Tarantino, Quentin (Jerome) 1963-
TARANTINO, Quentin (Jerome) 1963-
PERSONAL: Born March 27, 1963, in Knoxville, TN; son of Tony (a musician) and Connie (a nurse and later a corporate executive) Tarantino.
ADDRESSES: Office—A Band Apart Productions, Capra Bldg. 112, 10202 West Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232.
CAREER: Writer and filmmaker. Pussycat Theater, Torrance, CA, usher, early 1980s; Video Archives, Los Angeles, clerk, 1985-90; various film-related jobs, including production assistant on Dolph Lundgren exercise video, work at Cinetel Productions, bit part as Elvis impersonator on television show Golden Girls, 1990-92; screenwriter, filmmaker, director, producer, and actor, 1992—. Film and television roles include Golden Girls (television series), 1990; Reservoir Dogs, 1992; Somebody to Love, 1994; Sleep with Me, 1994; Pulp Fiction, 1994; All-American Girl (television series), 1994; Four Rooms, 1995; Destiny Turns on the Radio, 1995; Desperado, 1995; Saturday Night Live (television series), 1995; From Dusk 'till Dawn, 1996; Girl Six, 1996; Jackie Brown (voice), 1997. Cofounder of A Band Apart Productions, 1991, Rolling Thunder distribution company (subsidiary of Miramax Pictures), 1995, and A Band Apart Records, 1997.
AWARDS, HONORS: All for Pulp Fiction, all 1994: Golden Palm, Cannes Film Festival; Academy Award for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (with Roger Avary); Best Director, National Board of Review; Los Angeles Times Film Critics Association Award; Best Director, Best Screenplay (with Avary), New York Film Critics Circle; Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Avary), Boston Society of Film Critics; Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Avary), Society of Texas Film Critics; Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Avary), National Society of Film Critics; Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Avary), Chicago Film Critics Association; Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay (with Avary); Independent Spirit Award for Best Director and Best Screenplay (with Avary); British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Original Screenplay (with Avary); and MTV Movie Award for Best Movie.
SCREENPLAYS; AND DIRECTOR
Reservoir Dogs (Dog Eat Dog Productions/Miramax, 1992), published with True Romance (alsosee below) as Reservoir Dogs and True Romance: Two Screenplays, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1995.
True Romance, Morgan Creek/Warner Bros., 1993.
(Author of story) Natural Born Killers, Warner Bros., 1994.
(With Roger Avary) Pulp Fiction (Miramax, 1994), published as Pulp Fiction: A Quentin Tarantino Screenplay, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1994.
(Author of segment) "The Man from Hollywood," Four Rooms, A Band Apart/Miramax, 1995.
(Uncredited; with Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick) Crimson Tide, Buena Vista, 1995.
(Uncredited; with David Weisberg and Douglas Cook) The Rock, Buena Vista, 1996.
(With Reb Braddock) Curdled, A Band Apart/Miramax, 1996.
(With Robert Kutzman) From Dusk 'till Dawn, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.
Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard; A Band Apart/Miramax, 1997), published as Jackie Brown: A Screenplay, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1997.
(Author of story) From Dusk 'till Dawn: Texas Blood Money, Dimension Films, 1998.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (based on the author's novel; also see below), Miramax, 2003.
Also uncredited author of Past Midnight (television movie), 1992, and (with Julia Sweeney and Jim Emerson) It's Pat, 1994.
Quentin Tarantino: Interviews, edited by Gerald Peary, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1998.
(With Christopher Heard) Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo, Lone Eagle Press, 1999.
Quentin Tarantino: The Film Geek Files, edited by Paul Woods, Plexus, 2000.
