Quentin Tarantino became an overnight success as a writer and director when his film Reservoir Dogs premièred at the Sundance film festival nineteen years ago. His unique and reliable style has led him to become one of Hollywood’s best know and revered independent writers/directors of our time. Tarantino’s style incorporates nonlinear storylines and exaggerated cult, TV and film clichés. He also samples and blends a range of cultural heritages and film genres. Tarantino’s eclectic familiarity with music allows him to pick and pull from a broad spectrum musical periods and musicians. Tarantino’s masterful use of dialoged is the glue of that binds his films together, applying dialog thickly and stretching it out, imparting tension and depth in his scenes.
Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to separated parents. He moved to California when he was a child and was raised by his mother. Tarantino first got involved with acting in his drama classes in Junior. High School and continued them through high school. Tarantino dropped out of high school to attend acting school at the James Best Theatre Company. Later Tarantino worked at The Video Arcade and movie rental shop where he spent the majority of his time critiquing and discussing films with his co-workers and customers. Recently when asked if he went to film school, Tarantino remarked, “No, I went to films.” It’s no doubt that the hundreds of hours Tarantino spent watching and discussing films while working at the Video Arcade helped to develop the style prevalent in his films.
After the success of his first film, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was approached to work on numerous Hollywood projects, instead of jumping at the first opportunity that came he opted to continue work on his own screenplay “Pulp Fiction.” Directed by Tarantino, co-written by Tarantino and Rodger Avery, “Pulp Fiction” became a huge success when released in nineteen ninety-four. Like most of Tarantino’s films “Pulp Fiction” takes a non-liner path throughout its American crime story line:
1. Prologue—The Diner (i)
2. Prelude to "Vincent Vega and Marseilles Wallace's Wife"
3. "Vincent Vega and Marseilles Wallace's Wife"
4. Prelude to "The Gold Watch" (a—flashback, b—present)
5. "The Gold Watch"
6. "The Bonnie Situation"
7. Epilogue—The Diner (ii)
If the seven sequences were ordered chronologically, they would run: 4a, 2, 6, 1, 7, 3, 4b, 5. Sequences 1 and 7 partially overlap and are presented from different points of view; the same is true of sequences 2 and 6. In Philip Parker's description, the structural form is "an episodic narrative with circular events adding a beginning and end and allowing references to elements of each separate episode to be made throughout the narrative." Other analysts describe the structure simply as a "circular narrative"( Wikipedia).
This “circular narrative” style keeps Tarantino’s audience engaged and calculating for themselves. It also creates additional plot layers and nuances that allow for greater understanding of the film after it’s viewed multiple times. Many of Tarantino fans sight these plot layers and nuances as a reason for the director’s success.
At the end of the Prologue, Tarantino kick-starts his opening credits with one of the strongest dialogue into score transitions I have ever experienced. He moves from the character Honey Bunny’s line: “Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers”, and overlaps her last words with a remixed, amped up and modernized version of a traditional Greek song from the 1920’s Misirlou, preformed by Tim Rothh, Amanda Plummer/Dick Dalee & His Del-Tones. Tarantino skillfully, with the ease of the change of the dial, or in this case plugging an audio sample of an FM dial change, moves into "Jungle Boogie" by Kool & the Gang weaning his audience off the adrenalin of the last scene and preparing them for a windows-down car ride with Samuel Jackson and John Travolta. This scene is a great illustration of how Tarantino orchestrates a soundtrack that covers a gambit musical genre.
The dialogue in “Pulp Fiction” is signature Tarantino scripting. One of the subtle but consistent strategies that Tarantino employees, is excessive explanation or rudimentary descriptions. This often takes place between two characters in a personal exchange and functions as a verbal jockeying heightening the ambient tension in the air. An example early in the film is the exchange between Samuel Jackson (JULES) and John Travolta (VINCENT) where Jackson is explaining what a
TV pilot is:
VINCENT “What's a pilot?”
JULES “Well, you know the shows on TV?”
VINCENT “I don't watch TV.”
JULES “Yes, but you're aware that there's an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?”
JULES “Well, the way they pick the shows on TV is they make one show, and that show's called a pilot. And they show that one show to the people who pick the shows, and on the strength of that one show, they decide if they want to make more shows. Some get accepted and become TV programs, and some don't, and become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.”
