He’s the filmmaker of our time. Manic and visionary, he has soaked in cinema, video games, pop culture, cartoons, comics – whatever has colour and sparkle and kick. He’s a conjurer of hyperrealism, a mix master of genres, the embodiment of Cal-i-forn-ia, in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s German accent, and all things L.A. His filmic signature is the signature of what it’s like to be alive right now – the frenetic energy, the black humour, the Shakespearean bloodbaths, the mishmash of themes and images and dialogue.
You don’t so much watch a Tarantino movie as you jump into it—or, it jumps into you.
Jami Bernard in Quentin Tarantino: The Man and his Movies describes her first encounter with him: “…he was jumping around like a puppy newly off its leash, vibrating with excitement, talking so fast the words had to elbow each other out of the way to be heard.”
Reared by film and a single mother, he worked in a video store (Video Archives) in Manhattan Beach for five years, absorbing everything from Kung Fu to blaxploitation classics to spaghetti westerns. “I steal from every single movie ever made,” he proudly boasts. “If my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together.”
I remember seeing Kill Bill Vol. I for the first time with my daughter’s boyfriend. At first I wasn’t sure if I was attending a rock concert, Saturday morning cartoons, a fightfest, a spoof, a satire, a revenge story, or a quest story. Layers collided with layers building as they destroyed. I came out of the cinema talking like a teenager – Wow. That was really something. That rocks.
Tarantino remakes whatever he touches – Kung Fu in Kill Bill I and II, the western in Django Unchained, crime in Reservoir Dogs, war in Inglourious Basterds and noir in Pulp Fiction. He carries the history of cinema in his head the way Picasso once carried the history of art; he plays with other films in his own films – parody, pastiche, homage. He draws on the history, remixes it, and puts the freshest signature on American cinema since Orson Welles.
Actor Bruce Willis sees Tarantino as “a figure of Greek mythology, sprung on Hollywood fully formed from the head of Zeus, no knocking around doing student movies, no working your way up the ranks…Quentin came out of the box already on fire.”
Tarantino seems to have a knack for pulling out the best possible performances from his actors – Michael Parks in Bill and Don Johnson in Django, for instance. He revitalizes old careers — John Travolta’s, Michael Madsen’s and David Carradine’s chief among them. He has recycled and redirected the enormously talented Austrian actor Christoph Waltz much as he recycles and redirects other movies in his own movie making.
The performances of Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction stand out as spectacularly entertaining, particularly in their dance number. Jami Bernard quotes Uma Thurman in her biography: “Quentin was pretty clear about the kind of attitude he wanted from me in the dance, you know, that very cool kind of Top Cat shake. We would dance and Quentin would call out the styles, now do the Catwoan, now do the Swim, whatever. And of course there was the take where Quentin wanted to hold the handheld camera but he was dancing along with us because he was so excited by it, so it was hysterical with me and John sort of bebopping along and Quentin with this camera going up and down and up and down.” Exuberant, hip, sexy, endlessly inventive and playful, controlled fire: that’s the Tarantino style.
In his last four films revenge has been Tarantino’s focus. The revenge of a woman on those who attempted to kill her in the two volumes of Kill Bill, the revenge of the Jews against the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, the revenge of a black man against slave owners in Django Unchained.
Revenge is of course one of the oldest themes in literature going back to Euripides and the Greeks in Medea, the story of a mother who exacts revenge on her husband’s infidelity by murdering their children. Revenge is the motive force of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it also figures in Othello and Coriolanus. It’s at the heart of Alexandre Dumas’ great novel The Count of Monte Cristo about a man wrongly imprisoned who has time on his hands to systematically plot revenge on those who betrayed him.
“Revenge,” as the opening of Kill Bill Vol. I suggests, “is a dish best served cold.”
So where does Tarantino go from here? He says he wants to get out of movie making and get into novel making. Either way put your money on more revenge. It’s a deeply satisfying theme. Who wouldn’t like to have a list like The Bride (also known as Beatrix Kiddo) in Kill Bill and stroke out the names of everyone who’s ever done you wrong, one by one by one?