Kill Bill (novel), Talk/Miramax (New York, NY), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: Few filmmakers have succeeded in building a mystique, and indeed an entire cinematic "world," to the degree achieved by Quentin Tarantino, who first attracted critical attention with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. In that film, Tarantino established aspects of his aesthetic that have continued to unfold over subsequent motion pictures, most notably the Tarantino-directed 1994 hit Pulp Fiction and the 1997 film Jackie Brown, which Tarantino also directed. The filmmaker played roles in all three movies, each of them successively smaller: from Mr. Brown in Reservoir Dogs, who in the opening scene delivers a memorable (and X-rated) exegesis on Madonna's 1985 hit "Like a Virgin"; to Jimmie in Pulp Fiction, a man irritable over a messy dead body in the back seat of his car; to a voice on an answering machine in Jackie Brown. But along the way, even as the director's physical presence in his films has diminished, the characteristics of his art have propelled him to the status, as he observed somewhat derisively in an interview with New York Times Magazine, of "an adjective": "Every third script out there," he said, "is described as 'Tarantino-esque.'"
Certain aspects characterize the Tarantino aesthetic, and though not as visible in films where his touch appears uncredited, they are nonetheless there for the discerning to see. One writer suggested, for instance, that his contribution to the 1995 film Crimson Tide could be summed up in two references to comic books which, the reviewer implied, seemed out of character when uttered by actor Denzel Washington. Comic books play a significant part in Tarantino's onscreen world, and numerous critics have likened his films to "cartoons" in the way that they transform cinematic violence—images that have become cliches through ceaseless repetition in B-grade films—into a form of postmodern humor. Tarantino himself, particularly during his five years as a clerk in a Los Angeles video store, has absorbed a vast store of film history, making his films almost encyclopedic in their references and cross-references.
One is unlikely to find Bergman or Cocteau making cameos in Tarantino's movies, however, although critics found in Reservoir Dogs suggestions both of Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard. Rather, Tarantino's interest is in pop culture, and his melding of this with a modicum of more high-minded material has won him the praise of numerous critics. There is little difference between Tarantino the screenwriter and Tarantino the man, as David Wild illustrated in a 1994 Rolling Stone profile. His home is a shrine to pop paraphernalia, the flotsam and jetsam of twentieth-century culture: "Along with items from his own movies," wrote Wild, "including the razor used in the infamous ear-slicing scene [in Reservoir Dogs], there's a frighteningly lifelike head of B-movie diva Barbara Steele, a pack of genuine Texas Chainsaw chili, a Zorro knife given to him by Jennifer Beals, a Robert Vaughn doll, cases by the dozen of bottled Pepsi, and what is undoubtedly one of the world's most impressive collections of film- and TV-related board games."
Wild described Tarantino as a "chatterbox," a fitting quality given the fact that, for all the blood and mayhem in them, his films are driven more by dialogue than by action. Ron Rosenbaum in Esquire examined the famous disagreement between Tarantino and director Oliver Stone over Stone's 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Stone had so altered Tarantino's story that the latter disclaimed all involvement in the resulting film and even delayed release of Pulp Fiction in order to further establish his distance. Rosenbaum portrayed the difference between the two men's temperaments as a "rival[ry of] sensibilities" not unlike that between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Mythic Macho Outdoor Man of Nature versus Aesthete Analyst of Indoor Intrigue and Internal Self-Consciousness." Whereas Stone favors action, Rosenbaum noted, Tarantino's psyche finds its natural home with dialogue: "If you watch Tarantino's films, if you read his screenplays, all that writhing and stewing of images is not so much war as dance. 'To me, violence is a totally aesthetic subject,' he once said. 'Saying you don't like violence in movies is like saying you don't like dance sequences in movies.'"
