certain TV shows that are filmed never become shows because the pilots don’t get picked up.
The point is this: Tarantino revolutionized dialogue in movies. His writing doesn’t serve the idea of simply moving the plot along. Tarantino’s scenes take the bold step of having interesting characters talk like people actually talk from time to time. About movies and television. About food. About how people tip waitresses. About making up stories to impress people you need to impress. He’s one of the first writers that had his characters make movie references. Sounds normal now, but Tarantino really made that acceptable. Before him (for the most part), if you watched a movie, the writers would have you believe none of their characters had ever watched another film before and didn’t have the film knowledge to reference them. Tarantino’s characters talk about other movies and TV shows. This is likely because, if you read anything about him, Tarantino is described as a walking encyclopedia of film history. He’s seen everything. He LOVES movies.
And I think that’s why people who LOVE movies so much LOVE Tarantino. He doesn’t hesitate to borrow from other films and pay homage to other directors. And when he does, he’s not ripping them off. He’s putting his own spin on their work with the kind of amazing dialogue that no one else seems capable of writing. The fact that Reservoir Dogs was an indie hit and then Pulp Fiction became a phenomenon two years later has given Tarantino the ability to do whatever he wants. Few directors get the kind of creative freedom he does and he uses it to the max.
No one casts movie like Tarantino and how he does that has been revolutionary. His deep knowledge of movies and actors makes him cast unconventional choices for roles and it’s resurrected many a career and started others. The most obvious example is John Travolta, whose career as an A list actor had been dormant for over a decade. From the early 80s to the mid 90s, Travolta’s biggest contribution to film had been a trilogy of talking baby movies. Tarantino credited Travolta’s great performance in 1981’s Brian De Palma thriller Blow Out as his inspiration for casting him as Vincent Vega in Pulp and it catapulted him back to A list territory.
It’s not just Travolta. He turned Samuel L. Jackson from a character actor to a leading man. He resurrected the career of 70s blaxpoitation star Pam Grier by giving her the title role in Jackie Brown. He directed longtime B movie actor Robert Forster to an Oscar nomination in that same film. The same can be said for David Carradine, the late Kung Fu actor who gave the performance of his career in the Kill Bill movies. He gave Kurt Russell one of his best roles in Grindhouse. He directed little known European actor Christoph Waltz to an Oscar win in Inglourious Basterds. And there’s Tim Roth. And Michael Madsen. And Uma Thurman. And Ving Rhames. And Michael Fassbender. And Christopher Walken’s brilliant scene in Pulp. And B movie actor Lawrence Tierney chewing up the scenery in Reservoir. And Steve Buscemi. Get the idea?
No one uses music as effectively as Quentin does in movies. The examples are many, from the Reservoir Dogs walking to “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection to the ear-slicing scene in that movie played to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. There’s “Misirlou” by surf guitarist Dick Dale over the opening credits to Pulp Fiction. Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”. Bruce Willis singing along in his car to “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Bros. Samuel L. Jackson executing Chris Tucker’s character to the tune of “Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson in Jackie Brown. Jackie singing along to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack in her car at the film’s close. The characters of Jackie and Forster’s bail bondsman bonding to “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” by the Delfonics. Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” over the credits to Kill Bill Volume 1. The brilliant use of Ennio Morricone’s Western scores in both Bill features. Kurt Russell killing the four girls in the car crash to the tune of “Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich & Tich in Grindhouse. And the preparation of Hitler’s visit to the movie theater as David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” plays in Basterds. Much like his encyclopedic mind with movies, Tarantino’s the same way with music and he makes amazing choices that cause his soundtracks to be must-owns, just like his films.
Beyond the movies he’s directed, he wrote the screenplays for 1993’s fantastic True Romance, which contains one of the best scenes in the last 20 years with between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. And there’s 1996’s From Dusk Til Dawn, which is a helluva fun crime thriller/vampire flick.
I could continue to go on and on. The bottom line is this: I could pick from countless scenes in his films. Countless lines of brilliant dialogue. Countless amazing uses of music. Countless career-best performances that he’s directed his actors to.
I won’t. Quentin Tarantino is Movie Perfection. He’s the most important and influential director of the past two decades. People who truly love movies in a deep way love Tarantino. And that’s because he deeply loves movies, has studied them, and figured out a way to make them better than anyone else. And with that – enjoy the videos!