Like most students, I had no idea what to expect from my first year in university. It was a time for a lot of firsts: I was commuting hours back and forth to school every day, in a totally new city, forced to interact with people I had never previously met… the horrifying list goes on and on. And in a Mass Communication class that first term, I was pushed further into new territory. The main idea I took out of that class was the concept of semiotics, the study of the signs and symbols that we see around us, and what meanings they hold. The big paper in that course, my first real “university” paper, was based on a piece of media that I analyzed by way of semiotics.
Now, reading the title of this article, and then reading this far, you may wonder what any of this has to do with Quentin Tarantino. Well, that’s simple: I wrote this paper, this semiotic analysis if you will, on the movie poster for Pulp Fiction.
I didn’t write the paper on the movie. Not the plot, the story, the characters, or anything of that nature.
Just the poster.
I will let that sink in for a moment.
“The Aura of the Tarantinomage,” as I called it (I have never been good at titles), talked in detail about how the poster related back to the tawdry, cheap dime store novels of the early twentieth century, about the appeal and sexiness of a woman in the “throes of lust,” and how the gaze of Uma Thurman coupled with her wearing red lipstick and smoking a cigarette was a very thinly veiled metaphor for fellatio. Quite a bit to wash down for anyone, let alone a first year university student trying to decipher the not-so-subtle messages from his favorite film of all time.
But therein lies the appeal of Quentin Tarantino — a rebellious, audacious and arrogant filmmaker who can easily be considered the godfather of post-Generation X cinema. Before Tarantino, it was not okay to rip off, give a nod or pay homage (whichever way you want to look at it) to other types of cinema and still consider one’s work blazingly original or unique. But his films are packed with so much detail, so many references both popular and obscure, so many of the “little things” that others had not dwelt upon, that he has forever influenced a whole new generation of filmmakers. He opened the door for darker and bleaker cinematic adventures. He helped pioneer the kinetic and wild non-linear story style in the West. The invasion and influx of more Asian cinema across North America since the early 1990’s was also helped by his love for the genre and filmmaking style. In a way, through his protégé Robert Rodriguez, he helped influence the “do-it-all-yourself” motif of having multiple roles within a film’s production, something we are seeing happen more and more in both the mainstream and boutique industries — he certainly helped put indie cinema on the map. He was and continues to be one of the few filmmakers who ensure their movie’s soundtrack is just as crucial and just as memorable as the film it is placed in. Most importantly, he brought an idiosyncratic style and element of cool back to the movies.
Now, there are some who have, and still do, call Tarantino an overrated hack and thief, among other things. And I guarantee there will be some who will take offense to my claims of how influential his work is here. But can one really argue against the power or the influence of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)? They are two of the biggest movies to come out of the 1990’s, and helped spawn both real and fake imitators (I am looking squarely at you, Guy Richie). Outside of The Matrix, I cannot think of any other single film in the past 20 years that was so influential and groundbreaking that it affected so many of the movies to come after it. The loaded dialogue, the brutal violence, the incredibly bleak comedy… there were countless films released afterward that tried to capitalize on and utilize Tarantino’s techniques and style to their own advantage, but none were ever nearly as good as the work of the man himself. Pulp Fiction was a runaway success and showcased the filmmaker’s wit and subtlety; couple that fact with the absolutely outrageous and raw power of Reservoir Dogs, a movie that gets better every time you watch it, and you had one hell of a loaded powerhouse behind the camera as he started in on his next project.
Unfortunately, all the accolades and drug-enabled trips seemed to go to Tarantino’s head. After the disappointing Jackie Brown in 1997 (seriously, I know it is an adaptation, but how boring and verbose did that movie need to be?), he did not do all that much for a few years afterwards. He had a few side projects, but nothing too major until he began filming his long-awaited comeback, a love letter to 70’s Asian cinema, exploitation flicks and Spaghetti Westerns: Kill Bill.