Whereas Stone's characters are figures of action, Rosenbaum indicated, Tarantino's are talkers, and what they talk about—albeit while on the way to committing shocking acts, or after they have done so—are the subjects that fascinate the director. "The great defining moments in Tarantino films," Rosenbaum explained, "are almost always moments of literary criticism. The defining moment of Reservoir Dogs, . . . the scene that instantly distinguished it from all other violent gangster films ever made before, is the opening scene, in which his bank robbers are gathered around a breakfast table at a pancake house, deconstructing a Madonna song. . . . Oliver Stone, given that same group of murderous thugs, would have them facing off over urinals, comparing how long it took each to pee. Tarantino isn't afraid to depict his gangsters almost as if they were cultural-studies majors. And again, in Pulp Fiction, what's the defining moment? It's when Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta), two hit men, are analyzing the philosophical implications of the way brand names for burgers—designations of value—shift in different linguistic frameworks. In his heart, Quentin Tarantino is an English major."
Though violence, pop culture, and endless discussions are aspects of the Tarantino aesthetic, they are not the sum total of his world. Another facet of his work as a filmmaker is that he resurrects stars often perceived to be past their glory days. In the case of Travolta, who had enjoyed almost dizzying success in a number of roles during the 1970s, Tarantino's casting in Pulp Fiction resulted in a full-scale revival, making Travolta in the 1990s every bit the star he had been twenty years before. Similarly, the director cast Robert Forster and Pam Grier, both of whom had done little notable work in recent years, in Jackie Brown. Describing the onscreen romance between Forster and Grier, the latter whom Tarantino had admired for her roles in numerous 1970s "blaxploitation" films, Anthony Lane of the New Yorker wrote: Forster "is fifty-six, she is forty-four; when was the last time you went to the movies—let alone a Tarantino movie—and saw a fond, unironic, interracial kiss between a couple who are a hundred years old?"
Lane's larger point was that Tarantino seemed to have mellowed as his career progressed. He shocked audiences in Reservoir Dogs with a gruesome scene in which Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts off a police officer's ear while the 1970s hit "Stuck in the Middle with You" plays in the background. Likewise, Pulp Fiction featured a brutal S-and-M male-on-male rape scene, along with a large body count; by contrast, Jackie Brown, though it offers gore aplenty, and half the cast are dead by the end of the film, is more character-driven and—in places, such as a long tracking shot in which Ordell (Jackson) shoots an employee—restrained for Tarantino. The director himself has suggested that, although the shocking violence may get him the most headlines, its purpose is to illustrate a larger absurdity: the very deification of such bloodshed in American film. Thus the violence itself is a part of pop culture, inseparable from the references to B-movies and comic books, and this attitude has helped gain him a reputation as a witty and sardonic filmmaker simultaneously spoofing and glorifying the detritus of twentieth-century mass media.
His postmodern approach—Tarantino himself eschews the high-blown term—has earned him not only widespread admiration among critics, but also the allegiance of numerous stars. Jackson has appeared in two of his films, as have Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth; likewise Travolta, Robert DeNiro, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Bridget Fonda have all played roles in Tarantino pictures. Keitel, a highly respected actor known for his interest in independent filmmaking, agreed to appear in Reservoir Dogs for a much smaller sum than his ordinary fee, simply because he believed in Tarantino's work.
The fact that Tarantino first emerged as an independent filmmaker is a final, and indeed crucial, element of his abiding success. He came from far outside the Hollywood establishment, gaining his knowledge of the movies not by going to film school—he is a high-school dropout—but by feeding a long-term addiction to movies themselves. As a youngster growing up in suburban Los Angeles, he haunted a theatre in the nearby town of Carson. It was a rough neighborhood, but "the theater . . . showed all the kung fu movies," Tarantino recalled, "and the Allied International movies like The Van." As a teenager, he worked as an usher in a pornographic theatre and later spent five years as a minimum-wage employee in what he recalled as "the best video store in the Los Angeles area," Video Archives.
There he met Roger Avary, another future director—Tarantino would be executive producer on Avary's Killing Zoe in 1994—who later worked with Tarantino on the story for Pulp Fiction. Tarantino, Avary, and others constituted an informal film club: "I basically lived [at the video store] . . . for years," Tarantino told Wild. "We'd get off work, close up the store, then sit around and watch movies all night. Other times Roger, our friend Scott, and I would take a Friday and plot things out so we could see all four new movies we were interested in. We always took whatever we got paid and put it right back into the industry."
