Quentin Tarantino: An Overview of the Career of a Modern, ‘Quentessential’ Filmmaker

Known for his highly stylized violence, non-linear storytelling, quippy dialogue, POV shots, and subverting genre expectations, controversial yet ‘quentessential’ filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is one of the great writer/directors of the postmodern era. He’s one of the few directors who not only doesn’t own a cellphone, but also doesn’t allow any on set. His films have influenced countless other filmmakers and has remained a relevant cultural and cinematic icon. 

While many believe film school is the only route to become a great director, Quentin Tarantino has proven that this isn’t always the case. Tarantino didn’t excel in school, and dropping out at fifteen, he worked many jobs until eventually ending up as a video store clerk. While working there, Tarantino’s nearly encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema grew; he also met Roger Avary, a fellow aspiring screenwriter. Together, they wrote the scripts for Tony Scott’s TRUE ROMANCE (1993), Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994), and Tarantino’s own, PULP FICTION (1994)- although there have been many disputes over one another’s contribution to that script. 

RESERVOIR DOGS poster dir. Quentin Tarantino

In 1984, Tarantino started working with personal manager, Cathryn James, who helped him with his first attempt directing a feature film, entitled MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY (1987). They shot the film for nearly three years yet, it completely flopped.  However, after his sale of the script, TRUE ROMANCE, and while working at the production company, Cinetel, he was able to fund another directing attempt that would spark his successful career: RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). The film shocked audiences with budding glimpses of his ultraviolent, yet suave style, despite some critics arguing it was overly violent and self-indulgent. 

After RESERVOIR DOGS, Tarantino moved on to what many consider to be his masterpiece, PULP FICTION. The non-linear structure, dialogue-heavy narrative, and endearingly distinctive performances have kept this film a cinematic staple since its release. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and grossed around $108 million against an $8.5 million budget, an unprecedented success for an independent film. In addition, the film gained international as well as domestic recognition at the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards among others.

Tarantino would go on to write for a few television series and films, even appearing in some, including Robert Rodriguez’s FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). After receiving critical and financial acclaim for JACKIE BROWN (1997), he returned to acting by attempting a run on Broadway. However, after receiving overwhelmingly negative reviews, he left his work on the stage to continue on the screen. 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD poster dir. Quentin Tarantino

His next film was inspired by a conversation that he and Uma Thurman had shared while making PULP FICTION; that film was KILL BILL (2003). This was a much bigger budget film with major action sequences including several swordfights. After shooting the film, he realized the story and content was too much for a single film and decided to create two instead. He also released them six months apart to great commercial success considering they were still independent films. Tarantino’s popularity only grew, gaining respect from critics, actors, and audiences alike for his captivating stories in films such as INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009), DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015), and ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019). 

Tarantino’s style has become so singularly associated with him that the word ‘Tarantinoesquewas entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. Because he is involved in every aspect of production, his films become a flood of his personality, unique to him.

One particular element that Tarantino’s films excel in is pacing, especially when slow or suspenseful.  Other trademarks of Tarantino’s style include the use of long takes, POV shots, God’s-eye shots (also known as bird’s-eye shots or top shots), extreme close-ups, and 360 circling camera movements. He is additionally known for creating exceptional soundtracks, and subverting genre expectations. DJANGO UNCHAINED, as an example, is a subverted western starring a freed black slave as he tries to save his wife from a notoriously cruel slave owner. RESERVOIR DOGS is a subversion of the heist drama in which we witness the aftermath of a heist rather than the robbery itself. By doing this, Tarantino is able to draw inspiration from well-known genres and stories he loves, while still making them uniquely his. 

While revered for his masterful storytelling, a few of the hallmarks of his style have been subject to controversy over the years; the most prominent being his uncensored violence against female characters, use of racial slurs in nearly all of his films, and a tendency to ‘homage.’ In fact, he explained to Empire Magazine in 1994, “I steal from every single movie ever made.”  Critics argue he crosses the line between homage and plagiarism as his references aren’t subtle, but rather, exact replicas of their originals. Many also believe that this is his way of stealing from the brilliance of other directors. In his favour, others contend the way he uses these references make his films feel original as each draws influences from so many for inspiration other films and assembles them together to create something new. While many of his scenes may feel plagiarized, especially RESERVOIR DOGS, in which the last twenty minutes were directly taken from Hong Kong film, Ringo Lam’s CITY ON FIRE (1987), he still adds his own style to those moments. In postmodern cinema, this device of imitation is known as pastiche and it is certainly not unique to Tarantino. Other directors, including the Duffer Brothers of STRANGER THINGS (2016- Present) and Sam Esmail of MR.ROBOT (2015- 2019), overtly employ this technique in their work.           

There is speculation about Tarantino’s future, as he’s claimed many times that he will only make ten films and that his next will be his last. However, many believe that he will continue to make more than that before he retires. He has, however, expressed interest in making a horror film as his last feature. Last year he told the Hollywood Reporter that “if I come up with a terrific horror film story, I will do that as my tenth film.” Other films that he’s suggested he might make include a new STAR TREK film or an additional KILL BILL. Of course, this is all still speculation. Only the director himself knows what’s next for him, but given that in February of this year he became a father for the first time, we may have to wait a while before he cranks out another undoubtedly controversial, yet stirring masterpiece.

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