A director who has achieved popular and critical prominence despite having directed only seven feature-length films -- each with small or relatively modest budgets -- Quentin Tarantino is in many ways the most visible new American film-maker to have emerged during the 1990s. In industry terms, his reputation stems from screenwriting as much as directing or producing, while he seems to see himself very much as a performer. His direct and indirect influence has splashed widely and his media currency has grew to the extent that a critical consideration of Tarantino, the individual and his work, necessitates some unraveling.
A Film Geek And A Trained Actor
The story goes that Quentin Tarantino was a video-store clerk who got his script to the actor Harvey Keitel whose support got Reservoir Dogs made and so catapulted Tarantino to directorial stardom. Although there is a gist of truth in this, there is also a mythological aspect, recalling studio-generated tales of actresses and actors discovered as waitresses and gas station attendants. Tarantino may be indeed be 'the most famous former video-store clerk in America.' He is happy to play up this aspect of his past, staging a press reception for Reservoir Dogs at Video Archives, the place where he had worked.
Acknowledging his past as 'a film geek', he has commented that 'I think my biggest appeal amongst young fans is that they look at me as an fan-boy who made it.' Although Tarantino had no directorial experience before Reservoir Dogs, this is not quite the same as the supposedly seamless transition from video-store clerk to celebrated director enacted in publicity and media biographies.
Tarantino has trained early as an actor. Indeed, it was his lack of success as an actor that first led him to write. Eventually he quit Video Archives and went to support himself by selling scripts (True Romance), revamping outlines (From Dusk Till Dawn) and polishing the work of others. A rewrite of Past Midnight (1991), cable TV premiere with Rutger Hauer, gained him an associate producer credit. Thus Tarantino had already achieved a measure of credibility in the industry by the time his script for Reservoir Dogs reached Keitel: not so much a video-store clerk turned director, but an industrious Hollywood hopeful hitting the big time.
A Crossover Hit
After the success of Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, distributors were keen to spot another crossover hit at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. Although it did not win a prize, Reservoir Dogs caused controversy and gained attention, gathering critical plaudits across Europe. The film's box-office and critical acclaim allowed Tarantino to set up favorable deals, including the opportunity to hand-pick actors for his next project.
Nevertheless, it seems to have been the desire to act which sparked the idea for Tarantino to direct Reservoir Dogs himself on 16mm for a budget of $30,000. In other words, his connection to writing was as an actor. Unsurprisingly perhaps, sensitivity to the needs and talents of actors remains his significant strength as a director. The care taken in assembling the cast of Reservoir Dogs is instructive. Whether seasoned or relatively fresh, each brings a celluloid past. Of course, such a parallel also feeds the myth. If the robbery goes badly wrong, the film itself -- very much about 'getting away with it' -- does not.
Frenzied Media Attention
True Romance, one of Tarantino's extant screenplay, was directed by Tony Scott and was put together with another excellent cast and increased Tarantino's stock. Meanwhile, prior to the success of Reservoir Dogs, an associate had been allowed to go seek for finance with another project, Natural Born Killers, and it 'got away' from Tarantino -- ultimately against his will -- to be adapted in visceral style by Oliver Stone, creating further controversy (and profit). The result was a wave of 'Tarantino' movies appearing, building up expectation for his second directorial project, Pulp Fiction, which delivered audiences, acclaim (including Palme d'Or at Cannes) and an Oscar for best script.
In the media attention that followed, it was clear that Tarantino was a good copy, clearly someone who had dreamed of fame, someone who conceived of himself as a performer and had no difficulty putting himself across. Tarantino emerged as a talkative autodidact, enthusing over the power of direction and his enjoyment of on-screen violence, who is not afraid to have an opinion. He is defensive of his films, particularly in discussions of violence (Reservoir Dogs' torture scene), racism (use of the 'n' word in 'Pulp Fiction'), plagiarism (borrowings from Ringo Lam's City on Fire (1987) in Reservoir Dogs), and perhaps even more so about his acting and personal conduct. Whether self-aware or narcissistic, there are close to ten biographies on Tarantino.
Tarantino's self-forged personality has provoked considerable irritation, with critics attacking him for a lack of moral compass (his interest in movie violence) or pointing to a lack of life experience. A American critic, for instance, dubs Tarantino as 'The Man Who Mistook A Video Collection For His Life.' Rather than something new, Tarantino represents the extreme of an existing phenomenon. He was raised by his mother in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Los Angeles, dreaming, discussing, obsessing about movies.
To some extent, what attaches to him in this type of criticism is a back-lash against the video-store clerk 'mythology,' suggesting that he is somehow not fit to be a film-maker without years of struggle or film-school training at the very best. Luckily, or perhaps shrewdly, when the backlash had reached critical mass it was Four Rooms, the disastrous collection piece for which Tarantino, wrote, directed and acted in only one section, that was released.
Pop-Culture And Post-Modern Cinema
Tarantino-esque, a handy adjective, which has become a 'byword for both pop-culture reference and popular post-modern cinema.' But it has also become 'critical short-hand for hackneyed, low budget crime-thrillers.' Tarantino-esque sometimes functions as a short-hand for the weightier, and considerably more problematic, term 'post-modernism.'
For film, the postmodern has two essential aspects: the stylistic and the political. Tarantino's relationship to postmodern style is clear and manifested in a variety of ways such as the use of self-conscious artifice (Pulp Fiction's use of inter-titles, the back projections during cab rides). Also significant is Tarantino's blurring of cultural boundaries, particularly those between exploitation and main-stream cinema, and between genres, for example From Dusk Till Dawn's mid-movie switch from crime-thriller to horror movie, or 'The Bonnie Situation' in Pulp Fiction.
Some celebrate these elements whilst others condemn as style over substance, or, perhaps, spectacle over message. Condemnation usually occurs when the politics, rather than the aesthetics of postmodernism are at issue. Tarantino's clear commitment to postmodern style draws fire from those objecting to its perceived politics as though one was necessarily evidence of the other. For example, Tarantino's use of inter-textual reference to commercial crime cinema could be seen as 'Pastiche.' Yet this is not necessarily simply blank parody.
Instead we might regard Tarantino's use of inter-textual pastiche as a positive exploration of possibilities within the commercial form. Nevertheless, Tarantino semblance of art house independence combined with sustained commercial success remains a goad to his detractors. Quentin Tarantino is film-maker who works successfully within compromised, commodified, popular culture and has been fortunate enough to be able to write, cast and direct on his own terms. The result, and his chief asset, is that he delivers a distinctive and memorable product.
Quentin Tarantino - Wikipedia