Eventually, however, Tarantino began to feel like the character Clarence in the 1993 film True Romance, who, as Wild noted, "was based on Tarantino's younger days living near the Los Angeles airport. 'All day long he just sees people taking off and leaving, and he's going nowhere. I'm not that guy anymore.'" How he ceased to be "that guy" is the stuff of independent-film legend, a story that has inspired ambitious filmmakers ever since. In 1990 Tarantino and Avary went to work with producer John Langley, a regular video-store customer, and moved to Hollywood. There they started to develop the all-important contacts—most notably with producer Lawrence Bender—necessary in the world of filmmaking, and they raised $1.5 million. In film terms it was a shoestring budget at best; but it was enough to make Reservoir Dogs, a film that grossed many times that sum.
The resulting work brought out cautionary statements from several reviewers—Terrence Rafferty of the New Yorker, for instance, described it as "stylized mayhem and playground machismo"—but audiences, and indeed even many critics, were captivated. The story itself, modeled on Stanley Kubrick's 1956 film The Killing, is simple: an aging crime boss and his son gather a group of criminals, designated by colors (e.g., Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink) in order to protect their identities, and plan a jewelry-store heist. But one of them is a cop, and the robbery goes badly. The crime itself is not depicted, and much of the action takes place afterward in a warehouse where the robbers have gathered to square off against one another in an attempt to find the traitor. The film plays tricks with time, shifting backward and forward, and as Manohla Dargis in ArtForum observed, "The details [of the heist] surface only as retold by the robbers. . . . The effect is less the Rashomon point about rival truths than something akin to psychoanalysis: like the therapeutic process, Reservoir Dogs tells a story, is about telling stories, and depends on stories for its creation." As notable as the temporal tricks are the film's stylistic touches, which in retrospect appear as vintage Tarantino: the brutal violence against the 1970s soundtrack, the use of matching anonymous black suits by the colordesignated robbers, and the long quasi-philosophical discussions which take place in the stage-like warehouse.
Tarantino, wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times, "has a gift for writing great bursts of caustic, quirky dialogue," and even Rafferty, in the middle of a largely negative review, conceded that "Tarantino is a director to watch." Turan was also critical of the film, wishing it was not so "determinedly one-dimensional, so in love with operatic violence at the expense of everything else"; nonetheless he too credited "the undeniable skill and elan that Tarantino brings to all this." Likewise, Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic wrote that much of Reservoir Dogs "was difficult for me to watch"; he faulted the director's penchant for violence, while observing that "cinematically speaking, it's plainly the debut of a talent." Jonathan Romney, in the New Statesman expressed concern for the way the famous ear-cutting scene incites audiences to want to see the violence unfold, yet he called Tarantino "a young director whose noir literacy is evident in every detail."
Although concerned about the violence, most critics admired Tarantino's abilities as a promising new talent. In the case of True Romance, directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun) from a screenplay by Tarantino, reviewers were less positive. But with Tarantino once again in the director's chair for Pulp Fiction, positive reviews—and awards—poured in. As with Reservoir Dogs, the story alters time, ending just a few minutes after the point at which it begins, moving forward in between and then doubling back. However, Pulp Fiction is more complex than its predecessor. Whereas Reservoir Dogs takes place entirely in a world of men and features no female characters, Pulp Fiction involves at least as much male-female conflict as male-male. In terms of structure it has several plots, most of them surrounding a drug lord named Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the opening scene, a husband-and-wife crime team (Roth and Amanda Plummer) plan a stickup in a restaurant; then the action leaves them, not to return until the end of the movie some two and a half hours later. In between, there are subplots involving two hit men (Travolta and Jackson) employed by Marsellus; Marsellus's alluring wife (Thurman), who suffers a near-fatal heroin overdose while out on the town with Travolta; and a boxer (Willis) who double-crosses Marsellus and flees for his life, only to find himself in a position to save the man who wants to kill him. In the final scene, after dealing with Plummer and Roth, Jackson's character makes a decision to leave his life of crime; already the audience has seen a segment that takes place later in time, in which Travolta confronts the results of his own refusal to do so.