The hype for this project was simply astounding. It was even marketed as “The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino”. Very few other filmmakers can claim such a cult following that this would be considered a viable tagline by the studio’s publicity department. Filming of Kill Bill was chronicled almost daily on various movie websites and spoilers leaked out (or were made up) even faster than those for The Lord of the Rings movies.
Rather disappointingly for purists, the long running time of the finished film caused it to be chopped in half, its installments coming out within a few months of each other as Volume 1 (2003) and Volume 2 (2004), just as the final Harry Potter and Twilight movies would later do. (And, less-successfully, Insurgent); Tarantino’s influence can even be seen at work in those heavily-franchised and heavily-financed worlds. There can be no doubt that Kill Bill brought the wunderkind director back to the forefront of cinema, and even with the negative backlash against the films — for example, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said: “This puerile, ugly fantasy is the sad but unmistakable product of a consciousness not worthy of serious attention.” — it was still a very potent announcement of his return with an invigorated sense of creativity and fun. (By the way, each part of Kill Bill has a score of 85% each on Rotten Tomatoes, so LaSalle’s vitriolic attack was definitely in the minority.)
2007’s Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of the double feature Grindhouse (Rodriguez’s Planet Terror was the other half), came afterwards and was another love letter: this time to the schlocky, B-movie drive-in slasher and car flicks of the 70’s and 80’s. It was met with plenty of acclaim, but did not exactly invigorate audiences (perhaps because of its three hour plus running time?). It was released separately on DVD/Blu-ray, and several years later finally premiered in its original theatrical form. Sadly, Death Proof as a whole does not hold up to multiple viewings, but the car chase scene at the end of the film remains one of the most intense ever put to celluloid.
Then Tarantino gave us Inglourious Basterds, an epic and imagined take on World War II. Despite its multiple languages, long running time and horrendously misspelled title, it was his most successful and most acclaimed film since Pulp Fiction. It was even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (his first time, again, since Fiction).
And those are just his directing credits. As well as his Best Screenplay Oscar for 2013’s Django Unchained (though his most recent work, the equally Western-inspired 2015’s The Hateful Eight, did not bring equal acclaim), we must also remember that he wrote the scripts for the cult classics True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn, wrote the original story for Natural Born Killers, worked as a guest director on Frank Miller’s Sin City, Four Rooms and on episodes of ER and CSI, and has worked as an actor, uncredited writer and producer for a wide and quite wild assortment of other films as well. And of course, for his more attentive fans, he throws in little nods and mentions into his films to connect them all together — a unique touch that not too many filmmakers, outside of those making direct sequels, tend to provide (Kevin Smith notwithstanding).
While Tarantino’s first two films were highly influential, everything that came post-Jackie Brown seems to have just increased the image of a bad-ass rebel he has cultivated. There is no way anyone else would have been able to make movies catering to his own personal tastes as readily as he has been permitted to do. He is truly one of the geekiest filmmakers around, and one whose history of cinema seems to help develop his own style of filmmaking. He does copy others yes, but he does so in such a loving way that it really cannot seem detrimental to the initial work; more, it acts as a means of complimenting his source material, and even bringing them to the attention of a whole new generation of audiences. He continues to influence others in the field, but in a way that also demonstrates just how daring a filmmaker he really is. He is a filmmaker who just seems unable to take anyone else’s shit. It is his way, or no way. And his fans remain devoted to him — myself included — no matter what.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to go back to where it all began, catching a now-rare cinematic screening of Pulp Fiction in Toronto. The theater was half-full, and people even dressed up as their favorite characters, Rocky Horror-style, to see this then twenty-year-old film. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time myself, even while humming along to the music and quoting every line, it still managed to feel new, refreshing and unique; as if it were made by a talented newcomer, a rebel of a man with a voice and a style unlike any other; often imitated, never surpassed.
And that my friends, is exactly who Quentin Tarantino is, and always will be.