Tarantino not bound by traditional notations of film genre is free to make aesthetic choices that impart nostalgia in his audiences. He does so in a multitude of scenes in “Pulp Fiction.” When Vincent arrives at Mia’s house a prominent reel to reel stereo is in the background disorienting the viewer and creating a doubt as to the time period during which the movie takes place. This is buttressed by Vincent’s attire which could come from a multitude of time periods. This whole scene functions to slightly dislodge the viewer’s opinion of the era and transition them for the fifties dinner scene
Tarantino continues to sample a multitude of time periods throughout “Pulp Fiction.” Another great example is the scene with the taxicab that Butch escapes from after winning the fight which he was supposed to lose. We see the cab skid around a corner just as another car slams on its breaks. Looking at the car it is obvious that it is a modern to late 20th century car. Because Tarantino has subtly mashed up time periods in previous scenes, we as the viewer barely notice the absurdity of scene, but rather, subconsciously absorb the nostalgic film cliché of the 1920 “ish” cab ride and confession. Even the cabbie has a Hollywood cliché appearance.
Many of these signature Tarantino stylistic approaches are found in his other movies. In the “Kill Bill Volume One,” Tarantino adopts and samples an even wider group of filmmaking styles. He uses strategies of Italian spaghetti westerns, Japanese chanbara films and Hong Kong martial arts films. The Mexican standoff is common scene in both volumes of “Kill Bill”. Tarantino takes this Hollywood cliché and adds a sense of parody to it. An early scene where Uma Thurman (The Bride) and Vivica A. Fox (Vernita Green) are engaged in a knife fight is a great example of the parody of the Mexican standoff. Excerpt from the screenplay:
The Bride backs up into the mess of the now totally demolished living room. The two woman stalk each other, each holding her blade, each looking like they know how to use it, each waiting for the other to make a mistake so they can plunge their blade deep into the other one. Blood and sweat drip off of the faces of the two women locked in life and death combat.........When the back kitchen door opens, and a FOUR-YEAR-OLD LITTLE GIRL, carrying a lunch box steps inside.
FOUR-YEAR-OLD GIRL Mommy, I'm home!
The two warrior women, whose eyes reflect only combat concentration, suddenly switch upon hearing the four-year old's voice. The Housewife's eyes flash a look of pleading to the eyes of The Bride. The Bride seems to answer back; "Okay." The Black woman and the white woman hide their edged weapons behind their backs, as the Four-Year-Old Little Girl walks into the newly destroyed living room.
Again Tarantino throws the viewer a curve ball when he depicts the background of The Brides first target O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lu) on her list of revenge killings. The narrator is not a different character, but rather the main character The Bride, in her voice we hear this dialogue as the scene is illustrated in a Japanese anima style:
It was at that age, a half-Chinese, half-Japanese American Army brat witnessed the murder of her Master Sergeant father. And the rape, then murder of her mother at the hands of Japan's most ruthless Yakuza boss, Boss Matsumoto. She swore revenge...luckily for her, Boss Matsumoto was a pedophile.
The illustration flash back allows Tarantino to take a stylistic license embedding an epic nature to the circumstances surrounding the orphaning of O-Ren Ishii creating compassion and respect for Ishii’s antagonistic role. Another one Tarantino’s signature dialogue scenes appear when the narrator describes Ishii’s accent to the crime syndicate of Tokyo. An under boss has just spoken a grievance against Ishii during this aside scene:
O-REN “Silence! Of what perversion do you speak, Tanaka? “
BOSS TANAKA (JAPANESE) “I speak, Mistress Ishii,....of the perversion done to this council, which I love more than my own children,...by making a female half-breed Chinese American bitch its leader.”
Then... Faster than you can say Jiminy Cricket,... O-Ren's samurai sword is unsheathed... Boss Tanaka's head is liberated from its body... The head hits the floor... And from the spot between its shoulder blades, a geyser of blood shoots up in the air. The BOSSES who were shocked at Tanaka's words are even more flabbergasted at O-Ren's response.
O-REN I'm going to say this in English so you know how serious I am.
As your leader, I encourage you to -- from time to time and always in a respectful manner, and with the complete knowledge that my decision is final -- to question my logic. If you're unconvinced a particular plan of action I've decided is the wisest, tell me so. But allow me to convince you. And I will promise you, right here and now, no subject will be taboo...except the subject that was just under discussion.
O-REN (ENGLISH) The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or my American heritage as a negative is, I collect your fuckin head. (now completely American) Just like this fucker here. Now if any of you sonsabitches got anything else to say, now's the fuckin time.
O-REN (ENGLISH) I didn't think so. (pause) Meeting adjourned.
Scenes like this and the previous animation allow Tarantino to develop his characters backgrounds in a way that is not possible in a linier story telling fashion.As Tarantino’s films become more mainstream, the potential for them to become diluted increases. In the coming years it will be interesting to see how Tarantino handles his popularity. As for now though, Tarantino’s awareness and use of Hollywood clichés, his blending of popular culture and unrivaled score sensibility has allowed him to define himself, in crowded lineup, as one of the most revered of independent directors of our time.