"The script," wrote Richard Alleva in Commonweal, "is put together with a jeweler's precision, and makes the writing of every American film I've seen in the past year . . . seem like so much child's play." In the New Republic, Kauffmann, who had expressed reservations about Tarantino's directorial debut two years earlier and still found cause for alarm in the new film's violence, nonetheless held that "Pulp Fiction is Reservoir Dogs rewarded." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone described the film as "ferocious fun without a trace of caution, complacency or political correctness to inhibit its 154 deliciously lurid minutes." David Denby in New York, admitting that "I can't say I was a fan of... Reservoir Dogs," observed that in Pulp Fiction, "Tarantino seems to be goosing the entire solemn history of action cinema. . . . In the roundelay of violence and comedy that is Pulp Fiction, he has hilariously summed up an immense genre and gloriously achieved his exit from it. Life beckons from beyond the video store."
Several reviewers, such as T. J. Binyon of the Times Literary Supplement, noted that although the film's title seems to relate to books, Pulp Fiction is more about movies than literature. With Jackie Brown three years later, Tarantino would make a step closer to literature by adapting an Elmore Leonard book; in the meantime, as he enjoyed the enormous fame and success that came in the wake of Pulp Fiction, he worked on a number of other projects. Along with three other directors, he contributed a segment to the film Four Rooms and worked with Robert Rodriguez on From Dusk 'till Dawn. Jack Matthews of the Los Angeles Times described From Dusk 'till Dawn as "a film nerd's fever dream, a Frankenstein's monster of used movie parts" involving "a pair of murdering, bank-robbing brothers" who find themselves at "a topless biker bar in the middle of nowhere . . . [in a] chaotic, bloody, nonstop battle with ancient Aztec vampires."
Tarantino returns to more familiar territory with Jackie Brown, a film both more complex than Pulp Fiction in terms of character development and the double-crosses that move the plot forward, and less complex in its relatively linear use of time. The story centers on Jackie Brown (Grier), an underpaid flight attendant earning extra money by helping arms dealer Ordell (Jackson) launder money. But when she is caught, Ordell, fearing she will turn him over to the police, wants her eliminated. On this backbone of plot are attached numerous other subplots involving Ordell's airheaded girlfriend (Bridget Fonda), a henchman who has just gotten out of prison (DeNiro), the bail bondsman who comes to Jackie's rescue (Forster), and the federal agents who goad her into helping them (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen). All her adversaries underestimate Jackie, as a sequence involving the transfer of a bag—the only tricky use of time in the movie, involving the replay of a scene from three points of view—serves to illustrate.
Todd McCarthy in Variety faulted Tarantino for taking too long to tell his story—like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown clocks in at approximately 150 minutes—but held that the "film takes its own sweet time setting its gears in motion, with the emphasis on sweet when it comes to amusingly establishing its characters." Turan in the Los Angeles Times warned that "those expecting Tarantino to pick up where he left off [in Pulp Fiction] will be disappointed in Jackie Brown. Instead of rearranging audience's sensibilities, he's taken the typically twisty plot of Leonard's Rum Punch and run it through his personal Mixmaster. The result is a raunchy doodle, a leisurely and easygoing diversion." Lane, in the New Yorker, quoted with approval an example of Tarantino's dialogue: when Ordell warns his girlfriend that smoking marijuana will "rob you of your ambition," she says, "Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV." Travers in Rolling Stone wrote that Tarantino "score[s] a knockout. . . . Loaded with action, laughs, smart dialogue, and potent performances, Jackie Brown is most memorable for its unexpected feeling." Tarantino, Travers concluded, is charting new territory, and just as the film ends with Jackie "driving toward a life she can't define," listening to "a '70s song about busting out of ghettos"—Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street"—so the film "crackles with the fear and exhilaration of moving on."
