Twenty years ago yesterday Pulp Fiction was released in cinemas, an anniversary that prompted me to post some shots detailing the movie’s superb cinematography. I spent a few moments on the train home last night thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s film – which remains his best work to date – and the way that the director’s career has panned out since, and thought I’d share them here.
It struck me when looking back that there are two clear periods that divide Tarantino’s work to date. In the first period I would count Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, as well as (through association as writer) True Romance. (I’m inclined to leave Natural Born Killers out as the original screenplay by Tarantino was heavily revised by David Veloz, associate producer Richard Rutowski and director Oliver Stone.) The second distinct period begins with the pair of Kill Bill films – which act as a transition of sorts from QT Mk 1 to QT Mk II – and includes Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained and (with considerable presumption on my part based on a few key facts) the forthcoming The Hateful Eight, his second western in a row.
While I’ve found much to enjoy in all of Tarantino’s films to date, it is the first three – all LA-based – that stand out for me as his finest works. They are films about the world of small-time criminal Angelenos, first and foremost, all of which clearly benefit from the director’s formative years spent living in the city; excellent use is made of the city’s less-familiar landscape and architecture, with the outlying neighbourhoods that make up the urban sprawl featuring heavily. Though it concentrates on Detroit and Detroit-based bad guys and is therefore less of an ‘LA’ film per se, True Romance is also partly set in the city, albeit viewed more from the point of view of outsiders.
Since then he has, of course, literally broadened his horizons: Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 have always seemed a little disjointed to me as a result of the numerous random settings and the constant flitting between Asia and North America, while the director has also dabbled in wartime western Europe and the American deep south of the 19th Century. He was briefly back on familiar ground with Death Proof, but that flawed and indulgent experiment seems curiously disconnected from the physical geography of Los Angeles when compared with the three earlier movies set there.
No-one would want a director of such talent to simply re-tread over old ground, but I do feel that an element of visual pizazz has been missing from Tarantino’s later work, and I wonder whether straying far from LA has been slightly detrimental to his work more generally. I also wonder whether the desire to genre-hop in an attempt to force home the auteur angle will take its toll eventually. Granted Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are arguably all genre exercises too; they are highly-stylised takes on the crime thriller, albeit the first a straightforward cops n’ robbers tale with added flashbacks, the second an expansive neo-noir and the third a Blaxploitation homage. However they all seem to me to be Quentin Tarantino movies first and foremost, as opposed to genre movies that have been given a sprinkling of Tarantino magic, and the fact that they form the blam-blam-blam early part of his career means that crime thrillers will forever be his true genre, in my eyes at least.
The later works certainly keep a thread going – QT does westerns, QT does war, QT does martial arts – but I don’t think he has actually added to the rich history of any of these genres in a meaningful way through his own output. With crime thrillers, by way of contrast, Tarantino read the rulebook, tore it up and wrote a new one (blatantly copying a few passages from elsewhere along the way). I don’t think that Inglorious Basterds does the same for war films, for example, despite the fact it contains some unsubtle attempts to make an impact on the genre (or, rather, to get you to notice it and remember it). In fairness neither is it merely a simple Quentinisation (or, if you will, a geekover) of an existing classic; it’s not The Dirty Dozen with added swearing and violence, in the same way it’s doubtful that someone so talented is currently spending his time making The Magnificent Seven with bells on, despite the clear spin and reference in the title of The Hateful Eight.
I must stress that I’ve still enjoyed Tarantino’s recent movies, even if I do prefer the earlier ones. I even like Death Proof, the one that the director himself admits is his weakest (and he’s right to do so, but it has enough moments during its short running time to lift it above a great many other films released that year). I’m just getting a little bored with the feeling that we’re currently heading down a road that will inevitably lead to Tarantino’s take on horror or sci-fi or Hungarian miserablism or even Farrelly Brothers grossout – and fuck it, I’d watch all of those films, particularly the last two – but as the years roll by I wonder whether he will ever make anything as good as Pulp Fiction while he continues to operate outside of the framework of an American crime story.
A brilliant movie is a brilliant movie, regardless of the genre, and I’d gladly welcome a western that is the equivalent of any of those first three films (and even something as good as Django Unchained, though I’d be feeling a tinge of disappointment for the sixth Tarantino effort in a row). Few writer-directors have made a sequence of films where their own personal imprint on each is so instantly recognisable, which is a highly impressive feat, but I’d also really like to see a Tarantino film in which few (or even none) of his more recognisable tropes, techniques or frequent collaborators were present: a year zero effort, perhaps, a temporary ditching of that culture-heavy dialogue and the Cali surfer girl types and the Red Apple cigarettes and the foot fetishism and the attempts to shock through violence and the Spike Lee-angering ‘N’ word. Something more measured, not trying as hard to impress or to court controversy. Imagine what his detractors would make of a mature, human drama, for instance, if it was actually good.
Those three early films famously featured several actors who were either in the early stages of their careers or who had been largely ignored by casting agents and studios for a considerable amount of time, certainly with regard to high profile roles. Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Tierney, Robert Forster, John Travolta and Pam Grier all received unexpected mid- or late-career success thanks to their work with Tarantino, while talents such as Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman and Samuel L Jackson all benefited from considerable profile boosts as a result of their association with the writer / director.
In the post-Jackie Brown period it’s interesting, and perhaps somewhat indicative, that this hasn’t happened quite as much. Keith Carradine, Daryl Hannah and Kurt Russell have all been cast by Tarantino, though none have been able to use their appearances – all pretty memorable, as it goes – as a springboard back into the big time. Fewer actors have been propelled into the spotlight as a result of their association with the director, while some such as Lucy Liu and Vivica Fox seem to have struggled to get great film roles following their work with QT. Christoph Waltz is a notable exception to this, and you could argue a case too for Michael Fassbender, but his profile was already on the rise when he appeared in Basterds. There certainly seemed to be more success stories way back when.
Pulp Fiction remains a joy to watch today, of course, though that’s just something people say; in truth I actually last watched it about three years ago. Ha. But I imagine I’d enjoy it just as much today as I’ve enjoyed my previous viewings, and every time I have watched the movie it has provoked the same visceral reactions and given me the same level of enjoyment as it first did 20 years ago. Never before or since has Tarantino managed to inject so much energy into just one movie, so much invention and playfulness, so many quotable lines, such an amount of sharp dialogue or such a plethora of memorable images and performances. I still hope that he will equal or better it, but with each film since I lose more and more hope.