In 2003 Tarantino expanded his creative penchant into fiction writing with the novel Kill Bill, which was published almost simultaneously with the film he adapted from it. Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, and Vivica A. Fox, the film follows Thurman—playing The Bride—as she seeks revenge for the nightmare that occurred on her wedding day, when all in her wedding party were slaughtered. The only person to survive, the Bride, is revived from her coma after four years, and now dedicates herself to seeking out and defending herself against the five killers—Liu, Fox, Michael Madson, Daryl Hannah, and David Carradine—who massacred her friends and family. Drawing on everything from Japanese anime to 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 contains more than the violence Tarantino fans have come to expect; however, that violence is somehow made less abhorrent by the film's otherworldly, graphic-novel look. While noting that some viewers will "instantly dismiss" Kill Bill, Vol. 1 "as rubbish," San Francisco Examiner reviewer Jeffrey M. Anderson maintained that "Tarantino is the greatest American action director working today, and he shoots . . . [the film's] long and carefully choreographed fight scenes with a skill and clarity lacking in nearly every other recent American action film." Calling the film "just a funky, hermetic pulp bash," Entertainment Weekly contributor Owen Gleiberman added, "Each sequence in Kill Bill is like a detour that's more fun than the main road." Also commenting on the movie's surface quality, Miami Herald reviewer Rene Rodriguez noted that "for all its severed limbs and alarmingly large sprays of blood, Kill Bill is more of a vicious comedy than anything else. . . . We know so little [about the characters,] in fact, that this lively, energetic movie becomes a thin, disposable experience." However, Rodriguez concluded, the film "reminds you just how good a visual craftsman" Tarantino is. "There is such sheer cinematic joy in every one of Kill Bill's blood-spattered frames . . . that the movie succeeds despite itself." Richard Corliss, recalling perhaps Tarantino's early remark equating film violence with dance, concluded his review of the film by noting: "Even the arcs of blood have the propulsion of crimson choreography. In this sense, Kill Bill is the greatest dance film since West Side Story."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bernard, Jimi, Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies, HarperPerennial (New York, NY), 1995.
Clarkson, Wensley, Quentin Tarantino: Shooting from the Hip, Overlook Press (Woodstock, NY), 1995.
Dawson, Jeff, Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool, Applause (New York, NY), 1995.
ArtForum, November, 1992, p. 11; March, 1995, pp. 63-66.
Commonweal, October 22, 1993, p. 22; November 18, 1994, pp. 30-31.
Entertainment Weekly, October 17, 2003, Owen Gleiberman, review of Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
Esquire, December, 1997, p. 38.
Film Comment, January-February, 1996, pp. 83-88.
Literature-Film Quarterly, January, 1998, pp. 60-66.
Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1992, p. F1; September 10, 1993, p. F1; December 25, 1995, p. F12; January 19, 1996, p. F1; December 24, 1997, p. F2.
Miami Herald, October 10, 2003, Rene Rodriguez, review of Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
New Republic, November 23, 1992, pp. 30-31; November 14, 1994, pp. 26-27.
New Statesman, January 8, 1993, p. 34; October 8, 1994, p. 29.
Newsweek, October 13, 2003, p. 66.
New York, October 3, 1994, p. 96.
New Yorker, October 19, 1992, pp. 105-109; October 10, 1994, pp. 95-97; February 5, 1996, pp. 75-77; January 12, 1998, pp. 83-84.
New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1997, p. 112.
People, March 23, 1998, p. 130.
Rolling Stone, October 6, 1994, pp. 79-81; November 3, 1994, pp. 77-80; January 22, 1998, pp. 61-62.
San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 2003, Jeffrey M. Anderson, review of Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
Time, October 20, 2003, Richard Corliss, review of Kill Bill, Vol. 1.
Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, p. 26.
Variety, December 22, 1997, pp. 57-58.*